6 Times Alternative Won Big at the Grammys: From Arcade Fire to 'Bonny Bear'

Justin Vernon of Bon Iver
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Justin Vernon of Bon Iver accepts the award for 'Best New Artist' from singer Tony Bennett onstage at the 54th Annual GRAMMY Awards held at Staples Center on Feb. 12, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. 

The Grammys have changed a lot this decade. This year, a pair of alternative artists who release music through independent labels are up for two of the show’s “big four” awards. But while Alabama Shakes and Courtney Barnett are relative long shots for album of the year and best new artist, respectively, their nominations are not as surprising as they might seem. 

Throughout the 2010s, the Grammys have been kind to independent music in unprecedented ways. It also helps that independent labels enjoy more lobbying pull than ever, allowing critically-acclaimed outsider artists to crash the nominee party. But this can cause a stir. What happens when an artist like Beck beats an artist like Beyoncé?

Billboard takes a look back at the Grammys’ recent alt moments and their significance. 

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Arcade Fire Wins Album of the Year

2011 was a watershed year for the Grammys. Indie rock had reached a point of critical consensus where the voters took it seriously enough not just to nominate industry outsiders like Arcade Fire, but to give them the night’s biggest prize, too. Merge Records, a North Carolina-based indie label started by members of Superchunk, put Arcade Fire on the map, and by the time it released their third LP, The Suburbs, the band's dramatic, larger-than-life persona took the label to uncharted territory. Up against the likes of Lady Gaga and Eminem, Arcade Fire somehow came out on top. The band accepted the award in near disbelief and, perhaps on the biggest adrenaline rush of their lives, performed “Ready to Start” to end the live telecast. 

Esperanza Spalding Beats Drake and Bieber For Best New Artist 

In 2011, Grammy voters made it clear that there was more on their minds than album sales. The same year Arcade Fire's The Suburbs was crowned top album, Esperanza Spalding triumphed over Drake, Justin Bieber, Mumford & Sons and Florence + the Machine for best new artist. A contemporary jazz musician beating that newcomer class was a shock back then, though it certainly didn’t trip up any of the losing nominees. Spalding hasn’t spent much time in the mainstream eye since, though the unexpected win is likely to always help her career regardless of where she chooses to take it. 

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Bon Iver (aka Bonny Bear)'s Big Night 

A year after Arcade Fire, indie rock stayed winning at the 2012 Grammys. This time it was Justin Vernon, a sensitive, soft-spoken singer-songwriter who’d earned cult hero status (to go with ver modest sales) off his first two LPs as Bon Iver: 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago and 2011’s self-titled album. His team (including the Indiana-based indie label Jagjaguwar) did an admirable job of pushing him into three of the four major categories and though “Holocene” came up short of song and record of the year, Bon Iver won the best new artist prize. 

Many of those at home expected Nicki Minaj or Skrillex to win, and hadn’t even heard of Bon Iver. They misheard his name, and while Vernon got his Grammy, everyone else got Bonny Bear:

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Who Is Beck?

It’s crazy how an artist can be ubiquitous within a certain scene, but be a relative unknown to another. Most were expecting Beyonce’s self-titled album to take home album of the year honors in 2015, but out of nowhere came some guy called Beck. His melancholy folk-rock opus Morning Phase captured the hearts of the Grammy voters and the ire of Kanye West, who stepped to the stage à la Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs (though this time he didn’t intrude) and later suggested Beck should give Beyonce the prize. But the Grammy belonged to Beck. He’d been a fixture in alternative culture since the mid '90s, and Morning Phase won him the title that eluded him with two previous album of the year nominations -- Odelay in 1997 and Midnite Vultures in 2001. On the night of Feb. 8, 2015, much of the Internet wondered who this Beck character was, and Billboard answered the call.

Courtney Barnett: 'I've Never Followed the Grammys But It's Nice to Have That Recognition

Alabama Shakes and Courtney Barnett Nominated This Year

At the 2016 ceremony, Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color is up for album of the year and Barnett is up for best new artist. Regardless of whether they take home their respective prizes, the soul-rockers and the storytelling punk have already won. Few expected them to even get nominated, and with the spotlight they’ve gotten lately -- the scope of which is unprecedented for both -- they’ll get the opportunity to take their music to places they’ve likely never dreamed of before. Alternative rock may lag in hit singles and celebrity personas, but it gives a platform to women and queer people that is not as big in other genres. 

For more on the prospects for Barnett and Alabama Shakes at the 2016 Grammys, read Billboard’s report

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