Music

Is Winning Best Album The Worst Thing That Could Have Happened To Mumford & Sons?

Like it or not, Babel by Mumford & Sons is technically the “best” album of 2012. Actually, make “technically” the “best” album. Your opinion of how much that designation means equals your admiration and respect for the Grammys, which gave the English folk rock band its highest full-length honor on Sunday. But is that a good thing?

I took a look at every Best Album winner since 1993, to see whether the group or artist that took home the award was more or less successful, both critically and commercially, in the years after their big night at the Grammys, beginning with…

1993 — Unplugged by Eric Clapton

I’ve long believed that once the Baby Boomers die out, Eric Clapton’s popularity will shrink to next to nothing. Fans will point to Derek and the Dominos, Blind Faith, and Cream as examples of his greatness, a point that’s hard to refute (especially with Derek, despite Duane Allman arguably contributing more to Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs than he’s given credit for), but to many twentysomethings, all they know of Slowhand is, “Llllaaaaayyyyaaaa…*takes five second break*…got me on my knees, Layla.” The Unplugged version of “Layla,” as well as “Tears from Heaven,” sound like weepy coffee house covers, and although Clapton’s released decent blues album in the two decades since, including 2002’s collaboration with B.B. King, Riding with the King, he doesn’t elicit the same kind of fandom these days as, say, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney. Put another way, Clapton may be God, but there are a lot of disbelievers out there.

Post-Best Album: Boom/Bust

1994 — The Bodyguard by Whitney Houston

It would have been impossible for Whitney to top The Bodyguard‘s astounding success — to date, it’s sold over 45 million copies, and was the first album to move one million units in a week — so she barely even tried. In 1995 and 1996, Houston put out two more soundtracks, Waiting to Exhale (in which she purposely shared the spotlight with a who’s who of top R&B names at the time, including Brandy, Toni Braxton, and TLC) and the gospel-heavy The Preacher’s Wife, before waiting two more years to release My Love Is Your Love. It sold well and received strong reviews, but didn’t crack the Billboard top-10 in the U.S. Then things took a turn for the worse, events that need be summarized.

Post-Best Album: Boom/Bust

1995 — MTV Unplugged by Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett has found a nice niche churning out Great American Songbooks compilations, many of which have gone platinum, so, with an assist from Jack Donaghy, this counts as a Boom.

Post-Best Album: Boom

1996 — Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette

Alanis Morissette never intended to be the “angry girl.” In the years prior to Jagged Little Pill, she was a dance-pop star in her native Canada; she even opened for Vanilla Ice in 1992. But then she lost her record deal, moved to Los Angeles, met producer Glen Ballard, blew Dave Coulier in a movie theater, and released Jagged, the second highest selling album by a female artist ever. But just as quickly as fame came, it went away — the overly angsty Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie sold only an eighth of what Jagged did, to say nothing of…well, can you name the follow-up to Supposed? Exactly.

Post-Best Album: Bust

1997 — Falling into You by Celine Dion

After Falling into You came Let’s Talk About Love, a despite-yourself-enjoyable album, wisely split between stirring ballads and impossible to resist dance-pop singles, led by “My Heart Will Go On.” Yeah, no slump here.

Post-Best Album: Boom

1998 — Time out of Mind by Bob Dylan

Time Out of Mind ended Bob Dylan’s most creatively fallow era — 1989’s Oh Mercy had its moments, but it was overproduced, and the less said about the rest of his 1980s period, including the Sly & Robbie-assisted Empire Burlesque and Knocked Out Loaded, with the exception of the epic “Brownsville Girl,” the better. Time Out of Mind came out of nowhere, and despite Dylan giving off an aura of someone a step away from death, it was also his most alive sounding album in 20 years. It’s smoky, slinky, seductive, and the infamously closed off songwriter at his most personal — “Highlands” must be what it’s like to spend a day with the former-Zimmerman. I’d argue that it’s the best late-era Dylan album, but 2001’s Love & Theft is also excellent, and unlike nearly every other artist on this list, a post-Best Album winner, 2006’s Modern Times, actually sold more than its lauded predecessor. Definite Boom.

Post-Best Album: Boom

1999 — The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Lauryn Hill

We’ve covered Lauryn’s plight here before. No need to add further insult to not paying your taxes, er, injury.

Post-Best Album: Bust

2000 — Supernatural by Santana

Supernatural, assisted by marketing genius Clive Davis and Rob Thomas doing his drippiest vocal work on “Smooth,” has sold 30 million copies since 2000. Santana’s next album, Shaman, moved 10 million and generally received much harsher reviews. 2005’s instantly derided All That I Am barely went platinum. And so on. Supernatural‘s success was regrettable; everything since has been instantly forgettable.

