‘SNL’ musical guests ranked, from Coldplay to Megan Thee Stallion : NPR

Stella McDaniel

For his “Rich Spirit”https://www.npr.org/”N95” medley on SNL, Kendrick Lamar performed with minimal visual accompaniment, perfectly geared for the raw intimacy of his newest material.

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For his “Rich Spirit”https://www.npr.org/”N95” medley on SNL, Kendrick Lamar performed with minimal visual accompaniment, perfectly geared for the raw intimacy of his newest material.

Will Heath/NBC

It was a rough season for Saturday Night Live, which endured painful cast attrition (Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong, et al.), mixed reviews and a writers strike that knocked out Season 48’s final three episodes. But at least the musical guests offered some major highlights. For the second straight season, SNL leaned away from the safe spaces of guitar-driven rock, opting instead to focus more heavily than ever on R&B and (especially) hip-hop. The results were a typically mixed bag, with occasionally transcendent results.

Naturally, the vagaries of live performance — and of SNL‘s notoriously unforgiving Studio 8H, not to mention late-night TV’s eternal issues with sound mixing — meant that some musical guests were bound to outshine the rest. So it’s once again time to cruelly rank them all: the magnificent, the flawed-but-forceful, the forgettable and the truly, epically misbegotten. (See previous rankings: 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018.)

As always, we’ve linked to every performance that’s still (legally) posted on YouTube, but every one of these sets is also available for streaming via Peacock in case you wish to check my work. So, for the sixth year in a row, let’s get to it!

18. Coldplay, “The Astronaut” and “Human Heart”https://www.npr.org/”Fix You (feat. Jacob Collier and the Jason Max Ferdinand Singers)” (2/4/23)

Coldplay.

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Coldplay has inspired more than 20 years of fierce online debate, but the argument isn’t all that complex. If you want to hear the most compelling possible case for Coldplay, listen to Parachutes and A Rush of Blood to the Head. If you want the most compelling possible case against Coldplay, watch this SNL appearance, which is corny enough to drown the earth’s surface in ethanol.

It’s remarkable how many ingredients this set shares with Sam Smith’s SNL performance just two weeks earlier; most obviously, they both deployed choirs, with costumery to spare. In fact, if you were to take Sam Smith in 2023 but extinguish every scintilla of sexuality and mischief, you’d get … Sam Smith in 2015, but also Coldplay on a stage filled with smiling space aliens and swaying congregants.

Chris Martin is a talented and charismatic guy, in spite of it all, and his band’s Tiny Desk concert from 2020 — also recorded with a choir! — was legitimately wonderful. But he’s often guilty of overreaching in the pursuit of transcendence, and that only works when the songcraft is top-notch. “The Astronaut” and “Human Heart,” two slabs of Up With People-style inspirecore from 2021’s Music of the Spheres, just can’t be elevated to the heights he’s hell-bent on reaching. So by the time he, Jacob Collier and the Jason Max Ferdinand Singers paddled back to the sturdy shores of “Fix You,” the damage had already been done.

17. Jack Harlow, “Lil Secret”https://www.npr.org/”First Class” and “State Fair” (10/29/22)

Jack Harlow.

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Jack Harlow.

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Two years ago, Jack Harlow’s drab, listless SNL debut propelled him to a 19th-place performance (out of 20) on this very list. For Season 48, he returned to the SNL stage to perform double duty as host and musical guest — and soared up the rankings, all the way to 17th (out of 18), due to a writers strike that lopped three episodes off the season. Way to climb the ladder, J-‘low! A medley of “Lil Secret” and “First Class” places Harlow in front of a band, but the songs are dull — has there been a less hook-forward chart-topper than “First Class” in recent years? — and he couldn’t help but find himself overshadowed by both the easygoing groove and a doofy white scarf.

