'SNL' just wrapped its 47th season: It's time to cruelly rank its musical guests
Saturday Night Live is designed to be chaotic: Any time you take a host who may or may not possess a sense of humor, pair that person up with a mixed bag of comedy professionals and expect everyone to spend 90 minutes making hay out of whatever happened in the news that week, you're bound to get some winners and losers.
That sense of anything-goes unevenness extends naturally to the show's musical guests. You might get Megan Thee Stallion at the top of her game! You might get Ashlee Simpson dancing a jig! Until everyone waves goodbye over the closing credits, you never fully know whether you're getting transcendence or, well, Ashlee Simpson dancing a jig.
After the guitar-heavy lineup of the 2020-21 season and the male-heavy lineup of ... a lot of seasons, Season 47 mostly steered away from classic-rock legacy acts (depending on how you define Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem) and country music (depending on how you define Kacey Musgraves and Brandi Carlile). The majority of the headlining musical guests were women or nonbinary; the mainstream sounds of pop, hip-hop and R&B dominated; there was nary a U2 or a Bruce Springsteen to be found; and none of the musical guests repeated the previous season's headliners, though Young Thug and Rosalía returned after popping up for features during Season 46.
We've linked to every performance that's still officially posted on YouTube, but all 47 seasons of SNL — including the musical numbers — are available for streaming via Peacock in case you feel like cruelly assembling a ranking of your own. So, for the fifth year in a row, let's get to it!
21. Måneskin, "Beggin'" and "I Wanna Be Your Slave" (1/22/22)
Many sounds might compel a listener to risk elbow dislocation by reaching frantically in search of a radio dial to turn: the shriek signifying a test of the Emergency Broadcast System, for example. The 1-877-Kars4Kids jingle. Morning-zoo DJs credulously discussing NFTs. Then there are the opening strains of the Italian glam-rock band Måneskin's cover of The Four Seasons' "Beggin'." Give singer Damiano David credit: If nothing else, he proves that you can can holler like a screaming goat and still preside over music that sounds leaden and dull.
But — and this is meant sincerely — it's hard to win the Eurovision Song Contest, as Måneskin did in 2021, without a degree of showmanship. David certainly played the part of the glam-rock show pony on the SNL stage, as he swayed and waggled with smarmy, lip-licking Lizard King swagger. But the cumulative effect was a collective plop, as dull vintage rock riffs collided with a mush of unintelligible lyrics and irritating yelps. At least Will Forte's introduction of Måneskin is bound to show up on this Twitter feed someday.
Give Post Malone this: He's wise enough to bring backup. Prowling a patch of the SNL stage with all the dynamism of a teenager trying on leather pants in a cramped bathroom, the trap-pop star needed the boost he got from rapper Roddy Ricch, who lent "Cooped Up" a helpful jolt of charisma. Then, Malone donned a long black skirt and doublewide suspenders for an effects-laden (yet still listlessly pitchy) rendition of "Love/Hate Letter to Alcohol," which featured an unlikely assist from Fleet Foxes.
Flanked by taiko drummers and lit a bit like Queen in the "Bohemian Rhapsody" video, the Fleet Foxes gang certainly gave it a go, but the group's voices vanished from the sound mix the second Post Malone began singing. Lord knows the guy has become a reliable hitmaker over the years, making the most of a skill set best described as unorthodox, but let's be gentle in saying that this was not a melody-forward vocal. In a career defined by overachievement, "Love/Hate Letter to Alcohol" inverted the story of Post Malone: He did less with more.
19. "No musical guest appeared this week due to COVID-19" (12/18/21)
In December, due to a spread in the Omicron variant of COVID-19, SNL took the unusual step of airing a new episode without a scheduled musical performance. The artist originally slated to headline, Charli XCX, would return for a makeup date in March (see below), but in the meantime, viewers were left bereft of live music on SNL.
