Obviously the American Music Awards are about awards, but the real reason we tune in is to see hit artists delivering performances of their new material. Sometimes they’re spectacular, sometimes they’re snoozy — even the best pop stars can swing and miss at the AMAs — but they’re always fascinating.
From the memorable to the misses, here’s all the 2014 AMA performances ranked from worst to best.
18) Garth Brooks
Nothing against the legendary Garth Brooks, but his comeback single “People Loving People” is more bombastic than memorable. And heck, he wasn’t even at the AMAs — he performed via a live feed from Greensboro, NC. Despite being one of country’s biggest and best, Brooks was the low point of the AMAs.
17) Wyclef Jean and Magic!
While it was a classy move for the AMAs to include Wyclef Jean’s AIDS charity single “Divine Sorrow,” his mashup with Magic! — they performed their No. 1 hit “Rude,” obviously — wasn’t the most exciting pairing. At one point, they tossed it to the audience to sing the lyrics for them and got met by silence. Was it bad? No. Was it the perfect opportunity to get up and use the restroom? Yes.
16) Imagine Dragons
The rockers delivered their new single, the sing-along “I Bet My Life,” during the Sunday night ceremony. It might sound a little too close to Mumford & Sons for comfort, but it certainly had the whole room clapping and stomping along.
Fergie’s new single “L.A. Love (La La)” isn’t a great song, but she delivered it with such confidence and force that it was hard not to enjoy. Also, YG bicycling on stage to deliver his verse was just hilarious.
14) Iggy Azalea
After rapping “Fancy” like a politician delivering a press conference, Iggy transitioned to her latest single, “Beg For It,” which was strangely without MØ support. Additionally, Azalea seemed to be having mic issues during the latter song. Great showmanship, so-so execution.
13) Ariana Grande, Jessie J and Nicki Minaj
Did we need another “Bang Bang” performance at 2014 awards show? Who cares when Minaj attacks her verse with the same ferocity she brought to Kanye’s “Monster” once upon a time? Jessie J sounded incredible singing her part, and the fact that she was stationed in the audience allowed us to get a great shot of Taylor Swift busting a move alongside Lorde.
12) Pitbull and Ne-Yo
Ne-You sings “I worked my ass off” in the chorus to his Pitbull collabo “Time of Our Lives,” but Pit might as well have sang the line on Sunday night — he was not only hosting the AMAs, but performing as well. In addition to his jam with Ne-Yo, he did “Fireball,” too. Mr. Worldwide is a busy guy.
11) Selena Gomez
For the live TV debut of her new song “The Heart Wants What It Wants,” Gomez sang the hell out of her Bieber ballad. Everything was executed with flawless class until just the last moment, when an image eerily similar to the movie post for Human Centipede flashed on the screen behind her. We’re guessing she’s not familiar with the extremely disturbing horror film, but still, someone on her team might’ve given her the heads up.
10) Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea
Although the opening sounded suspiciously close to “Vogue,” the duo’s first live performance of “Booty” was a perfect showstopper (literally, the show ended right after this song). The best part was when J.Lo stopped singing to check out a ringing cell phone, which she dismissed with the offhand observation, “Just a booty call.” Never change, Jenny from the Block.
9) Ariana Grande & The Weeknd
Grande put her stunning voice on display during a lounge-y jazz version of “Problem,” which gave way to a lovely live version of “Love Me Harder” featuring the Weeknd and his fantastic hair.
8) Sam Smith
No theatrics, no gimmicks — just a brilliant artist, his silken voice and that ever-present trench coat. “I’m Not the Only One” got a little help from A$AP Rocky, who rolled in to drop his verse to the remix. Bonus points to A$AP for rocking that enormous scarf.
7) Charli XCX
The night’s most rocking non-rock performance came courtesy of Charli XCX, who transitioned from a sweet prom-themed “Boom Clap” to a vicious run-through of “Break the Rules,” which ended with a lollipop getting smashed to hell.
6) One Direction
One Direction is actually a very competent live act — a rarity for boy bands — but “Night Changes” might not have been the most thrilling Four cut to play at the AMAs. We would’ve preferred a high-energy take on “Girl Almighty,” but they still deserve kudos for being one of the night’s few performers to sing without a backing track that buried their live voices.
5) Lil Wayne ft. Christina Milian and Nicki Minaj ft. Skylar Grey
Backed by Christina Milian, Lil Wayne brought an inferno to the AMAs with his new track “Let’s Start a Fire.” He easily takes the award for most f-bombs unleashed in a 2014 AMA performance. Weezy’s song segued into Nicki Minaj’s subtle, heartfelt “Bed of Lies” featuring Skylar Grey. Wearing more clothes than we’ve seen on her at an awards show in a minute, Minaj pulled off the rare trick of captivating an awards show with a slow-burner.
4) 5 Seconds of Summer
Sorry, Imagine Dragons — the best actual rock performance at the 2014 AMAs was 5 Seconds of Summer covering the Romantics’ immortal New Wave hit “What I Like About You.” If you went into the AMAs thinking 5SOS was a boy band, it’s safe to assume that misconception didn’t last for long.
3) Mary J. Blige
“Therapy,” the track Blige co-wrote with Sam Smith, is a jazzy, soulful stunner. Much like Smith’s performance, it was an unadorned, gimmick-free affair that put her incredible voice — and the remarkable new song — at the forefront.
At this point, Lorde has proved herself to be the coolest weird dancer in the pop world (and perhaps second only to Thom Yorke in the world entire). Looking like no one else, Lorde brought a song that sounds like nothing else on the radio to the AMAs with her Mockingjay track, “Yellow Flicker Beat.”
1) Taylor Swift
When Taylor Swift hit the stage to perform her Hot 100 No. 1 “Blank Space,” she dangled from the ceiling, fed her boyfriend a poison apple, started everything on fire, and made crazy eyes at the camera. It was not only a visual feast, but a brilliant send-up of the public perception that she’s “boy crazy.” Taylor 1001; Haters 0.