If there was an underlying theme to the 51st GRAMMY Awards, it might have been a night of triumphs: Robert Plant's enthusiastic reception of GRAMMY gold some 40 years after helping lay a hard rock cornerstone with Led Zeppelin; Jennifer Hudson's tearful but steadfast performance only months after suffering a personal family tragedy; the triumph of both youth (Miley Cyrus, Jonas Brothers, Taylor Swift) and experience (B.B. King, Paul McCartney, Allen Toussaint); and even the audacious victory of performing pregnant, on your due date (M.I.A.).
And, of course, the triumph of music itself with the GRAMMYs' ability to shine a light on the power of music and the magnificence of a musician's creativity. As John Mayer said in accepting his Best Male Pop Vocal Performance GRAMMY for his song "Say": "It's always an honor to be a musician…I love being a songwriter…I love making music. It's the best thing in the world."
The formidable duo of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss were the evening's top winners, sweeping all their nominations and picking up five total GRAMMYs for Album Of The Year and Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album for Raising Sand, Record Of The Year for "Please Read The Letter," Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals for "Rich Woman," and Best Country Collaboration With Vocals for "Killing The Blues."
Rapper Lil Wayne took home an impressive four awards of his own: Best Rap Album for Tha Carter III, Best Rap Solo Performance for "A Milli," Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group for "Swagga Like Us" (featuring Jay-Z, T.I. and Kanye West), and Best Rap Song for "Lollipop." Coldplay won the Song Of The Year and Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals honors for "Viva La Vida," in addition to Best Rock Album.
Music's Biggest Night also featured the most performances in GRAMMY Awards history, kicking off with a thundering performance by U2. Bono and company stormed the stage with their latest single "Get On Your Boots" amid a swirling psychedelic backdrop that electrified Staples Center.
Justin Timberlake ran down his childhood love of Al Green before joining the reverend himself alongside Boyz II Men and Keith Urban for an impassioned take on Green's soul classic "Let's Stay Together." Green's uplifting vocals — paired with Timberlake's silky voice, Boyz II Men's able harmonies and a superbly improvised guitar solo from Urban — resulted in the type of knockout performance only seen on the GRAMMY Awards.
Coldplay's performance got off to an introspective start with singer Chris Martin poised at a piano to deliver a brilliantly poignant version of "Lost." Midway through, Jay-Z joined for a surprise cameo, name-checking everyone from the Notorious B.I.G. to Jesus, Caesar and Brutus and rapping with his patented cool ferocity. Then, leaping from the piano, Martin joined his bandmates for their GRAMMY-winning song "Viva La Vida."
Carrie Underwood kept the fire burning, blowing through her girl-gone-bad song "Last Name" with the power-packed vocals she's brought to previous GRAMMY shows.
Kid Rock mixed a potent cocktail of Southern rock and soul for a fist-pumping rendition of his "Amen" before segueing into his hit "All Summer Long," an anthem that samples classics such as Warren Zevon's "Werewolves Of London" and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." Rock then marched into "Rock N Roll Jesus" triumphantly loud and proud.
The precocious talent of youth was on full display when 19-year-old Taylor Swift welcomed 16-year-old Miley Cyrus for an intimate performance of Swift's "Fifteen." With Swift providing quiet accompaniment on acoustic guitar, the two starlets poignantly took the audience through the milestones of youth while singing with a sweetness and maturity beyond their combined years.
Fresh off her GRAMMY win for Best R&B Album, Jennifer Hudson performed an especially meaningful "You Pulled Me Through" with her trademark bravura. The song showed off her magnetic vocals and her ability to surmount personal tragedies. As she finished singing, she waved off a few authentic tears.
In an inspired if unexpected collaboration, GRAMMY-winning legend Stevie Wonder joined Best New Artist nominees the Jonas Brothers for a medley that included the Jonases' pop barnstormer "Burnin' Up" and Wonder's classic "Superstition." Wonder, who also got his start in his early teens, matched the JoBros' enthusiasm throughout the performance.
Katy Perry commandeered the stage from her perch in a giant golden banana to deliver her infectious "I Kissed A Girl." In a sparkling fruit-themed outfit and accompanied by a cadre of white-suited ladies eager to be the recipients of her curious affection, Perry shimmied with the kind of lustful emotion the song demands.
