Live From New York, It’s The 21 Best ‘SNL’ Performances Of The 2010s
From Frank Ocean to Miley Cyrus to Tame Impala...it was a good 10 years.
Currently in its landmark 45th season, Saturday Night Live has survived decade after decade and spawned comedy star after comedy star in its ever-rotating cast of players. In tandem with that, however, has always been the — in your best Don Pardo voice, now — muuuuuuuuusical guests.
Performing on the show has remained an esteemed honour, and the platform can often allow artists to showcase their full capabilities and go the extra mile to impressive a captive — and often unfamiliar — audience.
Although there wasn’t a lip-syncing scandal or anyone tearing up pictures of the Pope, the 2010s still brought out a bunch of exceptional performances — from the star-making to the unexpected right down to the truly moving.
Across the hundreds of performances, we’ve picked 21 of the best to go through chronologically that also assist in defining some of the biggest artists of the decade.
Vampire Weekend — ‘Cousins’ (2010)
Fresh off the back of their second album Contra, performances like this allowed Vampire Weekend to shake off the cutesy stigma that went with their name and focus entirely on being a shit-hot live indie-rock band.
It’s not for nothing they lead their performance with ‘Cousins,’ one of the most rollicking and intense songs they’ve ever penned. Every member is firing on all cylinders here — from Ezra Koenig’s motor-mouth vocal delivery to Chris Baio’s capo-bass marathon — and the energy doesn’t let up for the entire song.
Nearly a decade on, they’ve rarely been better than in this moment.
Robyn — ‘Call Your Girlfriend’ (2011)
After hitting the US top 10 back in 1997 with ‘Show Me Love,’ Robyn’s appearance on SNL to support the release of Body Talk was both reboot and reintroduction. As such, the Swedish superstar knew she had to make it count.
Nerves are clear during the opening moments of ‘Call Your Girlfriend,’ but by the second verse she is cartwheeling and pumping her fists while being pillared by a double-drummer set-up that makes every last snare hit land twice as hard. It’s spectacular to watch her coming out of her shell here. It was a sign of things to come.
Lana Del Rey — ‘Video Games’ (2012)
Long before she got Best New Music and ascended to icon status, Lana Del Rey was an overnight sensation that baffled and confused audiences at large. That was only made worse with her network TV debut, in which Daniel Radcliffe politely introduced what would become possibly the most trashed and criticised performance of the season.
So, was it that bad? Of course not. It was a little pitchy and uncomfortable, sure — Lizzy Grant hadn’t quite nailed the confidence of the LDR persona just yet — but claims it was the worst performance the show had ever seen were simply far too harsh.
It’s mostly interesting to come back to this moment and watch one of the 2010s’ most enigmatic, engaging performers begin their journey with a single awkward twirl.
Frank Ocean — ‘Thinkin’ Bout You’ (2012)
Speaking of 2010s enigmas, here we have reluctant live performer Frank Ocean belting out what might be his signature song surrounded by arcade games and — for some reason — John Mayer. More on him later.
For now, let’s take in Ocean himself — barely keeping his eyes open when he sings, sitting on a stool, barely moving and clearly so nervous that he almost misses his cues. This, in turn, creates a really jazzy flow to his vocals — removed somewhat from the gridlocked rhythm of the studio version. You can tell he’s ultimately glad he left the house.
Paul McCartney with Nirvana — ‘Cut Me Some Slack’ (2012)
Rather than attempt a Beatles number or (God forbid) have Macca sing ‘Come As You Are,’ the combination of Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, Pat Smear and Paul McCartney instead blossomed an original track that was recorded as part of the soundtrack to Grohl’s Sound City documentary.
It’s a perfect amalgamation of the energy both acts got when they were at their heaviest — McCartney is letting loose a bluesy howl that gives off a big ‘Helter Skelter’ vibe, while the Nirvana guys are churning into the big-swinging groove that recalls ‘Scentless Apprentice.’ One of the more underrated tracks any of these four have played on.
Kanye West — ‘New Slaves’ (2013)
When Ben Affleck introduced the musical guest for SNL‘s 38th season finale, he introduced “the man you all came to see.”
The once and future Batman wasn’t lying: All eyes were on Kanye as he unveiled new songs prior to the release of Yeezus. ‘Black Skinhead’ was as confronting and stunning as you’d expect, but ‘New Slaves’ left jaws on the floor.
It wasn’t what Kanye did, per se, so much as what he didn’t do: Move. For three minutes straight, West stared straight down the barrel and delivered one of his most uncompromising, unrelenting songs to date.
