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

Here's how to keep them straight.

H.E.R. accepts the 2021 Song of the Year Grammy for “I Can’t Breathe.”
Kevin Winter/Getty

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 speech during 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 album’s main artist. Today, the album’s producers, sound engineers, mixers, and songwriters are also honored, as are any featured artists who appear on the album. Generally, if you participated in creating a significant portion of the album (defined as at least 33 percent of its playing time), you get a golden gramophone.

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 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 2021 nominees for Album of the Year are:

Folklore — Taylor Swift — WINNER

Future Nostalgia — Dua Lipa

Women in Music Part III — Haim

Everyday Life — Coldplay

Chilombo — Jhené Aiko

Black Pumas (Deluxe Edition) — Black Pumas

Hollywood’s Bleeding — Post Malone

Djesse Vol. 3 — Jacob Collier

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 somewhat simple. 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.

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 2021 nominees for Record of the Year are:

“Colors” — Black Pumas

“Black Parade” — Beyoncé

“Rockstar” — Da Baby feat. Roddy Rich

“Say So” — Doja Cat

“Everything I Wanted” — Billie Eilish — WINNER

“Don’t Start Now” — Dua Lipa

“Circles” — Post Malone

“Savage” — Megan Thee Stallion feat. Beyoncé

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 person or people who wrote the song.

It's easy to confuse this award 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’s lyrics and melodies, not for their performance of the song.

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

The 2021 nominees for Song of the Year are:

“Black Parade” — Denisia Andrews, Beyoncé, Stephen Bray, Shawn Carter, Brittany Coney, Derek James Dixie, Akil King, Kim “Kaydence” Krysiuk, and Rickie “Caso” Tice (Beyoncé)

“The Box” — Samuel Gloade and Rodrick Moore (Roddy Ricch)

“Cardigan” — Aaron Dessner and Taylor Swift (Taylor Swift)

“Circles” — Louis Bell, Adam Feeney, Kaan Gunesberk, Austin Post, and Billy Walsh (Post Malone)

“Don’t Start Now” — Caroline Ailin, Ian Kirkpatrick, Dua Lipa, and Emily Warren (Dua Lipa)

“Everything I Wanted” — Billie Eilish O’Connell and Finneas O’Connell (Billie Eilish)

“I Can’t Breathe” — Dernst Emile II, H.E.R., and Tiara Thomas (H.E.R.) — WINNER

“If the World Was Ending” — Julia Michaels and JP Saxe (JP Saxe Featuring Julia Michaels)