Not quite a year ago, inspired by awards-show season and the Marxist theorist Stuart Hall (“Popular culture … is the arena of consent and resistance”), I listened to every winner of the Best Original Song Oscar and its concurrent #1 single, then wrote about the results for this web magazine. With the Grammy Awards happening this Sunday, possibly giving Iggy Azalea or Ed Sheeran the chance to command millions of people, it seemed like time for a sequel. I’ve always been curious about the Grammys’ distinction between “Song of the Year” and “Record of the Year,” which is less pedantic than it sounds. The former award goes to songwriters for their ineffable creativity, etc., while the latter category honours producers and mastering engineers alongside artists—a fetchingly materialist notion of music as the recorded object. So I decided to force myself through all 55 winners since the award’s inception and give each one an arbitrary score, like the consumer products they are.
“Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare),” by Domenico Modugno
When the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences held the first Grammy ceremony, the music industry was still transitioning out of the pre-rock era, as this footnote suggests; the other nominees included Perry Como and “The Chipmunk Song.”
“Mack the Knife,” by Bobby Darin
Before LPs were codified as the central unit of music in the late 1960s, artists tended to claim any individual song less strongly, ensuring a constant flux of opportunistic covers. The first hit version of “Mack the Knife” was released in 1956 by Louis Armstrong, who grew up in a New Orleans district similar to The Threepenny Opera’s Victoria London. (As a kid he had very briefly taken up pimping, a bad professional fit; when the shy young man declined his lone employee’s come-on, she stabbed him in the shoulder.) Spontaneously adding Lotte Lenya to the list of victims, Armstrong laughs through “Mack the Knife” like someone embellishing stories from the old neighbourhood. But Bobby Darin exults in the lyric’s viciousness, relishing each oooooze—if your teen heartthrob persona starts itching, what better than a song about the exploits of an amoral murderer? “That cement is just, it’s there for the weight, dear,” he sings, managing to flirt while carrying a corpse.
“Theme from A Summer Place,” by Percy Faith & His Orchestra
I felt perversely proud to discover that the master of silky easy-listening arrangements was from Toronto. He released one album of country music and two disco-oriented ones toward the end of his 40-year career, his very last recording being a disco-style reworking of “Theme from a Summer Place,” entitled “Summer Place ‘76,” which was a minor and, sadly, posthumous hit.
“Moon River,” by Henry Mancini
“Moon River” is an interesting illustration of the “record” part in “Record of the Year”: It didn’t win a Grammy for the best-remembered Audrey Hepburn version but, rather, a single issued by Henry Mancini’s own orchestra. I find the chorus here a little too stately, bereft of the sadness that Hepburn brought to it. They sound like carolers singing a lullaby.
“I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” by Tony Bennett
What strikes me here is how the wordiness of the verses (“The loveliness of Paris seems somehow sadly gray”) gradually falls away, syllables fading like the clouds a plane leaves afloat in the sky above it.
“Days of Wine and Roses,” by Henry Mancini
Only barely distinguishable from the Percy Faith track up there, which might be a problem for the theme music of a movie about alcoholism.
“The Girl from Ipanema,” by Astrud Gilberto & Stan Getz
This song has spawned hundreds and hundreds of covers, none sounding more untraceable or elusive than Astrud Gilberto’s own hesitantly phonetic vocal, but the B-52s did give it their customary all.
“A Taste of Honey,” by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass
Slick, nonchalant, ebullient, not above vamping, descending with a flutter.
“Strangers in the Night,” by Frank Sinatra
“The worst fucking song that I have ever heard,” Sinatra once fumed. Its success may be what he really resented; his controlled phrasing remains, if only out of obligation, like the veteran politician attempting to rescue some doomed junior minister. When Sinatra begins scatting at the end, the syllables fall with idle boredom, fingers wandering across a lectern.
“Up, Up and Away,” by the Fifth Dimension
If you pause to think about it, “Up, Up and Away” might seem as ridiculous as that bib-like neckwear in the clip linked above—they’re singing about a hot-air-balloon date, after all. But the secret to several Jimmy Webb numbers is that you never do pause, pleasantly distracted while he hustles through lyrics like, “suspended under the twilight canopy / we’ll search the sky for a star to guide us.”
“Mrs. Robinson,” by Simon & Garfunkel
In a year of riots, strikes, assassinations, governments not quite falling, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences favoured singles like “Hey Jude,” “Wichita Lineman,” and the beginning of their sustained affection for Paul Simon (that cruel ampersand). It only figures that the first rock song to win Record of the Year, which “Mrs. Robinson” was, would be a tasteful piece of craft, even recuperating the nonsense rhyme from “I Am the Walrus” into a more NARAS-friendly form. One of the other Grammy nominees did sing of revolt—against a nasty PTA group.
“Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” by the Fifth Dimension
One of Donna Summer’s first professional gigs was with a European tour of Hair, and the optimistic yearning in so many of her songs, that searching sense of risk, can be understood as a comedown from this utopian cultural moment. Listening to the Fifth Dimension’s “Aquarius” medley, I know why people thought love might rearrange the planets, despite everything.
“Bridge Over Troubled Water,” by Simon & Garfunkel
Fun game for masochists: Try queuing this up at karaoke.
“It’s Too Late,” by Carole King
The concision and directness remind me of Christine McVie. The piano playing reminds me of Donald Fagen. The mood of exhausted sympathy? That’s just Carole King.
“The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face,” by Roberta Flack
A shade too poised for me to hear any sensuality in it. The material she recorded with Donny Hathaway, however…
“Killing Me Softly with His Song” by Roberta Flack
“Killing Me Softly” was inspired by a Don McLean concert and co-written by the guy who did the Happy Days theme, so Flack’s ability to read it with such astonishment and intelligence seems like a quiet miracle.
“I Honestly Love You,” by Olivia Newton-John
Credited to the co-writer of “Be My Baby,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Then He Kissed Me,” and “Leader of the Pack,” not that you’d notice.
“Love Will Keep Us Together,” by Captain & Tennille
Inscrutable trivia: The 1976 Grammy for Song of the Year went to Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.”
“This Masquerade,” by George Benson
The closest the Grammys ever came to giving a disco record one of these things, and the fact that it’s smoothed-out and jazz-adjacent rather than what people were dancing to in the clubs probably only encouraged them. Also nominated that year: Barry Manilow, Chicago, Paul Simon again, and “Afternoon Delight.”
“Hotel California,” by the Eagles
I’m not sure I ever listened to the entire song until now, just distant snatches of it, the chord progression’s descending glint. That’s the clever part. The most annoying part is probably those little vocal accents Don Henley affects, not yet ready to embrace a drum machine … and his destiny. What I like or at least appreciate about the Eagles is that, while evil men have always thrived in music—the fathers of Michael Jackson and Brian Wilson come to mind—Henley et al. settle for petty, snappish unpleasantness. It’s as if your smug boss managed to sell 100 million records.
Score: Black Flag sticker on a Cadillac, or 1/10
“Just the Way You Are,” by Billy Joel
“What a Fool Believes,” by the Doobie Brothers
There’s a scene in the documentary about the making of Steely Dan’s Aja where Donald Fagen plays back Michael McDonald’s background vocals from “Peg,” marveling at the bizarre precision of his falsetto. Fagen’s bemused/amazed chuckles made me realize that McDonald served as the straight man to their jaundiced ironists, earnest like only a bearish white guy throwing himself into R&B can be. That displaced quality of his uncanny timbre, its studied guilelessness, is captivating and even moving. At least that’s why I think “What a Fool Believes” is so fucking great.
“Sailing,” by Christopher Cross
In certain respects one of the stranger and most singular records on this list, a contained state of half-consciousness. It occupies the lulled, idle tempo of somebody roaming their rooms late at night. Too bad Cross was content to sing only two out of every three syllables.
“Bette Davis Eyes,” by Kim Carnes
I recommend tracking down the original 1974 version by songwriter Jackie DeShannon, who rendered it as an upbeat honky-tonk number—an example of how radically arrangements and production techniques can alter the same underlying composition.
“Rosanna,” by Toto
The other night, my friend Ari suggested that Toto’s “Africa” is a compellingly bad song, extraordinary in its intersection of “incoherence, bad taste, and racist imperialist fantasy.” “Rosanna” is extraordinary in a different sense. When you have a drummer who would play on both Like a Prayer and Steely Dan’s Katy Lied, why not try for a beguilingly complex circuit of internal dynamics? Every time you think you’ve apprehended “Rosanna,” it sidles towards a new genre or mode. Then the synth solo plumes out into a pixelated rainbow.
“Beat It,” by Michael Jackson
The kind of fusion that reveals something unexpected about both contributors, e.g. how Van Halen were secretly a pop act; Eddie V. H. uses his guitar solo like a frantic bridge, suitably un-macho. And Jackson hints that, as the anguished “Blood on the Dance Floor” would confirm, he was a metal singer, too.