Harlow at least seemed roused enough to participate in “State Fair,” but the arrangement isolated him onstage and forced him to carry the entire burden of the moment — a tactic that works if you’re, say, Kendrick Lamar. But not even the Grammys are foolish enough to place Jack Harlow on par with Kendrick Lamar.

16. Lil Yachty, “the BLACK seminole.” and “drive ME crazy!” (4/1/23)

Lil Yachty.

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Lil Yachty.

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Lil Yachty has been upending expectations throughout his strange young career, which has found him in everything from a starring role in How High 2 to, um, a collaboration with [checks notes] Donny Osmond on a [squints at paper] jingle for Chef Boyardee. Yachty has been an actor, a rapper, a multimedia sensation and, on the album he released earlier this year, the leader of a psychedelic rock band that leaves hip-hop behind.

That record, Let’s Start Here, provides the jumping-off point for this curious and somewhat inscrutable set, in which Yachty himself seems to only intermittently participate. A full band rocks out, in a meandering sort of way, amid an assortment of greenery as singer Diana Gordon can’t help but overshadow her counterpart; meanwhile, Yachty himself is left to warble lackadaisically, rap a bit in “drive ME crazy!” and don a massive fur cap while standing around and nodding. It’s not particularly good, exactly, but at least it’s … weird?

15. Lil Baby, “California Breeze” and “Forever” (1/28/23)

Lil Baby.

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Lil Baby.

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Atlanta rapper Lil Baby is a huge, chart-topping star. But his rapid-fire, pitch-corrected vocals were bound to translate poorly to the SNL stage, where even the strongest and clearest vocals can get buried. In “California Breeze,” Lil Baby’s bars got smooshed into a fine paste — he might as well have been humming half the time — and the band accompanying him added shockingly little: Much of the time, a backing track would have provided just as much energy.

A sparer arrangement for “Forever” gave him a bit of a boost — thanks in large part to pianist Chloe Flower — as did a ghostly hook from rapper and singer Fridayy, whose pre-recorded vocal accompanied his projected image onstage. But these performances still felt strangely indifferent, thanks only in part to one of the season’s worst sound mixes. Lil Baby may have edged out Lil Yachty in this season’s Battle of the Lils, but you’d be forgiven for yearning for the return of Lil Nas X.

14. Steve Lacy, “Bad Habit” and “Helmet” (11/5/22)

Steve Lacy.

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Steve Lacy.

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The Internet’s Steve Lacy is a welcome presence in the worlds of pop, R&B and TikTok, all of which helped propel his slyly charming “Bad Habit” to the top of the charts. Onstage at SNL, he cut an intriguing figure with his wraparound shades — evoking a bit of Stevie Wonder’s vibe in the process — while aided by stage design that made Studio 8H seem considerably bigger than it is.

But Lacy and his band didn’t do much to elevate the material onstage, relying heavily on vocal tracks while keeping the energy levels set to “mid.” What these performances needed was simple dynamism: the exertion of energy, with the intent to do more than merely re-create. The source material was aces, but the execution fell a little flat.

13. Black Star, “So Be It” and “The Main Thing Is to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing” (11/22/22)

Black Star.

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Black Star.

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Most seasons of SNL toss in a few major legacy acts — a U2 here, a Bruce Springsteen or Paul Simon there. But the most veteran artist to take the stage in Season 48 was Black Star, the celebrated duo of Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) and Talib Kweli, which had just released its first album since its 1998 debut. The pair’s personal and professional relationship with host Dave Chappelle surely played a role in their presence onstage — the three host a podcast together — and the opportunity to showcase their songs on the most mainstream of stages clearly wasn’t lost on them.

Accompanied by Madlib, Black Star performed two songs from last year’s No Fear of Time, taking advantage of a huge projection screen that scrolled their densely crafted, rapid-fire lyrics behind them. Unfortunately, many of those words were obscured by the mix, especially when the two rapped over each other. But it’s nevertheless a pleasure to see and hear Black Star on a show that’s typically programmed to highlight the world’s biggest hitmakers.

