'SNL' Musical Guests, Ranked From No. 1 To Morgan Wallen
A year ago, Saturday Night Live's 45th season ended in a swirl of late adjustments: A planned 21-episode run had to be shortened to 18, with the final three shows cobbled together from the performers' homes. Ranking the season's musical guests meant comparing, say, a knockout production starring Lizzo to black-and-white footage of Chris Martin singing a Bob Dylan cover. Out of 18 performances, two featured former members of One Direction and two featured current members of Coldplay. It was, taken as a whole, as much of a mess as you might expect.
But for Season 46, which ended Saturday, Studio 8H was healing: Crowds, albeit sparse (at first) and masked, showed up to clap and hoot, while each and every musical guest performed in person. That makes it considerably easier to concoct — for the fourth year in a row! — a ranking of the latest season's 20 musical guests, even as the genres they represented varied wildly.
This season marked a bit of a shift in SNL's musical direction, most notably in favor of rock acts with guitars, while still bringing back a few mainstays to perform in consecutive seasons. But this season's batch still added up to a robust assortment of fresh talent, fresh conversation-starters and, yes, the occasional cinder of fresh hell.
We've linked to every performance that's still officially posted on YouTube, but all 46 seasons of SNL — including the musical performances — are available for streaming via Peacock. So let's do this!
20. Morgan Wallen, "7 Summers" and "Still Goin' Down"
It's tempting to plop Morgan Wallen in last place for reasons of context alone. The country star's SNL debut was delayed by two months after Wallen flouted NBC's mask protocols — why he was invited back at all remains an open question, given how recently he'd been willing to risk the cast's safety — though he at least paid us all the courtesy of waiting nearly two more months after his eventual performance to be filmed using a racial slur. Wallen has long had a "repeatedly arrested outside Kid Rock's bar" vibe to him, although to be fair, he's only been arrested outside Kid Rock's bar once.
But let's set all that aside, in the interest of objectivity, and focus solely on Wallen's smirky, listless performance. The guy's singles aren't bad, but in these performances they weren't exactly hook-forward, especially given Wallen's tendency to sing through his nose. Though "7 Summers" never sank below bland competence, "Still Goin' Down" somehow seemed both lazy and try-hard, in a way you can only really pull off while clad in a crisply laundered garment from the Larry The Cable Guy collection. Would it have killed him to at least make the music fun?
19. Jack Harlow, "Tyler Herro/WHATS POPPIN" and "Same Guy (feat. Adam Levine)"
On his singles, Louisville rapper and singer Jack Harlow has star quality: His flows are easygoing but intricate, confident but approachable, and he's backed by a Rolodex of A-list guests. But on the SNL stage, his wordplay couldn't help but get swallowed whole by a mushily indifferent mix.
Harlow's opening medley of basketball-adjacent bangers — "Tyler Herro" and last year's hit "WHATS POPPIN" — at least gave him hooks to work with. But if it weren't for Morgan Wallen, "Same Guy" would have landed Harlow squarely at the bottom of this season's rankings: Throughout this enervated blob of a song, he barely registered as awake, while guest Adam Levine brought all the charisma and purpose of a delivery guy who took a wrong turn, wound up onstage and tried to fit in with a bit of lifeless vocalizing.
18. The Strokes, "The Adults Are Talking" and "Bad Decisions"
This summer marks 20 years since The Strokes' breakthrough album Is This It, which instantly transformed the New York band's sleek and alluring rock into one of the most fawned-over finds of the new century. Ever since, the group has struggled to duplicate that success, though last year's The New Abnormal was its best in ages — and even generated The Strokes' first-ever Grammy Award.