“What’s Love Got to Do With It,” by Tina Turner
How tremendous a year for pop was 1984? Tina Turner beat out nominees including “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “Dancing in the Dark,” while Prince, Chaka Khan, and Sheila E. all hung out in lesser categories—and then there’s every artist Grammy voters scrupulously ignored, from Madonna to Sade to the Time. I could begrudge them that, but never Turner’s win here.
“We Are the World,” by USA for Africa
A secret to Grammys glory that Lionel Richie had already divined: If you can’t be venerable, you can always enlist the services of dozens of other musicians.
“Higher Love,” by Steve Winwood
This is a song about Steve Winwood becoming horny enough to rewrite the laws of the universe. Chaka Khan will sing hosannas as he makes the stars shine through thirst alone.
“Graceland,” by Paul Simon
Robert Christgau, 1986: “The music is that good, the salvation through musical synthesis that original. But Graceland does nevertheless circle around an evasive ideology, the universalist humanism that is the secret intellectual vice of centrist liberals out of their depth. It’s not so much what Simon says as what he doesn’t say … Pretoria broadcasts this music on state radio because Pretoria thinks it’s harmless at worst and a vinyl Sun City at best, a demonstration that their hideous system doesn’t preclude meaningful racial cooperation. And who knows, this time Pretoria may be right. I don’t believe politics transcends music, but I don’t believe music transcends politics either. They’re separate realms that impinge on each other, and in times of crisis they impinge more and more inescapably. I hope Simon has succeeded in reconciling opposing principles for more than the duration of a long-playing record, because I want to be received in Graceland myself. But there’s reason to wonder whether he’s done enough.”
“Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” by Bobby McFerrin
Warm where “Drop It Like It’s Hot” is cold.
“Wind Beneath My Wings,” by Bette Midler
The third best song featured on “Krusty Gets Kancelled.”
“Another Day in Paradise,” by Phil Collins
Triumphed over both “Nothing Compares 2 U” and, demonstrating the surreal taste-palettes these things can occasion, “U Can’t Touch This.” I would argue that Tarzan contains deep cuts. But why couldn’t he have won for “Sussudio,” the ultimate adoring-mortal’s fake Prince song?
“Unforgettable,” by Natalie Cole & Nat King Cole
Not the first marketing concept to get a Grammy, and not as laughable as its parallel award for Song of the Year, which effectively declared that the best songwriting of 1991 had been done in 1951. Also: not “Losing My Religion,” which lost.
“Tears in Heaven,” by Eric Clapton
I’ve never felt any urge to dip into Clapton. Seeing as there’s no shortage of white musicians stealing notable ideas from their black counterparts, why bother with one who abhors the mere presence of immigrants as well? So encountering him in the context of this contrived project, and this single, is less than ideal on either end. But I can only hope he found some kind of solace recording it, because there’s little here for the rest of us.
“I Will Always Love You,” by Whitney Houston
A performance far more thoughtful and deliberate than its peremptory reputation implies, hobbled by an arrangement that mistrusts any subtlety as weakness.
“All I Wanna Do,” by Sheryl Crow
soccer practice carpool jamz
“Kiss from a Rose,” by Seal
My fourth-grade teacher would play “Kiss from a Rose” almost daily, and I never tired of it. I know I’ll keep stumbling behind the 7/8 time signature at karaoke, but I punch it in now and then anyway, just so I can aspire towards that melody.
“Change the World,” by Eric Clapton
As fascist bards go, “If I could change the world / I would be the sunlight of your universe” is not quite Ezra Pound. Then Clapton comes on all romantic with a creepy Bluebeard fantasy. Babyface’s cushioning production does make it tolerable—something akin to tossing your car keys inside a Faberge egg.
“Sunny Came Home,” by Shawn Colvin
“My Heart Will Go On,” by Celine Dion
Nearly two decades later, with a book-length apologia on its side and the cultural omnipresence long past, I know—can admit to myself—that I like “My Heart Will Go On.” I like that lilting tin-whistle melody; I like the power-ballad Dadaism of “love was when I loved you.” Ironically, given the fascinating weirdness of Celine herself, its central flaw is an impersonal, pro-forma quality; the climactic key change appears in the distance earlier than that iceberg did. I do, however, prefer “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” a perfect realization of Jim Steinman’s songwriting: Mention unspecified sexy things you can’t believe happened, punch the air mid-verse (“there were MOMENTS OF GOLD and there were FLASHES OF LIGHT”), sing as if your planet is falling into the sun. We said we’d never do this again, Celine goes, but then didn’t it always seem right?
