LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Mumford & Sons made their mark, Frank Ocean created waves, the Black Keys' "El Camino" muscled its way to a trio of awards and fun. caught fire to the point that even a downpour of fake rain couldn't put them out at a 55th Grammy Awards where the wealth was spread evenly across several buzz-worthy acts.
In many ways, the show reflected a singles-driven year in which many new artists climbed from obscurity to conquer the charts, armed only with unforgettable choruses and irrestible melodies.
It was fitting, then, that the evening ended with a surprise win in album of the year for pastoral-folk outfit Mumford & Sons, who had won only one trophy all night while being bypassed for nearly every major award.
"We figured we weren't going to win anything because the Black Keys have been sweeping up all day — and deservedly so," marvelled frontman Marcus Mumford as he claimed the award.
While last year Adele rolled over the competition to the tune of a six-category romp, the 55th Grammys were all about celebrating breakout success.
The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach actually led in awards with four, as his outfit took the rock categories — song, album and performance — while he also nabbed the trophy for producer of the year, and Gotye, Skrillex, Jay-Z and Kanye West won three apiece.
Fun. took song of the year and best new artist, with the latter — thought to be hotly contested between Ocean and fun. — seeming to elicit some amusement from the New York trio, who have been together since 2008.
"We're so old!" laughed frontman Nate Ruess, who struck a similar tone when accepting the song of the year award for their sky-scraping anthem "We Are Young."
"Oh God. I don't know what I was thinking writing the chorus for this song — if this is in HD, everyone can see our faces and we are not very young," said the soon-to-be 31-year-old, whose band performed "Carry On" amid an impressive fake downpour.
"We've been doing this for 12 years and I've just gotta say that we could not do this without the help of all the fans we've had keeping us afloat.... I guess we've felt like your best-kept secret. So thank you guys so much."
The 25-year-old Ocean picked up awards for best rap/sung collaboration and best urban contemporary album for his wildly ambitious debut commercial release "Channel Orange." He's been lauded by critics not only for his intricate, introspective songwriting but also the openness with which he discussed a past gay relationship in a letter to fans — a milestone for R&B music.
With his soft speaking voice and hunched shoulders, Ocean didn't seem entirely comfortable amid the gloss and glitz of the Grammys. The occasion seemed particularly overwhelming during a touch-and-go performance of his gorgeous "Forrest Gump," backed by a massive screen projecting a desert backdrop.
"I hear ... the way you disarm audiences is by picturing them naked, but I don't want to do that," the L.A.-based singer said quietly as he claimed his first-ever award.
"I want to say thank you to my mother for being the best," he added, as his teary-eyed mom was captured clapping along.
In a typically curious Grammys decision, the tune by fun. won song of the year — awarded to the songwriter — but not the performance-based record of the year, which went to three-time winner Gotye. The mop-topped one-named singer was handed the award by a cane-carrying Prince, and at first could only pay his respect to the pop genius.
"I'm a little bit lost for words to receive an award from the man standing behind us with a cane," he said.
Backstage later, he added: "(I) didn't expect to win any of the categories we were nominated in. Yeah, it's a little bit flabbergasting."
He surely wasn't the only person in the cavernous Staples Center to feel that way Sunday.
And Taylor Swift was the first to plunge us down the rabbit hole.
She kicked off the show with a delirious "Alice in Wonderland"-inspired rendition of her hit "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together." She sported an outfit reminiscent of the Mad Hatter's — a white-suit jacket, matching top hat and hot pants — while a cast of eccentrics surrounded her: a crowded cluster of bunny-costumed dancers, men on stilts and, sadly, mimes. Meanwhile, some poor gentleman — and the presumed target of Swift's scorn — was fastened to a gigantic onstage bullseye.
Justin Timberlake's performance similarly hit the mark.
Taking the stage after a long break — he recently announced the upcoming release of his first album in seven years — the image went suddenly monochromatic while the tuxedoed singer moved slickly while surrounded by dancers steeped in old-school L.A. glamour. After an assist from Jay-Z, Timberlake smoothly segued into another new tune "Pusher Love Girl" before being serenaded with an enthusiastic reaction.
