Skip to main content

The Manual may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site.

The 10 Best SNL Musical Performances of All Time

Jack White YouTube Screenshot by The Manual

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 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 Bowie to the guitar god status of Jack White

Related Guides

David Bowie (1979)

Image used with permission by copyright holder

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)

Image used with permission by copyright holder

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)

Image used with permission by copyright holder

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)

Image used with permission by copyright holder

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)

Image used with permission by copyright holder

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)

Image used with permission by copyright holder

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)

Image used with permission by copyright holder

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)

Image used with permission by copyright holder

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)

Image used with permission by copyright holder

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)

Image used with permission by copyright holder

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 are just audio), as there are many (Solange, Chris Martin covering Bob Dylan, The Strokes in 2002, etc.)

Editors' Recommendations

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…
The best heist movies of all time, ranked
Looking for a smart film to watch? Try one of these heist movies
Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth point guns at each other in Reservoir Dogs.

Few sub-genres can tickle and please quite the way a good heist movie can. The elements of its formula, which typically includes getting a gang together, formulating a plan, and executing a heist, are all thrilling to watch, and doubly so when filmmakers throw their own spins on the genre. That, plus a great cast, can make a great heist movie, whether it’s also a great action movie or not. These are the best heist movies ever made, and as you’ll see, they span many different genres. 

10. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Read more
The 10 best Robert Downey Jr movies, ranked
Is your favorite RDJ movie on this list?
best robert downey jr movies 2

Sometimes an actor will become so synonymous with one character or franchise that a mention of their name instantly makes you think about the movies from that universe. Speaking about Daniel Radcliffe brings nostalgic yearnings for elementary school screenings of Harry Potter. Harrison Ford's name will conjure arguments of Indiana Jones vs Han Solo. And when you talk about the greatness of Robert Downey Jr, you're most likely going to think about the massive list of Marvel Cinematic Universe films he has graced as the ingenious but emotionally-scarred rich kid Tony Stark.

Iron Man is one of the most critical on-screen heroes ever because of Downey Jr's portrayal, but the MCU has also typecast the actor and cornered him into a genre that he may now want to start venturing out of. With Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer, Downey Jr got to go the biopic route with fantastic results. We want to look at the 10 best Robert Downey Jr movies, from his talented beginnings to his superhero stardom and everything in between.

Read more
Obsessed with Only Murders in the Building? The 10 best Steve Martin movies and shows, ranked
Steve Martin can be the straight man or the silly one, and he's a star either way
best steve martin movies and shows 2


Living legend doesn't even begin to describe Steve Martin's place in Hollywood lore. The stand-up comic turned actor has been entertaining the masses in family-friendly films since the 1970s. It makes you often wonder, "How old is Steve Martin?" because not many nearly-80-year-old actors are still chugging along with so much success. Martin likes to play characters who endure everyday problems, but are also usually subjected to uncanny or weird circumstances. His ability to go with the flow and overcome the humorous situations in the movies makes his brand of humor relatable yet unique.

Read more