Prince: Purple Rain (1984)
The Purple One had some mighty competition in 1985, going up against the likes of Bruce Springsteen (Born In The USA), David Bowie (Let’s Dance), Cyndi Lauper (She’s So Unusual) and Tina Turner (Private Dancer) for Album Of The Year. The award ended up going to Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down. Despite that album producing hits “All Night Long” and “Hello,” the legacy of Purple Rain is greater and further reaching, as a top-to-bottom classic album producing multiple chart topping singles, including “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” and “I Would Die 4 U,” not to mention the controversial Tipper Gore favorite, “Darling Nikki.” To be fair, the album did win for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group and Best Album Of Original Score Written For A Motion Picture or TV Special.
Run DMC: Raising Hell (1986)
The Grammys did not even recognize rap/hip-hop music until they introduced the “Best Rap Performance” in 1989, so the idea of Run DMC even being considered for Album Of The Year at that time was unheard of. Among the albums nominated, which include Peter Gabriel’s So, Janet Jackson’s Control, Barbara Streisand’s The Broadway Album, Steve Winwood’s Back In The Highlife, and winner Paul Simon’s Graceland, it’s hard to imagine how Raising Hell was forgotten.
Metallica: Master Of Puppets (1986)
Metallica’s thrash metal masterpiece was too loud in both sound and sentiment for the prestigious award show in 1987. The last of the group’s catalogue to feature bassist Cliff Burton, who died while on tour for the record, this masterfully-crafted classic was the first of its genre to achieve platinum status, with over six million copies sold by 2003. The album is largely regarded among the greatest of records of all time by each Time, Rolling Stone, Guitar World and Slant.
Guns ‘n’ Roses: Appetite For Destruction (1987)
Its pretty safe to say that brandishing your album art with a a post-coital robot rape scene (which was later changed) is a surefire way to ensure exclusion in the Grammy’s Album Of The Year category, despite the fact that the record is now considered by many to be one of the greatest rock albums of all time. With over 18 million copies sold, the seminal record brought fans to their sha-na-na-na-na-na-knees with his like “Welcome To The Jungle,” “Paradise City,” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” However we can’t be too upset at that year’s winner, U2's The Joshua Tree.
Public Enemy: It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988) /
N.W.A: Straight Outta Compton (1988)
While both Public Enemy and N.W.A had released projects before 1988's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and Straight Outta Compton, it was these two albums that really defined the identities of both groups. Two sides of the same coin: P.E.’s hard-rhyming, politically conscious New York hip-hop b/w N.W.A’s L.A. aggro-gangsta apathy. Rap had just got its foot in the door at the Grammys in 1989, with no award for Best Rap Album even introduced until 1995. So forget about albums with songs like “Fuck Tha Police” and lyrics such as “Who gives a fuck about a goddamn Grammy,” being taken into consideration by the committee, despite the wild popularity and groundbreaking influence of both. George Michael’s Faith won that year.
Beastie Boys: Paul’s Boutique (1989)
They really played it safe in 1990, with a handful of overly-vanilla nominees for Album Of The Year. While Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever seemed like the obvious choice, the honor instead went to Bonnie Raitt’s Nick Of Time. Not surprisingly, The Beastie Boys’ defining sophomore LP Paul’s Boutique wasn’t nominated, yet somehow the Fine Young Cannibals’ The Raw & The Cooked was. It drives us crazy.
Nirvana: Nevermind (1991)
Not only one of the greatest albums of all time, but also one of the greatest album covers of all time. This record was the centerpiece of the 90s grunge movement that seemed to tragically end with Kurt Cobain’s life. It was nominated in 1992 for Best Alternative Music Performance, yet lost to R.E.M.’s Out Of Time. It was overlooked in the Album Of The Year category, where R.E.M. was also nominated, but suffered defeat to Natalie Cole. Other nominees apparently more important than Nirvana that year were Paul Simon, Amy Grant and Bonnie Raitt (again.)
A Tribe Called Quest: The Low End Theory (1991)
Well, let’s just buckle down and face facts. If the Grammy committee could not see Nirvana’s Nevermind staring them in the face in 1992, we can hardly expect them to have recognized A Tribe Called Quest’s abstract jazz rap magnum opus, The Low End Theory, which was bubbling beneath the surface. This album’s buzz spread by word of mouth; it did not reach platinum status until 1995. Without a huge crossover single, the rap recognition that year went to DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s “Summertime” and LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out.”
