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Remembering Blackstar: Bowie's Final Studio 'Experiment'

GRAMMY winners Tony Visconti and Tom Elmhirst reflect on the unique brilliance of David Bowie, the liberating and creative studio sessions for Blackstar and how Zen philosophy formed the heart of his production style

GRAMMYs/May 15, 2017 - 01:36 pm

(The Making Of GRAMMY-Winning Recordings series presents firsthand accounts of the creative process behind some of music's biggest recordings. In this installment, producer/engineer Tony Visconti and engineer/mixer Tom Elmhirst detail the making of Blackstar, which earned David Bowie four posthumous awards at the 59th GRAMMYs: Best Alternative Music Album, Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical, and Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance for "Blackstar.")

Tony Visconti: It had been a little more than a year since we finished David's previous album, The Next Day. We always had several meetings before every album began. We'd discuss the direction it would take, and also listen to what other artists had recently released.  

With Blackstar, we hired a studio and put down some ideas with a drummer and keyboard player, and me on bass, to test the waters. David also made demos on his own playing all the instruments. When we would work, though, we rarely referred to the demos. He didn't want the band to imitate the demos, he wanted to hear their first interpretations.  

Tom Elmhirst: I was in my room, Studio C, at Electric Lady Studios, when Tony Visconti and David booked the room next to my studio. Suddenly, David just walked into my control room, sat down and said, "Will you mix my album?" I said, "Of course!" And then we got on with it.

Visconti: There was never the same approach to a David Bowie album. He would preface every album by stating it was just an experiment. David chose the musicians most of the time. And often it would be David and me doing backing vocals. That's only us singing backups on the whole Heroes album, for instance, and also on most of Scary Monsters, and many others.

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Elmhirst: It was really easy to work with David. He was incredibly liberating. He'd say, "Just go. Go and have fun with it. Do what you do." I am really into reggae and dub, and he loved all that, and said, "Go for it." Not that there's much of that on Blackstar. But his attitude was very much "do what you do."

Visconti: He sang live with every take of the band while tracking. It was wonderful to see him singing live. He impressed the band, too. He was probably building up his chops for when the vocal sessions would take place.

Elmhirst: The record was mixed quite quickly. Maybe 10 days. This might be because I mixed the song "Blackstar," which had been created out of two separate songs as one piece of music, and I also mixed the last two songs on the album ("Dollar Days" and "I Can't Give Everything Away") as one piece of music, because they flow into each other. The vocals were there, the performances were there. I didn't have to do a lot of work. It was quite painless for me, the whole process, because it was recorded and produced so well.

Visconti: David always loved to do complete [vocal] takes, maybe as many as four. Usually, take one was the keeper with some words or lines used from the other takes. On rare occasions, he'd punch in. He always liked a good mix to sing to with some reverb on his voice. He didn't like hanging around if he was raring to go, so before he arrived I would create a very workable mix and my assistant would get the levels on my voice trying to sing as loud as he would. No matter how loud I would sing he'd always sing louder.

Elmhirst: "Blackstar" was the first song I worked on. It took a couple of days, which for me is quite long. I like to work quickly. But it is about 10 minutes long. It needed form. Obviously, not a lot of people put out 10-minute singles. So you have to approach it slightly differently. You can't give it all away too early. You have to allow the natural dynamics to come through. When it drops into that middle section, the solo voice, there is a sense of relief. It's really quite restrained up to that point, and then it opens up more.


Visconti: We worked on Blackstar for maybe six months, with three months for tracking and another three for overdubs. We'd visit [Tom Elmhirst] every day to modify the balances, special effects, etc. This wasn't a remote mix with us living in another city. We were hands on. Tom brought a magic to the mixes we never expected.

Elmhirst:  Often I do mixes unattended, without the artist there. But Tony and David were very involved. They'd come around 3 in the afternoon and stay a couple of hours. We'd go through stuff together, and then they'd take a mix away with them and live with it. That was the process. Sometimes they would suggest changes in different vocal balances. But a lot of the mixes didn't really change hugely from what I handed them, which was really lovely. Quite often you end up changing stuff for months afterwards. David was quite decisive. He would say he loved it, and be very onboard and happy with how the mixes were going. I had a lot of freedom.

Visconti: I never asked [David] if this was his final album. Some of the lyrics were very dark but I would never say to him, "Are you making a final album?" Absolutely not. It was written somewhere that I did ask him, but I was misquoted. He was already talking about making a new album before this one was released. He told me he had new demos for a new album, but I never heard them.

If anything, that idea [that he knew this was his final album] was an erroneous observation many people imagined after he had passed. After all, David's been writing about death and decay since the '70s.

Elmhirst: I could tell that David wasn't well. He couldn't stay very long. He didn't have a lot of energy. But when he was there, he was incredibly present, funny and really encouraging. He was really incredibly encouraging. And he really enjoyed the process. I think on other projects for them, the mixes took longer. This seemed to come together quite quickly, and to everyone's satisfaction.

I didn't know it would be his final album. We even talked about working on another record soon. And he was very keen. There wasn't a sense that this was it. Obviously, in the reflection, lyrically, it really was his last statement, wasn't it?

Visconti: David and I always had similar eclectic tastes in music and we took a great joy in turning each other on with something he or I hadn't heard before. Our style of production was, for want of a better word, Zen. We made sure we had master musicians working with us, and we'd sometimes jump on their mistakes as being perfect, the thing we'd least expect. For most people it would end in catastrophe. It takes a lot of experience to work at this level. I've hardly ever worked with anyone else like him.

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(As engineers on David Bowie's Blackstar, Tony Visconti and Tom Elmhirst earned Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical for their work on the project. Elmhirst won two additional GRAMMY Awards for his work on Adele's 25: Album Of The Year and Record Of The Year for "Hello.")

