The Grammys’ Album Of The Year Upset: Who Should Have Won?

Feb 11th, 2008 // 39 Comments

AP080210027142.jpgJudging by the reactions from my living room, my instant-messenger conversations, and the comments section on our Grammy liveblog, people were more than a little surprised when the Album Of The Year winner was announced… and said winner wasn’t Kanye West or Amy Winehouse, but Herbie Hancock, whose Joni Mitchell homage River: The Joni Letters took home the night’s final prize. I actually wasn’t too surprised by Hancock’s victory–to quote myself, “if you didn’t at least think that Herbie Hancock paying tribute to Joni Mitchell would sway at least half the people who voted for Steely Dan over Eminem a few years back you haven’t been paying attention”–but apparently a lot of people were! (Perhaps they forgot that Norah Jones and Corinne Bailey Rae and Tina Turner and Leonard Cohen were also on the album.) So let’s put it to all of you: If you had a vote in the Grammy balloting, what would you have chosen as this Grammy year’s Album Of The Year? Poll after the jump.

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[Photo: AP]


  1. Mordy

    6) Panda Bear.

    (haha. I kid.)

  2. Rob Murphy

    Wilco wuz robbed.

  3. Poubelle

    So that’s what happened after I turned off the TV. Huh.

  4. tigerpop


  5. Cam/ron

    I’m a little happy that Herbie won since it will cause people to be more critical of the Grammys. Anyhow, I learned how to play funk in my high school band when we covered Herbie’s “Chameleon.”

  6. Anonymous

    The funny thing about the Grammy’s is that when “Crash” won at the Oscars, people fucking flipped, because it was only like the thirtieth best movie of the year. Here, everybody is like “What a travesty that the thirtieth best album of the year didn’t win the award against the one-hundred and seventy-sixth”.

  7. Anonymous

    I say Amy or Kanye, simply because they were two artists who had a big year and produced critically acclaimed, popular albums. I don’t know a darn thing about how Vince Gill’s album was received, but I would have been less shocked if he’d won AOTY. Then again, I’m still shocked that Springsteen wasn’t even nominated in this category.

  8. Charles A. Hohman

    @Varina: Gill’s album sold respectably given its price tag, and won fawning reviews from both mainstream and country-focused critics, but got minimal radio/CMT exposure. At four discs of new material, it was ambitious but exhausting, and even I, a Vince Gill fan, have not heard it all the way through yet. I doubt many Grammy voters, who usually automatically check Gill’s name in the country races anyway, played all four discs either, which probably hurt him.

  9. loudersoft

    Herbie Hancock both deserved to win and should have won. Yes, Amy or Kanye would have both been nice, but I am completely fine with Herbie Hancock’s winning Album Of The Year. I can’t see why people are bitching about it. I’ll bet money those people didn’t hear the goddamned thing.

  10. loudersoft

    Also: the Foo Fighters being nominated in this category for that album is an abomination. If there’s anything that should be more upsetting to people who wanted Kanye or Amy to win than anything, it should be that a consideration for Foo Fighters was even extended. That’s the real joke.

  11. remarkie

    I actually thought this year’s Grammycast was less sucky than in many previous years. (Ducks, winces, covers head.) We stuck with it to see Amy and were pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t much, much worse. Of course, it also wasn’t much of an awards show, maybe they should just call it the Royal Grammy Variety Show or something.

  12. Chris Molanphy

    @StuntKockSteeev: I’m actually glad you made this Crash comparison, because — despite your snark — it’s apt.

    Crash is a not-bad but overrated movie that won for all the wrong reasons. I was never bored watching it and even enjoyed some of the performances; a statue or two for it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. But Best Picture was wildly off the mark, as virtually everyone except Roger Ebert now agrees. It made the people voting for it feel good about themselves, and it reflected a certain bias within the Academy for L.A.-centric, paper-thin-liberal themes.

    By the same token, I’m sure River: The Joni Letters is a pleasant, impeccably recorded and performed lite-jazz recording by an undisputed trad-jazz legend. But Album of the Year is wildly out of line, and as with Crash, it reflects nothing so much as (Recording) Academy bias: for a certain kind of elder-friendly, everything-old-is-new-again (but not too new!) studio pop that values instrumental chops over sheer invention.

