Since the beginning of the Video Music Awards, MTV has given an award to the next big thing. From 1984 until 2013, it was for Best New Artist, before changing the award’s name to Artist to Watch. It’s a chance to play both tastemaker and Nostradamus at the same time. But that’s not to say all their choices turned out to be prudent; not every winner of the award has gone on to great things, or even good things. Meanwhile, some artists who were nominated but did not win have outpaced their year’s winner with ease. So, we thought we would go back through the history of MTV’s Best New Artist/Artist to Watch award to see just how successful the network was in predicting success for the winner, and to see if the “best” choice really won. Obviously, the more recent the win, the smaller the sample size, but we shall do our best with the info we have.
Winner: The Eurythmics
Other nominees: Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Wang Chung
The Eurythmics took home the inaugural Best New Artist award on the strength of their video for “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” While Annie Lennox has had a solid career, The Eurythmics didn’t really ever match the success of “Sweet Dreams,” or even come close. Meanwhile, a couple other ladies you may have heard of got nominations: Cyndi Lauper and Madonna. History would have looked upon this award much more kindly if the Material Girl had won.
Winner: ‘Til Tuesday
Other nominees: Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Sade, Sheila E., Julian Lennon
Aimee Mann was in ‘Til Tuesday, and she’s had a better career than anybody else who was nominated, although you can argue on behalf of Sade, who got the nomination on the back of “Smooth Operator.” The most interesting thing about 1985 was that Frankie Goes to Hollywood got a nomination, but it wasn’t pegged to “Relax.”
Other nominees: The Hooters, Whitney Houston, Pet Shop Boys, Simply Red
A-ha emerged victorious because of their iconic music video for “Take On Me.” That’s a very good song, and a very cool music video, and they actually had a couple other songs of note. On the other hand, Whitney Houston. Even the Pet Shop Boys are a better choice than A-ha. Hey, at least The Hooters didn’t win.
Winner: Crowded House
Other nominees: Robert Cray, The Georgia Satellites, Bruce Hornsby and the Range, Timbuk3
Crowded House was the winner due to “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” That’s a great song, and, honestly, this was an awful year. Hard to argue with Crowded House winning here. Clearly, this was a year to forget.
Winner: Guns N’ Roses
Other nominees: The Godfathers, Buster Poindexter, Swing Out Sister, Jody Watley
This was a bounceback year. While Axl Rose has become a joke, this was one of the biggest rock bands in the world for a while, and an iconic act. There can be no argument about Guns ‘N Roses winning. This is a hit for the VMAs, although it would have been kind of amazing if Buster Poindexter had won for “Hot, Hot, Hot.”
Winner: Living Colour
Other nominees: Paula Abdul, Neneh Cherry, Edie Brickell & New Bohemians
There were only four nominees this year, as opposed to the usual five. Of course, “Cult of Personality” is the only fame Living Colour have, by and large. They weren’t a bad choice by any means, but Paula Abdul was also nominated for “Straight Up.” She would later sing alongside a rapping cartoon cat. That alone means she deserved to win.
Winner: Michael Penn
Other nominees: Bell Biv DeVoe, The Blacke Crowes, Jane Child, Lenny Kravitz, Alannah Myles, Lisa Stansfield
They went a little nuts in 1997, nominating eight people, and most of them do not inspire. Lenny Kravitz should have won, maybe? It’s hard to get too excited about him. Bell Biv DeVoe had their moment, too, but Kravitz is the only one to remain famous for an extended period of time, ripped pants and all.
Winner: Jesus Jones
Other nominees: C+C Music Factory, Deee-Lite, Gerardo, Seal
This is a hilarious year for the Best New Artist award. Jesus Jones won on the strength of their one hit “Right Here, Right Now.” That’s amusing enough as is. However, C+C Music Factory, Deee-Lite, and Gerardo, yes of “Rico Suave” infamy, were three of the other nominees. Oh, also some guy named Seal. Maybe he should have won.
Other nominees: Tori Amos, Arrested Development, Cracker
Nirvana was, and is, one of the most iconic bands of all-time, obviously. And we’re still, very interested in Kurt Cobain. This was a no-brainer pick.
Winner: Stone Temple Pilots
Other nominees: Tasmin Archer, Porno for Pyros, Belly
Stone Temple Pilots, those elegant bachelors, won thanks to “Plush.” They are still a well-known, well-liked band in rock circles, only really derailed by Scott Weiland’s drug issues. MTV were fully justified in this choice, and it has aged well.
