Although I stopped caring about the Grammys a long time ago, the one category that I continue to keep an eye on is Best New Artist, which was always my favorite back when I still gave a damn about the rest of them.
This year, the line-up is a bit on the weak side, with the exclusion of Carly Rae Jepsen leaving very little gender variety. (I’d be happy with The Lumineers or Frank Ocean, the two acts behind my two favorite singles of 2012, but fun. is probably the one to beat at tonight’s ceremony.) Still, Best New Artist is traditionally the one Grammy category most likely to surprise us, whether via major blunders (Starland Vocal Band over Boston in 1977, and A Taste of Honey over The Cars, Elvis Costello and future Grammy titans Toto in 1979, to name but two of them), major upsets (Marc Cohn over Boyz II Men in 1992, on the strength of a Top 20 hit — “Walking in Memphis” — that I’d have trouble remembering if Cher, a 1966 Best New Artist nominee with Sonny, hadn’t covered it on her 1995 album It’s a Man’s World), , un-nominated hitmakers (including The Rolling Stones, Madonna, the Class of ’87/’88 teen-pop stars New Kids on the Block, Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, and most of today’s biggest singles stars, including Rihanna, Katy Perry and Bruno Mars), and one act that won the award and then lost it for not singing a note on its debut album (Milli Vanilli — who else?).
There’s even room in the category for unexpected contenders better known for their work in Hollywood than as recording artists, like Bob Newhart (winner, 1961), Bette Midler (winner, 1974) and Robin Williams (nominee, 1980). And then, every so often, the Best New Artist Grammy goes right where it should. 10 such cases…
(FYI: Amy Winehouse, who won in 2008, didn’t make my cut because she actually released her well-received debut album, Frank, in 2003. The current Grammy guidelines that allow acts to be nominated for the year in which they establish a public identity, regardless of when they released their debut recording, make the nomination criteria too subjective. If that’s how the Academy wants to spin it, the category should be renamed Best Breakthrough Artist. But I digress…)
The Beatles, 1965
The competition Petula Clark, Astrud Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Morgana King
A no-brainer win if ever there was one, especially with the rest of the British invasion left out of the running, in favor of the Brazilian one (represented by Gilberto and Jobim, singer and composer, respectively, of 1965 Record of the Year “The Girl from Ipanema”), and Clark, a Brit who already had been scoring international hits for a decade.
Carly Simon, 1972
The competition Chase, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds, Bill Withers
Another no-brainer, though probably in hindsight only. Simon, 1975 winner Marvin Hamlisch and 1981 winner Christopher Cross are the only Best New Artists who also won Oscars, a list Eurythmics member Annie Lennox would be on had her electronic-pop duo beat Culture Club (as it should have) in 1984, and one Adele will join if she wins Best Original Song at the February 24 Oscars for “Skyfall.”
Natalie Cole, 1976
The competition Morris Albert, Amazing Rhythm Aces, Brecker Brothers, KC and the Sunshine Band
The beginning of a love affair with Cole that culminated in a 1992 Grammy haul that included Album of the Year for Unforgettable… with Love.
Sheena Easton, 1982
The competition Adam and the Ants, The Go-Go’s, James Ingram, Luther Vandross
I recently was talking to an Australian who, when the subject turned to Best New Artist Grammy winners who never had another hit afterwards, cited Sheena Easton as a prime example. Not even close: Easton would qualify as one of the Best New Artist winners who enjoyed the most longevity as a hitmaker afterwards. Her run of Top 10 hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 spanned the entire decade and included the fruits of a memorable partnership with the most inventive mainstream artist of the ’80s, his purple majesty himself Prince. And let’s not forget (to quote Jackson Browne), that girl could sing, almost as good as Luther Vandross, who would have gotten my vote had he not been kicking around the industry since the mid ’70s, most notably as a background vocalist and the arranger of the background vocals on David Bowie’s 1975 hit “Young Americans.”
Cyndi Lauper, 1985
The competition Sheila E., Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Corey Hart, The Judds
Wynonna Judd of The Judds aside, none of them still would be having hits by the ’90s, but future Emmy winner Lauper is the only one anyone still really cares about in 2013.
The competition a-ha, Freddie Jackson, Katrina and the Waves, Julian Lennon
Giving Sade’s staying power, it’s hard to imagine now that the British group’s win was controversial at the time. The reason: Whitney Houston, who also had released her debut album during the late 1984-to-late 1985 eligibility period for the ’86 Grammys. However, due to Grammy rules, Houston was deemed ineligible for Best New Artist because she’d been a credited artist on a 1984 duet single with Teddy Pendergrass called “Hold Me.” Apparently, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, never ones for consistency, relaxed its definition of “new artist” long enough to allow former Shalamar member Jody Watley to take the prize two years later (though Richard Marx, who’d played guitar and sung background on Houston’s debut album, would be left off the short list that same year due to a contribution to the 1986 Nothing in Common soundtrack), and for Shelby Lynne to win in 2001, 10 years into her recording career.
Mariah Carey, 1991
The competition The Black Crowes, The Kentucky Headhunters, Wilson Phillips, Lisa Stansfield
The next time Carey gets into it with Nicki Minaj at the American Idol judges table, she should come back with “Yeah, but at least I didn’t lose Best New Artist to Bon Iver last year!” I’m still having a hard time with that one myself.
Toni Braxton, 1994
The competition Belly, Blind Melon, Digible Planets, SWV
My favorite Best New Artist line-up since Tracy Chapman vs. Toni Childs in 1989. (I would have declared that one a draw, or, in hindsight, go with Childs, if only because her debut wasn’t her only essential album, which is why I would go with Dixie Chicks over Lauryn Hill among the 1999 nominees). As much as I loved Belly’s debut album, Digible Planets second album, and pretty much every SWV single, Braxton was the only nominee who went on to make enough of an impression to wind up as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars. (And I loved her debut album, her second album, and pretty much every one of her three-album string of hit singles as well as the non-hits that came after them.)
Christina Aguilera, 2000
The competition Macy Gray, Kid Rock, Britney Spears, Susan Tedeschi
And thus round one of Christina vs. Britney went to the one with actual singing talent.
Alicia Keys, 2002
The competition India.Arie, Nelly Furtado, David Gray, Linkin Park
If David Gray hadn’t already been releasing records for a decade, I’d be calling him that year’s Best New Artist, but as he was already a vet at the time, he just happened to be my favorite artist in the category, not the one who deserved to win. Among actual new acts, the second year of the century belonged to Alicia Keys, a rare merger of talent and success, both of which remain intact a decade later.
The competition Duffy, Jonas Brothers, Lady Antebellum, Jazmine Sullivan
Am I the only one who didn’t see the massive success of her next album coming?