Three Decades of "Best Alternative Music Album" - How has this Grammy category evolved?

Updated: Nov 27, 2020

The Grammys are making headlines for their nominated artists - How does Alternative fit into this conversation?


Summary:

  • 1991: Best Alternative Music Performance, Non-mainstream Rock albums "heavily played on college radio stations"

  • 1992 - 1993: Best Alternative Album, Focused on Non-mainstream Rock, but branching out

  • 1994 - 1999: Return of Best Alternative Music Performance

  • 2000s: Best Alternative Music Album, 2.0.

  • 2010s: Best Alternative Music Album, Rewriting History

  • 2020 - Present: What comes next?

A picture of the trophy winners take home. P.C.: The Recording Academy

The Grammy Awards first introduced the category that we now know as the Best Alternative Music Album in 1991, presenting awards for alternative songs that dominated the previous year, 1990. Alternative Music had a rocky beginning when it came to being incorporated into the famous music awards show, mainly due to conflict amongst members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences' over the ceremony's official definition of Alternative Music. In fact, the Grammys defined the category in its first year to "recognize non-mainstream rock albums heavily played on college radio stations'."


From Wikipedia:

Over the years, the category has evolved in its description, definition, premise, its pool of nominees, and even in its official title. As of 2019, Radiohead, The White Stripes, and Beck share the record for the most wins in this category, having won three times each. Two female solo artists have won the award, Sinéad O'Connor and St. Vincent; Two bands with female members, The White Stripes and Alabama Shakes, have also won the award. With eight nominations to date, Radiohead and Björk hold the record for the most nominations in this category; Radiohead singer Thom Yorke was nominated for the 2007 and 2020 awards for his solo albums, making him the most nominated person in this category with 10 total nominations. Björk holds the record for the most nominations for a solo artist, as well as the record for the most nominations without a win. Vampire Weekend and Coldplay have each received the award twice, and Coldplay are the only group to win two years consecutively. American artists have been presented with the award more than any other nationality, though it has been presented to musicians or groups from the United Kingdom five times, from Ireland twice, and from France and Australia once each.

Today, we are going to celebrate the category's upcoming 30th anniversary of being presented for artists from the year prior by looking back at its timeline and evolution.


1991: Best Alternative Music Performance, Non-mainstream Rock albums "heavily played on college radio stations"


It might be hard to believe when we listen to today's biggest Alternative Artists, but in its first year, "Alternative Music" and "Non-mainstream Rock Music" were considered to be synonyms. The aspect of this year's ceremony that I found to be the most interesting hear was the influence of college radio, and more prominently, the musical taste of young people, on who is nominated for the category. That aspect of "People's Choice" is something that the Grammys are criticized for lacking much of today across several categories. In my opinion, this speaks to the evolution of the viewer's influence.


In looking into the nominees and eventual winner of the category for this year, one can easily mark their radio presence; from WVBR-FM to KALX, you couldn't turn to any radio channel without hearing the nominees. This group of nominees shared a racial identity, which may definitely play into today's arguments about the lack of racially-diverse representation amongst the artists that are nominated. I do also think that it's important to note though, that in a rare moment for music, the majority of nominees were women or female-identifying. Additionally, in a rarer occurrence for this American-dominated award show, many of the nominees, and the eventual winner, were not from the USA.


In the end, the category's first-ever Grammy went to Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O'Connor for her second album, entitled I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got. O'Connor has long since been active in the music industry, and outspoken about the inequalities that women in music face, going as far as to pen an open letter to Miley Cyrus in 2013. To this day, she is the first of 2 solo female artists to ever take home a win for the category, the other win coming 14 years later, although this could change in 2021.


1992-1993: Best Alternative Album, Focused on Non-mainstream Rock, but branching out


For the next two years, the category shifted away from the college radio and performance aspects, focusing instead on the album's production, outreach, and sales. In 1992, a band, R.E.M., won the category for the first time. It's interesting to note that R.E.M. also won the GRAMMY for Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal (“Losing My Religion”) that year, totaling 3 Grammy wins that year. R.E.M. notably used their platform to encourage viewers who had the right to vote in the 1992 U.S. Elections, which would eventually bring about the election of Bill Clinton, to exercise that right. In the impassioned speech, the band declared that:

“We need candidates who will really address important issues — homelessness, AIDS research, economic depression and national healthcare.” He said this while wearing a hat with the words “White House Stop AIDS.”

This statement highlighted disparities in Socio-Economic Status and Ability status by means that the music industry rarely considered. This moment has since been remembered as a crowning moment of early political activism in the media.


Although some may say that the band's more popular category wins outshined the award they took home for the alternative genre, others argue that R.E.M.'s wins and speeches to follow solidified the category's status as a serious annual award.


Tom Walts' win in 1993 also proved to help shift the category's definition away from solely being focused on non-mainstream rock, as the previous year's winner had some pop roots, and Walts' himself focused on his roots in Jazz music career all throughout the 1970s, with his later releases maintaining some of that jazz influence.