    Where we disagree is over what The Joni Letters defeated: among the choices were two of the widely-agreed-upon 10 best albums of the year (I needn’t rehash every poll Maura and Jess have been chronicling in these pages for the last two months). Grammy gets it wrong a lot, but as I’ve been saying here, with rare exception, when they go for the square choice you can say they picked something with an impact, however retrograde, on the culture. I fail to see how rewarding a 40,000-selling, Starbucks-backed lark by a guy near a well-deserved retirement does anything to make the Grammys look relevant.

  13. loudersoft

    @Chris Molanphy: Your myopic view of what is or is not “music” is much more clearly illuminated when you have the nerve to call Herbie Hancock “40 years past his prime”. In your equation, perhaps we should already be lubing up Vampire Weekend for next year’s ceremony.

    I’ll agree that the numbers aren’t up to the standard that you’ve set, but Recording Academy members who are VOTING (I emphasize voting because all 20K members of the academy are not voting members) generally are serviced with promotional copies of this material — which would not account for sales.

    These awards are not always based on sales. Bonnie Raitt’s album Nick Of Time had barely sold anything when she won AOTY in 1987, turning a record that was considered dead into an album now considered one of, if not, her finest albums and a financial success.

  14. D Day

    JETHRO TULL!!!!!

  15. loudersoft

    It’s so weird that people are really bent about this.

    In the words of Public Enemy, “Who gives a fuck about a goddamned Grammy?”

  16. Anonymous

    @Thierry: Pat Smear, on the Courtney Love diet, clearly. That or he ate Kurt Cobain (same diet?)

  17. Chris Molanphy

    @loudersoft: Past his prime. I’ll say it again: past his prime. I know it, you know it, and Herbie himself, in his private moments, knows it. PLEASE drop the “I love my old masters! We can all learn from them!” sanctimony.

    (And the Vampire Weekend quip was a cheap shot. I’m offering you data and critique, you’re accusing me of being an indie-snob tool. Even a half-hearted review of my writings here should disabuse you of that notion, pronto.)

    Bonnie Raitt: not remotely in the same category. I would call that one of the most gratifying wins in Grammy history, and I thought so at the time. It rewarded an artist nearing a peak of her creativity (which she reached one album later) who had barely turned 40. She had legitimate radio and VH1 play before winning the award, and the album was nearly gold going into the ceremony. If it was a slightly square record, it was a deserving square record, and it effectively re-launched a pop career that had been backed by a very patient record label for nearly two decades of middling success.

    There’s no planet on which Herbie Hancock’s career as a bop-era jazz innovator and weird-but-cool ’80s MTV curio compares with one of the best Grammy stories of all time. Try again.

  18. Kurt Gottschalk

    #1 Google search at 2:50 am Monday morning:

    “How old is Tina Turner?”


  19. Kurt Gottschalk

    Hey! And #30 is “How old is Cher?”

    “How old is Jerr Lee Lewis” didn’t make the list.

  20. Kurt Gottschalk

    And #30 is “How old is Cher?”

    “How old is Jerry Lee Lewis?” doesn’t show up on the top 100 searches, however.

  21. Kurt Gottschalk

    oops, sorry to repeat myself. it wasn’t showing up. patience is a virtue, but not one of mine.

  22. loudersoft

    Oh I see. So all the work he did in the 1970′s, like Headhunters, an album whose soul-jazz fusion made it one of the most often sampled records in the history of hip-hop (and even resampled on Beck’s The Information most recently), I guess that stuff is just tired secondhand junk to you. As for his ’80s “curio” status, Herbie Hancock’s Futureshock helped to usher in the popularity of hip-hop in the 1980′s, like it or don’t.

    The Bonnie Raitt story you tell is not completely accurate — Bonnie’s struggles with addiction and lackluster sales had not positioned her well. These issues had left her all but uncrecognized by the music industry by 1987. I agree with you: hers was an incredible and fulfilling moment in Grammy history. As for the sales, I think if you will go back and review your data, you will discover historical innacuracies in your numbers as to pre-Grammy sales and radio play.

