The Greatest Grammys Snubs of All Time

Winners For Best New Artist Macklemore (C) and Ryan Lewis accept their trophy on stage as Pharrell Williams and Anna Kendrick, presenters, look on during the 56th Grammy Awards at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, January 26, 2014. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

According to leading experts in the very scientific field of complaining about things, there is no pastime more popular than griping about all the instances where the Grammys screwed up and gave an award to the wrong person. As you may have surmised, this is a deeply objective exercise. Maybe Blood, Sweat & Tears’ 1970 album really is better than the Beatles’ Abbey Road. Maybe that Lionel Richie album that has “All Night Long (All Night)” on it really was filled with back-to-back classics the same way that Purple Rain and Born in the U.S.A. were. With the benefit of hindsight, a lot of the choices the Grammys committee has made seem insane, but at the time things were probably a bit murkier. Nevertheless, presented here in chronological order, is our list of the Greatest Grammys Snubs. We stuck to the big categories — Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist — because they’re the most fun to get outraged about. These categories also say the most about where our collective consciousness was at during any given year and where the Grammys thought it was at, too. Spoiler alert: Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé got snubbed a lot.

1970: Blood, Sweat & Tears’ Blood, Sweat & Tears over the Beatles’ Abbey Road, Johnny Cash’s At San Quentin, and Crosby Stills & Nash’s Crosby Stills & Nash
With all due respect to the jazz-rock legends in Blood, Sweat & Tears, whose 1968 self-titled album was daring enough to jam Traffic, Billie Holiday, Cream, and Erik Satie covers into the same track list and make it work, and whose “Spinning Wheel” slaps to this very day, the Recording Academy had one job in 1970, and that was to slide the Album of the Year trophy to one of the three masterworks of the late ’60s. Blood, Sweat & Tears is great, but At San Quentin? Crosby, Stills & Nash? Abbey Road!? These are epochal records within their respective forms. Blood, Sweat & Tears isn’t even the tightest mainstream jazz-fusion album from the same eligibility period. (What’s up, Chicago Transit Authority?) Swing and a miss. —Craig Jenkins

1970: Joe South’s “Games People Play” over Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “Spinning Wheel”
See, the Grammy Blood, Sweat & Tears should’ve been a lock for in 1970 is Song of the Year for “Spinning Wheel.” Instead they got squeezed out in favor of singer-songwriter Joe South’s warm but cloyingly overproduced peace-and-love anthem “Games People Play,” which isn’t even the best song called “Games People Play.” This feels like the Academy voting for politics over quality; South’s song is easygoing, with good intentions, but not enough so to walk away with Best Contemporary Song as well as Song of the Year. “Spinning Wheel” is more memorable, and it charted better too. —CJ

1984: The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” over Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and “Billie Jean”
Only in a white’s man world could this generic (by Sting’s own admission!) stalker’s anthem beat out two (two!) Michael Jackson songs. It was even sort of written into the title of one of those MJ songs that he was destined to beat the Police. Meanwhile, the other remains one of the biggest songs in the history of music. This was the year that MJ took home a record eight Grammys in a single night, but he deserved a ninth. —Dee Lockett

1985: Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down over Prince’s Purple Rain and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A.
This is the year that the Grammys awarded Lionel Richie Album of the Year for Can’t Slow Down. That means they gave it to him instead of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. and Prince’s Purple Rain. Don’t think about it too hard. Can’t Slow Down has “All Night Long” on it I guess. —Sam Hockley-Smith

1988: Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram’s “Somewhere Out There” over U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”
The only thing the Recording Academy loves more than a chart smash is a drippy ballad, so James Ingram and Linda Ronstadt’s drippy chart smash “Somewhere Out There” was almost certain to come home with some gold from the 1988 show. The song’s win for Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or for Television made sense — although there are those who might rightly quip that the Dirty Dancing and Mannequin theme songs got robbed that year. Song of the Year is preposterous, though. When you think of the music that moved the culture of the late ’80s, are you thinking of Bono topping worldwide singles charts screaming at the desert sky, or are you conjuring up the schmaltzy love song from the Fievel movie? How many people even remember the Fievel movies? —CJ

