ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

Best ‘SNL’ Musical Performances: 14 Unmissable Live Appearances

From Nirvana to Billie Eilish, here are some of the best SNL musical performances from late-night TV’s grandest show.

Published on

Best SNL Performances
Photo: Darkroom/Interscope Records (Billie Eilish), Anthony 'Top Dawg' Tiffith (Kendrick Lamar)

“Live from New York, it’s Saturday night…” For a period, the most exciting place on a Saturday night was in front of the TV screen, as Saturday Night Live featured some of the best musical performances in TV history.

From its first season, in 1975, through every decade since, SNL had their finger on the pulse of the music scene, thrusting punk, hip-hop, new wave, grunge, and the rest into the mainstream and into millions of homes.

Whether it was the biggest acts in music, or someone on the verge of breaking through, SNL remains late-night TV’s grandest night. As another star-in-the-making, Billie Eilish, makes her SNL debut, we count down some of the greatest SNL musical performances.

14: The Tragically Hip: Nautical Disaster, Grace Too (1995)

“It’s my honor to introduce to America, my friends, The Tragically Hip,” pronounced SNL veteran and Ontario native Dan Aykroyd, as he introduced the group to the SNL stage. At this time, the Hip had already become “Canada’s band”, and were primed – or at least waiting – for a stateside breakthrough. But instead of playing it safe with the hits like “New Orleans Is Sinking,” the Hip opted for a more nuanced performance of “Nautical Disaster” and “Grace Too,” with Gord Downie changing the opening lyric from “He said I’m fabulously rich” to “They say we’re Tragically Hip”.

13: Sinead O’Connor: War (1992)

Before people were winning Oscars for speaking out against the abuse scandals in the Catholic church, Sinead O’Connor shocked American audiences when she performed a stunning a cappella rendition of Bob Marley’s “War,” altering the line “Fight racial injustice” to “Fight sexual abuse”, and then tearing up a picture of Pope John Paul II. People predictably lost their minds, famously leading to more than 4,000 phone calls to NBC, and the Irish singer-songwriter being vilified in the news. Now, decades later, mea culpas abound and O’Connor’s rendition goes down as one of the best SNL musical performances.

12: Funky 4 + 1: That’s The Joint (1981)

SNL made history when the old-school legends Funky 4 + 1 led the first hip-hop performance on national network television. Thanks to the urging of hip-hop advocate Debbie Harry, of Blondie (whose “Rapture” was the first song with rapping to go No.1), the brought the boogie-down Bronx to America’s living rooms. “The people on the show were so nervous,” Blondie guitarist Chris Stein told Rolling Stone. “I remember trying to explain to them how scratching worked. Trying to verbalize what that is for someone who has no idea, it’s really difficult.”

11: Billie Eilish: Bad Guy, I Love You (2019)

Kicking off the premiere of the 45th season, emerging pop icon Billie Eilish made her SNL debut in gravity-defying fashion, performing her smash hit “Bad Guy” and scaling the walls of Studio 8H thanks to some Jamiroquai-inspired camera trickery. Later she teamed up for her brother Finneas and slowed things down on with the tender duet “I Love You,” surrounded by a starry sky and pulling in the studio audience and viewers at home into her personal orbit. It was an impressive debut for the 17-year-old star, proving she can deliver the goods both live and on record.

Billie Eilish - bad guy (Live From Saturday Night Live)

Click to load video

10: Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers: You Don’t Know How It Feels, Honey Bee (1994)

Sometimes you lose a Heartbreaker and gain a Dave Grohl. For his fifth of what would be eight SNL appearances, Tom Petty enlisted Grohl to stand in for the recently-departed Stan Lynch. Grohl was still reeling from Kurt Cobain’s passing and the dissolution of his own band, Nirvana. As he told MTV, the SNL performance marked the first time he was looking forward to playing drums again. Grohl brought his punk energy to The Heartbreakers’ hits “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and “Honey Bee.” Petty clearly liked what he heard and even asked Grohl to join the band, which would have deprived us of the Foo Fighters.