Kanye West then paced his way around the stage before slamming into his GRAMMY-winning "American Boy" with English songstress Estelle. Dipping into the chemistry that suffuses the song, they bounced their lyrics off each other like a gentle breeze blowing off the stage. (The pair won the Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for the song.)
Bathed in a smoky blue light, the usually fun-loving country star Kenny Chesney delivered his heartfelt, introspective breakup song "Better As A Memory." It was one of the night's quieter stunners, plainly delivered on acoustic guitar and every note sung with a touch of aching melancholy.
A very pregnant M.I.A. joined a hip-hop all-star team of T.I., Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and Kanye West onstage for the aptly titled "Swagga Like Us." Stomping, head-bobbing and yes, swaggering to M.I.A.'s infectious opening beat, West called himself "Christopher Columbus" before handing over the mic for authoritative raps from Jay-Z and Lil Wayne. T.I. tackled spotlight duties last, leaning into his verses with a worked-up fervor.
Seconds later, Sir Paul McCartney rocked it old school with a rendition of the Beatles classic "I Saw Her Standing There" with Foo Fighter Dave Grohl — hair loose and sticks flying — joining on drums. The electric performance highlighted why deference to McCartney became an almost running commentary throughout the night's acceptance speeches.
Led by singer Jennifer Nettles, two-time GRAMMY winners Sugarland crept up on the emotionally vulnerable with "Stay," a lilting number made all the more memorable by Nettles' remarkably perfect delivery. Almost immediately after, Best New Artist winner Adele segued into her contemplative "Chasing Pavements." Her understated but intense vocal — combined with surprise harmonies from Nettles — ended the classic soul-flavored song on an emotional note.
A GRAMMY nominee in her own right, actress Gwyneth Paltrow then introduced Radiohead — a band that hadn't performed on live U.S. television since 2000. Thom Yorke and friends launched into "15 Step" from their Best Alternative Music Album-winning In Rainbows. Backed by the USC Trojan Marching Band, the group revealed themselves to be an almost unclassifiable act, underscoring their mysterious genius.
Timberlake came back to the stage with T.I. for "Dead And Gone," a song on which they collaborated. Timberlake opened with a vulnerable vocal as he played piano before T.I. tore off a rapid-flow rhyme.
A fitting tribute was paid to Lifetime Achievement Award recipients the Four Tops (one of 12 Special Merit Award recipients acknowledged during the evening), represented by Abdul "Duke" Fakir, with a medley of "Reach Out I'll Be There," "Standing In The Shadows Of Love" and "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)." Fellow Motown favorite Smokey Robinson assumed vocal duties alongside Fakir and relative R&B newcomers Jamie Foxx and Ne-Yo. Fakir, tall and dashing, was as sure of voice as he was in his heyday.
MusiCares Person of the Year Neil Diamond, looking like a man who knows sincerity when he sings it, sailed into his chestnut "Sweet Caroline." In crowd-pleasing Diamond fashion, he swayed, smiled and gestured to the audience. Following Diamond's performance and a montage acknowledging music giants who passed away this past year, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, John Mayer, and Urban — each with six-strings in tow — plucked out a flawless, organic tribute to the late Bo Diddley, who died in June.
Melding the distinct genres of hip-hop, R&B and jazz in a tribute to the recuperating post-Hurricane Katrina city of New Orleans, native sons Lil Wayne, Allen Toussaint and Terence Blanchard, along with singer Robin Thicke, took the stage for a medley of "Tie My Hands," "Big Chief" and "Feet Don't Fail Me Now," backed by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. While Hurricane Katrina footage flashed behind Lil Wayne and Thicke on "Tie My Hands," the two exchanged raps and R&B verses amid Blanchard's trumpet stylings and a brilliant piano solo from Toussaint.
In the night's final performance, angel-voiced Alison Krauss and classic rock hero Robert Plant took the stage with producer T Bone Burnett and eased into "Rich Woman." Standing just inches apart at their microphones, Krauss and Plant sang quietly together. Then, when the band kicked up for "Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)," the duo broke out the hip-shaking moves reminiscent of Plant's Led Zeppelin glory days.
In accepting the Album Of The Year award, Plant spoke of a music world vastly changed since his youth. "I'm bewildered," he said. "In the old days they would have called this selling out, but I think it's a good way to spend a Sunday." Plant then noted that his and Krauss' success had come via an independent record label and paid quick tribute to the adventurous independent faction of the industry, perhaps a final triumph worth mentioning.