Ranked: All of the Album of the Year Grammy Winners from Worst to Best
How does Adele stack up?
By Nick Keppler
The Oscars are sometimes wrong, but The Grammys, well, they are rarely right. Due to the old and conservative voters that have lead the awards since the beginning, the Grammys have missed out on a huge chunk of music history as it was happening. Queen, Talking Heads, 2pac, The Ramones, Diana Ross, Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, The Doors, The Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Bob Marley are among those who never won. Bob Dylan didn’t get a golden statue until the late ’70s and Van Morrison, Pink Floyd, and the Rolling Stones all waited until the ’90s. Because of that, there was a wide span, in terms of quality, when we looked back and ranked the discs that have won Album of the Year since the Grammy’s inception.
55. Celine Dion – Falling Into You (1997)
Jesus, her name is slang for “unbearable.”
54. Santana – Supernatural (2000)
Once a fiery, vital guitarist, Santana is reduced to a sideman by the likes of Everlast, Rob Thomas, and Eagle-Eye Cherry on his own album. I don’t care that it sold a billion copies, Supernatural still sounds like a ’90s-era Now That's What I Call Music! compilation with a meandering grandpa guitarist overdubbed onto every track.
53. Taylor Swift – Fearless (2010)
The Grammys sometimes go for the bland, but it’s usually older people with at least some presence, not a country/pop lab creation singing lines like, “You'll be the prince and I'll be the princess/It's a love story, baby, just say yes.”
52. Whitney Houston, et al. — The Bodyguard (1994)
Like a salmonella outbreak, Houston’s showboating “I Will Always Love You” is always waiting to creep up on you in the supermarket.
51. Billy Joel – 52nd Street (1980)
I don’t have anything good to say about Billy Joel. With his blah kind of softness and over-sentimentalizing, he mangled the formula for rock 'n' roll before he mangled cars, trees, and women’s lives. I suppose the lite jazz approach of 52nd Street is a little more suited to him than anything even rock-ish. At least it’s more tolerable than “Piano Man.”
50. Barbra Streisand – The Barbra Streisand Album (1964)
I didn’t know mid-century cabaret-type music could be delivered with such sexlessness until I queued up this overly serious album of overwrought vocals.
49. Phil Collins – No Jacket Required (1986)
This is the CD Patrick Bateman puts on when he’s terrifying prostitutes and — like a sociopath — it’s slick, well-presented, and heavily veneered. But there’s no soul behind the mask.
48. The Dixie Chicks – Taking the Long Way (2007)
They’re more interesting than, say, Lady Antebellum, but the Dixie Chicks will always be three women of just average musical talent.
47. Natalie Cole – Unforgettable…with Love (1992)
OK, she recorded a duet with her dead dad. Is that really impressive now that there is a 2pac hologram? And there’s nothing else even memorable on this album of old standards.
46. Christopher Cross – Christopher Cross (1981)
“Sailing” did define yacht rock, if you want to consider that an accomplishment. In one of the rare instances in which they caught an album from the classic-rock canon, Grammy voters nominated Pink Floyd’s The Wall but picked this instead.
45. Quincy Jones – Back on the Block (1991)
It’s neat to hear Miles Davis, Ice Cube, Sarah Vaughan, and Chaka Khan on the same CD, but it seems like the venerable musician/producer was trying to impress us more with his Rolodex than his ideas. It feels like a bunch of random leftovers thrown together for dinner, the only consistency being that ridiculous ’80s New Edition-sounding beat.
44. Lionel Richie – Can’t Slow Down (1985)
It’s decent enough, as smooth mainstream ‘80s pop albums go, but the choice of Can’t Slow Down over Prince’s Purple Rain and Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. actually caused the Grammys to seek out younger voting members (like people in their 40s).
43. Toto – Toto IV (1983)
My friends who insist there is a misunderstood genius behind soft rock say “Rosanna” and “Africa” are two of the genre’s pillars. I have to admit the production, at least, is spot-on. Still, there’s not much else about Toto to like unironically.
42. U2 – How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2006)
U2’s 21st-century work has been a by-the-books alteration of radio-friendly rockers and slower numbers with lyrics that come off like they were written by an AA group leader. This album comes off like U2 trying to still sound like U2. I preferred it when they threw out the whole playbook and made Achtung Baby.
