Let's face it: Hardly anyone outside the music business cares who picks up which trophies at the Grammys, since the real "winners" are whoever unofficially triumphs in the Best Performance on This Particular Telecast category. The show's producers certainly recognize that, since they managed to shoehorn 21 performances into Sunday night's show. Our ranking of those musical numbers, from best to weakest:
1. Nine Inch Nails, Queens of the Stone Age, Lindsey Buckingham, and Dave Grohl: "Copy of a"/"My God is the Sun"
Who cares if the network used Josh Homme's song to hurriedly run end credits over at the three hours, 45-minutes point? This was a truly inspired idea for a severely rocking jam session, from the moment the Fleetwood Mac guitarist's inimitable picking backed up electro-god Trent Reznor's vocal musings. Better some serious rock 'n' roll as a brief wakeup call at the tail end of the show than none at all.
2. Daft Punk with Stevie Wonder, Pharrell Williams, and Nile Rodgers: "Get Lucky"/"Another Star"
You could argue that a performance centered around two masked men could only get so lively, but Stevie has enough soul to cover for a multitude of robots, and this would've been the universally liked party anthem of the night even if they'd been joined by John Tesh.
3. Lorde: "Royals"
She's not for every taste, and some tweeters found her jerky movements Joe Cocker-like (as opposed to the David Byrne comparisons she's made herself). Bet the still 17-year-old (!!) New Zealander proved she can not just withstand but commandeer the spotlight with thousands of intimidating elders looking on. Best New Artist? Yeah, she was robbed.
4. Taylor Swift: "All Too Well"
Any memories of some rough award-shows performances in her teen years were pushed even further into distant history by Swift's vocal and keyboard agility, nailing the kind of incriminating ballad that shows she'll have a career as a serious singer-songwriter decades after migraines make her give up that head-banging.
5. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis with Madonna, Queen Latifah, and Mary Lambert: "Same Love"/"Open Your Heart"
Bold and important social statement, or stunt? It's not just you: We can't decide, either. Either way, it made for galvanizing television history and established once and forever that these really aren't your granny's Grammys, as the pro-gay rap song led into the on-air marriage of 33 couples, both same-sex and straight. It remains to be seen how many of those being wed will relish the memory of having Queen Latifah declaring them lawfully wed being stepped on by the applause aimed at Madonna suddenly emerging in a cowboy hat.
6. Metallica and Lang Lang: "One"
Another love-it-or-hate-it moment had the classical pianist adding so many anarchic chords to the metal band's classic, he should have had a capital A painted on his suit.
7. Carole King and Sara Bareilles: "Beautiful"/"Brave"
Bareilles is the truest successor we have to a King-led piano-woman tradition that's unfortunately fallen out of use. The Grammys concentrate so much on odd couples sometimes (like the one directly above) that it's nice to see them come up with a pairing that makes perfect sense once in a while. Simultaneously sounded pianos sound a lot more like rock 'n' roll than you'd expect. Plus, the coming-out preachiness of "Brave" is really a lot easier on the ears than the preachiness of "Same Love."
8. Kacey Musgraves: "Follow Your Arrow"
The third pro-gay song of the evening came from a country singer, which no longer falls into the go-figure category, thanks to Musgraves's emergence as an independent-minded star. The pro-pot lines also went unbleeped — unlike when Musgraves sang the same tune in November at the CMA Awards — so maybe network censors have been watching the recent legalization polling. The suits of lights and neon cacti might have reminded some longtime viewers of the days when the Grammys wanted to put hay bales behind every country star, but the traditionalist vibe was actually kind of a sweetly ironic backdrop for such an untraditional newcomer.
9. John Legend: "All of Me"
Utter simplicity: The Grammys don't try it very often. When they do, it's almost more shocking than the show's convoluted production numbers or weird pairings.
