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Death Cab for Cutie, that plucky pop outfit from the Pacific Northwest, should thank its lucky stars Grammy chose the “best alternative music album” nomination for its respectably-selling LP, “Plans.” It could have been “Best New Artist.” Cutie fans who dug the group well before its 2005 guest appearance on “The O.C.” may scoff, but face it kids. Grammy can be pretty dense. For example, Keane, a group that, just like Cutie, got its start in 1997 — but nevertheless is nominated for newbie. Happily for Cutie, it avoided Keane’s fate.
As history shows, “Best New Artist,” instituted in 1959, is a repository or one hit wonders and long-forgotten has-beens. Conversely, the “alternative” category, introduced in 1991, is an excellent indicator for future success. Fourteen years reveal many repeat nominees, including acts that went on to “mainstream” Grammy nominations, as well as musicians whose “alternative” status is questionable. Even if a band, such as the White Stripes, remains relegated to “Alternative” (when it deserves flat-out “Best LP”), it still has a pretty good career ahead.
This, of course, begs the question, “What is alternative?” As in, “alternative to what?” It’s a tired argument originated by “indie” rock geeks who equate mainstream attention with “selling out.” It’s also a reasonable one when you consider “alternative” Grammy winners in Top 40 radio rotation — such as U2’s 1993 stadium tour extravaganza, “Zooropa.” Or formerly innovative acts such as REM, Elvis Costello and David Bowie nominated years — even decades — after they cease to matter. Or — and I’m not making this up — that Sir Paul McCartney received an “alternative” Grammy nomination in 2001.
Grammy still feeling its waySo yeah, Grammy can be dense. Rap didn’t get an award until 1989. Even then, it went to DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince (a.k.a. Will Smith) for "Parent's Just Don't Understand,” and not Public Enemy’s far superior commentary on mindless authority, “Fight the Power.” When Grammy finally got around to adding “alternative,” it still wasn’t sure what to do with the category. In 1991 and from 1994 to 1999, it was called “best alternative music performance.” And from 2001 to 2003, the musicians, producers and engineers shared the prize.
The term, “alternative music” became a catch phrase on college radio in the early ‘80s, used to describe punk-influenced bands on independent labels. Here in the 21st century, “alternative music” is mutable. Kids and record companies might apply the moniker to cheesy rap/punk bands with numbers in their names. Ideally, “alternative” describes innovation — music that changes everything in its wake. And sometimes even Grammy gets it right.
Take Beck. The 2005 LP “Guero” marks his fifth “alternative” nomination, which includes two winners: “Mutations” (2000) and “Odelay” (1997). A veteran by rock standards, Beck never left the razor’s edge. His career, like his recordings, is one big non sequitur. Every new LP reflects his sound collage obsession, but each in a very different way. “Guero” finds Beck ahead of the pack once again, the first major artist to use 8-bit music — tunes hacked from the bloops and beeps of archaic video games.
Radiohead is the only other band to match Beck’s five “alternative” nominations and two victories, including “OK Computer” (1998), one of the most acclaimed LPs of the ’90s, and “Kid A” (2001), which debuted at No. 1 on U.S. album charts. Hugely popular with both critics and regular Joes, Radiohead hammers home the point: Alternative to what?
The “alternative” Grammy can also be a case of too little, too late. Take, the Replacements. Aptly called “The Last Best Band of the ’80s” by “Musician” magazine, the Minnesota ‘Mats were the type of band “alternative” originally described. Unfortunately, when the group received its only Grammy nomination in 1991 (the “alternative” category’s debut), it was for “All Shook Down,” the first lame LP the Replacements recorded, and the beginning of their end.
Surprisingly, Grammy was dead on the money in 1992 when Nirvana’s “Nevermind” received an “alternative” nomination. Still, no one was shocked when tired old REM. won for “Out of Time.” Nominated again in 1994 for the genre-blasting “In Utero,” Nirvana lost to stadium superheroes U2. In typical Grammy fashion, amends were attempted posthumously when Nirvana won for “MTV Unplugged in New York” in 1996. Pitted against Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl’s new outfit, Foo Fighters, the right band won for the wrong release. Kurt Cobain was dead, Nirvana was over, and “Nevermind” was the LP that blew everything apart.
While “alternative” Grammy eventually rewards many of its repeat nominees, it’s a ghetto for female artists. In the category’s debut year, Sinead O’Connor deservedly won for “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.” Since then, few female artists have been nominated and none have won — unless you count Meg White, drummer for White Stripes, which won for “Elephant” in 2004. (Though arguably, Meg’s the more expendable member of that duo.) Hardworking Tori Amos, like Beck and Radiohead, has five nominations. The talented P.J. Harvey has three, as does the unique and unnerving Iceland diva, Bjork. But not a single win among them.
Maybe these gals need to get themselves on a prime-time teen soap. If “The O.C.” hadn’t rescued Cutie from cult obscurity, it’s doubtful Grammy would have noticed. Back in the day, REM’s “Out of Time” was no stranger to “Beverly Hills 90210.” Remember when Dylan, devastated by his breakup with Brenda, kept played the single “Losing My Religion” on the Peach Pit juke box?
Beck — he doesn’t need the street cred. But if Death Cab for Cutie’s other “alternative” nominees, Arcade Fire, Franz Ferdinand (also nominated in 2005) and even The White Stripes know what’s good for them, they’ll get “One Tree Hill” on the horn.
New York writer and admitted music snob Helen A.S. Popkin was a huge fan of Kelly Clarkson … before she sold out.