Grammys Categories Explained: What’s the Difference Between Song, Record and Album?

And just how new does an artist have to be to qualify as best new artist?

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Sven Hoogerhuis / AFP / Getty Images

Bruno Mars performs during the MTV Europe Music Awards (EMA) in Amsterdam on Nov. 10, 2013

At first it seems so simple. You know how awards like the Grammys work. You listen to music. You might wonder for a moment about a category like “best traditional pop vocal album,” but then you see that the nominees are folks like Tony Bennett and Michael Bublé and it all makes sense.

But, unlike the self-explanatory “best picture” of the Oscars, the top Grammy categories can be confusing even to the biggest music fan. What’s the difference between a record and an album? Why are the nominees for Song of the Year people like Jeff Bhasker and Ari Levine, whose names might not even ring a bell? Why are many nominees for Best New Artist people whose work you’ve been listening to for years?

Herewith, an explanation of the “big four” categories:

Record of the Year: This category, though it sounds like it’s for whole albums, is actually for individual singles — essentially, the all-around best individual recording. The people nominated are everyone who participates in making the single sound way it does: the artist, producers, engineers and mixers. The release-date eligibility period this year went from Oct. 1, 2012, through Sept. 30, 2013.

This year’s nominees are:

  • “Get Lucky” performed by Daft Punk ft. Pharrell Williams & Nile Rodgers
  • “Radioactive” performed by Imagine Dragons
  • “Royals” performed by Lorde
  • “Locked Out Of Heaven” performed by Bruno Mars
  • “Blurred Lines” performed by Robin Thicke ft. T.I. & Pharrell

Album of the Year: This one — the biggest award of the night — is actually pretty clear, once you sort out the record vs. album thing. The nominees are, along with the artist, the featured artists, engineers, mixers and producers. As explained by this fast-talking guy, album must have at least five tracks and be 51% (time-wise) new or previously unreleased material.

This year’s nominees are:

  • The Blessed Unrest, Sara Bareilles
  • Random Access Memories, Daft Punk
  • Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, Kendrick Lamar
  • The Heist, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
  • Red, Taylor Swift

(MORE: The Internet Predicts the Grammy Winners)

Song of the Year: This award is for songwriting, not the finished product. The nominees are, d’uh, the people who wrote the song. Songs that are instrumental-only are ineligible, as are songs that are heavily dependent on samples of other songs. However, songs that aren’t technically new but first achieved prominence during the eligibility period are eligible.

This year’s nominees are:

  • “Just Give Me a Reason” by Jeff Bhasker, Pink & Nate Ruess
  • “Locked Out Of Heave” by Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine & Bruno Mars
  • “Roar” by Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin, Bonnie McKee, Katy Perry & Henry Walter
  • “Royals” by Joel Little & Ella Yelich O’Connor
  • “Same Love” by Ben Haggerty [note: that’s Macklemore], Mary Lambert & Ryan Lewis

Best New Artist: Even the Recording Academy acknowledges that this one is confusing; after all, you’d think that being nominated for a Grammy in a prior year would disqualify an artist from being “new” but that’s not entirely the case (to wit: Ed Sheeran). This is less about rewarding beginners than it is about acknowledging that people only just got famous. Here’s how they define “new”: the artist or group must have released, during the eligibility period, their break-out recording, the song or album that brings his or her artistic identity to a new level of public awareness. He or she can’t have been nominated in a performance category before, except as a featured artist on someone’s else’s track if he or she doesn’t have an album yet, but nominations for things like songwriting aren’t disqualified. The somewhat subjective nature of this category is what makes it confusing — and what, to some, makes it deserve to be scrapped entirely.

This year’s nominees are:

  • James Blake
  • Kendrick Lamar
  • Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
  • Kacey Musgraves
  • Ed Sheeran

The Grammys take place this Sunday, Jan. 26.

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