© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'SNL' Musical Guests, Ranked From No. 1 To Greta Van Fleet

Kanye West and Lil Pump as Perrier and Fiji, respectively, as Adele Givens looms overhead.
Will Heath
Kanye West and Lil Pump as Perrier and Fiji, respectively, as Adele Givens looms overhead.

Saturday Night Live's 44th season ended over the weekend with the help of host Paul Rudd and musical guest DJ Khaled, who brought with him an all-star cast that included J Balvin, John Legend and SZA. As the season's 21st and final featured musical guest, Khaled joined a wildly mixed bag that included K-pop (BTS), blues-rock (Gary Clark Jr.), country (Thomas Rhett), R&B (Khalid, Ella Mai), hip-hop (Lil Wayne, Travis Scott, et al), neo-classic rock (Greta Van Fleet), old-school-classic folk-pop (Paul Simon) and, of course, a performance in which Kanye West rapped from inside an outfit shaped like a gigantic Perrier bottle.

SNL's Studio 8H stage is famously unforgiving: The sound can be iffy, the crowd came to see comedy and the energy can be hard to maintain. But, as with previous years, Season 44 unveiled a few gems, as well as a few true head-slappers. It's a fool's errand — a truly cruel and pointless exercise — to attempt a dispassionate rank of 21 vastly different musical performances, especially when they've been spread out over an eight-month-long season.

So, for the second year in a row, here goes.

21. Greta Van Vleet

"Black Smoke Rising," "You're the One"

Whichever side of the Greta Van Fleet divide you occupy — whether you herald the Michigan band as a welcome return to classic-rock grandiosity or dismiss it as an unbearably derivative Led Zeppelin clone — it's hard to defend the band's SNL debut, which somehow sounded both over-the-top and thuddingly lifeless. Swallowed whole by the stage, singer Josh Kiszka shrieked with grating, maximalist pitchiness through "Black Smoke Rising" and "You're the One," while clad in what appeared to be either a beaded curtain or a yarn bomb. The latter song was duller than the former, but each played out like the limpest gag of Adam Sandler's SNL career.

20. DJ Khaled

"Jealous"/"You Stay," "Just Us"/"Weather the Storm"/"Higher"

Imagine a stage full of hip-hop, R&B and pop heavy hitters — the sort of people you might expect to headline SNL on any given week. Some of them have done just that this season (Meek Mill, Lil Wayne) or last season (SZA) or the season before that (Big Sean), while others could sell out stadiums in their own right. John Legend! J Balvin! All paying tribute to the late lamented Nipsey Hussle! What more do you need?

If you answered, "A man shouting non sequiturs, drowning out every one of those talented artists as they tried to do their thing," then we've got some excellent news for you. DJ Khaled is the most successful Guy Who Screams His Own Name While Other People Perform in the business, and he brought his screaming-his-own-name A game for SNL's season finale. Imagine a medley of performers and songs you're interested in hearing, except that medley is punctuated every few seconds by an airhorn, and that airhorn is a man, and that man is shouting, "SING IT, GIRL!" at SZA while she's already attempting to sing. You know who's really great at singing? SZA. You know who does not need to be heard yelling, "SING IT, GIRL!" at SZA as she sings? Three guesses, and if you somehow guess wrong the first time, I will appear in the clouds overhead like Mufasa in The Lion King and bellow "ANOTHER ONE!" at you, because that's how the universe works.

Finally, neither of these facts is DJ Khaled's fault, but let's just put them out there anyway. Carly Rae Jepsen released a new album precisely one day prior to this performance. Four weeks earlier, Lizzo released Cuz I Love You. We could have had Carly Rae Jepsen or Lizzo — or even both at the same time. It was the season finale! Anything seemed possible! (This is as good a time as any for a side note: In 21 episodes, five women got headlining slots as musical guests this season, and one of them was Miley Cyrus, who shared her billing with Mark Ronson. Come on.)

