Album of the Year: Genius Loves Company (2005)

With the 2022 Grammys coming up, I’ve decided to take a look back and review the albums that have won the Album of the Year award. Some of these albums have already been covered or will be covered in the Best Sellers so I won’t be touching those. I’ll be doing as much of these as I can of these until the Grammys on January 31st.

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Looking at the Album of the Year nominations at the 2005 Grammy Awards you’ll find yourself a pretty stacked list: American Idiot, The Diary of Alicia Keys, Confessions, and The College Dropout. All of those four albums nominated were some of the biggest albums of 2004 that had garnered lots of great reviews, big sales, and an endless amount of hits. You can’t possibly get any better than this class. But the record that won turned out not to be any of those albums but a comparatively low selling collection of duets by an absolute music legend who was not around to accept his award. It wound up being the biggest winner of the night.

Really, you can’t expect anything less from the Grammys. Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company is an album that sounds tailor-made for the Recording Academy to reward. It’s an album of safe middlebrow music by a hugely respected and important figure in popular music recorded with other highly respected and Grammy-winning artists in a celebration of his career. And then there’s the posthumous element. Ray Charles died in June 2004 only three months after recording ended on Genius Loves Company and two months before its release. It also helped that the Ray biopic movie was released that October becoming a critical and commercial success along with winning many awards. Charles’ death and the popularity of the biopic undoubtedly influenced the wins with the Academy using the awards as their way of paying tribute.

While not as big as its Album of the Year competitors, Genius Loves Company was not exactly an obscure album. It quickly became Ray Charles’ biggest album in a long time getting good reviews and landed on the Billboard 200 chart at #2 selling over 200,000 copies in that first week. By Grammy night, the album was already selling consistently well to be certified triple platinum for sales of three million. After winning big, Genius Loves Company managed to go the extra mile and hit #1 becoming Charles’ first #1 album in over 40 years after his 1962 landmark Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. A big helper in those sales came from none other than Starbucks as Concord Records partnered with the coffeehouse chain to carry the album in its stores with more than a quarter percent of Genius Loves Company sales coming from people buying it at Starbucks.

The plan for Charles to record an all-star duets album was the idea of John Burk, an executive VP at Concord Records. In an interview with MTV News, Burk explained the idea of the album as a way to bring Ray Charles back into the public eye and remind people of his talent, “We wanted to do something that brought attention to what a great artist he is and show how he broke down barriers and influenced so many singers, some of whom don’t even realize it.” The album took off after Charles duetted with Van Morrison on his song “Crazy Love” at Morrison’s 2003 induction ceremony at the Songwriters Hall of Fame. That performance wound up on Genius Loves Company as the final track. In the studio, Charles surrounded himself with lots of company from big-name artists performing a variety of standards, Charles songs, and songs from the guest artists. 

For what the album is, it accomplishes its main objectives in reintroducing Ray Charles to the public and reminding us of why he’s such an influential figure. The best part of Genius Loves Company is easily Charles himself. Even in his ‘70s and near death, Ray Charles still sounds great as ever. It’s like he knew this would be his last recording and has as much fun as possible with the album. He never sounds out of place with the different styles and artists he’s paired with as true to the nature of his career being able to perform in a variety of styles like R&B, soul, rock and roll, blues, country, standards, and even jazz. He gets into good chemistry with his collaborators especially with the banter he exchanges with Natalie Cole on their performance of the smokey ‘50s jazz standard “Fever” which makes it very fun to listen to.

My only issue with Genius Loves Company is mainly that outside of the celebration aspect it’s not exactly something suited towards my tastes. The Starbucks partnership makes too much sense considering it’s exactly the kind of tasteful inoffensive music you can imagine playing in the background of a Starbucks. For a legend like Ray Charles, Genius Loves Company is a slight album compared to the groundbreaking work he put out in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But for this kind of older leaning middle-of-the-road legacy album, I found myself enjoying it more than I anticipated.

Much like with my last review on Raising Sand, Genius Loves Company is an album that many people often remember today for how it swept the Grammys and is indicative of the Grammys being out of touch with what’s hot in music at the moment regardless of the album’s quality. Sure, it certainly didn’t deserve to beat out Green Day, Alicia Keys, Usher, and Kanye West but given the context of Charles’ death and the biopic, it all makes sense for me why Genius Loves Company dominated the way it did for someone who was only in kindergarten at the time.

Plus, Genius Loves Company is on its own a pretty good album. If you want to listen to a great artist bidding farewell by singing songs with other artists then you’ll find a lot to enjoy. I can’t say it’s an album I would listen to a whole lot but it’s not one to get all worked up about even with its Grammy wins.

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