1994 - 1999: Return of Best Alternative Music Performance


Starting from 1994, and continuing up until 1999, The Grammys reverted the Alternative category's description and title back to it's 1991 roots of non-mainstream Rock. With this throwback era came many notable Grammy history-making moments that are not always connected back to the Best Alternative Music Performance by the general public, despite having a major role in these moments.


1994: U2's Bono drops the F-Bomb during the band's acceptance speech for Best Alternative Music Performance and presents Frank Sinatra's award

Unlike many other moments, this is one of the categories most notable moments of the 1990s---actually this was one of the prestigious award ceremony's most notable moments. U2 won the alternative category for their 8th studio album Zooropa, and so as one would imagine, the word was used in a rather excited context. The official Grammy's summary for that year's ceremony speculates that the cause of such a reaction might have been, in part, due to the fact that the band beat out the legendary rock back Nirvana, as well as 1992 winner R.E.M., for the win. Other major outlets have attributed outburst to having a lot to drink. Regardless of the exact reasoning, Bono famously declared in the speech that "I think I’d like to give a message to the young people of America — and that is we shall continue to abuse our position and f*** up the mainstream. God bless you."


This moment was one that first introduced alternative to the public as somewhat of an antagonist or foil to the mainstream. The spotlight on U2, and by extension, on the Alternative category, continued later on in the show when Bono presented Frank Sinatra with the Grammy Legend award. Bono was praised for his poetic tribute to Sinatra, in which he notes Sinatra's dislike of the 90s rock scene, but emphasizes his impact on that very scene and his status as a Music icon across pop and all other genres. This opening preceded the other major controversial moment of the night: Sinatra's acceptance speech. These two moments,for better or for worse, put U2, and ultimately the Best Alternative Music Performance category, on the map.



1995: Soon-to-be Grammy-winning veterans Green Day win their first Grammy in the Best Alternative Music Performance category

This year, and this category, saw the rise of Green Day as Grammy-winning artists for their breakthrough album Dookie. Green Day would later become one of the most famous alt-rock banks in America. Here is a video of their performance at the ceremony, from MTV:


1997 & 1998: Beck and Radiohead win their first Grammy's for the Best Alternative Music Performance category

These two years are very significant for the category (1997 marking Beck's win for Odelay, and 1998 being the year of Radiohead's win for OK Computer), as these years would mark the first wins for the artists that would later become two of the recordholders for the most wins in this category, having won three times each in total.


2000s: Best Alternative Music Album, 2.0.


The new millennium saw this Grammy category undergo yet another definition and name change. While the definition of alternative would see a few more changes before the current version, the name change to Best Alternative Music Album has seemed to be more of a permanent change, having stuck over the past 2 decades. Additionally, more categories with the designation of "Alternative Music" came to be, such as Best Urban/Alternative Performance, Best Latin Rock/Alternative Performance, and more. This did prove to be another eventful decade with Alternative nominees creating some history-making moments.


2004: Best Alternative Music Album winner White Stripes delivers one of the most critically acclaimed live performances of the decade

One of the most talked about performances of the year came from Best Alternative Music Album winner White Stripes, who stole the show with a live rendition of “Seven Nation Army” from the winning album Elephant.


2009: The Return of Radiohead

Introduced by Gywneth Paltrow, Radiohead made a triumphant return to U.S. television screens after a decade, where they gave a captativing live performance of their hit "15 Step," a popular song whose album would then take home the win for the Best Alternative Music Album category that year.


2010s: Best Alternative Music Album, Rewriting History


One of the biggest changes to occur for this category in this decade is the Grammy's new, most current definition of Alternative music. In 2019, the Grammy's organization released the following press statement:

Alternative is defined as a genre of music that embraces attributes of progression and innovation in both the music and attitudes associated with it. It is often a less intense version of rock or a more intense version of pop and is typically regarded as more original, eclectic, or musically challenging. It may embrace a variety of subgenres or any hybrids thereof and may include recordings that don't fit into other genre categories.

This was a major change because it formally recognizes the genre as far reaching and ever-changing, and it especially embraces non-rock based alternative music, which is a major departure from the 1990s when the category was specifically created to recognize non-mainstream rock.


This decade would also see a history-making win for this category for the first time since the category was premiered in the 1990s. One of the most notable events to happen this decade in this category was the win of American singer-songwriter St. Vincent for her self-entitled album, This was the singer's 4th studio album, and the 2nd time in the category's history that a solo female artist took home the Grammy. This win did not receive the media coverage that the accomplished deserved to look back on, in many respects. Luckily, this was the only the first of a couple of Grammy wins for the artist.


2020 - Present: What comes next?


