The 2016 Grammy Awards telecast was, as usual, stuffed with performances that were alternately over the top or studiously serious. Every now and then, an award was handed out. The final scorecard on the 58th edition of “music’s biggest night”:
Worst technical presentation: Adele. Her “comeback” performance following vocal surgery at the 2012 Grammys announced to the world that her tremendous powers and unpretentious appeal were undiminished. But Grammy did her no favors this year. Backlighting her with a spotlight looked terrible on TV. And a microphone inside her accompanist’s piano was apparently jarred loose as the instrument was moved; the resultant audio glitches marred her “All I Ask.” To her credit, she rolled with it.
Best Big Easy moments: Grammy telecast producer Ken Ehrlich is a longtime friend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival’s Quint Davis; Ehrlich also oversees filming at Jazz Fest. He often weaves New Orleans references into the Grammy show. This year, members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band paraded around the floor of the Staples Center at the telecast’s outset; buddy Dave Grohl posed backstage with them. The footage used to tease Pitbull’s Grammy finale was shot during his set at Jazz Fest’s Congo Square Stage last year. And Allen Toussaint was the very first artist featured in a star-studded “In Memoriam” segment, before Earth Wind & Fire’s Maurice White, the Eagles’ Glenn Frey, B.B. King and David Bowie.
Best unscripted Big Easy moment: While accepting a well-deserved record of the year Grammy for his “Uptown Funk” collaboration with Bruno Mars, Mark Ronson gave a shout-out to numerous funk pioneers, including the Meters. (One group he didn’t thank: the Gap Band, whose “Oops! Upside Your Head” provided source material for “Uptown Funk.”)
Best musical performance (small): Little Big Town’s hushed, intimate, string-laden rendering of “Girl Crush.” Karen Fairchild’s spectacular voice, a well-constructed song, a fresh, flattering arrangement and a simple, classy presentation made for a winning combination.
Best musical performance (big): Taylor Swift’s opening “Out of the Woods.” She was every bit as a strong as the song, the band behind her, and the broad, forest-themed stage set.
Best spectacles: Rapper Kendrick Lamar’s jailhouse march for “The Blacker the Berry,” and Lady Gaga’s epic David Bowie musical. Anyone who (mistakenly) thought Beyonce’s Super Bowl halftime show was “political” should watch Lamar’s intense Grammy production — THAT was political. More power to him for taking a chance.
Gaga’s performance of the National Anthem prior to the Super Bowl showed off her considerable pipes. Her mad rush from one Bowie classic to another showed her commitment to what was obviously a rigorously rehearsed and assembled production. Songs are inevitably short-changed in a medley; Gaga’s lower-register approach worked on the opening “Space Oddity” but didn’t fit “Changes” and “Ziggy Stardust” as well. But the final “Heroes,” with the horns blazing and Nile Rodgers cutting loose on guitar, provided the necessary exclamation point.
Best acceptance speech: Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the smash Broadway musical “Hamilton,” rapped a pre-written ode to his collaborators from the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theater in New York. It was a glimpse at the creative mind that made “Hamilton” such a dazzling success.
Sweetest acceptance speech: After winning song of the year, Ed Sheeran thanked his parents, who flew in from England every previous year he was nominated, only to see him come away empty-handed: “Every time I lose, they go, ‘Maybe next year.’?” Finally it was his year.
Best acceptance speech ad-lib: Grizzled country hitmaker Chris Stapleton thanked Taylor Swift for the glitter that sparkled his jacket.
Teariest acceptance speech: Meghan Trainor. Her dad, who was seated next to her in the audience, also wept.
Best souvenir: If Sheeran snagged the Braille winner’s announcement that Stevie Wonder read, that might be a better keepsake than the actual gold gramophone.
Least amount of chemistry: Carrie Underwood and Sam Hunt, the latter of whom recalled a tattoo-less Adam Levine. Their ballad duet generated absolutely zero sparks – ironic, given the amount of faux flames featured throughout the rest of the telecast.
Most tasteful tribute: Chris Stapleton, Gary Clark Jr. and Bonnie Raitt calmly soloing through B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.” No pyrotechnics were necessary in this understated, authentic and wholly appropriate salute.
Oddest tribute participant: John Legend smoothly navigating “Easy” to open the Lionel Richie tribute? Made perfect sense. Demi Lovato did a nice job belting “Hello.” But Luke Bryan joining in on “Penny Lover”? When the camera cut to Richie in the audience, even he seemed confused.
Shakiest tribute: The surviving Eagles, joined by Jackson Browne, seemed tentative and tired on “Take It Easy.” The best element was original Eagle Bernie Leadon’s twangy electric guitar solo. Afterward, Anna Kendrick dutifully read her assigned line on the TelePrompTer: “What a powerful performance we just saw from the Eagles.” She seemed unconvinced.
Most effort, least payoff: Justin Bieber with Skrillex and Diplo of Jack Ü. They all jumped around and/or banged drums enthusiastically. But their song wasn’t very good.
Best way for Grammy voters not to embarrass themselves: Nominate a strong field of contenders in the major categories, i.e. album of the year. I have no problem with Swift’s “1989” winning. Instead of going with a left-of-center choice — as in Beck last year — voters opted for the “mainstream” choice. But Swift’s album was very, very good, a stylistic shift executed with aplomb, and filled with solid, undeniably addictive songs that she at least co-wrote. There’s a reason she can fill stadiums -– she’s the real deal.
Biggest wasted effort: The Hollywood Vampires. Great rock ’n’ roll bands are built from the bottom up. They originate with young, desperately hungry, unknown musicians — like Alice Cooper and members of Aerosmith and Guns ’n’ Roses were decades ago. For the now-multi-millionaire rock stars Cooper, Joe Perry, Duff McCagan and Matt Sorum, augmented by millionaire actor Johnny Depp, to present themselves as some sort of scruffy, scrappy hard rock supergroup felt like watching a bunch of rich guys play dress-up in jackets that cost more than most bands’ gear. It also felt hopelessly outdated.
Which, for the most part, the 2016 Grammy Awards didn’t.
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.