The 62nd Annual Grammy Awards will take place at the Staples Center in Los Angeles over this weekend, and Song Of The Year is one of the most coveted prizes. Win this, and you join a hallowed hall featuring songs from only the most respected songwriters of the modern era: The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Elton John and, er, The Doobie Brothers (well, it was the end of the Seventies).
The Grammys recognition of the greatest song of the year is a little more complicated than most awards. Song Of The Year rewards the songwriters who wrote and composed the song, but the awards also have Record Of The Year, a prize that goes to the singer and production team.
Last year, This Is America by Childish Gambino won the Song Of The Year award, this year the nominations are:
Always Remember Us This Way (Lady Gaga)
Bad Guy (Billie Eilish)
Bring My Flowers Now (Tanya Tucker)
Hard Place (H.E.R.)
Lover (Taylor Swift)
Norman F***ing Rockwell (Lana Del Rey)
Someone You Loved (Lewis Capaldi)
Truth Hurts (Lizzo)
For 60 years the Song Of The Year category has rewarded songs that have become part of our aural history. It’s also thrown up some mystifying decisions too. Ahead of the ceremony this year, here’s BBC Music’s potted history of the the Song Of The Year award in 14 facts. [Note: the years cited are those in which the songs were released and were awarded for, not the year the ceremony took place, which is the following year.]
The first Song Of The Year was in Italian
The US music industry is big and broad enough to have overwhelmingly swelled the ranks of Song Of The year winners. But when the category kicked off in 1959, the Grammy Awards judges gave the prize to Domenico Modugno’s Volare. The song had already been Italy’s entry into the Eurovision Song Contest in 1958 and spent five weeks at the top of the Billboard charts, turning Modugno into a household name. Modugno, incidentally, later became a member of parliament in Italy and an outspoken critic of Chilean dictator August Pinochet – so much so that he was denied entry to Chile to play a concert.
Jimmy Webb’s surprising win
Jimmy Webb’s By the Time I Get To Phoenix is regarded as one of the classic songs of the 1960s, made even more memorable by the honeyed tones of the late Glen Campbell. The Grammy panel rightly gave it a nomination for best song in 1967, but the song was beaten by Up, Up And Away – also written by Webb. Thus, The 5th Dimension’s ode to hot-air ballooning made it into the Grammy history books, instead of one of the greatest essays of romantic longing ever recorded.
Little Green Apples beats The Beatles
Bobby Russell’s Little Green Apples is a masterpiece of lyrical songwriting; the kind of country song that makes you feel you’re right in the room with the characters. It was originally recorded by country legend Roger Miller, though the song’s confessional approach meant other singers soon clamoured to cover it. Patti Page and OC Smith both covered it in 1968, and Smith’s version earned Russell the Song Of The Year Grammy. Some might have thought that another song that made the category that year might have triumphed, however The Beatles’ Hey Jude missed out.
The Beatles won only once
In fact, though Lennon and McCartney may arguably be the most successful songwriting partnership in pop history, nods from the Grammy judges were conspicuous by their absence. The band won only once, for the song Michelle, off the album Rubber Soul. The choice was all the more interesting given that the song wasn’t released as a single, and the album never topped the charts in the US (though Michelle was the most popular Rubber Soul track on US radio).
Playing it safe in the ‘70s
Halfway through the 1970s, the Grammy judges still seemed to be keeping modern pop at arm’s length, celebrating instead the folkier charms of Simon & Garfunkel and the can-you-hear-me-at-the-back music hall projection of Barbra Streisand. 1975 was a year which saw a string of pop classics – from The Bee Gees’ Jive Talkin’ to KC & The Sunshine Band’s Get Down Tonight and David Bowie’s extraordinary Fame. What did the jury go for? Judy Collins’ Send In The Clowns.
No place for Bond
Say what you like about the James Bond films, but they have directly birthed a handful of fantastic pop songs, including Wings’ Live & Let Die and Louis Armstrong’s velvet-smooth We Have All The Time In The World. But one – and only one – has earned a nomination for Song Of The Year. Carly Simon’s Nobody Does It Better was the theme to 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, written by composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager. It lost out, however, to two another compositions for films – Evergreen (the theme to A Star Is Born) and You Light Up My Life, from the film of the same name. Incidentally, that’s the only time two songs have shared the prize.
Jimmy Webb wasn’t the only artist to enjoy a double nomination. The Doobie Brothers’ Michael McDonald also found himself up for the award twice in the same year, though with two different writing partners. Studio Doobie Lester Abrams co-wrote the single Minute By Minute with McDonald, but a place on the podium was assured thanks to the latter’s song with Kenny Loggins, What A Fool Believes.
No song success for Jackson
Few ’80s artists apart from Madonna and Prince could hold a candle to Michael Jackson, but despite his chart-topping domination, neither he nor his songwriting partners had even a sniff of songwriting success during the 80s – apart from Jackson’s part in the Ethiopia famine charity single We Are The World, with Jackson co-credited alongside Lionel Richie. There was more to be thankful for in the Record Of The Year category at least: Beat It won the category for 1983, and Thriller also won Album Of The Year.
Bette Midler’s double run
Think of 1989 and a clutch of classic singles spring to mind – Madonna’s Like A Prayer, The B-52s’ Love Shack, Cher’s Turn Back Time and Soul II Soul’s Back To Life, to name but a few. What did the Grammy judges plump for? Seemingly possessed by the spirit of a Broadway theatrical agent, the Grammy panel rewarded Bette Midler’s Wind Beneath My Wings, and followed it up a year later with another prize, this time for the equally maudlin From A Distance. In generations to come, music historians may come up with the idea that Midler was the female pre-eminent pop artist of the ’80s. It’s as if Madonna never happened.
The year music went to the movies
Music and movies have always gone hand in hand, and the Grammys and the Oscars have been regular dance partners. But 1994 was noteworthy even amid Hollywood themes to shoehorn their way into the proceedings. That year, no less than three of the songs in contention for the prize were from films. The Lion King soundtrack gave Elton John and Tim Rice two nods for the songs Circle Of Life and Can You Feel The Love, but victory went instead to Bruce Springsteen for the downbeat Streets Of Philadelphia.
Given that the Grammy’s have a public reputation of largely rewarding commercial rather than critical success, it’s odd that several of the pop world’s biggest artists have never been recognised – or even nominated. The Rolling Stones, Madonna, David Bowie and Queen have never even been nominated, while Prince’s one nomination was for Sinead O’Connor’s version of Nothing Compares To You.
Beautiful day for U2
U2, on the other hand, were nominated in 1987 for I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, though the Linda Ronstadt/James Ingram duet Somewhere Out There ultimately proved the winner. But U2’s day would come in the 2000s, with a double whammy five years apart. Beautiful Day – widely regarded as something of a commercial return to form after the dance rock antics half a decade earlier – took the honours for 2000, and five years later they followed it up with another for Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own. Some things truly do come to those who wait.
Seven’s up for songwriters
Songwriting often demands company – bouncing ideas off each other, helping songs take shape from those sparks of inspiration. But pity whoever had to pay the pizza bill for the songwriting session that birthed Bruno Mars’ That’s What I Like, which took the award for 2017. No less than seven writers – including Mars himself – contributed, a record that will likely take some beating. The most songwriters in this year’s nominations are five – for Hard Place by H.E.R. and Someone You Loved by Lewis Capaldi.
Growing choice for the award
When the category was invented only five songs went head-to-head. Nowadays – possibly because our streaming and download culture now favours the song over the album – this year’s prize is now contested by eight songs. Well, the human population has more than doubled in that time, so we suppose that’s only fair.