© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

This Season's 'SNL' Musical Guests, Cruelly Ranked

Donald Glover, performing as Childish Gambino on <em>Saturday Night Live </em>May 5, 2018.
Will Heath/NBC
Donald Glover, performing as Childish Gambino on Saturday Night Live May 5, 2018.

Its quality has varied in its 43-year history, but Saturday Night Live has never lost its luster as a showcase for star musicians. The series' 2017-18 season wrapped this weekend with a performance by Nicki Minaj, closing out a 21-episode run that spotlighted major players in hip-hop (Jay-Z, Minaj, Eminem, Cardi B), pop (Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Pink), R&B (SZA), rock (U2, Jack White, Foo Fighters), country (Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves) and whatever earth-shattering genre hybrid we're using to describe Childish Gambino now.

The SNL stage isn't always kind to musicians: As with other late-night shows, the energy and sound mix often aren't quite right, and the singers are attempting to win over a crowd that's been watching comedy all evening. But every season, many of the musical guests do something extra with the SNL space and find a way to make something riveting, visually arresting or at least interesting. Still, attempting to subjectively rank such a broad assortment of apples and oranges is a truly cruel and stupid endeavor.

So here goes.

21. James Bay

"Pink Lemonade," "Wild Love"

It's hard to figure out what to make of James Bay, whose name, voice and physical presence all seem to represent a composite sketch of every singer you've ever heard and thought, "Wait, who is this again?"

Bay gives it a go in the peppy "Pink Lemonade," but by the time he gets to "Wild Love," well... let's just agree that nothing says "I wanna give you wild love" quite like standing stock-still in leather pants while performing what might be the most bloodless song ever written.

20. Sam Smith

"Too Good At Goodbyes," "Pray"

Sam Smith knows how to write ballads that convey longing and loss, but if his TV appearances are any indication, those just don't translate into onstage dynamism. In "Too Good At Goodbyes," Smith shows up clad in a short-sleeved, tucked-in red blazer, a look that suggests he's not only working hard for your love, but also toiling at a second job as an assistant manager at Hardee's. Smith pours every ounce of his expended energy into his vocals — which means, in turn, that he sounds nice, while leaving the charisma to his busy backing choir.

19. Troye Sivan

"My My My!," "The Good Side"

Troye Sivan's springy dance-pop concoctions play better in the studio than on the stage: It's nice to see a live band kicking up a bit of dust during "My My My!," but Sivan's vocals — especially during the breathier bits in between choruses — are so listless that at times he sounds like he's humming along to himself in the car. As for "The Good Side," it's a ballad that keeps threatening to build to something grand, only to wobble back to a standstill.

18. Dua Lipa

"New Rules," "Homesick"

Just by reading the words "New Rules," you have doomed yourself to another three days in which those seven little words — "I've got new rules, I count 'em" — are lodged hopelessly in your brain, stuck in an eternal loop from which your battered psyche can find no respite. So, you know, apologies for that. As for Dua Lipa's performance on SNL, it feels a little rote: Her vocals remain on point throughout "New Rules" and the ballad "Homesick," but she seems strangely detached from the material.

17. Arcade Fire

"Creature Comfort," "Put Your Money On Me"

Arcade Fire's Everything Now is an album-length commentary on the numbing excess of modern life, so you can't get too bent out of shape when its songs and live performances feel... well, numbingly excessive. But these two performances — especially the strobe-lit seizure factory "Creature Comfort" — can border on being migraine-inducing. The band gets points for the ambition of its stagecraft, but more isn't always more.

16. Nicki Minaj

"Chun-Li," "Poke It Out"

Hoo boy, where to begin? As performed this past Saturday, Minaj's lively and impeccably choreographed "Chun-Li" is basically a tutorial in cultural appropriation, making it both exciting to hear and infuriating to watch; it was widely condemned (and defended, and condemned again) as the minutes and hours unwound, to the point where the song's actual quality hasn't ended up mattering much. Then, instead of showcasing more of her own material — say, another single from the album she's got coming out next month — Minaj turned her second slot over to Playboi Carti and his song "Poke It Out." She guests on the track, both here and on his album, but doesn't even hit the stage until 90 seconds in.

