The Grammy Awards are meant to celebrate the current moment, but they’re judged by how well the results hold up over time. One of the risks is honoring artists whose work doesn’t age well, but there’s also the risk of failing to recognize truly significant music at the time it’s being made. Here are 25 of the biggest oversights in Grammy history.
"Back in Black" is the crown jewel in AC/DC’s long career and a monumental tribute to the band’s wickedly charismatic lead singer, Bon Scott, who died just before the album was recorded. Three songs from the album are among the most played classic rock tracks ever, and it’s the second-best-selling album of all time. But Grammy voters didn’t think much of this hard-rock masterpiece at the time. Christopher Cross dominated the awards in 1981, and "Back in Black" wasn’t nominated in a single category. (AC/DC finally won a Grammy in 2010, for “War Machine.”)
Few listeners really appreciated Brian Wilson’s heady psychedelic orchestral pop landmark when it was released in 1966. It wasn’t even The Beach Boys’ most popular album that year — "Best of the Beach Boys" outsold "Pet Sounds" at the time. “Good Vibrations,” a non-album 1966 single that ended up on "Smiley Smile" the next year, was nominated for four awards at the 1967 Grammys but didn’t win — the only nominations of the group’s career until a 1989 nod for the execrable “Kokomo.”
The Beastie Boys’ transformation from bratty novelty act to ’90s hip-hop auteurs didn’t happen overnight. It took a few years for the full impact of the trio’s sophomore album — a dense Dust Brothers-produced collage of wicked rhymes and crate-digging samples that expanded ideas about what hip-hop could be and who could make it — to be fully recognized.
The Beatles spent their entire career revolutionizing rock music, from their early refinement of the blueprint laid down by ’50s pioneers Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Little Richard to the studio experiments of "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" and "The Beatles" to the profound personal revelations on "Abbey Road" and "Let It Be." But "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver" were where the real heavy lifting took place — "Beggar’s Banquet," "Led Zeppelin III," the Velvet Underground’s "Loaded," "Pet Sounds," and everything by the Grateful Dead and R.E.M. are all inconceivable without "Rubber Soul’s" influence.
Garth Brooks redefined country music superstardom with his first two albums, and the second one, released in 1990, is a legitimate masterpiece. "No Fences" was a pop breakthrough like Nashville hadn’t seen in decades, and it ushered in an era of mega-sales that lasted until the early 2000s. Grammy voters weren’t convinced, though. It wasn’t until Brooks’ third multiplatinum album, "Ropin’ the Wind," in 1991, that he nabbed an award.
The Clash’s third album, from 1979, was the pinnacle of English punk: a ferocious, socially conscious double album that reflected Thatcher-era anxiety and filtered Jamaican music, R&B and rockabilly into the three-chord riff-rock that had defined London's punk scene until then. That wasn’t good enough for the Grammys. The Clash wasn’t nominated for a single award in 1980.
Any of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s first five albums, all released between 1968 and 1970, could pass as a reasonable compilation of the band’s greatest hits. But none of them was ever recognized by the Grammys. "Cosmo’s Factory" is the most glaring oversight — it’s CCR’s best and biggest-selling album, with a string of defining classics from “Travelin’ Band” and “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” to “Who’ll Stop the Rain” and an 11-minute jam on the Motown standard “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
Miles Davis earned plenty of Grammy recognition. But Davis’ most popular album — one of the best-selling and most acclaimed jazz albums of all time and one that still defines the form for many casual listeners – didn’t win. Instead, the 1960 award went to the largely forgotten trumpeter Jonah Jones, for an album called "I Dig Chicks."
"Highway 61 Revisited" was Bob Dylan’s great leap forward from folk rock to something tougher, more personal and altogether more modern. Electric guitar and organ propelled Dylan’s songwriting into uncharted territory; the album, along with "Pet Sounds," "Rubber Soul," "Revolver" and The Velvet Underground and Nico, represented the transformation of pop into high art. So give the Grammy voters a break — it can be hard to recognize epochal shifts at the time they happen (especially when they have lyrics like “the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken”).
This is the record that the Guns N’ Roses legend rests on — everything that came after pales in comparison to "Appetite for Destruction's" philosophy of nihilistic hedonism and its stew of punk, metal, hard rock and glam. Of course Grammy voters were never going to reward GN’R’s Sunset Strip swagger or their shameless celebration of ’80s excess and seedy debauchery. But just because their oversight was expected, that doesn’t mean they were right.
The mind-boggling success of "Thriller" meant that no one would remember the album that came immediately before it. "Off the Wall," Michael Jackson’s 1979 debut as a fully mature solo artist, sounds in retrospect like a rehearsal for "Thriller." But on its own it ranks alongside the singer’s greatest work as a fully formed collection of Quincy Jones-produced disco-fied R&B bangers designed for crossover success. The 1980s start here, but the Grammys weren’t quite ready.