That doesn't leave much to critique, but it does provide a useful Mendoza Line-style benchmark for ranking a season's performances: Is a given musical act preferable to the absence of music itself? Given the choice between, say, DJ Khaled screaming his own name for several minutes — an option SNL helpfully provided back in 2019 — and the absence of that, you'd pick the latter, right? So an executive decision has been handed down: "No musical guest appeared this week due to COVID-19" is included in this year's ranking, judged solely based on the musicality of all that sweet, sweet silence.
Ed Sheeran has evolved considerably throughout his career, ultimately elevating himself from "boring guy with acoustic guitar" to "A-list hitmaker who wears down your resolve with his unrelenting commitment to songcraft." And so it goes here, as both "Shivers" and "Overpass Graffiti" are, despite an apparent contradiction in terms, aggressively passable. Sheeran has become a master of the affable earworm: His music lulls you into submission via eternal heavy rotation, forever slightly preferable to silence.
Chart-topping as that approach may be, it doesn't lend itself easily to showmanship, so Sheeran spends most of his SNL airtime swaying amiably while clad in nondescript sweaters. He is himself the nondescript sweater of pop stars: reliable, comfy, unchallenging.
If you saw Gunna pop up during Young Thug's set (see below) and thought, "It'd be nice to hear that guy get a full headlining slot on SNL," your wish came half-true. On one hand, Gunna got his showcase, but on the other, he was a victim of SNL's characteristically muddy audio mix. Then there's his 100-second-long performance of "Pushin P," which ... did that really qualify as a song? Did that even exist? They were given a chance to book Future — a massive hip-hop star — and opted to have him mumble alongside Gunna for a minute and a half and call it a night? Yikes.
The fog-shrouded "Banking on Me" fared better, as it showcased Gunna's ability to slide sleekly between singing and rapping, but the vibe still felt more lethargic than it needed to be. Viewed alongside Young Thug's similarly truncated set — and compared to the likes of Arcade Fire or Taylor Swift, each of whom got at least 10 minutes of airtime — Gunna's set helped paint a picture of a show that isn't always sure what it wants to do with hip-hop.
(It's necessary to note here that, not long after the former's performance on SNL, Gunna and Young Thug were both arrested and jailed on racketeering charges. This bonus episode of Louder Than A Riot has more information and analysis.)
Saweetie specializes in hedonistic, twerk-intensive bangers, and she went all in on sensory overload for her SNL debut — complete with dancers, costume changes and, for "Icy Chain," great big light-up letters that spelled the word "ICY." What her performance lacked was simple breath control: Rapping while dancing as athletically as Saweetie did on SNL is no mean feat, and her enunciation suffered mightily during her many moments of exertion.
Might as well score Saweetie a point for not lip-syncing, and for filling the screen with flashily suggestive effort. But her vocals just weren't where they needed to be.
Kacey Musgraves opened SNL's 47th season with a headline-grabbing milestone: Her performance of "justified" marked the first time an SNL musical guest performed a song in the nude. Okay, so that's more of a Forrest Gump-inspired footnote than a milestone, but it did necessitate: 1) painstaking efforts to conceal herself, mostly utilizing a large acoustic guitar; and 2) eerie stillness on Musgraves' part, lest she be inadvertently exposed.
The literally stripped-down approach might have paired more effectively with the night's second song, the plaintive and lovely "camera roll," which better suits a static screen presence. As it was, "justified" — one of the livelier numbers on Musgraves' moodily brooding 2021 album star-crossed — was bound to sound flattened. The weary resignation that permeates star-crossed was never going to translate into wildly dynamic TV performances, but neither song got the showcase it deserved.
14. Young Thug, "Tick Tock (feat. Travis Barker)" and "Love You More (feat. Travis Barker, Nate Ruess, Gunna & Jeff Bhasker)" (10/16/21)
If nothing else, Young Thug knows how to share a stage. For both of the songs the Atlanta rapper and singer performed on SNL back in October, he ceded the spotlight for long stretches: "Tick Tock" didn't even reach the two-minute mark yet still closed with a 20-second drum solo courtesy of Travis Barker, while "Love You More" opened with a vocal from fun.'s Nate Ruess and closed with a lovely feature from Gunna.
