On any given week, you can still see plenty of music on television. An indie band on a late-night talk show. A pop star on Saturday Night Live. A rapper or a country singer at a halftime show of a major sporting event. But if I can be nostalgic for a quick moment: I miss when live music performances on television mattered.
That special energy that makes a performance on TV feel like an event seems mostly gone. That energy now takes place online — on TikTok, of course, and also via the myriad YouTube clips shared on other social media platforms. That’s where nobodies become stars now. And that’s great… but it’s not the same as the communal feeling you get from watching the greatest music moments on TV.
I refer to common touchstones like Prince at the Super Bowl or Beyoncé’s iconic MTV Video Music Awards spots. Or even Lana Del Rey’s controversial (but actually kind of underrated) SNL appearance, which became instant watercooler fodder in 2011.
In order to make my case, I’ve compiled 40 of the most memorable music performances on TV from the 21st century. I’ve done this to clear the decks of all the classic all-time moments we’ve all heard about a million times — The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the Michael Jackson moonwalk, etc. — and also to show that TV still was capable of uniting us under one groove in the not-to-distant past.
My criteria is simple: All of these performances aired on actual TV shows. I know that in many cases they became well-known via YouTube after their initial airing. But as long as they originated on television, they’re fair game. (I also stuck with American television, because I’m a hopelessly myopic Yankee.)
Now, let’s watch some TV!
40. The Vines on The Late Show With David Letterman (2002)
Ninety-nine percent of the time, when an artist or band performs on a TV show, the final result is presented in a professional, cooly efficient manner. This ensures a “good,” if not an especially memorable, appearance. That’s why, purely for the sake of novelty, a good trainwreck can be preferable to the usual workmanlike consistency. One of the great trainwrecks in the history of 21st century TV music performances has to be this clip of snotty Australian garage-pop power trio The Vines doing a spectacularly screechy take of their early aughts hit, “Get Free.” At the time, The Vines were a hot commodity, eventually hailed on the cover of Rolling Stone as rock saviors. But frontman Craig Nicholls was a volatile presence with a habit of lashing out on stage. (A few years later, he announced that he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.) On Letterman, he starts screaming the hooky “Get Free” from the jump and doesn’t let up. He then throws himself to the floor and demolishes his drummer’s kit. It’s all very Petulant Rock Star 101. Later that year, The Vines were prohibited from performing on The Tonight Show after Nicholls pulled the same stunt in rehearsal. Thankfully, he did it for the cameras on The Late Show.
39. Deerhunter on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon (2013)
A decade later Deerhunter performed what could be described as a prefabricated trainwreck on Fallon’s old Late Night. From Bradford Cox’s shaggy black wig and bandaged finger to his extended exit into the hallways of 30 Rock (which winds up, hilariously, at an elevator that never seems to show up), it’s clear that the chaos of “Monomania” is orchestrated. But it still looks pretty amazing. (Bonus points to Cox for taking a swig out of some rando’s paper cup on the way to the elevator.) Plus, the studio audience’s stunned reaction suggests that those there in person at least had no idea what the hell was going on.
38. The Strokes on Saturday Night Live (2011)
A contrarian choice, perhaps, given that The Strokes performed on SNL during their Is This It prime 10 years before this. And there are numerous Letterman and Conan O’Brien appearances you can find on YouTube where they really rip it up while looking exquisitely hungover. (Shout-out to this especially tasty performance of “Reptilia” on Conan from 2003.) But again I must profess my preference for drama over musical consistency by giving the nod to The Strokes’ somewhat depressing but nevertheless compelling stint on SNL during the Angles era, particularly their performance of “Life Is Simple In The Moonlight.” I remember seeing this live and assuming that The Strokes would never play together on TV again. The vibes are heavy and weary; I’m pretty sure Julian Casablancas forgets the final verse and just makes sounds in the place of lyrics. But in true Strokes fashion, they teeter on the brink of collapse with incredible panache. And then they kept on going.