41. Frank Sinatra – A Man and His Music (1967)
His new label, Reprise, wanted versions of Sinatra’s past hits so he rerecorded them over two LPs. Fine, I guess. Then there are all these weird spoken-word segues with awful jokes. (“Reprise means ‘to play again,’ but to me it means creative freedom.”) Owning any two budget compilations of Sinatra stuff is probably better than owning this.
40. Tony Bennett – MTV Unplugged (1995)
After Clapton did it, every Baby Boomer star got his ass on MTV’s dimly lit stage for Unplugged, including Bennett, whose backing is always acoustic anyway. I can’t tell how this is anything more than an old lounge singer’s live album from the ’90s.
39. Paul Simon – Still Crazy After All These Years (1976)
There are high points (like the oft-covered title song) but this is under-par for Simon. The Garfunkel reunion on “My Little Town” is underwhelming and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” is just annoying. Great ’stache on the cover though.
38. Ray Charles – Genius Love Company (2005)
Dying in 2004 is probably what got Charles this award. The legendary singer’s answer to Sinatra’s Duets is pleasant enough, but c’mon; ‘04 was the year Kanye, Franz Ferdinand, and The Arcade Fire blew up, and the Grammys thought the best thing happening was Van Morrison re-recording “Crazy Love” with a 74-year-old man?
37. Herbie Hancock – River: The Joni Letters (2008)
Combine Hancock on the piano, the songs of Joni Mitchell and the baby-soft vocals of Norah Jones and Corinne Bailey Rae — as well as the oft-kilter choice of Leonard Cohen— and it’s hard to go wrong.
36. Bob Newhart — The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart (1961)
This award can go to a comedy album and did twice. Newhart’s imaginings of how Lincoln or the Wright brothers would have dealt with the marketing types of the early ’60s are pretty intellectually astute, if not exactly laugh-out-loud funny.
35. George Harrison, et al. – The Concert for Bangladesh (1973)
Without its philanthropic angle, this triple-LP is just a pretty good Harrison live album with half a decent Bob Dylan one mixed in. It’s docked a few points for spotty sound quality.
34. Judy Garland – Judy at Carnegie Hall (1962)
Garland apparently awoke from a years-long barbiturate-and-cake-induced stupor to deliver this career-saving performance. As long as they keep reissuing it in deluxe editions and new formats, you’ll have a Christmas gift for the friends of Dorothy in your life.
33. John Lennon and Yoko Ono – Double Fantasy (1981)
Some hard truths: No one loved this album until John died. Also, half the tracks are Yoko’s and no one listens to those. But contemplative numbers like “(Just Like) Starting Over” and “Watching the Wheels” are ever-tragic reminders of how gracefully Lennon was easing into middle age, both as a songwriter and a human.
32. Norah Jones – Come Away with Me (2003)
Jones is the musical equivalent of Starbucks: smooth, ubiquitous, predictable, classy in a muted suburban way and, ultimately, a fine guilty pleasure. It’s hard not to be taken by the title track.
31. Blood, Sweat and Tears – Blood, Sweat and Tears (1970)
Like a straight-laced version of Love or a really white Earth, Wind and Fire, Blood, Sweat and Tears boiled down what was happening back then into an easy jazz-rock stew accessible enough for the Grammys. It’s all-in-all okay. Their own “Spinning Wheel” is a great song and their version of “You Made Me So Very Happy” glows.
30. Mumford and Sons – Babel (2013)
Even if every song on this album sounds the same, there is definitely appeal to Mumford’s folk-rock-on-Red-Bull approach. It was about time someone played the banjo like a goddamn warrior.
29. Frank Sinatra — September of My Years (1966)
Sinatra embraces aging. There are some corny references to being a codger, but also many tender moments reflecting on memories and the saddening effect of time. Sinatra’s vocals and Gordon Jenkins’ orchestration are lock in step.
28. Steely Dan – Two Against Nature (2001)
Just as when Lionel Richie won over Prince and Springsteen, the Grammys caught flack for being particularly out of touch when Steely Dan beat out Radiohead and Eminem in ’01. Still, Two Against Nature is as close as Becker and Fagen ever came to their dream of a rock band as a tight as a jazz combo.