Still, the band's general vibe has always been more about detached cool than, say, onstage dynamism. Performing two singles from The New Abnormal, singer Julian Casablancas seemed uncomfortable on the unforgiving SNL stage — perhaps a byproduct of ill-fitting clothing, starting with his baggy leather pants in "The Adults Are Talking" (did he borrow them from Jack Harlow?) and moving on to several nesting dolls' worth of clashing attire in "Bad Decisions" (a gigantic sleeveless Ozzy tee! an open dress shirt! a massive trench coat!). It was Halloween night, but this evoked the farthest thing from pageantry, and the performances themselves felt drab and lacking in conviction.
Nick Jonas could be forgiven for phoning in the musical portion of his SNL duties, given that he also had hosting to worry about. But his performances of two songs from his solo album Spaceman didn't suffer from a lack of commitment, or a wobbly vocal presence, or inadequately futuristic stage dressing or anything like that; you couldn't even really find fault with the fact that Jonas Brothers' youngest member sported two different jackets over what appeared to be a coating of baby oil.
The issue here lay with the songs themselves, both of which languished in the land of low-impact, mid-tempo, lightly R&B-inflected pop — the kind of stuff Adam Levine might write if he were worried about Maroon 5 getting too edgy. Jonas is an engaging enough presence, and he remained in fine voice throughout, but the songs themselves disappeared like a vapor on impact.
Kid Cudi has had a hugely influential career, with a long run of albums that mix rap with vulnerable (if not altogether on-key) singing. He is, among other things, a major architect behind Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak — an album that helped clear the way for superstars like Drake — and he's helped broaden hip-hop's approach to fashion.
In fact, his clothes drew the most headlines from this SNL spot, as he performed "Tequila Shots" in a green cardigan and "Sad People" in a floral dress. Both garments functioned as a tribute to Kurt Cobain, whose spirit particularly haunts "Sad People," with its commentary on depression and self-doubt.
The problem is that, if you close your eyes, it was impossible to ignore Kid Cudi's limitations as a singer — especially given the incurable mushiness of SNL's mix. Better to fast-forward past both of these and spend three minutes with the deeply goofy "Weird Little Flute," in which Cudi rapped alongside Pete Davidson, Chris Redd and a guest that needn't be spoiled here.
15. H.E.R., "Damage" and "Hold On"
H.E.R.'s stage presence exudes seemingly effortless cool and a kind of smooth, understated stillness: Even when she shreds on the guitar, there's a subdued quality to her, without a lot of wasted motion. When it doesn't work, though, the R&B star can come off as simultaneously imposing and low-energy, in ways that can mute her unmistakable star power.
"Damage," in particular, gave H.E.R. little to do onstage: Even if it hadn't robbed her of a chance to bust out the guitar, the song would still have felt formless and oddly mixed, without much of a hook to bind it together. "Hold On" gave her a bit more to work with — a guitar, for example — but that muddled mix struck again, burying her voice to the point where it could hardly be distinguished from her backing singers.
In the months since SNL, H.E.R. has won a Grammy for song of the year (for "I Can't Breathe") and an Oscar for best original song (for "Fight for You"). But, especially by comparison, this wasn't her night.
14. Foo Fighters, "Shame Shame" and "Times Like These"
You may or may not love Dave Grohl, but how could you not at least like the guy? He's the affable mayor of rock and roll: a pillar of both Foo Fighters and Nirvana, the most frequent musical guest in SNL history, soon to become a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer twice over, a sturdy architect of decades' worth of terrific music and a cheerful rival of 10-year-old drum prodigies the world over.
He is, in other words, a welcome presence. But the latest of Foo Fighters' many SNL performances — a clunky, disjointed take on the new "Shame Shame" and a slow-then-fast reworking of 2002's "Times Like These" — stayed stuck in second gear until the last two minutes of the latter song, when Grohl & Co. finally seized an opportunity to stomp on the gas pedal. Slow and polished? That'd work. Fast and ragged? Sure! But slow and ragged is a tough sell, and nothing here comes alive until the very end.
