A lot of folks complain about the Grammys. This is, in part, because they are a massive award show, and people love to complain about award shows and anything that is massive. Nobody likes Goliath, you know? Much of the time, the daggers are out when it comes to Album of the Year, because that’s where, say, Robert Plant wins Album of the Year in the year 2009. However, the most interesting award, when looking back, is Best New Artist. This is because here, the Grammys are prognosticating a bit. They are, in part, rewarding an artist for being both “new” and also being good. But, on top of that, there is also a vibe of “Keep an eye out for this artist, because their future is bright.”
This leads one to wonder just how, in retrospect, the Best New Artist winners turned out. How many look prescient, and how many names can you not even recognize? Here’s a look back at the Grammy Award winners for Best New Artist, in all their glory and ignominy.
The very first Best New Artist Grammy was doled out in 1960. Bobby Darin won, and that one seems to hold up. More interestingly, in 1961, the winner was Bob Newhart. This is notable because, of course, Newhart is not a musician. He’s a comedian, and is primarily known for his sitcom work. Imagine a comedian winning Best New Artist nowadays? This is not to say Newhart’s album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, isn’t funny. It’s just that the Grammys are a little more, well, music-focused this year. By the way, Newhart also won Album of the Year in 1961.
The ‘60s, overall, are solid. A little group called The Beatles won. Tom Jones and Robert Goulet got awards, too. A couple of names no longer ring a bell (shout out to The Swingle Sisters), but they didn’t win over any “big” names. There was no winner named in 1967, for the record.
The ‘70s were pretty dope. A lot of notable names won. Now, should The Carpenters have won over Elton John? No, but it’s arguable at least. The same goes for America over The Eagles. Carly Simon is great. Bette Midler is an acquired taste, but you can’t argue with her success.
A couple of years do not stand the test of time, though. Starland Vocal Band won in 1977, and Homer Simpson thinks they suck even though he has their name tattooed on his arm. If not for people making fun of “Afternoon Delight,” nobody would remember them. Boston would have been a better choice. Then, in 1979, A Taste of Honey beat Elvis Costello and The Cars. That is not justifiable any longer. It probably wasn’t justifiable then.
The ‘80s are weird, but overall there’s not a sore thumb sticking out. Like the ‘60s, the questionable winners, such as Jody Watley, aren’t fighting off clear alternatives amongst finalists. Are you going to go to the bat for Cutting Crew? Have you died in somebody’s arms tonight recently?
Christopher Cross shouldn’t have beat The Pretenders, and Sheena Easton should have lost out to The Go-Go’s, but they aren’t bad winners. Fortunately, Cyndi Lauper beat Corey Hart, and Tracy Chapman beat Rick Astley. Congrats to the ‘80s.
Much like Reggie Bush’s Heisman, the 1990 Best New Artist Grammy is listed as vacated, thanks to the Milli Vanilli controversy. Even worse, the finalist list offers no real alternative. Do we want to remember Tone Loc as the best new artist? Fortunately, they bounced back in 1991 with Mariah Carey, who has, needless to say, justified the hype.
The ‘90s are interesting, in terms of winners, because they all feel, for wont of a better phrase, very ‘90s. It’s a lot of winners that have not had long legs, but you could fully justify the wins then. Sheryl Crow in 1995? Sure. Hootie & The Blowfish may be a joke now, but the fact remains Cracked Rear View sold a ton of copies and were beloved. They were super popular then. Alanis Morissette would have aged better in the minds of most, even though, like Hootie, she’s basically a one-album wonder (it’s an all-time album, though). LeAnn Rimes and Paula Cole both had their moments in the ‘90s, to be sure. They beat the likes of Garbage and No Doubt and Erykah Badu and Fiona Apple, who have had far better careers. Lauryn Hill, who won in 1999, sure looked like she had a huge career ahead of her. Her issues did not include a lack of talent.
In 2000, Christina Aguilera beat out Britney Spears. At the time, that must have felt like the most competitive thing ever. Aguilera has the staying power, but nobody can argue with Spears’ peak. Then in 2001, somebody named “Shelby Lynne” won. Does anybody remember this woman? Is it even a woman, or a band with a woman’s name? Sisqo winning would have aged better.
The rest of the decade, though, is so en pointe, let us just list the winners:
Alicia Keys, Norah Jones, Evanescence, Maroon 5, John Legend, Carrie Underwood, Amy Winehouse, Adele
Yeah, Evanescence is a bit iffy, but they certainly held on to the rock charts for a good while, even if 50 Cent, success wise, should have won. And sure, Maroon 5 sounds like garbage, and Kanye West definitely would have been a better choice, but they remain very popular. The trio of ladies that closed the decade, though? Try and argue with that.
The 2010s include probably the second most notable of the Best New Artist moments behind Milli Vanilli’s award vacation. In 2011, Esperanza Spalding beat Justin Bieber, and kids on the internet went nuts. Oh, how they writhed in anger. While it’s easy and fun to lampoon overreacting teens, the truth is that Spalding beat out four notable names, including Drake and Florence & The Machine, and she is not a known name. Spalding’s music could be perfectly fine, but as time marches on, her win will be increasingly perplexing to future generations.
Bon Iver winning for that brief moment Bon Iver was hot makes sense, but Macklemore and Ryan Lewis beating Kendrick Lamar will not age well. It seems unlikely that Fun. is going to stand the test of time as winners, either, even if their music was okay, over artists like Frank Ocean or Alabama Shakes. The most recent winner is Sam Smith. He sang a Bond theme, and he isn’t Iggy Azalea. Count that as a win.
All of that brings us to 2016. This year’s nominees are Courtney Barnett, James Bay, Meghan Trainor, Sam Hunt, and Tori Kelly. Three of those names, Bay, Hunt, and Kelly, do not register a single blip of recognition. Trainor has already had a major pop run with her (terrible, in my opinion) “All About That Bass.” Barnett, while not known by the pop masses just yet, has amazed in the indie music scene with her album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. So, even if Barnett would be a great choice from a creative perspective, it seems unlikely that she (or any of these artists) are truly the “next big thing.” Although, in the end, as long as the Grammys are rewarded to the music they think is both the best and new, they can always justify their choices. History may just tell a different tale.