The Grammy Awards make themselves an easier target for ridicule than Lance Armstrong.
The jokes just write themselves. Like this: The Grammys are so over, they’re going to reanimate as zombies on “The Walking Dead.”
However, there is one Grammy category that seems to get it relatively right on an annual basis: best alternative music album.
Though not without its flaws, the honor is typically bestowed on artists who are making an impact now.
In the past 20 years, winners of the awards’ top prize, album of the year, can largely be lumped into one of two categories: Dated or revived stars getting overdue recognition, such as Herbie Hancock, Santana and Tony Bennett, or female pop or country vocalists, such as Taylor Swift, Dixie Chicks and Celine Dion.
The victors of best alternative album feel more fresh, challenging and relevant. Recent winners include New Wave-inspired pop rock musicians Phoenix, neo-soul hip-hoppers Gnarls Barkley and blues/garage rockers The Black Keys, who were recently announced as a headliner for Napa’s inaugural Bottle Rock Musical Festival in May.
While perhaps more culturally relevant, the winner’s podium for alternative album is overwhelmingly white and male.
The only nonwhites to earn the honor are Cee-Lo Green and Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton of Gnarls Barkley in 2007.
The award’s lone female recipient is Sinead O’Connor, who took the inaugural prize in 1991 for “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.” In fact, the nominations of Fiona Apple and Björk this year mark the first time a female solo artist has been up for the prize since 2008, when Lily Allen and, again, Björk were in the running.
Also in contention this year are Gotye, M83 and Tom Waits.
If you noticed Björk’s name a lot back there, that’s no accident. The alternative album category certainly has its favorites.
Every major Radiohead release since 1997’s “OK Computer” has either won or been in the running, including lead singer Thom Yorke’s 2007 solo album and Radiohead’s “Airbag/How Am I Driving?” EP, which I never thought I’d mention in print almost 15 years after it was released.
Nearly every album by Arcade Fire, Beck, The White Stripes, Death Cab for Cutie, Björk or Yeah Yeah Yeahs has received a nod in that time period, too.
Additionally, the category needs a rebranding. Alternative doesn’t mean much in 2013. The term brings to mind Counting Crows, The Wallflowers, Smashing Pumpkins and other ’90s rock staples.
The Grammy site says it’s for albums that are “nontraditional” and exist “outside of the mainstream music consciousness.”
Translated: We can throw whatever we want in this category.
And they have – 1995 pitted winner Green Day against Tori Amos, Crash Test Dummies, Sarah McLachlan and Nine Inch Nails. So power punk, baroque pop, pop rock, piano rock and industrial were all in one place.
That’s why this is a good category for the Grammy Awards. Instead of picking the easy favorite, the alternative album is usually a bit more challenging.
In 2005, when the Grammys went with the sentimental choice and paid tribute to then-recently deceased legend Ray Charles with album of the year for his pitiful career-ending duets collection, “Genius Loves Company,” Wilco earned the alternative album honor with one of the trailblazing Chicago group’s finest efforts in “A Ghost is Born.”
This year, the Grammy for album of the year won’t go to an aging star or a female pop vocalist. The five nominees are all male and under 40, but that’s been the exception, not the rule.
While the alternative album category is not all-encompassing enough to represent music in totality – it needs a new name, its winners are almost always white men and it routinely nominates the same artists – it still gets it right where it counts and that’s relevancy.
Ultimately, music is so diverse and personal that the Grammys are never going to pick an album-of-the-year winner that satisfies everyone.
But they can stop treating their top award like a baton in a relay race and start rewarding artists who are making meaningful music now instead of giving them an album of the year statue at the end of their careers.
In that sense, alternative album of the year is among the awards ceremony’s strongest categories.
To read more of Nick DeCicco’s blogs, visit http://dailyrepublic.typepad.com/forthoseabouttorock. Follow him on Twitter @ndeciccodr.