The country trio won Song and Record of the Year, and the Montreal rockers won Album of the Year.
Here were the first words spoken by Win Butler, after his band Arcade Fire won album of the year ? the biggest prize of the the night ? at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards:
"What the hell?"
It was a sentiment that might have been shared by more than a few Grammy viewers who likely got their first taste of the Montreal band's music just moments earlier, during a performance of the song "Month of May," from The Suburbs. That album, released by the independent label Merge Records, beat out Recovery by Eminem, Need You Now by Lady Antebellum (the two best-selling albums of the year), The Fame Monster by Lady Gaga and Teenage Dream by Katy Perry. Eminem or Lady Antebellum had seemed far likelier to win, as both had won major awards earlier in the evening, the latter for song of the year and record of the year.
The award capped a huge year for Arcade Fire. The Suburbs made its debut at No. 1 on the Billboard charts when it was released in August, and the band played three sold-out nights at New York's Madison Square Garden. The award should give the band an even bigger boost.
Before the final award, it looked like the biggest surprise of the show would be Esperanza Spalding's upset victory in the best new artist category. The 26-year-old jazz bassist and singer from Portland, Ore., beat out two Canadians ? rapper Drake and teen pop sensation Justin Bieber ? and two British groups ? wailer Florence and The Machine and the folk revivalists in Mumford & Sons. Spalding is the first jazz musician ever to win a best new artist trophy. Perhaps it was a case of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the group that hands out the Grammys) succumbing to nationalist pride?
Or maybe it was the indie thing. After a year when pop dominated the charts, it was nearly shut out of the big awards. Spalding and Arcade Fire both record for independent labels (Spalding's album Chamber Music Society was released by the jazz label Heads Up International). Laura Ballance, the co-founder of Merge Records, told NPR last week that in terms of exposure, "whether something is on an independent label or a major label doesn't matter."
Country trio Lady Antebellum
The record and song of the year prizes both went to the lite-country singalong "Need You Now" by Lady Antebellum, which sounded at home on just about any radio station from classic rock to adult contemporary to country, but seemed positively gentle next to the revved-up sounds of Lady Gaga, Ke$ha and Katy Perry that ruled pop. Lady Antebellum also picked up awards for best country performance by a duo or group with vocals, best country album and best country song, bringing their total for the night to five, the most of any artist or group. The only award Lady A was nominated for but didn't win was album of the year.
"Need You Now" was the closest thing to a consensus pick; the rest of the evening saw awards split among many familiar faces and promising newcomers, though no one dominated. The Grammys are hamstrung both by the realities of a shaky industry ? album sales fell by nearly 13 percent in 2010 ? and their own eligibility rules. Recent hit records by Kanye West, Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj came out too late make it into this year's field of nominees.
Eminem, who had 10 nominations (including two in one category, best rap song), won just two awards, best rap album and best rap solo performance for "Not Afraid." Lady Gaga won three of the six categories in which she was nominated: best short-form music video, best pop vocal album and best female pop vocal performance.
In all, 109 awards were handed out, but only 10 during the three-and-a-half hour ceremony itself; performances were the night's main draw. As the awards started, Gaga was the most talked-about musician in attendance. She'd arrived inside a large opaque egg, shuttled down the red carpet on the shoulders of three hulking, barely dressed men. Soon after the show started, she emerged from the same egg to perform "Born This Way," the first song (and title track) from a forthcoming album. The song was released to radio and iTunes on Friday, and is likely to make its debut at the No. 1 spot on the singles chart this week.
Gaga, Lady Antebellum, Muse and Arcade Fire all played solo sets of their own material, but collaborations ruled the night's performance schedule. The show opened with a tribute to Aretha Franklin performed by Christina Aguilera, Martina McBride, Yolanda Adams, Jennifer Hudson and Florence Welch. Franklin, who has recently been hospitalized, appeared via video and promised to appear at next year's awards in person.
Later, Justin Bieber (two nominations, no wins) performed with Usher (best male R&B vocal performance and best contemporary R&B album) and the young actor/rapper Jaden Smith. Janelle Monae (two nominations, no wins) was backed by rapper B.o.B (five nominations, no wins) on guitar and singer/songwriter/producer Bruno Mars (seven nominations, one win for best male pop vocal performance) on drums. Rihanna (best dance recording) sang with Adam Levine of Maroon 5 (one nomination, no wins) and Eminem, who then passed the microphone to Dr. Dre (maybe next year, but don't hold your breath).
Midway through the show, Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers kicked off a sort of hootenanny that ended with both groups backing Bob Dylan for a ramshackle take on "Maggie's Farm." Mick Jagger sang Solomon Burke's "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," backed by Raphael Saadiq, at the close of the "In Memoriam" segment. Rihanna came back near the end of the ceremony for a duet with Drake. Grammy favorites John Mayer, Keith Urban and Norah Jones (who have 19 awards among them) sang Dolly Parton's classic "Jolene." Immediately after winning the best new artist trophy, Esperanza Spalding was demoted to playing backup for NARAS president Neil Portnow's annual speech about the evils of piracy. And, in the most bizarre performance of the show, Cee Lo Green performed what was referred to throughout the night as "The Song Otherwise Known As 'Forget You'" backed by Gwyneth Paltrow and a bunch of puppets.
But the last song of the night belonged to Arcade Fire. After a brief, stunned acceptance speech, Win Butler announced that the band would play another song "because we like music," and Arcade Fire's seven members hauled their album of the year trophy back onto the stage they had vacated moments earlier. The song they played opens with the lines, "Businessmen drink my blood / like the kids in art school said they would." It's called "Ready to Start," and was not a bad way to end the show.