    The comparison I am drawing between these two wins stems from the lackluster sales of these two artists and their relative lack of prurient interest which, as I recall, was much more dire than the story you are telling. I take nothing away from Bonnie Raitt, and further take nothing away from Herbie Hancock or, for that matter, Joni Mitchell, whose songs inspired the album he created.

    Is it my favorite album? No. Is it my favorite Herbie Hancock album? Far from it. Is it the palpy unlistenable porta-potty that you’re painting it to be? Far from it.

    As for the indie rock snobbery, take it more as an ad hominem attack meant to paint you as someone whose comments here belie what is likely an intuitive and thoughtful history of music review.

  23. loudersoft

    And I wish to correct my timeline: Nick of Time won the Grammy in 1989, not 1987.

  24. Mordy

    After reading everyone’s comments, I’ve gotta ask:
    1) If we assume that the academy didn’t listen to the album, does that mean that they voted for Herbie as the anti-Kanye, anti-Winehouse vote? (Which is reasonable – for all the love those two artists get here, they polarize many music fans. Winehouse is a bad role model, Kanye is arrogant, etc.)
    2) If we assume that the academy got promos and everyone listened to and loved the Herbie album, does that mean that the album is really amazing and just underlistened to? Did everyone on this thread dig up the album to see if the win was worth it? (Ok. I actually did. And I was bored to death. But I am but one man!)
    3) I suppose it’s possible they felt good about themselves voting for Herbie (since it makes them seem more jazzy and sophisticated than voting for a pop album). So let’s call this a corollary to (1). It’s the Rockist theory.
    4) There’s a conspiracy and though Amy walked away with the win, they changed the winner in the envelope. Or some variation on this. (The announcer decided to be edgy and announced Herbie and now the Academy is gonna cover up the embarrassment by embracing the announcer’s mistake. Etc. Etc. Etc.)

    Any other theories?

  25. Anonymous

    I love herbie but its still a big f###in snub to actual achievements in music. Every year when i hear the nominees i get excite and watch the show thinking that the grammy folks might get it right but they never do. It should be called the Lifetime achievement award for album of the year because they never give it to the right person. Please don’t tell me that Herbie’s record is album of the year worthy because its not. i heard it, It’s goood but not great.Damn his headhunter albums are more worthy than this album. It’s sad that the Grammys miss another opportunity to award the album of the year to best recording of the year not a body of work. Back in Black is probably the best Lp i’ve heard in years.Damn they could have given to a safer picks like “Graduation or “These Days”. Oh no, they decide to give us the viewers another Steely Dan U2 moment.Screw it, everyone knows who should have won and thats good enough for me. Can’t wait til 2028 when they give Kanye West album of the year for “College Dropout Duets part.2″

  26. Chris Molanphy

    @loudersoft: How does his excellent work on the Headhunters projects in the ’70s make him not past his prime now? Just wondering.

    Re: Raitt–from the RIAA’s own website.

    Certification Date
    Award Description

    Certification Date
    Award Description

    For the record, Raitt won on the Grammys for 1989, taking place in February of 1990 (maybe early March; they held the ceremony a week or two later back then).

    We don’t have Soundscan numbers for anything pre-1991. But even assuming the usual RIAA certification inflation (shipments, not records sold), going gold by July of ’89 — months before the Recording Academy had either announced nominees, much less given her the win — shows a record selling on its own, modestly but solidly. And the platinum cert. immediately after the ceremony shows that first gold shipment had clearly sold through (otherwise it would’ve reached platinum by, like, April; instead, the record was double-platinum by May).

    Again, simply put: Raitt ’89 and Hancock ’07, not comparable. For Raitt, situation was not “dire,” to use your word. Good sales before the ceremony, stellar afterward. Hancock album: a speck on the windshield of culture before the ceremony, now the Crash of the Grammys.

    More to the point: You are absolutely entitled to your opinion about the Hancock record, but you’ve said nothing to convince me this was a remotely pure win on the merits of a little-heard, near-irrelevant-to-the-culture record.

