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21 Strangest Best New Artist Grammy Wins

A short history of the Grammys’ most bizarre honor

Grammy; Hootie; 1994

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Congratulations, young pop star! You have just won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist! Get ready for a long and fruitful career. Perhaps in the field of VCR repair or rotary-phone design. Maybe managing an Internet café? Let's face it, this Grammy goes to a lot of artists who never get heard from again, so don't worry too hard about Lorde. It's the notorious Curse of the Best New Artist. Winning the award can be a sign of impending doom — it's like the scene in a Mel Brooks movie where somebody says, "At least it's not raining."

But that's why Best New Artist is everybody's favorite Grammy category — it's the one with the most bizarro picks. Some years they give it to the Beatles, Mariah Carey or Adele. Other years it's the Starland Vocal Band, A Taste of Honey or Evanescence. And once it was Milli Vanilli. Nobody can predict these things. When Lily Tomlin presented the statue for Best New Artist of 1982, she said, "This award is not just for the new star of today, but for someone who just possibly may be a star for years to come." Then she gave it to Men at Work. That's how it goes when you bet on the rookies. Sometimes they score wildly successful debuts, then suddenly find themselves up the hootie without a blowfish.

So here's a salute to 21 awesomely weird BNA wins. (The pre-Beatle years don't count, unless you really want to argue about how Ann-Margret got robbed in 1962.) Some of these were surprise upsets. Others were total one-shot scams. And one was Milli Vanilli. But practically all of them gave the world a half-decent song or two, which is all you can ask of a pop star. Better one glorious moment than a career of mediocrity — that's what Best New Artist is all about. By Rob Sheffield

Men At Work

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Men at Work (1982)

In his acceptance speech, singer Colin Hay proclaimed: "We are the Men — and we'll see you again!" They were, but they didn't. The Aussie new-wave vegemite fiends never topped their blockbuster 1982 debut, Business as Usual, even though they still had their best hits ahead of them — "Overkill" and "It's a Mistake." Here's a sax-solo salute to the late great Greg Ham.

Bruce Hornsby and the Range

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Bruce Hornsby and the Range (1986)

Socially conscious piano solos? With the drum mix in the red? Talk about 1980s Grammy bait. Bruce Hornsby could have disembowled Billy Crystal onstage wearing a "Home Taping Rules" t-shirt and still won this trophy. Nobody is 100 percent sure what the Range did, besides have deep backstage conversations with Hornsby about the Civil Rights Act. (Who'd win in an 1980s golf-rock fight, the Range or the News? Discuss.) Hornsby later joined the Grateful Dead as a keyboardist, which is like volunteering for a combat mission. Respect!

Jody Watley

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Jody Watley (1987)

J-Wat was a ringer in this category, since she was a longtime pro who'd already spent ten years at the top with the great disco group Shalamar. She was also one of the stars who sang on Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" So it was a surprise to see her listed as a new artist. And it was a shocker when she beat the heavily favored Terence Trent D'Arby. Her solo hit "Don't You Want Me" was the second-best Eighties hit with this title, while "Looking for a New Love" coined the phrase, "Hasta la vista, baby." She scored her nastiest hit in 1989, the Rakim duet "Friends."

Tracy Chapman

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Tracy Chapman (1988)

The Boston folkie hit big with "Fast Car." She was clearly destined for years of glory. Then what happened? She won Best New Artist, that's what happened. In Chapman's case, she was probably wise enough to realize her crossover success was a one-time thing, so she went her own way. Chapman jumped back in that fast car and hauled ass out of the mainstream limelight, returning only for her 1996 comeback hit, "Give Me One Reason."

Milli Vanilli

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Milli Vanilli (1989)

Imagine an era when people were so uptight, they got their panties in a bunch over the discovery that Milli Vanilli didn't sing on their records. Believe me, at the time, nobody thought for one second the Dudes with the Awesome Hair were also the Dudes Who Sang the Mediocre Vocals. And nobody cared. But apparently, the only people on earth who weren't in on the joke were the Grammy folks, and man, were they pissed. They officially revoked Milli Vanilli's award — though nothing can revoke the timeless schlock greatness of "Blame It on the Rain." 

Marc Cohn

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Marc Cohn (1991)

In the wake of Milli Vanilli, the Grammy voters wanted to send a message — they weren't going to stand for any more of this wubba-wubba-wubba pop nonsense the kids were into. So Marc Cohn could have won Best New Artist just by faxing in his resume. ("A former Tracy Chapman pianist? With a beard? Singing about Memphis? Come on down!") Thus began the most conservative and boring Grammy era, when they kept giving out awards to oldies like "Layla" and "Unforgettable" to avoid dealing with new music. "Walking in Memphis" was Cohn's first and last Top 40 hit. It remains a karaoke evergreen.

