Saturday Night Live has a lengthy history of making America laugh. The sketch comedy show, birthed in New York in 1975, also has a stellar tradition of getting the best out of its musical guests.
Musically, the show is somewhat notorious for its average acoustics and singers occasionally missing lines (or devoting tracks to lost pets). But the stage has also been historically ripe terrain for remarkable costumes, odd props, unique song covers, and an unscripted element that can only come with live television.
We’re going to be honest: This list is not definitive and could show in various forms depending on what mood you’re in. When it comes to music, some days you feel like Elton John and other days you feel like Megan Thee Stallion. What we can confirm is that these are easily 10 of the most memorable performances in the long history of the quintessential weekly comedy show.
Sit back, grab a hot cocoa or spiked egg nog, and take in these exemplary live tapings, from the unparalleled stage presence of Bowie to the guitar god status of Jack White.
David Bowie (1979)
RIP David Bowie. You simply can’t be replicated. This performance has everything — costumes, choreographed madness, operatic embellishment, and a rather statuesque Picasso of Pop. You can’t look away from this great rendition of “The Man Who Sold The World” and the intoxicating guitar hook will follow you forever.
The Sugarcubes (1988)
For those who don’t know, Bjork got her start with Icelandic act The Sugarcubes in the 80s. Here, she gives us a preview of her vocal potency and kinetic stage presence — the beginnings of a long and colorful career on stage. The band was like the Scandinavian version of the B-52’s and therefore great for a zippy live performance like this one.
“Losing My Religion” is an inherently theatrical track, built for the SNL stage. Michael Stipe and Co. knock it out of the park here with flawless delivery. Stipe is like a gifted orator, issuing an arresting speech, clad in a suit that screamed early 90s. It’s incredible how engrossing the frontman without dancing, or moving about on stage. It’s an exercise in focus and the delivery you’d expect from an Oscar-winning actor.
Many say Nirvana officially arrived after this, its SNL debut. The Seattle trio plays a white-knuckled version of hit “Sells Like Teen Spirit,” adorned with crushing drums and Kurt bumbling about in utter carefree fashion (with amazing hair). Seeing the band turn out such volatility with seemingly such ease is impressive to behold.
Sinead O’Connor (1992)
This brave cover of Bob Marley’s “War” in 1992. Its beauty resides in its simplicity and directness. No bells and whistles, just the Irish singer, some candles, and a powerful message. The performance is shiver-inducing and ends with a band, as O’Connor tears up a picture of Pope John Paul II (a statement against child abuse in the Catholic church) and blows out the candles before a rather stunned crowd. Apparently, not even those behind the scenes knew it was coming.
The Purple One essentially curates a rock ‘n’ roll party here with his performance of “Fury.” His trio of background singers are having a ball while Prince absolutely shreds his electric guitar. Sexy, well-choreographed, and unrelenting, it might as well be the epic music video for the song itself.
The badass trio otherwise known as HAIM turned out a blistering version of “The Wire” in 2013. Between the shimmering vocal harmonies, contagiousness of the song, and expressive and complementary nature of each band member, it’s a recipe for how to do things right at SNL. When you’re this good at turning out pop-rock, you’ve earned the right to be a little bored but HAIM is all energy and clearly enjoying itself here.
Kendrick Lamar (2014)
Wow. The best rapper on the planet just doesn’t sit still. Here, he plays an amped-up version of “I,” bolstered by backup singers, a full band, and Lamar’s untouchable vocal pace. The greatest live performances offer something different from what you’d get in the studio. This one does that to the nth degree, with a new intro, alternate verses, and clever breakdowns. It’s a completely reimagined version of an already great song. By the end, you’re exhausted just having watched such an amazing shift.
D’Angelo and The Vanguard (2015)
Talk about an entry. Neo-soul master D’Angelo enters the scene dressed to the nines in a matching shawl and hat before melting the mic with his signature voice during “Really Love.” There’s some gorgeous guitar work, an emotive string section, and an overall great performance by his band, The Vanguard. But D’Angelo and his golden pipes might as well be the only thing on stage.
Jack White (2020)
About the only thing that can hold a candle to this performance is Jack White’s other performance of the same episode, in which he brilliantly wove in an old gospel song to one of his own tracks to reference the extent of the present-day pandemic. Here, he pays tribute to the late Edie Van Halen with an absolutely fiery showing, tearing “Lazaretto” (also a fitting track to play during a pandemic) to shreds. The combo of his all-plaid getup and unbelievable finger work is one for the ages.
*Shout out to the SNL performance videos that aren’t currently available or are of low quality (or just audio), as there are many (Solange, Chris Martin covering Bob Dylan, The Strokes in 2002, etc.)
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