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Grammy Highs and Lows: Annie Lennox, Sam Smith Take America to Church; Madonna Doesn't

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Have there ever been as many orchestras and choirs in one place as at this year’s Grammys? You half-expected to find Madonna’s red-robed, vaguely satanic-looking chorale rumbling with Sam Smith’s choir in the alley behind Staples Center after the show. Fortunately, some of the performers really did take us to church. Among the 2015 telecast’s best and weakest moments:

HIGH: Hozier and Annie Lennox
You could see this coming as a highlight from a mile away, but even then, their medley exceeded expectations. Lennox has just the “churchy” voice to drive Hozier’s hit home on the chorus, but subsequently seemed anything but angelic as she belted out Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s classic “I Put a Spell on You” with a demonic look in her eyes we haven’t seen since the earliest days of Eurythmics. 

LOW: Madonna
At the moment when she could most use a turnaround, Madonna, who showed up on the red carpet in a racy, butt-barring ensemble, inexplicably turned in the most passive TV performance of her career. She took the “Lift me up” chorus of her new single “Living for Love” all too literally, as a coterie of dancers tossed her from person to person. It was less reminiscent of the woman-handling “Material Girl” video than of medics gingerly handling someone fresh out of surgery — even though Madonna’s thigh muscles looked as powerful as ever. It wasimpressive, at least, that she managed to find that many of Maleficent’snephews to join her backup dancing crew, and that they managed not to impaleher.

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HIGH: Kristen Wiig, Maddie Ziegler, and (we think) Sia
Less a musical performance than performance art, this gonzo dance/mime version of  “Chandelier” by the ex-SNL comedian and the Dance Moms star — and maybe even Sia somewhere in there, too — made America do a collective spit-take. Whether you thought it was hysterical or ridiculously highfalutin’, it was just the wakeup call viewers needed after three hours of increasing drowsiness.

[Related: Sia Parodies Self, Recruits Kristen Wiig for ‘Chandelier’ Grammy Performance]

LOW: Ariana Grande
Girls don’t just want to have fun, after all. Grande set the overly sober tone for much of the telecast by bringing us down with an orchestrated “Little Bit of Your Heart” that seemed designed to establish her as a serious crooner. To paraphrase the late Lloyd Bentsen: We know Sam Smith. Sam Smith was a friend of ours. Ariana, you’re no Sam Smith… and shouldn’t need or want to be!

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HIGH: Sam Smith and Mary J. Blige
Their duet of “Stay With Me” was about the umpteenth time we’d seen an orchestra and/or choir onstage during the evening, but in this case, the solemnity was for the right cause. Smith and Blige had such fantastic musical chemistry, we can only hope that this is the start of a long partnership for them, sad lyrics aside.

LOW: Adam Levine and Gwen Stefani
Maroon 5 has a terrific, upbeat, irresistibly disco-fied new single out (“Sugar”). Stefani is one of the most dynamic performers in pop. So, in keeping with the overly solemn tone of the evening, the Grammys decided we should hear these two dynamos do a perfunctory ballad.

HIGH: Usher and Stevie Wonder
This is the kind of homage at which the Grammys excel, when they’re on their game. Usher effortlessly nailed Wonder’s “If It’s Magic,” which also became a tribute to the secret life of harps. The appearance by the man himself on harmonica at the end of the tune was too quick and perfunctory for some fans, but we don’t blame them for saving the serious Stevie moments for the full-length tribute special that’s being filmed in L.A. later this week. Sometimes an exquisite cover by a single artist works better than a cluster-jam, anyway.

LOW: Imagine Dragons
OK, so we technically can’t blame the Grammys for this, since the live performance by the band from a Las Vegas stage was bought and paid for by a commercial sponsor. But the least Target could have done with such an anonymous performance would be to subtitle the name of the band along with a corporate hashtag, since we kept forgetting who was turning in this bland performance even after seeing the introduction.

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HIGH: Kanye West and Beck
We were wondering when he’d finally get around to re-creating his famous Taylor Swift stage-rush for laughs. Poor Beck seemed just as dazed as T-Swizzle was back in the day… although maybe not so much by Kanye’s antics as by the fact that probably not even his parents predicted him to beat both Smith and Beyoncé for Album of the Year.

LOW: Kanye West and darkness
His performance of “Only One” early in the telecast was not nearly as finely tuned as his bum-rushing-Beck gag. Why is he the last hip-hop guy around still Auto-Tuning the news? While he switched on the audio vocal processing for “Only One,” he failed to turn on the lights. That’s the kind of gambit that might work at his own shows, but it just left tens of millions of viewers frantically turning up the brightness controls on their remotes for no coherent reason.

HIGH: Rihanna, Kanye West, and Paul McCartney
It seems we can’t make up our minds on Mr. West, but he gets a thumbs-up for two out of three appearances. “FourFiveSeconds” is hardly the best song he, Rihanna, or Macca have been associated with, but seeing these unlikely bedfellows jam it out acoustically, hootenanny-style, was a hoot.

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LOW: Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett
It’s swell that Gaga wants to give Bennett a boost with her young audience, but there’s something about her camping and vamping it up on the old standards that almost feels like minstrelsy — even before she styled herself and acted like Mae West for her Grammy performance.

HIGH: Brandy Clark and Dwight Yoakam
There hasn’t been a better country ballad in years than “Hold My Hand” by Best New Artist nominee Brandy Clark. You could just about count the people who’ve ever heard the tune on a few thousand hands, so kudos to the Grammy producers for affording airtime to such a little-known, should-be classic… and for knowing that a harmony vocal by Yoakam would make it better still.

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HIGH: Pharrell Williams
Williams beat Smith in a Pop category with a live version of “Happy,” so you could be cynical and imagine his umpteenth TV performance of the tune was a bid to win the category again with the same standard in 2016. But he managed to make this reprise different, not just because he’d traded in his Arby’s hat for shorts, but with a likably bizarre bit of introductory orchestration by Hans Zimmer and a “Hands up, don’t shoot” homage in the choreography.

HIGH: Common and John Legend
Also known as: Oscar rehearsal.

HIGH: Sam Smith
We could tell Smith was pacing himself with his succinct acceptance speeches over the course of the evening. But he managed to get off a zinger in each one, whether he was remembering a time when he “tried to lose weight and make awful music” or was offering thanks to the unrequited love who broke his heart “because you bought me four Grammys.” Requited-ness is so overrated!

[Related: Sam Smith Triumphs With 4 Grammy Wins, Beck Gets Best Album]