To be fair, the judges of pop culture awards have a pretty tough job. All forms of art and entertainment are incredibly subjective, and the plethora of genres and music styles makes choosing a fair winner for any type of award an impossible task. But this job is all the more difficult when it comes to music and the Grammys, as they have a seemingly endless pool to choose from. Each year, tens of thousands of prominent artists put out records and singles, and these judges have to whittle those choices down to a select few (or, rather, few dozen). Clearly, there will never be a choice in any category that will satisfy even a fraction of music aficionados.
But that said, the Grammys do have a history of royally screwing up on occasion. Whether it’s choosing an outdated dinosaur over a relevant newcomer, picking a crowd favorite over a timeless classic, or bestowing an award to a group that doesn’t even sing, there are plenty of moments that the Grammys epically failed when it came to selecting the best artist, album or song in any given year. Here are some of the worst Grammy snubs and screw-ups in modern history.
10. 2015 Album of the Year
Grammy voters shocked viewers around the world when they chose to give the highest-regarded award to Beck, for his folk record “Morning Phase,” over Beyonce’s self-titled record. “Beyonce” was surprise partyreleased at the end of 2013, catching the world by storm and earning the respected R&B soulstress accolades across the music press. Needless to say, the choice enraged Bey fans all over. Among the critics was none other than Kanye West, who stormed the stage but left promptly and without a word – an obvious nod to his interruption of the 2009 Video Music Awards. Also in the running was Pharrell Williams for “G I R L,” Ed Sheeran for “x” and Sam Smith for “In the Lonely Hour.”
9. 2014 Best Rap Awards
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis had a huge year in 2013, driven by their novelty songs “Thrift Shop,” but his music was more appreciated by casual (and suburban) rap fans than hardcore hip-hop fans and critics. Needless to say, his sweeping in the 2014 Grammys – winning Best Rap Album, Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance (the latter two for the aforementioned “Thrift Shop,” and the former for their album “The Heist”) did not go over well amongst hip-hop devotees. Even Macklemore himself knew the decision was not entirely fair, as he later apologized via text message to Kendrick Lamar, who was up for Best Rap Album among others.
8. 2015 Best Metal Performance
Though overshadowed by the Album of the Year snub, metal fans across the country were shocked and stunned when Jack Black’s joke band Tenacious D won the award for their cover of Dio’s “The Last In Line.” Black’s penis-joke-named duo was up against both classic metal artists (Anthrax, Motorhead) and established contemporary veterans (Mastodon, Slipknot). It was kind to see the Grammy Awards honor influential rocker Dio (who invented metal’s iconic hand salute, the sign of the horns), but few metal fans would pick Tenacious D for best metal performance, least of all when they are up against such talented competition.
7. 2011 Song of the Year/Record of the Year
Country-pop trio Lady Antebellum’s love ballad “Need You Now” was up against some stiff competition at the 2011 Grammys. For Song of the Year, they were up against the hugely popular “F**k You” by Cee Lo Green and more significantly, Eminem and Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie.” The latter song clearly touched a nerve for many fans of both artists, due in part to Eminem’s well-documented struggles with his wife Kim and Rihanna’s beating at the hands of her ex Chris Brown. The song sold millions and millions of digital copies, and was ubiquitous in 2010/2011. Likewise, in the Record of the Year category, they were up against the aforementioned tunes as well as the critical darling “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. But somehow Grammy judges sided with Lady Antebellum, a choice that peeved pretty much everybody outside of the pop-country community.
6. 1998 Best Rap Album
Just what the Grammy rap award judges were thinking in 1998 is anybody’s guess. That year saw the release of two landmark hip-hop albums, the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Life After Death” and Wu-Tang Clan’s “Wu-Tang Forever.” Instead they gave the coveted rap award to Puff Daddy, for his record “No Way Out” (though it is some consolation that Biggie was featured on four of that record’s songs). The fact that the Notorious B.I.G. – often regarded as the greatest rapper of all time – had died a year earlier only makes matters worse. Amazingly, neither Biggie nor 2Pac ever won a Grammy Award for Best Rap Album (although it should be noted that the award was only implemented in 1996, eliminating many of their seminal releases, including “2Pacalypse Now” and “Ready to Die”).