37. Alabama Shakes on Saturday Night Live (2013)
Right about now, we could probably use some regular old straight-forward musical excellence on this list. Alabama Shakes are an example of a band that would appear on talk shows in the early 2010s and routinely kill it, which no doubt hastened their rise as one of the decade’s most popular rock bands. It’s not as if a band like this was going to benefit from any other form of hype — their path to stardom was to show up on TV as a band that most viewers likely weren’t familiar with, and then proceed to burn the house down for four and a half minutes. This performance of “Always Alright” is their finest house-burning.
36. Future Islands on The Late Show With David Letterman (2014)
The quintessential TV appearance in the modern era that seriously moved the needle for a mid-level indie band, near the end of a time when that was still possible. (Though most people, even in the moment, probably saw this on YouTube via some culture website that aggregated it.) It all hinges on an extremely hammy and theatrical performance by lead singer Samuel T. Herring, a Bob Hoskins lookalike who is mesmerizing whenever he does that odd little dance, looking like a person who has just been beat on the head with a 2×4 and is wobbling to stay on his feet. He’s less a conventional frontman than an office drone suddenly liberated on karaoke night. It’s this very everyman quality that made the Letterman clip a viral hit. It’s so memorable that I’m sure many would argue that this should be ranked higher. But the strike against Future Islands is that they basically peaked here. It’s not so much a star-making performance as it was a snapshot of a shooting star.
35. Guided By Voices on Reverb (2001)
An unfortunate side effect of the internet is that modern TV shows have largely given up on spotlighting artists from the fringes of popular music. While it’s nice that essentially every musician can reach an audience on their own via social media and YouTube, it’s sad that you can longer find a show like Reverb on a major cable channel. A weekly series produced by HBO from 1997 to 2001, Reverb regularly showcased the era’s best and hippest indie acts. Even better, they filmed them not on a sterile soundstage, but in clubs and theaters around the country. Which is how they were able to capture Guided By Voices in their beer-soaked and cigarette-stinky natural habitat while on tour in Philadelphia in the early aughts.
34. Three 6 Mafia on The Academy Awards (2006)
You know what the opposite of a smoky club is? The Academy Awards. Traditionally the stuffiest showcase for music on TV, the Oscars temporarily removed the extremely large stick from its behind to welcome this long-running Memphis hip-hop institution for a performance of its nominated (and eventual trophy-winning) song from Hustle & Flow. The only thing missing are shots from of the scandalized audience, who immediately went back to Disney-sanctioned power ballads after this.
33. Joanna Newsom on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon (2010)
Years before he was installed as the host of The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night carried on a tradition established by predecessors David Letterman and Conan O’Brien by regularly hosting hip musical up-and-comers. That includes the brilliant and mercurial talent Joanna Newsom, who made a rare appearance in 2010 to perform a cut from her sprawling triple-album opus, Have One On Me. Everything about this feels perfectly conceived, presented, and executed — so much so that it’s a shame Fallon didn’t just let Newsom play a mini concert on the program.
32. Jay Z and Kanye West on the MTV Video Music Awards (2011)
From the moment it dropped, opinion was divided on Jay and Ye’s superstar collaboration Watch The Throne. Many felt it was an overblown indulgence by two hubristic rappers drunk on their own fame and wealth. I can’t argue with that, though I happen to enjoy the overblown indulgence of it all. These are after all two of the most charismatic stars of the past two decades, and seeing them on stage trying to constantly one-up each other while pyrotechnics flame and the American flag unfurls is pretty thrilling all these years later. From this vantage point, it looks like rap’s hair metal period. (Watch for Justin Bieber’s nonplussed reaction at 2:39.)
31. Phoebe Bridgers on Saturday Night Live (2021)
In an uncertain and constantly changing world, it’s nice to know that smashing a guitar on national television still has the power to trigger people. Of course, it’s the very people who claim that smashing a guitar is passé that seemed to get the most upset at Phoebe Bridgers’ provocation at the climax of her Punisher highlight, “I Know The End,” on SNL. But isn’t that just another way of shaking your fist at youngsters for being senselessly destructive, which is precisely the reaction that smashing a guitar was always meant to engender? Either way, I’m a fan of enduring forms of rock theater, even when they’re carried off with a post-modern smirk by the always witty and playful Bridgers.
