But for the first time in too long, the Grammys telecast was a good time in and of itself — a refreshingly coherent celebration of our increasingly incoherent popscape. There were A-game performances, trophy-hoarders who deserved to win them and very few reasons to wince, grouse or wish you were watching “Downton Abbey.”
Along with fun., the evening’s other big winners were Mumford & Sons, the British group whose blustery folk-rock collection “Babel” took home album of the year, and Australian pop singer Gotye, who won record of the year for his inescapable break-up anthem,“Somebody That I Used to Know.” His win came with a bonus shout-out from the little man holding the envelope. “I love this song,” Prince told a rapt audience before announcing the winner, making for some of the most dramatic nano-seconds in Grammy history.
There were plenty of reasons to keep the volume on your TV cranked. Jack White turned in a ripping performance, Sting and Bruno Mars duetted with surprising vim, R&B singer Miguel introduced himself with velvety assurance, Taylor Swift opened the gig with some sparkle, and a resurgent Justin Timberlake delivered two brand-new, decidedly old-school soul tunes from his forthcoming album.
J.T. wasn’t up for any awards, but he probably knows that at the Grammys, hardware isn’t always paramount. There are still millions of hearts and minds to win from behind the microphone. The Grammys telecast reinforced that idea, with more than 30 performers but only 11 trophy presentations.
You still had to win on one front or the other, which made R&B visionary Frank Ocean the evening’s biggest disappointment. His excellent and deserving debut album “Channel Orange” lost best album honors to Mumford & Sons, while his wobbly performance of “Forest Gump” failed to eclipse the quiet intensity he summons so easily in the studio. (He didn’t go home empty-handed. “Channel Orange” won best contemporary urban album, and he shared a Grammy with Jay-Z, Kanye West and The-Dream for best rap/sung collaboration.)
The Black Keys were victorious on both fronts, romping on the Staples Center stage with Dr. John and winning three gramophone statuettes, including best rock album. (Keys frontman Dan Auerbach took another one home for producer of the year, non-classical). Meantime, fun. split the difference, taking home two awards after serving up a half-throttle rendition of their latest single, “Carry On,” beneath an artificial rainstorm.
Even soggier: host LL Cool J’s opening monologue. “A Grammy isn’t just a shiny trophy to hold on to,” the rapper-turned-actor declared at the start of the show. “A Grammy is a dream come true.”
Seventy dreams came true in a jiffy at Sunday’s pre-telecast ceremony at the neighboring Nokia Theatre. The evening’s first big surprise: Bonnie Raitt’s “Slipstream” trumped new and wildly popular albums from Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers and the Avett Brothers for best Americana album. “I was not expecting this!” Raitt gushed from the podium. Nobody was.
Lead Mumford Marcus Mumford seemed to be enjoying himself more alongside Mavis Staples, Zac Brown and others in a lovely tribute to the late Levon Helm. It followed the traditional “In Memoriam” segment, which included an image of Washington’s own “Godfather of Go-Go,” Chuck Brown, who died last May.
District rapper Wale’s first Grammy nod didn’t end with a win — his “Lotus Flower Bomb” lost best rap song to Jay-Z and Kanye West — but a few locals made it to the winner’s circle. “Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection,” a boxed set released on the Smithsonian Folkways label, won best boxed or special limited edition package. And TobyMac, the Fairfax native who got his start in the Christian rap group DC Talk, won for best contemporary Christian music album for his sixth solo studio effort, “Eye On It.” He wasn’t in Los Angeles to accept his award, though.
His absence helped keep the show moving.
After trimming 31 categories last year, the Grammys added three this year: best classical compendium, best Latin jazz album and best urban contemporary album, bringing the total up to 81.
That made for plenty of artists to root for, along with some very big hits, including the three top-selling and seemingly omnipresent singles of 2012: “Somebody That I Used to Know,” (winner of record of the year); fun.’s “We Are Young” (winner of song of the year); and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” (snubbed!).
And that reflects how music is selling these days. In 2012, overall music transactions reached a record high at 1.65 billion, but fans are buying music in smaller, cheaper portions. The sale of digital tracks continued to climb, but album sales — the most lucrative way for the record biz to make money — slumped last year, dipping 4 percent, to 316 million.
2012’s best-selling album? Adele’s “21,” which, in addition to winning album of the year at last year’s Grammys, is the first album to be a back-to-back annual bestseller since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking music sales in 1991.
Adele’s coronation during last year’s Grammy telecast helped boost TV ratings from 26.7 million to nearly 40 million, but most of that spike was attributed to the death of Whitney Houston, who passed away the night before.
So when Adele won the first award of Sunday night’s Grammy telecast — best pop solo performance for a live version of “Set Fire to the Rain” — it all felt a bit deja vu-ish. She hustled to the podium, quickly said her thank-yous, wished the audience “a wonderful night,” then disappeared to let the future unfold.