The Nine Best Music Shows in the History of Television

TV Lists

You can’t throw the remote these days without hitting a TV show that revolves around music. American Idol recently crowned its young country king. The Voice has Cee Lo Green, Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton coaching a new crop of talent. VH-1 is even bringing back pop-up videos. We thought we’d take a look back on that special relationship music has had with television to bring you the 9 Best Music Shows in the History of Television—y’know before TV itself becomes history.

9. VH1 Storytellers

Less sensational than VH1’s Behind the Music, Storytellers let artists share their experiences in front of a live studio audience between songs. Kicking off with former Kink Ray Davies in 1996, the series has continued off-and-on through the years to the latest installments this year with Cee-Lo Green, Death Cab for Cutie and My Morning Jacket.

8. American Bandstand

Though primarily a vehicle for teen-pop acts, Dick Clark’s Bandstand’s lengthy run included performances from more subversive acts like Adam Ant, Devo, Kurtis Blow and Public Image Ltd. along with legends like Johnny Cash, The Byrds, David Bowie and Aretha Franklin. Also, Kool & the Gang.

7. Top of the Pops

With a staggering run of 2,212 episodes, Britain’s Top of the Pops reached nearly 100 countries at its peak, ensuring a steady stream of British music invading the rest of the world. While the show ended its regular run in 2006, the Christmas special has continued on. The first program on New Year’s Day, 1964, featured both The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. The Beatles Top of the Pops clip below was from an episode of Doctor Who.

6. Soundstage
1974-1985; 2003-present

At a time when most music shows were lip-synched, Chicago’s Soundstage focused on live performances and improv with performers as diverse as Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Muddy Waters, Dizzy Gillespie, Janis Ian and Al Green. The series was revived in 2003 with a performance from Lyle Lovett, Randy Newman and Mark Isham.

5. Soul Train
Soul Train started as a local dance program in Chicago, but began syndication in 1971 to a handful of other markets, eventually becoming a huge influencer of African-American music, dance and fashion in the 1970s and ‘80s and gave white Americans a window into black American culture. Season 1 alone featured such stars as Gladys Knight, The Staple Singers, Bill Withers, Al Green, B.B. King, Little Richard, Ike & Tina Turner and Curtis Mayfield. Its success even led Dick Clark to create a competing show Soul Unlimited for a brief time before agreeing to partner with Soul Train’s Don Cornelius to create network specials for bigger African-American artists. It also holds the record for the longest-running, first-run, nationally syndicated program in TV history.

4. MTV Unplugged

When Squeeze, Syd Straw and Elliot Easton played acoustically for MTV’s cameras in 1989, no one new the impact this whole “Unplugged” thing would have on music. But after acts like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Arrested Development and Björk had turned off the amps, audiences could see the quality of the songwriting at the core of their music. The show not only offered a peak behind the electric curtain, it led to Unplugged albums from Bob Dylan, Paul MacCartney, Neil Young, Page and Plant, and Jay-Z.

3. Later… with Jools Holland

The spiritual heir to The Late Show, Later has been hosted by Squeeze co-founder and pianist Jools Holland since 1992. The show has become known for helping introduce new bands to the U.K., and this season has already featured live performances from up-and-comers Anna Calvi, James Blake, Yuck, Wild Beasts and James Vincent McMorrow, as well as The Strokes, Fleet Foxes and Adele. Think of it as if you saved up all the best Fallon, Conan and Letterman music performances and aired them all back-to-back on a Friday night.

2. 120 Minutes

Without MTV’s late-night, left-of-center video show 120 Minutes, I wouldn’t have discovered half the bands I fell in love with in high school. There were few other places to find bands like The Replacements, XTC, They Might Be Giants, The Innocence Mission and The Ocean Blue. It was indie and alternative before those were buzzwords. Former 120 Minutes VJ Matt Pinfield will be returning when MTV2 relaunches the program later this year.

1. Austin City Limits

Since 1976, Austin City Limits has been the place for live music on TV. In recent years, the show has moved beyond its classic roots and blues leanings, opting instead for an eclectic mix of artists that’s included Arcade Fire, Mos Def, The Flaming Lips, Sharon Jones and My Morning Jacket.

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