(Paul Zollo is the senior editor of American Songwriter and the author of several books, including Songwriters On Songwriting, Conversations With Tom Petty and Hollywood Remembered. He's also a songwriter and Trough Records artist whose songs have been recorded by many artists, including Art Garfunkel, Severin Browne and Darryl Purpose.)

21 Albums Turning 50 In 2024: 'Diamond Dogs,' 'Jolene,' 'Natty Dread' & More

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21 Albums Turning 50 In 2024: 'Diamond Dogs,' 'Jolene,' 'Natty Dread' & More

Dozens of albums were released in 1974 and, 50 years later, continue to stand the test of time. GRAMMY.com reflects on 21 records that demand another look and are guaranteed to hook first-time listeners.

GRAMMYs/Jan 5, 2024 - 04:08 pm

Despite claims by surveyed CNN readers, 1974 was not a year marked by bad music. The Ramones played their first gig. ABBA won Eurovision with the earworm "Waterloo," which became an international hit and launched the Swedes to stardom. Those 365 days were marked by chart-topping debuts, British bangers and prog-rock dystopian masterpieces. Disenchantment, southern pride, pencil thin mustaches and tongue-in-cheek warnings to "not eat yellow snow" filled the soundwaves.  

1974 was defined by uncertainty and chaos following a prolonged period of crisis. The ongoing OPEC oil embargo and the resulting energy shortage caused skyrocketing inflation, exacerbating the national turmoil that preceded President Nixon’s resignation following the Watergate scandal. Other major events also shaped the zeitgeist: Stephen King published his first novel, Carrie, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman slugged it out for the heavyweight title at "The Rumble in the Jungle," and People Magazine published its first issue. 

Musicians reflected a general malaise. Themes of imprisonment, disillusionment and depression — delivered with sardonic wit and sarcasm — found their way on many of the records released that year. The mood reflects a few of the many reasons these artistic works still resonate.  

From reggae to rock, cosmic country to folk fused with jazz, to the introduction of a new Afro-Trinidadian music style, take a trip back 18,262 days to recall 20 albums celebrating their 50th anniversaries in 2024. 

Joni Mitchell - Court & Spark

Joni Mitchell’s Court & Spark is often hailed as the pinnacle of her artistic career and highlights the singer/songwriter’s growing interest in jazz, backed by a who’s who of West Coast session musicians including members of the Crusaders and L.A. Express. 

As her most commercially successful record, the nine-time GRAMMY winner presents a mix of playful and somber songs. In an introspective tone, Mitchell searches for freedom from the shackles of big-city life and grapples with the complexities of love lost and found. The record went platinum — it hit No.1 on the Billboard charts in her native Canada and No. 2 in the U.S., received three GRAMMY nominations and featured a pair of hits: "Help Me" (her only career Top 10) and "Free Man in Paris," an autobiographical song about music mogul David Geffen.

Gordon Lightfoot - Sundown

In 2023 we lost legendary songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. He left behind a treasure trove of country-folk classics, several featured on his album Sundown. These songs resonated deeply with teenagers who came of age in the early to mid-1970s — many sang along in their bedrooms and learned to strum these storied songs on acoustic guitars. 

Recorded in Toronto, at Eastern Sound Studios, the album includes the only No.1 Billboard topper of the singer/songwriter’s career. The title cut, "Sundown," speaks of "a hard-loving woman, got me feeling mean" and hit No. 1 on both the pop and the adult contemporary charts. 

In Canada, the album hit No.1 on the RPM Top 100 in and stayed there for five consecutive weeks. A second single, "Carefree Highway," peaked at the tenth spot on the Billboard Hot 100, but hit No.1 on the Easy Listening charts.

Eric Clapton - 461 Ocean Boulevard

Eric Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard sold more than two million copies worldwide. His second solo studio record followed a three-year absence while Clapton battled heroin addiction. The record’s title is the address where "Slowhand" stayed in the Sunshine State while recording this record at Miami’s Criteria Studios. 

A mix of blues, funk and soulful rock, only two of the 10 songs were penned by the Englishman. Clapton’s cover of Bob Marley’s "I Shot the Sheriff," was a massive hit for the 17-time GRAMMY winner and the only No.1 of his career, eclipsing the Top 10 in nine countries. In 2003, the guitar virtuoso’s version of the reggae song was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall of Fame

Lynyrd Skynyrd - Second Helping

No sophomore slump here. This "second helping" from these good ole boys is a serious serving of classic southern rock ‘n’ roll with cupfuls of soul. Following the commercial success of their debut the previous year, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s second studio album featured the band’s biggest hit: "Sweet Home Alabama." 

The anthem is a celebration of Southern pride; it was written in response to two Neil Young songs ("Alabama" and "Southern Man") that critiqued the land below the Mason-Dixon line. The song was the band’s only Top 10, peaking at No. 8 on the Billboard Top 100. Recorded primarily at the Record Plant in Los Angeles, other songs worth a second listen here include: the swampy cover of J.J. Cale's "Call Me The Breeze," the boogie-woogie foot-stomper "Don’t Ask Me No Questions" and the country-rocker "The Ballad of Curtis Loew." 

Bad Company - Bad Company

A little bit of blues, a token ballad, and plenty of hard-edged rock, Bad Company released a dazzling self-titled debut album. The English band formed from the crumbs left behind by a few other British groups: ex-Free band members including singer Paul Rodgers and drummer Simon Kirke, former King Crimson member bassist Boz Burrel, and guitarist Mick Ralphs from Mott the Hoople. 

