The difference between the Grammys’ Song, Album, and Record of the Year categories, explained

By Kelsey McKinney

Billie Eilish accepts the trophy for Best New Artist at the 62nd Grammy Awards. She also won Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Album of the Year.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

There are just four categories at the Grammy Awards where artists from all musical genres compete against one another — Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist. In these four races, country artists bump up against R&B musicians, and they both take on pop stars. If an artist wins one of these awards, they'll make headlines and get to give a nice long speech at the awards telecast.

But the Grammys’ many, many categories are already steeped in confusing industry-speak, and the top four awards are no different. With the exception of Best New Artist, it's easy to confuse the other three.

Here's everything you need to know to keep these categories straight.

Album of the Year

The Album of the Year award is the most prestigious Grammy there is, the rough equivalent of the Best Picture Oscar. The category honors an entire LP, from the first track to the last, and everything about the production of the album's sound.

Originally, the Album of the Year award went only to the artist credited with the creation of the album, and to the album's producers.

But starting in 1999, with Lauryn Hill's win for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the sound engineers and mixers of the album have also been honored, as have any featured artists who appear on the album. If you participated in the creation of the sound of the album, you get a golden gramophone. However, the album's songwriters are not included in this award.

How to remember it: The whole album gets an award! Some people confuse Album of the Year with Record of the Year, since albums used to be on physical records, and thus, the two terms are often used interchangeably in common parlance. But singles also used to be on physical records, and you wouldn't call a single song "Album of the Year."

The 2020 nominees for Album of the Year:

Record of the Year

Record of the Year is often confused with Song of the Year, since both awards go to individual songs. But the distinction is actually pretty simple to remember. The Record of the Year honors, first and foremost, the performing artist. Song of the Year honors the songwriter.

Record of the Year is given to the performing artist, the producers, the sound engineers, the master engineer, and the sound mixers.

The award directly correlates to the way song copyrights are created. For every song, there are at least two copyrights: The first goes to the songwriter, and the second goes to the performer. Those copyrights determine how a song’s contributors get paid, and how much they are paid. The people who make the sound of the song (not the words and melody) own the "Sound Recording" copyright. Hence, Record of the Year.

How to remember it: Instead of thinking of "record" as a physical, spinning record, think of it as the product of a recording studio. Everyone who would be in a recording studio working on the Record of the Year–winning song receives a golden gramophone for this award.

The 2020 nominees for Record of the Year:

  • “Hey, Ma” — Bon Iver
  • “Bad Guy” — Billie Eilish **WINNER**
  • “7 Rings”Ariana Grande
  • “Hard Place” — H.E.R.
  • “Talk” — Khalid
  • “Old Town Road” — Lil Nas X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus
  • “Truth Hurts” — Lizzo
  • “Sunflower” — Post Malone and Swae Lee

Song of the Year

The Song of the Year Grammy doesn't actually honor the performer of the winning song. Instead, it goes to the people who wrote the song.

It's easy to get this award confused with Record of the Year because there is often overlap in who is accepting the award. For example, if an artist has songwriting credit on their nominated song — a pretty common occurrence — then the artist might accept the award and give the speech. But they are receiving the award for writing and constructing the song, not for their performance of it.

Legally, this side of the copyright is known as the mechanical copyright. (Its name stems from the invention of mechanical pianos.) That copyright only goes to the songwriter, as does this award.

How to remember it: Try to think of it as Songwriter of the Year, rather than just Song.

The 2020 nominees for Song of the Year:

  • “Always Remember Us This Way” — Natalie Hemby, Lady Gaga, Hillary Lindsey, and Lori McKenna, songwriters (Lady Gaga)
  • “Bad Guy” — Billie Eilish O’Connell and Finneas O’Connell, songwriters (Billie Eilish) **WINNER**
  • “Bring My Flowers Now” — Brandi Carlile, Phil Hanseroth, Tim Hanseroth, and Tanya Tucker, songwriters (Tanya Tucker)
  • “Hard Place” — Ruby Amanfu, Sam Ashworth, D. Arcelious Harris. H.E.R., and Rodney Jerkins, songwriters (H.E.R.)
  • “Lover” — Taylor Swift, songwriter (Taylor Swift)
  • “Norman Fucking Rockwell” — Jack Antonoff and Lana Del Rey, songwriters (Lana Del Rey)
  • “Someone You Loved” — Tom Barnes, Lewis Capaldi, Pere Kelleher, Benjamin Kohn, and Sam Roman, songwriters (Lewis Capaldi)
  • “Truth Hurts” — Steven Cheung, Eric Frederic, Melissa Jefferson, and Jesse Saint John, songwriters (Lizzo)