With Vampire Weekend's Father of the Bride taking home the last win of the 2010s during the first Grammy's show of the decade, and given the current pandemic, there is a lot of uncertainty about the future as a whole, let alone the future of this category. Will Beck break the tie for most wins in the category? Will we see the 3rd ever female solo artist win for the category this year? Will we see more non-U.S. nominees in the running? Perhaps more people of color in the main alternative category for once?


The nominees for this category for the upcoming awards ceremony are (from Wikipedia):


Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fetch the Bolt Cutters is the American singer-songwriter's fifth studio album. It was released on April 17, 2020. This was Apple's first release since The Idler Wheel... in 2012. The album was recorded from 2015 to 2020, largely at Apple's home in Venice Beach. It was produced and performed by Apple alongside Amy Aileen Wood, Sebastian Steinberg and Davíd Garza; recording consisted of long, often-improvised takes with unconventional percussive sounds. GarageBand was used for much of this recording, and Apple credited the album's unedited vocals and long takes to her lack of expertise with the program.


The album explores freedom from oppression; Apple identified its core message as: "Fetch the fucking bolt cutters and get yourself out of the situation you're in". The title, a quote from TV series The Fall, reflects this idea. The album also discusses Apple's complex relationships with other women and other personal experiences, including bullying and sexual assault. It has nevertheless been referred to as Apple's most humorous album.


Fetch the Bolt Cutters was released during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many critics found its exploration of confinement timely. It received significant critical acclaim and was described as an instant classic and Apple's best work to date.


Beck, Hyperspace

Hyperspace is the fourteenth studio album by American musician Beck. It was released through Capitol Records on November 22, 2019. The album was primarily produced by Beck and Pharrell Williams, as well as Cole M.G.N., Greg Kurstin, and Paul Epworth.


Hyperspace received mostly positive reviews from music critics. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the album has an average score of 77 based on 19 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews". vVariety writer A. D. Amorosi wrote that "Beck and Pharrell Williams find new life in minimalist, cosmopolitan synth-pop" on the album, surmising that "the hard-to-hold hooks and spaciousness of 'Hyperspace' are what makes it so intriguing".


Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher

Punisher is the second studio album by American singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, released on June 18, 2020, by Dead Oceans. Bridgers first established herself with her 2017 debut, Stranger in the Alps, a widely acclaimed emo-folk effort. In the years preceding her second album, the California native formed the bands boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center, respectively. On Punisher, Bridgers' songwriting is somber and sardonic; deeply personal in nature, it explores topics like dissociation and fragmenting relationships.

Punisher was recorded over a year and a half at Sound City Studios in Los Angeles and reunited Bridgers with producers Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska, who also engineered Alps. Its recording process was collaborative with its liner notes crediting over two dozen prominent musicians, including Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, Christian Lee Hutson, Jim Keltner, Blake Mills, and Conor Oberst. Punisher was preceded by the singles "Garden Song", "Kyoto", and "ICU". Upon its release, Punisher attracted acclaim from music critics, who celebrated its open lyricism.


Brittany Howard, Jaime

Jaime is the debut solo studio album from Brittany Howard, released on September 20, 2019 via ATO Records. It has received acclaim from critics and has been nominated for several awards; it was a moderate sales success, appearing on several charts. The album is a mix of several musical styles that reflects intimate events and perspectives in Howard's life, which she supported with her first solo tour.


Tame Impala, The Slow Rush

The Slow Rush is the fourth studio album by Australian music group Tame Impala, released on 14 February 2020. Longtime listeners of Ithaca's Alternative during the weekdays know that Tame Impala is no stranger to our airwaves. It follows the 2015 album Currents and the 2019 singles "Patience" and "Borderline", with the latter serving as the first single from the album. Rooted in psychedelicdisco music, the album was positively received by critics and reached the top 10 on many record charts around the world, debuting atop the charts in three countries and as well as on the US Alternative and Rock charts. The album has already won in 5 categories at the ARIA Music Awards of 2020, and Track No. 8 "Lost in Yesterday" received a Grammy nomination in its own right for Best Rock Song.

Who will take the Grammy home this year? There is no way to be sure about what the future holds for alternative. But one thing's for sure --- Ithaca's Alternative will be watching, so that we can bring you the latest hits that you Itha-can't get anywhere else.

Sources:


“Winners & Nominees.” GRAMMY.com, The Recording Academy, www.grammy.com/grammys/awards/winners-nominees/95.


"Past Winners Search: Alternative". National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Retrieved June 16, 2011.


"Grammy Awards: Best Alternative Music Performance". Rock on the Net. Retrieved April 27, 2010.


LOS ANGELES TIMES STAFF. “Grammys History and Winners through the Years.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, timelines.latimes.com/grammy-awards/.


Archives: https://archive.vn/20120629173103/http://theenvelope.latimes.com/factsheets/env-grammy_awards_info,0,5838827.htmlstory

Michelle ("Chelle") Davies is a Junior at Cornell University's College of Engineering. She is the current Chief Operator and Engineer at WVBR, and occasionally writes Music articles for wvbr.com.

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