Those who lament the apparent decline of rock and roll often miss the part where many, many rock bands' careers are booming — just without the benefit of major credibility-bestowing awards or the warm embrace of the critical establishment. You won't read many thinkpieces about Imagine Dragons, Twenty One Pilots or All Time Low, but they're not exactly languishing in obscurity.
Take Machine Gun Kelly, whose career took a sharp left turn when his fruitful career as a rapper — which included a stint as one-half of a gross beef with Eminem — gave way to life as a spiky-haired pop-punk frontman. Watching him stand at the center of a blaringly airtight band while clad in unsnapped hot-pink overalls, it was hard not get drawn into the sheer volume of the assembled spectacle. His vocals got a little ragged here and there, but he kept meeting at the midpoint of agreeability and aggression — a combination that worked for him.
SNL lit the band far more sparingly for "lonely," a song for lost loved ones that kept picking up steam and intensity as MGK poured on the emotion. By the end, he'd won over more than a few skeptics — this one included.
12. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, "Ghosts" and "I'll See You in My Dreams"
Let's get one thing out of the way upfront: This is not a ranking of the artists' overall quality or historical worth, so please at least consider setting aside your "He said Justin Bieber is better than Bruce Springsteen!" hot takes. There are other important factors to consider, from use of space to sound quality to visual effects. Did the performance surprise in any way? Transcend the studio recordings? Capture the artists at the height of their powers? Start a conversation? Compel a fence-sitter at home to run to the TV from another room?
It was nice to hear Springsteen reconvene The E Street Band to perform two songs from their newest album, Letter to You, even if two members (violinist Soozie Tyrell and bassist Garry Tallent) had to skip the set due to COVID restrictions. But the performances themselves, while characteristically heartfelt, remained in constant conflict with a cluttered sound mix. Springsteen has always been generous about sharing the spotlight with his beloved bandmates, but particularly in "Ghosts," they all got cranked up on top of each other. These songs were built to soar, but here, they never did.
11. Bad Bunny, "La Noche de Anoche (feat. Rosalía)" and "Te Deseo Lo Mejor"
Of all the musical performances scattered across Season 46, this was maybe the trickiest one to rank fairly. "La Noche de Anoche" paired up two massive, top-of-their-game stars with talent and chemistry to burn, let them sizzle against each other... and then crushed Bad Bunny under the weight of the season's crummiest sound. At first, it seemed his mic was off, then he was too quiet, then he was mixed at the same volume as the always-fantastic Rosalía, then he was too quiet again. Technical difficulties happen to everyone even under the best of circumstances — and this stage, live on network television, is not the best of circumstances. But this was rough. (Memo to Lorne Michaels: You can pry Tiny Desk technical director Josh Rogosin out of our cold, dead hands.)
"Te Deseo Lo Mejor" got a more subdued setting — at the top of a staircase, in repose — befitting its message of regret and self-flagellation. And, of course, nothing says "regret and self-flagellation" quite like singing a song with an actual WWE 24/7 Championship belt draped over your knee. (Here's a useful, extremely enthusiastic explainer.) Bad Bunny contains multitudes, y'all.
In the past dozen years, Justin Bieber has lived life under the microscope as a pop star, a punchline and all points in between. Still only 27, he embodies his share of contradictions: a born-again Christian with a rap sheet full of knuckle-headed missteps; a heavily tattooed party boy whose swagger bumps up against his own angelic falsetto, and so on.
For his third stint as an SNL musical guest, Bieber dressed down in a manner befitting the humility the songs demand: With an assist from a gamely smiling Chance The Rapper, "Holy" humbles its singer in the face of love and salvation, while "Lonely" functions as a confessional in the truest sense of the word. Backed on the SNL stage by producer benny blanco, the latter song chronicles Bieber's unease in the spotlight while noting the mistakes he'd made as "an idiot kid" (fact check: true).