Dr. Dre: The Chronic (1992)
If the previous albums listed here were the ones to put hip-hop on the map, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic was the album that defined the commercial-yet-credible blueprint still being subscribed to today. This g-funk masterwork is responsible for carving out the high-ranking Apple employee’s career as a solo artist and also for jump-starting the career of a young Calvin Broadus. Released December 15, 1992, it would have likely been a candidate for the 1994 awards—that is, if an album with a sketch called “Deeez Nuuuts” would have been deemed listenable by committee members. Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard soundtrack took home the trophy, leaving Billy Joel, R.E.M., Donald Fagan and Sting in the dust.
Weezer: Weezer (1994)
Despite Weezer’s self-titled “blue album” being their greatest work, the band would not be nominated for a Grammy until 2005 for their “Beverly Hills” single. This triple-platinum, sweater-destroying classic produced two incredible Spike Jonez videos, “Undone” and “Buddy Holly” — the latter brilliantly intercut with classic clips from Happy Days. Tony Bennett’s MTV Unplugged album got the Album Of The Year trophy, beating out Donald Fagen Kamakiriad, Billy Joel River Of Dreams, R.E.M. Automatic for the People, and Sting Ten Summoner’s Tales.
Nine Inch Nails: The Downward Spiral (1994)
Trent Reznor and company’s beautifully bleak concept album about the unravelling of a man’s sanity remains a modern classic, propelled by anthemic singles “Closer” and “Hurt.” This brilliantly produced witches brew of industrial rock, metal and electronic music was likely too dark to be nominated for Album Of The Year—it lost to Green Day’s Dookie for Best Alternative Music Performance. Tough call.
Notorious B.I.G: Ready To Die / Nas: Illmatic (1994)
These two cornerstones of New York hip-hop released in 1994 almost represent a fork in the road for the genre, but are seen as equals by fans. Biggie excelled at glamorizing the flashy lifestyle of an ex-drug dealer, while Nas painted vivid, grounded portraits of Queens street life. The direction of the production on Ready To Die would lead to hip-hop becoming a dominant force in pop music, while that of Illmatic would be the benchmark for the underground, “real hip-hop” sound. Both are considered among the greatest albums of all time, but nobody at the Grammys had the clairvoyance to see this in 1995, as neither were nominated in any category. But hey, at least Seal’s Seal was.
Radiohead: OK Computer (1997) / Radiohead: Kid A (2000)
Radiohead’s pair of perfect full-length albums are the yin-and-yang of alt-rock greatness—OK Computer presenting a harder edged, yet lush dream world for Yorke’s melodious wailing, while Kid A’s digital drum tracks took the sound of the band in a fresh new direction. To be fair, the Grammys did recognize this pair of starkly-contrasting Radiohead albums as recipients of the Best Alternative Music Album awards in 1998 and 2001, respectively. While both were nominated for Album Of The Year, they shamefully lost to safe bets Bob Dylan’s Time out of Mind and Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature, two albums that are still only being listened to by people with grandchildren.
Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)
Eminem became a star with The Slim Shady LP, however he didn’t record an album from that rarified perspective until its follow-up, The Marshall Mathers LP. Hailed by many as the most technically amazing rapper of all time, critics consider this album to be Em’s greatest accomplishment. This also was in the running for Album Of The Year with Radiohead’s Kid A, but again, lost to Steely Dan. The record did win for Best Rap Album, however.
The Strokes: Is This It (2001)
The springboard for the New York indie rock scene and invasion of the “The” bands, The Strokes’ Is This It redefined the sound of rock & roll with uptempo, danceable anthems, which were copied endlessly. Lauded as the best album of 2001 by each Time, Billboard, Entertainment Weekly and NME, among others, it was hardly a blip on the Grammy committee’s radar, receiving no recognition at all. The soundtrack to O’ Brother Where Art Thou took home the trophy in 2002, beating out Bob Dylan, Indie.Arie, Outkast, and U2.
Daft Punk: Discovery (2001)
The blueprint for today’s EDM lies within Daft Punk’s incredible Discovery, an uptempo-yet-slow-burn of an album that took years to sink into the collective consciousness. Including what many consider to be the greatest electronic dance song ever—“One More Time”—by the time the rest of the world caught up to what they were doing, the Daft boys had moved onto making funky 70s rock, as filtered through the ears of robots.
Amy Winehouse: Back To Black (2006)
Perhaps the strangest inclusion on this list, Amy Winehouse won five Grammys for this album, including Best Pop Vocal Album. Yet Back To Black incredulously lost Album Of The Year to Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters, which only took one other award, Best Contemporary Jazz Album. The soulful legacy of this Mark Ronson-produced chariot of fire is still heard today on his chart-topping smash “Uptown Funk,” despite Amy’s bittersweet perspective being so much darker.