Hard rockers Muse opened the show with a typically robust performance of their song "Supremacy" all thundering music, dazzling light show and 60-piece orchestra. Other performers ranged from world-conquering boy band One Direction to Grammy-winning folk rockers Mumford & Sons to American artists Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake.
Timberlake, dapper in a tuxedo as he performed "Mirrors," was described by host James Corden, in a nod to Europe's horse meat scandal, as "95 percent beefcake with just a little touch of horse."
Mumford & Sons, chanteuse Emeli Sande and indie band Alt-J led the nominations for the Brits, with three apiece.
Sande took the first award of the evening, for British female artist, while Mumford & Sons were named best British group.
Both have had outstanding years. Singer-songwriter Sande topped the British charts with her debut album "Our Version of Events" and performed at both the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics. Mumford & Sons topped U.K. and U.S. charts with their second album "Babel," which was named album of the year at the Grammys earlier this month.
Soul singer Amy Winehouse who died in July 2011 from accidental alcohol poisoning was among the other nominees for British female artist, eligible thanks to her posthumous "Lioness: Hidden Treasures" album. Her father, Mitch Winehouse, arrived for the awards ceremony at London's O2 Arena wearing a waistcoat emblazoned with a picture of his daughter.
Fans gathered in the winter cold cheered red-carpet arrivals including Swift wearing a slinky black gown and tousled tween favorites One Direction.
Other nominees include the Rolling Stones, up for best live act against Coldplay, Mumford & Sons, Muse and The Vaccines.
Among the international nominees are Alicia Keys, Rihanna, the Black Keys, Bruce Springsteen and indie-pop band fun.
Contenders for the biggest award of the night, best album, include Sande's "Our Version Of Events," Alt-J's "An Awesome Wave," Mumford & Sons' "Babel," Plan B's "Ill Manors" and Paloma Faith's "Fall To Grace."
Long derided as dull, the Brits have become a lively celebration of "Cool Britannia" music and style, featuring a dinner for hundreds of artists and industry figures followed by a televised concert and awards show for thousands of paying fans.
This year sees the introduction of a new category recognizing global success, with nominees including One Direction, Mumford & Sons and soulful songstress Adele.
Organizers promised to make amends to Adele, who was cut off mid-speech last year after winning two prizes. She is nominated this year for her single "Skyfall."
"How can you take an artist who has made the biggest cultural impact musically this country has seen globally for some time and cut her off in the middle of her speech?" Brits chairman David Joseph told The Guardian. "I very much to this day question what was happening in that control booth. I can hint something is going to happen this year to rewrite that wrong."
Most of the awards are chosen by more than 1,000 musicians, critics and record industry figures, with several decided by public vote.