30. Arcade Fire on Saturday Night Live (2006)
I place this instance of guitar smashing on SNL one spot higher than Phoebe Bridgers only because Win Butler actually succeeded in annihilating his ax. Note to future generations of guitar smashers on SNL: It’s easier to smash an acoustic than an electric. It also helps to be 6-foot-4.
29. Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Dave Grohl, and Steven Van Zandt on The Grammys (2003)
“Music’s Biggest Night” has produced precious few genuinely memorable performances this century. Which makes this unique assemblage of classic-rock dude talent all the more special. It’s a standard Grammys trick to group a bunch of musicians together in order to pay homage to another musician. Most of the time, these combinations read like unintentionally hilarious Mad-Libs. (“And now to honor electronic music, here’s Foo Fighters, Deadmau5, and Lil Wayne!”) But bringing these guys together to play The Clash’s “London Calling” as a salute to the late Joe Strummer was inspired. Each one of them plays his role to a hilt: Bruce’s neck bulges to new extremes, Elvis’ vocal is as pointed as ever, Little Steven drawls in a fake British accent. And Dave Grohl does his bombastic nice-guy routine. Call them the Pummeling Wilburys.
28. A Tribe Called Quest on Saturday Night Live (2016)
It’s a shame that the most discussed music moment from SNL‘s first post-Trump episode was Kate McKinnon singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as Hilary Clinton. Because musically speaking, that episode should belong entirely to A Tribe Called Quest. As host Dave Chappelle notes in his introduction, it took far too long for one of the best rap groups of all time to make it on SNL. But when their opportunity finally arrived — sadly without Phife Dawg, who passed away eight months prior — their timing seemed weirdly perfect for a moment in need of something pitched between a wake and a rally.
27. Kanye West on Saturday Night Live (2013)
We are far enough away from Kanye’s “everything he does is incredibly important and fascinating” era that his multiple appearances on this list might warrant an explanation. All I can say is watch this clip and try to imagine any pop star today attempting something so angry, strange, and insightful in a forum that most artists simply use as a promotional tool. Even if he wears the MAGA hat for the rest of his life, we’ll still have “New Slaves” on SNL.
26. Björk on The Late Show With David Letterman (2001)
I think it’s fair to say that this is the first and last time in television history that an idiosyncratic indie singer, songwriter, and producer performed on a talk show backed by a harpist, an Inuit women’s choir, the electronic duo Matmos, and an enormous freaking music box. Even if this sounded like a pack of dogs wrestling in a burlap sack it would warrant inclusion on this list. But the fact that Björk melded these elements in a live setting in service of a ferociously intense love song elevates it all the more.
25. Britney Spears on the MTV Video Music Awards (2001)
For all of the talk about #freebritney, it’s easy to forget that this woman once strode across the most watched stages on television with a damn snake perched atop her shoulders. She promised to be a slave for you — sorry, 4 you — but in those moments she was the master of every set of eyeballs in the vicinity. Perhaps a 20th anniversary celebration of this iconic performance would be a good excuse to bring the snake back?
24. The White Stripes on Late Night With Conan O’Brien (2003)
There’s isn’t a more fruitful relationship between a band and a TV show in the modern era than the White Stripes and Late Night With Conan O’Brien. The duo played Conan numerous times, including a week-long residency in 2003 to promote their classic LP, Elephant. It’s hard to track down all of those performances online, but there’s a good reason why this apocalyptic medley of “Let’s Build A Home,” “Goin’ Back To Memphis,” and “John The Revelator” has stuck around. This is Jack and Meg at their loudest and wildest. The stage literally can’t hold them at the performance’s peak, when Jack extemporaneously stalks over to Conan’s desk to pound out a violent slide guitar solo.