Arrested Development

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Arrested Development (1992)

Hip-hop's answer to Bruce Hornsby and the Range. Arrested Development (no relation to the TV show) had a hit in 1992 with the folksy "Tennessee." They were the first rappers to win Best New Artist, unless you count Sheena Easton. Bizarrely, they remain the only hip-hop act to win besides Lauryn Hill and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. (No, Kanye didn't win — he lost to Maroon 5. But he handled it with his usual maturity and grace.) 

Hootie and the Blowfish

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Hootie and the Blowfish (1995)

Hootie were the biggest band on earth at this time. It would have been insane if they hadn't won the award. It only looked WTF in retrospect, when Hootie-mania bit the dust overnight and America cruelly fell out of love with these cuddly rockers. Yet you can't keep a good man down, so Darius Rucker started over and ended up with the hit "Wagon Wheel," as well as inspiring a Key & Peele sketch. Take that, fickle-hearted American public!

Paula Cole

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Paula Cole (1997)

The quintessential Lilith Fair singer. "I do sip herbal tea," Paula confided to Rolling Stone. "I am someone who likes to garden, talk to my cats and be wacky hippie bird lady." Yeah, we guessed. She had a short whirl at pop stardom, then it was back to the cats, but "I Don't Want To Wait" was recently revived in a beer commercial. She's currently on tour with fellow BNA winner Marc Cohn. And in the summer of 1998, she inspired the all-time funniest correction in the history of the Rolling Stone letters page: "In RS 786, Paula Cole was misquoted as saying she believes that ‘God doesn't exist.' Rolling Stone regrets the error." Oh, those crazy Nineties. 

Lauryn Hill

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Lauryn Hill (1998)

The Fugees' Lauryn Hill won five Grammys for her solo debut, including Album of the Year. (Just like Christopher Cross in 1980.) So absolutely nobody was surprised when L-Boogie won BNA. The surprise came later, when she dropped off the face of the earth. Maybe the whole "bringing her Bible up to the podium so she could read a psalm to the crowd" thing should have been a warning sign. 

Shelby Lynne

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Shelby Lynne (2000)

Another country singer got the nod over Brad Paisley? Strange but true. Shelby Lynne was the type of underdog Grammy voters love to root for — an edgy singer-songwriter who'd paid some dues. She had the country cred, the whiskey-slugging outlaw image, the juicy backstory. What she didn't have was any more hits. She proved she didn’t need them, though, with projects like her 2008 album of Dusty Springfield covers Just A Little Lovin'.

Evanescence

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Evanescence (2003)

Give them credit for one of the most accurate band names ever. In a lean time for big-budget arena rock, this was the kind of franchise that gave Grammy voters hope. The duo of singer Amy Lee and guitarist Ben Moody went platinum with Fallen, but unfortunately, they'd already broken up by the time they won Best New Artist, though Lee kept using the brand name. Moody went on to produce the Celine Dion remake of Heart's "Alone."

Amy Winehouse

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Amy Winehouse (2007)

Winehouse was made for the BNA award, and it was made for her. So young. So female. So singer-songwriter-y. Kinda like Taylor Swift, who was also nominated that year. Except the Grammy voters figured Winehouse was the more promising rookie, since she was the one with the tattoos, the English accent and the boyfriend in jail. ("For my Blake incarcerated!") Despite her outlaw rock cred, Winehouse was already essentially retired by the time she won. She lived another three and a half years, but released no new music in this time, while Swift kept writing truckloads of great songs. By the time of Winehouse’s tragic death in 2011, Swift had already made another two blockbuster albums, Fearless and Speak Now.

Bon Iver

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Bon Iver (2011)

Has anyone looked so tortured at the idea of winning a Grammy? (And he refused to participate in the ceremony's Beach Boys homage. Go get 'em, tiger.) Justin Vernon may be the most obscure artist to get nominated for BNA, much less win, but that just makes him part of this gloriously nonsensical Grammy tradition. And his finest song, "Beth/Rest," sounds exactly like Christopher Cross, so this means a de facto second Best New Artist win for C.C. Always bet on Christopher Cross. Always.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Macklemore (R) and Ryan Lewis pose with their awards in the press room during the 56th Grammy Awards at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on January 26, 2014. AFP PHOTO/Joe KLAMAR (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)

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Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (2014)

Most years it'd look bizarre if Macklemore & Ryan Lewis didn't win Best New Artist after the blockbuster rookie season they had. But most years don't have Kendrick Lamar as the competition. The entire slate of nominees was uncommonly strong that year: Kacey Musgraves, Ed Sheeran, James Blake. But as strong as all these artists are, there's only one Kendrick, as To Pimp a Butterfly made clear. Macklemore also won Best Rap Album and even he thought it was nuts — to his credit, he sent Kendrick a text that night: "You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have."

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