What a difference a year makes.
Last year's American Music Awards had little spark and lousy ratings, which most folks blamed on a lack of big name performers -- a deficit that producers made up for last night by recruiting Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake and Katy Perry to rock the house.
Artist of the Year Taylor Swift and Justin dominated the winners list, taking home three trophies each. One Direction and Rihanna each notched a pair and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, who accepted their award for Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Album via satellite from Miami, turned up the political heat by invoking the name of Trayvon Martin to discuss racial injustice -- instead of simply running through the usual list of "thank yous."
- Katy looked east -- way east -- for her show-opening version of the ballad "Unconditionally," donning a Japanese gown and surrounding herself with fan-waving dancers, fluttering cherry blossoms and other trappings from the Land of the Rising Sun.
- One Direction also led with their sensitive side on a smooth version of "Story of My Life" that showcased both folky harmonies and newly-sprouted facial hair -- both of which generated screams from the audience.
- Ariana Grande took things even further into ballad territory with "Tattooed Heart," which backed her Mariah-like vocal gymnastics with a group of finger-snapping fifties-inspired male singers.
- Imagine Dragons pumped up the volume -- and the rhythm-- with a stage full of over-sized drums they used to add extra punch to a medley of their hits "Demons" and "Radioactive."
- Before the show even started, host Pitbull warned ABC to keep the delay button ready and promised "lots of fun" in debuting "Timber," his duet with Kesha -- and he lived up to the promise, but not the warning with a fun version of the tune.
- Justin Timberlake kept the suit and tie but traded the smooth R & B of his first few singles of 2013 for a raucous gospel-rock sound on "Drink You Away" -- a song that channeled the gritty spirit of his hometown of Memphis.
- Florida Georgia Line and Nelly teamed up for a rollicking version of their hit duet "Cruise," adding a verse or two of the St. Louis rapper's "Ride Wit Me" at the end.
- The AMA folks cooked up a special award for Rihanna -- the Icon Award, which she accepted from her mom after turning out a classy version of "Diamonds."
- Macklemore and Ryan Lewis turned in the night's most energetic performance from 3,000 miles away, beaming "Can't Hold Us" in from their arena show in Miami.
- Jennifer Lopez presented a tribute to the late Cuban singer Celia Cruz, a longtime favorite around the country, but particularly in the Bronx, where Jenny from the block got her start.
- Christina Aguilera joined New York duo Great Big World for their breakout hit.
- Lady Gaga cooked up a variety-show styled sketch for her R. Kelly duet "Do What U Want," casting Kelly as the lascivious president to her own eager-to-please intern. She ended the bit by singing the last verse in front of a big screen projection of nasty tabloid stories about her real life.
- Rumors swirled about the "special guest" that TLC would bring out for their performance, but rather than a hologram Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, they were joined by rapper Lil Mama on "Waterfalls."
- Miley Cyrus ended the night with a bang -- and a meow -- with a twerkless version of "Wrecking Ball" in which she shared the stage with a giant kitten that mimicked her famous tongue trick.
American Music Awards winners:
Artist of the Year: Taylor Swift
Favorite Pop-Rock Male Artist: Justin Timberlake
Favorite Soul/ R&B Female Artist: Rihanna
Favorite Country Album: Taylor Swift: Red
Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Album: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis: The Heist
Favorite Alternative Artist: Imagine Dragons
Favorite Latin Music Artist: Marc Anthony
Favorite Country Female Artist: Taylor Swift
Favorite Country Male Artist: Luke Bryan
Favorite Electronic Dance Music Artist: Avicii
Favorite Country Duo or Group: Lady Antebellum
Favorite Pop-Rock Album: One Direction: Take Me Home
Favorite Pop-Rock Band, Duo or Group: One Direction
Favorite Soul/R&B Album: Justin Timberlake: The 20/20 Experience
Single of the Year: Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly: "Cruise"
New Artist of the Year: Ariana Grande
Icon Award: Rihanna