The Best, Worst, and Most Memorable Saturday Night Live Musical Performances Ever

Kanye West, SNL performance.jpg

Saturday Night Live has been an amazing venue that does not get enough credit for introducing the masses to some music they may not have otherwise known or appreciated. And generally, it seems with SNL (as we will call it henceforth in this article) performances, there are often only two kinds.

The performances that get remembered for droppin' jaws and being incredibly powerful, and the performances so bad, they go down in history like the Hindenburg literally did. 

Having recently sat down and watched a slew of SNL live performances from some stellar bands just for shits and giggles, it hit me:

I need to write a list about SNL performances, and not just good ones. I want to talk about the performances that are indelibly etched into the footprint of SNL’s varied history, and also, our minds (even though some of you may not have seen all of them before).

Here are the best, the worst (and the overall most memorable) SNL musical performances of all time.

The Bad Performances

Ashlee Simpson (Some Shitty Pop Song)

What do I even need to say here? We all saw that “crash and burn” performance by now, and it is SO uncomfortable that it makes us cringe to even remember it, but I had to start the list with the classic fuck-up because the little “fail jig” she danced was just the best epitome of failure I have ever seen someone embody.

In case one of you missed it, just watch video above, and realize, it was LITERALLY the end of her career.

You just watched a career kill itself (and all because she was super rude to SNL’s stage hands so they rigged it to do that. Sssshh, I am not supposed to know that).

Lana Del Rey (Video Games)

To go from a YouTube star to essentially having your first real, live performance be on SNL of all places (kinda the biggest jump-off point you can have) would be tough for anyone, and Lana handled it by giving the MOST WOODEN PERFORMANCE OF ALL TIME.

You actually PITY her while watching it. Imagine that, us in our shitty houses, poor a fuck, feeling bad for some millionaire. Makes no sense, she made her bed.

And that bed was apparently a highway and she was a deer in the headlights, rocking herself like a mother would an infant. It awes many people she bounced back from this (and performed again,a helluva lot better second time around).

Ke$ha (Tik Tok)

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA, is she for real? 

Ke$ha asking the audience in spoken word cadence if we ever thought that “ WE are the aliens”, while playing with lasers sums up why this made the bad list. Her performance of her already abysmal Tik Tok incited far more laughter than it did turning people into new fans.

She just seemed like she was trying too hard because, well, she was.

Most Divisive SNL Performance

Sinead O'Connor (War, Bob Marley Cover)

First of all, she sang War by Bob Marley acapella and it was staggeringly beautiful. Let’s not forget that before we get into the heavy stuff.

When I first saw this woman rip up a picture of the pope and tell me, live on TV, to know the “real enemy”, I was lost as fuck. What, the pope? I, like everyone, thought she was nuts and the media perpetuated that.

Come to find out, SHE WAS FUCKING RIGHT!!!

She ripped up a picture of the pope and was banned from SNL for LIFE because SHE KNEW HE WAS PROTECTING CHILD MOLESTING PRIESTS which, within a year, became huge news. It may be a divisive performance to many, but to me, it is the most powerful performance on that show, ever. 

Again, just my opinion.

That is not a performance, that is a woman performing martyrdom and in hindsight, it is one of the most amazing SNL moments of all time if you can look at the message she was TRULY trying to send (which many still refuse to see).

The Best Performances

Queen (Crazy Little Thing Called Love)

First of all, just to see such an arena filling band on such a small stage was awesome enough, but the performance frontman Freddie Mercury put on that night entranced the world.Sadly. It would prove to be his last U.S performance before his death, but nothing about the performance reflects that.

Plus, any live Freddie Mercury performance is an amazing thing to behold. This last American appearance is no exception.

Fear (Beef Bologna)

Story is this. John Belushi was the biggest star on the show at the time and he had essentially told Lorne Michaels (head of SNL) that he would walk if they didn’t let FEAR play as the band one night. What you need to understand is, Fear was an underground, New York, hardcore, punk band that were known for having live shows that turned into riots.

This was also a time when SNL only allowed “safe” performers on their show. But if Belushi walked, they would be screwed, so they not only let Fear play, Belushi got to introduce them and also crashed the stage of one of the most insane SNL performances in history.

