LOS ANGELES - On Sunday night, the Staples Center stage will echo with 2012's hottest sounds, fine-tuned, reimagined or radically overhauled for the 55th Grammy Awards (CBS, 8 p.m. ET/tape delay PT).
The music industry's annual pageant of platinum hits, golden trophies and sterling performances opens with Taylor Swift's frolicsome spectacle, the show's biggest production, and wraps up with an all-star finale that tilts sharply more contemporary than last year's Abbey Road medley led by Paul McCartney.
Executive producer Ken Ehrlich, at the drawing board since nominees were announced Dec. 5, has framed 3½ hours of wall-to-wall-of-sound entertainment by some of music's biggest acts.
"The nominations this year were younger and more diverse," he says. "Our challenge every year is to present a broadly based show that introduces some of these acts to our audience. We focus on what we do best, building a show about music."
Typically, fewer than a dozen awards are dispensed on air, setting the stage for a sonic boom.
Frank Ocean, Mumford & Sons, fun., Jay-Z, Kanye West and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys lead this year's race with six nods each. While anticipation builds for announcements in such key categories as best album, record, song and new artist, viewers tend to tune in for the tunes.
Who's likely to ignite water-cooler chatter and Twitter eruptions?
Critical favorite Ocean may wake up the mainstream. American Idol alums Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood have the chops to galvanize. Best album underdog Jack White could set off sparks. Mumford, The Lumineers and fun. should prevail with youthful accessibility. Fans who favor Wiz Khalifa's mix of Miguel's Adorn will relish the chance to see the pair deliver it live. Colombian rocker Juanes may surprise the uninitiated.
And no doubt hearts will melt when children from Newtown, Conn., tackle Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe.
Unnominated Justin Timberlake, promoting upcoming album The 20/20 Experience, is sure to raise pulses with an appearance that may entail a certain hip-hop collaborator.
"This is a mature but very hip Justin," says Ehrlich, who admires the singer's undimmed enthusiasm 13 years after his first nomination (he's had 28 and six wins). "Some people never lose it. One of the joys for me is the newbies. I worked with fun. three times this year. They're terrific kids and they feel a genuine thrill about being on the Grammys."
Historically, Ehrlich's imaginative pairings, or "Grammy moments," tend to outshine the stand-alones. On tap this year:
Grammy host LL Cool J will take part in a fusion of rap, rock and electronica with Public Enemy's Chuck D, Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and DJ Z-Trip.
Bassist Stanley Clarke, pianist Chick Corea and saxist Kenny Garrett will pay homage to the late jazz great Dave Brubeck.
Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley will entwine voices in a combo of her Over You and his Home. "It's lovely how they weave together," Ehrlich says. "That one's going to score."
Maroon 5 will perform Daylight alongside Alicia Keys' Girl on Fire. "If they do this right, it's almost like an M.C. Escher painting: Do the steps go up or down? They fit together magically."
Performing a song from best album contender El Camino, the Black Keys will be joined by members of Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Dr. John, aka Mac Rebennack, 72. "I haven't performed with the Black Keys per se but they're good guys and we're going to try to make it work," says Rebennack, whose Locked Down, produced by Keys singer/guitarist Auerbach, is up for best blues album. "You have to do something different sometimes. That's what musicians do. It might be completely off the hook and unexpected."
He's hoping to catch a replay of their performance but it won't be on his DVR. "I don't own a television," he says. "I don't want one."
Elton John, a mashup regular who brought down the house in past Grammy appearances with Eminem and Lady Gaga, will perform with Ed Sheeran, 21, a first-time Grammy nominee whose The A-Team is up for best song.
"Elton rung me up and asked if I wanted to do it," Sheeran says. "I'm quite excited, and it's going to be cool. It puts a stamp of approval on me."
The British singer/songwriter, stunned when "a long stream of texts" signaled his nomination, was even more wowed by the invitation to perform.
"As Elton put it to me, 'By performing, even if you don't win, you still win,' " says Sheeran, who says he's also thrilled at the possibility of bumping into Jay-Z backstage. "The Grammys are a big deal worldwide, and it's a big opportunity for me."
This year's In Memoriam tribute gathers Elton John, Mumford & Sons, Zac Brown, Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard and Mavis Staples for a salute to the late Levon Helm, with T Bone Burnett on board as musical director.
"I resisted In Memoriam for years, but once we did the first one, I knew we weren't going back," says Ehrlich, who inaugurated the segment in 2003 to honor Joe Strummer, with Bruce Springsteen leading an all-star band through The Clash's London Calling. "This year it's going to be incredibly emotional."
Brown, whose Uncaged is up for best country album, signed on without hesitation.
"I looked at the royalty that's going to be on stage," he says, dubbing the Grammys the Super Bowl of award shows. "(Helm's) music has meant the world to me and helped shape my music. It's a giant honor. It's more exciting to do that than to play one of our own songs. Everyone is usually so busy doing their own thing, so with everyone in L.A., why not pull people together to collaborate?"Ehrlich is especially pleased with a Bob Marley tribute starring Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Sting and an as-yet-unconfirmed combination of Marley descendants that may include Ziggy, Steven and Damian.
"I'll readily confess I have my favorites and they're people who understand the dynamics of live performance and deliver," Ehrlich says. After LL Cool J's somber acknowledgement of Whitney Houston's death on last year's show, "Bruno picked the house up off the floor with his James Brown impersonation."
Ehrlich approached Mars to perform Locked Out of Heaven this year, but since the single and his album, Unorthodox Jukebox, arrived after Grammy's eligibility cutoff, the singer initially begged off.
He returned to Mars with a proposal for a reggae theme after locking in rabid Marley fan Rihanna and Sting, who will contribute Walking on the Moon to the medley.Ehrlich recalls, "Bruno said, 'It's not my year. I want to come back next year and do a great job.' I said, 'Bruno, we're in the music business. There's no next year. There's next week.' "
"It's going to be a real highlight," Ehrlich promises.
Adventurous matchups helped the Grammys evolve into "a must-see for a huge fan base," says Neil Portnow, president and CEO of the Recording Academy for the past 10 years. "It's the kind of show you want to see in real time."
A decade ago, Portnow told Ehrlich he wanted more of "those moments where you pair the unpredictable and unexpected and even educational."
It was music to Ehrlich's ears.
"We've marched down that path quite successfully," Portnow says. "And because of our track record, the creative community has developed trust and confidence in the team that puts this show together."
A slate of impressive performances wouldn't be possible without a strong list of nominees to draw from, and in recent years, "we've been applauded for getting it right," Portnow says. "That reflects the vibrancy of our membership."
This time, the academy's 12,000-member voting body, which has grown younger and more diverse, selected nominees in 81 categories from a record 17,500 submissions.
"The nominees are consistently looked upon as intelligent and savvy and forward-thinking, and that's a result of developing the membership," Portnow says. "It's by design, not accident."
Last year's Grammys drew 39.9 million viewers, beating the Academy Awards' audience of 39.3 million. The explanation is simple, says Ehrlich: "The Oscars didn't have any music."
He does concede that Houston's death the day before the Grammys heightened interest in the telecast, which served as an impromptu wake, forcing last-minute changes that included Jennifer Hudson singing I Will Always Love You.
"You'd have to be naïve to think the Whitney factor didn't have an effect," he says. "But I believe we would have had a big audience anyway because of Adele, the Beach Boys, the buzz about Bruce Springsteen opening. We had a lot of heat going into that show before Saturday afternoon. I do think we are on an upswing."