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Grammys’ Album of the Year Prize, Once Earmarked for Elders, Now Favors Youth

In the 2000s, seven out of 10 winners were over 40. In the 2010s? Zero. So Madonna and Springsteen fans shouldn't get any hopes up.

Tony Bennett kisess the Grammy for
Kathy Willens/AP/Shutterstock

In the run-up to the 2020 Grammys, you’ll often hear comments about how Madonna’s “Madame X” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Western Stars” is a shoo-in for an album of the year nomination, if not a win, because the Recording Academy especially likes to reward veterans in that category, as kind of a career achievement nod.

Well, sure … if you haven’t been paying attention for the last decade.

The blue-ribbon committees that narrow down the nominations for the top categories have lately made a point of excluding veteran acts — probably correctly surmising that if they include even one so-called heritage artist, there will be a huge bloc of more traditionally inclined voters that will flock to that elder statesman. And that’s the kind of scenario at least some Academy insiders have been desperate to avoid, ever since a reunited Steely Dan beat a heavily favored Eminem for album of the year in 2000, right when the latter rapper enjoying his cultural summit. (Never mind that “Two Against Nature” was actually an excellent late-career work; that’s to re-litigate another time.)

It’s only in the last decade, though, that the shift away from veterans has become especially apparent. In the ’90s, the trophy went to Tony Bennett, Quincy Jones and Bob Dylan; in the first decade of the 21st century, Ray Charles, Herbie Hancock, Robert Plant, Santana and, yes, Becker & Fagen were among the top prize’s winners. But those days were wiped aside in the 2010s: Not one artist over 50 has won the award in the last 10 years — after six out of 10 winners were 50+ the previous decade.

In fact, the average age of winners dropped by a whopping 20 years between the 2000s and the 2010s. This decade, the average album-of-the-year recipient was a youthful 29.3… down from an AARP-eligible 50.8 years old in the 2000s.

Sorry, Madge and Boss buffs: Your heroes are fighting an impossible tide when it comes to an award that, this year, may well go to a (soon-to-be) 18-year-old.

Variety surveyed all the album of the year winners for the last three decades to confirm this marked demographic shift. Here’s the data, with the age of the individual winners at the time of their triumphs. (For group efforts and soundtracks, we picked a frontperson or most prominent contributor… and in the case of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” where that person was the late Ralph Stanley, that did up the average a bit.)

THE 1990s

1990 – Bonnie Raitt (40)
1991 – Quincy Jones (57)
1992 – Natalie Cole (42)
1993 – Eric Clapton (47)
1994 – “The Bodyguard” soundtrack (Whitney Houston: 30)
1995 – Tony Bennett (68)
1996 – Alanis Morissette (21)
1997 – Celine Dion (28)
1998 – Bob Dylan (56)
1999 – Lauryn Hill (23)

Average age in the 1990s: 42.2. (Six out of 10 winners were over 40.)

THE 2000s

2000 – Santana (Carlos Santana: 52)
2001 – Steely Dan (Donald Fagen: 53)
2002 – “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (Ralph Stanley: 74)
2003 – Norah Jones (23)
2004 – OutKast (28)
2005 – Ray Charles (74)
2006 – U2 (Bono: 45)
2007 – Dixie Chicks (Natalie Maines: 32)
2008 – Herbie Hancock (67)
2009 – Robert Plant & Alison Krauss (Plant: 60)

Average age in the 2000s: 50.8. (Seven out of 10 winners were over 40.)

THE 2010s

2010 – Taylor Swift (20)
2011 – Arcade Fire (Win Butler: 30)
2012 – Adele (23)
2013 – Mumford & Sons (Marcus Mumford: 26)
2014 – Daft Punk (Guillaume Emmanuel de Homem-Christo: 39)
2015 – Beck (44)
2016 – Taylor Swift (26)
2017 – Adele (28)
2018 – Bruno Mars (32)
2019 – Kacey Musgraves (30)

Average age in the 2010s: 29.3. (One out of 10 winners was over 40.)