15. Jack White

"Over and Over and Over," "Connected By Love"

This year's Boarding House Reach sounds like the work of a fussy studio wizard who's decided to prioritize technical skill over coherent songcraft. As such, the singles Jack White trots out here only occasionally hang together in any meaningful way, most often in the guitar solos. White, who always surrounds himself with top-notch talent, brings on The McCrary Sisters to sing backup. But the songs themselves feel even more undercooked than they do on the album.

14. Halsey

"Bad At Love," "Him & I"

Halsey broke through via guest appearances on others' songs, so it's nice to hear the pop singer grab a headlining spot. She struts and soars through "Bad At Love" while wearing what appears to be Big Bird's pelt. But "Him & I" once again finds her spotlight diminished, in this case by slick-haired rapper G-Eazy, who's given roughly equal time both here and in the single itself. We were promised Halsey!

13. Migos

"Stir Fry," "Narcos"

Trap music rarely gets an SNL showcase, so Migos decided to go big, from a bright red-and-gold set to a live backing band to a whole bunch of lackadaisical (but fully committed!) old-school dancing. The energy is somehow strangely muted, with copious Auto-Tune and a slurred sound mix that doesn't do Migos many favors, but the overall spectacle wins out in the end.

12. U2

"American Soul," "Get Out Of Your Own Way"

Say what you will about U2, but the band knows how to work a room. Still, "American Soul" feels like a tiny bit of a letdown coming out of its gripping animated intro, whichfeatures Kendrick Lamar; the rapper's absence is felt throughout an otherwise workmanlike song and performance. Of course, Bono can't help but trot out the ol' megaphone again in "Get Out of Your Own Way," which never quite soars the way it's supposed to.

11. Kacey Musgraves

"High Horse," "Slow Burn"

For "High Horse," Kacey Musgraves piles up the flash: Her huge band is decked out in matching outfits, and everyone on stage does their thing in the small shadow of... is that a saddle made of jewels, dangling from the ceiling? It looks like a cross between a disco ball and the tiny Stonehenge in This Is Spinal Tap. Anyway, the song's energy is muted and midtempo — even more so here than in the original version. The appropriately titled "Slow Burn" fares better, as the band stays in the shadows, the bejeweled saddle gets mothballed and Musgraves lets her softly radiant voice carry the day.

10. Miley Cyrus

"Bad Mood," "I Would Die For You"

Miley Cyrus' awards-show performances have caused some to question her judgment — twerking is one thing, but twerking alongside Robin Thicke?! Still, her vocal talent remains undeniable. Last year's Younger Now was all about reclaiming Cyrus' polished pop sound while maintaining a broad stylistic range, so it's no surprise that her SNL set is a picture of weaponized confidence and poise. Still, while "Bad Mood" pops as a gritty vocal showcase, the ballad "I Would Die For You" sands her personality down to a nub.

9. Eminem

"Walk On Water/Stan/Love The Way You Lie"

Hand it to Eminem: He opted for an ambitious and unusual arrangement that allows his limitations to be tested. "Walk on Water" sets the rapper's paranoid self-pity against a stately arrangement that features singer Skylar Grey and a small orchestra; from there, instead of fading to commercial, the assembled players launch into lengthy excerpts from a pair of Eminem's biggest hits. (You won't hear the words "Once again, Eminem" in this telecast.) As for the rapper himself, he gains more focus and intensity as he goes along, as if he knows a train wreck has been narrowly but decisively averted.

8. Foo Fighters

"The Sky Is A Neighborhood," "Everlong/Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)/Linus And Lucy"

SNL performances often bear the burden of promotional obligation: When there's a new album to flog, most artists stick to the latest singles at the expense of the songs casual fans would be most excited to hear. But Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl, the affable incumbent mayor of rock and roll, is nothing if not eager to please, which means a decent new track ("The Sky Is a Neighborhood") gives way to a fun and incredibly ingratiating medley of one old favorite ("Everlong," performed mostly solo) and two holiday staples: "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" and the Peanuts classic "Linus and Lucy."

