Among the eight nominees for album of the year at the 2019 Grammy Awards is one that might stand out as curious – Black Panther: The Album. Not because the Kendrick Lamar-helmed soundtrack featuring everyone from SZA to The Weeknd to Travis Scott isn’t deserving – it’s easily one of the most acclaimed soundtracks in recent memory, and the movie’s massive cultural impact in 2018 can hardly hurt – but because it’s not all that common to see soundtracks up for AOTY these days.
In fact, only one other soundtrack has been nominated for the honor in the 21st century: The T Bone Burnett-steered O Brother, Where Art Thou? compilation. But considering that nabbed album of the year in 2002, Black Panther: The Album is in good company.
O Brother is one of four soundtracks to take the top Grammy honor. Just eight years prior, the blockbuster Whitney Houston album The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack Album won AOTY in 1994. Back in the ’90s, seeing a soundtrack in the Grammy’s top category wasn’t such a rarity; in addition to The Bodyguard winning, the soundtracks for Waiting to Exhale and Beauty and the Beast were nominated.
The ’80s, however, saw just one soundtrack receive the prestigious nom – Flashdance. And although that was a massive selling, seminal album, the one that “Beat It” was the bigger commercial and critical success: Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
The ’70s saw one of the biggest soundtracks of all time win AOTY: Saturday Night Fever. The double LP set, anchored by several stone-cold Bee Gees classics, served as an easy disco sampler for many Americans dipping their toes into the ascendant genre. And coincidentally, Saturday Night Fever was up against another John Travolta movie soundtrack at the 1979 Grammys: Grease. But even if that was a big year for soundtracks, only one other movie accompaniment got a nod in the ’70s — Star Wars: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. (We’re not counting Jesus Christ Superstar as a soundtrack, by the way – try telling a theater kid that a cast album is a soundtrack and see if you live to share the tale.)
The ’60s, however, were a golden age for soundtracks, and the Grammy AOTY nominations reflected that. Five soundtracks for classic films — Dr. Zhivago, The Sound of Music, West Side Story, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Pink Panther – were nominated, as were two TV soundtracks: More Music From Peter Gunn, Henry Mancini’s second soundtrack for the private eye program, and Victory at Sea, Vol. 1, Robert Russell Bennett’s accompaniment for the WWII documentary TV series. But despite the format being so well represented in the ’60s, the Recording Academy didn’t bestow the top honor on any of those titles. (Worth noting: Although Andy Williams’ 1963 LP Days of Wine and Roses includes songs he sang on TV and in movies, it’s a studio LP.)
Lastly, we come to the first album of the year champion in 1959 – and yes, it’s a soundtrack. Mancini’s The Music of Peter Gunn, a collection of rock n’ roll-tinged cool jazz that accompanied the TV show, claimed the first-ever album of the year title at the 1st annual Grammy Awards.
So 60 years later, might another soundtrack take top honors at the 2019 Grammys? Well, with eight albums up for the award, it’s a stacked category, and Lamar’s collection is hardly the early favorite. But with changes to the voting body and so many ways the votes could be split, it could be Wakanda Forever come 2019.