The 64th annual Grammy Awards were held on April 3, and the coveted Best New Artist prize went to teenage pop sensation Olivia Rodrigo. Over the years, the Grammys have made some head-scratchingly bizarre decisions in the Best New Artist category, often favoring pop one-hit-wonders over genre artists who are more likely to stand the test of time.
Awards are by their nature subjective, and it’s definitely worth noting that some of the most significant musical artists of the modern era – including Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Simon & Garfunkel, The Rolling Stones, Bee Gees, Queen, Michael Jackson, Prince, U2, Madonna, Nirvana, and The White Stripes – WEREN’T EVEN NOMINATED.
Only time will tell what Rodrigo’s legacy will be, of course. In thirty years, will pop culture bloggers be wondering why she beat Glass Animals or Japanese Breakfast? It’s impossible to say, but her win got me thinking: which Best New Artist winners were the biggest head-scratchers, and more importantly, which other nominee(s) should have won instead?
- Tom Jones (1965)
WHO SHOULD HAVE WON: THE BYRDS
No disrespect to Welch crooner Tom Jones, who burst onto the scene in 1965 with top ten hits “It’s Not Unusual” and “What’s New, Pussycat?”, but The Byrds are arguably the greatest and most influential American rock band of all time. These days, Jones is best known for his flashy Vegas performances and his philandering (Jones estimates he was sleeping with about 250 women per year at the height of his fame, all while married to his high school sweetheart Linda). Meanwhile, The Byrds released not one but two albums – Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn! – in 1965, and made some of the most important records of the late ’60s, including Fifth Dimension and Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
- José Feliciano (1968)
WHO SHOULD HAVE WON: CREAM
Latin music artist José Feliciano is best known for his annoyingly catchy Christmas tune “Feliz Navidad” and his acoustic cover of The Doors’ “Light My Fire”. Meanwhile, Cream – rock’s first supergroup – was making some of the most enduring music of the late 1960s. Comprised of Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, Cream was a blues-rock/psychedelic powerhouse, and though they only released four albums, they remain one of the greatest rock bands of all time.
- Starland Vocal Band (1976)
WHO SHOULD HAVE WON: Boston
Boston was, without a doubt, the best new artist of 1976. Their eponymous debut is an embarrassment of rock riches, featuring singles “More Than a Feeling”, “Long Time” and “Peace of Mind”, as well as several more songs that continue to get AOR airplay more than forty-five years later. Boston has sold more than twenty million copies worldwide and is still considered one of the greatest debut albums ever. But the Recording Academy went with literal one-hit wonders Starland Vocal Band, whose cheesetastic ode to daytime nookie “Afternoon Delight” went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
- Debby Boone (1977)
WHO SHOULD HAVE WON: Foreigner or Andy Gibb
Gospel artist Debby Boone – daughter of Pat – had one crossover hit, “You Light Up My Life” (the theme song to the movie of the same name), which went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed there for an unprecedented ten weeks. And though she’s technically not a one-hit-wonder (she had two other singles that cracked the Hot 100), Boone’s contributions to popular music begin and end with “You Light Up My Life”. Meanwhile, Foreigner’s self-titled debut featured three top-ten hits – “Feels Like the First Time”, “Cold as Ice” and “Long, Long Way from Home” – and kick-started their career as one of the most popular rock bands of the 1970s and ’80s. Andy Gibb, younger brother to The Bee Gees, burst onto the pop scene at age nineteen with his debut, Flowing Rivers. The album produced two #1 hits: “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” and “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water”, and though Gibb’s career didn’t have the longevity of Foreigner’s, he still would have been a better Best New Artist pick than Boone.
- A Taste of Honey (1978)
WHO SHOULD HAVE WON: The Cars, Elvis Costello or Toto
A Taste of Honey’s debut single “Boogie Oogie Oogie” was a smash hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it remains one of the most enduring songs of the disco era. I am unabashedly a disco fan, but when you stack A Taste of Honey’s career against The Cars, Elvis Costello or even Toto, it just doesn’t hold up. Personally, I’d probably pick The Cars, one of my all-time favorite artists. The Cars’ eponymous debut is a power-pop classic, featuring the singles “Just What I Needed”, “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Good Times Roll”, as well as “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”, “Bye Bye Love” and my personal favorite, “Moving in Stereo”. Costello would have been a fine pick as well; his third album, Armed Forces, is the one that attracted the attention of the Recording Academy, and it is a banger. And yes, even Toto, whose single “Hold the Line” might be my favorite song of 1978, would have been a better choice.
