A Brief History of Genre at the Grammys


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The Grammy Awards have had genre-specific categories from the very start, but the line-up looks a lot different today than when the first Grammys were presented in May 1959.  

Back then, when there were 28 categories, there were six categories reserved for classical music, two for jazz and one each for country & western and rhythm & blues.  

That meant some records were shoehorned into categories where they didn’t quite fit. Because there was no category for folk, The Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” wound up winning best country & western performance. Because there was no category for rock and roll, The Champs’ “Tequila” won best rhythm & blues performance.

That first year, there were also no categories specifically earmarked for eventual staple Grammy genres like pop (though the awards for best vocal performance, male and female tended to go to pop artists), dance music (unless you count best performance by a dance band, won by Count Basie), blues, gospel or Latin — or such later-emerging genres as rock, metal, alternative, rap, Americana, Contemporary Christian or Global.  

The addition of these and other categories has made the number of categories swell to 94 by the time of the 66th Annual Grammy Awards, which will be presented on Feb. 4. That’s more than three times as many as at the first Grammy ceremony, but down from the all-time high of 110 categories that were presented in 2008 and 2009.

There was a major streamlining in 2012, when the number of categories plummeted from 109 to 78. In a recent interview with Billboard, Academy CEO Harvey Mason, jr. referred to it as “the great consolidation.” Two factors were responsible for the reduction: Many felt that the glut of categories devalued the award. Also, The Grammys opted for gender-neutral categories, which reduced the number of categories needed. 

Ahead of this year’s ceremony, we put together a guide to the history of 20 genres that are recognized on the big night, listed in the order they were first introduced on the Grammy ballot. We also rounded up some of the discontinued Grammy categories that have been lost to time. 

This story is part of Billboard’s Genre Now package, highlighting the artists pushing their musical genres forward — and even creating their own new ones.

A few notes first: many categories have had name changes over the years. At the Grammy Awards presented in 1969, country & western was shortened to country; rhythm & blues was abbreviated R&B. More recently, best urban contemporary album was renamed best progressive R&B album because some took umbrage at the term “urban.” Best world music album was renamed best global music album to get away from “connotations of colonialism, folk, and ‘non-American’ that the former term embodied,” according to an Academy statement. Best rap/sung collaboration became best rap/sung performance (it no longer had to be a collaboration); it is now best melodic rap performance. 

Some category names were changed because they were just too unwieldly. Best soundtrack album or recording of original cast from a motion picture or television, as the category was known in 1961-62, is now known by the much simpler best score soundtrack for visual media. Even when the original names weren’t that clunky, the new shorter versions are catchier, as when best long-form music video became best music film and best short-form music video became best music video. 

Read on for a brief, selective history of genre at the Grammys – the years shown are the years of the award presentations each genre first appeared.

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