19. Kanye West

"I Love It," "We Got Love," "Ghost Town"

As the country's rage-spasms grow ever more frequent, it's hard to believe the controversies surrounding Kanye West's SNL appearance unfolded a mere eight months ago. But for the purposes of this ranking, let's set aside West's infamous rambling post-credits speech — in which the enigmatic superstar, clad in a "Make America Great Again" cap, defended his support of the president — and focus on the three songs he performed during the season-opening broadcast.

Though they vary wildly in tone and set dressing, each performance was a listless disaster. The first played out like cross between a fourth-grade school play and, well, an SNL sketch: West and rapper Lil Pump performed "I Love It" while dressed as a Perrier bottle and a Fiji bottle, respectively, as they clomped around awkwardly and heavily redacted the original lyric.

West yielded much of his second song ("We Got Love") to protégé Teyana Taylor, whose presence and level of effort dwarfed his — at least, that is, until both had to hold still and wait for a lengthy, song-closing sample to play out. Finally, in lieu of the usual stand-around-and-wave-over-the-credits bit at the end of the telecast, West returned to the stage to play "Ghost Town" with Kid Cudi, 070 Shake, Ty Dolla $ign and the Saturday Night Live Band. Together, they gave the energy level a decent boost — thanks in part to the sheer number of participants — but the vocals were, to put it generously, uneven. Fortunately (or "fortunately") for West, audiences found other outrages to cling to by the time the next week rolled around, not that that stopped SNL from skewering the rapper in the sketch that opened the following episode.

18. Tame Impala

"Patience," "Borderline"

In recent years, Tame Impala's fame has grown to festival-headliner proportions, even as its sound has shrunk from Technicolor psych-rock to smooth, yacht-rock-inspired soul. Bandleader Kevin Parker is a relentless sonic tinkerer and studio explorer — a genuinely talented and inventive guy — but on the SNL stage, the Australian's new songs felt washed-out and drained of their life force. Clad in what appeared to be Old Navy button-ups they'd found at the bottom of the hamper, the guys in Tame Impala leaned hard on a flashily dappled light show that couldn't compensate for a lack of verve.

17. Ella Mai

"Boo'd Up," "Trip"

Charming U.K. R&B singer Ella Mai had one of last year's big breakthroughs with the sleekly infectious "Boo'd Up," but her SNL debut felt uneventful. These straightforward readings of "Boo'd Up" and "Trip" could have just as easily passed by as afterthoughts on any given late-night network talk show, though "Trip" at least gave Ella Mai a chance to perform alongside a stray park bench and a chainlink fence. In case you're keeping score on such matters: As visual palettes go, that's considerably less impressive than Travis Scott's holographic-smoke fantasia (see below) and only a little more impressive than Kanye West pantsing around on a barren stage while dressed as a bottle of sparkling water.

16. Shawn Mendes

"If I Can't Have You," "In My Blood"

Shawn Mendes has superfans just like any pop star, but for those who aren't in their ranks, he has a way of eliciting a "Wait, who is this again?" every time one of his songs pops up on the radio. (Which, friends, is often.) The young Canadian hitmaker has looks to burn and top-notch collaborators, but his personality rarely transcends sweet-faced amiability onstage, and his SNL appearance was no different. After chugging through his serviceable but standard-issue single "If I Can't Have You," the former Vine star returned with his best and most noteworthy hit, "In My Blood."

Setting aside the observation that Mendes ought to be setting aside some of his royalties for Glen Hansard — Sam Smith had to give Tom Petty a cut of "Stay With Me," after all, and it's hard not to hear the big hook from "Falling Slowly" within "In My Blood" — this take on Mendes' smash does move nicely from brooding piano ballad to set-closing, string-swept blowout. But it was also almost immediately upstaged by host Adam Sandler, who took the stage after the commercials to sing a sweet and obviously deeply felt tribute to Chris Farley.

15. Mark Ronson & Miley Cyrus

"Nothing Breaks Like a Heart," "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)"

Mark Ronson and Miley Cyrus recently teamed up for "Nothing Breaks Like a Heart," a hit from Ronson's most recent album. That one song wound up spawning its very own SNL appearance, giving Cyrus a chance to belt out the single with fully committed intensity as Ronson stood silently nearby, strumming an acoustic guitar and otherwise unleashing roughly 0.3 percent of her charisma.