1997: Céline Dion’s Falling Into You over Beck’s Odelay, the Smashing Pumpkins’ Melancholy & the Infinite Sadness, the Fugee’s The Score, and the Waiting to Exhale original soundtrack
The bummer about Céline Dion’s absolutely massive Falling Into You taking the ’97 Grammy for Album of the Year is that it’s quite possibly the most popular but least impactful album from that year’s entire crop of nominations. Beck’s Odelay was a collage of stoned slacker funk that still sounds innovative today, the Smashing Pumpkins’ Melancholy & the Infinite Sadness was a wistful, achingly beautiful double album that unapologetically cranked the angst dial to 19, the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack was both a showcase of Babyface’s writing skills, and an unimpeachable soundtrack packed with instant classics, and the Fugees’ The Score introduced the world at large (see: everyone who was not already a rap fan) to Lauryn Hill, with a collection of lyrical Jersey rap tinged with just the right amount of pop sensibility. Compared to all of these, Falling Into You was as boring as it could possibly get. —SHS

1998: Shawn Colvin’s “Sunny Came Home” over No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak”
Shawn Colvin’s “Sunny Came Home” is a noble artifact from the stretch of the ’90s where alt-rock and Americana briefly rubbed elbows on the radio (see also: Sheryl Crow, Freedy Johnston, Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, etc.). High marks at the Grammys felt like overdue acknowledgment of women as formidable singer-songwriters in an era where Lilith Fair reminded everyone that rock and roll wasn’t just a game for boys. The same effect could’ve been achieved by giving the honor to No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak,” a song that served up Fleetwood Mac levels of band drama and commandeered complete control of the American airwaves for several months straight. Even ODB was confused about this one. —CJ

2000: Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas’s “Smooth” over the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” or TLC’s “Unpretty”
Ah yes, who could forget the time that Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas’s instantly dated “Smooth” beat Ricky Martin’s cheesy “Livin la Vida Loca,” TLC’s “Unpretty” — which was not even the best single from FanMail — Shania Twain’s “You’ve Got a Way,” and Backstreet Boys’ megacatchy megahit “I Want It That Way.” A cursory glance through the nominees of this year paints a bleak pop landscape for the year 2000. Is “Smooth” better than “Livin la Vida Loca?” Uh … I guess? But this one clearly should have gone to “I Want It That Way,” which crystallized the early ’00s better than any other song nominated that year. —SHS

2001: Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature over Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP and Radiohead’s Kid A
It’s the first Grammy season of a whole millennium! What better way for the Academy to greet the dawn of a new era than to, uh, give the Album of the Year to a Steely Dan comeback album? In a year where Radiohead’s Kid A turned over a fresh digital leaf and Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP blew young listeners’ minds with unprecedented levels of savage wit, bestowing oldsters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen with a de facto lifetime achievement award instead of respecting the austere artistry of Thom Yorke & Co. or the monstrous energy (and monstrous sales) of Marshall Mathers was a puzzling choice, one that, much like the legacy of all three artists, won’t soon be forgotten. —Frank Guan

2005: John Mayer’s “Daughters” over Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks”
We’ve had a chuckle or two at John Mayer’s expense — who hasn’t? But that doesn’t mean that the cornball singer-songwriter hasn’t made a genuinely good song in his time. Regretfully, “Daughters” is not one of those good songs. Watery and retrograde, the song confuses triteness for profundity to a degree exceptional by Mayer’s standards, which didn’t keep it from rising to No. 1 on the Adult Top 40 (who knows, it might even have helped). “Daughters” is a wet, limp slap in the face of public taste, and the fact that it won Song of the Year over a double-platinum track that slaps as hard as Kanye’s “Jesus Walks” says a lot about the tastes that prevail in the Academy, none of it good. —FG