27. The Bee Gees, et al. – Saturday Night Fever (1979)
There is no denying the pop craftsmanship of The Bee Gees, who delivered some of their signature songs on their half of this double album. The second LP has difficulty overcoming the default suckage of disco.
26. Alanis Morrisette – Jagged Little Pill (1996)
This Gen-X mega-seller was gritty, absurd, right on, obnoxious, and gloriously cathartic, sometimes in the same song. If you were 17 and needed an introduction to rage, Alanis was great to have around. And she popularized mid-movie blowjobs!
25. George Michael – Faith (1989)
The title track and “Father Figure” had enough bounce to propel Michael’s much-photographed butt for decades on stage and we gotta hand it to someone brave enough to stamp a radio-ready song with the chorus of “I Want Your Sex”.
24. Outkast – Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2004)
Outkast had already pretty much peaced out when the duo dropped this attempt to get you to buy both members’ solo debuts. Still, everything Big Boi and Andre did back then was irresistible. If you don’t at least bob your head to “The Way You Move” or “Hey Ya,” you probably work in middle management and wear Dockers on the weekends.
23. Bonnie Raitt – Nick of Time (1990)
After 20 years of semi-success, Bonnie Raitt got her shit together and made this, the best case ever for the blues becoming mass-appeal music. Bonus points for making a huge hit from a song by the similarly underappreciated John Hiatt and paying off his mortgage.
22. Frank Sinatra – Come Dance With Me! (1960)
Conductor/trumpeter Billy Mays gave Sinatra his most swinging album ever. Heartache never sounded as lively as it did on “Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night of the Week).” With his confident but lively vocal stylings of these middle years, Sinatra invented the persona of the distinguished gentleman who gets laid more easily at 45 than he did at 25.
21. Henry Mancini — Music from Peter Gunn (1959)
The main theme is one of those pieces of music that keeps showing up in movies (most notably in the Blues Brothers) but everything from the venerable composer’s famed TV soundtrack cackles with energy. Good God, those horns!
20. Vaughn Meader – The First Family (1963)
Briefly a mega-seller, this comedy album begat the first widely known impression of a U.S. president, helping to create modern political comedy. Skits poked fun at JFK’s humongous family, soft-spoken wife, and endless diplomacizing. Thanks to Meader’s dead-on Harvard accent and the enduring image of the Kennedys, most of it is still funny. Sadly, both he and the album were nearly erased from public memory after Nov. 22 of that year.
19. Stevie Wonder – Fulfillingness' First Finale (1975)
It doesn’t have the grand flourishes of the two albums it’s wedged between (Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life), but Stevie could do no wrong at this point. Fulfillingness has got the proto-funk hit “Boogie on Reggae Woman” and powerful condemnation of Nixon “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.”
18. Eric Clapton – Unplugged (1993)
From the first note, it sounds like that six-string is part of Clapton’s arm and like those tried-and-true blues songs are core parts of his psyche. Even after a decade of overplay, “Tears in Heaven” is still a song of rare emotional resonance.
17. Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? Soundtrack (2002)
The septuagenarian average age of Grammy voters actually influenced their choice for the better this year. This soundtrack of pre-war-style Americana brought attention to uncompromised performers, living and dead, who were shaded in obscurity.
16. Glen Campbell – By the Time I Get to Phoenix (1969)
Not much happens on the title track. She awakes, goes to work and breaks for lunch. He drives to Oklahoma. But the stark separation of their storylines makes it a very effective breakup song. And Campbell brings lonesome balladry to new heights throughout. Even Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” sounds gut-wrenching.
15. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss – Raising Sand (2009)
Plant’s voice is a singular, otherworldly thing and more than on any project he’s done since Zeppelin, it’s the focus on this sparse, almost ethereal album. Her own vocals rich in texture, Krauss is the first singer since Sandy Denny on “The Battle of Evermore” worthy of supplementing him.
14. The Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (2011)
With a similar penchant for melody, this concept album is like Pet Sounds, but instead of kids raised innocent in the California sunshine, it speaks to a generation strung out on Ritalin and brought up in some pre-planned nowhere. Dark but human-sounding, it captures the confusing nostalgia for the kind of “blah” I feel when I think of my hometown.