Neither SNL performance was built for flash: The former let the singer pace around moodily under some sort of arbor, leaving Bieber alone until Chance popped in to liven up the proceedings, while "Lonely" followed a baggily sweatered Bieber from a seated position in his dressing room to a spotlight shining on an unadorned stage. A clever bit of staging that felt appropriate for such a raw and interior bit of expression — the song is all about peeking behind the curtain to showcase an artist's fear and vulnerability. But let's face it: It still might have fallen flat were it not for Bieber's clear, elastic, expressive vocal. Love him, hate him or dismiss him as the product of a lab experiment in which Kevin Federline is injected with talent, it's hard to deny that the guy can sing.
Phoebe Bridgers' songs are built for late-night car rides and long walks with headphones: She peppers her softly sung lyrics with vividly crafted, exquisitely phrased details amid soundscape-y atmospherics that heighten the slow-burning drama. What they're not built for is the squarish confines of the Studio 8H stage, which is far better suited to brash sounds, brightly lit effects and flashy choreography.
Bridgers seemed fully aware of what she had to work with — and opted to jack up the aggression. Amping up the two loudest songs from 2020's Punisher, she and her band donned their usual skeleton costumes, shortened "I Know the End" to get to the loud parts sooner and wrapped up their set-closer with a bout of guitar-smashing mayhem. The Danelectro model Bridgers heaved into her (fake) monitor proved exceedingly difficult to break, but mayhem is mayhem.
And, of course, the Internet is a weeping diaper-pile of hypocritical misogynist idiocy, which meant Bridgers' big moment got singled out for criticism; each argument would have seemed like a straw man if so many people weren't serious about it. Smashing instruments has been done before! (Yes, going back many decades, without people freaking out about it!) It masks a lack of musicianship! (Just ask such noted non-musical guitar-defilers as Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain!) She did it for attention! (Say, did anyone on earth notice that Machine Gun Kelly chucked his guitar into the abyss on the same stage literally seven days earlier? No?) She smashed a valuable instrument while someone somewhere is going hungry! (She auctioned off the guitar for a hundred grand and gave the money to charity! And, as Jason Isbell noted — albeit exaggeratedly — on Twitter, it was hardly a big-ticket item in the first place.)
All of which, it turns out, kinda drowned out the performance. But, seriously, the mere fact that the Internet squabbled performatively for days speaks to the singer's cultural currency and staying power. Oh, and how else were we going to experience Phoebe Bridgers calling David Crosby a "little b****" on Twitter?
If you're a lifelong fan of Van Morrison, but dropped out around the time he released a song called "They Own the Media," Nathaniel Rateliff is here to help. Rateliff's mix of emotive folk, grandiose rock and Stax-inspired soul combines many elements of classic Morrison with a considerably warmer-and-fuzzier central figure.
Curiously, Rateliff bypassed the songs from his most recent album (the widely beloved And It's Still Alright) for his SNL debut, opting instead to kick off a very early Oscar campaign for the Justin Vernon-esque "Redemption," his fine original from the Justin Timberlake film Palmer. Billing it as a solo performance was a bit of a misnomer, as he was capably backed throughout, but he officially reconvened Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats for a rousing take on 2018's "A Little Honey," which filled the mix with brightly compelling music that never drowned anyone out.
There's long been an unequal distribution of wardrobing-related labor between male and female pop stars, but Dua Lipa's return to the SNL stage really hammered home the disparity. Ever an icon of Wonder Woman-esque impeccability, the young disco-pop diva presided over a small team of backup dancers while clad in impossibly sleek outfits, one of which she'd topped with a massive piece of white, feathery headgear. Hers wasn't quite the best performance of the SNL season, but it was by far the best to feature a pop star with a massive jellyfish on her head.
When Lipa first appeared on SNL back in 2018, she seemed nervous and a bit detached, like she was ticking off boxes to meet the expectations of pop stardom rather than fully engaging with the material. For her return trip, she fared far better, as she seemed to commit fully to a pair of terrific hits from last year's unstoppable Future Nostalgia.