Miley Cyrus — ‘Wrecking Ball’ (2013)
The tour in support of Bangerz was a decidedly batshit party, full of bright colours, tongue-shaped slides and multiple costume changes. Fun as it was, that’s not what this performance is about.
Miley is entirely focused on the song itself, and it’s an important moment of vulnerability at a time where she essentially living on the back of a reputation befitting an out-of-control party girl. Performances like this one remind you what an exceptional vocalist Cyrus is, and how she is still in her element even when there isn’t a bunch of crazy shit flying around at the same time.
St. Vincent — ‘Birth in Reverse’ (2014)
By the time Annie Clark made her SNL debut, she was five albums deep, a critical darling, and months away from winning a Grammy — so, in the eyes of the average SNL viewer, a total nobody.
It’s probably for this reason she decided to go all out for her performance — Doc Brown hair, choreography with guitarist Toko Yasuda and selecting one of the more angular and aggressive songs from St. Vincent to perform for an audience of millions. Needless to say, the “who the fuck is St Vincent” crowd made their voices heard — but Clark couldn’t hear them over the sound of how goddamn awesome she is.
Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars — ‘Uptown Funk’ (2014)
Before it was the biggest song in the world, before a whole studio of Ellen watchers were doing cringey choreography to it, before it became a staple of both Ronson and Mars’ sets and defined the careers of both men…’Uptown Funk’ made its first big impression on SNL.
Even less than two weeks after its release, both Ronson and Mars — as well as Mars’ band, the Hooligans — carry the entire performance with the confidence that this is going to be a world-conquering song.
The horns are sizzling, the suits are dapper and the dancing is relentless. “New York City!” Mars barks in the song’s outro. “We ain’t done yet!” He wasn’t kidding.
Leon Bridges — ‘River’ (2015)
More often than not, artists given the platform to perform on SNL use it to go all out and implement performance elements not normally part of their usual set-up. It’s a chance to be extra, to be elaborate and to be lavish.
Leon Bridges, in a typically understated fashion, did not do that. He dressed for the occasion, certainly, rocking a sharp tux — but there was no huge band, no orchestra, no ornate arrangements. ‘River’ boasts Bridges singing and strumming, a lonesome Hammond organ and a pocket of backing vocalists taking it to church come chorus time. It is, in no uncertain terms, stunning.
The 1975 — ‘Love Me’ (2016)
“Hey America, watch this,” coos Matt Healy before the second chorus break of ‘Love Me.’ It’s The 1975’s first time on US TV in three years, and it’s to launch what is going to be one of the biggest pop/rock albums of 2016.
They deliver the song — a Bowie and INXS pastiche par excellence — with such conviction and confidence that anyone watching that had no idea who they were could only assume they were one of the biggest bands in the world. Who else could carry themselves in such a manner? Not only one of the best performances of the decade, it’s easily one of the straight-up coolest.
By the way, don’t mind the title — the below video is ‘Love Me’.
Kanye West, The-Dream, Kelly Price and Chance the Rapper — ‘Ultralight Beam’ (2016)
We arrive in the world of Yeezy once again at a time where he is about to launch a new album, and does so the same way he did two-and-a-half years prior: with a breathtaking performance of what is to be a standout track of the entire decade.
Under the glow of LCD visuals, Kanye leads a choir in full voice through the opener of The Life of Pablo, joined by several of the song’s key collaborators in the process. Watching this back, one truly wishes it were possible to hear something again for the first time. This was a moment in time that truly captured that kind of magic.
Ariana Grande — ‘Be Alright’ (2016)
Before the Dangerous Woman cut served as defiant in the face of the Manchester tragedy, ‘Be Alright’ was simply the opener of the tour. It perfectly set the tone for the show — heavy on the choreography, showcasing Grande’s silky-smooth voice and free-form vocal runs that only certain breeds of dogs could hear.
The 2010s has seen Grande evolve into one of pop’s essential stars — and it was this era in particular that proved that she deserved to be here. Bonus points: Grande cracking up at host Larry David before retaining her composure in time for her first line.
Solange and Sampha — ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ (2016)
Solange’s tour in support of her breakthrough LP A Seat at the Table has gone on to become a thing of legend — and for good reason, too. With a spectacular band at her disposal and ornate arrangements replicated to a T, the junior Knowles sibling proved to be just as a commanding force in the live department as her Coachella-headlining sister.
While plenty of attention went to the performance of ‘Cranes in the Sky,’ this one deserves equal attention. Two bass players (both of which dance) as well as a cameo from where-are-they-now R&B star Sampha? Perfect.
A Tribe Called Quest — ‘We the People….’ (2016)
There’s a singular moment that immediately puts this on the list of the best SNL performances of the decade.
