I’ve ranted about the Grammys previously, and it remains as futile an endeavour now as it was then. The Grammys (and, really, all awards in the arts – I mean, have you seen “Bohemian Rhapsody”?) have never entirely been about rewarding creative achievements – commerce and personal relationships (with voters) also play a large part. But, somehow, the music industry’s leading prize has a stronger record than any other when it comes to rewarding blandness. Why is that?
Here’s my theory: it’s largely thanks to white men. (We get blamed for so much these days, but stick with me on this.) The music industry, like pretty much every business in the 20th century, was run by white guys, many of them not exactly youthful. And their collectively bland tastes are reflected in who was nominated for and then winning awards. If you doubt me, let’s start by taking a look at the nominees for the Grammys’ top prize, Album of the Year, for 1964, the year The Beatles took over the world. I have nothing against any of the chosen artists, but folks like Al Hirt and Henry Mancini were not on the cutting edge of contemporary music. (Barbra Streisand is an outlier from that year’s nominees, and even she was old school in style but with the kind of outrageously undeniable talent that is often honoured.) Now, take a look at the top 5 albums for 1964 at Acclaimed Music: Stan Getz & João Gilberto (the one Grammy nominee in the pack) made the cut (have to check that album out), as did some guy named Lee Morgan (ditto) and Eric Dolphy, along with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. It feels like a transition year, with album-oriented rock on the rise, but jazz still a strong player. Surely, the Grammys would start to reflect this reality in years to come.
They did not. The Beatles remained a sure thing to pick up a nomination, but other nominees over the next few years included the likes of Eddy Arnold, Vicki Carr and Ed Ames while all-time great albums from Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, the Stones, the Beach Boys (yes, they failed to nominate “Pet Sounds”), Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison and The Band got passed over.
And my point is . . .? Pop music changes fast, but the music industry changes very, very slowly, as the old order is replaced by the new, who have their own soon-to-be-fossilized opinions. It’s happening right now, only with a different (probably still mostly white) group at the top: it’s the only way to explain why Kanye West (forget the crazy for just one moment), Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé have a total of zero Album of the Year awards, but Taylor Swift has three and Adele two. No knock on either of those women, but even they have to be wondering about this imbalance. And it will continue to happen in the major categories, because whatever the hot new thing is of a given year will always run up against the monolith of everything that came before.
Which brings us to Harry Styles. I like Harry as a singer. I have mixed feelings about his public persona (the “Don’t Worry Darling” publicity cycle was not kind to him), but his talent is significant and I enjoyed his first two albums. But, other than a few tracks (“Music for A Sushi Restaurant” sticks in my head), I found “Harry’s House” bland and unremarkable. Its win at the Grammys would suggest I am largely alone in feeling this way. I didn’t have a horse in this race – of the albums I know among the nominees, I would have voted for Kendrick, and I didn’t even like “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” that much – but when your choice as a voting body is this dull, let’s just give the damned thing to Beyoncé so we can stop talking about why she doesn’t have one. If anyone other than Harry Styles fans is playing this album 50 years from now, I’ll be shocked. Maybe we should check in with today’s Ed Ames fans (still over 25,000 monthly listeners on Spotify) so they can know what to expect.
And, with that, I turn to some music that I do love. After a fallow January, I had a good February, as I got my emotional mojo back. Did I love music last month because I was feeling like myself again, or was I feeling like myself again because I was listening to great music? This is my personal chicken and egg scenario. Hopefully, some of these will help you through the blah month that March will likely be.
- Throbbing Gristle – 20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979) (All the power pop that I listen to can start to blend together after a while. That is NOT this record, a delightfully weird mess with a very misleading title.)
- Cake – Fashion Nugget (1996)
- Fruit Bats – Mouthfuls (2003)
- Hurry – Guided Meditation (2016)
- Gentle Hen – Be Nice to Everyone (2018)
- Sobs – Telltale Signs (2018) (Probably my favourite band right now – a lesser record than 2022’s “Air Guitar”, but it shows the pop masters that they were on their way to becoming.)
- 2nd Grade – Hit to Hit (2020)
- The Boys with the Perpetual Nervousness – Songs from Another Life (2021) (Some bands you just know you’re going to love based on their name.)
- Ovlov – Buds (2021)
- Coco & Clair Clair – Sexy (2022)
- For Tracy Hyde – Hotel Insomnia (2022) (Of course, I discover these Japanese shoegazers just as they’re calling it quits. Luckily, there’s a back catalogue to fall in love with and fuel my regrets.)
- The Foxies – Who Are You Now, Who Were You Then? (2022) (Also check out the video for their 2020 single “Anti Socialite” – does the gym teacher look at all familiar to the over-50 crowd?)
- Cakes da Killa – Svengali (2022)
- Ladytron – Time’s Arrow (2023)
- Fantastic Negrito – Grandfather Courage (2023)
- RAYE – My 21st Century Blues (2023)
- The Men – New York City (2023)
- Beauty Pill – Blue Period (2023) (A bit of a cheat – this is a reissue of two records from the early 2000s, but I would have listed both separately, so this combo frees up a spot for someone else for you to discover. You’re welcome.)
- Young Fathers – Heavy Heavy (2023)
- Karol G – Mañana Será Bonito (2023)