9: Kendrick Lamar: I, Pay For It (2014)

Still riding high from the critical acclaim of Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, Kendrick Lamar used his second SNL appearance to perform “I,” his first post-Kid offering and a taste of his soon-to-be-released album To Pimp A Butterfly. Sporting black contact lenses and Busta Rhymes-inspired jerky choreography, Lamar gave a blistering performance of his self-love anthem. With a full backing band and singers, Lamar’s Isley Brothers-sampling track came to life in Studio 8H, delivering one of the best SNL musical performances of all time.

Kendrick Lamar - i (Live on SNL)

Click to load video

8: LL Cool J: Go Cut Creator Go (1987)

SNL’s casting has never been as progressive as their musical bookings. Almost a year after Run-DMC performed their rap-rock crossover “Walk This Way,” a then 17-year-old emerging rapper named LL Cool J made hip-hop history with his performance of “Go Cut Creator Go,” backed by DJs Cut Creator and Bobcat, who backed LL with their impressive scratching skills. The Queens MC had a hit debut with Radio, but it was sophomore record Bigger And Deffer that made him a star, which was clear as day on the SNL stage.

7: The Rolling Stones: Beast Of Burden, Shattered, Respectable (1978)

In October 1978, The Rolling Stones returned to the city that inspired their Some Girls album to perform on Saturday Night Live following the blockbuster success of the album. The Stones were both the hosts and musical guests of the evening and performed three tracks in a row in one 13-minute segment. But what’s most memorable about their appearance was the band’s raunchy stage antics, with Mick Jagger ripping Ronnie Wood’s shirt off during “Shattered,” then upping the ante and licking Wood’s face during (fittingly enough) ‘Respectable’.

6: R.E.M.: Shiny Happy People, Losing My Religion (1991)

Come for the synchronized choreography of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and The B-52s’ Kate Pierson, stay for the joyful rendition of their hit “Shiny Happy People.” R.E.M.’s debut also marks probably the only time Kate Pierson is underdressed for anything. The band juxtaposed this silly performance with an impassioned delivery of ‘Losing My Religion’.

5: Fear: Beef Baloney, New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones (1981)

So how did one of LA’s most notorious hardcore punk outfits end up on the SNL stage? Turns out the band counted show alum John Belushi as a huge fan, and he promised the showrunners he’d make a guest appearance if the band played. With the audience stacked with other punk legends including Minor Threat’s Ian Mackaye, Tesco Vee of The Meatmen, and Cro-Mags’ John Joseph, among others, Fear’s set turned 30 Rock into a full-fledged punk show, complete with moshing and crowd-surfing that scared the audiences both in the studio and at home (it was Halloween, after all). The band performed “Beef Boloney” and “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones,” going down in punk history while also earning themselves a permanent ban from the show.

4: Beastie Boys and Elvis Costello: Sabotage, Radio Radio (1999)

As much as SNL likes to court controversy by satirizing people and events, the show was having none of it back in 1977, when Elvis Costello And The Attractions stopped playing their single “Less Than Zero,” instead launching into “Radio Radio,” a rallying cry against corporate-controlled broadcasting. Costello was promptly banned from the show until they patched things up 12 years later, in 1989. Then, for the SNL’s 25th-anniversary show in 1999, Costello returned to parody his historic 1977 appearance, interrupting Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” performance before the foursome launched into a searing rendition of “Radio Radio.”

3: Nirvana: Smells Like Teen Spirit, Territorial Pissings (1992)

During its peak, SNL could not only make (or break) a band, it offered suburban America an exotic glimpse into the underground sounds that were exploding in music. Such is the case with Nirvana. When the band made their SNL debut, on January 11, 1992, they gave America its first taste of grunge on TV, turning the band and Kurt Cobain intro reluctant superstars. Following their manic performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” everyone was expecting ‘Come As You Are To’ to follow, but instead Cobain and company opted for an unexpected B-side, “Territorial Pissings,” before completely trashing the stage and their instruments. But the real controversy came after the bandmembers “made out” with each other during the end credits. Not only one of the best SNL musical performances, it gave Nevermind a boost that knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the No.1 spot and took “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to No.6.

