Brutally honest rankings of every 2018 Grammy performance
The Grammy Awards are music's biggest night of the year. Here are our must-see moments from the show!
The Grammy Awards are music's biggest night of the year. But which Grammy performers deserved to be there?
Certainly names like Kendrick Lamar, Patti LuPone, Cardi B and Rihanna, who served up some of the most thrilling performances of Sunday night's broadcast, with Kesha, Lady Gaga and Maren Morris delivering moments of emotional catharsis.
However, just because some legendary artists were booked for the Grammys didn't mean they delivered memorable performances. From Lamar's elaborate stagings to U2's bust on a barge, we rank every performance at the awards.
List: The 2018 Grammy winners
1. KENDRICK LAMAR with U2 and DAVE CHAPPELLE, XXX/DNA/New Freezer/King’s Dead
How they did: Top-rate
Here's why: It was quite a show opener: An army of hooded soldiers marched in front of an American flag, with Lamar slouched in the middle, crouching to the ground, when U2's Bono and The Edge emerged. Text flashing across the backdrop billed the performance as a "satire," and Chappelle showed up between songs to deliver winking commentary like “Is this OK ... with CBS?” that was more an amusing distraction than a meaningful component. More impactful was Lamar's evocative staging, as he danced around a figure in white pounding a drum, before the stage was flooded with a mass of dancers in red hoodies who dropped one by one to gunshot noises. This wasn't quite as head-spinning as his legendary 2016 set, but still was compelling enough to make Lamar's album of the year loss to Bruno Mars sting that much more.
2. BEN PLATT and PATTI LuPONE, Somewhere/Don’t Cry for Me Argentina
How they did: Broadway, baby!
Here's why: The Grammys briefly turned into the Tonys, and it was maybe the best segment of the show, which says something about the evening that dubs itself “music’s biggest night.” Standing on her Eva Perón podium and dressed like the immortal first lady of Broadway that she is, LuPone was an absolute force of nature. In a tribute to Andrew Lloyd Webber, she crushed Evita’s Don’t Cry for Me in a performance that made us thankful they didn’t hand it off to any number of random pop stars. Meanwhile, Dear Evan Hansen star Platt must’ve heard that Steven Spielberg is casting a new West Side Story remake. He donned his best vintage sweater for his take on the musical’s Somewhere. Backed by a cello and acoustic guitar, he may have taken a few too many liberties with the iconic song, but bless his heart, he sure tried his best.
3. SZA, Broken Clocks
How she did: Hope for the future.
Here's why: Need a reminder that SZA got robbed when she lost best new artist to Alessia Cara? We got one with her showstopper performance of Broken Clocks, not even her best song from debut album Ctrl — proving it's possible to deliver nuanced vocals on the Grammys stage, a feat that more seasoned artists failed at earlier in the night. There’s a reason, despite her deeply unfair shutout at the awards, that she was this year's most-nominated female artist.
4. RIHANNA, DJ KHALED and BRYSON TILLER, Wild Thoughts
How they did: Wild, wild, wild.
Here's why: Save us, Rihanna, from this saltine-dry awards show. Khaled kicked off his performance of Wild Thoughts with a spoken-word intro of Khaled-isms, and as much as he tried to distract us throughout the song with his yelled-out asides, there was no overshadowing Rihanna’s slinky pink dress and her dancers delivering old Hollywood bathing-costume glamour as they stunted en masse. Tiller reminded us that he’s on this song, blazing through his verse before Rih started dancing again, and we all forgot he existed. And to the cameraman who kept cutting to Khaled during her wildly entertaining final routine, that might be a firing offense.