What both songs needed was more Young Thug. "Love You More" has a nice assemble-a-supergroup-for-the-encore feel, but the headliner disappeared on his own stage — hard to do when you're clad in a jacket made of bright-pink Muppet pelt — and "Tick Tock" barely let Young Thug get started before shifting focus and ending abruptly.
Last season, Spanish singer Rosalía made her SNL debut by performing alongside Bad Bunny. But her first headlining appearance bypassed flashy featured guests of her own — or even a backing band — in favor of a spare white stage and, for "Chicken Teriyaki," a pair of dancers. The emphasis remained on her rich, striking voice throughout, even when she performed a large portion of the dreamy "La Fama" while draped in what resembled a cross between a down comforter and a light futon mattress.
What the resulting package lacked was a sense of spectacle that might have differentiated it from other live sets on late-night TV. But as a vocal showcase for a charismatic young star and her charming, flamenco-tinged pop, it more than fulfilled its purpose.
A few seasons back, in the span of a little more than two years, Halsey appeared on SNL an astonishing four times. Maybe someone in the show's booking department just really loves Halsey; maybe Halsey is, in fact, Lorne Michaels in a clever rubber disguise; maybe Halsey lives under the Studio 8H floorboards and feels compelled to emerge, gopher-like, from a subterranean lair whenever the houselights come on. Who knows? But you know who just happened to release a new album last year and then just happened to return to the SNL stage for the roughly one millionth time to promote it? It's Lorne Michaels, it's a gopher — it's Halsey!
Unfortunately, SNL burdened "I Am Not a Woman, I'm a God" with yet another dreadful sound mix, transforming the hard-driving anthem into a visual extravaganza in search of a vocal. Dressed like a cross between an action figure and the bucket seat of a sports car, Halsey hit every note, but had to do so while fully entombed in throbbing electronic beats. Thankfully, "Darling" did the singer a bit more justice, as Halsey sang the tender ballad accompanied by Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham on acoustic guitar. Still, this set felt like a missed opportunity, even though none of the parties to blame appeared onscreen.
Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner has spent the last year or so crossing over: from the indie-pop world to the mainstream (as evidenced by her two Grammy nominations), as well as from music to books (her memoir, Crying in H Mart, was a best-seller that just got optioned for a movie adaptation). This past Saturday, for the show's season finale, she crossed over to SNL headliner status with performances of two highlights from last year's much-loved Jubilee.
Jubilee's swaying synth-pop odes to optimism mostly translated well to the SNL stage, aided by a big band (complete with strings and a horn section), smokily lit stage design and, in the case of "Paprika," a gong ringed with flowers that lit up every time Zauner struck it. As in so many SNL performances, Zauner's vocals weren't always well-served by the sound mix, but the hard-earned joy on display made this an effective closer for another long season.
This was Arcade Fire's fifth stint as an SNL musical guest — a decent sign, in case you needed one, that the band knows how to craft a booming, dramatic racket onstage. It helped that the group had a larger-than-usual canvas to work with: Arcade Fire already has enough members to crowd a stage, but "Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)" still found the group performing behind a line of inflatable air dancers like you'd find at car dealerships. The cumulative effect filled the screen and then some.
Speaking of larger-than-usual canvases, two of the epic songs from the band's new album WE got a decent chance to sprawl out a bit — especially "The Lightning I, II," which built to a cataclysmically strobe-lit freakout. And, in case that wasn't enough Arcade Fire for you, the band picked up yet another two minutes of screen time right at the show's end, as it got brought back to perform a bit of "End of the Empire I-IV" over the closing credits. That's a lot of Win Butler, but at least he made the most of the opportunity.