12. Jack White, “Taking Me Back”https://www.npr.org/”Fear of the Dawn” and “A Tip from You to Me” (2/25/23)

Jack White.

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Jack White.

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When Jack White played SNL in the fall of 2020, he didn’t have much to promote — after all, he’d only shown up as a last-minute replacement after Morgan Wallen was disinvited. So White scorched his way through 2014’s “Lazaretto” and a medley of Beyoncé’s “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and The White Stripes’ “Ball and Biscuit,” with a bit of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Jesus Is Coming Soon” thrown in as a bonus. It was a highlight of that season, as well as a lesson in just how restrictive promotional cycles can be: White wasn’t burdened with new songs because there weren’t any, so he was free to choose from among his best.

Which brings us to this set, in which White had two 2022 albums to hawk (Fear of the Dawn and Entering Heaven Alive) and felt obliged to showcase material from each of them. “Taking Me Back,” “Fear of the Dawn” and “A Tip from You to Me” don’t stack up to anything he played in that 2020 performance. So while White’s guitar work was characteristically strong, and his band more than held its own, all three songs hurtled by without leaving much of an impression — particularly “A Tip from You to Me,” which didn’t even have sizzling solos to fall back on.

11. Lizzo, “Break Up Twice” and “Someday at Christmas” (12/24/22)

Lizzo.

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Lizzo has performed on the SNL stage on three occasions in the past four seasons — she even introduced herself as host last year — and the first two shows provided stellar showcases for the singer’s best-known material, complete with lavish dance routines, vivid sets and A-plus costume design.

This time around, she performed on short notice as a last-minute fill-in for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs due to illness, and the stakes felt lower all around: “Break Up Twice” is a fine mid-tempo track from her album Special but wasn’t transformed into a showstopper onstage, while “Someday at Christmas” provided a fairly nondescript reading of a Stevie Wonder holiday standard. There’s never a good reason to complain about Lizzo’s presence in basically any context — and kudos to SNL for seemingly keeping her on retainer — but these performances were never going to live up to the standard set by their predecessors.

10. Jonas Brothers, “Waffle House” and “Walls (feat. Jon Bellion & Kirk Franklin)” (4/8/23)

Jonas Brothers.

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Jonas Brothers.

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When a Jonas Brother last headlined the SNL stage back in February 2021, Nick was waggling his lube-slicked torso through a forgettable set of lightly Maroon 5-ish pop and R&B. Two years later, we got three Jonases for the price of one, and none of them appeared to have been slathered in baby oil beforehand!

After differences in musical philosophy led the Jonases to split for a decade, they’ve settled upon their return into something resolutely peppy and good-natured, as heard in the Joe-forward sing-along “Waffle House.” The song is all na-na-nas and swaying choirs, setting the stage for “Walls,” which slowed the pace (at least at first) but doubled down on the vocal backing — this time featuring Jon Bellion and gospel titan Kirk Franklin — while leaving Joe at the center of it all, literally and figuratively. It added up to… kind of a lot, as the song burst into a maelstrom of earnest set-closing maximalism, but it served as an effective bit of over-the-top stagecraft, aided immeasurably by strong vocals across the board.

9. The 1975, “I’m in Love with You” and “Oh Caroline” (3/11/23)

The 1975.

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Sometimes the key to a strong SNL performance is simply picking the right songs. The 1975’s albums are famously overstuffed, erratic and distractingly wordy, so this set could have flown off the rails before it even began. Fortunately, Matty Healy and company picked their latest record’s two catchiest, most straight-ahead bangers for their first SNL appearance in seven years, then gave each a sprightly, playful live treatment.

A few of Healy’s high notes don’t quite land, but there otherwise wasn’t much fault to be found here: The set design gave the performances a playing-in-the-living-room feel (complete with coffee table), the band seemed to be having fun and Healy remained a nervily charismatic presence throughout — with the season’s fastest-moving feet, to boot.

