The Grammys are on Sunday, so let’s investigate its most bizarre category: Best New Artist. Both Christopher Cross and Esparanza Spalding have one. That’s real. And that’s why we’re counting down the ten best winners and the five worst losers. Because maybe we’ll learn something! That’s what I’ll go with.
10. Rickie Lee Jones
Rickie Lee may not have had as gigantic a Billboard career following her Best New Artist win as some of the other stars here, but her debut album is such an assured, unpretentiously poetic, rich listening experience. “Chuck E.’s in Love” and “Young Blood” are whimsical and catchy while “Night Train” and “The Last Chance Texaco” are crackling, despairing portraits. She was also so rad, and that made her bohemian folksiness so much fresher than you’d expect.
If timelessness is a criterion for the music and musicians who win Best New Artist, then the legendary Sade fits the bill. “Smooth Operator,” “Hang On to Your Love,” and “Your Love Is King” stand apart from everything else released in 1984; they’re 30 years old and sound like they could’ve come out in any time since. Bonus feat: All of Sade’s albums have gone at least triple platinum in the U.S. Rock on, lover.
8. Mariah Carey
Mariah Carey didn’t have to become the defining hitmaker of the ’90s, but she very much did thanks to her ebulliently volcanic voice, an awesome sense of artistic direction (Tell me, would you have guessed in 1990 that she’d become a legitimate R&B sensation?), and fabulous songs that still hold up. Her Best New Artist win foreshadowed her major career, one that has trounced all of her fellow nominees — no offense to the immortal and kickass Lisa Stansfield, of course.
7. Tracy Chapman
Tracy Chapman could’ve put out “Fast Car” by itself on a floppy disk and she’d still deserve Best New Artist. The Tufts grad with that poignant, enigmatic bleat simply obliterated her competition with tactful writing and sincerity in ’88, giving us an explosive, yet solemn self-titled album that followed in the traditions of Joni Mitchell, Suzanne Vega, and Bruce Springsteen. And never forget: She dated Alice Walker. That’s what new artistry is all about.
6. Cyndi Lauper
One of TheBacklot’s patron saints, Cyndi Lauper is the only woman on this list who’s, like, two years away from achieving the EGOT — Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. All she needs is the “O,” and I’m sure she has a “Let the River Run”-style soundtrack empowerment ballad up her sleeve. She’s So Unusual remains a lovely and loopy breakthrough, even if it contains some of the most overplayed (though uniformly great) singles of the ’80s. Truth: “All Through the Night” miiiight be my pick for the best recording of the ’80s, and it’s because of Cyndi’s choice to upgrade songwriter Jules Shear’s fab original song. That dazzling electronic twinkle? Resplendent! I’m picturing unicorns flying over a field of multicolored Lite Brite pegs for some reason.
5. Culture Club
Yeah, Culture Club was extremely popular pretty much on arrival (after “White Boy” and “I’m Afraid of Me” failed to chart; still, their fame came fast), but let’s give credit to the Grammys: These were some weirdos. Boy George’s delicate cry and outlandish look didn’t immediately scream for academy attention, so I thank the Grammys for showing love to one of our gnarliest’80s acts.
4. Crosby, Stills, and Nash
Crosby, Stills, and Nash were certainly performing well in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but they were a far out troupe. Crosby, Stills, and Nash waxed about the poetry of Woodstock, freaked out Dick Cavett with their comfortable radicalness, and still gave you some of our most cherished rock music right from the get-go. “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and “Woodstock” are eternal. Thanks again, Joni.
Say what you will about the drippiness of “Skyfall” (I know I have), but Adele was merely a very good balladeer without a clear path to superstardom back in 2009, and it’s pretty great that the Grammys singled out her compelling talents well before she gave us “Rolling in the Deep.” “Chasing Pavements” was classy and sincere, but almost unassuming in its contemplative nature. Glad she stole the hardware away from fellow nominees and constant winners Lady Antebellum. Set fire to the LAME, more like!
2. The Carpenters
Surely the Carpenters appealed to the Grammy demo of clean, straight-laced palatability (partially because Karen literally wore straight lace), but I appreciate the boldness in giving Grammys to the seemingly squarest, albeit most musically accomplished duo. Burt Bacharach may have given them “Close to You,” but their ethereal arrangements and utterly emotional delivery is enough to stun you. So is Karen’s voice, my pick for the best singer of the rock era.
1. The Beatles
Well. You can’t fight this one. Congrats to the Grammys for checking the Nielsen ratings from The Ed Sullivan Show, noting that the entire nation cared about four toe-tapping Liverpudlians, and deciding that warranted some awards.
Runners-up for the top 10? Carly Simon, Sheryl Crow, and my grrrrl Jody Watley.
5. Shelby Lynne
Shelby said it herself upon winning the BNA Grammy in early 2001: “Thirteen years and six albums to get here.” Indeed, this might be the most condescending Grammy victory ever.
4. Marc Cohn
“Walking in Memphis”? Was a mistake, everyone. Admit it and move on, like me!
3. Starland Vocal Band
“Afternoon Delight” is a funny little pop tart, but it’s not worthy of any real awards, let alone music’s biggest honor.
2. Men At Work
Vegemite. The band sang about Vegemite and were awarded the “We Believe In You FOREVER” trophy. Hunh.
1. Milli Vanilli
It’s a revoked Grammy, yes, but nonetheless it remains the most ghastly mistake in academy history. They may as well have given the Grammy to Andie MacDowell in Greystoke.