  27. Christian John

    I think people who are so adamantly against Herbie Hancock need to actually LISTEN to the album before attacking it. As for generational bias, I’m 28 years old and I voted for “River” as Album of the Year. There are a lot preconceived notions about this album being Starbucks-lite and not edgy enough. So what if it’s sold at Starbucks? Give Herbie and Verve a break as they try to sell some records since Herbie obvioulsy doesn’t have the same cache as Kanye or Amy, who both made as many headlines as they did selling records this year. Just because your favorite didn’t win doesn’t mean the winner was any less deserving. Mastery of a musical form often doesn’t equal popular. “Album of the Year” is not qualified by “(Most Popular) Album of the Year”. Watch the AMA’s for that. I’m all for Herbie’s win, for the very reason that there is a healthy musical life outside the blogosphere and the Billboard 200. By the way, it wasn’t just Herbie involved in “River” but Wayne Shorter, Larry Klein, Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen, and, of course, Joni Mitchell herself. Not such a bad supporting cast. Sure they may all be over 60 but why does that preclude them from relevancy? None of them are past their prime and to see that as such is short-sighted. True artists grow and challenge themselves…something that Joni Mitchell was crucified for back in the late ’70s. I’d hope that true fans of music would be a little more open-minded to embrace something that, while it didn’t sell hundreds of thousand of units, certainly pays tribute to the genius of one man’s interpretation of an artist who is not so easily boxed in.

  28. Thierry

    @Mordy: It’s the Rockist theory.

    I call it the “Rock It” theory.

  29. Rob Murphy

    @Mordy: Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that in most categories, only certain NARAS members vote, based on, for lack of a better description, their musical field. So for example, only someone who works in gospel can vote in the gospel categories. Anyway, there are a handful of categories that are open to all voters, and “The Big Four” comprise four of them (maybe even all of them).

    This is what makes no freakin’ sense to me today, and I’ve already alluded to this here — how could Amy win — and we don’t know how close the vote was of course — ROTY, SOTY and BNA, and “Best Pop Vocal Album”, “Best Female Pop Vocal Performance” (for “Rehab” again), and help Mark Ronson win for “Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical”, and not win AOTY, which is an award for the performer and the producer???

    (I don’t work for Grammy or anyone else that affords me access to secret vote totals and such, BTW.)

    Since we won’t get the totals for the votes, we can only make educated guesses, but the “winner” obviously must receive >20% of the votes. Since it’s unlikely that every album gets close to 20% of the vote, I suspect that the winner typically receives somewhere between 30-35% of the vote.


    There are really 30% of the 18,000-esque NARAS members who voted to give that award to Herbie Hancock? Even though some of them (maybe) had already voted to give Amy all those other awards?


    I just don’t get it.

    I’ve read today the theory that the voters wanted to slap two artists who are highly polarizing, but that still makes no sense considering the fact that they already had voted to give 9 Grammys to the two artists (and 1 more for Ronson). And it still means that 25-30% minimum, of the voters had to vote for Hancock.

  30. Chris Molanphy

    @DHMBIB: THANK you!

  31. loudersoft

    @Chris Molanphy: You’re certainly entitled to your opinion about Herbie Hancock’s music, his abilities, his legacy of contributions to popular music and his relevance in popular culture, however misguided it may be.

    It doesn’t seem that Herbie Hancock is really the subject anymore, it’s that someone you wanted to win did not and you’re upset.

    If your real contention with this award is that the Grammies should be awards for trends in popular culture, that’s a different argument than Mr. Hancock’s relevance to music in 2008. There’s obviously plenty more people, including voting members of the Recording Academy, who disagree with you.

    I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that the Recording Academy’s purpose is not simply to encourage and reward up-and-coming artists, it is to preserve the heritage of music, a heritage to which Herbie Hancock definitely belongs.

    I’m not going to ask you to like him, his album, or even to respect the work he’s done. It’s clear that you won’t. He still won this award.

