There are ample reasons to be dubious about the wisdom behind Grammy nominations. A perennial point of frustration for music nerds, the Grammy Awards have always felt (even if they may not be, in real true life) slavishly devoted to rewarding money-making hit-machines or past-their-prime legends over, well, art.
But, then again, what the heck is “art”? And why should music nerds get to decide, anyway? Why is one man's Foo Fighters (winners of Best Rock Album four times since 2000) worth less (or, apparently, more) than my beloved Hold Steady who remain un-Grammyed?
Perhaps it's all a bit of a farce, a bit of a crapshoot, a bit of a popularity contest. But there can be no doubting the power of the Grammy nod, the way it boosts careers, the way it sometimes pulls relative unknowns into the spotlight. Over the decades many erstwhile under-heard musicians – especially through the category of Best New Artist – have translated a Grammy nomination into steady employment.
This is, usually, a good thing. And, going by this year's tight list of nominees (James Blake, Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Kacey Musgraves, and Ed Sheeran), the Grammy voters have got a pretty good grasp of the rising stars of the moment. (Even if Lorde is apparently still too new to be nominated for best new artist.)
But, surely, the Grammys must have backed the wrong horse a few times over the past 50+ years? Picked a band or a new artist of some kind that looked promising but was only to flame out, to fail commercially, or, let’s just face it, who just kind of sucked?
Well, here’s our list of ten Best New Artist also-rans, a little reminder that even a Grammy nomination isn't always enough to launch a career.
13. The Brothers Four (Nominated 1961)
A sweet harmonizing folk act in the Kingston Trio vein, The Brothers Four ultimately lost out to comic Bob Newhart. As "of their time" as crew cuts and segregation, their brand of middle class "folk" music was dealt a death blow a few short year later as Bob Dylan and the 1960s pushed such suddenly anachronistic acts off the charts. According to their Wikipedia page, they managed to keep "performing and making records, doing particularly well in Japan and on the American hotel circuit." So, good for them, I guess.
12. The J's With Jamie (Nominated 1964)
This is a head-scratcher. Despite the fact that you've never heard of them, the J's With Jamie made music that just about every American heard throughout the 1960s. Not because they had any hits, exactly, but rather that this quartet rose to Grammy attention by singing the jingles for commercials. A lot of commercials, it turns out. As far as I can tell, they never had much of a non-commercial-jingle-making career. But, they sure did sing on behalf of Mr. Clean and his ilk. So, um: weird choice, Grammys? "Get the feel-better feeling that Alka Seltzer gives!" Now, everybody!
11. Harpers Bizarre (Nominated 1968)
Famous for, like, fifteen minutes for their popular 1967 cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)," this proto-Easy Listening pop band was already a memory a year after being nominated. Although they had some heavy duty talent working with them – Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks all had a hand in their arrangements – their music never rose much above lighthearted fluff. In 1976, they made a halfhearted attempt at a comeback, but it was not to be. A swing and a miss for the Grammys here.
10. The Neon Philharmonic (Nominated 1970)
This psychedelic-lite pop outfit released two records in 1969 and promptly broke up. Nonetheless, the Grammys saw fit to nominate them in 1970, largely on the strength of their modest hit "Morning Girl." Maybe the Grammy voters thought that if they threw them a nomination for Best New Artist the good ol' Neon P's would get back together? Oh, if wishing made it so.
9. Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band (Nominated 1977)
Ah, disco. The brief moment when the supreme awkwardness of a name like Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band was actually kind of hip – so long as you could back it up with danceable tunes. And, for the most part, DBOSB could. A hot dance band at the height of the hot dance era, they had a number one smash with "Cherchez La Femme" in 1976 and were nominated for Best New Artist the following year. But the band never hit the top of the charts again (despite some great stuff like "Sunshower" which would become a popular hip hop sample, most famously used by M.I.A. in her controversial hit "<a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9cA3b-PbPE0" target="_blank">Sunshowers</a>" ) and by the early 80s they were falling apart. A few members came together for one final record in 1984 (for which they dropped the word "Original" from their name in an endearingly honest gesture), but that was it.
8. Starland Vocal Band (Won, 1977)
There was pretty legitimate evidence that this light-pop outfit might have a career in them, given that they had the song of the year in 1976 with "Afternoon Delight," they had co-written "(Take Me Home) Country Roads" with John Denver, and they’d just been tapped to host their own variety show on CBS. But, though that TV show would feature a young writer named David Letterman, no one watched. Worse, their records stopped selling and their songs stopped charting. Why? Call it bad luck, call it a flame-out, call it who knows. But by 1981 they had broken up, and it wasn't long before they were forgotten (although their ultra-1970s ode to sex in the midday sun remains a perennial punchline and Ron Burgundy's favourite song).
