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The 2016 Grammy Performances, Ranked From Worst to First

Adele, Gaga, Kendrick, and the rest of the best and worst from tonight's 20 mini-gigs

picture-22979-1414617206Andrew Unterberger // February 16, 2016

20. The Hollywood Vampires, “As Bad As I Am” / “Ace of Spades”

Not bad, per sé, just kinda dispiriting — would’ve been nice to get a Lemmy tribute from a band that proves the rock god’s fire still burns in someone under the age of 50. Also, one without Johnny Depp.

19. Little Big Town, “Girl Crush”

Performing this song with an orchestra sounds like a decent idea on paper, but ended up smothering what was so special about it; the raw nerviness that the song originally reverberated was submerged in ponderousness.

18. Taylor Swift, “Out of the Woods”

The sixth single off 1989 — yep, count ‘em — just wasn’t a particularly good choice of show opener, Taylor too often left with nothing to do but stand around waiting for her next chance to chime in with her next “INTHECLEARYETGOOD?!” Luckily, by show’s end, you’d forgotten she’d even performed in the first place.

17. Tori Kelly and James Bay, “Let It Go” / “Hollow”

They were fine, and will undoubtedly continue to be.

16. The Cast of Hamilton, “Alexander Hamilton”

The play popular enough to actually get the Best Musical Theater Album category bumped up to the main telecast was more entertaining last night for star/creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rapped acceptance speech than the cast’s ill-fitting Broadway-via-satellite live performance.

15. John Legend, Demi Lovato, Luke Bryan, Meghan Trainor, Tyrese, and Lionel Richie, “Easy” / “Hello” / “Penny Lover” / “You Are” / “Brick House” / “All Night Long (All Night)”

Perhaps fitting that the king of MTV-era MOR should get a tribute keyed around several of the most middling talents in contemporary pop. Based on his elated facial reactions to the tribute, Lionel didn’t seem to take it personally.

14. Sam Hunt and Carrie Underwood, “Take Your Time” / “Heartbeat”

Hunt’s confidence as a performer still lags behind his confidence as a songwriter, and he couldn’t quite keep up with a vocal powerhouse like Underwood for most of their duet. To be fair, she’d probably have a hard time holding her own with his Drake-ian sing-speaking, too.

13. Pitbull, Robin Thicke, and Travis Barker, “El Taxi” / “Bad Man”

A Robin Thicke duet with Travis Barker guest drumming and a surprise appearance from Sofia Vergara had no chance of recapturing the public’s attention after Taylor Swift returned fire on Kanye’s public trolling. But the fact that Pitbull had total confidence that it would is why you gotta love dude.

12. Miguel, “She’s Out of My Life”

One verse and chorus of the R&B mastermind covering the classic Off the Wall ballad, to promote Spike Lee’s new Michael Jackson doc. Hard to argue with, but also hard not to wish for more.

11. Joey Alexander, “Freedom Jazz Dance”

The latest 12-year-old genius on the Grammys scene, tickling the ivories to the swelling pride of teenage overachievers everywhere. Great crowd reaction shots, better hair helmet.

10. Andra Day and Ellie Goulding, “Rise Up” / “Love Me Like You Do”

She may not be wired for crossover hits, but Andra Day should have established herself as one of the country’s preeminent vocal juggernauts with her brief, spotlight-commandeering performance here. Impressive that Ellie Goulding managed not to get swallowed whole playing her Fifty Shades song.

9. Eagles, Bernie Leadon, and Jackson Browne, “Take It Easy”

As fine a tribute as Glenn Frey could have asked for, his reunited band and old upstairs neighbor playing through a breezy rendition of his best song. Kinda LOL that Browne forgets the words to the final chorus, though — it’s not like he co-wrote the song or anything.

8. Adele, “All I Ask”

Sound issues spooked Adele early in this one, and the performance was unusually frayed for the world’s most revered contemporary pop singer. Still, a little rawness for Adele in 2016 isn’t the worst thing — a large part of her artistic appeal is that she seems like she’ll never be too perfect.

7. Stevie Wonder and Pentatonix, “That’s the Way of the World”

The Grammys didn’t have much time to hustle together a Maurice White acknowledgement — especially with the quartet of post-mortem homages they’d already booked — but getting one of the man’s true peers in spiritual space-funk to sing one of his best hits over an unobtrusive Pentatonix a capella track was both affecting and efficient.

6. The Weeknd, “Can’t Feel My Face” / “In the Night”

A last-minute Lauryn Hill cancelation forced Abel Tesfaye to improvise a little on his two-song medley. Stripping “In the Night” of its MJ-ness didn’t do the current Prince of Pop a ton of favors, but the singer’s vastly improved footwork performing the now-signature “Face” was perhaps the closest he’s come to truly invoking the King.

5. Chris Stapleton, Gary Clark Jr., and Bonnie Raitt, “The Thrill Is Gone”

Three artists who approach the blues from different directions, but all definitely got there on this rock-solid B.B. King tribute. Strangely thrilling for a performance of a song written 75 years ago.

4. Alabama Shakes, “Don’t Wanna Fight”

Brittany Howard and Co. might not have taken home the night’s top honors, but their electrifying performance and general grace in their biggest moment of mainstream exposure so far still made them one of the night’s biggest winners. “Don’t Wanna Fight” should be a regular presence on the iTunes charts for a long time to come after this.

3. Lady Gaga, “Space Oddity” / “Changes” / “Ziggy Stardust” / “Suffragette City” / “Rebel Rebel” / “Fashion” / “Fame” / “Let’s Dance” / “Heroes”

Maybe not as nutty as a Gaga ode to the Starman would’ve been in 2010, but persuasive enough in its elaborate costume changes, dramatic staging, and gonzo performance energy that we’re willing to take the loss on predicting this one as a potential bore. Bowie would’ve appreciated the versatility, no doubt.

2. Justin Bieber and Jack Ü, “Love Yourself” and “Where Are Ü Now”

“Love Yourself” might’ve been a little too straight-faced, but it was just a prelude to Skrillex and Diplo plugging in and thrashing out as the Biebs’ backing band, turning “Where Are Ü Now” into a nu-metal jam that would’ve absolutely killed at Woodstock ’99. That might sound like an insult, but the fact that Sonny, Wes, and Justin realize that it isn’t is probably why the damn thing is so much fun.

1. Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker the Berry” / “Alright” / New song

From Kendrick’s first utterances at the mic, it was clear his performance would be the alarm clock to snap Grammys viewers out of their mid-show slumbers — packing more urgency and excitement into one lyric than had been palpable in all of the previous performances combined. It echoed past award show moments of Kendrick’s but still felt new and vital; and as dramatic theater it made even Hamilton look positively inert by comparison. It was as visceral a viewing experience as watching Zach LaVine at Saturday’s Slam Dunk Contest; the only shame was that the Grammys didn’t provide him with an Aaron Gordon-like competitor to push him to even greater heights.