The 15 Best SNL Musical Guests of All-Time

Music Lists

Tomorrow night, Mick Jagger will be hosting the season finale of Saturday Night Live with Foo Fighters and Arcade Fire backing him up for the show’s musical performance. With that in mind, we bring you our rundown of the 15 Best SNL Musical Guests of All-Time. Jagger and company are going to have their work cut out for them if they want to crack this list.

15. Tom Petty with Dave Grohl (1994)
After Kurt Cobain’s death, Dave Grohl played a number of dates with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Petty invited Grohl to join his band permanently, but Grohl opted to form the Foo Fighters instead. Their 1994 performance on SNL served as a tantalizing look at what might have been.


14. Rage Against The Machine (1996)
With Republican billionaire Steve Forbes hosting, Rage Against The Machine hung upside-down American flags over their amps in protest. Just before they went on, SNL producers yanked them down, but that didn’t stop Rage from delivering a powerful performance.

13. OutKast (2002)
OutKast was at the peak of their powers when they performed “Hey Ya” AND “Ms. Jackson” during their 2002 appearance on the show.


12. Paul Simon (1986)
Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland helped introduce traditional African elements into American popular music (you’re welcome, Vampire Weekend). The album’s African influence was not limited to the studio, however, as Simon brought out a full chorus of African singers to back up his performance on SNL.


11. U2 (2004)
U2 doesn’t sell out stadiums just because Bono cares about Africa—the band knows how to put on a live show. Coming days before the release of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, their performance on SNL had everything you’d want from a U2 show, including the all-important ultra close-up of Bono singing into the camera with his head back and eyes closed. The performance had such an impact that instead of the usual smile-at-the-camera-and-wave routine as the credits rolled, the cast simply sat and watched as U2 treated viewers to an encore.

10. The White Stripes (2002)
I don’t know what stands out most about this performance: the nostalgia of the ‘Stripes rocking with the peppermint theme in full effect, Jack White’s playful vocal theatrics, or the oddity of John McCain introducing them.

9. Kanye West (2010)
Say what you will about Kanye’s narcissism and penchant for the grandiose—which were both on full display here—the man knows how to entertain. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy would be released just over a month after his SNL performance, and Kanye pulled out all of the stops for “Runaway” and “Power,” two of the most epic tracks off his then forthcoming album.

8. Pearl Jam (1992)
A few months after Nirvana’s iconic SNL performance, Pearl Jam took the stage to confirm that grunge would indeed be taking the nation by storm. Fortunately, guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard’s matching hairstyles would be left behind.

7. Arcade Fire (2007)
History will deem Arcade Fire as one of the—if not the—band of the ‘00s. Their stirring performance on SNL in 2007 was one of the first major steps they took en route to infuriating legions of Justin Bieber fans by winning Album of the Year at the 2011 Grammys.

6. Simon & Garfunkel (1975)
Paul Simon hosted SNL’s second episode ever, and for the musical performance he reunited with Art Garfunkel to perform “The Boxer.” The tension between the bitterly-separated duo was palpable as Garfunkel didn’t make eye contact with Simon as he walked on stage and sat down next to him. They picked up right where they left off musically, however, gently harmonizing their way through one of their most classic songs. Notice as Simon tries to hide a smile as they sing “After changes we are more or less the same, more or less the same.”

5. Tom Petty (1979)
Tom Petty has been no stranger to SNL over the years, and it all started with this 1979 performance of “Refugee.” Doesn’t get much better than this.

4. Radiohead (2000)
Coming on the heels of the release of Kid A, the nation at large was just beginning to realize that this Radiohead band was pretty freaking good. As they played “Idioteque,” Thom Yorke’s gyrations grew more and more epileptic as the song progressed. Just when it seemed like he was on the verge of keeling over and foaming at the mouth, he grabbed the mic to bring the song home, practically speaking in tongues before slamming it to the ground and walking away.

3. Patti Smith (1976)
New York’s underground punk scene in the ‘70s was a seething cauldron of discontent, and behind the strength of her iconic 1975 album Horses and this goosebump-inducing SNL performance a year later, Smith was the first artist to bubble to the surface.

Watch it here.

2. Nirvana (1992)
Nirvana’s rise from mangy Sub Pop grunge act to the top of the pop charts was nothing short of meteoric, and their 1992 performance on SNL was one of their major touching off points. The choice to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was obvious, but for their second song, Nirvana ignored their advisers and opted for the decidedly un-radio-friendly “Territorial Pissings.” They topped off the performance with an extended session of feedback-laden instrument trashing, proving that though they were now in the national spotlight, they weren’t about to stray from their grungy ethos of sticking it to the man.

1. Elvis Costello (1977)
Without question the most storied musical act in SNL’s history. Under strict orders from Columbia Records and Lorne Michaels not to play his anti-media hit “Radio, Radio,” Costello began to play “Less Than Zero.” After a few seconds he changed his mind, apologized to the audience, and quickly directed his band to go ahead with “Radio, Radio,” anyway. An incensed Lorne Michaels banned Costello from the show, but as years past, Michaels began to embrace the significance of the performance. So much so that he okay-ed a tribute during the show’s 25th anniversary in which Costello came out to interrupt the Beastie Boys starting into “Sabotage” to re-enact his legendary 1977 appearance.

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