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Pop Rhetoric: Time for an Album-of-the-Year alternative

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When Prince announced “Morning Phase, Beck,” as the recipient of the 57th Album of the Year award at the Grammys on Sunday, Feb. 8, the reactions ranged from stumped (the general public) to outrageously excited (Beck’s wife) to frustrated (Kanye West), to total and utter shock from Beck himself. As he awkwardly ran up the stairs to receive the show’s most prestigious award, it was difficult not to draw comparisons to Arcade Fire’s ‘surprise win’ back in 2011 when it took home the award for its 2010 album, The Suburbs, leaving many asking who this group even was. Despite the fact that these types of winners come as a shock to much of the general public, it’s time for the Grammy committee to recognize them more frequently in its evaluation of the year’s best music.    

The Grammys are hugely hypocritical and blind, celebrating the ‘best in music’—with commercial success being the key behind the word masked as ‘best.’ At least, that’s how they have become, and thus that is what we expect from them. For example, take a look at the nominees for this years’ Album of the Year: Beyonce, Sam Smith, Pharrell Williams, Ed Sheeran, and last but not least, Beck. Aside from Beck, this year’s candidates are all commercially successful artists with highly grossing albums—with Beck the clear odd-one-out in an extremely pop-driven category.

Of all the nominees, Beck’s album is, critically, the second best rated album. With a Metacritic weighted average of 81 out of 100, it is only slightly lower than Beyonce’s score of 85. Yet, it would not be a stretch to claim that none of these Albums-of-the-Year nominees actually were the best albums of the year. Critically, musically, and thematically, there were numerous other albums that bettered these. St. Vincent’s St. Vincent and FKA Twigs’ LP1 were two hugely well-received, intricate, and incredibly produced and thought-out albums.

St. Vincent, which had a whopping 89/100 on Metacritic, was nominated in the Best Alternative Album award—a category synonymous with hugely critically successful albums that nonetheless failed to garner the commercial success of their Best Album counterparts, such as Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires Of the City (2013) and Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011). Interestingly—if not horribly irritating—in the past five years the albums from the Best Alternative category have all received higher Metacritic scores than any of the Album of the Year winners. Worse yet, this category isn’t even awarded at the main show, instead announced at a pre-Grammy Live Telecast hours before the Grammys even begin.

This begs the question, what really makes the Album of the Year? Looking over past winners: Beck, Daft Punk, Mumford & Sons, Adele, and Arcade Fire, it becomes apparent that the Album of the Year is more of a nod to the artist as opposed to the piece of work nominated. Daft Punk was rewarded for both a well-received and commercially successful album, in addition to its hugely popular track, “Get Lucky”; Mumford & Sons and Adele won because of their massive crossover success into mainstream territory; and Beck was rewarded this year for the same reason that Arcade Fire won in 2011: Because he makes damn good music, and he’s been doing so for some time now.

As for this years nominees, it would be ludicrous to argue that In the Lonely Hour, GIRL, and X really were the best albums that came out during the eligible period. However, the artists behind these tracks all had 100,000 or more sales in their first week, toured internationally, and drew huge crowds.

Thus, Album of the Year isn’t really ‘album of the year’: It’s an acknowledgement of all the things an artist has done within the year they released their album. Essentially, society dictates what constitutes Album-of-the-Year-worthy material. While it could be argued that the Best Alternative Album category does in fact contain the actual best albums of the year, not nearly as many people would tune in to watch the Grammys each February if they were the ones up for the ‘most prestigious award’ of the evening. But that’s just the way it is, the way the music industry is, and the way society functions. What is popular is so because we make it, and thus it becomes a perpetual feedback loop. The Grammys are just a reflection of that.

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