SNL has long made a big deal about its "Five-Timers Club," an assortment of celebrities — 21 in all — who've hosted the show five times or more. Miley Cyrus has "only" hosted the show three times, but she's been a musical guest twice as often, including in four of the past five seasons. She's not the most frequent SNL musical guest of all time, mind you; that'd be Dave Grohl. But if you were looking for an equivalent member of the Five-Timers Club, she's solidly entrenched in Elliott Gould territory. (In fact, let's agree to address Cyrus as "the Elliott Gould of music" from here on out.)
This is a roundabout way of saying that she's gotten very good at this over the years, and continues to make a game and ingratiating guest — game enough, in fact, that Cyrus kicked off the show's cold open with a belted-to-the-rafters rendition of Dolly Parton's "Light of a Clear Blue Morning." Given that the song was woven through a segment in which the SNL cast members introduced their moms for Mother's Day, and that Parton is Cyrus' godmother, it was a nice touch, not to mention a suitably gorgeous vocal.
Cyrus wasn't done shining a light on other artists, either — and didn't even bother to perform a song from her most recent album until right at the end of the show. The more prominent slot went to a catchy duet from the deluxe edition of The Kid LAROI's mixtape; the two shared the spotlight throughout, as Cyrus cheered on a visibly nervous LAROI while clad in what appeared to be a large purple Muppet pelt. Then, as the episode wound down, she presided over an agreeably raspy rendition of the brash and brassy title track from Plastic Hearts.
It's tempting to grade Olivia Rodrigo on a curve: She is, after all, 18 years old and roughly five months into her career as a record-setting pop star. Her debut single, "drivers license," came out in January during the pandemic, so while she's been a theater kid (and Disney-adjacent actress) for years, she's had virtually no significant experience performing with a band onstage in front of a crowd.
But Rodrigo's debut as an SNL musical guest rendered caveats meaningless: She's got a superstar's presence and a smashing voice that made short work of her hit ballad's many swoops and power notes. It helped that "drivers license" calls for slow-burning stand-and-deliver stillness, but she still infused the performance with physicality, while "good 4 u" allowed her to indulge in some cheerful and effects-enhanced dancing, too. The latter song felt a little less sure-footed, albeit not by much; Rodrigo seemed elated at the end, and justifiably so. If this was square one, it's hard to imagine how far she'll go.
Dropping St. Vincent into the middle of a live sketch-comedy show can feel like a cruel trick: Annie Clark's performances benefit from a fair bit of context, especially when she's unveiling new personas (like the one she shows off here, a tribute to the late Warhol actress Candy Darling) or spinning off in new musical directions. So you find yourself rewinding your DVR to watch again, just to get a feel, and then again as you pick up on subtleties, and then again as the songs get their hooks into you, and before you know it the show's over and you're way behind.
Given how much creative ground Clark has traversed over the course of six solo albums, it's easy to pine for a sound she's explored in some other phase of her career. And, considering that she's one of the best guitarists in the business, it's a shame how infrequently she wields one here. But she's still in stunning form throughout these '70s-inspired songs from Daddy's Home, and she still knows how to deploy stillness and eye contact — letting a camera fix its gaze on her face and draw ever closer — in ways that transcend motion. And you've got to tack on bonus points for her backup singers, who bring to the proceedings a mix of breeziness, gravitas and unmistakable chemistry.
Before performing two of his newest songs, Lil Nas X popped up in a funny sketch called "It's Pride Again!" Featuring queer SNL cast members Bowen Yang, Punkie Johnson and Kate McKinnon (plus host Anya Taylor-Joy), it lampooned Pride celebrations with lived-in precision — and culminated in a Lil Nas X rap in which he shouts out Marsha P. Johnson and Harvey Milk for fighting "for your right to be this chaotic."
