In my quest to look over the past decades “best,” my journey has taken me to music. Now I would never claim to be an expert on music. In fact, I am currently listening to the new CD by Mary J. Blige and I have no idea what the critics have or haven’t said about it. What I do know is that no one understands the pain of my plight as a black woman scorned like Mary. The fact that I am a puny white boy should have nothing to do with that declaration.
Given my basic knowledge of the music industry, I decided to turn to the Grammys for insight into the best of the past decade. I’m not sure that I can look at their list and receive any clarity. You see, the thing about the Grammys is that they are sort of like your weird aunt that shows up for the holidays. You have no idea what her politics are. You have no idea how she takes care of herself. You have no idea of her tastes or orientations. All you know is that she is random and doesn’t seem to make much sense. That’s a good way to describe the Grammys and its voting body, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Surely you all remember some of the fun that the Grammys have gone through. First off, lets all remember that Alanis Morissette lost Best New Artist to Hootie and the Blowfish back in ’96. The Beatles never seemed to get much love from Grammy voters, either. Surprisingly, some of the biggest acts of the decade received little-to-no love at all. For instance, Mariah Carey, Rihanna, and Gnarles Barkley can count their combined Grammys on one hand. Let us not forget the biggest of all Grammy mistakes: In 1991, Grammy voters decided to give Milli Vanilli Best New Artist, only to revoke it a few months later when it was learned that the group lip-synced. The organization is said to reward the best in music, but has had dicey results at best. Some years, they’re spot on and others, well they vote for Herbie Hancock/Joni Mitchell cover albums.
The Grammys also like to reward all of music, which is about 100 different categories. Therefore, I thought I would take a look at one of the big four: Album of the Year. Below is my ranking of the decade’s top ten winners for Best Album of the Year.
Ten Best “Album of the Year” winners of the 2000s
#10 – “River, the Joni Letters” – Herbie Hancock (2008)
Seriously? This is the album that took down Kanye West’s “Stronger” and Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black.” Now, I don’t have any problems with Herbie Hancock. I enjoy listening to him in my therapist’s office waiting room. However, I take issue with a Herbie Hancock album of Joni Mitchell covers. Not only did the album sound bland and not resonate with the public, it actually won Best Album of the Year. How is this possible? Grammy voters tend to nominate four or five completely different styles of music for Album of the Year. In this case, the jazz entry won out as a lifetime achievement award. This is one of those laughable winners that we will roll our eyes at for years.
#9 – “Two against Nature” – Steely Dan (2001)
This little ditty is the album that beat Eminem’s “The Marshall Mather’s LP” and Radiohead’s “Kid-A.” Now I think Steely Dan is fine. However, most die-hard Steely Dan fans (are there those people?) would argue that this isn’t one of their best efforts. It certainly isn’t the kind of work that should take down two of the finest albums of the decade. Eminem’s CD was a huge critical and popular seller. Rolling Stone (and a ton of others) have named “Kid-A” the best of the decade. This is still an embarrassment for album voters. I knew the minute Bette Midler came out to announce this category that it was not going to be good.
#8 – “Genius Loves Company” – Ray Charles and Various Artists (2005)
Alicia Keys, Green Day, and Kanye were all also ran’s in 2005 to this nice little CD. In fact, this is one of those CDs that exclusively sold at Starbuck’s. STARBUCKS…PEOPLE!!! Now in all fairness, in 2005, everyone was drinking the Ray Charles Kool-Aid. That damn movie had just come out (doesn’t that same movie come out every year?) and Ray himself had just kicked it. Therefore, it seemed only natural to reward him. However, a CD made up entirely of duets with people like Norah Jones cannot be looked up to as the finest of the year. This is yet another example of the voters turning an ear to popular and critical music, in support of middle-of-the-road senior projects. Try actually listening to this CD…Ray is not as much singing as grumbling his way through the songs. PAINFUL!
#7 – “Come Away with Me” – Norah Jones (2003)
This is a case where Norah Jones actually became popular from the Grammys. Nobody really knew who this lady was until she showed up and won all the major awards. Her brand of generic music was just what this world needed in the first voting period after 9/11. This sweet, simple music is lovely to listen to in elevators and doctors’ offices. The problem is that Norah beat out artists like Eminem and Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen’s “The Rising” was a wonderful post 9/11 option that actually had critical success. However, the biggest travesty in 2003 was Jones beating out the Dixie Chicks and their fantastic effort “Home” which many critics call one of the best of the decade. Luckily, Grammy voters made this right a few years later…
#6 – “Supernatural” – Santana (2000)
Didn’t we all secretly love that Rob Thomas/Santana song, “Smooth?” I mean, it was damn catchy. No one can even really complain that much about this CD. Santana was one of those artists who had paid their dues over and over and who had little success with the Grammy voters through the years. Of course, all that changed in 2000. Santana won a slew of Grammys including Record, Album, and Song of the Year. His competition that year included TLC and the Backstreet Boys. However, in the end, no one really had a chance against this respected veteran. I might have preferred TLC’s great “Fanmail” but I can’t bitch too much.
