by Julian Spivey
Every year I like to rank the performances on the Grammy Awards telecast from my favorite to least favorite. But please keep in mind these are simply the subjective opinions of one man. I will note that I didn’t think there was a single bad performance on the Grammys telecast Sunday night so it’s not like I believe there were any crimes against music perpetrated during the Grammy Awards – I think you may have to go back to Justin Bieber performing a slow piano version of “Peaches” in 2022 for something like that. I will mention that 13 performances seem low for the Grammys and the show even went three and a half hours. The show also desperately needs to do a better job at getting its biggest nominees to perform, though I know they must’ve asked some of these artists and were turned down.
1. “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell & Friends
I was very much looking forward to seeing Joni Mitchell make her Grammys debut, despite having previously won nine Grammy Awards (she’d add a tenth this year for Best Folk Album for Joni Mitchell at Newport), but I didn’t really know what to expect and I certainly didn’t realize how touched I would immediately be. I know at 80 years old Mitchell isn’t the same singer she once was, especially after major health scares that included a brain aneurysm rupture in 2015. But within the first three words of her singing “Both Sides Now,” one of her most iconic songs, I was already teary-eyed. It was fantastic to see her perform live with her newfound family of wonderful musicians including Brandi Carlile, whom Mitchell fans owe a lot to for getting her back into the performing aspect of music, Allison Russell, Lucius and Sista Strings. It’s one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever seen at the Grammy Awards.
2. “Turn the Lights Back On” by Billy Joel
OK, I can feel the young’ns laughing at me and switching for something else online now. No, I’m not a boomer. I’m only 36. But I love the classics and Billy Joel is one of my favorites. He hasn’t had new pop music since his 1994 album River of Dreams, as he kind of fell out of love with the songwriting process. Joel’s new song “Turn the Lights Back On,” which I heard for the first time last week, instantly floored me. I didn’t know what to expect from his first song in 30 years but I didn’t think it would possibly be this good. I loved the video package shown before the song, which explained how it was Joel’s meeting modern songwriter Freddy Wexler, 37, and striking up a friendship that led to at least a bit of a rekindled flame for songwriting – though I don’t get the feeling we’ll be getting another Joel album. “Turn the Lights Back On” is the perfect song for a legendary singer-songwriter who put away the pen and reclaimed it again after so many years.
3. “You May Be Right” by Billy Joel
Hey, if I’m going old school I might as well go all in, right? If I were to rank my favorite Billy Joel songs – which quite frankly I’m surprised I haven’t yet done – I think his 1980 top-10 hit “You May Be Right” off his Glass Houses album would make the top 10. Joel ended the 2024 Grammy Awards telecast on CBS with a rocking version of the song, as the credits rolled, including that terrific saxophone solo by Mark Rivera.
OK, kids, I’ll get to the new stuff … well, sort of …
4. “Fast Car” by Luke Combs & Tracy Chapman
So, Luke Combs's cover of Tracy Chapman’s iconic “Fast Car” is new, but the song itself is 36 years old. I’ve been dying to see the two perform this song together and felt that last November’s CMA Awards, in which the song won Song of the Year for its songwriter Chapman, might be the chance but it came and went. So, I felt Chapman, who’s kind of become something of a recluse, might just be sitting back at home enjoying the royalties from the song’s latest popularity. But when I heard Combs was chosen to perform at the Grammy Awards, I once again got my hopes up and thankfully the dream performance happened. I always felt Combs’s cover of “Fast Car” was loving and well-done and was happy he didn’t change lyrics to alter the gender, but I also had concerns about fans not digging deep enough to realize it wasn’t his song and might ignore the importance of Chapman. To his credit, Combs didn’t seem like he was about to let that happen and I loved the video package before the performance with him talking about his dad playing the song when he was a child and how he immediately fell in love with it. Chapman still sounds as smooth as ever. This was her second time performing the song on the Grammys, having done so to close out the 1989 show after winning Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for it.
5. “What Was I Made For?” by Billie Eilish
Director Greta Gerwig’s movie “Barbie” was everywhere last summer and is still a behemoth of award season for movies, but its soundtrack was also a megahit that’s resulted in Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For?,” which is truly the heart and soul and captures the overall vibe and theme of the film, being everywhere over the last few months winning awards at film award and now music awards. It’s to the point where I hope it doesn’t become oversaturated and ultimately despised by the public, especially given the fact she’ll probably be performing it live again in another month at the Oscars. The song won Eilish and her brother, songwriting partner and producer Finneas O’Connell, Song of the Year on Sunday night and she performed an incredibly emotional and downplayed performance of it with her brother accompanying on piano. It was a gorgeous performance and moment.
6. “Vampire” by Olivia Rodrigo
I could easily have flipped-flopped Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo’s performances here – “What Was I Made For?” and “Vampire” have been my two favorite pop songs of the last year. I like a bit of angst in my pop music, which probably explains why Eilish and Rodrigo have released some of my favorite pop songs of the last half-decade, and Rodrigo certainly has that in spades in “Vampire,” about an older lover who preyed on her naivety and took advantage of her before she eventually came to this realization. In another similarity between Eilish and Rodrigo, Rodrigo begins “Vampire” with this plaintive whisper before really ramping up the song and her vocals by the end for a powerhouse performance. The fake blood over her arms and face was a nice touch – though I understand why some wanted to see her go full-on “Carrie.” But, who really wants to have to take a shower mid-award show?
