To win a coveted Brit or Grammy award is an undisputed career highlight for many artists. Coming at the start of the year the ceremonies celebrate the achievements of artists, producers, songwriters and the craftspeople who have conquered, critically and commercially, in the preceding 12 months. Aside from the prestige – and the subsequent superstardom – that an Award can bring an artist, these events have become something of a theatrical spectacle, an incredible advertisement for the talent present in the music industry.
The Grammys in the US and the BRIT Awards in the UK have come to symbolise all the glamour, drama and celebration of what music has to offer. The Grammys have run for more than 50 years, the BRITS for over 35 years. For any artists the pinnacle of achievement is to win the best album award. When you look at their collective history the roll call of winners for best album it’s astounding: reading like an encyclopaedia of popular music. Venerated artists such as U2, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Dire Straits, Sting, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant along with a new breed, Florence and the Machine, Keane and Amy Winehouse are but a very few who have been celebrated. All have sold millions of records but, and this is key, all have contributed something special, singular and unmistakable to their field of music.
The Grammy’s has celebrated some exceptionally fine performances by exceptional artists across the years. One such artist is the venerable Quincy Jones, the man who has had the most Grammy nominations and the most Producer wins, chalking up a remarkable 27 awards in the process. Jones’ star-studded, forward-thinking autobiographical 1989 album, Back On the Block picked up six awards for Jones at the 33rd ceremony in 1991. This was another in a series of projects bearing Quincy’s name that stretch back to his remarkable jazz albums on impulse and Mercury Records in the early 1960s through the 1970s and 80s with albums that include, Body Heat andThe Dude, which was also nominated for a Grammy, during which time his production credits range from The Brothers Johnson, George Benson and Sarah Vaughan to Michael Jackson. BOTB featured a list of celebrities as long as your proverbial arm, but what makes it so interesting is their diversity. Among the hundred artists on the album there’s Ella Fitzgerald, Grandmaster Flash, Barry White, Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie and Al Jarreau.
Equalling Jones’ achievement is Alison Krauss, who, to date, has won 27 Grammys across her career as a solo artist, a member of her group Union Station, a producer, and memorably, for her duet album Raising Sand with Robert Plant, who six years earlier had won a Lifetime achievement award as the singer with Led Zeppelin. Plant’s award made up for Zeppelin losing out to Crosby, Stills And Nash in the Best New Group category at the 1970 ceremony. Raising Sand won a total of five Grammys at the 51st Grammy Awards in 2009: Album of the Year – Krauss’s first – Record of the Year, Pop Collaboration with Vocals, Country Collaboration with Vocals and Contemporary Folk/Americana Album. Produced and recorded, much of it in Nashville, by the legendary T-Bone Burnett who also produced Diana Krall’s 2012 album. Glad Rag Doll.
Commensurate with the title bestowed upon them of being the ‘best band in the world’ it is with little wonder that U2 have won the greatest amount of Grammy Awards for a group, an amazing 22 trophies. Their victories began when they conquered America with The Joshua Tree album, winning honours for Album Of The Year and Best Rock Performance By A Duo or a Group with Vocal in 1988. All of their releases in between have either been nominated or won, with How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb winning Album Of The Year at the 2006 ceremony. They are one of the very few artists that have scooped the album of the year award on more than one occasion.
And it is not just pop and rock that is recognized, categories run right across the board from classical to world music, from gospel to reggae, from folk to jazz. Amid the famous names are artists such as pianist Herbie Hancock, who rightfully scooped not just the Best Contemporary Jazz Award but also the Album Of The Year for his tender and reflective interpretation of the best works of Joni Mitchell. River: The Joni Letters beat a strong field including career-defining works by Kanye West and Amy Winehouse. River: The Joni Letters is a remarkable album celebrating Mitchell’s unique song-writing gift with the help of guest artists that include, Tina Turner, Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae and Joni herself. It also features the jazz saxophone genius of Wayne Shorter who worked with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in his early career and even appeared on the Rolling Stones Bridges to Babylon album.
Albums that have become all-time favourites have, naturally been recognized: Dire Straits‘Brothers In Arms won Best Engineered Recording, Non Classical in 1986 and Best Surround Sound album on its reissue in 2006. It could just have easily scooped any number of awards such is the quality of this brilliant album – strangely it did not win the best album category but it was another that had that omission corrected at The Brits. It was the band’s fifth studio album that was released in May 1985 going on to spend ten weeks at number one on the UK Album Chart and nine weeks at number one on the Billboard 200 in the United States. It is one of the ten best-selling albums in UK chart history, certified nine times platinum in the United States, and has sold 30 million copies worldwide. It includes ‘Money For Nothing’ with it’s emblematic Sting vocal that also scooped the Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal in 1986.
Lionel Richie‘s second solo album, Can’t Slow Down, his accomplished emergence from the Commodores’ shadows, won Album Of The Year in 1985. Released in October 1983 the album reached No.1 on the Billboard album chart in December that year staying there for three weeks before spending 59 consecutive weeks in the Top 10, which included the whole of 1984. It has sold 20 million copies worldwide helped by hit singles that include, ‘Hello’, ‘All Night Long (All Night)’, ‘Stuck on You’, ‘Running With the Night’ and ‘Penny Lover’; remarkable all of these singles made the top 10 of Billboard Hot 100
Stevie Wonder is an artist who will forever be synonymous with the Grammys; winning 22 awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996. For a period in the 70s, there seemed little point in any other nominees being announced at all. His remarkable run of groundbreaking releases in that decade was interrupted in 1976 when Paul Simon won the award for best album and in his acceptance speech, he jokingly thanked Stevie Wonder, who had won the award the two previous years for Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale, for not releasing an album that year. Stevie won the award again for Songs in the Key of Life in 1977 the amazing double album that featured ‘Village Ghetto Land’, ‘As’, ‘Sir Duke’ and ‘Isn’t She Lovely’.