Certified five-times platinum, Bad Company hit No.1 on the Billboard 200 and No. 3 in the UK, where it spent 25 weeks. Recorded at Ronnie Lane’s Mobile Studio, the album was the first record released on Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song label. Five of the eight tracks were in regular FM rotation throughout 1974; "Bad Company," "Can’t Get Enough" and "Ready for Love" remain staples of classic rock radio a half century later. 

Supertramp - Crime of the Century

"Dreamer, you know you are a dreamer …" sings Supertramp’s lead singer Roger Hodgson on the first single from their third studio album. The infectious B-side track "Bloody Well Right," became even more popular than fan favorite, "Dreamer." 

The British rockers' dreams of stardom beyond England materialized with Crime of the Century. The album fused prog-rock with pop and hit all the right notes leading to the band’s breakthrough in several countries — a Top 5 spot in the U.S. and a No.1 spot in Canada where it stayed for more than two years and sold more than two million copies. A live version of "Dreamer," released six years later, was a Top 20 hit in the U.S. 

Big Star - Radio City

As one of the year’s first releases, the reception for this sophomore effort from American band Big Star was praised by critics despite initial lukewarm sales (which were due largely to distribution problems). Today, the riveting record by these Memphis musicians is considered a touchstone of power pop; its melodic stylings influenced many indie rock bands in the 1980s and 1990s, including R.E.M. and the Replacements. One of Big Star’s biggest songs, "September Gurls," appears here and was later covered by The Bangles. 

In a review, American rock critic Robert Christgau, called the record "brilliant and addictive." He wrote: "The harmonies sound like the lead sheets are upside down and backwards, the guitar solos sound like screwball readymade pastiches, and the lyrics sound like love is strange, though maybe that's just the context." 

The Eagles - On the Border

The third studio record from California harmonizers, the Eagles, shows the band at a crossroads — evolving ever so slightly from acoustically-inclined country-folk to a more distinct rock ‘n’ roll sound. On the Border marks the studio debut for band member Don Felder. His contributions and influence are seen through his blistering guitar solos, especially in the chart-toppers "Already Gone" and "James Dean." 

On the Border sold two million copies, driven by the chart topping ballad "Best of My Love" — the Eagles first No.1 hit song. The irony: the song was one of only two singles Glyn Johns produced at Olympic Studios in London. Searching for that harder-edged sound, the band hired Bill Szymczyk to produce the rest of the record at the Record Plant in L.A. 

Jimmy Buffett - Livin’ and Dyin in ¾ Time & A1A

Back in 1974, 28-year-old Jimmy Buffett was just hitting his stride. Embracing the good life, Buffett released not just one, but two records that year. Don Grant produced both albums that were the final pair in what is dubbed Buffett’s "Key West phase" for the Florida island city where the artist hung his hat during these years.

The first album, Livin’ and Dyin’ in ¾ Time, was released in February and recorded at Woodland Sound Studio in Nashville, Tennessee. It featured the ballad "Come Monday," which hit No. 30 on the Hot 100 and "Pencil Thin Mustache," a concert staple and Parrothead favorite. A1A arrived in December and hit No. 25 on the Billboard 200 charts. The most beloved songs here are "A Pirate Looks at Forty" and "Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season." 

Buffett embarked on a tour and landed some plume gigs, including opening slots for two other artists on this list: Frank Zappa and Lynyrd Skynyrd. 

Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

Following a successful tour of Europe and North America for their 1973 album, Selling England by the Pound, Genesis booked a three-month stay at the historic Headley Grange in Hampshire, a former workhouse. In this bucolic setting, the band led by frontman Peter Gabriel, embarked on a spiritual journey of self discovery that evolved organically through improvisational jams and lyric-writing sessions. 

This period culminated in a rock opera and English prog-rockers’s magnum opus, a double concept album that follows the surreal story of a Puerto Rican con man named Rael. Songs are rich with American imagery, purposely placed to appeal to this growing and influential fan base across the pond. 

This album marked the final Genesis record with Gabriel at the helm. The divisiveness between the lyricist, Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks came to a head during tense recording sessions and led to Gabriel’s departure from the band to pursue a solo career, following a 102-date tour to promote the record. The album reached tenth spot on the UK album charts and hit 41 in the U.S. 

David Bowie - Diamond Dogs

Is Ziggy Stardust truly gone? With David Bowie, the direction of his creative muse was always a mystery, as illustrated by his diverse musical legacy. What is clear is that Bowie’s biographers agree that this self-produced album is one of his finest works. 

At the point of producing Diamond Dogs, the musical chameleon and art-rock outsider had disbanded the band Spiders from Mars and was at a crossroads. His plans for a musical based on the Ziggy character and TV adaptation of George Orwell’s "1984" both fell through. In a place of uncertainty and disenchantment, Bowie creates a new persona: Halloween Jack. The record is lyrically bleak and evokes hopelessness. It marks the final chapter in his glam-rock period — "Rebel Rebel" is the swaggering single that hints at the coming punk-rock movement. 

Bob Marley - Natty Dread

Bob Marley’s album "Natty Dread," released first in Jamaica in October 1974 later globally in 1975, marked his first record without his Rastafari brethren in song Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. It also introduced the back-up vocal stylings of the I Threes (Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths.) 

The poet and the prophet Marley waxes on spiritual themes with songs like "So Jah Seh/Natty Dread'' and political commentary with tracks,"Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)" and "Rebel Music (3 O’clock Road Block)." The album also Includes one of the reggae legend’s best-loved songs, the ballad "No Woman No Cry," which paints a picture of "government yards in Trenchtown" where Marley’s feet are his "only carriage." 

Queen - Sheer Heart Attack

The third studio album released by the British rockers, Queen, is a killer. The first single, "Killer Queen," reached No. 2 on the British charts — and was the band’s first U.S. charting single. The record also peaked at No.12 in the U.S. Billboard albums charts. 