2: David Bowie: The Man Who Sold The World, TVC15, Boys Keep Swinging (1979)

No amount of Lady Gaga meat dresses could top David Bowie’s Dadaist performance on SNL in 1979. Coming out of his Berlin phase, Bowie is hoisted on stage in a box-like tuxedo by performance artists Joey Arias and German singer Klaus Nomi, as they sing with him on “The Man Who Sold The World.” It was one of the greatest musical appearances on television, a moment where vaudeville meets downtown New York. It would only get weirder from there, when Bowie returned to the stage in drag and walking a stuffed pink poodle for “TVC15” and then as a headless marionette for ‘Boys Keep Swinging’.

1: Prince: Partyup (1981)

The 80s was an uneven time for SNL, but if one thing could save the show’s relevance it would be an electrifying performance by a 22-year-old Prince, spinning around the stage in a trench coat and go-go boots while performing his 1980 Dirty Mind cut “Partyup.” Though Prince was not the main musical guest that evening (Todd Rundgren was), the producers left a slot open for hot new talent – and they weren’t ready for what was in store. Sadly, Prince’s performance and the entire episode were scrubbed from the show’s history thanks to cast member Charles Rocket dropping an F-bomb live on air.

Looking for more? Discover the best US music TV shows.

45 Comments

45 Comments

  1. mediaguy

    January 25, 2020 at 7:18 pm

    This list is clearly missing Smashing Pumpkins in 1993 in the #1 spot

  2. john belt

    February 24, 2020 at 5:53 am

    actually a great list but missing Sturgill Simpsons insane performance.Thanks for including Fear.

  3. drdude

    April 10, 2020 at 10:56 am

    I second the Sturgill Simpson performance. While you do have Prince on the list, it was his 2006 performance of Fury that should without a doubt be on here. Weeks after Ashley Simpsons lip sync fail, Prince came on and shows what only a master of his art can do. Throws down a killer performance that ends wish him dropping his guitar as it feeds back and walks off the stage.

  4. wes buirkle

    November 12, 2021 at 5:56 pm

    One of the worst list I have ever seen

  5. David

    October 7, 2022 at 12:43 pm

    Where is Neil Young performing “Rockin’ in the Free World”? One of the greatest rock and roll moments in TV history.

  6. Nybor

    October 7, 2022 at 4:02 pm

    Coldplay, Viva La Vida in 2008!

  7. Dubitandum

    October 7, 2022 at 4:18 pm

    Well done. I mean, let’s face it: making a list like this is an IMPOSSIBLE task, and ya gave it an extremely credible go–really a great overview in terms of eras, genres, etc.

    (P.S.: I would have included the Replacements in ’86 (“Bastards of Young”/”Kiss Me on the Bus”), but that’s what makes it a horse race.)

  8. Graham Friday

    October 7, 2022 at 4:34 pm

    Trivia: This was the only time R.E.M. *ever* performed “Shiny, Happy People” live.

    And, yes, Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” is criminally missing from this list. Not only was it a career-renewing performance, but the camera work is first rate.

  9. John

    October 7, 2022 at 4:35 pm

    No B-52s in 1980? Unbelievably original performance from wayyy out in left field (aka Athens, GA)

  10. Pug_Mahone

    October 7, 2022 at 5:01 pm

    The Band 1976!! to my knowledge the only act to play 4 songs. a stunning performance.

  11. bob

    October 7, 2022 at 5:05 pm

    My favorite was in Season 1 when Louise Lassiter invited the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. But most of the readers here aren’t old enough to have seen that or maybe even know who they are.

  12. Lastdino

    October 7, 2022 at 5:11 pm

    Jack White’s performance of Lazaretto and Ball and Biscuit during the pandemic is top-tier.