It’s when Phife Dawg’s verse kicks in — although, tragically, he was not there to perform it. Passing away eight months prior due to complications with diabetes, Phife never got to perform any of We Got it from Here live, so the surviving members of the group unveiled a banner of him in his honour.
It’s an incredibly powerful moment, which allows for the legacy and memory of one of the greatest MCs of all time to live on. Thank you.
Kacey Musgraves — ‘Slow Burn’ (2017)
The future Grammy winner didn’t come to SNL alone: Musgraves’ expansive troupe here includes two guitar players, a banjo, a string duo, pedal steel and even backing vocalists for good measure.
If that wasn’t enough, they’re all in matching suits. Does it get more wholesome? Musgraves is an assured performer with a stunning voice – she loses none of that on the SNL stage. As a matter of fact, it’s enhanced here. It’s a broadcast to the world that you are alive at the same time as one of country music’s true modern masters and one of its key mavericks.
Travis Scott — ‘Skeletons/Astrothunder’ (2018)
Bet you weren’t expecting to see John Mayer again, were you? Yep, here the guitar-slinger trades in ‘Wonderland’ for ASTROWORLD, teaming up with Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker to serve as back-up for the man of the hour.
It says a lot that two men who are certifiable arena-fillers in their own right are more than happy to take a knee in favour of Scott, who performs a medley of two of the more down-tempo cuts from his breakthrough album as a woman rides a carousel horse in the background. As you do. As for Scott’s other performance that night? Some song with Drake, if memory serves correct…
Halsey — ‘Without Me’ (2019)
The experiment of Halsey as both host and musical guest was one of mixed results at best. One of its key bright points, however, was a stripped-back piano version of what was, for a time, the biggest song in the world.
Here, Halsey all but confirms the target of the song’s lyrical content — splaying confessional texts all over the backdrop as she spills her heart out. It’s rare to see such a popstar present themselves as so vulnerable and wracked with spiralling emotion — especially within the composed nature of live performance. Then again, subverting that is exactly what makes this so compelling.
Tame Impala — ‘Patience’ (2019)
Reluctant megastar Kevin Parker returned to the SNL stage with two singles lifted from what we now know is Tame Impala’s fourth album, The Slow Rush.
‘Borderline’ got its premiere, but it’s this performance of ‘Patience’ that served as the in-earnest lead-in to the new era of the band. Jay Watson rocks the distinctive piano line on a baby grand piano, a cardigan-wearing bongo player goes at it up the back and Parker himself even lets loose with some maracas and some brief standalone singing (ie. not simultaneously playing guitar).
Both geographically and musically, they’re a world away from their beginnings.
DJ Khaled — ‘Just Us / Weather the Storm / Higher’ (2019)
Of course, the million-dollar question that was asked when it was announced that DJ Khaled would be the musical guest on SNL is the same one that’s been asked most of his career: What was DJ Khaled actually going to do? Short answer: Same thing he always does.
He pulled together a string of huge musical names to join him on the SNL stage, including SZA, Meek Mill and John Legend, turning the performance into a classic A-list party. Touchingly, however, he also paid tribute to the late Nipsey Hussle during ‘Higher’ — using his platform to elevate the name of an artist tragically taken too soon.
Coldplay — ‘Orphans’ (2019)
You can see host Kristen Stewart almost cringe at the very mention of their name. It’s no secret that Coldplay are one of the uncoolest bands in the world — but if a performance like this one proves anything, it’s how much they have joyfully embraced it.
This performance explores the full space of the studio, not just the stage, and exudes plenty of entirely charming twists and turns along the way. The song is an entirely naff banger in the spirit of ‘Every Teardrop is a Waterfall,’ but in the hands of Chris Martin and co. it’s the ultimate party anthem. Put it this way: We had to extend this list to 21 just to include it last-minute.
BONUS ROUND: Crisis of Conformity — ‘Fist Fight!’ (2010)
Fred Armisen on vocals, Ashton Kutcher on guitar, Bill Hader on bass and Dave Grohl on drums. Together, they are the old band of the father of the bride (Armisen) getting back together for one last time to perform at the wedding reception.
Little does everyone know, however, that this wasn’t just any old band — this was Crisis Of Conformity, a breakneck hardcore punk band in the spirit of Black Flag and Minor Threat. Not only was this one of the funniest sketches SNL produced this decade, the song itself also fucking rips. It’s one of Armisen’s many love-letters to punk and hardcore — a must-watch for any fan.
David S. Pumpkins – sorry, David James Young — is a writer and podcaster who lives in a van down by the river. You can get more cowbell by visiting www.davidjamesyoung.com.