This record shows the four-time GRAMMY nominees evolving and shifting from progressive to glam rock. The album features one of the most legendary guitar solos and riffs in modern rock by Brian May on "Brighton Rock." Clocking in at three minutes, the noodling showcases the musician’s talent via his use of multi-tracking and delays to great effect. 

Randy Newman - Good Old Boys

Most recognize seven-time GRAMMY winner Randy Newman for his work on Hollywood blockbuster scores. But, in the decade before composing and scoring movie soundtracks, the songwriter wrote and recorded several albums. Good Old Boys was Newman’s fourth studio effort and his first commercial breakthrough, peaking at No. 36 on the Billboard charts. 

The concept record, rich in sarcasm and wit, requires a focused listen to grasp the nuances of Newman’s savvy political and social commentary. The album relies on a fictitious narrator, Johnny Cutler, to aid the songwriter in exploring themes like "Rednecks" and ingrained generational racism in the South. "Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)" is as relevant today as when Newman penned it as a direct letter to Richard Nixon. Malcolm Gladwell described this record as "unsettling" and a "perplexing work of music." 

Frank Zappa - Apostrophe

Rolling Stone once hailed Frank Zappa’s Apostrophe as "truly a mother of an album." The album cover itself, featuring Zappa’s portrait, seems to challenge listeners to delve into his eccentric musical universe. Apostrophe was the sixth solo album and the 19th record of the musician’s prolific career. The album showcases Zappa’s tight and talented band, his trademark absurdist humor and what Hunter S. Thompson described as "bad craziness."  

Apostrophe was the biggest commercial success of Zappa’s career. The record peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard Top 200. The A-side leads off with a four-part suite of songs that begins with "Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow" and ends with "Father Oblivion," a tale of an Eskimo named Nanook. The track "Uncle Remus," tackles systemic racism in the U.S. with dripping irony. In less than three minutes, Zappa captures what many politicians can’t even begin to explain. Musically, Apostrophe is rich in riffs from the two-time GRAMMY winner that showcases his exceptional guitar skills in the title track that features nearly six minutes of noodling.

Gram Parsons - Grievous Angel

Grievous Angel can be summed up in one word: haunting. Recorded in 1973 during substance-fueled summer sessions in Hollywood, the album was released posthumously after Gram Parsons died of a drug overdose at 26. Grievous Angel featured only two new songs that Parsons’ penned hastily in the studio "In My Hour of Darkness" and "Return of the Grievous Angel." 

This final work by the cosmic cowboy comprises nine songs that have since come to define Parson’s short-lived legacy to the Americana canon. The angelic voice of Emmylou Harris looms large — the 13-time GRAMMY winner sings harmony and backup vocals throughout. Other guests include: guitarists James Burton and Bernie Leadon, along with Linda Ronstadt’s vocals on "In My Hour of Darkness." 

Neil Young - On The Beach

On the Beach, along with Tonight’s the Night (recorded in 1973, but not released until 1975) rank as Neil Young’s darkest records. Gone are the sunny sounds of Harvest, replaced with the singer/songwriter’s bleak and mellow meditations on being alone and alienated. 

"Ambulance Blues" is the centerpiece. The nine-minute track takes listeners on a journey back to Young’s "old folkie days" when the "Riverboat was rockin’ in the rain '' referencing lament and pining for time and things lost. The heaviness and gloom are palpable throughout the album, with the beach serving as an extended metaphor for Young’s malaise. 

Dolly Parton - Jolene

Imagine writing not just one, but two iconic classics in the same day. That’s exactly what Dolly Parton did with two tracks featured on this album. The first is the titular song, "Jolene," recorded  at RCA Studio B in Nashville. The song has been covered by more than a dozen artists. 

Released as the first single the previous fall, "Jolene," rocketed to No.1 on the U.S. country charts and garnered the 10-time GRAMMY winner her first Top 10 in the U.K. The song was nominated for a GRAMMY in 1975 and again in 1976 for Best Country Vocal Performance. However, it didn’t take home the golden gramophone until 2017, when a cover by the Pentatonix featuring Parton won a GRAMMY for Best Country Duo/Group Performance. 

Also included on this album is "I Will Always Love You," a song that Whitney Houston famously covered in 1992 for the soundtrack of the romantic thriller, The Bodyguard, earning Parton significant royalties. 

Barry White - Can’t Get Enough

The distinctive bass-baritone of two-time GRAMMY winner Barry White, is unmistakable. The singer/songwriter's sensual, deep vocal delivery is as loved today as it was then. On this record, White is backed by the 40-member strong Love Unlimited Orchestra, one of the best-selling artists of all-time. 

White wrote "Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe," about his wife during a sleepless night. This song is still played everywhere — from bedrooms to bar rooms, even 50 years on. In the U.S., the record hit the top of the R&B pop charts and No.1 on the Billboard 200. Although the album features only seven songs, two of them, including "You’re the First, the Last, My Everything" reached the top spot on the R&B charts. 

Lord Shorty - Endless Vibrations

Lord Shorty, born Garfield Blackman, is considered the godfather and inventor of soca music. This Trindadian musician revolutionized his nation’s Calypso rhythms, creating a vibrant up-tempo style that became synonymous with their world-renowned Carnival. 

Fusing Indian percussion instrumentation with well-established African calypso rhythms, Lord Shorty created what he originally dubbed "sokah," meaning, "calypso soul." The term soca, as it’s known today, emerged because of a journalist’s altered writing of the word, which stuck. The success of this crossover hit made waves across North America and made the island vibrations more accessible outside the island nation. 

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GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Kendrick Lamar

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

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GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016

Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.

GRAMMYs/Oct 13, 2023 - 06:01 pm

Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.