13. Bob Dylan – Time Out of Mind (1998)
This is the debut of the late-life Dylan, a craggy, lovable manic-depressive with a fire in his belly one minute and world-weary dread in his gut the next. “Not Dark Yet” and “Make You Feel My Love” are new classics. (That’s still not an excuse for bypassing OK Computer.)
12. Adele – 21 (2012)
Adele samples smartly from the past, sucking Mo-Town flair, power balladry, and the accessible intimacy of the singer/songwriter genre into her mighty lungs and wailing them out. This is the first album since Thriller liked by nearly everyone.
11. Carole King – Tapestry (1972)
A former scribe for girl groups, King combined masterful songwriting with an undeniable maturity on Tapestry. Some parts are Hallmark-y, but “I Feel the Earth Move” makes up for it by being totally about orgasms. “It’s Too Late” is among the best break-up songs ever.
10. Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1999)
“Real” is a term thrown around loosely in hip-hop, but the word perfectly describes Hill’s ever-articulate, intensely personal solo debut, one that’s driven home by her one-two punch of steady rhymes and crisp vocals. She buckled under expectations she’d be the hip-hop generation’s answer to Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, but it only takes one listen to remember why we had those expectations.
9. Michael Jackson – Thriller (1983)
Jackson is remembered as the world’s biggest pop star, but he was so much better before he was filling stadiums and tabloids, when he and producer Quincy Jones were arranging the remnants of soul and disco into this hit-single smorgasbord. Before he wanted to “heal the world,” Michael was just a kid with a zeal to entertain. And that, he could manage.
8. Stan Getz & João Gilberto – Getz/Gilberto (1965)
On this cross-continental jazz game-changer, American pianist Getz and Brazilian guitarist Gilberto keep up an impossible sense of tranquility, minimalism, rhythm, and exotic cool for 34 minutes. “The Girl from Ipanema” is like a classic Stones single: No amount of ubiquity can stop it from sounding cool. Buy the next vinyl copy you see.
7. U2 – The Joshua Tree (1988)
With just its first three songs, The Joshua Tree brought a long-lost sense of purpose to stadium rock. The less grandiose tracks (“In God's Country,” “Trip Through Your Wires”), where U2 just play around with their new love of all things Americana, are also excellent.
6. Simon and Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water (1971)
Simon fired off classics left and right on Bridge, zigzagging between sweeping efforts like the title song and “The Boxer” and bouncy, raunchy numbers like “Cecilia” and “Baby Driver.” Oh, and you were good on this one, too, Garfunkel.
5. Stevie Wonder – Innervisions (1974)
More than anyone who ever owned a synthesizer, Wonder realized the instrument’s capacity to envelop the listener in a sound, important for someone delivering the hard truths of “Higher Ground” and “Living for the City.” A seamless merging of music and message, Innervisions is classic.
4. Paul Simon – Graceland (1987)
Simon’s innocuous musical persona blended seamlessly with the South African Zulu tradition and he brought to this project the strongest songs he’d written since divorcing Garfunkel. These deceivingly tidbit-sized numbers tackle everything from poverty to love to loneliness to technology. Everyone who has dabbled in “world music” has hoped the end result of their iffy alchemy would be something like this.
3. Fleetwood Mac – Rumours (1978)
As everyone in the band screwed over someone else in the band, heartache poured out of all three of Fleetwood Mac’s songwriters in terms that were both beautiful (“Songbird”) and biting (“The Chain”). Taking over much of the production, obsessive-compulsive weirdo Lindsey Buckingham found a way to turn every confession, accusation and foolish hope into California-style pop gold.
2. Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life (1977)
Wonder was so on fire then, it seemed insane for him not to release a double album. With music that is sweeping and, at times, ferocious, he sustains his brilliance through 104 minutes, speaking of new love, childhood memories, racial injustice, and fatherhood with the same steady confidence. “Music is a world within itself with a language we all understand,” he sings in “Sir Duke,” and this magnum opus is a testament to all that can be expressed through song.
1. The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1968)
It’s obvious for a reason. Rubber Soul and Revolver are both better song for song and The White Album and Abbey Road are wilder, but The Beatles never sounded more confident than they did on Sgt. Pepper’s. From the sacred sounds of “Within You Without You” to the psychedelic scene-making of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” to the epic, mind-melding orchestration of “A Day in the Life,” this is the greatest rock band of all time transcending rock.
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