8. Kelsea Ballerini, “Blindsided” and “Penthouse” (3/4/23)

Kelsea Ballerini.

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Kelsea Ballerini.

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Country star Kelsea Ballerini didn’t attempt too much razzle-dazzle for her SNL debut — the mid-tempo “Blindsided” and slow-moving “Penthouse” wouldn’t really allow for that — but she did knock out one of the strongest (and, not coincidentally, best-mixed) vocals of the season. She even made news by adding a verse to “Blindsided” that addressed her divorce from fellow country star Morgan Evans.

Visually and sonically, these performances did a nice job of incorporating blank space, whether in the shadow work behind Ballerini during “Blindsided” or in the dramatic pauses that helped her lyrics land throughout both songs. It’s risky to leave stark silences in this sort of performance — there’s always a chance that some over-eager yahoo will start hooting or clapping prematurely — but the payoff came in the form of unusually rapt audience attention. Ballerini didn’t put in the season’s most memorable performance, but she belonged on this stage.

7. Willow, “curious/furious,” “ur a <stranger>” (10/8/22)

Willow.

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In the dozen years between “Whip My Hair” and her debut as an SNL music headliner (she’d appeared as a featured guest alongside Camila Cabello six months earlier), Willow hurtled through five albums and at least as many genre shifts. This time around, she leaned hard into smartly concise pop-punk shredding, pairing up with Liso Lee for a twin-guitar attack that nicely accompanied the singer’s characteristically intense vocals.

A dynamic stage presence with or without her guitar, Willow got a little lost in the mix when singing in her lower register, but her choruses couldn’t have sounded more forceful. By the end, “ur a <stranger>” gave her a chance to unleash some full-on metal shrieks — and chuck her guitar through a TV, as is required when guitars and TVs coexist onstage.

6. SZA, “Shirt” and “Blind” (12/3/22)

SZA.

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SZA’s SOS hasn’t left radio playlists — or our hearts — since its release in December, so it’s worth remembering that this performance actually marked the world premiere of album highlight “Blind.” Unfortunately, the sound mix was particularly brutal for that song, which finds SZA’s voice muffled to the point where it almost sounds as if it’s being channeled through a different (and more distant) mic. But the performances themselves are terrific: SZA generally stays pretty still on stage, but “Shirt” found her deploying dancers and projected images to create motion, and she was in fine voice throughout.

Whatever points the sound mix might have cost SZA in this ranking, she gained for her appearance in a skit called “Big Boys,” wherein she joined Cecily Strong, Ego Nwodim, Punkie Johnson and host Keke Palmer in singing the praises of cuffing season. SZA gave SNL a world premiere of one of her greatest songs, and still, this was the moment that went viral, thanks in large part to TikTok.

5. Karol G, “Mientras Me Curo del Cora” and “Tus Gafitas” (4/15/23)

Karol G.

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Colombian superstar Karol G has been knocking down milestones left and right this year, as she recently became the first woman ever to top the Billboard albums chart with an entirely Spanish-language album. Her SNL debut felt similarly historic: This was, after all, the first time SNL featured a Latina host (Ana de Armas) and musical guest in the same episode, and it turned out to be the season finale due to the writers strike.

Fueled by Karol G’s considerable charisma and top-notch stagecraft, her set showcased two distinct sides of her sound. “Mientras Me Curo del Cora” went light and breezy, as a group of a cappella singers performed “Don’t Worry Be Happy” around her, while “Tus Gafitas” sharpened her edges amid eye-catching set design — complete with the front half of a black convertible. Clad in a spiked chest plate and flanked by an all-woman band, she sounded as comfortable with rock and roll as she did with sweetly alluring pop.

4. Brandi Carlile, “The Story” and “You and Me on the Rock (feat. Lucius)” (12/10/22)

Brandi Carlile.

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Brandi Carlile.