A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.

This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system. 

"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."

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He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.

"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.

"Hip-hop. Ice Cube. This is for hip-hop," he said. "This is for Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle. This is for Illmatic, this is for Nas. We will live forever. Believe that."

To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood." 

Lamar has since won Best Rap Album two more times, taking home the golden gramophone in 2018 for his blockbuster LP DAMN., and in 2023 for his bold fifth album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.

Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes. 

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'Let's Dance' At 40: How David Bowie's Biggest Album Became His Most Conflicted
David Bowie in 1983

Photo: Robin Platzer/Getty Images

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'Let's Dance' At 40: How David Bowie's Biggest Album Became His Most Conflicted

On his 1983 album 'Let's Dance,' David Bowie wanted to create the decade's defining soundtrack. While incredibly commercially successful, the release left Bowie with mixed feelings. On its 40th anniversary, revisit the album's history and complexities.

GRAMMYs/Apr 14, 2023 - 01:06 pm

"Fame puts you there where things are hollow," David Bowie sang on his 1975 first U.S. No. 1, a riposte to the superficial nature of celebrity he'd once so desperately craved. The phrase "careful what you wish for" could equally be applied to 1983's Let's Dance, which later thrust the 19-time GRAMMY nominee into his highest level of stardom.  

The triumphant title track was a self-described "post-modern homage" to the Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout" — its powerful vocal crescendo actually borrows from the Beatles' cover — and reached No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, becoming Bowie's default floorfiller in the process. But for an artist always more interested in "nibbling at the periphery of the mainstream" than entering it wholeheartedly, this mainstream success presented a conflict. 

Bowie's attempt to provide the mid-'80s' defining soundtrack arrived after a period of turbulence for the Thin White Duke. He'd left RCA after recording his 11th album for the label, 1980's Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), suffered the tragic loss of his close friend John Lennon and began a feud with longtime producer Tony Visconti that would last a remarkable two decades.  

You might have anticipated Let's Dance, therefore, to be something of a somber, soul-searching affair. Yet not for the first, or the last, time in his career, Bowie subverted all expectations. Instead, he delivered a pure party record specifically designed to take residence at the top of the charts. 

Appointing Nile Rodgers — the GRAMMY-winning mastermind behind seminal albums by Sister Sledge and Diana Ross, as well as his own outfit, Chic — as producer was the clearest sign Bowie meant business. With the intention of creating a pure "singer's album," Bowie handed over all the instrumental duties to him, too.    

Rodgers had been looking forward to venturing outside his Studio 54 comfort zone, and was taken aback to discover Bowie wanted more of the same. "I felt a little hurt, like after all of our conversations about music and freedom I was being ordered back to the hit-making plantation," he wrote in his 2011 memoir Le Freak. Rodgers soon came around to the idea, later telling the Guardian that an album cover in which a pompadour-sporting, red-suited Little Richard gets into a Cadillac was the starting point. The album was completed in just 17 days at New York City's Power Station studios. 

Despite its chart-unfriendly lyrics ("Visions of swastikas in my head"), the Oriental pop of "China Girl" — a polished reworking of Bowie's contribution to Iggy Pop's 1977 classic The Idiot — added to his Billboard tally. So did  opener "Modern Love," a meditation on faith which impressively manages to sound both incredibly effervescent and resolutely nihilistic. "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)," a retooling of his theme to Paul Schrader's same-named erotic horror, abandons Giorgio Moroder's brooding synth-based atmospherics for arena rock guitar licks courtesy of a then-relatively unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan. Fans remain divided as to which version is the definitive. 

But Let's Dance is a more multifaceted body of work than its singles would suggest. "Criminal World" is a spirited take on the transgressive debut single from new wave outfit Metro (perhaps surprisingly for someone so famously open-minded, Bowie removes the original's bisexual overtones); the 60s-tinged falsetto pop of "Without You" and contemporary art rock of "Ricochet" exemplifies his ability to bridge the gap between the past and the future. Only closer "Shake It," a blatant retread of the album's eponymous smash, foreshadows the creative rut that would follow.  

Bowie's profile was further bolstered by his embracing of the burgeoning MTV (while promoting the record, he called out the network for its snubbing of Black artists). Designed to highlight the disparity between Australia's Caucasian and Aboriginal communities, the striking promo for "Let's Dance" found itself in constant rotation, its depiction of an Indigenous couple's daily hardships and clever red shoes metaphor providing both substance and style. The From Here to Eternity-referencing clip for "China Girl" even beat Michael Jackson's blockbuster "Thriller" for Best Male Video at the inaugural VMAs.  

This wasn't the only awards recognition Let's Dance received, either. Earlier on in 1984, Bowie earned GRAMMY nominations for Album Of The Year and Best Rock Vocal Performance Male for "Cat People," losing to the King of Pop on both occasions.  

And then there are the figures. Let's Dance reportedly became new label EMI's fastest-selling since the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band 16 years earlier, sparking a renewed interest in Bowie's back catalog — at one point he had nine entries in the UK Top 100, suggesting the record was a vital entry point into the far more weird and wonderful treasures lurking within his discography. Its current sales tally stands at a career best 10.7 million, firmly eclipsing the 7.5 million of closest challenger, 1972's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Bowie wanted a juggernaut and he sure got one.  

Of course, the press reception wasn't always as enthusiastic, with Robert Christgau, one of America's most esteemed music journalists, describing it as "pleasantly pointless" and the New York Times' Debra Rae Cohen arguing it was Bowie's "most artless" record to date. Yet the biggest critic of Let's Dance proved to be the man who made it.  