It wasn't the first hint that Lil Nas X would unleash upon us a deeply bonkers gay fantasia — we've all seen the video for "Montero" — but it still qualified as foreshadowing. On a stage festooned with glistening shirtless chorus boys, our star served up three minutes of artily maximalist writhing, though Chekhov's Stripper Pole could never be fully deployed due to Lil Nas X ripping his pants just before the big event. But even that felt right: It was a performance so unabashedly sexual, his clothes couldn't help but remove themselves.
"Sun Goes Down" was, very much by design, less eventful. Giving Lil Nas X a chance to show off his more introspective side — and more-than-credible gift for R&B crooning — the new song documents the self-doubt and struggle he faced as a young gay church kid. Every Lil Nas X song has something new to reveal, but this one feels especially useful. It's a joy to imagine it finding the audience that needs it most.
2. Jack White, "Don't Hurt Yourself/Ball and Biscuit/Jesus Is Coming Soon" and "Lazaretto"
Of all the factors that can hinder the quality of a musical performance on Saturday Night Live, it's easy to overlook the pressure artists are under to perform new material for promotional purposes. You may close your live concerts with the hits everyone came to see, but when it comes to TV appearances, you're typically there to sell the new stuff, whether the crowd wants it or not.
Jack White's set — planned on two days' notice after Morgan Wallen got himself disinvited last fall — was freed of such constraints. His people may not have had time to prepare lavish effects for the occasion, but he did have an entire catalog of scorchers at his disposal. And he made the most of it, opening with a medley of "Don't Hurt Yourself" (which he'd co-written and performed on Beyoncé's Lemonade) and a version of The White Stripes' "Ball and Biscuit" that incorporated lyrics from Blind Willie Johnson's "Jesus Is Coming Soon." His second performance of the night dipped into White's solo catalog for a blistering take on 2014's "Lazaretto," which he performed using a guitar designed for him by Eddie Van Halen, who'd died a few days earlier.
To recap: That's Beyoncé, The White Stripes, Blind Willie Johnson and Eddie Van Halen, each celebrated in scorching fashion by a killer band and a rock star at the height of his powers. Given how often SNL invites its musical guests to return, would it have killed them to swap White in again two months later instead of re-inviting Wallen? They should just keep him on retainer.
Ponder, for a moment, the roadblocks placed in front of Megan Thee Stallion's season-opening SNL showstopper: She had to edit herself for network television, which in particular turned "Don't Stop" into a hash of percussive silences. With only the occasional highly notable exception, she almost always raps over a track onstage. Though Young Thug joined her in Studio 8H for "Don't Stop," her highest-profile collaborator was nowhere to be found in "Savage Remix," leaving her no choice but to relegate Beyoncé's disembodied voice to a sample emerging from the ether. She had to shrink her lavish live productions to the size of a small theater stage. Much of what audiences heard was prerecorded, leaving Meg and four dancers to carry off a set on their own. How was all that supposed to work?
What happened, it turns out, was a masterclass on converting limitations to strengths. Effects helped transform a tiered stage into a visual feast worthy of a Super Bowl halftime show; jagged black-and-white patterns made the screen feel both spare and stuffed, and Meg herself used a break in "Savage Remix" to issue a blistering statement about the Breonna Taylor shooting. Deploying samples of speeches by Malcolm X and activist Tamika Mallory, as well as effects that made the screens behind her appear to be riddled with bloody bullet holes, she closed the moment with a statement about the prior summer's social unrest: "We need to protect our Black women and love our Black women," she said. "'Cause at the end of the day we need our Black women. We need to protect our Black men and stand up for our Black men, because at the end of the day we're tired of seeing hashtags of our Black men."
Nearly eight months later, the performance still lingers. It not only encapsulated the anger of the moment, but also took Megan Thee Stallion's implicit politics — the expressions of power inherent in her songs' visceral embrace of women's sexuality — and turned them outward. Only Meg could take a performance on network television, mute every profanity and wind up sounding more explicit than ever.
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