2005 Best New Artist: Maroon 5 over Kanye West
It’s true that both Maroon 5 and Kanye West have carved out long careers in their respective lanes, and even had some crossover along the way — but one is not like the other. The Grammys are not in the business of predicting the future (if they were, there wouldn’t be so many holes in the BNA category), and they can’t map out a new artist’s trajectory for them. Could they have known the Kanye West who made the College Dropout also had Yeezus in him, or that the band with the potential to make Songs About Jane would go on to become karaoke versions of themselves? Maybe, if they were paying attention. The thing about Best New Artist awardees is that they are almost never actually new — there are plenty of times that this award has gone to an artist on their second or third album. By the time Kanye released College Dropout, the Grammys were already familiar with his production work, and had a sense of what kind of artist they had a chance to champion early on. They blew it, and Kanye never let them forget it. —DL

2006: U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb over Kanye West’s Late Registration
I might be more judicious about late-period U2 than most — I actually tagged along with a friend to the All That You Can’t Leave Behind midnight drop back when big-box record retailers used to open in the middle of the night so fans could have first crack at an artist’s new release. That said, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb marked the beginning of a long stretch where the Irish rock legends received high marks just for continuing to be around. Don’t get me wrong: Atomic Bomb is a good album, but it didn’t capture a moment or point to the future the way Kanye West’s Late Registration did. Kanye and Jon Brion put trombones and flügelhorns on a rap record! But men with guitars always win in the clutch … —CJ

2006: U2’s “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” over Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together”
The Grammys — in one of their most out-of-touch moments of that decade — saw fit to award U2 for a song I would bet most people can’t sing one note or lyric of on command. It’s not that the U2 song is bad — it’s an intimately written piece about Bono’s dying father, and some moments are genuinely devastating — they’ve just made this song before, and done it better. “We Belong Together,” on the other hand, cemented a career resurgence for Mariah and has aged flawlessly, becoming one of her best-known songs (all praise to the genius of Babyface). Somewhere, right this second, it’s being sung (badly) at karaoke. U2 hasn’t performed “Sometimes” on their last few tours. —DL

2008: Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters over Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black
Every now and then the Grammys will really Grammy by sneaking Lifetime Achievement Awards into its Album of the Year category. This happened in 2005 when they gave Ray Charles AOTY for his final album over career-defining works from Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Usher, and Green Day (and even though they’d already given him a Lifetime Award two decades earlier). It happened, too, when Robert Plant and Allison Krauss pulled off an upset. But it’s never been more regrettable than when Herbie Hancock beat Amy Winehouse. The Grammys voting panel could not have known that Herbie would ultimately outlive her and that Back to Black would become her final album (she died a few years later at 27). But they should’ve known then that while both albums were an homage to the past (Hancock was a Joni Mitchell covers album; Amy’s a doo-wop and soul tribute though technically original work), they had different purposes. Amy’s album proved her a once-in-a-generation talent, but Hancock’s only reaffirmed the obvious: He’s a legend. Except there are quite a few of his albums that do a better job of making that point. Amy would never have another. —DL

2011 Best New Artist: Esperanza Spalding over Drake and Justin Bieber
It was a pleasant surprise to see Esperanza Spalding pull off her shocking Best New Artist upset in 2011. Her contributions to the resurgence and crossover appeal of neo-jazz are unquestionable, but at the time, she was a relative unknown with not even a third of the audience Drake and Justin Bieber had amassed in their relatively young careers. Biebs was a teen heartthrob with tween-girl mania and mass-market singles; Drake was a Degrassi alum transitioning to a young rap phenom with hits already under his belt. Sure, it’s debatable that Drake and Bieber were new in 2011, but the Grammys thought they were new enough to nominate them. Florence and the Machine and Mumford & Sons, too, were no underdogs in this category given the success of their own respective singles and established followings. So what Grammys algorithm then led to Spalding pushing past all of them to win? That’s the thing about the Grammys: They make sense only to the people voting for them. (It is also likely the other four acts were too equal to pick one, so they picked the dark horse.) The rest of us just grab popcorn and hate-watch. —DL