5. 2001 Album of the Year
Rock music was in a pretty rough place in 2000. Most big grunge bands of the 90s had already broken up (or, rather, imploded), and the airwaves were being dominated by alt-rock’s degenerate cousins, nu metal and post-grunge. But there was one band, English alt-rockers Radiohead, that not only survived the death of grunge but thrived. Their 1997 record “OK Computer” was and still is regarded as a brilliant classic, and it shook off whatever remained of their one-hit wonder status. In 2000, they followed that up with “Kid A” – an extremely challenging record that informed by intelligent dance music, jazz and kruatrock. It was an incredibly bold artistic leap, and a decade later, it was listed as the best album of the decade by Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. But again, the Grammys awarded the record to an older band that was far out of its prime and relevancy. The Album of the Year award instead went to Steely Dan for “Two Against Nature” – the jazz rock group’s first album in 20 years.
4. 1991 Best Rap Performance Duo or Group
1992 appeared to be the year of the acclaimed rap group Public Enemy as far as the Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group was concerned. The lauded hip-hop pioneers had been passed over the year earlier, getting nominated for their classic record “Fear of a Black Planet” in favor of the Quincy Jones single “Back on the Block” (does the name not ring a bell? Exactly.)
When 1992 came around, Public Enemy was the only group to be nominated for an entire album; the other performers were largely party-friendly singles – Naughty by Nature’s “O.P.P.,” Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex” and DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s “Summertime.”
The Grammys had an opportunity to show that hip-hop could be a serious medium – intellectual, political, empowering to the black community. Instead they gave the award to “Summertime.” Granted, Will Smith’s parents-friendly rap was huge in the early 90s, and his single “Summertime” was wildly successful at the time. But these days Smith’s rap days are a mere footnote on his career, while Public Enemy is regarded as one of the best rap groups of all time – albeit one that has still not won a Grammy.
3. 1992 Best Rock Song
After seminal grunge band Nirvana stormed onto the rock scene in 1991, led by the iconic song “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” nothing in the rock world was quite the same. Within months, Nirvana and other grunge artists like Pearl Jam were selling albums by the truckload. Almost overnight they wiped out the glitzy, overly polished brand of pop-rock known as hair metal, while ushering in a wave of alt-rock bands that would change the music scene forever. But when the 1992 Grammys rolled around, judges decided to give the Best Rock Song award to Eric Clapton’s unplugged version of “Layla.”
It goes without saying that “Layla” is considered one of the greatest rock songs of all time, but the tune came out almost 22 years earlier and the new version was stripped of its iconic guitar riff, ferocious romantic pleas and gorgeous extended piano outro. It wasn’t the first time that the Grammys failed to take note of enormous shifts in pop music, or the artists who led the movement, but it was certainly one of their worst such offenses in the award’s history.
2. 1990 Best New Artist
The decision to award the German pop-dance duo Milli Vanilli with the Best New Artist award is arguably the most embarrassing moment in Grammy history. The West German group, consisting of Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus, were not necessarily against legendary competition. Hardly any of the nominees (Indigo Girls, Neneh Cherry, Soul II Soul and Tone Loc) are exactly household names these days. But not long after the Grammys bestowed the highly coveted award to the group, their agent Sergio Vendero admitted that neither Morvan nor Pilatus actually sang any of the vocals heard on their records. It certainly didn’t help matters that Pilatus had proclaimed himself to be “more talented than any Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney,” adding, “I’m the new Elvis.” The backlash was swift and resolute. The Grammys rescinded the group’s award. The duo tried to revive their career, now taking on lead vocal duties themselves as The Real Milli Vanilli, but the damage was already done.
1. 1988 Best Metal Performance
The 1988 Grammy for Best Metal Performance seemed like a lock for Metallica. It was the first year that the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences had recognized heavy metal, and the influential Bay Area thrashers had just released one of their finest records, 1988’s “…And Justice for All.” They had also led a new wave of speed-oriented metal called thrash metal. Instead the award went to the folky progressive rock group Jethro Tull, for their 1987 record Crest of a Knave. The choice baffled music critics, who argued that Tull did not qualify as heavy metal, and enraged Metallica fans. Among heavy metal aficionados, it’s still considered one of the worst snubs in Grammy history.