The Grammys are hardly the indicator of what music was critically adored in a particular year. The Recording Academy is made up of approximately 21,000 musicians and music professionals, but only about 12,000 of those are eligible to vote, per a Billboard report. The process to become an eligible voting member is three steps and seemingly complicated, just one of many issues plaguing the Academy. The Grammys have historically shut out women and hip-hop artists, and while a diversity task force was implemented last year, that doesn’t seem to have helped much: The Academy is now fully embroiled in another scandal as CEO and President Deborah Dugan was ousted after just six months in her position, just a few days before this year’s ceremony on Sunday Jan. 26. There is a lot of unrest and information to make sense of, but for now, we’re taking a walk through Grammys history before the 2020 event. Despite all the times the Grammys have gotten things wrong (never forget Bruno Mars’ win for 24K Magic over Kendrick Lamar. Shudder.), they occasionally reward the album that is most worthy. Here are those times.
15. Daft Punk: Random Access Memories (2014)
One of Paste’s favorite albums of the 2010s, Daft Punk’s best and most notable project Random Access Memories is so much more than disco’s 21st century blowout. It’s the rare Grammy-winning album that supplied both an inescapable radio hit (none other than the Pharrell Williams-featuring “Get Lucky”) as well as a bank of groovy deep cuts that make a critical darling like this one so memorable.
14. Arcade Fire: The Suburbs (2011)
Another 2010s favorite (number 21 on our list, to be exact), The Suburbs is a modern rock classic. Funeral was unlike anything we’d heard in 2004, Neon Bible remains a bright-eyed classic and Reflektor was a sturdy follow-up to the lot, but Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs was a concept album with major spunk. And it aged better than anything else the band ever made. It was actually astonishing at the time when the Recording Academy recognized what could actually be the best album of 2010, so we have to give them credit here.
13. Adele: 21 (2012)
The first of Adele’s two Grammys wins for Album of the Year, 21, felt the most monumental. Her second album, 21, marked Adele’s rise to superstardom. This album featured some of her biggest radio hits, as well as some of her best songs ever: the suspenseful and fun “Rumour Has It,” intense revenge anthem “Set Fire to the Rain,” forlorn tearjerker “Someone Like You” and the eternal “Rolling in the Deep.” Her. Range.
12. Kacey Musgraves: Golden Hour (2019)
Not only was Musgraves’ AOTY win monumental because Golden Hour is a truly spectacular album beloved by critics and fans alike, but also because this historical win followed a 2018 Grammys ceremony that found the Recording Academy stuck in another scandal. At that year’s ceremony, Recording Academy president Neil Portnow said women “need to step up” if they want to succeed in the music industry. Cut to 2019, and the entire music community was holding their breath to see how the Academy would handle the year’s event. As it turns out, they did a pretty good job: Brandi Carlile, Kacey Musgraves and Cardi B brought the heat on stage, and Musgraves’ Golden Hour win was one of the most delightful surprises we’ve seen at this godforsaken show. Now we’ll just have to wait and see how they’ll handle this year’s share of scandals.
11. Barbara Streisand: The Barbra Streisand Album (1963)
As Broadway’s premier star and one of the best female vocalists of the 20th century, it was only a matter of time before Ms. Babara Streisand took home a gold gramophone. As it turns out, she didn’t have to wait long: Streisand won in 1963 for her 1962 vocal album The Barbara Streisand Album, her first of eight wins. But this is the only time she won an Album of the Year award, and that feels monumental.
10. Alanis Morissette: Jagged Little Pill (1996)
When they played angsty, shockingly loud, female-fronted guitar music on the radio and it became wildly commercially successful? Sigh, those were the days! Alanis Morissette is truly one of a kind, and Jagged Little Pill is a stone-cold classic, no matter what that one Jezebel article says.
9. Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life (1977)
Soul legend Stevie Wonder has a whopping 25 Grammy wins and 74 nominations, three of which are for Album of the Year. He’s one of only three artists in Grammys history to win that award thrice throughout his career, and Songs in the Key of Life is arguably the best of that trio. Listen to “Sir Duke,” and just try not to move!
8. Paul Simon: Graceland (1987)
Graceland is a classic no matter which way you spin it, and Paul Simon has lots of them. With Art Garfunkel he has even more—the pair have 11 Grammy nominations and seven wins, including one for their 1970 classic Bridge Over Troubled Water. But Simon’s masterwork is 1987’s Graceland, and it feels like the one that’s worth mentioning in this list.
7. The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1968)
The Beatles don’t have as many Grammys as you’d think. Of 24 total nominations, they won just eight, including their sole Album of the Year trophy for the ever-kooky Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Eight is still a lot, but maybe not by the standards of what many consider to be the greatest band to ever rock. Their lack of wins is mostly due to the limited time period during which Paul, John, George and Ringo were active: The first Grammys ceremony was held in 1959. By 1970, the band was no more. At least we have this win, plus several from the Beatles individually, to cherish.
6. George Michael: Faith (1989)
Faith is a near-perfect pop album, so it’s exciting to know it received the recognition it deserved in 1989. George Michael scooped up a few noms with Wham!, but he didn’t fully stretch his wings until his solo endeavors. Michael was born to be a superstar, albeit an unlikely one. We lost him too soon on Christmas Day in 2016, but he certainly supplied his share of pop gold while he was alive.
5. OutKast: Speakerboxx/The Love Below (2004)
It’s pretty startling when you compare how many rap albums have won a Grammy Album of the Year next to other genres. Only 10 black artists have won Album of the Year ever, so OutKast’s 2004 win was doubly important. It was thrilling to watch them win for this concept album, too, which has a longer run time than most feature-length films. That was the magic of this lightning Atlanta pair, who fueled up the Grammys with a much-needed dose of trap.
4. Ms. Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1999)
Lauryn Hill has perhaps the maximum number of Grammy nominations that one person can have with only one solo, full-length studio effort to their names. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was so monumental that year—it garnered her several nominations and wins in 1999, including one for Best New Artist and Album of the Year. It remains one of the most daring and important R&B albums of the ’90s. Hill has 19 nominations total, including those she earned with the Fugees.
3. Michael Jackson: Thriller (1984)
Michael Jackson had no shortage of Grammys attention throughout his career. But of 38 nominations and 13 wins, only one was for Album of the Year: Thriller. Packed with Jackson hits (the title track, “Beat It” and “Billie Jean,” among them), Thriller was an absolute blockbuster. We may look at Jackson’s history a little differently now, but there’s no denying the power of this record.
2. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (1978)
The break-ups, the make-ups, the drama, the distress. Rumours is nearly Shakespearean in its chronicling of the relationships that defined Fleetwood Mac during this era, and the record itself is widely considered to be one of the greatest albums ever. Of course it won Album of the Year.
1. Carole King: Tapestry (1972)
The crown jewel of the AOTY club is none other than Carole King’s classic, perfect Tapestry. Tapestry is so many things at once: cozy, heartbreaking, strange, surreal, all-too-real—it’s not just a breakup album, but also an album about being in love, too, and the pains that come with both. It’s the singer/songwriter genre at its very best, and one of the best albums of the 1970s by any standard. As is displayed by this list, the Recording Academy does get this category right sometimes, and this may be their best pick yet.