  13. Big Ron

    October 7, 2022 at 5:17 pm

    I was glued to the tube while Pearl Jam did “Rear View Mirror”…

  14. Johnathan

    October 7, 2022 at 6:01 pm

    Adele’s Chasing Pavements – She was young, shy and belted it out, with a live orchestra behind her.

  15. Old Boy Bob

    October 7, 2022 at 6:08 pm

    Not on the list??? If you weren’t there in the ’70’s, try youtube…

    Patti Smith Group “Gloria”- riveting performance, totally firing on all cylinders

    DEVO “Satisfaction” – not only reorganized what you thought of the song, it reorganized what you
    thought of music
    Elvis Costello & The Attractions “Radio Radio”- first cut is the deepest

    Sure, Sturgill was good, too.. and Neil—check out his SNL rehearsal vid

  16. ken tuckey

    October 7, 2022 at 6:09 pm

    Sade – “Is it a crime”, likely the
    greatest female vocalist performance on TV ever.

  17. BJ

    October 7, 2022 at 6:18 pm

    Yikes. How about George Harrison, The Band, James Taylor, Judy Collins, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, The Kinks, Elvis Costello, Santana, Ray Charles and Chuck Berry to name just a few. Recency bias much?

  18. jmoney

    October 7, 2022 at 6:25 pm

    Obviously they wouldn’t have picked rage against the machine

  19. Jim

    October 7, 2022 at 6:44 pm

    Annie Lennox’s performance of Why? and her second number that night (probably Walking on Broken Glass) should absolutely be on this list!

  20. mournblade

    October 7, 2022 at 6:51 pm

    What? No DEVO with their cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”???

  21. N

    October 7, 2022 at 7:03 pm

    Any such list without Elvis Costello’s legendary “Less Than Zero” halted to kick into “Radio Radio” is not worth taking seriously.

  22. JD

    October 7, 2022 at 7:04 pm

    I remember walking into a music store and they were playing the video of the Clash on SNL and everyone stopped in their tracks to watch. Also have to include the first appearance of Pearl Jam. And no Childish Gambino? What are you thinking? You probably missed a lot of others.

  23. David W

    October 7, 2022 at 7:42 pm

    Devo should have been #1 and Zappa’s I am the Slime should also have made the list.

  24. Matt

    October 7, 2022 at 8:43 pm

  25. Garbage man

    October 7, 2022 at 8:44 pm

    billie eilish is such garbage lol. so is this article.

  26. CA_Mom

    October 7, 2022 at 9:06 pm

    George Harrison duet with Paul Simon in 1976 (2nd season)!!

  27. JJTop

    October 7, 2022 at 10:06 pm

    Ummm.. Take Billy Eilish out and replace with Pearl Jam Rearview Mirror…

  28. TenK

    October 7, 2022 at 10:17 pm

    Absolutely criminal that Jack White’s pandemic fill-in performance was not in the top 5

  29. Rog

    October 7, 2022 at 10:24 pm

    Surprised to set the Tragically hip on this list. Nothing personal against the band tho.

  30. Craig Law

    October 7, 2022 at 11:09 pm

    Not including Foo Fighters coming out of virtual SNL with “times like these” in one of the first shows back will forever run a chill up my spine and leave me with tears in my eyes.

  31. Biob Mack

    October 7, 2022 at 11:23 pm

    One of the greatest was Vanilla Ice with his choreography to Play That Funky Music White Boy,
    sadly it was scrubbed from EVERYWHERE due to infringement of copyright.
    Trust me, it was incredible. He may be a hip hop joke, but that performance was off the hook.

  32. T.A wallander

    October 7, 2022 at 11:24 pm

    Very subjective as are most lists of this sort, Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders and Riki Lee Jones are noticeably omitted among others. A grade of ‘D’ on your list….Aloha

  33. Paul Hewson

    October 7, 2022 at 11:37 pm

    bono and u2 at the end of elevation cutting a glance at val and saying ‘cmon baby light my fire’. then bono grabbing the swing camera as he thrashes through the audience. love or hate the guy, he is a stage performer extraordinaire.

