Since debuting in 1975, Saturday Night Live has been really consistent in one area: music. The comedy varies wildly from cast to cast, but through good seasons and bad, SNL producers have done a fine job of booking musical guests worth staying up for.
Saturday night (Oct. 1) marks the start of Season 42, and to celebrate the premiere, we’re looking back at 10 of the best performances from the show’s history. Because this weekend’s musical guest is The Weeknd, who was born in 1990, we’re focusing on clips from the last 26 years. Of course, there was tons of essential stuff beforehand, and with luck, there’ll be lots more to come.
Here are the 10 best SNL musical performances since 1990.
R.E.M., “Shiny Happy People” (April 13, 1991)
In 1991, with the Gulf War and Rodney King beatings fresh in everyone’s memory, the world was very much in need of good vibes. That’s how R.E.M. got away with “Shiny Happy People,” an uncharacteristically silly song featuring background vocals from Kate Pierson of the B-52’s. Some fans figured it was a joke, but Stipe and Pierson fully committed with flailing-arm choreography for their SNL run-through. Even the rehearsal takes (readily available online) capture the giddiness of the performance.
Pearl Jam, “Daughter” (April 16, 1994)
Eleven days before Pearl Jam made their second SNL appearance, Kurt Cobain was found dead in Seattle. It was obviously on singer Eddie Vedder’s mind, and as he and the band performed “Daughter,” he honored his fellow grunge icon with subtlety and class. At one point, Vedder pulled open his jacket to flash the “K” he’d scrawled on his T-shirt. Later, he sang the lines from Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” that Kurt had included in his suicide note. Any showier or more sentimental, and this tribute would’ve fallen flat.
Elvis Costello and the Beastie Boys, “Radio, Radio” (September 27, 1999)
In 1977, Elvis Costello got himself banned from SNL by calling an audible seconds into “Less Than Zero” and instead playing “Radio, Radio,” a song producers weren’t expecting. Costello recreated the moment on the show’s 25th anniversary special, interrupting the Beastie Boys’ mid-“Sabotage” and leading them through the very tune that caused all the trouble 22 years earlier. The Beasties absolutely rip as a New Wave backing band, and Costello has a blast reliving his punky early days.
Frank Ocean, “Pyramids” (September 15, 2012)
On record, “Pyramids” is a nine-minute arthouse-R&B epic about Cleopatra, strippers, and a bunch of other stuff. Frank Ocean pared things down to four minutes for SNL but kept all the best parts, including the whining solo from John Mayer. Unfortunately, Mayer’s six-string wizardry is better heard than seen, so while the guitarist made hilariously pained facial expressions, Frank wisely hopped on a vintage arcade console and kept himself busy.
Arcade Fire, “Afterlife” (September 28, 2013)
To celebrate its 2013 season premiere, SNL gave Arcade Fire not just the standard two performance spots, but also a half-hour special, Here Comes the Night Time, which aired directly afterward. Fans who didn’t make it past 1 a.m. still got a terrific look at the newly funkdafied Arcade Fire, whose artful, existential grooving on Reflektor standout “Afterlife” smacked of Talking Heads circa Stop Making Sense.
Kanye West, “Black Skinhead” (May 18, 2013)
There’s an air of resignation in Ben Affleck’s voice when he introduces Kanye West as “the man you came to see.” It’s like he knows he can’t possibly compete with ‘Ye, and man, was he right. Debuting “Black Skinhead,” one of the more aggressive cuts from his in-your-face Yeezus album, Kanye dons a black leather jacket and comes on like NIN meets Depeche Mode meets crazed subway ranter. It was the finest strobe-lit goth-rap freakout Studio 8H had ever seen.
Prince, Epic Jam Session, (November 1, 2014)
On the heels of Art Official Age and Plectrumelectrum, the new albums he’d recently dropped on the same day, Prince stopped by SNL and changed all the rules. You’re supposed to come out twice and do one song each time — a convention the Purple One evidently didn’t care for. Instead, he packed four tunes (“Clouds”, “Plectrum Electrum”, “Marz,” and “Another Love”) into one eight-minute medley, blowing the roof off the mutha like you knew he would. After his righteous guitar shredding in the closing seconds, the cast should’ve called it a night and gone home.
Sia, “Elastic Heart” (January 17, 2015)
Even for her big SNL debut, enigmatic Aussie pop star Sia refused to lift her blonde bangs and show the world her face. The mystery thing totally worked for her, thanks in part to 12-year-old dance phenom Maddie Ziegler, who turned up for “Elastic Heart” and reenacted some of the amazing dance moves she busts with Shia LaBeouf in the song’s video. Even with another dancer standing in for LaBeouf, Ziegler displayed power, vulnerability, and more than a little weirdness — elements that make Sia such a captivating figure.
D’Angelo & The Vanguard, “Really Love” (January 30, 2015)
Less than two months after making his triumphant return to music with Black Messiah, his first album in 14 years, neo-soul mysterio D’Angelo swooped into SNL looking like a gangsta Zorro and sounding fantastic as ever. His performance of “Really Love” was a masterclass in smoothness, sensuality, and Spanish guitar.
Miley Cyrus, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” (February 15, 2015)
This one actually comes from the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special, which aired on a Sunday night in primetime. In a broadcast that also featured Paul McCartney, Kanye West, and Paul Simon — whose song she was performing — Miley Cyrus managed to come out on top. At turns sultry and playful, Miley’s reading of “50 Ways” proved the controversial young pop star was ready to rasp, growl, and belt her way through a classic. That she didn’t change the gender of Simon’s female lover made it that much cooler.