In case we needed one, Charli XCX gave us all yet another object lesson in the Effort Gap that faces women who perform pop music on stage. Bleachers' Jack Antonoff may have gotten to perform in a faded white T-shirt with an overstretched collar (see below), but Charli's flirtations with the avant-garde extended to include showily complex stagewear: thigh-high boots, lacy white underwear, talon-sized fingernail extensions, what appeared to be fitted sheets hanging from her arms and so on. Throw in an array of punishingly athletic dance moves and she'd climb a third of the way up this list based on exertion alone.
Fortunately, Charli XCX also presides over an arsenal of airtight bops, two of which she uncorked in style on the SNL stage. "Baby" even scored a bonus point for dressing up an electro-pop earworm with the light assistance of a five-piece band — including string players — though she hardly required the assist.
Camila Cabello has always seemed just a little too polished and stage-managed: From her days in Fifth Harmony to her early solo rise with "Havana" to much of her new album Familia, her impeccability has frequently come at the expense of knowability. But she's also evolved into a more confident and compelling live performer, and if you need proof just note the transformation apparent between her 2019 SNL debut and the pair of songs she performed on the show last month.
A salsa-tinged swirl of neon-clad dancers and lively tongue-waggling, "Bam Bam" cut a playful swath across the SNL stage. But "Psychofreak" found Cabello leveling up considerably: The song allowed relatable vulnerability to pierce the singer's veneer of choreographed perfection, while Willow applied a welcome coating of grit in a scene-stealing guest feature. Don't be surprised if SNL has given Willow a headlining spot by this time next year.
7. LCD Soundsystem, "Thrills" and "Yr City's a Sucker" (2/26/22)
LCD Soundsystem got a few things precisely right in its first performance on the SNL stage since 2017: 1) It never deployed fewer than two live drummers and/or percussionists at any given time; and 2) It felt no obligation to play new material, or even old hits. It's one thing for LCD Soundsystem to show up on SNL in 2022 and play two songs that appeared on its 2005 debut. It's another altogether to forego the signature songs of the band's early career — "Losing My Edge," for example, or "Daft Punk Is Playing At My House" — in favor of a pair of deep cuts.
The gambit paid off surprisingly well, with a set that felt vibrant and surprising, even hypnotic. James Murphy isn't the world's most polished vocalist, and he's grown to physically resemble a genetic experiment that splices together the DNA of Steve Bannon and JD Vance. But give the man credit: He held this set together nicely, with a rippin' cowbell solo to boot.
Jack Antonoff has worked with seemingly every major pop star of the last several years, and now he gets to be Bruce Springsteen, too? The Bleachers frontman assembled his best facsimile of The E Street Band for this performance, even enlisting Blu DeTiger, Claud and Antonoff's father Rick for the occasion, not to mention two saxophonists. And damned if they didn't all have a blast as they jumped around and jammed, trading solos and otherwise filling every moment with joyful motion. Antonoff's vocals were far from polished, but the spirit sure was willing.
"How Dare You Want More" sounded plenty Springsteenian, what with the sax solos and all, but "Chinatown" doubled down even further — which makes sense, given that Bruce himself guests on the album version. Given Springsteen's endorsement, there's no particular sense in dinging Bleachers for derivativeness, and the band won brownie points by jumping in at the last minute when Roddy Ricch had to back out due to a COVID exposure. This performance radiated cheerful goodwill all the way through.
Armed with one of the most powerful voices in music, Brandi Carlile was bound to show off a few show-stopping notes in her SNL debut. She didn't disappoint, particularly when she got behind a piano to open the crowd-pleasing lighter-lifter "Right on Time." Her voice wasn't quite mixed loud enough during parts of her band's amped-up take on "Broken Horses" — seriously, who knew it was possible to drown out Carlile's voice without the aid of a jet engine? — but her presence, charisma and ace backing band more than carried the day.