7. “Flowers” by Miley Cyrus
At times during the Grammy Awards telecast it looked like Miley Cyrus was having the most fun of anyone and with good reason – she won her first career Grammy Award when “Flowers” took home Best Pop Solo Performance early in the show – and was doing her best Tina Turner performance when she took the stage. When she egged the audience to sing along when performing the song you could tell she was having a great time. Later in the evening, she would take home Record of the Year, which some consider to be the top prize at the Grammys.
8. “Snooze”/”Kill Bill” by SZA
SZA’s performance of “Snooze” and “Kill Bill” was, without a doubt, the most cinematic performance of the 2024 Grammy Awards, including sword wielding stunt man fighting and flying all over the place while SZA, the most nominated performer of the Grammys this year, performed her biggest hits off the R&B Album of the Year SOS.
9. In Memoriam: “For Once In My Life” & “The Best Is Yet to Come” by Stevie Wonder, “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Annie Lennox, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean On Me” and “Optimistic” by Jon Batiste and “Proud Mary” by Fantasia Barrino
This wasn’t my favorite Grammy In Memoriam and much of that has to do with not giving much spotlight to Jimmy Buffett, who I understand never won a Grammy Award and only received two nominations for country music collaborations late in his career, but he was a singer-songwriter and musician who meant so much to me and millions around the world. It came off a little disrespectful. There were only half of the performances in this In Memoriam that I enjoyed. The segment, which had to have been the longest of the telecast, began with Stevie Wonder paying tribute to Tony Bennett with a performance of “For Once In My Life,” which was done as a duet with Bennett via an old video recording. I just didn’t like the idea of this. It got better when Wonder performed “The Best Is Yet to Come” afterward, but the spot could’ve been used to tribute Buffett or Gordon Lightfoot or anyone else. I enjoyed Annie Lennox’s tribute to Sinead O’Connor on “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which she sounded terrific on. Then Lenny Kravitz announced a tribute to music executive Clarence Avant, who was known as “The Godfather of Black Music,” and Jon Batiste performed a medley of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean On Me” and “Optimistic,” which by the end felt like Batiste may have forgotten there were images and names of deceased music legends scrolling on a screen. The In Memoriam segment ended with a terrific performance of Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” by Fantasia Barrino.
10. “Training Season”/”Houdini” by Dua Lipa
Debuting music on an award show is hard because it’s not conducive to really hearing the lyrics, especially when done as a two-song medley and while being a part of a spectacle as the Dua Lipa performance was. So, while on first listen “Training Season” and “Houdini” from her upcoming album didn’t stand out to me like some of her hits from the past, they may grow on me over time. Opening the Grammys is certainly an honor.
11. “On Form”/”City Boys” & “Sitting On Top of the World” by Burna Boy feat. Brandy & 21 Savage
The Grammy Awards celebrate music from all over the world so it was nice to see Nigerian performer Burna Boy, who’s won a Grammy and was nominated for four this year, make his Grammy telecast debut with a medley of songs off his most recent album I Told Them … He performed “On Form,” “City Boys” and then was joined by Brandy and 21 Savage for “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” Hopefully, we’ll see more performances like this in future years from the Grammys.
12. “My Eyes,” “I Know?” and “FE!N” by Travis Scott feat. Playboi Carti
I don’t dislike rap but of all of the major musical genres, it’s the one I listen to the least and understand the ins and outs of the least. So, please chalk this ranking up to that fact. Travis Scott performed a three-song medley (I do hate medleys though) off his Grammy-nominated album Utopia: “My Eyes,” “I Know ?” and “Fe!n,” which featured Playboi Carti. The performance was one of the most cinematic of the evening, by far, with Scott performing amidst a burning set and at the end trashing the place with folding chairs, which looked so cathartic. My biggest issue was the constant censorship of some of the lyrics which made the performance hard to follow. While some might blame that on Scott I just wish CBS/network TV standards weren’t so prudish – it was after 10 p.m. (CST) after all when he performed.
13. “Atomic City” by U2
I understand that U2 opening the one-of-a-kind (for now, at least) The Sphere venue in Las Vegas with a residency was one of the big music stories of 2023 but I never really got U2 performing at the Grammy Awards. I was sort of holding my opinion on it to see what they would perform because, even though I’m not a big U2 fan if they had performed a classic like “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Where the Streets Have No Name” or especially “With or Without You” I would’ve been pleased. Instead, we got “Atomic City,” which was written as a promotional tie-in for their Sphere residency (you know the kind of stuff rock & roll is all about), and the performance didn’t appear to my eyes to be live but a previously shot, hectically with a drone performance. The whole thing seemed robotic and lifeless. OK, maybe I should go back up and edit the part about there not being a bad performance on the show – but there wasn’t a bad “live” one.
What was your favorite performance at the Grammy Awards?