10 Best 'Saturday Night Live' Performances of 2016: Critic's Picks

Will Heath/NBC
Jarobi White and Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest perform on Saturday Night Live on Nov. 12, 2016 in New York City.

It's been a notable year for Saturday Night Live, mostly marked by the political sketches leading up to November's presidential election. But what really held the live late-night sketch comedy show together in 2016 was its strong musical curation, which leaned mostly pop and hip-hop with a few scattered rock performances.

This year, we saw Bruno Mars lead an onstage dance party, a country-themed Lady Gaga showcase an entirely new style of music, and Solange’s live debut on the show. We also watched our favorite artists engage in hilarious skits, like Drake dissing the cast of SNL in “Drake’s Beef” and Kanye West mocking himself in the infamous “Kyle vs. Kanye” rap battle. When we look back on 2016, however, it’s the live music itself that stands out most, especially one special performance in honor of a hip-hop great who died this March.

Here are the top 10 musical performances on SNL this year, ranked. (Note: This includes episodes from the 2016 half of season 41, January through May, and the 2016 half of the current season, which began in October.)

10. Nick Jonas

Paired with Tove Lo, the two delivered a powerful, chilling rendition of “Close” this April, thanks to their electric onstage chemistry. Basking in simplicity, Jonas let his voice steal the spotlight -- and deservedly so. He then performed the groovy “Champagne Problems,” which sounded extra great with live bass and a stellar light show.

9. Gwen Stefani

Like Pharrell Williams, Gwen Stefani doesn’t seem to age, which leaves us wondering if the two are in cahoots. Looking and sounding better than ever, Stefani slayed the emotional tracks “Make Me Like You” (sup Blake Shelton) and “Misery” from her latest album, This Is What The Truth Feels Like. Heartache, starting over, falling in love: Stefani covered it all, and covered it well.

8. Courtney Barnett

“Pedestrian at Best” is the angst in all of us, and Australian rocker Courtney Barnett played her witty, debut lead single to close out the 41st season of SNL. Also performing "Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go to the Party,” Barnett showed us once again why she’s one of today’s top rising talents.

7. Lady Gaga

Ever since Joanne -- the singer’s fifth studio album -- came into the picture, we’ve seen a simpler, more stripped-back Gaga that proves her vocals still transcend the outrageous outfits we’d grown accustomed to. Through “A-YO” and “Million Reasons,” a country-themed Gaga let her immense voice shine bright.

6. The Weeknd

Kicking off SNL’s 42nd season, The Weeknd dropped “Starboy,” his new collaboration with Daft Punk that can be listened to over and over and over, or so we think. Hitting the notes flawlessly, the R&B artist looked somewhat otherworldly amid the fog and bluish glow of the giant LED cross behind him. “Starboy” was followed by “False Alarm.”

5. Solange

The singer stunned during her November SNL debut, where she performed both “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair” from her critically acclaimed new record A Seat at the Table. Solange, who had never performed any of the new material live on television up until that point, managed to deliver and then some. Not to mention, her glistening spiderweb headpiece and dress outdid every single performance outfit this year.

4. Kanye West

Early in the year,  Kanye West debuted a pair of tracks from The Life of Pablo live on SNL, backed by friends like Chance the Rapper, The-Dream and Young Thug. First up was “Ultralight Beam,” which saw a choir dressed in light denim singing in a triangular setup. “Low Lights” soon followed, which intro’d “Highlights.” West then cued his fans that his long-awaited album was finally streaming on Tidal, prompting a rush to the streaming service.

3. Drake

“Drake’s Beef” aside, the hilarious SNL skit that saw the Canadian rapper dissing the cast for disrespecting him (largely for being Canadian), his musical performance was one of the year’s finest. Performing “One Dance” and “Hype,” both from Views, Drake brought a smaller version of the LED light setup that graced this year’s arena tour to the SNL stage. Thanks to a boost in production, the performance looked just as good as it sounded.

2. Bruno Mars

Everything about Bruno Mars is so fun: his music, his performances, his style. Channeling the spirit of a young Michael Jackson, Mars’ funk-fueled party vibe came to life on SNL, where he delivered the live debut of his super catchy single “24K Magic,” the title track off his new album. Through a backstage hallway, cameras followed Mars and his dance troupe onto the stage, where they brought out audience members for one seriously awesome dance party. He also performed “Chunky,” but “24K Magic” took the gold.

1. A Tribe Called Quest

Topping our list is the hip-hop group’s first performance since founding member Phife Dawg passed away from diabetes complications in March of this year at the age of 45. Powerful and emotionally-charged, Tribe’s surviving members -- Q-Tip, Jarobi White and Ali Shaheed Muhammed -- dedicated two songs from their latest effort, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, their first album since 1998, to their friend and bandmate.
 

Billboard Year in Music 2016