The 59th annual Grammy Awards were held on February 12. While the awards seem to lose more and more of their credibility with each year that passes — you can’t give a music prize to Justin Bieber and still expect people to take you seriously — music’s biggest night has been the host to some truly incredible performances over the years.
One of the coolest things about the Grammys is the awards show’s tendency to bring together some unexpected collaborations, amazing tributes, and triumphant returns to the stage. Here’s a list of the 10 best Grammy performances of all time (so far).
1. Adele – “Rolling in the Deep”
Adele took the stage at the 2012 Grammy Awards after canceling part of her 2011 tour to have throat surgery that put her voice in jeopardy. To prove that she had healed just fine, Adele began “Rolling in the Deep” a cappella, and by the end of her performance, she convinced everyone that not even vocal cord surgery could damage her pipes. Adele’s performance bucked the trend for female pop stars to use the Grammys as a platform to give over-the-top performances while wearing as little clothing as possible, giving us all hope that you can still win a pop Grammy on the grounds of vocal talent alone. Adele went on to win all six Grammys she was nominated for that night, including Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Pop Solo Performance.
2. Beyoncé and Tina Turner – “Proud Mary”
Beyoncé’s tribute to Tina Turner at the 2008 Grammy Awards was a kind of baton-passing from one soul goddess to the next. Beyoncé gives Turner possibly the most epic introduction anyone has ever received, then joins the queen of soul onstage for a rollicking rendition of “Proud Mary.” Tina proved she could still keep up with someone as young as Beyoncé, and Beyoncé showed that she herself has developed into an artist that embodies all the qualities she described as becoming of an iconic diva like Tina Turner. Also, there’s not much chance of seeing Beyoncé starstruck ever again.
3. Eric Clapton – “Tears in Heaven”
Clapton performed “Tears in Heaven” at the 1993 Grammy Awards, just two years after the tragic death of his 4-year-old son Conor, for whom the song was written. Conor died after accidentally falling 49 stories from the window of his mother’s New York City apartment in the spring of 1991. Clapton’s Grammys performance saw the guitar god ditching his Stratocaster for a toned-down acoustic, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. The song went on to win Record of the Year and Song of the Year.
4. Chuck Berry with Stevie Ray Vaughn and George Thorogood – “Maybelline” and “Roll Over Beethoven”
At the 1984 Grammy Awards, Vaughn and Thorogood paid homage to the most influential rock and roll guitarist ever to pick up the instrument. Berry proved that he can still duck walk with the best of them, beginning the show with a solo rendition of “Maybelline” and then being joined by Vaughn and Thorogood for “Roll Over Beethoven.” Berry arguably did more than any other performer to shape the early history of rock and roll, and the man has never received the credit he deserves for pioneering an art form. The performance in this video starts at 55 seconds in.
5. Aretha Franklin – “Nessun Dorma”
The queen of soul filled in for her friend Luciano Pavarotti on just 20 minutes’ notice after the opera legend was forced to cancel his 1998 Grammy performance due to medical concerns. Franklin performed the aria “Nessun Dorma” from the final act of Puccini’s opera “Turandot” and hit every note. The performance shows the versatility of Franklin’s voice, which has been named one of Michigan’s natural treasures, and showed that a serious performance of a classical piece of music was still possible at the Grammy Awards.
6. Amy Winehouse – “You Know I’m No Good” and “Rehab”
Winehouse, after facing drug charges in England, wasn’t allowed into the United States to give her 2008 Grammy performance despite her album Back to Black being nominated for a plethora of the trophies. She instead gave a performance of “You Know I’m No Good” and “Rehab” from England via satellite. This performance should serve as a reminder to anyone who only remembers Winehouse as a drug-addled mess that, while a drug-addled mess she was, she was also one of the greatest singers to emerge in the last decade. Her performance was pure rock and roll, as Winehouse flirted with the camera, gave shout-outs to her incarcerated husband, and proved she still had that voice despite a year filled with cancelled tour dates and tabloid drama. She won Best New Artist, Song of the Year, and Record of the Year in 2008.
7. Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Steven Van Zandt, and Dave Grohl – “London Calling”
After Clash frontman Joe Strummer’s sudden death in 2002, these rock legends got together at the 2003 Grammy Awards to pay tribute to the iconic punk band. This is possibly the most punk performance that has ever been witnessed by the Grammys, as Strummer’s line “phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust” seemed as sacrilegious as ever being sung in front of the Grammy audience. London Calling is one of the most influential albums ever made, and underneath the punk veneer you can see the complete glee of the guys onstage, thrilled that they have the opportunity to perform such a song and give tribute to a band that influenced them all.
8. M.I.A. with Jay Z, Kanye West, T.I., and Little Wayne – “Swagga Like Us”
Nine months pregnant, M.I.A. held her own among some of hip hop’s best talents for a mashup of her single “Paper Planes” and T.I’s “Swagga Like Us” at the 2009 Grammy Awards: It’s the absolute definition of bad ass. Hip hop is a notoriously male-dominated genre, and seeing a woman onstage, palling around with four of the biggest rappers of the moment, was a refreshing sight. When she sang “swagga like us,” M.I.A. placed herself squarely on the same level as the men around her — she refused to embody the typical female rap backup vocal and stand in the background. The awards show was apparently scheduled on M.I.A.’s due date, but that didn’t deter her from showing up and showing off with as much swagger as the boys.
9. The White Stripes – “Seven Nation Army” and Son House’s “Death Letter”
After an appropriately eclectic introduction from Beck, the blues duo from Detroit melted the Grammys’ face off, transitioning into a cover of Son House’s “Death Letter” from their hit “Seven Nation Army.” Jack White would never miss an opportunity to educate us about the history of the blues while simultaneously giving one of his unique slide guitar solos played on his beat-up old Kay Hollowbody. Meg White’s minimalistic drumming proved the old adage “less is more,” and the pair’s chemistry gave the performance a less rehearsed feeling than most acts that grace the Grammy stage. Quentin Tarantino’s reaction at the end pretty much says it all.
10. Bob Dylan – “Love Sick”
Who can forget the insanity of the Soy Bomb incident? While Dylan was giving his best televised performance in years for the Time Out of Mind track, a shirtless performance artist with the words “Soy Bomb” painted on his chest jumped onstage and began wildly dancing. He could have almost been mistaken for a part of Dylan’s act, since Dylan continued with the performance while stealing a couple confused sidelong glances at the dancer. Soy Bomb man was dragged offstage while Dylan ripped into one of the best guitar solos that the Grammys has ever seen. Bob Dylan went on to win Album of the Year for Time Out of Mind. Below is the version with Soy Bomb included, and here is an official video of the performance with Soy Bomb edited out.
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