Winner: Counting Crows
Other nominees: Bjork, Beck, Green Day, Lisa Loeb, Me’Shell NdegeOcello
Counting Crows, the mid ‘90s manifested into living human beings, got the award pegged to their inescapable hit “Mr. Jones.” They were pretty big for a little while. Adam Duritz is still a recognizable figure. This wasn’t a bad choice, but it wasn’t the best choice. Bjork was nominated, and while she is not mainstream, she has been critically adored and making relevant music for decades now. Meanwhile, Beck got nominated thanks to “Loser,” and he has Grammy Awards now. However, the best choice in terms of career success probably would have been Green Day. They are one of the godfather bands of pop punk, whether you like them or not.
Winner: Hootie & The Blowfish
Other nominees: Jeff Buckley, Des’ree, Filter, Portishead
And you thought Counting Crows were the embodiment of their time period? People like to talk sh*t about Hootie & the Blowfish. Yes, their musical output after Cracked Rear View is not good, and it didn’t exactly sell all that well, either. However, this wasn’t a one-hit wonder band. Cracked Rear View is one of the best-selling albums of all time. This is a tricky one to parse. The best was not really yet to come for Darius Rucker and company, but the success they had, short-lived as it was, is inarguable. I think the fact that the other nominees are even less notable is a mark in their favor. Would you feel better if Portishead or Filter would have won? Probably not.
Winner: Alanis Morrissette
Other nominees: Tracy Bonham, Garbage, Jewel
The song chosen to represent Morrissette was “Ironic,” which has a great music video. This is sort of like the Hootie situation, but not quite. Morissette’s biggest success, far and away, is Jagged Little Pill. That being said, Jagged Little Pill is still considered a classic, and rightfully so. Its songs have aged better than Cracked Rear View’s. Plus, she had a couple other hits after Jagged Little Pill. At the time, the choice obviously made sense, and, in retrospect, it still works. Garbage and Jewel also would have been acceptable choices, but Alanis earned it. Shout out to Dave Coulier.
Winner: Fiona Apple
Other nominees: Meredith Brooks, Hanson, Jamiroquai, The Wallflowers
You probably remember Apple’s speech, which was, shall we say, polarizing. However, you may not remember that the win was for “Sleep to Dream,” not “Criminal,” which got its love in 1998. Apple has had a consistent career, if not a mainstream one. She’s definitely an interesting artist of merit. The other nominees were a very ‘90s quartet of Meredith Brooks, The Wallflowers, Hanson, and Jamiroquai, making Apple’s win seem even stronger.
Winner: Natalie Imbruglia
Other nominees: Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Chumbawumba, Fastball, Ma$e
Natalie Imbruglia won for “Torn,” a great song. Your argument is invalid. Natalia Imbruglia 4 Life.
Other nominees: Kid Rock, Jennifer Lopez, Orgy
One of their best calls ever. Eminem would go on to become one of the biggest, most successful names in music history. You can quibble with him as a human being, but his musical success is inarguable. This all being said, Jennifer Lopez would have been just as good of a call. Even Kid Rock would have aged reasonably well. Still, Eminem changed the face of music in 1999, so he’s probably the best choice.
Winner: Macy Gray
Other nominees: Christina Aguilera, Papa Roach, Pink, Sisqo
Based on talent, this award makes sense. However, Gray never really became a big star, perhaps owing in part to her erratic behavior and prickly personality. MTV probably can’t be blamed for not recognizing that. Even so, Christina Aguilera was also a nominee in 2000, and, thanks to The Voice, she’s still as notable a name in music as anybody. Even Pink would have worked well. At least Sisqo didn’t win for “Thong Song.” So shines a good deed in a weary world.
Winner: Alicia Keys
Other nominees: Coldplay, Nikka Costa, David Gray, Sum 41
Alicia Keys got the win on the strength of “Fallin’,” which is a good song. She’s stuck around and had a solid career. This pick isn’t a disaster. She wasn’t the best choice in 2001, though, because Coldplay got a nomination, and they’ve had a more notable, more successful career. You can’t quibble with Keys, but there is even less arguing with Coldplay.
Winner: Avril Lavigne
Other nominees: Ashanti, B2K, John Mayer, Puddle of Mudd
Let’s set aside the quality of her music: Avril Lavigne had at least a few big hits. She did the mall punk thing for longer than anybody anticipated. It’s a defensible choice. Plus, even if you don’t like Lavigne and her banal pandering music, it could have been even more odious: John Mayer was also a nominee. That guy doesn’t need any more validation.
Winner: 50 Cent
Other nominees: The All-American Rejects, Kelly Clarkson, Evanescence, Sean Paul, Simple Plan
50’s financial issues aside, he’s had a very successful career with a lot of hit songs. They definitely got this one right. Kelly Clarkson would have been a good choice, too, but it would have felt like a bit of a cheat to take the first American Idol winner.
