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No offense, but Taylor Swift will never, ever, ever be known for being a great live performer. So instead of breaking it down and focusing on the vocals, this time she opted for a visually stunning performance. Loosely based on Alice in Wonderland, the spectacle featured the heartbreak queen adorned in a white top hat dancing around an evil queen, rabbits, and miming dancers. Extra kudos to Swift for looking her rocky romantic past in the face by placing a fictional ex-boyfriend on a spinning wheel and changing the lyrics of her hit song to acknowledge that she was too busy to care about her relationship status because she was opening the Grammys. Take that, Harry Styles, Conor Kennedy, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Mayer, and (pre-emptively) Michael J. Fox's son Sam!
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Simply having Ed Sheeran perform his Top 40 staple “The A Team” would have been way too boring, so the Grammys did what they do best: pair two unlike singers. In this case, Elton John’s vocals and piano stylings elevated this bare-bones performance from forgettable to (almost) memorable.
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Most Unexpected Forecast
For the third performance of the evening, eventual Song of the Year winners fun. performed "Carry On" and made it rain — literally. As the song reached its climax, a makeshift downpour drenched the stage, soaking the musicians and their instruments (and probably some of the audience members in the front rows, judging by how hard the water was falling).
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Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley are usually powerhouses, but maybe the overzealous fog machine distracted them. Their collaboration on Lambert's "Over You" and Bentley's "Home" was a little shaky, lacked chemistry and was difficult to hear. Let's blame it on Lambert's fuchsia mic? Whatever the problem, we weren't blown away as we expected to be.
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After showing a heartwarming clip of Dick Clark interviewing a young, and might we add, jumpsuit-happy LL Cool J, the Grammys paid tribute to the creator of American Bandstand with Miguel and Wiz Khalifia’s performance of “Adorn.” The more slowed-down arrangement of the pop song inspired a brief standing ovation, but more so because of whom the song honored instead of the emotion elicited from their brief stage time.
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Despite the new-ubiquity of British folk band Mumford & Sons' "I Will Wait," the band manages to breathe new life into it with a simple but effective performance. There were few distractions from Marcus Mumford's distinct vocals, the backing of the brass section and twang of the banjo.
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Say what you will about Justin Timberlake’s underwhelming new single “Suit & Tie,” but JT and the Tennessee Kids’ retro set (rendered in black-and-white to the audience at home) brought it home. Accompanied by a full band, an orchestra and a special appearance by Jay-Z, Timberlake’s high energy and flawless showmanship elevated the single, as well as his other new tune, "Pusher Lover Girl.” They don’t call him a triple threat for nothing!
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Adam Levine and his Maroon 5 bandmates kicked off a performance with "Daylight" before Levine broke off to provide vocal assistance to Alicia Keys. And just FYI — he doesn't make a very convincing "Girl on Fire." Keys, who performed fresh off her record-setting rendition of the National Anthem at the Super Bowl last weekend, wasn't seated at a piano this time though, and instead handled percussion duties to introduce the song.
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For 364 days of the year, Rihanna knows how to get everyone out on the dance floor with club bangers like “Where Have You Been” and “Umbrella.” But the outspoken singer chose the Grammys to tell industry folk that she’s more than a party girl. The message and subdued performance of “Stay,” with special guest Mikky Ekko, projected gravitas. Too bad it was also totally boring.
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Biggest Energy Boost
After Rihanna's snoozy performance, the Black Keys gave the show a shot in the arm with a raucous performance of their Best Rock Performance-winning song "Lonely Boy." Aided by Dr. John and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the Keys' performance had audience members like Katy Perry and John Mayer on their feet.
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Most Natural Performer
Kelly Clarkson pays tribute to Lifetime Achievement Award winners Carole King and Patti Page with an odd mash-up of Page's "Tennessee Waltz" and King's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." Clarkson's take on "Waltz" is nice, but a little implacable. But her formidable pipes do justice to the song that none other than Aretha Franklin made famous.
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Most Heartwarming Tribute
Bruno Mars started off a rhythmic Bob Marley tribute with a spirited rendition of his own reggae-inflected hit "Locked Out of Heaven," which many have said sounds like the Police. Fittingly, Sting joined to "testify" before segueing into the Police's "Walking on the Moon." The tribute kicked into high gear when Rihanna and Ziggy and Damien Marley got the room jumping with a rollicking cover of the senior Marley's "Could You Be Loved."
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Thanks to the ubiquity of the Lumineers' hit “Ho Hey,” the newcomers had no problem inspiring attendees like Melissa Etheridge and camera hog Taylor Swift to sing along from start to finish.
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Equal opportunist Jack White met the "noise-rock" quotient of the evening, first performing the folky "Love Interruption" backed by an all-female band, and then the much more raucous "Freedom at 21" with an all-male band. The performance had us reaching for the earplugs, but cameras caught Nicole Kidman mouthing "that was awesome" to hubby Keith Urban. CBS executives might disagree though, as for the second time in a week, an F-bomb slipped past the censors.
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Best Heard But Not Seen Award
After a brief but charming introduction by Hunter Hayes performing on piano, Carrie Underwood took to the stage to blow away the audience with "Blown Away." And while her vocals were powerful, the use — or should we say abuse? — of special lighting effects to project images on her oversized A-line skirt was a miscalculation. Ranging from Fallopian-like tendrils and blooming red roses to monarch butterfly wings, the images were a garish distraction from what should have been a flawless performance.
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Most Heavyweights Tribute
Immediately following the "In Memoriam" montage, a slew of musicians, including Elton John, T-Bone Burnett, Mavis Staples, and members of the Zac Brown Band, Mumford & Sons, and Alabama Shakes took the stage for a cover of The Band's "The Weight," in tribute to Levon Helm. By way of introducing the song, Elton John also honored the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, "whose songs ended too soon."
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El Mas Minimalist
As a nod to Elton John, who had already performed in two tribute performances, Latin crooner Juanes sang a sweet, soulful rendition of the legend's "Your Song" accompanied only by his guitar. By throwing in some Spanish lyrics, Juanes made it his song.
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Get us some Head & Shoulders because Frank Ocean's performance of "Forrest Gump" was a real head-scratcher. (When you have a second, Google the lyrics; it's a really weird song.) Although the performance's use of video trickery was visually arresting, we kept wondering if we were supposed to take this very serious artist seriously. Are we just not in on the joke?
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Best Blast From the Past
LL Cool J took a break from his duties as the most speechifying host of the Grammys ever to perform his new song "Whaddup" as the night's closing number, with a little help from Public Enemy's Chuck D, Travis Barker, and Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello. The performance also included a too-short excerpt of the Beastie Boys' "No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn," a tribute to the late Adam Yauch.