The 54th annual Grammys were supposed to be all about the expected sweep by a titanic soul diva with pain in her heart and a voice for the ages. And while it was most certainly a good night for six-time winner Adele, the death of R&B superstar Whitney Houston on Saturday at the age of 48 cast an unmistakable shadow on the night's events.
"There is no way around this, we've had a death in our family," host LL Cool J said at the top of the show, asking for a prayer in honor of Houston. "Heavenly father, we thank you for sharing our sister Whitney with us ... and although she is gone too soon, we remain truly blessed to have been touched by her beautiful spirit." With that, though, the rapper said it was time to celebrate music.
Adele got the night started early with a win before the show for Best Pop Vocal Album, then quickly got in the game on the broadcast with a Best Pop Solo Performance win for "Someone Like You." Dressed in a glittering black dress, the long-muted diva broke her silence by saying, "My life changed when I wrote this song," then thanking her doctors for the vocal cord surgery that saved her golden instrument. Her "Rolling in the Deep" also won for Best Short Form Video.
Adele's seat didn't get cold, as she was back up for Song of the Year for "Rolling." She took the stage with co-writer Paul Epworth, whom she called the best producer in the world. "He brought me out of my skin to write this record," said Adele, still chomping on gum, likely to keep her throat loose. On her way to a sweep, she also won Record of the Year for "Deep," saying, "This is ridiculous!" and thanking radio programmers for helping make her song a major smash.
In one of the most anticipated performances of the night, Adele tried to show she was (almost) all the way back by singing the intro to "Deep" a cappella in a voice as strong and resonant as we all remembered. Seemingly pushing the needle to red, she held nothing back, swooping down and rising to the peak of her abilities to offer proof, as if it were needed, that she deserved everything that came her way Sunday night.
The topper was the Album of the Year honor for 21, the multiplatinum disc that made Adele a global superstar. "Thank you so much, thank you," the weeping, ecstatic singer said, holding up the trophy and telling her absent mom, "Mum, girl did good! ... This record is inspired by something that is really normal when everyone's been through it, just a rubbish relationship ... it's been the most life-changing year."
The night's biggest nominee, Kanye West, was a no-show at the event but took four hip-hop honors, snatching Best Rap Album, Best Rap Song and Best Rap Collaboration for "All of the Lights" from his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and sharing Best Rap Performance with Jay-Z for "Otis."
Though he missed out on the Best New Artist award, Skrillex scooped up a trio of pre-tel gramophones, including Best Dance Recording, Best Dance/Electronica Album and Best Remixed Recording, Non-Classical. The Foo Fighters were rewarded early as well, nabbing four Grammys, including Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance for "White Limo," Best Rock Song for "Walk," Best Rock Album for Wasting Light and Best Long Form Music Video for "Foo Fighters: Back and Forth."
They also got some main-stage action with a Best Rock Performance win for "Walk." Singer Dave Grohl said it was a great honor to win for a record tracked in his garage on analog tape. "It shows that the human element of making music is what's most important. ... It's not about being perfect ... it's not about what goes on in a computer."
In addition to a standout performance, Chris Brown celebrated a major win when he snagged Best R&B Album for F.A.M.E. "We got one," Brown said, thanking the Grammys for inviting him back. It was his first time at the awards show since 2009, when his Grammy-eve assault on his ex-girlfriend Rihanna sent him into exile.
Bon Iver's Justin Vernon scored the biggest shocker of the night, besting Nicki Minaj, J. Cole, Skrillex and the Band Perry for Best New Artist. "It's really hard to accept this award," Vernon, who had already taken Best Alternative Music Album for his self-titled second release, said about besting the wealth of talent in the room. "When I started to make songs, I did it for the inherent reward of making songs, so I'm a little bit uncomfortable up here. But with that discomfort, I do have a sense of gratitude."
Taylor Swift is used to winning, and Sunday night was no different, as the revenge track "Mean" from Speak Now took Best Country Solo Performance and Best Country Song hours before she played a Depression-era themed version of the song.
On a night when attention was turned to a treasure lost, another recently passed soul diva, Amy Winehouse, won a posthumous Grammy for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for her duet with Tony Bennett on "Body and Soul."
Jennifer Hudson paid dramatic tribute to Houston late in the show, singing a soul-stirring, gospel-tinged version of Whitney's showstopper "I Will Always Love You," accompanied only by piano, ending with the shout-out, "Whitney we love, we love you."
It was just one of the many standout performances during the broadcast, kicking off with rock legend Bruce Springsteen, backed by the E Street Band and a full orchestra for his new recession anthem "We Take Care of Our Own." Bruno Mars pulled out his gold lamé suit for a James Brown-inspired soul-revue version of "Runaway Baby," while Bonnie Raitt and Alicia Keys hooked up to honor Etta James with a cover of "Sunday Kind of Love."
Sporting a frizzy wig and ripped jean-jacket look in apparent homage to Houston, Rihanna raved it out for "We Found Love" before being joined on acoustic guitar by her pal Chris Martin of Coldplay for the live debut of his band's "Princess of China," followed by the full band playing "Paradise."
It seemed unlikely, but the combo of Brown, Foo Fighters, David Guetta, Lil Wayne and deadmau5 for a tribute to EDM totally worked, even when Foos singer Dave Grohl slowed the vocals to "Rope" down to fit a dance beat. Minaj went all gothic and method actress for the "Exorcist"-themed debut of "Roman Holiday."
Making her first awards-show appearance since splitting with Russell Brand, Katy Perry went cybertronic for "E.T.," wearing a futuristic suit, which she stripped off to reveal a shiny superhero costume for her fiery new single, "Part of Me."
Other performances included Kelly Clarkson with Jason Aldean, Carrie Underwood and Bennett, the Foo Fighters rocking an outdoor tent with "Walk," Maroon 5 and Foster the People joining a reunited Beach Boys for a medley of surf classics and former Beatle Paul McCartney playing his timely new ballad "My Valentine."
The Fab One also helped close the show with a medley of Beatles songs that included an all-star band featuring Grohl and Springsteen trading off licks with the Eagles' Joe Walsh.