Grammys mystery solved: What is the difference between Record & Song of the Year?

One of the most frequently asked questions about the Grammys is, “What is the difference between Record of the Year and Song of the Year?”

Year after year, the question continues to pop up, and for good reason. Looking over the nominees in both categories from the last 20 years, the categories are alarmingly similar in their results. This begs the question: do the Grammy voters even understand, or at least pay attention to, the difference in these categories? 

Record of the Year is given to the artist, producer and engineer for a recorded single while Song of the Year goes to the songwriter for the written composition. 

But do Grammy voters distinguish what it is they like about a hit song: the lyrics, the melody, the vocal, the production? After all, the winners of both races have lined up more often than not over the last two decades. If the general voting body’s “top choice” is a nominee for Record and Song of the Year, it wins both (e.g., “Rolling in the Deep,” “Smooth,” “Stay With Me,” “My Heart Will Go On”). Indeed, in the last 20 years, these prizes have never been split between two singles nominated in both categories. 

It is only when a major record of the year contender is ineligible for Song of the Year (or vice versa) or the whims of the Nominations Review Committee come into play that there are two different winners. 

Below, we review the eight years where we saw two different tunes take these top categories.

Daft Punk was the year’s big winners, taking home Album of the Year and Record of the Year. But the Nominations Review Committee overlooked “Get Lucky” as a Song of the Year contender. With the electro-robots out of the way, Lorde won SOTY for “Royals” despite losing ROTY. 

Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye & Kimbra was selected as the Record of the Year but was ineligible for the songwriting competition as it includes a sample of “Seville” by Luiz Bonfa from 1967.  That meant that ROTY also-ran “We Are Young” by Fun. & Janelle Monae could sweep in and take the songwriting trophy.

Beyonce, Thaddius Harrell, Terius Nash and Christopher Stewart won Song of the Year for Queen Bey’s signature tune, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” In a puzzling move, she chose to submit “Halo” for Record of the Year instead of her culture-dominating female anthem. This opened the road for Kings of Leon to win ROTY for “Use Somebody” after losing the compositional category to Beyoncé’s bigger hit.

Early Grammys frontrunners for Album of the Year: Taylor Swift, Drake, …

Robert Plant & Allison Krauss took home Album of the Year for their collaborative effort “Raising Sand” and won Record of the Year for its single, “Please Read the Letter” – a cover of the song originally recorded by Plant & Jimmy Page. This meant that it was ineligible to be recognized for original music & lyrics. Unable to vote for Plant & Krauss, the big winner for Song of the Year was “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay.

The only song nominated in both categories that year was “We Belong Together” by Mariah Carey. However, despite being a leading nominee, she was shut out of the top categories. Instead, voters were quick to give Record of the Year to “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” by Green Day. But Grammy rules stipulate that if an album wins in any genre category, as Green Day’s “American Idiot” had the year before, any future singles are only eligible for Record of the Year. This oddball disqualification allowed U2 to be named champion songwriters for “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own.”

Ray Charles and Norah Jones collaborated on a version of “Here We Go Again” and in the heat of a near-sweep by Charles, the cover took home honors for Record of the Year. As noted previously for the Plant/Krauss win, only new songs are eligible for Song of the Year and therefore, “Here We Go Again” could not compete in 2005. In a still-bizarre upset (is it just me?), John Mayer won the songwriting trophy for “Daughters.”

Early Grammys frontrunners for Record of the Year: Rihanna, Kanye West, Taylor Swift, …

Just as Mariah Carey was blocked in 2006, Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” was the year’s lone double-nominee but got skipped over in both occasions. Those snubs highlight the difference in opinion between the voting body-at-large and the smaller nomination committee that decides the finalists for the top four categories. This lead to a split between “Clocks” by Coldplay (Record of the Year) and “Dance With My Father” by Luther Vandross (Song of the Year).

U2 and Alicia Keys were the kings and queen of the Grammys in 2002, sweeping the rock and R&B categories respectively. And it was a close split when they faced off in two of the night’s biggest categories. Keys went home with the award for Song of the Year for “Fallin’” over, among others, U2’s “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of.” However, she was no match for the Irish band’s post-9/11 inspirational anthem “Walk On” which won Record of the Year.

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