The Recording Academy’s Best New Artist Grammy category has been controversial — if not downright befuddling — since it was first awarded to a deserving Bobby Darin in 1959. While winners have included such legends as The Beatles, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Bette Midler, Sade, Mariah Carey, John Legend, Amy Winehouse, Adele, Sam Smith and last year’s selection, Chance the Rapper, there have also been legendary mishaps such as Starland Vocal Band (topping Boston), A Taste of Honey (over Elvis Costello) and most infamously, Milli Vanilli (who ended up returning it under pressure in the wake of the notorious lip-sync scandal).
Recent years have seen such upsets as Paula Cole besting Erykah Badu and Fiona Apple, Maroon 5 topping Kanye West, Esperanza Spalding over Drake, fun. over Frank Ocean and Alabama Shakes, and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis over Ed Sheeran and Kendrick Lamar. The choice of Shelby Lynne over Brad Paisley and Jill Scott in 2001 was one of the greatest WTF moments, since Lynne at the time had been releasing country albums for 12 years, before “crossing over” into the public’s consciousness with the “pop” record “I Am Shelby Lynne” (to be fair, that title may have sounded like a debut-album introduction to ears of a certain age).
This year’s race promises to be as controversial as ever, with a list of 374 eligible names. With the eligibility lists now revealed, the leading candidates would appear to be Khalid (winner of the MTV Video Music Awards Best New Artist), songwriter-turned-performer Julia Michaels, Canadian phenom Alessia Cara, positive rapper Logic, Noah Cyrus, rappers Lil UzI Vert, Post Malone, Rae Sremmurd, Kodak Black and Playboi Carti, former X Factor U.K. winner James Arthur, country newcomer Luke Combs, rock hopefuls Greta Van Fleet, British singer/songwriter /producer Sampha and R&B/soul diva SZA.
Even though Cara — who many people felt was robbed of a nomination last year — has had two platinum singles, an EP and a platinum album released at the tail end of 2015, she is eligible thanks to her 2016 hits, “Scars to Your Beautiful” (a major Song of the Year contender) and “Stay,” a Top 10 hit with Zedd. Same with Logic, whose latest album, “Everybody,” is his third, but first to go platinum, thanks to his suicide prevention Record/Song of the Year hopeful, “1-800-273-8255.” Their eligibility seems to hinge on the Recording Academy rule that “an artist will be considered for Best New Artist if their eligibility year release(s) achieved a breakthrough into the public consciousness and notably impacted the musical landscape,” which, in the case of both Cara and Logic, fits.
On the other hand, Noah Cyrus’ album, “NC-17,” has yet to be released, but she’s put out five individual tracks, which makes her eligible.
Among those left out due to technicalities are trap-rap superstars Migos, whose sophomore album, “Culture,” was preceded by at least 15 mixtapes and, according to Grammy rules, “an artist must have released a minimum of five tracks/singles or one album, but cannot have released more than 20 singles/tracks or three albums” prior to the start of the eligibility year. (That’s a downside of the 2016 rule revision that allowed free releases, including mixtapes, to be eligible for Grammy consideration.)
As for One Direction alums Harry Styles, Niall Horan and Liam Payne, their success with the band precludes their eligibility as solo acts, even if their prior band was essentially snubbed by the Grammy voters, receiving not even a single nomination. That, of course, doesn’t explain how one-time Fugees member Lauryn Hill was able to earn her award in 1999.
Columbia Records acknowledges it submitted breakout U.K. star Rag’N’Bone Man — whose “Human” is a definite contender in Record and Song of the Year — for Best New Artist consideration, but he was deemed ineligible by the Grammys because he had more than the stated “maximum of three previous album releases.” including 2014’s “He Has Wolves” and “Put That Soul on Me,” 2013’s “Dog n Bone” and 2012’s “Bluestown,” as well as a four-track EP, “Disfigured.”
K-Pop breakthrough act BTS are ineligible for the award on the same criteria, having previously released more than the maximum number of EPs and albums in their native country, even if they only entered the U.S. consciousness this past year.
Other potential Best New Artist candidates were eliminated by virtue of having either been nominated or won a Grammy, including Halsey – nominated last year for her role on The Chainsmokers’ “Closer” and as a featured artist on 2017 Album of the Year nominee Justin Bieber’s “Purpose” — along with Childish Gambino, Bryson Tiller, Kehlani, Lil Yachty, Thomas Rhett and Jheno Aiko, who all received prior Grammy nominations, making them ineligible in this category, according to the Academy’s frequently tweaked, sometimes hard-to follow set of rules for Best New Artist.
With that prelude, the race for the Grammy 2018 Best New Artist is likely to be as controversial and argued-over as previous years.