In the rock world, the precise opposite is the case. To cite one crude measure, the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop critics poll rarely coincides with the Grammy for album of the year, and in the vast majority of cases, the Grammy winner is barely mentioned. In other words, the Grammy designation of what a great record is has little to do with what an actual critic would say. But that's the membership's right, of course. So let's look at its track record.
Artists like the Rolling Stones, the Who, Elvis Costello, Prince, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, the Clash, the Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, and Sly Stone never won a major award during their formative recording periods, and most weren't even nominated for one. (It should be noted that for a time in the mid-1970s, the awards opened a bit with acts like Elton John, the Eagles, and Paul McCartney garnering nominations. The Stones even got an 1978 album-of-the-year nomination for Some Girls.)
A few, like Steely Dan or Bob Dylan, were given awards late in their careers. And once in a while, when newfangled sounds are coming up, the organization covers its ass by sticking things like Nevermind in a "best alternative album" category. What Grammy likes best is a PR angle. Any hackneyed all-star collection—Santana's guest-heavy Supernatural, Quincy Jones utterly forgettable Back on the Block, Ray Charles' Genius Loves Company—is practically guaranteed an album-of-the-year trophy. Just two years ago, Herbie Hancock—once a vibrant artist—won record of the year for a quickly forgotten collection of Joni Mitchell covers with a raft of guest stars.
Last year, of course, Taylor Swift, the speedboat-eyed, insubstantial country artist, was alleged to have recorded the album of the year. That's reminiscent of the best-new-artist category, in which Grammy invariably awards comely and pliant young female artists—19 in the last 30 years. (It helps if you have just one name, as recent nominees Ciara, Feist, Duffy, Adele, and Ledisi will testify.) Recently, this tendency has gotten worse: In 2008, four female artists were nominated, along with Paramore, a punk-lite outfit headed by a female lead singer. (Amy Winehouse, definitely not pliant, was again a major exception.) And, historically, of course, the best-new-artist awardees is strewn with novelty acts, industry roadkill, and mediocrities: The Starland Vocal Band and A Taste of Honey, Arrested Development and Shelby Lynne, Evanescence and Hootie & the Blowfish.
One thing NARAS has never been able to do is keep a lid on the number of categories. Right now there are about 110. This allows the members of more than 1,000 acts per decade to go around saying they're a Grammy-winning artist—and five times as many, or 10,000-plus people, to brag they were nominated.
This seems a bit much.
It is probably hugely unfair to the artists involved to say this, but do we need a "Hard Rock Performance" category and a "Metal Performance"? Are there really five great New Age, Hawaiian, or Native American albums a year? And then how about the bloat in the religious category (which, by the way, includes both white and black music): gospel performance; gospel song; rock or rap gospel album; pop/contemporary gospel album; Southern, country, or bluegrass gospel album; traditional gospel album; or contemporary R&B gospel album.
NARAS finally jettisoned the polka category a couple of years ago; there were less than two dozen qualifying albums, making the nomination chances for any guy armed with an accordion and a recording contract about one in four.
And the process for determining eligibility is bizarre as well. Dylan won a folk Grammy for World Gone Wrong, back in the 1990s. It was a collection of acoustic folk and blues songs, and the award seemed appropriate. Since then, his last three normal (by his standards) rock albums were nominated—and won—in the category of contemporary folk. This is unfair to actual practitioners of the genre, who will never win over such a big name in the category, which he doesn't belong in.
Finally, the Grammys have always had the most wrong of eligibility periods. Traditionally, the period ended at the end of September. This created a big disconnect, particularly since a lot of important albums generally get released to coincide with the Christmas season. It also allowed the record companies to game the system, releasing an album or advance single just before the eligibility period ended to qualify for one year and then going for a second round of awards the following year.
That's why when you look at this year's record of the year nominations you see 18-month-old songs like Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind." Folks have complained about the eligibility period for decades. Recently, the recording academy did something about it. In 2009, it pushed the eligibility period back another month, to Aug. 31. A year later, it reversed the decision, and now we're back to the Sept. 30 cutoff date. It could have pushed the period up to Dec. 1, catching most of the Christmas releases in that year's nominations and adding just a little bit of sanity and sense to the group's undertaking. But at the recording academy—where nominations aren't nominations, Bob Dylan is still a folk artist, and a cute young thing from Nashville is the artist of the year—moving ahead invariably puts you right back where you were before.