In light of recent Grammy controversies, many are reminded of previous mistakes made by the notorious award ceremony.
Beck winning album of the year over Beyonce in 2015?
The Baha Men being awarded Best Dance Recording in 2001 for ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’?
Giving Eric Clapton ‘Best Rock Song’ for an acoustic rendition of a previous hit, ‘Layla’, back in 1993? At a time when Nirvana were just hitting their stride?
With previous uncertainties in mind, it’s easy to assume that the Grammys pretty much always get it wrong: making bold and brave choices that don’t pay off; propping up relics from the past rather than shining a light on new and exciting artists? Well, what about a time that the Grammys did all of the above, but it seemingly paid off, and they were vindicated by history?
Cast your minds way back to 2001, picture it. Wikipedia has just been launched, 9/11 hasn’t happened yet, the Netherlands are the first country to legalise same sex marriage, and Steely Dan win Album of the Year at the Grammys.
A bit of context about the album: At this point in time Steely Dan hadn’t released a studio album since 1980’s Gaucho. They’d been on a hiatus since then, but had reunited to tour in 1993 (the pair had famously retired from touring in the mid 70s to focus on their studio work). So Two Against Nature was their comeback effort. On the face of things, the album didn’t exactly fit the zeitgeist at the time. The duo’s unique take on funk and rock, carefully arranged and infused with tight jazz harmonies, sounds a bit too smooth and slick when compared to some of the other nominees of the time, possibly even a bit dated. So you could be forgiven for being surprised at the fact that it was eventually awarded Album of the Year.
But, this was in fact a well justified decision. Sure, Steely Dan’s ‘Two Against Nature’ might not have had the cultural impact of Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, or the musical relevance of Radiohead’s Kid A. But, the fact remains, it was the best of these albums. Just listen to the album once, the delicately obtuse songwriting, the dazzling harmonies, Donald Fagen’s nasal snark. It’s all perfect.
Unlike previous controversies, where the awards recipient has undeniably not deserved it, Steely Dan had definitely put the work in. And furthermore, unlike previous wins, where the awards recipient has since been all but forgotten, or become nothing more than a novelty (the Baha Men??), Two Against Nature stands the test of time. The production is stellar, and still sounds fresh and relevant to this day. Remember, this album came out just before the loudness wars, and just before the big comeback of reverb.
Not only that, but when you scratch beneath the surface just a little bit, Two Against Nature isn’t all that different from some of the other works being nominated that year. Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, for example, was notably controversial upon release for it’s lyrical content. Eminem was accused of misogyny, homophobia, violent references, and a whole slew of other things. Lyrically, Two Against Nature isn’t exactly leagues apart from this, and contains some pretty questionably sleazy lyrical content (“How about a kiss for your cousin Dupree?”). Such lyrics flew under the radar a bit in comparison to Eminem’s efforts, owing to the fact they were masked by smooth and singable melodies, buried under some of the most pleasant harmonies ever put to tape. In fact, the song ‘Cousin Dupree’ went on to win the award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
The Grammys rarely get things right, but when they do, they do. Giving Steely Dan the prestigious Album of the Year was one such time, and we should all be grateful for it.