Jesus Christ, Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel Passion New Age Grammy

The New Age Grammy enters the 90s. Peter Gabriel is a worthy winner. But a new age hyperstar is waiting in the wings…

Peter Gabriel’s Passion is a landmark album. It was the first album ever released on his Real World label. That means it was the first CD to have that lovely earthy rainbow spine. It was the moment WOMAD became an institution, rather than a financial disaster that could only be rescued by the power of prog. And it was very likely the first time many in the west were exposed to the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Youssou N’Dour, and Baaba Maal.

It also marked the first time the Grammy Award for Best New Age Recording was won by a superstar – and I don’t mean Jesus Christ.

Peter Gabriel isn’t cool now, and he wasn’t cool then. He was and is the exact opposite of cool, and that’s what makes him so wonderful. But though he wasn’t cool in 1989, he was certainly respected. This was three years after So, which went triple platinum in the UK and five times platinum in the US. It was the same year In Your Eyes achieved immortality when it was blasted from a stereo held aloft by John Cusack in Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything. And the album in question was the soundtrack to a Scorsese film about Jesus.

No question about it, Passion was an Important Album by An Artist of Note. And it won the New Age Grammy! In previous years, the award went to an eccentric harpist, a jazz veteran and a “chamber jazz” band. In 1990, it was won by an artist everyone knew, and millions loved. Did this legitamise the award, and the genre? Is this the year new age went mainstream?

If the creation of this award was a year zero for new age music, then 1990 was the year the genre came of age. If the term “new age” ever meant anything other than candles, dolphins, crystals and incense, after 1990 it could never mean anything else.

But was the album that forever cemented the idea of new age music any good? Let’s find out!

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Shadowfax’s Gentle Canter

Shadowfax - Folk Songs for a Nuclear Village

Middle Earth or Middle Age?

Poor Windham Hill Records. When the Grammy Award for Best Folk Recording was first introduced in 1987, I imagine they started clearing space on the mantelpiece. It must have felt like this new award was created just for them! After all, they were the multi-million selling new age label that may have been responsible for getting the academy to create the new category in the first place.

But despite having two separate label compilations nominated in the first awards, Windham Hill took nothing home. They had a number of horses in the race for the award’s second year, too. Alas, once more, no Grammy for Windham Hill.

Windham Hill missed out on a Grammy at the 1989 awards, too. That year, they didn’t stand a chance: Not a single release from their roster got a nomination. And to add insult to injury? The album that did win, Shadowfax’s Folksongs for a Nuclear Village, was the band’s first album not to be released on Windham Hill!

That must have stung. Many an empty beer can must have been thrown at the TV screen in the Windham Hill office when the 1989 New Age Grammy award winners were revealed.

But what of the album? Was it a worthy winner, or were Windham Hill justified in their (totally imagined by me) contempt?

Let’s find out!

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Yusef Lateef’s Inner Visions of Inner Landscapes

Yusef Lateef Little Symphony

The second album to win the Grammy for Best New Age Recording will certainly take you places. You might not necessarily enjoy the journey, but the destination is bliss.

The late Yusef Lateef was a worldly innovator, a boundary-breaker who never once rested on his laurels. He didn’t so much book studio time as set himself new challenges – fresh fusions to try, fresh frontiers to conquer. His body of work is an ocean of sound, and I’m still paddling in the shallows.

Up until very recently, I’d only heard one of his albums: 1957’s Before Dawn, which I acquired through Jonny Trunk’s astoundingly generous 50p Friday initiative. Trunk describes Before Dawn as “one of the greatest jazz records of all time.” And while I don’t think I’d count it among my very favourites, its irresistibly groovy progressive bop sounds are often exactly the sort of sounds I want to hear.

30 years after Before Dawn, Yusef Lateef would win the Grammy Award for Best New Age Recording for Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony. As a band leader, it was at least his 37th album. It also seems it was the last record he ever put out.

To go straight from the warm and organic Before Dawn to the austere and paranoid Little Symphony was a bit of a shock. I can only imagine the adventures that took place between his late 50s cool and his late 80s visionary period. I’ve got a lot of listening to do!

But first, let’s munch over the mysterious odyssey that won the New Age Grammy in 1988.

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Andreas Vollenweider’s Moonage Daydream

Andreas Vollenweider Down to the Moon

The winner of the inaugural Grammy for Best New Age Recording is a slap bass neon fairytale, with bells.

In an attempt to better understand what makes New Age Music New Age Music, I’m going to study ever album that ever won the Grammy Award for Best New Age Album.

I’m calling this project the New Age Grammy Challenge: Healing Assessments of Musicians Perceived as Awful, or NAGCHAMPA for short.

Or maybe I’ll just refer to it as my New Age Grammy Challenge Thing.

The Grammy Award for Best New Age Recording was introduced in 1987. The first ever award went to Swiss harpist Andreas Vollenweider for his 1986 album Down to the Moon. It’s a totally tropical deep dive into a muggy fairy realm. It’s the only album I can think of that could soundtrack both a magical fantasy adventure and a gritty ’80s cop drama. It sounds otherworldly, but it also sounds like pastel shirts in a neon mall.

If all the winners are this interesting, this is going to be a very fun challenge indeed.

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