  32. loudersoft

    @DHMBIB: That’s an interesting conspiracy theory about giving Kanye and Amy the smackdown. If true, it wouldn’t be the first time. Didn’t Paul Simon win for the same album two years in a row back in the ’80s?

  33. rad_matter

    @tigerpop: He also sucker-punched a lot of artists before he put the gasoline down.

  34. Chris Molanphy

    @loudersoft: It doesn’t seem that Herbie Hancock is really the subject anymore, it’s that someone you wanted to win did not and you’re upset.

    Close: the one album that should not, by any objective measure, have won, did win, and I am upset.

    And if you think the sole mission of the Grammys is to do something as retrograde as “preserve the heritage of music,” then there’s no argument I can make to you that will convince you. I mean, on that score, you win: “heritage” = Herbie Hancock FTW. Let’s just seal the whole thing up in a coffin, while we’re at it.

  35. loudersoft

    @Dennis O’Bell: Well answer me this, then –

    Are you going to demand a recount? As incensed as you are, right now it merely looks (to the untrained eye) as if you and I uselessly quibbling about the minutiae of people’s relevance to music in the comments section of Idolator, meaning nothing productive will ever come from it. We can disagree about what is or is not good music — that’s healthy.

    However, I think you should petition the Recording Academy to recount the ballots if it upsets you this much.

    You just might be right — maybe he didn’t actually win. Every argument you’ve presented here leads me to believe that you’re convinced of the sheer conspiratorial impossibility of Herbie Hancock having won the award, so you should really do something about it.

    I can’t take the Grammy back from him, maybe you can.

  36. Chris Molanphy

    @loudersoft: First off, you think too much of me if you think I have the wherewithal to get anyone to recount anything.

    But in any case, what good with that do? I’m not offering conspiracy theories here (DHMBIB is, kinda, and good for him), I’m offering judgment.

    I truly don’t doubt that Hancock won a plurality of votes; I only doubt that a bunch of lazy Grammy voters listened to his album and judged it fairly on the merits vs. his competition. I think a box was checked by people too entrenched in bad habits to fairly consider the merits of Kanye, or Amy, or…hell, Vince Gill (if that had won last night, then you’d be talking about an album I don’t love or care about that I’d respect, thanks to the obvious passion it inspired).

    The Grammys are always sentimental, which accounts for a lot of the cynical reaction you see from people the morning after, every year. I am angrier than usual this year, because last night’s win by Hancock is egregiously sentimental even by the Recording Academy’s standards. It’s made some pretty big, often well-intentioned mistakes in its 50-year existence; this one, given the field of competitors, is worse than usual and should be regarded as an embarrassment — not a blow for the “little guy.”

    I don’t ask the Grammys to match my taste (good lord! how much would have to change for that to happen!) — I ask it, in its blinkered field of influence, to make some goddamn sense: reward something I might not like that clearly moved the Zeitgeist or affected the culture. Give it to bloody Celine Dion, fer cryin’ out loud, if that record moved people (Falling Into You, AOTY, 1996). But don’t give it to a record that’s a latte souvenir just because the guy on the cover is a legend and a swell guy.

  37. stephenbush

    Vince Gill should have won Album of the Year, based solely on his hilarious comment to Kanye West whilst accepting a previous award.

  38. blobby

    I believe it was the Guardian who already pointed out, musicians stop making good music as soon as they hit 30. Herbie Hancock is waaaaaay past 30. Therefore, his album sucked.

    In all seriousness, why the fuck didn’t Kanye either win or kill someone after losing?

  39. loudersoft

    @Dennis O’Bell: In line with what you’ve said about Grammy voters being lazy, I actually have a very believable conspiracy theory which I talked to Maura about online this morning.

    What if it’s not even the voting members themselves filling out these ballots? If working voting members are too busy to return phone calls or answer emails (for example), maybe they’re too busy to fill out these ballots. If so, what’s to stop an intern at their management company, their mom, their assistant, or anyone else from checking those boxes?

    I have good reason to believe that some percentage of the membership doesn’t fill it out themselves due to obligations and time constraints. And, as you said, if they do, they probably do it “by rote”.

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