#5 – “SpeakerBoxx/The Love Below” – Outkast (2004)
Some Grammy supporters will say that the perceived bias towards hip-hop music was killed when voters decided to reward Outkast in 2004. That seems a bit silly. Outkast isn’t really a hip-hop duo. In fact, they’re fairly pop. Now I loved that damn song like everyone else, but let’s not try to say that Grammy voters now love black people because they supported Outkast. Where was all the Grammy love for Outkast’s superior album “Stankonia” in 2002? “Love Below” is a fine record, but acts like Missy Elliott and The White Stripes put out superior work that year.
#4 – “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” – U2 (2006)
U2 fans would never list this as their favorite U2 album. In fact, 2002’s “All That You Cant Leave Behind” was considered far superior. It is the album that launched two consecutive Record of the Year winners. However, “Bomb” probably benefited from the fact that there was still guilt after “Behind” lost out. That being said, I like “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.” The tracks are clear and focused and I love “City of Blinding Lights.” The only real fault with this winner is that it beat out early work by Kanye West and 2005’s biggest seller, “The Emancipation of Mimi” by Mariah Carey. Love her or hate her, that’s one of her best; a fact that even U2 made note of in their acceptance speech.
#3 – “Raising Sand” – Alison Krauss and Robert Plant (2009)
Lil Wayne, Coldplay, and Radiohead were all favorites in 2009. However, it was the joint effort of Alison Krauss and Robert Plant that rang superior. Lil Wayne put out a great album, but I can’t complain at all about this inventive and interesting work. Alison Krauss is the all-time Grammy-winning female, and this record showcases her at her best. Paired with rock star Robert Plant, this album could’ve been a huge disaster, but actually turned out to be brilliant. Now, there is no way in hell that Plant and Krauss deserved Record of the Year for “Please Read the Letter” over the likes of Adele and MIA. But, as a complete album, this is a wonderful record that critics loved and the public actually embraced, too.
#2 – “O Brother, Where Art Thou: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” – Various (2002)
This is one of those cases where a soundtrack was bigger than the movie. When the Coen brothers’ film came out, it did okay at the box office. It didn’t kill it, but it certainly wasn’t a huge success either. Normally loved by critics, the film didn’t resonate that much at the Oscars either. It did win its star a Golden Globe, but the film isn’t considered the brothers’ best. However, the soundtrack is a classic. Combining Grammy Gold from Alison Krauss, the album also features a laundry list of bluegrass giants including Emmylou Harris and the Cox Family. The star of this show is producer T-Bone Burnett who managed to make bluegrass cool. His later works for “Cold Mountain” and “Crazy Heart” haven’t resonated as much as “O Brother.” This was the year that U2 was supposed to win in a landslide. Some critics choose Bob Dylan as a surprise spoiler. However, nobody saw this one coming. Looking back, I can even say (shockingly) that Grammy voters got this one right.
#1 – “Taking the Long Way” – The Dixie Chicks (2007)
This is one of those rare instances where Grammy voters got it so right that it looks odd in the mix with the rest of the crap that they have rewarded over time. In 2007, everyone was saying that it was the year of my beloved Mary J or Gnarles Barkley. Many critics believed that Red Hot Chili Peppers would finally win Album of the Year. However, when you looked at most of the predictions, almost all of the critics named the same album as the “SHOULD WIN” choice and that was the Dixie Chicks. Now some people prefer the sound of “Home” from a few years prior, but that’s really beside the point. Everyone knows the story by now. In 2004, riding the wave from the popular “Home” album, Chicks’ lead singer made a comment in the UK about then President Bush. She said that she was ashamed that he was from her home state of Texas. Then of course, all hell broke loose. People started crushing their CDs under steam rollers and they went from having the number one song in the country to being banished from radio. Everyone worried that their careers would be over. Fast forward to 2007 and the Chicks decided to make an album that didn’t slide past the difficulties of 2004, but actually addressed them. Their lead-off single “Not Ready to Make Nice” actually addressed Bush supporters and nabbed the Record and Song of the Year trophies as well. However, this stands as the best Grammy winner of the decade not because of the controversy, but because of the music. This was the Chicks’ love letter to easy California rock. It was part bluegrass, part protests, part Eagles, and part Chilipeppers. It addressed issues from war to lost friendships, Katrina to Alzheimers…it is a near-flawless album that truly deserved every single accolade it received. Of course, country radio never played it and country award shows never acknowledged it. In the end, however, the Chicks got the biggest laugh.
Wayne Bell is a guest contributor for the Fayetteville Flyer. He moved to Fayetteville in 2003 for his Masters Degree and you can almost always catch him at Little Bread Co. or Hammontree’s. For more of Wayne’s contributions, visit his author page.