2008 was Amy Winehouse‘s year in so many ways as she scooped an amazing five awards; with Back To Black winning Best Pop Vocal Album; and her single, ‘Rehab’ winning Record of the year, Song of the Year and Best Female Vocal Performance. Most importantly, she won the coveted Best New Artist trophy as well. In 2012 she was awarded posthumously the award for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for her duet with Tony Bennett, ‘Body and Soul’, from her Lioness collection.
In Britain, the predecessor to the BRITs in the popular imagination were the fabled Poll-Winner’s concerts held by weekly pop journal, New Musical Express. Held at venues in London such as the Empire Pool, Wembley and the Royal Albert Hall, these were annual events between 1952 and 1972. Acts such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Dusty Springfield featured frequently.
The BRIT Awards themselves began in 1977 and became an annual event in 1982, overseen by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI). The first ceremony was created to celebrate the 100th anniversary of recorded sound, as well as the achievements of the growing UK record business. It was little surprise that the Beatles’ won the initial Best Album trophy for the success of their 1967 masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The initial awards were sales-based, before moving to a similar panel of music industry experts voting for categories as the Grammy Awards. Over 1,000 people vote for the BRITs; BPI members, DJs, music press, TV presenters, representatives from the music industry, promoters and even NUS entertainment officers to ensure the broadest taste. Across the years various elements of audience voting have been introduced to give the ceremony a potent mix of expert and enthusiast. The actual title ‘BRIT Award’ was first used in 1989, shortened from ‘British’, and has subsequently come to stand for the British Record Industry Trust awards.
Part of the thrill of watching the Brits either live or on the television (where it regularly attracts millions of viewers), is the air of excitement and sometimes, its glorious unpredictability. Acts turn in career-defining performances, whether it be with heavy theatrical staging or a simple direct, close-up delivery that demonstrates the quality of the artist’s voice and material. After years being held at Earl’s Court, the ceremony moved in 2010 to the O2 Arena. The former Millennium Dome in South East London is a suitably grand and futuristic setting for one of the most eagerly anticipated nights in the UK music calendar.
Triumph at the ceremony means many things. When Sting picked up his Best British Album Award at the Royal Albert Hall in 1988 for his ambitious double album . . . Nothing Like The Sun, it showed that he had finally left The Police – who won Best Group in 1982 – far behind him and was being recognised for the sensitive, genre-embracing solo performer he had by then become. It’s often forgotten in the CD and download age that Nothing Like The Sun was originally conceived as a double LP. It Features ‘We’ll Be Together Again’ that made the top 10 in America and ‘Be Still My Beating Heart’ which made No.15 in the US. Among the standout tracks are the beautiful, ‘Fragile’ and ‘Englishman in New York’ about the eccentric abroad, Quentin Crisp. ‘They Dance Alone’ features Eric Clapton, Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler. ‘Little Wing’ a Jimi Hendrix cover features the celebrated jazz arranger, Gil Evans and his Orchestra. Sting later returned to collect an Outstanding Contribution Award in 2002
At the Brits, the celebration of the future is equally important. The introduction of the Critic’s Choice Award in 2008, has tipped off the wider world to artists the calibre of Florence And The Machine, Ellie Goulding, Jessie J and Emeli Sandé; all have gone on to great success. Florence and The Machine won the British Album Of The Year award at the 2010 ceremony for Lungs, the same year as Florence performed the much-talked-about version of her hit ‘You Got The Love’ with Dizzee Rascal, called ‘You Got The Dirtee Love’. When Keane won Best British Album for their debut Hopes And Fears in 2005, topped off with an incredible performance of ‘Everybody’s Changing, ‘ it was an enormous validation of their success, not least because this was their debut album, making it a real stellar achievement; more recently both Emeli Sandé and Florence and the Machine have emulated Keane’s success in winning with their debut. Hopes And Fears topped the charts and became the second best selling album of 2004.
The blend of performers on the night range from venerated acts picking up Outstanding Contribution Awards (recipients in the past have included Paul McCartney, The Who, Status Quo and Paul Weller to others making one of their first appearances on a stage of that size, such as Duffy’s remarkable 2009 performance of ‘Warwick Avenue’ or Mumford and Sons performing ‘Timshel’ in 2011). One thing is guaranteed, the show always provides a talking point and is a marvellous display for the Music Industry.
With such long and illustrious histories, the Grammys and the Brits represent a fabulous, exciting moment in the music year. Awards, by their very nature, will always be controversial. There are hundreds of examples of classic albums or artists who were overlooked in favour of something now long-forgotten, but in a way, that is one of the most powerful reasons why the ceremonies should be celebrated.
Popular music is forever about the moment; loves and passions come and go, allegiances shift, but at the very heart of any decision is the excitement, the thrill of a well-crafted song, an electrifying performance and a spellbinding vocal delivery. When you assess the music that has been celebrated, from the splendour of Stevie Wonder, the majesty of Quincy Jones, right down to the vibrant individuality of Florence And The Machine, the Grammys and the BRITs offer one of the finest on going snapshots of the very best in popular music on an annual basis.