"Right on Time," meanwhile, marked a true highlight of the SNL season, sung with a shimmery radiance to match Carlile's sharp suits. It doesn't matter if you're booking the SNL stage, a Grammy Awards telecast or a Tiny Desk concert: You can never, ever go wrong with Brandi Carlile.
Katy Perry is one of the world's biggest pop stars, but she's never quite won over the critical establishment the way so many of her peers have. Maybe she seems a little too try-hard, having made her way to saucy pop from contemporary Christian music; maybe she just pours her considerable energy into superficial pop maximalism and outlandish visuals without digging deep into her psyche or illuminating the human condition.
Whatever the case, Perry puts on an awesome live show, with an emphasis on viral moments — see: Left Shark at the 2015 Super Bowl Halftime Show — and vivid color schemes. For her latest SNL appearance, she performed "When I'm Gone" amid an assortment of massive toadstools, not to mention dancers sporting mushroom caps and heavily padded (and vaguely, um, scrotal) pants, as well as handheld fans with "EAT ME" printed on them. Swedish DJ Alesso, billed as a featured act, could scarcely be seen amid the suggestively gyrating fungi.
Somehow, Perry one-upped all that spectacle with a reworking of her summertime banger "Never Really Over," in which a radically stripped down acoustic arrangement allowed for an impressive vocal showcase. SNL performances don't often cast such well-known material in a fresh light, but this more than did the trick.
Lizzo made her SNL debut two seasons ago, topping this ranking with a set that announced her as the complete package: a killer singer with a sparkling sense of humor, great moves, unstoppable backup dancers, hooks for days and a team that knows how to surround her with vibrant visuals. For her return appearance, Lizzo upped the ante, adding "host" and "flute soloist" to her SNL resume, with the resulting musical performances only barely falling short of the standard set in her spectacular debut.
Lizzo's new single, the song-of-the-summer contender "About Damn Time," conjures welcome images of roller-rink disco balls, but the staging here felt slighter than expected — a possible byproduct of the extreme multitasking Lizzo needed to pull off over the course of the night's telecast. (Speaking of multitasking, she even introduced herself, proclaiming, "Ladies and gentlemen: me!")
The title track from Lizzo's forthcoming album, "Special," fared a bit better in its world premiere — and got introduced by Lizzo's mom, to boot. In a spring that's already festooned with Pride-friendly anthems from Rina Sawayama, Hayley Kiyoko and more, "Special" could well become a standard; it's an inspirational three-hanky belter, and Lizzo crushed it as expected.
Billie Eilish may be just 20, but she's already a massive multimedia star, an Oscar and Grammy winner, and one of only two SNL host/musical-guest dual threats this season. (The other was Lizzo.) Eilish held her own in the show's sketches, though she broke a little more often than most, but she positively crushed her two songs — particularly "Happier Than Ever," a quiet-then-loud barnstormer that allowed her to showcase both her icy-cool torch-song side and her inner chaotic rocker.
If you've read this list straight through, you may have noticed that "ugh, the sound mix" is kind of a recurring issue with SNL musical performances. But throughout both songs — all three, really, provided you think of "Happier Than Ever" as two songs in one — Eilish got the best mix of the season while demonstrating a remarkable affinity for traversing a broad range of moods and tones.
1. Taylor Swift, "All Too Well (Taylor's Version)" (11/13/21)
Taylor Swift has been an SNL musical guest five times, dating all the way back to her two appearances in 2009. She's never sounded remotely as assured — as commanding — as she did in this milestone 10-minute performance of "All Too Well (Taylor's Version)." It's hard to hold focus for half that time on the SNL stage, but this was a masterclass in pacing; in subtle tonal shifts and dramatic flourishes; in sly smiles and meaningfully held eye contact.
The presentation wasn't flawless — it didn't need the song's music video projected in the background, for example — but the cumulative effect was genuinely, unmistakably powerful. Equally quotable and heartfelt, "All Too Well (Taylor's Version)" may well be the greatest song of Swift's career, delivered here in a performance that felt like a hard-won valedictory address.
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