Bowie first started to distance himself from the record in 1987 when he claimed Let's Dance was more Rodgers' vision than his, which the producer has since refuted. A full decade later, Bowie  revealed the album's accompanying tour confirmed one of his biggest fears: "I was something I never wanted to be. I was a well-accepted artist. I had started appealing to people who bought Phil Collins albums." 

Even more worryingly, Bowie acknowledged he'd stopped caring about his audience — which perhaps explains the existence of 1984 follow-up Tonight, a surprisingly throwaway record which he'd eventually concede was the nadir of his career. "I really shouldn't have even bothered going into the studio to record it," he told Interview in 1995, also adding that he'd pandered to the success of Let's Dance and subsequently "put a box around" himself.  

Reeves Gabrels, guitarist in the Tin Machine group Bowie put together to help restore his creative integrity, could vouch for such despondency, telling Uncut, "[David Bowie] felt he had lost his way after Let's Dance. He didn't like where he was going and wanted to change it, so Tin Machine fell on that grenade." 

Bowie's attitude to his commercial heyday appeared to have softened since, however. He even defended Let's Dance in 1997, denying it was mainstream but instead a new hybrid which paired dance beats with blues-rock guitars ("It only seems commercial in hindsight because it sold so many," he said). Its big three singles were staples of his last major tour, A Reality, in 2004. And although he tried to shift the blame for its populist sound toward Rodgers, Bowie still asked the producer to oversee 1993's Black Tie White Noise, a much more experimental listen.  

Perhaps buoyed by Rodgers' increased pop cultural cachet, Let's Dance has also received a critical reevaluation: in 2014, Rolling Stone hailed it as "the conclusion of arguably the greatest 14-year run in rock history" while four years later it graced Pitchfork's Best Albums of the 1980s poll.  

Let's Dance could never be considered Bowie at his coolest. However, for a man who often thrived on contradiction, it’s perhaps fitting that the record he almost disowned was the one that connected the most. 

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20 Albums Turning 50 In 2023: 'Innervisions,' 'Dark Side Of The Moon' 'Catch A Fire' & More
Clockwise: Stevie Wonder 'Inversions', Pink Floyd 'Dark Side of the Moon', the Allman Brothers Band 'Brothers and Sisters', Al Green 'Call me', David Bowie 'Alladin Sane,' Roberta Flack 'Killing Me Softly'

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20 Albums Turning 50 In 2023: 'Innervisions,' 'Dark Side Of The Moon' 'Catch A Fire' & More

1973 saw a slew of influential records released across genres — many of which broke barriers and set standards for music to come. GRAMMY.com reflects on 20 albums that, despite being released 50 years ago, continue to resonate with listeners today.

GRAMMYs/Jan 24, 2023 - 04:08 pm

Fifty years ago, a record-breaking 600,000 people gathered to see the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band and the Band play Summer Jam at Watkins Glen. This is just one of many significant historical events that happened in 1973 — a year that changed the way music was seen, heard and experienced.

Ongoing advancements in music-making tech expanded the sound of popular and underground music. New multi-track technology was now standard in recording studios from Los Angeles to London. Artists from a variety of genres experimented with new synthesizers, gadgets like the Mu-Tron III pedal and the Heil Talk Box, and techniques like the use of found sounds.  

1973 was also a year of new notables, where now-household names made their debuts. Among these auspicious entries: a blue-collar songwriter from the Jersey Shore, hard-working southern rockers from Jacksonville, Fla. and a sister group from California oozing soul. 

Along a well-established format, '73 saw the release of several revolutionary concept records. The EaglesDesperado, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Lou Reed’s Berlin and the Who’s Quadrophenia are just a few examples that illustrate how artists used narrative techniques to explore broader themes and make bigger statements on social, political and economic issues — of which there were many.

On the domestic front, 1973 began with the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Roe v. Wade. Internationally, the Paris Peace Accords were signed — starting the long process to end the Vietnam War. An Oil crisis caused fuel prices to skyrocket in North America. Richard Nixon started his short-lived second term as president, which was marked by the Watergate scandal. 

Politics aside, the third year of the '70s had it all: from classic- and southern-rock to reggae; punk to jazz; soul and R&B to country. Read on for 20 masterful albums with something to say that celebrate their 50th anniversary in 2023. 

Band On The Run - Paul McCartney & Wings

Laid down at EMI’s studio in Lagos, Nigeria and released in December 1973, the third studio record by Paul Mcartney & Wings is McCartney’s most successful post-Beatles album. Its hit singles "Jet" and the title cut "Band on the Run" helped make the record the biggest-selling in 1974 in both Australia and Canada.

Band on the Run won a pair of GRAMMYS the following year: Best Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus and Best Engineered Recording, Non-Classical. McCartney added a third golden gramophone for this record at the 54th awards celebration when it won Best Historical Album for the 2010 reissue. In 2013, Band on the Run was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall of Fame. 

Head Hunters - Herbie Hancock

Released Oct. 13, Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters was recorded in just one week; its

four songs clock in at just over 40 minutes. That the album was not nominated in the jazz category, but instead Best Pop Instrumental Performance, demonstrates how Hancock was shifting gears.

Head Hunters showed Hancock moving away from traditional instrumentation and playing around with new synthesizer technology — especially the clavinet — and putting together a new band: the Headhunters. Improvisation marks this as a jazz record, but the phrasing, rhythms and dynamics of Hancock’s new quintet makes it equal parts soul and R&B with sprinkles of rock 'n' roll. 

The album represented a commercial and artistic breakthrough for Hancock, going gold within months of its release. "Watermelon Man" and "Chameleon," which was nominated for a Best Instrumental GRAMMY Award in 1974, were later both frequently sampled by hip-hop artists in the 1990s.

Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. - Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen, 22, was the new kid in town in 1973. This debut was met with tepid reviews. Still, Greetings introduced Springsteen’s talent to craft stories in song and includes many characters The Boss would return to repeatedly in his career. The album kicks off with the singalong "Blinded by the Light," which reached No. 1 on the Billboard 100 four years later via a cover done by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. This was the first of two records Springsteen released in 1973; The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle arrived before the end of the year — officially introducing the E Street Band.

Innervisions - Stevie Wonder 

This Stevie Wonder masterpiece shows an artist, in his early 20s, experimenting with new instrumentation such as TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra) — the world’s largest synth — and playing all instruments on the now-anthemic "Higher Ground."

The song reached No.1 on the U.S. Hot R&B Singles Chart, and Innervisions peaked at No. 4. The album won three GRAMMYS the following year, including Album Of The Year. Wonder was the first Black artist to win this coveted golden gramophone. In 1989, Red Hot Chili Peppers kept the original funk, but injected the song with a lot of rock on their cover — the lead single from Mother’s Milk.

The Dark Side Of The Moon - Pink Floyd

Critics perennially place this Pink Floyd album, the band's eighth studio record, as one of the greatest of all-time. The Dark Side of the Moon hit No.1 and stayed on the Billboard charts for 63 weeks.

A sonic masterpiece marked by loops, synths, found sounds, and David Gilmour’s guitar bends, Dark Side of the Moon is also a concept record that explores themes of excessive greed on tracks like "Money." Ironically, an album lambasting consumerism was the top-selling record of the year and has eclipsed 45 million sales worldwide since its release. The album’s cover has also become one of the most recognized in the history of popular music.

Pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd - Lynyrd Skynyrd

This debut release features several of the northern Florida rockers' most beloved songs: "Gimme Three Steps," "Tuesday’s Gone" and "Simple Man." The record, which has since reached two-times platinum status with sales of more than two million, also includes the anthemic "Free Bird," which catapulted them to stardom. The song with its slow-build and definitive guitar solo and jam in the middle became Lynyrd Skynyrd's signature song that ended all their shows; it also became a piece of pop culture with people screaming for this song during concerts by other artists.

Houses Of The Holy - Led Zeppelin

The first Led Zeppelin record of all originals — and the first without a Roman numeral for a title — Houses of the Holy shows a new side of these British hardrockers. Straying from the blues and hard rock of previous records, Houses of the Holy features funk (“The Ocean” and “The Crunge”) and even hints of reggae (“D’Yer Mak’er”). This fifth studio offering from Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham also includes one of this writer’s personal Zeppelin favorites — "Over the Hills and Far Away.” The song was released as the album’s first U.S. single and reached No. 51 on the Billboard charts. Despite mixed reviews from critics, Houses of the Holy eventually achieved Diamond status for sales of more than 10 million. Interesting fact: the song “Houses of the Holy” actually appears on the band’s next record (Physical Graffiti).

Quadrophenia - The Who

The double-album rock opera followed the critical success of Tommy and Who’s Next. Pete Townshend composed all songs on this opus, which was later adapted into a movie. And, in 2015, classically-scored by Townshend’s partner Rachel Fuller for a new generation via a symphonic version (“Classic Quadrophenia”). The story chronicles the life of a young mod named Jimmy who lives in the seaside town of Brighton, England. Jimmy searches for meaning in a life devoid of significance — taking uppers, downers and guzzling gin only to discover nothing fixes his malaise. With sharp-witted songs, Townshend also tackles classicism. His band of musical brothers: Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and Keith Moon provide some of their finest recorded performances. The album reached second spot on the U.S. Billboard chart.

Berlin - Lou Reed

Produced by Bob Ezrin, Berlin is a metaphor. The divided walled city represents the divisive relationships and the two sides of Reed — on stage and off. The 10 track concept record chronicles a couple’s struggles with drug addiction, meditating on themes of domestic abuse and neglect. As a parent, try to listen to "The Kids" without shedding a tear. While the couple on the record are named Caroline and Jim, those who knew Reed’s volatile nature and drug dependency saw the parallels between this fictionalized narrative and the songwriter’s life.

Catch A Fire - Bob Marley & the Wailers

The original cover was enclosed in a sleeve resembling a Zippo lighter. Only 20,000 of this version were pressed. Even though it was creative and cool, cost-effective it was not — each individual cover had to be hand-riveted. The replacement, which most people know today, introduces reggae poet and prophet Robert Nesta Marley to the world. With a pensive stare and a large spliff in hand, Marley tells you to mellow out and listen to the tough sounds of his island home.

While Bob and his Wailers had been making music for nearly a decade and released several records in Jamaica, Catch a Fire was their coming out party outside the Caribbean. Released in April on Island Records, the feel-good reggae rhythms and Marley’s messages of emancipation resonated with a global audience. A mix of songs of protest ("Slave Driver," "400 years") and love ("Kinky Reggae"), Catch A Fire is also notable for "Stir it Up," a song American singer-songwriter Johnny Nash had made a Top 15 hit the previous year. 

The New York Dolls - The New York Dolls

The New York Dolls burst on the club scene in the Big Apple, building a cult following with their frenetic and unpredictable live shows. The Dolls' hard rock sound and f-you attitude waved the punk banner before the genre was coined, and influenced the sound of punk rock for generations. (Bands like the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and KISS, cite the New York Dolls as mentors.) Singer-songwriter Todd Rundgren — who found time to release A Wizard, A True Star this same year — produced this tour de force. From the opening "Personality Crisis," this five-piece beckons you to join this out-of-control train.

Aladdin Sane - David Bowie

This David Bowie record followed the commercial success of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders from Mars. Many critics unfairly compare the two. A career chameleon, with Aladdin Sane, Bowie shed the Ziggy persona and adopted another alter-ego. The title is a pun that means: "A Lad Insane." For the songwriter, this record represented an attempt to break free from the crazed fandom Ziggy Stardust had created.