“Smooth,” by Santana (ft. Rob Thomas)
Some things I forgot about this music video: Rob Thomas wearing a cowboy hat. Rob Thomas wearing the same dragon-print shirt as the kid in your Magic: The Gathering club who’d started smoking. Rob Thomas saying “muñequita.” Rob Thomas shuddering out “my reason for reason” like a belated orgasm. Also, that the record kinda works regardless.
“Beautiful Day,” by U2
In a brilliant blog post last year, the critic Tom Ewing used U2’s cynical, misbegotten ’97 comeback single “Discotheque” to consider why the “imperialist” foundations of rock dissolved beneath it: “If ‘rockism’ has ever meant anything, it means what happened on this record—an assumption that other musics exist to provide new directions and stealable ideas to four rock guys in a guitar/bass/vox/drums lineup … It’s telling that the breakdown of the New U2 happens on the album where they decided to really embrace sampling. Hip-hop not only proved very difficult for rock to assimilate, it was far better at realising rock’s syncretic pretensions—of being a core of popular music which could absorb and adapt to anything else.” Having exposed themselves to revealing and intriguing failure, U2 would settle for cautiously catchy blandness this time around—an almost poignant decision from somebody mocked as much as Bono.
“Walk On,” by U2
This beat “Ms. Jackson” :(
“Don’t Know Why,” by Norah Jones
YouTube commenter: “Doing a tasting of 70+ wines, and in the background I hear Norah Jones singing ‘my heart is drenched in wine.’ Insightful lady.”
“Clocks,” by Coldplay
Coldplay would go on to collect the Song of the Year Grammy in 2009 for “Viva la Vida,” but where award-winning Coldplay hits are concerned, this is clearly the superior Coldplay.
“Here We Go Again,” by Ray Charles & Norah Jones
By the time he released Duets in 1993, Frank Sinatra’s supreme voice had become a wreck, and Tony Bennett spent the past couple decades refining amiable shtick. Ray Charles wasn’t going to just eke out his own legend-and-friends LP, not when he’d handed so many sidemen a glorified stipend and cunningly held publishing rights between thumb and forefinger. For Genius Loves Company, his canniness was in matching up partners to songs; not just letting Norah Jones’s voice wreathe cinders around his, but getting Billy Preston on organ, too. “I’ll play the part, again,” Charles sings, ruefully amused.
“Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” by Green Day
Sure, the easiest way to win some Grammys is reaching the “venerable” stage of your life as a band and then shifting millions upon millions of albums—but such albums seldom take the form of a pop-punk rock opera politicizing yung anomie, which is what interests me here, along with Green Day playing mid-tempo for once.
“Not Ready to Make Nice,” by the Dixie Chicks
The musicians whose dissent cost them the most during the Bush era were not some punks, but these three women: Even after becoming the first country single to win Record of the Year, “Not Ready to Make Nice” barely appeared on its home radio format. They haven’t released another LP since.
“Rehab,” by Amy Winehouse
Ooh, I just need a friend. The pastiche elements of Mark Ronson’s production, the audible searching for a model, only make “Rehab” feel that much more harrowing now.
“Please Read the Letter,” by Alison Krauss & Robert Plant
The only song from this entire list that never charted on the Billboard Hot 100—not a perfect measurement of beauty, ferment, influence or succor, but a telling indication of its demographic.
“Use Somebody,” by Kings of Leon
Every shitty idea from the past 15 years of rock radio glumly shrugs in unison, each torpid crescendo stressing a single inspirational message: Please, please, please fuck me?
“Need You Now,” by Lady Antebellum
For a group that called themselves “Lady Antebellum”—a group so clueless they later essayed the lyric “If I was a preacher, I wanna be Dr. King”—the specificity of “it’s a quarter after 1 and I’m a little drunk” is not unsubtle. But they also went for “If I was a summer, I wanna be ’69,” so, y’know.
“Rolling in the Deep,” by Adele
I still love how the backing vocals enter at a slight delay, timed like the first brick through a window. But who was in charge of filling all those glasses with water?
“Somebody That I Used to Know,” by Gotye (ft. Kimbra)
NO CARLY, NO QUIET!
“Get Lucky,” by Daft Punk (ft. Pharrell & Nile Rodgers)
We’ll be hearing this at weddings for the next couple of decades, rest assured, trying to figure out if the lyrics get any less Gallic when you’re drunk. I don’t really mind. Random Access Memories is luxurious fetishism, but it was a joy to see Nile Rodgers grinning next to Stevie Wonder and some of the world’s best-paid session musicians up there at the Grammys. And they didn’t spend my million dollars on it.
Average score: 5.9/10, which tbh is higher than I expected