The Recording Academy’s category description guide includes a capsule summary of these two awards, but it doesn’t shed light on the distinction between them.
In a 2017 post on Grammy.com, the academy’s Nate Hertweck attempted to explain. “Simply put, record of the year deals with a specific recording of a song and recognizes the artists, producers and engineers who contribute to that recording, while song of the year deals with the composition of a song and recognizes the songwriters who wrote the song. That’s it in a nutshell!” If you’re singing a song in the shower, or humming it as you walk down the street, that’s the song. What you hear on the radio, with a specific arrangement, performance and production, is the record.
Through the years, the roster of song nominees and winners has accumulated some major oversights. Bob Dylan, widely regarded as the most important songwriter of the modern era, has yet to be nominated for a Grammy for song of the year and has yet to win in any songwriting category. That’s presumably a source of great embarrassment to the academy, which has long since sought to make amends. It awarded Dylan a lifetime achievement award in 1991, and Dylan has won 10 Grammys in various album and performance categories.
The only Beatles song to win song of the year is “Michelle” (1966), a charming ditty that probably wouldn’t rank among the group’s top 25 on most fans’ lists. Grammy voters at the time seemed to be impressed by the way the group incorporated some lyrics in French.
The songwriters who have received the most song of the year nods (six each) are Paul McCartney and Lionel Richie. The songwriters with the most song of the year wins are Henry Mancini & Johnny Mercer (the only songwriting team to win twice), James Horner, Will Jennings, U2 (the only group to win twice) and Adele (the only female to win twice).
The roster of song winners reflects changes in the music industry during the past six decades. In the ’60s and ’70s, three winners emerged from Broadway shows, but the last was in 1975. In the past couple of decades, an increasing number of song of the year winners have come from genres other than pop. “This Is America” was the first hip-hop song to win. Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’ ” (2001), Luther Vandross’ “Dance With My Father” (2003), Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” (2009) and Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” (2017) came from the R&B field; U2’s “Beautiful Day” (2000) and “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” (2005) from rock; and Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice” (2006) and Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” (2010) from country.