Post-Best Album: Bust

2001 — Two Against Nature by Steely Dan

A million music critics could use a million computers for a million years, and still not make sense of Two Against Nature beating Midnite Vultures, The Marshall Mathers LP, Kid A, or even Paul Simon’s You’re the One for Best Album in 2001. Oh wait, never mind, solved it. This was an instance of a storied older artist winning the award over more deserving upstarts, not unlike Martin Scorsese winning Best Director for The Departed, not, say, Taxi Driver (in this scenario, Pretzel Logic is Steely Dan’s Taxi Driver). The Grammys love a “comeback,” and Steely Dan’s first album in 20 years certainly counted as one. In 2003, however, the brief goodwill dissolved with the elevator jazz sounds of Everything Must Go, which, considering its title, was the band’s way of admitting, “Yeah, this is about it.” And it was: the album received a lukewarm reception, and Steely Dan hasn’t put out another one since.

Post-Best Album: Bust

2002 — O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack by Various Artists

Ineligible, for obvious reasons.

Post-Best Album: N/A

2003 — Come Away with Me by Norah Jones

Coffee drinkers of the world, unite. Come Away with Me was sleepy, boring, jazzy, and soulful in the way only a white person can pull off. So it’s a perfect Best Album winner (though the other choices — The Eminem Show, what; Nellyville, ugh — weren’t much to write home about, either), one that your mom still probably has stuck behind her copy of Tapestry in a CD binder. Impressively, Come Away immediately shot to the top of the Billboard charts and would later go on to sell 26 million copies, while follow-ups Feels Like Home (12 million) and Not Too Late sold well, though not to the same extent, and generally weren’t as beloved as Jones’ debut. The same goes for 2012’s Little Broken Hearts, which was enjoyed, though quickly…I already don’t remember the name of the album.

Post-Best Album: Boom/Bust

2004 — Speakerboxxx/The Love Below by Outkast

Entertainment consumers, whether they be sports fan or music nerds, like it when an athlete or band goes out on top, like Jerome Bettis did with the Steelers and James Murphy ending LCD Soundsystem before anyone could write a, “Why LCD Soundsystem should break up” article. Not matter how unfair it may be, too often we only remember the bad parts — like the series finale of Lost — and don’t remember the good, like the rest of Lost. And yet, Outkast is the exception to that rule. They’re one of my (and everyone’s) favorite groups ever, and yet it’s very easy to forget the existence of Idlewild. It’s not that it’s bad, exactly, but it’s not a masterpiece, either, unlike the four albums that came before it, including their only Best Album winner, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.

Post-Best Album: Bust

2005 — Genius Loves Company by Ray Charles and Various Artists

Well, Ray Charles died before Genius came out, so…yeah. Counting as ineligible.

Post-Best Album: N/A

2006 — How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb by U2

According to Bono, How to Dismantle was U2’s “first rock album,” which, OK, but no matter how laughable that claim may be, it was an undeniable hit, winning a plethora of awards and selling a ton of copies. Its follow-up, 2009’s No Line on the Horizon, is generally considered one of U2’s most forgettable albums, and even Bono admitted he was disappointed by its sales numbers. It was also their first album since 1997’s Pop to not produce a hit single, with “Get On Your Boots” peaking at #96 on the Billboard top-100.

Post-Best Album: Bust

2007 — Taking the Long Way by Dixie Chicks

I would like to remind everyone of the music video for “Goodbye Earl,” in which Jenna Maroney kills Dennis “Portrait of an Ass-Grabber” Franz. I bring this up because the Dixie Chicks have yet to release a follow-up to Taking the Long Way, and likely won’t. Unless Dennis Franz comes a-calling.

Post-Best Album: Bust

2008 — River: The Joni Letters by Herbie Hancock

Still the worst Best Album pick of all-time. Like Tony Bennett above, I’m exactly sure how to judge Herbie Hancock’s career since, but considering 2010’s The Imagine Project went largely unnoticed — and didn’t even hit #1 on the Billboard Jazz Albums chart — I suppose this counts as a letdown.

Post-Best Album: Bust

2009 — Raising Sand by Robert Plant & Alison Krauss

This was Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ only album together to date, so it’s impossible to judge.

Post-Best Album: N/A

2010 — Fearless by Taylor Swift

Complete success story. Though Fearless, featuring massive hit singles “Love Story” and “You Belong with Me,” is T-Swift’s top selling album, that has more to do with the music industry being healthier a few years ago than it is now. Speaking Now and Red, her most critically admired album (“22” is catchy, and you know it), were blockbusters, and she’s unarguably more popular now than she was in 2010. When people hear a Taylor Swift song on the radio, even if they don’t know who it’s by, they know it’s by Taylor Swift. Make of that what you will.

Post-Best Album: Boom

2011/2012 — The Suburbs/21 by Arcade Fire/Adele

Stay tuned for these two, possibly as early as this year.

Post-Best Album: N/A

Verdict: more often than not, the Best Album winner had trouble duplicating their success, both in terms of sales and critical reaction. This isn’t ironclad, of course, but it happens more often than one might assume.

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