- Sheena Easton (1981)
WHO SHOULD HAVE WON: The Go-Go’s
Scottish chanteuse Sheena Easton exploded onto the pop scene in 1981 with the one-two punch of “Morning Train (Nine to Five)” and “For Your Eyes Only”, the theme song to the James Bond film of the same name. Easton is lovely but The Go-Go’s were the rightful winners of the Best New Artist prize that year. Their debut album, Beauty and the Beat, remains the only #1 record in history by an all-female band who wrote their own songs and played their own instruments. I’ve waxed rhapsodic about Beauty and the Beat before (ICYMI: https://peanut-butter-and-julie.com/2021/07/08/beauty-and-the-beat-at-40/), and I’ll probably do so again; its importance in rock history – and my own personal life – cannot be overstated.
- Milli Vanilli (1990)
WHO SHOULD HAVE WON: Literally anyone else (Neneh Cherry, Indigo Girls, Tone Lōc and Soul II Soul were the other nominees)
In one of the most mortifying incidents in Grammy history, Milli Vanilli was forced to return their Best New Artist Grammy after it was revealed that the duo hadn’t actually provided the vocals for their debut album, Girl You Know It’s True. With the benefit of hindsight, Indigo Girls are the obvious choice, but literally any of the other nominees would have been a better pick, even Tone Lōc, who at least did his own rapping on hits like “Wild Thing” and “Funky Cold Medina”.
- Hootie & the Blowfish (1995)
WHO SHOULD HAVE WON: Alanis Morissette
Hootie & the Blowfish’s debut album, Cracked Rear View, is inexplicably the 19th-best-selling album in US history, and while their brand of pop-rock is entirely too bland for my taste, I guess I understand their appeal to the general music-listening population. But you know what album sold even more copies than Cracked Rear View in 1995? Jagged Little Pill, the phenomenal debut album by Alanis Morissette that spawned six singles, including the top-ten hits “You Oughta Know” and “Ironic”. Morissette actually won four Grammys for Jagged Little Pill, including Album of the Year, which makes her loss to Hootie & the Blowfish even more inexplicable.
- Paule Cole (1997)
WHO SHOULD HAVE WON: Fiona Apple
There’s nothing inherently wrong with singer-songwriter Paula Cole, known primarily for the top twenty hits “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” and “I Don’t Want to Wait”. It’s just that she isn’t Fiona Apple. Apple is one of those preternatural talents that comes along once in a generation, and her astonishing debut album Tidal was one of the best albums by any artist that year. Classically trained on the piano as a child, Apple began writing her own songs at the age of eight. The songs on Tidal – including “Sleep to Dream” and “Criminal” – were all written by the time she was seventeen. Apple did win a Grammy that night (Best Female Rock Vocal Performance for “Criminal”) but the fact that she went home without the Best New Artist prize is a travesty.
- Evanescence (2003)
WHO SHOULD HAVE WON: Fountains of Wayne
Don’t get me wrong, if “Bring Me to Life” comes on the radio, I’m going to sing along, but Fountains of Wayne, led by Chris Collingwood and the late, great Adam Schlesinger, is one of the greatest power pop bands of the 21 century. Welcome Interstate Managers was actually the band’s third album, but it’s the one that made the Recording Academy take notice. The album contains Fountains of Wayne’s biggest hit, “Stacy’s Mom”, as well as “Mexican Wine”, “Bright Future in Sales”, “Hackensack”, and my personal favorite (for obvious reasons), “Hey Julie”.
- Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (2013)
WHO SHOULD HAVE WON: Kendrick Lamar or Kasey Musgraves
This is the most recent entry, but enough time has passed to safely say that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were a flash in the pan. Kendrick Lamar and Kasey Musgraves have written some of the past decade’s most compelling music in their respective genres (hip-hop and country). Lamar even won the incredibly prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Music, which typically goes to classical compositions, for 2018’s Damn.
AND ONE TIME THE GRAMMYS GOT IT INCONTROVERTIBLY RIGHT:
- The Beatles (1964)
WHO THEY BEAT: Petula Clark, Astrud Gilberto, Antônio Carlos Jobim and Morgana King
Once in a blue moon, the Recording Academy gets it right. This was one of those times.