  34. Tricia L. Somers

    October 8, 2022 at 12:38 am

    Journey ages ago & Cardi B not so long ago.
    & what about Lil Nas X and Bjork? Surely
    those were better than some of these you
    have on this list. What about that unforgettable
    Jack White thing did during the pandemic man?
    With all due respect this just seems like
    something thrown together with hardly even
    a thought to it other than who your own personal
    favorites are. So what’s wrong with that?
    EVERYTHING when the title of the article is BEST
    SNL Musical Performances. Why is it only 15 and
    not 20? You couldn’t come up with another five
    artists? What about Jay Z and Bush? Or how
    about Meggan the Stallion or Rihanna .
    “discover music” ? Really?

  35. Gordon

    October 8, 2022 at 2:07 am

    What about Kate Bush’s ONLY live American appearance on December 1979?

  36. Kat

    October 8, 2022 at 2:34 am

    I started watching SNL from day one, so I’ve seen a lot of SNL performances.. but my all-time favorite, which I have watched many times on YouTube and never get tired of, is THE WEEKND’s False Alarm. His inimitable vocals, brilliant timing, passionate performance, the musical fluctuations, the acoustics .. it was everything wonderful all wrapped up in one dynamic package!

  37. Mac McFarland

    October 8, 2022 at 2:55 am

    Where is “More Cowbell”

  38. Kurt

    October 8, 2022 at 3:26 am

    The Neil Young rehearsal of Rockin in the Free World is top notch.

    Also, to the likely boomer who complained of “recency bias,” 12 of the 15 performances listed here were before the year 2000. Relax.

  39. Squeakity_Squeak

    October 8, 2022 at 6:13 am

    No Faith No More from 1990?

    This list is incomplete.

  40. Joe Mama

    October 8, 2022 at 2:29 pm

    Billie Eilish???

    NOPE

  41. eLSewhere50

    October 8, 2022 at 7:45 pm

    I too have watched SNL since it began and my all time favorite musical performance is Dwight Yoakum’s “Fast As You”.

  42. Jim

    October 8, 2022 at 11:51 pm

    I would include Mick Jagger backed up by Arcade Fire.

  43. Jenna

    October 9, 2022 at 1:33 am

    No Fishbone seriously?

    That band is so criminally underrated it’s insane and their live shows are always wild and fun.

    I’m not saying they necessarily deserve the number one spot, but they should absolutely be on there somewhere their SNL performance was great.

    Same goes for both Devo and Neil Young as others have mentioned

  44. PJChilds

    October 10, 2022 at 2:51 pm

    IMO Fran Zappa’s 1976 performance of “I’m the Slime”, featuring Don Pardo, was one of the most daring and entertaining performances ever. Especially when it was introduced by Candice Bergen, who hadn’t yet broken into comedic roles.

  45. JerseySmellTours

    April 22, 2023 at 6:24 am

    Leon Redbone

Comments are temporarily disabled and will return shortly.
Johnny Cash - Songwriter LP
Johnny Cash
Songwriter (Limited-Edition Smoke Color LP)
ORDER NOW
Johnny Cash - Songwriter CD
Johnny Cash
Songwriter CD
ORDER NOW
Johnny Cash - Songwriter LP
Johnny Cash
Songwriter LP
ORDER NOW
Paul McCartney & Wings - One Hand Clapping 2LP+7
Paul McCartney & Wings
One Hand Clapping (Limited 2LP + 7″)
ORDER NOW
Paul McCartney & Wings - One Hand Clapping 2CD
Paul McCartney & Wings
One Hand Clapping 2CD
ORDER NOW
Paul McCartney & Wings - One Hand Clapping 2LP
Paul McCartney & Wings
One Hand Clapping 2LP
ORDER NOW
uDiscover Music - Back To Top
uDiscover Music - Back To Top