Forget about those stodgy, old, out-of-touch Grammys.
Just when it looked as if Lady Antebellum's safe, well-crafted country-pop album "Need You Now" was going to steal album of the year from Eminem's blockbuster "Recovery" on Sunday at the 53rd annual Grammys, Barbra Streisand announced arguably the biggest upset in Grammy-album history: "The Suburbs," a thoughtful concept album by the hip, brainy Montreal collective Arcade Fire.
While "The Suburbs" is a critical favorite -- it was the runaway winner in the 2010 Village Voice's critics' poll -- the disc was a modest seller (484,000 copies) without a hit single, compared with the Eminem and Lady A albums, the year's best sellers at more than 3 million apiece.
Arcade Fire lead singer Win Butler walked onstage, got down on his knees and bowed to Streisand and fellow presenter Kris Kristofferson. "What the hell?" Butler blurted when he stood at the microphone.
There have been other upsets in Grammy history, but it's usually a case of a well-crafted album by a well-known veteran such as Herbie Hancock, Ray Charles or Steely Dan triumphing over bigger records. Arcade Fire was a left-field nominee, chosen by a blue-ribbon panel. Instead, it had been favored to take best alternative album -- but lost to the Black Keys' "Brothers" in that category.
Country trio Lady Antebellum was the night's other big winner with five trophies, including record and song of the year for "Need You Now," a late-night drunk-dialing ballad that was a hit in country and pop.
"We're so stunned we started walking in the wrong direction," Lady A singer Hillary Scott said when accepting record of the year.
For a while, Sunday felt like the make-good Grammys. Rock god Neil Young took home his first Grammy for music; Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Mavis Staples snared her first trophy 61 years into her storied career, and old prune face Mick Jagger gave his first live Grammys performance.
Overlooked younger stars also claimed some redemption. Muse, Britain's biggest rock band of this century, took its first trophy, for best rock album, over a quartet of superstars (Tom Petty, Pearl Jam, Jeff Beck and Young). Longtime critical country favorite Miranda Lambert collected her first Grammy (for her third album). The Black Keys, alt-rock critics darlings since 2002, captured two trophies -- their first -- for their sixth album.
Most of the awards were presented in the pre-telecast, with only about a dozen or so reserved for the 3 1/2-hour broadcast from Staples Center in Los Angeles. This program was mostly about performances.
After an opening tribute to soul queen Aretha Franklin, who is recovering from undisclosed health issues, the stage was turned over to today's hottest star, Lady Gaga. In her Grammy debut last year with Elton John, she was self-consciously bizarre and over-the-top. This year, she was less shocking, emerging from a giant seed and bursting into "Born This Way" -- which evokes Madonna's "Express Yourself" in enough ways to excite a Grammy committee of copyright lawyers -- dressed as a belly dancer with a bolero hat, see-through plastic clothes and a phalanx of similarly dressed dancers. Good, but not Gaga.
More impressive was Arcade Fire, whose strobe-fueled and blazingly punky "Month of May" was a perfectly Grammy-galvanizing moment before its shocking conquest; Muse, the British rock trio whose performance of "Uprising" had the visual and visceral power of its concerts; deeply passionate alt-bluegrass band the Avett Brothers, and the seethingly intense and riveting Eminem, teaming first with Rihanna on their Grammy-nominated "Love the Way You Lie" and then with Dr. Dre for "I Need a Doctor." Eminem did leave with three Grammys, including best rap album.
Little known jazz bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding, the toast of the jazz world, was a surprise winner for best new artist, over teen heartthrob Justin Bieber, rap/soul hitmaker Drake and highly regarded alt-rockers Florence & the Machine and Mumford & Sons. Said a startled Spalding: "I'll do my damnedest to make a whole lot of great music for all of you."
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