Later, in honor of the holidays and the fact that the two only really share the one song, they closed with a cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" — backed, appropriately enough, by Sean Ono Lennon. As a vehicle for dispensing holiday sentiment in difficult times, the song choice was a slam dunk, but as a performance it never quite cohered: Lennon was mixed too quietly to provide a counterweight for an unusually shouty Cyrus, who's usually got a better handle on when to modulate.

14. Maggie Rogers

"Light On," "Fallingwater"

Maggie Rogers' folk/electro-pop hybrids have made her a favorite of Pharrell, a lovable YouTube sensation and a Tiny Desk veteran, but the SNL stage is still a big leap in terms of mainstream exposure. Her nerves pretty clearly got the better of her in the touch-and-go opening moments of "Light On," but "Fallingwater" feels more assured in every way, as Rogers — joined by Rostam Batmanglij on piano — lets loose a bit, both vocally and in terms of her dance moves. By the end of the song, when she's strutting around the stage in a flowy red dress like the coolest bridesmaid in the history of weddings, the performance finally starts to feel like the coming-out party it was intended to be.

13. Khalid

"Talk," "Better"

Young R&B star Khalid got his start in high school and has spent the first few years of his career chronicling youthful unease and the crisis of confidence it can engender. But as an SNL headliner, he exuded a kind of blushing charisma — complete with a high-wattage smile and easygoing style – as he showcased a pair of breezy mid-tempo jams from this spring's Free Spirit. This SNL season's musical guests hit intoxicating highs and soul-deadening lows, but Khalid's genially appealing performance aimed squarely for (and landed on) firm, smooth, steady middle ground.

12. Sara Bareilles

"Fire," "Saint Honesty"

Sara Bareilles is as game-ready as they come, giving her all in a wide range of works that have been nominated for Grammys, Tonys and even an Emmy. To even think about the 2016 Democratic Convention is to send some of Bareilles' most vibrantly sung words — "I wanna see you be braaaaaaaaave" — hurtling through your brain and across the universe, where they'll persist long after all life is extinguished. But these two immaculately appointed SNL performances, executed with proficiency bordering on perfection by Bareilles and a large but low-key band, are forgettable enough to make you wish, if only for a second, that she'd dressed up as a Perrier bottle or something.

11. Mumford & Sons

"Guiding Light," "Delta"

Mumford & Sons' songs don't dominate radio playlists the way they did in in the months and years leading up to the band's Album of the Year win at the 2013 Grammys. But the group still knows how to whip up anthemic, banjo-flecked rousers like "Guiding Light," which opens Mumford & Sons' third-ever SNL appearance. Later, the Dave Matthews-esque "Delta" benefits from a bit of atmospheric buildup: Singer Marcus Mumford seethes stoically through the song's dimly lit first couple minutes, only to spring to life as the slow burn gives way to a bright, satisfying cataclysm.

10. Meek Mill

"Going Bad"/"Uptown Vibes," "Championships"

Meek Mill has experienced trials and transformations in recent years, emerging from a controversial prison stint with his mind fixed squarely on criminal-justice reform. Still, his SNL debut gave him space for both celebration and reflection. An opening performance of "Going Bad" and "Uptown Vibes" found the Philly rapper flanked by bodysuit-clad dancers — "Uptown Vibes" also featured a guest spot by Fabolous, though "Going Bad" had to relegate Drake's verse to a prerecording from the album track — for a fun but unspectacular medley.

"Championships" took a more serious turn, as Meek Mill summed up his last few difficult years — incarceration and awakening, redemption and triumph — in a heartfelt, periodically gripping bit of storytelling that radiated a renewed sense of purpose.

9. Thomas Rhett

"Look What God Gave Her," "Don't Threaten Me With A Good Time"

For all his dressed-down everyman authenticity, Thomas Rhett can come off as focus-grouped to the hilt, starting with the parade of modern-day bro-country tropes at the heart of "Look What God Gave Her" and "Don't Threaten Me With a Good Time," both of which he brought to the SNL stage.