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Returning to the SNL stage for her second season in a row, Brandi Carlile didn’t have much to prove or promote this time around: Other than a “For Your Consideration” campaign for Grammys season — she’d later win three trophies in seven nominations — she had no particular assignment on her plate. So she opened with one of her biggest classics (2007’s stratospheric belter “The Story”), closed with her heavily nominated Lucius collaboration “You and Me on the Rock” and had little trouble smashing them both.

A couple of uncharacteristically ragged notes aside, “The Story” remained as gripping as ever — thanks in part to an all-in guitar solo — while “You and Me on the Rock” presented a master class in affable sincerity. A pro’s pro, Carlile was born for this sort of thing, and it’s a joy to see her take Lucius along for the ride.

3. Sam Smith, “Unholy (feat. Kim Petras)” and “Gloria (feat. Sharon Stone)” (1/21/23)

Sam Smith.

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Sam Smith.

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Sam Smith’s previous SNL performance, back in 2017, found the singer swaying in a red blazer that made them resemble the most romantic assistant manager in the history of your local Hardee’s. In the five-plus years since, Smith has completed a truly amazing transformation from Somnambulant Singing Bore to … whatever’s going on in these two decadent, ultimately lovable performances. There’s no sense in attempting a subtle rendition of “Unholy,” so Smith ratcheted up the theatricality to a bonkers degree, thanks to a gigantic furry gown — the singer looked for all the world like a massive, pink-tinged goldendoodle — that concealed the presence of guest Kim Petras, who emerged from between Smith’s legs to sing her part.

A carnival of horned top hats and massive, glowing birth canals, the whole deal felt impeccably engineered to send your most red-pilled aunt into a tizzy on Facebook. “Gloria,” by comparison, was far more restrained, provided you define “restrained” as “performing with a massive hooded-and-besequined choir, which flanked the actress Sharon Stone as she mugged glamorously while lying in repose, and did I mention the lip gloss?” The points for audacity alone were bound to send this one careening into the Top 5, but the vocals were pretty strong, too.

2. Kendrick Lamar, “Rich Spirit”https://www.npr.org/”N95” and “Father Time” (10/1/22)

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When it comes to SNL performances, there’s a lot to be said for maximizing effort: This is about as high-profile as late-night TV appearances get, so why not pull a Sam Smith and deploy a bit of spectacle? But Kendrick Lamar’s season-opening performances offered an exception to the “more is more” rule, as the rapper performed a medley of “Rich Spirit” and “N95” with minimal visual accompaniment — just a bare white room, cleverly rendered spotlight shadows and a cheap oscillating fan like you’d find at any Target. The setup was perfectly geared for the raw intimacy of Lamar’s newest material.

“Father Time” then improved on the visuals by placing the rapper (accompanied in stellar fashion by Sampha) in a childhood bedroom where the walls gradually and subtly closed in as the song progressed. Lamar’s vocals sat a tiny bit too low in the mix, but the overall effect was gripping throughout.

1. Megan Thee Stallion, “Anxiety,” “NDA”https://www.npr.org/”Plan B” (10/15/22)

Megan Thee Stallion.

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Megan Thee Stallion.

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In 2020, Megan Thee Stallion gave SNL‘s season-best performance, thanks to vivid and expressive staging, unmatched energy, a smart mix of style and substance and social messaging that lingered in the memory without resorting to rote didacticism. Two years later, she returned with another tremendous pair of performances, each of which displayed a side she’d never showcased on the show before.

“Anxiety” found Meg dressed in a pageant gown, complete with sash, and leaned into stark vulnerability; her vocal remained commanding even as she clearly fought back tears. Then, a medley of “NDA” and “Plan B” situated the rapper and her dancers in front of a hard-hitting rock band, which gave her arrangements power and momentum without drowning out her vocal — not that anyone would dare try at this point. She clearly takes these SNL showcases more seriously than ever, as if she still had something to prove. (She does not.)

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