It’s hard to imagine, at this point in the career of the godfather of East Coast hip-hop, that he won a Best Rap Album Grammy for the middling "Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life" and not "Reasonable Doubt," not "The Blueprint" or not "The Black Album." Any of those three deserves a place on this list; "Reasonable Doubt "makes the cut because it’s the source of much of the mythology that still pervades hip-hop more than 20 years later and because it still sounds almost contemporary today.
It took a turn toward music with a social message and nostalgic overtones for Madonna to be taken seriously by the Grammys. But the unadorned, unapologetic pop of her first two albums offered pure visceral pleasures that she’s never replicated. "Like a Virgin" is a touchstone of ’80s dance-pop — that it was completely overlooked at the Grammys is a lasting hit to the Awards' credibility.
When the Grammys created a metal category in 1989, most observers assumed it was specifically to recognize the towering accomplishment of Metallica’s 1988 paranoid prog-thrash epic. Not only did Jethro Tull upset the thrash titans, but it also did it with "Crest of a Knave," an album few people cared about at the time that’s best remembered just for this classic Grammy flub.
In the early ’70s, Joni Mitchell invented a whole new language for folk music, with jazzy arrangements, idiosyncratic rhythms, pointed lyrics and a distinct refusal to stay boxed inside the traditional pop roles allowed to women. So take your pick: Either "Court and Spark" or "Blue" would have been a worthy Album of the Year winner, making each one a contender for worst Grammy injustice.
It took the success of "Country Grammar," Nelly’s 2000 debut, for Grammy voters to take note of the St. Louis rapper. "Nellyville," the 2002 follow-up, racked up two awards, but its predecessor is the better overall album, with an immediate charm and fresh energy that later gave way to slick professional polish.
It’s fitting that the album that kicked off the alternative revolution of the 1990s wasn’t officially recognized by the establishment. Released late in the Grammy cycle, with modest expectations, "Nevermind" came out of nowhere to unseat Michael Jackson at the top of the album charts, but it was too late for Grammy voters to jump on the bandwagon.
Few bands have two albums in their catalogs as different and distinctive as "The Dark Side of the Moon" and "The Wall" — and neither won a Grammy Award. "The Wall" is long, meandering and oblique, so it’s easy to see why conservative Grammy voters resisted it. But "Dark Side of the Moon" is Pink Floyd’s pop masterpiece. It's sleek, polished, and direct — exactly the kind of record that wins Grammys. Why it wasn’t even nominated remains a mystery.
Prince was one of the most audacious musicians and songwriters of the 1980s, and "Sign O’ the Times" was the most audacious album of his career — a funky, visionary, psychedelic rock and soul double-album masterpiece of heroic proportions that offered a preview of the future of R&B. It was more than Grammy voters could handle in 1987.
Public Enemy had at least two things working against it when it came to institutional recognition: a provocative and radical political platform and an equally radical sound, based around the dense sampling and turntable acrobatics of the Bomb Squad. And "Fear of a Black Planet" is peak Public Enemy. Few albums that represent such a direct challenge to the cultural establishment have ever reached the top 10.
R.E.M. released its most accomplished record in late 1992, just as alternative rock was emerging as an identifiable commercial and creative force. "Automatic for the People" reigned for a full year on radio and MTV, with six singles stretched out over 12 months. It was a perfect opportunity for the Grammys to recognize which way the industry winds were blowing by awarding Album of the Year to the band at the forefront of a music revolution. They missed it.
The Rolling Stones’ greatest accomplishments were already behind them by the time they were nominated for their first Grammy, in 1979. And it took 16 more years for the Stones to actually win an award (Best Rock Album for 1994’s "Voodoo Lounge"). That makes the lack of recognition for "Exile on Main St." even more glaring. It’s the band’s most profound work — an artful, bluesy reflection of the end of an era.
Remember "Can’t Slow Down" by Lionel Richie? It's not a bad album — “All Night Long (All Night),” "Hello," and “Penny Lover.” But the four albums it beat in 1985 to win the Grammy for Album of the Year were "Purple Rain," Tina Turner’s "Private Dancer," Cyndi Lauper’s "She’s So Unusual" and, yes, Bruce Springsteen’s iconic, blue-collar pop-rock jukebox, which produced six top 10 singles. The other AOY nominees at least won other significant awards that year — the Boss got nothing more than a Best Rock Vocal Performance Grammy for “Dancing in the Dark.”
Four of Kanye West’s first five albums won the Grammy for Best Rap Album. His sixth, the intense, challenging 2013 opus, "Yeezus," didn’t. That’s the year Macklemore and Ryan Lewis took home the prize. Produced with, among others, Rock Rubin and featuring unexpected collaborations with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Charlie Wilson of the Gap Band, "Yeezus" is West’s most unconventional and demanding album — but it’s also among his biggest achievements. Grammy voters may regret this one.
Bookended by two rock operas in The Who’s catalog, "Who’s Next" is nevertheless the band’s most cohesive and ambitious creative statement. Ditching its maximum R&B for space-age synth and stadium anthems, the Who invented modern radio rock at the dawn of the ’70s, and lesser bands are still trying to catch up.