Jon Stewart got off a great line on Feb. 27, 2002, when he was hosting the 44th annual Grammy Awards. After a small army of people took the stage when the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack won album of the year, Stewart joked, “I want to point out that you get to come up if you worked on the album, not just if you heard it.”
Whoever hosts the 64th annual Grammy Awards on Jan. 31 might want to have a similar joke ready when they announce the album of the year winner.
The Academy’s annual rule changes, announced on May 26, included one whereby all featured artists, songwriters of new material, producers, recording engineers, mixers and mastering engineers who worked on an album are now eligible for album of the year nominations. In the past four years, they had to be credited with at least 33 percent of an album’s playing time to merit a nomination.
You may be surprised to learn that, in the Grammys’ first seven years (1958-64), only artists were nominated for album of the year. So Judy Garland was the sole winner when Judy at Carnegie Hall won the 1961 award, and Barbra Streisand was the only winner when her debut, The Barbra Streisand Album, won the 1963 prize.
The Academy gradually extended nominations to other pros who worked on album of the year contenders: producers in 1965, engineers/mixers in 1998, mastering engineers in 2001, featured artists in 2007, and songwriters in 2017.
But in 2017, they also instituted the 33% rule, saying that nominations would be extended only to people who worked on at least one-third of the album’s playing time. Now, they’re back to saying anyone who worked on an album in these capacities, even if for just one track, is eligible.
Let’s focus on featured artists to illustrate the point.
Six of the eight albums thought to have the best chance of landing album of the year nods when the Grammy nominations are announced on Nov. 23 have featured artists. Drake’s Certified Lover Boy has a whopping 15. H.E.R.’s Back of My Mind has nine. At the other extreme, Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour and Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever have no featured artists.
Ty Dolla $ign could wind up with three album of the year nods this year, thanks to his featured roles on likely nominees by Drake, Ariana Grande and H.E.R. He is featured on “Get Along Better” on Drake’s Certified Lover Boy, “Safety Net” on Grande’s Positions and the title track on H.E.R.’s Back of My Mind. (The rapper also released his third studio album, Featuring Ty Dolla $ign, early in the eligibility year, but it is not expected to be a player in the album of the year category.)
Lil Baby, The Weeknd and Young Thug are each featured on two likely album of the year nominees.
Elton John, who landed his first album of the year nod in 1970 for his own Elton John, could be back in the category 51 years later as a featured artist on Montero.
The Grammys have gone back and forth on the practice of awarding album of the year nominations to featured artists. From 2007 to 2016, all featured artists on an album received nominations and awards in this category. In each of those years, at least one album with featured artists was nominated. The number peaked in 2013, when four of the five nominated albums had featured artists.
In that 10-year period, two album of the year nominees — Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III (2008) and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ The Heist (2013) — each had 12 featured artists, the high in that period. Thus, Certified Lover Boy, if it is nominated, would set a new record as the album of the year nominee with the most featured artists.
Kendrick Lamar is the only artist to receive a Grammy nomination for album of the year as a featured artist in the 2017-20 period, after the Recording Academy adopted the 33% threshold. He was nominated as a featured artist on the Black Panther soundtrack, a 2018 nominee. He had a performing credit on five of the 14 tracks on that album. Lamar would have been nominated for the album, officially titled Black Panther: The Album, Music From and Inspired By, even without the featured credits. He was also nominated as a producer (along with Sounwave) and songwriter (along with Mark Spears).
Three winning albums in that period had featured artists: Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters (2007), Taylor Swift’s Fearless (2009) and Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (2013). Leonard Cohen, Norah Jones, Joni Mitchell, Corinne Bailey Rae, Luciana Souza and Tina Turner won album of the year Grammys for their featured roles on Hancock’s album. Colbie Caillat won for her featured role on Fearless. Nine artists, including Giorgio Moroder, Nile Rodgers, Paul Williams and Pharrell Williams, won for their featured roles on Random Access Memories.
This sets up some trivia questions that would stump even the most knowledgeable music fans. What album brought Mitchell her only album of the year award? It was River: The Joni Letters, not her own critical and commercial hit Court and Spark (a 1974 nominee). How about Turner? It was also River, not her comeback smash Private Dancer (1984). Moroder? It was Random Access Memories, not Donna Summer’s Bad Girls (1979), which he co-produced, or the Flashdance soundtrack (1983), which he produced.