Winner: Maroon 5
Other nominees: The Darkness, Jet, JoJo, Kanye West, Yellowcard
Maroon 5 emerged victorious, thanks, in part, to “This Love.” They have had a long career, and they have topped the charts a few times. Additionally, much like Aguilera, Adam Levine’s presence on The Voice gives them an extra boost. In a vacuum, you can’t argue with Maroon 5 winning. But one of the other nominees that year was a fella by the name of Kanye West. Anybody else winning just doesn’t work.
Winner: The Killers
Other nominees: Ciara, The Game, John Legend, My Chemical Romance
The Killers, and “Mr. Brightside,” helped put a rock band back in the zeitgeist for a little while. They’ve had a few hits, and they definitely found some traction. Their relevance seemed to be a bit short-lived, but they burned fast and bright, so this still was a nice choice for the VMAs. John Legend was also a nominee, and he’s got an Oscar now, so he probably should have won in retrospect.
Winner: Avenged Sevenfold
Other nominees: Angels & Airwaves, James Blunt, Chris Brown, Panic! At The Disco, Rihanna
The VMAs had a real good streak going on in terms of their Best New Artist winners, but that came to a screeching halt here in 2006. Do you even remember Avenged Sevenfold? Rihanna was nominated this year, and the clear choice. Hell, even Chris Brown, despite being a total creep, would have been a better pick.
Winner: Gym Class Heroes
Other nominees: Lily Allen, Peter Bjorn & John, Carrie Underwood, Amy Winehouse
This was the one year they didn’t pin a particular video to all the nominees. Carrie Underwood, despite being an American Idol winner, would have been a better choice, as would have the late, great Amy Winehouse.
Winner: Tokio Hotel
Other nominees: Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Jordin Sparks, Taylor Swift
To put it kindly, 2008 was, in retrospect, a sh*tshow for the VMAs in this category. What a disaster. Three of the biggest names in pop music today lost to something called Tokio Hotel.
Winner: Lady Gaga
Other nominees: 3OH!3, Drake, Kid Cudi, Asher Roth
MTV did rebound this year, giving the award to Lady Gaga on the strength of “Poker Face,” primarily. She’s had an odd career, which is probably exactly what she wants, but she was without a doubt a huge star, and remains a relevant name even though she’s doing stuff like recording duets albums with guys like Tony Bennett. Drake would have probably been the best choice, though.
Winner: Justin Bieber
Other nominees: Broken Bells, Jason Derulo, Kesha, Nicki Minaj
The Biebs! Justin Bieber won back when he was a fresh-faced 16-year-old kid and not… whatever he is now. For a little while there, there was no bigger male star in pop music. While his star has faded a bit, he’s still quite young, and has a lot of time left to regain some of that momentum. This was still a very good choice. Nicki Minaj would have been a good option, too.
Winner: Tyler, The Creator
Other nominees: Big Sean, Foster the People, Kreayshawn, Wiz Khalifa
Tyler, the Creator’s shock value has worn off, and he’ll likely never be a “star,” but he has a well-sized and passionate fanbase. Still, Wiz Kalifa probably would have been the strongest choice.
Winner: One Direction
Other nominees: fun., Carly Rae Jepsen, Frank Ocean, The Wanted
One Direction were the biggest boy band in the world until recently, when they decided to take a break. Their era may be over, but it was big enough to justify their win. Oddly enough, fellow nominee Carly Rae Jepsen now seems likely to have more staying power, and, from a critical perspective, a win for Frank Ocean would have worked.
Winner: Austin Mahone
Other nominees: Iggy Azalea, Twenty One Pilots, The Weeknd, Zedd
Somebody named Austin Mahone won. He has some song called “What About Love.” This gets into shaking your fist and yelling “Young people!” territory. Is this guy big? It’s too soon to make a call on this one, to be honest. Maybe he’ll be a star, but he’s not a guy you hear about a ton, or a guy whose songs top the charts. He seems like he’s doing OK, though. Did you know his 2014 album came out on Cash Money? All this being said, in terms of success in the intervening years, Iggy Azalea had a couple big hits, and one of her songs got parodied by Weird Al Yankovic. You can’t say that for Mahone. But The Weeknd is one of the biggest stars in music today. With Azalea’s reputation taking a big hit lately, he’s the best choice.
Winner: Fifth Harmony
Other nominees: 5 Seconds Of Summer, Charli XCX, Schoolboy Q, Sam Smith
It’s too early to call this one. Sam Smith and Charlie XCX would have also made sense winning, but we definitely need some time before we make any definitive declarations.
Who will join these luminaries out of this year’s class? The 2015 nominees are James Bay, George Ezra, Fetty Wap, FKA Twigs, and Vance Joy. Will any of them experience the success of Nirvana or Eminem? Or will they end up like Tokio Hotel? Check back in with us in a few years. We’ll probably have stronger feelings on Fifth Harmony then, too.