5. LADY GAGA, Joanne/Million Reasons
How she did: Angelic
Here's why: Lady Gaga is still trying her darndest to make Joanne happen, and listeners can be forgiven if we’ve tired of the album’s backstory. “This is for my father’s late sister, Joanne,” she intoned as an intro, “for love and compassion, even when you can’t understand.” Featuring a piano decorated with angel wings, the performance started off on the overwrought side of emotional, punctuated with Gaga’s amusingly contextless whisper of “Time’s up.” Things got better when she launched into Million Reasons, the true banger on Joanne, which almost lost its stomach on a shaky final note that quickly righted itself. Overall, it was very gauzy, very Gaga and good enough to place among the night's best performances.
6. KESHA, Praying
How she did: Gut-punching.
Here's why: The Grammys’ most moving moment was also its roughest. Kesha did not get on stage to deliver pitch-perfect vocals, flawless composure or a tidy narrative. Nothing about Kesha’s past few years has followed the normal arc of a redemption narrative, and her tortured take on Praying transcended the Grammys’ intention to treat it as a Me Too moment. Instead, viewers got a chorus led by Cyndi Lauper, Camila Cabello, Julia Michaels and Andra Day, willfully ceding the spotlight to a distraught Kesha, who whispered and wailed and struggled through the night's most authentic performance.
7. BRUNO MARS and CARDI B, Finesse
How they did: Finessed
Here's why: Things were getting sleepy on the Grammys telecast before Cardi B stormed the stage, making her Grammys debut with Finesse, sneaking a verse of her new song Bartier Cardi into her performance, too. Reliably corny as ever, Bruno crooned and grinned through his part of the song, breaking into a dance routine that really just robbed viewers of several more minutes of Cardi. Give the people what they want!
8. CHILDISH GAMBINO, Terrified
How he did: Slow and sexy
Here's why: Gambino ratcheted up the temperature in Madison Square Garden with his take on Terrified, a song that many viewers likely hadn’t heard before Sunday’s performance. His pitch-shifted Redbone vocals these were not, with Donald Glover delivering a baby-making falsetto that, backed by minimal instrumentals and punctuated by his smoldering gazes at the camera, got us all a little pregnant.
9. PINK, Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken
How she did: Grounded
Here's why: Yes, Pink can sing, even in jeans and a T-shirt and on an otherwise empty stage. Yet it’s worth saying that watching Pink deliver flawless vocals while suspended upside down dangling from some airborne apparatus, as she’s usually inclined to do at awards shows, is inherently more fun than a set straight out of VH1 Storytellers. Nevertheless, Pink has one of the best voices of the Grammys’ performers tonight, blazing through Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken without hitting a bum note.
10. LUIS FONSI, DADDY YANKEE and ZULEYKA RIVERA, Despacito
How they did: Victorious
Here's why: Despacito failed to take home song of record of the year, but Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s performance still felt like a victory lap. Perhaps to remind viewers of the track’s Justin Bieber-less origin, Fonsi and Daddy Yankee delivered a performance sung entirely in Spanish, reprising the song’s original introduction and nixing the English in its “this is how we do it down in Puerto Rico” penultimate verse. Surrounded by an army of gyrating dancers and backed by a Fourth of July’s worth of pyrotechnics, Despacito’s win count seemed beside the point with a performance this joyful.
11. ELTON JOHN and MILEY CYRUS, Tiny Dancer
How they did: Good enough!
Here's why: If Elton ends up being the Tony Bennett to Cyrus' Lady Gaga-style image sanitation, we wouldn’t be mad about it. Next to Pink, Cyrus delivered some of the cleanest vocals of the night, and thankfully didn’t try to do too much with her verses of Tiny Dancer, considering she was singing it next to Sir Elton himself. Like Gaga’s collaborations with Bennett, Cyrus’ performance was classic and ballgown-clad, and still kinda dull.
12. LITTLE BIG TOWN, Better Man
How they did: Good, and deserved better
Here's why: Little Big Town’s reliable take on Better Man was, first and foremost, a handy reminder that Taylor Swift, who penned the track for the Nashville quartet, can sure write a song. Yet, the members of Little Big Town just weren’t given enough to do during their straightforward performance, save for standing on a manufactured ledge and pretending to sing on a windy New York City rooftop. In fact, they could’ve used the sweeping orchestral arrangements that Sam Smith wasted in his performance several minutes before.
