A Re-evaluation Of The History Of The Best Alternative Music Album Grammy

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When the Recording Academy launched the Best Alternative Music Performance Grammys category in 1991, it was a case of perfect timing. Not only was Nevermind on deck to detonate existing rock trends — and drag underground sounds into the mainstream — but the vast and varied college rock system (and its descendent, “modern rock”) were on the precipice of a breakthrough. Billboard had launched its modern rock singles chart in late 1988, in response to the genre’s burgeoning popularity, and bands such as R.E.M., Depeche Mode, and The Cure had been drawing increasingly larger crowds in the US as the ’80s progressed.

The first alternative Grammy nomination class was suitably, well, alternative: Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson, World Party, The Replacements, and eventual winner Sinead O’Connor. In the ensuing years, however, the category — which eventually settled into the name “Best Alternative Music Album” — has reinforced music’s patriarchal hegemony. More than that, it’s clear that both the #GrammySoWhite and #GrammySoMale hashtags apply: White men — whether as solo artists or part of a band — have overwhelmingly dominated the win column. Only Alabama Shakes vocalist Brittany Howard, who is biracial, and Gnarls Barkley co-collaborator CeeLo Green break this trend.

On the gender parity front, only two female solo artists, St. Vincent and O’Connor, have ever won the category. Count award-winning women from bands, and that list includes only Howard and The White Stripes’ Meg White. The losing landscape is just as dismal from a diversity perspective: Although women have received nods over the years, the number of non-white musicians simply even nominated is close to nil.

It’s not necessarily surprising to see the mainstream-leaning Grammys fumble coverage of non-mainstream music. However, it’s disappointing and unacceptable to see how little has been done over time to make the category more inclusive. The idea of “alternative” might be fuzzy today, but the descriptor sprang up originally as a catch-all genre to provide a real substitute to narrow-minded musical views and genres. Taken as-is, the category simply reinforced mainstream biases in the alternative realm.

In the spirit of trying to give a more complete (and varied) view of modern rock’s last three decades, we looked at the Best Alternative Music Album winners since 1991, and determined whether the Recording Academy chose right — or whether another artist deserved to win.

Year: 1991
Nominees: Laurie Anderson, Strange Angels; Kate Bush, The Sensual World; The Replacements, All Shook Down; World Party, Goodbye Jumbo; Sinéad O’Connor, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got
Winner: Sinéad O’Connor
Who Should’ve Won: Sinéad O’Connor
Why? I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got is O’Connor’s masterpiece, and not just because of her emotionally wrenching cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” and the raucous, rocked-out vulnerability of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” A trip-hop take on the traditional song “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” and a somber “Last Day Of Our Acquaintance” reveal O’Connor’s evocative range.

Year: 1992
Nominees: Elvis Costello, Mighty Like A Rose; Jesus Jones, Doubt; Nirvana, Nevermind; R.E.M., Out Of Time; Richard Thompson, Rumor And Sigh
Winner: R.E.M.
Who Should’ve Won: R.E.M.
Why? With its orchestral embellishments and unique instrumentation — pop songs with a mandolin, anyone? — Out Of Time is one of R.E.M.’s creative high water marks. The album’s closest competition in this category is Nevermind — which was finally setting the charts ablaze at the time of the 1992 Grammys, but perhaps not quite established enough (yet) to be seen as a landmark album.

Year: 1993
Nominees: The B-52s, Good Stuff; The Cure, Wish; Morrissey, Your Arsenal; Tom Waits, Bone Machine; XTC, Nonsuch
Winner: Tom Waits
Who Should’ve Won: Morrissey
Why? Produced by glam icon Mick Ronson, Your Arsenal was Morrissey’s most focused solo album to date, between its compact songwriting, exuberant pop hooks, and abundance of glittery guitar crunch. Best of all, the sonic self-indulgence that sinks many of his other solo albums is kept (mostly) at bay.

Year: 1994
Nominees: Belly, Star; Nirvana, In Utero; R.E.M., Automatic For The People; Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream; U2, Zooropa
Winner: U2
Who Should’ve Won: Smashing Pumpkins
Why? Zooropa remains one of U2’s most esoteric albums, a delightfully strange detour through day-glo electronics and lush, somber balladry. However, Smashing Pumpkins’ second album, Siamese Dream, was an alt-rock revelation. In fact, its singed, dynamic combinations of tranquility and noise — and seamless mix of shoegaze and psychedelic textures — has had an enormous impact on modern music. In fact, Zooropa winning this category feels like the Grammys throwing U2 a bone because Achtung Baby didn’t win Album of the Year in 1992.

Year: 1995
Nominees: Tori Amos, Under The Pink; Crash Test Dummies, God Shuffled His Feet; Green Day, Dookie; Sarah McLachlan, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy; Nine Inch Nails, The Downward Spiral
Winner: Green Day
Who Should’ve Won: Green Day
Why? Pop-punk is such an ingrained part of today’s pop culture, it’s easy to forget now how revolutionary Dookie sounded when it crash-landed onto radio and MTV in the mid-’90s. The album is a study in contradictions — bratty but self-aware; slick but rough-hewn — and full of energetic ennui. In other words, Dookie is the sound of bored adolescent energy looking for an outlet.