So it's tempting to lump him in with the mass of likeminded (and like-named) country dudes giving endlessly repetitious voice to the Male Gaze, but Rhett is also — to his great credit — more willing than most stars to test the margins of country radio's sound. By the time he and his great big overstuffed band got to the charmingly high-spirited end of "Don't Threaten Me With a Good Time," filling the air with hooky declarations of joy, damned if all that weapons-grade ingratiation hadn't done its job. The guy knows what he's doing.

8. Gary Clark Jr.

"Pearl Cadillac," "This Land"

Gary Clark Jr.'s new album, This Land, is an incendiary slab of politically charged blues-rock that balances raw-boned treatises on American life with guitar work that's urgent and dazzling, but never pointlessly flashy. On SNL, Clark fit in several sides of his persona, showcasing the languid ballad "Pearl Cadillac" — in which he paid tribute to both his mom's sacrifices and Prince's falsetto — and "This Land," a hard-charging polemic with a ripping guitar solo. The vocals were wobblier than expected here, given how great Clark has sounded in performances without amplification, but he was still a commanding presence.

7. Jonas Brothers

"Sucker," "Cool," "Burnin' Up"

Nick, Joe and Kevin Jonas have kept busy since their massively successful brotherly boy band released its last album all the way back in 2009. Joe launched DNCE to great success, scoring an inescapable smash with "Cake by the Ocean," while Nick enjoyed solo hits under his own name, beefed up his filmography and married Priyanka Chopra. For his part, Kevin went into private business, starred in an E! reality series and, it's been fairly convincingly argued, inadvertently compelled Donald Trump to run for president. It's been an eventful decade since the Jonases split due to reported differences in musical vision.

Jonas Brothers will release a long-awaited new album next month, and if the trio's game return to SNL is any indication, their solution to the aforementioned competing musical directions has been to pursue a bunch of them at once. The chart-topping "Sucker" meets at the instantly familiar middle ground between Portugal. The Man's 2017 smash "Feel It Still" and the complete collected works of Maroon 5, while "Cool" could be a country sensation if only the Jonases were from, say, Tennessee instead of New Jersey. On SNL, both songs sounded as bright and lively as the mass of balloons piled up around the assorted Jonases, who tapped into the night's celebratory atmosphere by tossing in a lively bonus performance of 2008's "Burnin' Up."

6. Halsey

"Without Me," "Eastside"

When you look back on your life, you'll want to know that someone loved you as much as SNL loves booking Halsey. The charismatic young singer was a musical guest in January 2018, a guest-of-a-musical-guest (that'd be Lil Wayne) in November 2018, and the host and headlining musical guest a mere three months after that. If Paul Simon had appeared on SNL with that kind of frequency over the past 44 seasons, he might be into triple digits by now.

But Halsey is nothing if not multi-talented: She's both an endearing host and a solid singer, albeit one who's learned to simulate Auto-Tune the way a mockingbird comes to appropriate a car alarm. In fact, Halsey is so multi-talented, she actually performed the breathy ballad "Eastside" while crouching over a giant canvas, completing an impressive painting of a woman's face in the time it took her to finish the song. She is, in other words, gameness personified: 51 percent undeniable talent and possible icon-in-the-making, 49 percent lab-tested try-hard composite sketch of a present-day pop star. (Give or take 2 percent.)

5. Lil Wayne

"Can't Be Broken," "Uproar"

Not many rappers could stand stock still on the SNL stage in a hoodie and pajama pants and hold focus for an entire song, but Lil Wayne has both the gravitas and the lyrical deftness to pull it off. "Can't Be Broken" doesn't get much in the way of set dressing: Lil Wayne and ubiquitous guest vocalist Halsey perform in front of a gigantic screen that resembles a wrinkled white bedsheet, flanked by a drummer and a DJ. But the song casts a spell, building to a nice moment in which the rapper thanks veterans and hugs his band.