13. LOGIC, ALESSIA CARA and KHALID, 1-800-273-8255
How they did: Woke as can be.
Here's why: This is supposed to be the meaningful anthem of the 2018 Grammys, isn’t it? Three young performers, leaving it all on stage, Logic and Alessia Cara singing to one another across the audience before Khalid emerges with a group of suicide-attempt survivors sporting “You are not alone” tees. Yet, there’s something that doesn’t sit right with Logic’s insistence on delivering sermons during his awards show performances, including this one about how women ought to behave in the face of adversity — though props to him for trying to sneak “s---hole” past the censor. For the rapper’s acolytes, perhaps this was the most meaningful moment of the night, but for skeptics, there was something slightly off.
14. CHRIS STAPLETON and EMMYLOU HARRIS, Wildflowers
How they did: Well-intended, yet lacking
Here's why: One of the most enduring aspects of Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, and many of the singer’s most beloved hits, is their less-is-more imaginings and simply sung vocals. Stapleton and Harris are both country greats in their own right, but why the Grammys decided they needed extra wailing harmonies on a song that was defined by Petty’s plain, moving delivery is beyond us. And considering all the inessential performances that the Grammys subjected viewers to this year, the show could’ve afforded to give Petty a lengthier tribute than just a few verses.
15. GARY CLARK JR. and JON BATISTE, Ain’t That a Shame/Maybellene
How they did: Blues-lite
Here's why: Clark, every awards show’s favorite rocker, and jazz charmer Batiste were two obvious choices to deliver the tribute to Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. Did they phone in their performances? Somewhat. But the abbreviated set of covers was still enjoyable, thanks to Batiste’s charisma and the enduring power of the two legends’ songs. Otherwise, it was a reminder that, if the Grammys set time aside for tribute performances to music greats, they ought to make them more compelling than this.
16. MAREN MORRIS, BROTHERS OSBOURNE and ERIC CHURCH, Tears in Heaven
How they did: Mournful
Here's why: The Grammys chose Eric Clapton’s classic Tears in Heaven for the show’s tribute to the victims of the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting, a somber moment handled by a group of performers who lived through the tragedy. With all respect to her male counterparts, some of whom did a little too much during a set that should’ve kept it straightforward, Morris’ performance shone brightest, proving that perhaps she should’ve handled this song solo.
17. SAM SMITH, Pray
How he did: Sleepy
Here's why: Smith’s falsetto just doesn’t quit, even when he looks bored to tears and his lyrics are near-unintelligible. You know when singers forget the words to their own songs and just sing them phonetically, making them up as they go? That was Smith’s performance of Pray, which couldn't be livened up even with a 20-plus person choir behind him. As a time filler, Smith's appearance was useful; as a performance, it was a reminder that Smith isn't nominated this year for a reason.
18. U2, Get Out of Your Own Way
How they did: Useless
Here's why: Is there a better metaphor for U2’s new phase of wokeness than their Grammys performance? Set on a barge in front of the Statue of Liberty, with the wind blowing back Bono’s overcoat just so, their pre-taped take on Get Out of Your Own Way was meticulously staged and vaguely political, without making a single meaningful moment or saying anything remotely controversial. Next time, leave them on the barge until they decide to stop using the country’s legitimate traumas for their empty posturing.
19. STING and SHAGGY, Englishman in New York/Don't Make Me Wait
How they did: Why?
Here's why: First, the Grammys had the audacity to invite Sting, a Brit, to Madison Square Garden to sing his 1987 track Englishman in New York, a dad-joke of a performance concept that never even should've been entertained. Things got only slightly better when Shaggy, Sting’s inexplicable new collaborator, emerged with their single Don’t Make Me Wait, which shamelessly and laughably rips off the singer’s eternal hit Angel wholesale. Can we just bring back Kendrick Lamar?