The Grammys typically delight in premiering collaborations between left-field musical odd couples, and this show was no exception.
In a tribute to reggae legend Bob Marley, his sons Damian and Ziggy took the stage with a rather unlikely cast of characters — dimpled Hawaiian pop maestro Bruno Mars, Barbadian R&B siren Rihanna and famed British multi-hyphenate Sting — for the three-song melange "Locked Out of Heaven" (Mars' 2012 single), "Walking on the Moon" (the 1979 Police new wave classic) and Marley's "Could You Be Loved."
What could have been an awkward mishmash of dissimilar acts instead soared under the wind of performers who were clearly enjoying themselves.
Other collaborations similarly made plenty of sense in practice, if not on paper.
The mutual fondness between Elton John and 21-year-old Ed Sheeran, so evident in rehearsal, translated into a harmonious performance of the younger Brit's pensive "The A Team," while Alicia Keys and Maroon 5's Adam Levine didn't so much sing a medley of her "Girl on Fire" and his "Daylight" as they did tie the songs into a little knot. And the Black Keys made perfect partners for the swelling brass of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and pianist Dr. John, who collectively turned in a ferocious performance of "Lonely Boy."
And an all-star tribute to Levon Helm — the late American drummer and singer for the otherwise Canadian Americana institution the Band — was both appropriately crowded and joyful, with legends in John (who co-wrote the adoring tribute "Levon" more than 40 years ago) and Mavis Staples sharing the stage with capable newcomers Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, Zac Brown and Mumford for a rousing rendition of "The Weight," with pastoral images flashing overhead along with photos of those lost in the past year.
Others took risks with atypical choices.
Keys slammed a pair of drums as she sang, while Rihanna, in a change of pace from her usual hip-swivelling club-knockers, sounded impressive singing the contemplative piano ballad "Stay."
Still, she was a focus for other reasons. She arrived alongside on-again, off-again beau Chris Brown four years almost to the day after he beat his glamorous then-girlfriend before the Grammys. During both of her head-turning performances, the cameras found Brown in the audience cheering her on.
Carly Rae Jepsen was one of many Canadians to go home disappointed, with her Skittle-sweet single "Call Me Maybe" losing out on song of the year and pop solo vocal performance, which went to British powerhouse Adele — who put in one of the most dominant nights in Grammy history last year.
"I just wanted to come and be part of the night, because I loved it last year — obviously," joked the new mother, who said backstage that new music was still a ways off.
Another impressive performance was turned in by innovative R&B crooner Miguel, who provided a truncated take on his sultry, Grammy-winning earth-shaker "Adorn."
He made at least one new fan in Kelly Clarkson, who won for best pop vocal album.
"Miguel, I don't know who the hell you are but we need to sing together," she enthused in a wide-ranging acceptance speech that begin with a furious flurry of hugs for other audience members.
"I mean, good God. That was the sexiest thing I've ever seen."
Jay-Z also created one of the evening's funniest moments while accepting the award for best rap/sung collaboration alongside Ocean and The-Dream, who wore a black "Boyz in the Hood"-themed baseball cap on top of a "Parental Advisory" bandanna.
"I'd like to thank the swap meet for his hat," he quipped to roaring laughter.
(Backstage, The-Dream said he got the hat at a store called Spencer's, and said of Jay-Z: "he loves going at me.")
Jennifer Lopez was just presenting an award, but she also managed to earn headlines with a slinky slate-grey dress that revealed her entire right leg. She then referenced the widely circulated note from the Grammys instructing talent to keep their outfits tasteful.
"So, as you can see, I got the memo," Lopez joked.
Meanwhile, Toronto rapper Drake finally claimed his first Grammy out of 12 nominations.
The 26-year-old born Aubrey Graham took his inaugural hardware in the best rap album category, with his moody sophomore hit "Take Care" emerging triumphant.
The rest of the Canadian nominee contingent, which included Michael Buble, Toronto's Melanie Fiona and Montreal's Arcade Fire, went home empty-handed in their categories.