Also, huge points for the lead singer shouting out how nice it was to be back in New Jersey on New York’s most famous show. Now THAT is punk (*and funny AF).

Prince (Partyup)

Dude was 22 years old at the time and still, though beloved, getting world renowned, and this performance really helped that. 

Rumors are he talked very little to producers, went out, did the song, threw his mic down and walked away, not talking to anyone else after.

People thought he was upset and no one could figure out why. No, he was just being fucking epic. He was LITERALLY the first “mic drop cuz I’m a fuckibng badass” moment ever, remember that.
Also, a cast member said FUCK in this same episode, was fired, and went on to kill himself.

God, it is like I am the Rain Man of depressing knowledge.

Faith No More (Epic)

Most don’t know this and it makes the realest musicians kind of sad, but Mike patton (lead singer of Faith No more and about a thousand other bands) is one of the greatest frontmen of rock. 
From charisma to vocal talents to his surreality, as if he were a cartoon character, you are unable to take your eyes off him. And in this performance, in the breakdown when he climbs behind the stage, it was just one of the coolest things I had ever seen during an SNL performance.
I remember thinking:

Will he make it back to the mic in time to say “WHAT IS IT?!”

Spoiler, he totally makes it, making it an even more magical performance.

Kanye West (Black Skinhead)

I almost put Kanye’s first SNL performance on the bad part of the list (his vocoder broke and it was awkward as fuck) but he went on to not only redeem it,  but become someone who puts on some of the BEST SNL performances right now, period. When others dial in it, Kanye West dials it up, and that is just what this 2013 performance did. Shit felt more like Grammy performance than an SNL performance, and that is saying something.

From the stark imagery he used to the goosebumps you can practically feel rising up on the audience’s arm, this was Kanye backing up why he says he is the best.

Because sometimes, he is. Deal with it.

Nirvana (Territorial Pissings)

Kurt, adorned in dyed-pink hair seemed very strung-out during his first ever SNL performance with Nirvana, but he worked through that by unleashing one of the most ‘punk’ and spastic live-performances on SNL or TV at all, for that matter.

Thrashing around the stage like a greasy lightning bolt, Kurt screamed and warbled his way through songs that left the audience stunned, in awe, and kinda scared of the intensity of the guy.And to top it all off, the band fucking totalled their instruments live on stage. True rock shit right there.

And thus, Nirvana was born (though they were already big at the time)

Elvis Costello (Less Than Zero to Radio Radio)

In what may be the most punk rock moment of all of SNL by the man who looks the LEAST likely to be capable of it, Elvis Costello’s performance from December 17th, 1977 is historic for just how hard he essentially told his record label and SNL to fkc themselves.

Story is this:

Costello was FORCED by his record label to play Less Than Zero off his new album, and he wanted to use the opportunity to play some music HE wanted to play that people might recognize. So he agrees with SNL and his producers, takes the stage and starts playing Less Than Zero, then he turns around to his band and yells stop, and live on TV he says there is no reason to play that song there, and they break into Radio Radio, which tye were asked NOT to play. 
Crowd loved it, Costello got a lifetime ban from SNL that was comically recently removed during the 40 year anniversary special, which he played that exact song with the fucking Beastie Boys (and nailed another unforgettable performance as well).

Radiohead: Idioteque

This is Radiohead, do I need to say more? Well, I will anyway. There was something so utterly mesmerizing about lead singer Thom Yorke’s spastic movements and the chaotic and anthemic energy of the song itself that the whole performance just ended up feeling “electric”, as cliche’ as that sounds.

And for a band who don’t like to “advertise” (which is just what an SNL performance is. An advertisement for their music sent out to the masses) they seemed to be knowing they were on-point and loving every minute of it.

And again, it is Radiohead. What more needs to be said?

Honorable Mention:

Any performance by Joe Cocker and Kendrick Lamar. Those two are pure passion and their performances reflect that.

And having the confidence to let Belushi mock you right to your face takes balls of steel.
Also, Pearl Jam slipped a “Fuck off” into a live performance of RearViewMirror right after Kurt Cobain’s death that was pretty ballsy.

Can you find it? He buried it so well even censors didn’t know, but fans did.

“And I’m not about to give thanks (fuck off) or apologize).”