7. A Taste of Honey (Won, 1979)
This middling disco act had a chart-topping ass-shaker with "Boogie Oogie Oogie" in 1978 and somehow convinced the Grammys that this was evidence of their bestness. Within a year the quartet was down to two members and a few unsuccessful years later (interrupted by a hit cover of the novelty song "Sukiyaki") the Taste broke up and faded away. But the fact that this merely OK band won the prize is only the tip of the WTF iceberg when it comes to 1979's Best New Artist category. You know who they beat? Chris Rea, Toto, The Cars and…. Elvis Costello. Way to go, Nostradumbasses.
6. Robbie Dupree (Nominated 1981)
Continuing the dubious trend of nominating an act for Best New Artist on the strength of one mega-hit single (but not much else), the Grammys got behind overheated lounge act Robbie Dupree after his "Steal Away" shot up the charts. Notable mostly because its synthesizer theme anticipates (OK, was ripped off by) Jackson Browne's excellent 1982 make-out anthem "Somebody's Baby," this otherwise forgettable ditty was the first of three consecutive hits for Dupree in 1980-81. But then: no hits. Fun fact: Dupree's song "Girls in Cars" was picked up as the theme music for the World Wrestling Federation tag team Strike Force (Tito Santana and Rick Martel) in 1987.
5. Amy Holland (Nominated 1981)
But Robbie Dupree wasn’t the only ball-drop among the 1981 Best New Artist Nominees. Perhaps the weirdest entry on this list, Amy Holland had a minor hit with “How Do I Survive” in 1980 before essentially flying under the radar with her unsuccessful debut record. However, she was working with her soon-to-be-husband (and Doobie Brother) Michael McDonald, so maybe there was a touch of the ol’ “famous friends syndrome” here when it came to voting time? Who knows. Holland would release one more record (in 1983) and sing on several film soundtracks over the following decade (Teen Wolf!) before taking a long hiatus following a breast cancer diagnosis in the mid-1990s. She released a third record in 2008 to little acclaim.
4. Musical Youth (Nominated 1984)
These guys almost made it. A reggae group from Birmingham, England comprised of two sets of teenage brothers and their schoolmate, Musical Youth had a worldwide ultra-smash hit with "Pass the Dutchie," a cover of the Mighty Diamonds vastly superior "Pass the Kutchie" in 1982. While the original song was pretty clearly about smoking pot ('kutchie" being slang for a pipe), the Musical Youth version slyly replaced that word with dutchie, slang for a cooking pot. Pot, get it? Most people did. The song was a huge hit with stoners and, to this day, remains a crowd-pleaser. Musical Youth stuck it out through '83 and 1984, but fell apart thereafter, descending into legal and financial troubles. Disbanding in 1985, they reformed as a duo in the early 2000s. This new line-up has not exactly been an earth-shaker, success-wise.
3. Nu Shooz (Nominated 1987)
Several years into their career, the verrrrrry 1980s dance-pop group Nu Shooz managed to score a nomination for Best New Artist. Largely on the back of their inescapable club-friendly hits "I Can't Wait" and "Point of No Return," Nu Shooz's 1986 record Poolside was a substantial success, going Gold in the US. But, the same old story reared its head yet again: when their follow-up album failed to find an audience, the band fell apart. They tried one last time, dropping a single in 1992, but it didn't even chart. Word is they have got back together in the past half-decade or so. New Nu Shooz, anyone?
2. Milli Vanilli (Won, 1990)
Technically, this never happened. After this mega-selling act was revealed to be a rather elaborate hoax, the Grammys took back their awards (including the Best New Artist statue) and we were all asked to please forget this bizarre event even took place. But we do, and we're still kind of flummoxed by the audacity of the people behind this fake dance-pop outfit that stole our hearts with"“Girl You Know It's True” and "Baby Don't Forget My Number" and "Blame it on the Rain" and "Girl I'm Gonna Miss You" before we discovered that they were just sort of trolling us. So, I dunno. If I were the Grammys, I might have given them the award, too. Still a fail (given the eventual outcome) but a heart-in-right-place fail.
1. The Tony Rich Project (Nominated 1997)
Tony Rich really should be huge today. A talented writer of soul and R&B for the likes of Boyz II Men and TLC, Rich released the widely-praised and massively successful single “Nobody Knows” in 1996 and followed it up with a classy and influential record, Words. But, when his sophomore album failed to garner much attention, Rich dropped out of the scene for five years. When he returned, he had switched up his sound to include more rock influences, and audiences were mostly unmoved. He has dropped two records since (and a new one is apparently coming soon), but has had trouble finding the formula that once netted him so much attention. So, basically, “Nobody Knows” exactly what happened here.