7. Taylor Swift

"...Ready For It?," "Call It What You Want"

Dragging Taylor Swift online has become a pastime, if not an art form, and her live performances on TV have been getting mixed reviews for years. But these two songs from Reputation, which had come out just a day earlier, are rendered with considerable skill: "...Ready For It?" gives every dancer onstage a workout, including Swift herself, while "Call It What You Want" gets a muted acoustic arrangement — it's just her, her acoustic guitar, a cellist, and her backup singers — that spotlights her clear, confident vocals.

6. Chris Stapleton

"Midnight Train to Memphis," "Hard Livin'"

Some superstars seem constrained by the relatively modest size of SNL's stage — especially the ones whose live shows are known to sprawl across stadiums. But Chris Stapleton has played enough bars and theaters to make the transition seamlessly, aided by a killer band and the prominent contributions of another decorated Kentuckian: Sturgill Simpson. Together, they make a meat-and-potatoes meal of Stapleton's hard-churning roots music.

5. Cardi B

"Bodak Yellow/Bartier Cardi," "Be Careful"

The headlines coming out of Cardi B's set were all about the big reveal — the way the camera panned down late in "Be Careful" to show the baby bump she'd kept hidden earlier in the evening (and in the months preceding her appearance). But as lovely as that news is, it needn't overshadow the Swiss-watch precision and explosive charisma on display in her medley of "Bodak Yellow" and "Bartier Cardi." In the past few months, Cardi B has proved herself a star capable of truly enduring: a funny and ingratiating multimedia presence with a boundless capacity for commanding attention.

4. Pink

"What About Us," "Beautiful Trauma"

Remember the 2010 Grammys, when Pink blew every other performer off the stage by singing a song — beautifully — while spinning in midair on some sort of trapeze? She could have shown up at SNL in a trucker cap and bathrobe and sung these songs while lolling in a beanbag chair, and we'd all be like, "Sure, but remember the 2010 Grammys?" Here, Pink seems to be having the time of her life as she belts her face off (at one point wearing what looks like a tablecloth, a shiny pink lifejacket and... a banner of some kind?), which is more than any of us deserve after the 2010 Grammys.

3. Jay-Z

"Bam," "4:44"

Jay-Z's performance openedSNL's 43rd season by making news, mostly for his pointed display of a Colin Kaepernick jersey during "Bam," on which he teams up with singer Damian Marley. But the title track from last year's 4:44 proves more powerful still, as Jay performs the song — a bracing and vulnerable apology to his family for his much-documented infidelity — alone with his eyes closed, the mic pressed tightly to his face. It's a remarkably inward-facing performance, raw and exposed.

2. SZA

"The Weekend," "Love Galore"

Ctrl was one of 2017's best albums, so SZA came into this SNL showcase with a significant advantage in terms of raw material. But her performance takes a huge swing anyway, as she trots out two album highlights with the aid of a choir, a tiny orchestra and vivid, ambitious set design. SZA's vocals are tight throughout, but what really jumps out is the boldness of the arrangements: "Love Galore" subtracts Travis Scott (while adding a new verse!) and incorporates every unlikely ingredient on the stage, yet still evokes the mood of the original.

1. Childish Gambino

"Saturday," "This Is America"

Donald Glover might have claimed this spot purely on the strength of his "This Is America" video, a chart-topping conversation-starter he dropped the night of his SNL appearance. He might also have claimed it on versatility alone: on his ability to host a 90-minute comedy show, appear in every sketch and perform two songs as the musical guest. (Of course, then there's his groundbreaking work on Atlanta, his star-making comic turn on Community and his role in the forthcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story, to say nothing of Magic Mike XXL.) But both of the night's brand-new Childish Gambino songs are also terrific: "Saturday" is a funky-but-slight slice of summer fun, while "This Is America" functions as an actual, honest-to-goodness showstopper. To introduce the world to that song in the legendarily uneven final half-hour of SNL, knowing that it'll still resonate for weeks — and probably years — to come? That is boldness personified, and fully justified.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)