"Uproar" gets a far busier presentation — the bedsheet and spare-but-forceful production remain, but Halsey is replaced by a large throng of dancers and the rowdy encouragement of Swizz Beatz — with similarly compelling results. Once again, Wayne finds himself clad in the most comfortable possible attire, this time wrapped in a robe straight out of the Cruella De Vil collection. But the performance isn't so laidback, as everyone on stage gets a chance to cut loose with playfully pumped-up aggression. (Incidentally, you have to give Lil Wayne a boost in the standings based on his appearance, with fellow rapper Future, in this SNL episode's fun and funny video about consent.)

4. Paul Simon with yMusic

"Can't Run But," "Bridge Over Troubled Water"

Let's start with the legacy on display here: Just weeks removed from his farewell tour, Paul Simon played SNL on his 77th birthday. It was the singer's record ninth appearance as an SNL musical guest, capping off a history with the show dating back to his gig hosting its second episode all the way back in 1975.

So that's the history, as well as the source of the gravitas we're dealing with here. But the performances themselves — a vibrant, shimmery reboot of 1990's "Can't Run But" (mirroring the one heard on last year's In the Blue Light) and a justifiably emotional take on Simon & Garfunkel's eternal "Bridge Over Troubled Water" — are knockouts in their own right, buoyed and deepened by the lush arrangements of Bryce Dessner. As performed by Simon and the chamber ensemble yMusic, both songs add up to a grand victory lap for a singer who's more than earned one.

3. BTS

"Boy With Luv," "Mic Drop"

The Studio 8H stage can be a cavernous and unforgiving place. It can make bands seem small and enervated, and it takes effort to fill the space. Some use light shows or props, while others employ an expanded array of backing musicians, but the smart ones know that it helps to bring a little something extra.

For the Korean boy-band sensation BTS — not only making its own SNL debut, but also marking the show's initiation into the world of K-pop — that something extra was motion, and lots of it. The group's seven members sing and rap in multiple languages, but they're also almost comically vibrant dancers, which gives their live TV appearances a welcome jolt of energy, color and joy. Here, the ubiquitous new "Boy With Luv" and the older track "Mic Drop" unfolded as a giddy swirl of bouncy, joyful stimuli.

2. Travis Scott

"Skeletons/Astrothunder," "Sicko Mode"

Travis Scott could have just stood onstage and gone through the hit-regurgitating motions, treating SNL like any other late-night appearance. Instead, each performance piled extras atop extras, without quite tilting into overkill. For a medley of "Skeletons" and "Astrothunder," you got a few grabby visual elements — like a woman brooding astride a rotating carousel horse, or an effect in which Scott appeared to stand on clouds — that momentarily distracted from the stunt casting on display. (Tame Impala's Kevin Parker on bass! John Mayer on guitar!)

Later, Scott returned for a full-on feast of eye-popping tricks, starting with an effect in which the late DJ Screw's image was projected onto a curtain of smoke; soon, Scott himself appeared, rapping while appearing to... rotate? On a giant arcade cabinet? There was a lot going on, all of it gorgeous to look at — and best of all, the visuals worked hand-in-glove with the actual songs, each of which managed an intoxicating mix of wooziness and intensity.

1. Anderson .Paak

"Tints," "Who R U?"

You read it here first: Anderson .Paak is really, really good at this whole performing-on-stage thing. So it wasn't exactly a huge surprise when .Paak straight-up dominated in an SNL appearance that found him showcasing two tracks from last year's Oxnard.

Naturally, given the scope of the singer, rapper and multi-instrumentalist's talents, each performance took on a radically different shape. In "Tints," .Paak rapped from behind sunglasses, a drum kit and a radiant smile, keeping time while making it clear he was having the time of his life. Not that anyone could blame him, given that he got to share the stage with both Tayla Parx and, in a nonchalant 40-second pop-in that elicited a few gasps from the crowd, Kendrick Lamar.

After all that, "Who R U?" could have been anticlimactic, but it's a true showstopper: Performing in front of a curtain that silhouetted his band, .Paak commanded center stage with a riveting vocal, then gobbled up about a thousand extra-credit points via some fierce and unrelenting dance moves.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)