A majority of the songs were written the previous year while Bowie toured the United States in support of Ziggy. Journal in hand, the artist traveled from city to city in America and the songs materialized. Most paid homage to what this “insane lad” observed and heard: from debauchery and societal decay ("Cracked Actor") to politics ("Panic in Detroit") to punk music ("Watch That Man"). Top singles on Aladdin Sane were: "The Jean Genie" and "Drive-In Saturday." Both topped the U.K. charts.

Faust IV -Faust

This fourth studio album — and the final release in this incarnation by this experimental avant-garde German ambient band — remains a cult classic. Recorded at the Manor House in Oxfordshire, England (Richard Branson’s new Virgin Records studio and the locale where Mike Oldfield crafted his famous debut Tubular Bells, also released in 1973), Faust IV opens with the epic 11-minute instrumental "Krautrock" — a song that features drones, clusters of tones and sustained notes to create a trance-like vibe. Drums do not appear in the song until after the seven minute mark.

The song is a tongue-in-cheek nod to the genre British journalists coined to describe bands like Faust, which musicians largely did not embrace. The rest of Faust IV is a sonic exploration worthy of repeated listens and a great place to start if you’ve ever wondered what the heck Krautrock is.

Brothers & Sisters - the Allman Brothers Band

Great art is often born from grief, and Brothers & Sisters is exemplary in this way. Founding member Duanne Allman died in 1971 and bassist Berry Oakley followed his bandmate to the grave a year later; he was killed in a motorcycle accident in November 1972. Following this pair of tragedies, the band carried on the only way they knew how: by making music.

With new members hired, Brothers & Sisters was recorded with guitarist Dicky Betts as the new de facto band leader. The Allman Brothers Band’s most commercially successful record leans into country territory from the southern rock of previous releases and features two of the band’s most popular songs: "Ramblin’ Man" and "Jessica." The album went gold within 48 hours of shipping and since has sold more than seven million copies worldwide.  

Call Me -  Al Green

Call Me is considered one of the greatest soul records of the 20th century and Green’s pièce de résistance. The fact this Al Green album features three Top 10 Billboard singles "You Ought to Be With Me," "Here I Am" and the title track helps explain why it remains a masterpiece. Beyond the trio of hits, the soul king shows his versatility by reworking a pair of country songs: Hank Williams’ "I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry," and Willie Nelson’s "Funny How Time Slips Away."

Killing Me Softly - Roberta Flack

This Roberta Flack album was nominated for three GRAMMY Awards and won two: Record Of The Year and Best Female Vocal Pop Performance at the 1974 GRAMMYs (it lost in the Album of the Year category to Innervisions). With equal parts soul and passion, Flack interprets beloved ballads that showcase her talent of taking others’ songs and reinventing them. Producer Joel Dorn assembled the right mix of players to back up Flack adding to the album’s polished sound. Killing Me Softly has sold more than two million copies and, in 2020, Roberta Flack received the GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award.

The album's title cut became a No.1 hit in three countries and, in 1996, the Fugees prominently featured Lauryn Hill on a version that surpassed the original: landing the No.1 spot in 21 countries. The album also includes a pair of well-loved covers: Leonard Cohen’s "Suzanne" and Janis Ian’s wistful "Jesse," which reached No. 30.

Bette Midler - Bette Middler

Co-produced by Arif Mardin and Barry Manilow, the self-titled second studio album by Bette Midler was an easy- listening experience featuring interpretations of both standards and popular songs. Whispers of gospel are mixed with R&B and some boogie-woogie piano, though Midler’s voice is always the star. The record opens with a nod to the Great American Songbook with a reworking of Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael’s "Skylark." The 10-song collection also features a take on Glenn Miller’s "In the Mood," and a divine cover of Bob Dylan’s "I Shall be Released." The record peaked at No. 6 on the U.S. charts.

Imagination - Gladys Knight & the Pips

Released in October, Imagination was Gladys Knight & the Pips' first album with Buddha Records after leaving Motown, and features the group’s only No. 1 Billboard hit:  "Midnight Train to Georgia." The oft-covered tune, which won a GRAMMY the following year, and became the band’s signature, helped the record eclipse a million in sales, but it was not the only single to resonate. Other timeless, chart-topping songs from Imagination include "Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me," and "I’ve Got to Use My Imagination."

The Pointer Sisters - The Pointer Sisters

The three-time GRAMMY-winning Pointer Sisters arrived on the scene in 1973 with this critically-acclaimed self-titled debut. Then a quartet, the group of sisters from Oakland, California made listeners want to shake a tail feather with 10 songs that ranged from boogie-woogie to bebop. Their sisterly harmonies are backed up by the San Francisco blues-funk band the Hoodoo Rhythm Devils. The record opens with "Yes We Can," a hypnotic groove of a song written by Allen Toussaint which was a Top 15 hit alongside another cover, Willie Dixon’s "Wang Dang Doodle."

Behind Closed Doors - Charlie Rich

This pop-leaning country record of orchestral ballads, produced by Billy Sherrill, made Rich rich. The album has surpassed four million in sales and remains one of the genre’s best-loved classics. The album won Charlie Rich a GRAMMY the following year for Best Country Vocal Performance Male and added four Country Music Awards. Behind Closed Doors had several hits, but the title track made the most impact. The song written by Kenny O’Dell, and whose title was inspired by the Watergate scandal, was the first No.1 hit for Rich. It topped the country charts where it spent 20 weeks in 1973. It was also a Billboard crossover hit — reaching No. 15 on the Top 100 and No. 8 on the Adult Contemporary charts.

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