10. Blake Shelton, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson: "The Highwayman"/"Okie from Muskogee"/"Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys"
A powerhouse lineup, but is it churlish to wish that Kristofferson — a brilliant songwriter who was being honored with a lifetime achievement Grammy — had been asked to sing one of his own indelible compositions, as Willie and Merle were?
11. Keith Urban and Gary Clark Jr.: "Cop Car"
Urban's ode to how romance makes lovers take risks doesn't take viewers through a whole lot of musical risks. But his and Clark's dual guitar heroics provided a welcome instrumental break in an evening that wasn't often about celebrating chops. If only their climactic shredding had been allowed to go on a little longer.
12. Ringo Starr: "Photograph"
A familiar song — well, familiar if you're long enough in the tooth to recognize a bald Peter Frampton on guitar —with no unnecessary frills. Sometimes, that's enough.
13. Beyoncé and Jay Z: "Drunk in Love"
Beyoncé 's undeniable streak at being able to impress with each and every TV showcase remains unbroken. And yet, between the questionable-for-8-p.m. stripper motif and the canned vocals, this was not her proudest moment. When Jay Z came out to make whoopee with the missus, much of America was saying, "Get a room, you two," and not because they wanted to go in the room with them. Nice surfing choreography, anyway.
14. Pink with Nate Ruess: "Try"/"Just Give Me a Reason"
This would have been the performance of the night if this were 2008. But, as eternally awe-worthy as her rope act physically is, Pink seems to be working the aerialist routine — which viewers recall from the 2009 MTV Awards and 2010 Grammys — well past the sell-by date. She eventually came down to ground level, just in time to remind us that duet partner Ruess is not her vocal match. But let's give the fun. singer the benefit of the doubt: With that fake-looking mustache, it may not have really been Ruess but just Amy Poehler in drag.
15. Paul McCartney with Ringo Starr: "Queenie Eye"
Nothing wrong with this number from Macca's latest solo album, but there was nothing quite right enough about it after all the buildup to this Beatles semi-reunion. Presumably, the two of them are saving a classic or two to perform together at the Beatles 50th anniversary special set to be taped the night after the Grammys. The best part of the performance was really seeing Yoko Ono dance to the McCartney tune. Seeing someone take the high road after that much begrudgery under the bridge is its own form of uplifting entertainment.
16. Billie Joe Armstrong and Miranda Lambert: "When Will I Be Loved"
God bless the Grammys for saluting the recently deceased Phil Everly. But the harmonies in an Everly Brothers tribute needed by nature to be pretty top-flank, and the Green Day singer and country thrush just didn't sound like they were born to harmonize.
17. Imagine Dragons and Kendrick Lamar: "Radioactive"/ "M.A.A.d. City"
Dressed all in white, Imagine Dragons looked like they should be starring in The Disorderly Orderlies, and Lamar sounded like he should be anywhere else but forced to share a number with such ill-suited collaborators.
18. Lang Lang: Van Cliburn tribute
A tiny bit of actual classical music (as opposed to a classical musician joining a metal band) beats none at all, again. Still, a few of us remember when the Grammys would slot in one legit "fine arts" performance each year and it wasn't even the soundtrack for a parade of dead people.
19. Hunter Hayes: "Invisible"
The title exactly describes the place this performance will have in most viewers' sense memories the morning after. In a show that was not without its preachy moments, the self-help aphorisms by Johnny Depp and Steve Jobs that were projected overhead probably inspired more snickering than personal awakening among whatever teens were being targeted.
20. Katy Perry, "Dark Horse"
Perry seemed to pick exactly the wrong moment to go Goth on us, looking like she was trying to be Lorde with moves.
21. Robin Thicke and Chicago, "Blurred Lines"/"Beginnings"/"Saturday in the Park"/"Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?"
With all due respect to the innovation that Chicago's earliest albums represented, this one wasn't so much odd couple as "someone please explain why this act is here" couple. Miley, come back, and bring your foam finger with you; after we've seen the elderly-suitable alternative, all is forgiven.