2013: Mumford & Sons’ Babel over Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange
It’s 2018, and Mumford & Sons are still hugely popular, but they’re the kind of popular that feels so safe that it’s easy to forget that they’re popular at all. In other words, they do one specific thing — make music that evokes a rustic time that never really existed — and people come to them because they know that they will never stop doing that thing. They found their lane, and they are not going to exit it maybe ever. The Grammys’ Album of the Year category has always gestured at some form of timelessness — implicit in the very nomination is the idea that the albums in this category will not only say something about the year they were released, but will also be milestones in popular music down the line. Five years after the release of Babel and Channel Orange, which album feels more like its part of the (amorphous) conversation? Which album better reflects the state of the world as we currently understand it? Is it the fine-enough pop-folk album, or the first nuanced, complicated major statement from one of the most important artists we have right now? Maybe my wishing for the latter is putting too much emphasis on an idealized version of the Grammys that never really existed, or maybe they just got it wrong. —SHS

2013 Best New Artist: Fun. over Frank Ocean
Currently on indefinite hiatus, Fun. was a pop-rock trio whiter than a powdered doughnut, and it wasn’t all that shocking that their music tended toward toward the sweet and hollow. To be fair, they were pretty catchy, and their sophomore album, Some Nights, notched a No. 1 hit in “We Are Young” while also landing two other singles in the upper reaches of the Hot 100. How a band whose debut album came out in 2009 wins Best New Artist in 2013 behind the successes of its second album is something of a mystery. For Fun. to win Best New Artist in 2013 over Frank Ocean, though, isn’t so much a mystery as an insult to the meanings of the words best, new, and artist. Frank’s debut LP Channel Orange may or may not be a perfect album, but it’s undoubtedly great, the product of a unique voice and sensibility never known before. Snubbing him for an award that he could only be nominated for once seems especially gratuitous, and it’s hard not to imagine the slight contributing to Frank’s future decision to turn his back on the record industry. Why endure dishonor when you can do better elsewhere on your own? —FG

2014: Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories over Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City
There is an argument to be made, I suppose, that Daft Punk’s win for Random Access Memories — an album that sounded like a yacht made out of cocaine and good vibes — was a triumph of fun over Kendrick’s heavy autobiographical meditations on life, death, and identity. And yeah, if your primary reason for listening to music is to have fun and not think too much, there are far worse albums to listen to than RAM, which is accomplished, nuanced, and intricately constructed. But Good Kid — home to the instant classic “Money Trees,” the heartbreaking “The Art of Peer Pressure,” and the corny-but-it-still-works “Swimming Pools (Drank)” — was not just a solid collection of tracks. It was an album as Zeitgeist, and would help define Kendrick’s trajectory in the years to come. —SHS

2014 Best New Artist: Macklemore over Kendrick Lamar
Foreshadowing what would happen with Adele and Beyoncé just a fews year later, here we have another example of a white artist apologizing for the voting choices of the Grammys. Macklemore didn’t scold the Grammys onstage, and instead sent a now notorious apology text to Kendrick Lamar, and then shared a screenshot of it on Instagram. It took the Grammys more than 20 years to call another rapper Best New Artist after Arrested Development became the first in 1993. That they overlooked everyone else until Macklemore (then luckily got it together with Chance the Rapper last year) tells you all you need to know about what they think of hip-hop. —DL

2015: Beck’s Morning Phase over Beyoncé’s Beyoncé
No year forced us to consider what the Grammys are really awarding when they denote a specific body of music Album of the Year more than 2015. We can pretend that the Album of the Year award only takes into consideration the songs on the album divorced from all other context, but that way of thinking fails to take into account what Beyoncé did with her self-titled magnum opus, which was to rethink the album experience as we knew it. She released it with no warning — which wasn’t a first, but certainly no one has ever done it better — and it came with an entire supplementary visual component. Beyoncé featured 17 stand-alone music videos, each filmed in secret, each building unique worlds. Anyone else’s album would look paint-by-numbers in comparison, but that was glaringly true of Beck’s Morning Phase, which was very good, but did nothing to change the game and has had little influence on the art produced since. This would’ve been the opportune time for Kanye to snatch his mic instead of pull a pump fake. —DL

