Few Grammy Awards categories spur on more conversation than Best New Artist. Ideally, this award’s annual winner should be a burgeoning young star with a bright future who’s poised to have a profound influence on music. And while that’s occasionally happened — The Beatles were the Grammys’ Best New Artist in 1965; Mariah Carey won in 1991; Adele triumphed in 2009; and Chance the Rapper grabbed the brass ring in 2017 — the Best New Artist winners list is also littered with an abundance of acts that never lived up to their potential or faded away soon after.
Perhaps the most tragic example of the latter is Milli Vanilli, who had their 1990 Best New Artist trophy rescinded after a lip-syncing scandal. However, the Recording Academy’s attempts to grasp the zeitgeist have led to plenty of other head-scratchers. For example, the category used to honor comedians rather than musicians: Bob Newhart won the category in 1961 thanks to a well-received live comedy album, The Button-Down Mind Of Bob Newhart, while the late Robin Williams lost in 1980 to Rickie Lee Jones. And the category’s definition of “new” is also quite slippery. For example, Luther Vandross spent the 1970s as a busy backup singer and vocalist for several groups, but was only nominated for Best New Artist in 1982 after going solo.
This vagueness appears to be by design, however. According to the current category definition, nominees “will be considered for Best New Artist if their eligibility year release/s achieved a breakthrough into the public consciousness and notably impacted the musical landscape.” That’s not a far cry from the Grammys’ previously cited description of a “new artist” — someone “who releases, during the eligibility year, the first recording which establishes the public identity of that artist” — although the current description also incorporates additional parameters to narrow the field slightly.
Yet these guidelines also illustrate how difficult it is to both predict music’s next big thing and maintain music industry success. Just look at the case of cult country artist Bobbie Gentry, who won the category in 1968 in the wake of the smash “Ode To Billie Joe,” but retreated from the public eye and only recently received a critical resurgence thanks to a 33 1/3 book and some well-curated reissues. Looking at the Best New Artist with a long lens reveals how fickle musical trends always have been, meaning perhaps instead of using the award as a barometer of future success, it should instead be seen as a time capsule for contemporary trends.
Still, it’s instructive (and entertaining) to look back and see who the Grammys didn’t deem worthy of a win. The competition in some years was fierce: In 1970, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young beat out Led Zeppelin and Chicago, while Amy Winehouse nabbed the honor over Taylor Swift and Paramore in 2008 and The Carpenters won instead of Elton John in 1971. Other years were, to be kindly, fallow.
In either case, the Grammy Awards did miss the boat on a few major musicians. Here are the Top 10 Best New Artist misses.