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Best Of the Best Of

Proposing the Best Old Artist Grammy

by James Leroy Wilson
February 20, 2001

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Best Of the Best Of_James Leroy Wilson-Proposing the Best Old Artist Grammy The Grammy Awards are on tonight, and much of the suspense is whether foul-mouthed rapper Eminem will win the Album of the Year award. There's a good chance. Among rock critics, his album was considered among the year's best. Of the other nominees, including the reunited Steely Dan (comeback sympathy), the venerable Paul Simon (ditto), and hipster geek Beck (familiar to voters because he has previous nominations), only the British group Radiohead earned more high praise from the critics than did Eminem, and that band is the least well-known among mainstream-minded Grammy voters. My guess is that Simon, who has won the best album Grammy a few times before, will get it again.

The trouble with the Grammys is that when it is not too sentimental, it is too commercial. Looking back at previous winners, much of what one thinks is, what were they thinking? And then you remember, oh yes, Tony Bennet is old and hadn't won before. Celine Dion and Whitney Houston were really popular. Eric Clapton had recently lost a son.

Which is not to say that the "best" - the greatest convergence of artistic merit and popular acclaim - never wins. Ever since the award became open to rock acts by awarding the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, what hindsight would call "worthy" albums - not necessarily the very best, but among the best - have won about half the time.

Actually, the three most recent winners - Bob Dylan, Lauryn Hill, and Santana, were arguably worthy, especially Hill, who had praise heaped on her by critics and listeners alike. Dylan and Santana, however, have the "sympathy" vote syndrome. Their albums were very good, but did they win just because they were respected veterans who had never won before?

The problem with the Grammys - more so than with Emmys and Oscars - is that there is so much music out there, the voters tend to choose what is familiar - i.e., the currently popular and well-known veterans. They are operating without the benefit of hindsight, not knowing if their choices will really stand the test of time. Nine years ago, they chose Natalie Cole's "duets" with her deceased father rather than Nirvana's (who?) Nevermind or U2's (this doesn't sound like U2!) Achtung Baby.

To reform the system, I propose we put the Grammys on hold, for ten years. Then, in the year 2011, we can nominate and award the best from the year 2001. No more sympathy awards, no more awards for flashes in the pan. No more early-nomination deadlines which confuse the issue of what year an album and its singles were eligible. Only the good music that stood the test of time.

Fat chance of that happening. So here's another reform: abolish the Best New Artist category, and replace it with a far more prestigious award - Best Old Artist. It would award the artist (an individual or band) with the best compilation album - "Greatest Hits," "Favorites," "The Singles," etc - that was released that year. This will recognize, finally, that the measure of the artist is the number of good and great songs recorded not in a year, but in a career.

While the originally-produced album is a good place to feature creative arrangements, compositional daring, and, perhaps, a continuous theme requiring that the songs be heard in track order from start to finish, the "Best Of" package is a showcase of songs and songwriting. Rock artists must, in the end, be judged by the quality of songs they perform, not on how innovative their sounds are or how skilled their musicianship is. This is because the culture is not familiar with most artists' albums, but only with their hit songs. The artists who don't fill just their own albums with great music, but also the airwaves, soundtracks, parties, etc., make the world a better place.

Surveying my own collection, I hit on a method to judge the best "Best of" albums. It's simple. Look at the songs on the album. Whatever songs you love, assign two points. Whatever you like and are glad to have, assign one. If you are indifferent, or don't like the song, award zero. Total up the points. If it's a multi-CD package, divide the total by the number of CDs, because they are more expensive.

Here are examples from my own collections. ABBA Gold has eleven good songs, and three gems ("Knowing Me, Knowing You"; "Chiquitita"; "Name of the Game"), for a total of seventeen points. Creedence Clearwater Revival's Chronicle doubles that score, and rates as perhaps the Best Best of Collection of all time. The 3-CD Rolling Stones' The Singles: The London Years averages a remarkable 24, even though half the songs are B-sides. It is an advantage to have as many songs as can fit, and bands with fewer than twelve or fourteen don't stand much of a chance of a high rating. And they don't deserve it either; artists who didn't record a lot of really good songs don't deserve the stature of those who did.

Judging "Best Of" albums is therefore simple - objectively tallying your preferences. Far easier than comparing Eminem with Steely Dan. With the dozens of categories, and all of the sentimentality and faddishness, it would be nice to have just one award that would actually reflect what the voters really like.

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