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The 10 best SNL musical performances of all time

From 1979 to 2020, check out the top SNL performances

Jack White on SNL
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Saturday Night Live (SNL) 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 for remarkable costumes, odd props, unique song covers, and an unscripted element that can only come with live television.

Our list of the best SNL musical performances is not definitive and could show in various forms depending on what mood you’re in. There are days when you feel like Elton John, and other days you feel like Megan Thee Stallion. However, the performances below are some of the most memorable ones in SNL. Sit back, grab your favorite drink, and watch these exemplary live tapings, from the unparalleled stage presence of David Bowie to the guitar god status of Jack White.

David Bowie (1979)

David Bowie
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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)

The Sugarcubes (1988)
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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.

R.E.M. (1991)

R.E.M. (1991)
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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 is without dancing or moving about on stage. It’s an exercise in focus and the delivery you’d expect from an Oscar-winning actor.

Nirvana (1992)

Nirvana (1992)
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Many say Nirvana officially arrived after this, its SNL debut. The Seattle trio plays a white-knuckled version of the 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)

Sinead O'Connor (1992)
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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.

Prince (2006)

Prince (2006)
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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.

HAIM (2013)

HAIM (2013)
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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)

Kendrick Lamar (2014)
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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)

D'Angelo and The Vanguard (2015)
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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)

Jack White (2020)
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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.

A few runners-up

Beastie Boys and Elvis Costello (1999)

This unlikely collaboration produced a fantastic performance of Sabotage and Radio, Radio. Elvis Costello’s middle finger salute to his record company during Radio, Radio became an instant classic moment.

Radiohead (2000)

Radiohead delivered a hauntingly beautiful performance of Pyramid Song on a darkened stage, showcasing the band’s unique sound and artistic vision.

Kanye West (2004)

Kanye West’s impassioned performance of Through the Wire with his jaw still wired shut after a car accident, was a powerful and raw moment that solidified his place as a rising star.

*Shout out to the SNL performance videos that aren’t currently available or are of low quality (or are just audio), as there are many (Solange, Chris Martin covering Bob Dylan, The Strokes in 2002, etc.)

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Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
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