Review: The Grammys Go to Church, Feature Powerhouse Vocal Moments

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Hozier and Annie Lennox perform on stage at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles February 8, 2015.

AC/DC got the devil out of the way with a spirited introduction to the 57th Annual Grammy Awards Sunday, performing their recent "Rock or Bust" and their classic "Highway to Hell" with the Staples Center audience donning devil horns. The three-plus hours that followed, all of them snappily paced, leaned toward the opposite end of the spiritual spectrum in unexpected fashion: For a show that mixes genres, artists from different fields and mash-ups rooted in history, this edition was a study in the influence of gospel music on all strains of pop music.

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A key component on song and record of the year "Stay With Me," it was no surprise that a full choir joined Sam Smith and Mary J. Blige for the performance. But that influence and the presence of choirs were turning pop, rock and dance songs into spirituals. Madonna incorporated a gospel choir in an a cappella section of "Living for Love" and Hozier's marriage of gospel and folk-rock on "Take Me to Church" took on a righteous glow when Annie Lennox joined for a chorus. Pharrell Williams' sprawling and disconnected "Happy" and Katy Perry's "By the Grace of God" had their own churchly feels, one filled with exaltation, the other solemn.

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If that were not enough, the final eight minutes of the show were straight out of the church, Beyonce soaring through the pain of "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" and Common, John Legend and an all-male choir emphasizing the nobility of "Glory."

This year's edition of the Grammy Awards featured a record 23 performances, with five songs on the telecast released after the eligibility period ended. That's a dramatic change of pace for the Grammys, which last year featured one new song and one new single and last century would not have included anything without a nomination.

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The telecast featured the television debuts of several fresh releases: Rihanna, Kanye West and Paul McCartney's "FourFiveSeconds"; Madonna's "Living for Love"; AC/DC's "Rock or Bust"; West's "Only One" and, in a move that steals thunder from next month's Academy Awards, Common and John Legend's Oscar-nominated "Glory." Ariana Grande and Miranda Lambert performed current singles that would be eligible at the 58th Grammy Awards. (CBS reached out to its usual audience with Tom Jones, Smokey Robinson and Jeff Lynne with a new edition of ELO sounding so good they should announce a tour this week).

Yet for all of the youth movement in singers and songs, it was a 60-year-old woman singing a 59-year-old song stole the show. Lennox's rendition of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You," which fed out of Hozier's "Take Me to Church," was fiery and honest, the sort of performance that makes the so-called "Grammy moments" rewarding.

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The pairing of Hozier and Lennox had an old-fashioned appeal that the show worked successfully in other pairings, including Adam Levine and Gwen Stefani, Ed Sheeran and Lynne, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, Usher and a harpist. Each offered splendid intimate moments that celebrated natural voices and, largely, traditional songcraft. In contrast, Kanye West's solo turn was the evening's most disappointing moment; his static performance suffered from a lack of dynamics and production values and his use of a vocal tuning device gave his track a dated feel. Fortunately, he had a moment of redemption with Rihanna and McCartney.

The Recording Academy ventured into a social issue for the second year, supporting the fight against rape and domestic violence with a taped message from President Obama, a solemn performance from Perry that followed an abuse survivor detailing her story and a promo for the campaign to end sexual assault on campuses, "It's On Us" (ItsOnUs.org). Fortunately, it, too, felt like an honest plea and not a gratuitous plug.