2016: Taylor Swift’s 1989 over Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly
1989 didn’t just have hits for days. It had hits for weeks, months, even years — not to mention that the album proper did ungodly numbers. Even the fact that it was, at the time, Taylor Swift’s worst album speaks more to the high standard Swift had set with her first four albums than anything else. 1989 is a fun album! People will listen to it for years to come. In just about any other year than 2016, its Album of the Year win wouldn’t come close to being a snub. But 2016 was the year of To Pimp a Butterfly, an album that was more than fun. Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore effort is the sort of creation that doesn’t just raise heart rates, but purifies souls. Sure, it didn’t come close to going diamond like 1989, but spiritually speaking the thing is a diamond, a work of sheer perfection wrought under extreme pressure. It’s an album for the ages, and the fact that it couldn’t even take home Album of the Year is a landmark even in a long history of Recording Academy short-sightedness. —FG

2016: Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” over Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”
There are music critics and publications who look on Ed Sheeran with what can best be described as grudging disdain, but even the coldest hater of the Brit singer would be pressed not to enjoy “Thinking Out Loud,” a ballad whose power is every bit as undeniable as its debt to Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” But while Sheeran was channeling Marvin Gaye in his lover-man mode, Kendrick Lamar was reviving the spirit of What’s Going On–era Marvin in “Alright.” If Sheeran’s tune is a home run, the Pharrell-produced “Alright” is spaceflight; in a year where Kendrick was also being robbed in the Album of the Year category, the deafness of the Academy voters stood out all the more. —FG

2017: Adele’s 25 over Beyoncé’s Lemonade
Is there a surer sign the Recording Academy got it wrong than that a winning artist using her acceptance speech to tell them so? In previous years, it was Kanye West doing the thankless work of crashing stages to right egregious wrongs on Beyoncé’s behalf; last year, Adele interrupted herself. It wasn’t that Adele’s 25 didn’t deserve to win Album of the Year, it just didn’t deserve it more than Lemonade, and Adele knew. “I can’t possibly accept this award,” she said, turning to Beyoncé in the front row, pointing to the way the album made black women feel seen. “The Lemonade album was so monumental and so well thought out and so beautiful and soul-baring. We all got to see another side to you that we don’t always see. You are our light.” 21 and Lemonade are legacy albums from hopeful legacy artists (the jury’s still out on Adele), but 25 is most known for breaking sales records. Lemonade should’ve received the same canonical accolades afforded to Adele’s better album just a few years earlier. —DL

2018: Bruno Mars’s “24K Magic” over Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito”
The Recording Academy instituted the Latin Grammys in 2000 to more adequately recognize the sheer volume and diversity of Latin music, essentially an acknowledgment that Spanish-language music was then, and remains now, bigger than the rest of music combined. The gesture comes up short, though, in its failure to keep that same energy at the main event. When it comes to the “regular” Grammys, Spanish-language music has its own “Latin” catchall genre field, and historically that’s where it’s been relegated. Rarely has Latin music broken into the Big Four, with the exceptions of Santana and Rob Thomas’s novelty (and, uh, English-language) “Smooth,” which beat Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca” for Record of the Year in 2000, and Los Lobos’ “La Bamba” cover in 1988. The Grammys had the opportunity to course correct in 2018 by awarding the biggest Spanish-language song of all time and one of the biggest songs in music history, full stop — Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito,” but they blew it. Both Song of the Year, and, an even worse call, Record of the Year, went to Bruno Mars’s “24K Magic.” “Despacito” was ultimately shut out. We know now what “Despacito” has meant to the música-urbana boom; the Grammys should’ve known better then. Flash forward two years later: Reggaeton is getting snubbed in the major categories at even the Latin Grammys; Cardi B, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin’s “I Like It” lost ROTY in 2019 to Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”; and Spain’s Rosalía, a white woman, is the Spanish-speaking world’s best shot at a major 2020 Grammy win, for Best New Artist. Will the Recording Academy ever learn? —DL

The Greatest Grammys Snubs of All Time