23. Jack White on Saturday Night Live (2020)
The most critical relationship in Jack White’s musical life is with his drummers. But it wasn’t until he hired Daru Jones for his solo band that he found a timekeeper who drove him like Meg did. Their combustible dynamic absolutely drives this killer performance from SNL in the shadow of Covid, when the interpolation of the gospel standard “Jesus Is Coming Soon” into Beyoncé’s “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and The White Stripes’ “Ball And Biscuit” felt eerily appropriate. But honestly, this is just an excuse to watch a natural born rock star tear it up over a backbeat that swings like the hammer of the gods.
22. OutKast at the American Music Awards (2003)
In the early aughts, OutKast was the most universally adored group on the planet. And then they broke up… sort of. And they also stayed together… sort of. The oddness of Andre 3000 and Big Boi’s arrangement on Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, where they packaged two solo albums together under the OutKast banner, comes through on this performance from the American Music Awards. And somehow, just as it worked on the record, it also works on the AMAs. After an extremely awkward introduction by Justin Timberlake, Andre 3000 does his psych-soul shaman flourishes with “Hey Ya,” and then Big Boi plays the smooth balladeer on “The Way You Move.” It was an imperfect arrangement, but then again, how great would it be if contemporary award shows could promise two consecutive OutKast performances?
21. My Morning Jacket on Late Night With Conan O’Brien (2003)
So much hair, so much headbanging. I can’t decide which is more impressive: That Jim James can catch his breath to sing after thrashing around so much, or that Jim James can catch his breath to sing after thrashing so much through that tangle of sandy blonde locks. As it is, I think this appearance provides a good lesson for young bands: If by chance you do end up television, treat it you like you’re playing an encore at Bonnaroo.
20. Father John Misty on The Late Show With David Letterman (2015)
Whether you love FJM or find him obnoxious will inform how you view his most famous TV appearance. This conceptual rendition of “Bored In The U.S.A.,” which set the stage for his 2015 breakthrough I Love You Honeybear, is a goof on the conventions of talk show music performances. The piano he plays is actually playing itself, he delivers the lyric with a shrug, and a laugh track intercedes on the song’s emotional climax. When the performance is over, you hear something you’re never allowed to experience on a late night comedy show — one second of baffled silence.
19. Lana Del Rey on Saturday Night Live (2012)
This is remembered as one of the biggest disasters in the history of Saturday Night Live, and it’s surely one of the most discussed and analyzed TV music performances of the century. These facts alone warrant its inclusion here. But then you rewatch it and realize … it’s actually pretty good! What viewers responded to in 2012, either positively or (more often) negatively, was LDR’s oddly magnetic stage presence, in which she comes off like the ghost of a dead 1950s starlet. (SNL‘s notoriously awful sound mix doesn’t help matters.) But we’ve now had a decade to get used to her persona, which makes her SNL appearance seem a lot less weird.
18. Frank Ocean at The Grammys (2013)
Another entry in the “I can’t believe this is happening in this context” category. Anyone who sets out to confound this many members of Recording Academy is a genius in my book. Also, Earl Sweatshirt proves to be a true friend by being one of the few people to give Frank a well-deserved standing ovation.
Responses to Sept. 11 are the toughest kinds of music performances to judge decades after the fact. Gestures that felt uplifting then can easily come off as corny outside of the context of national grief. So, yes, seeing Bono scream “America!” at the Super Bowl while flashing an American flag sewn into his jacket might inspire some cheap guffaws in 2021. But I remember watching this in a bar and let me tell you: I can’t pretend to be cynical in retrospect about hearing “Where The Streets Have No Name” as the names of 9/11 victims flashed on a big white screen behind U2. On the contrary, it’s one of the few times when the Super Bowl halftime show actually felt important as a virtual town square where people go to feel less alone.
16. The National on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon (2010)
Most artists hope to approximate the power of their recorded work when they play a new song on a TV show. The National’s performance of “Terrible Love” — which predated the release of High Violet by several months — is the rare example of a TV appearance outshining the take that was eventually put on the LP. On Fallon, “Terrible Love” instantly established itself as one of The National’s most thrilling live vehicles, an unabashed anthem that rises to an intense emotional climax. On the album, however, the band hemmed and hawed over the track, eventually landing a less dynamic arrangement that deliberately played down the song’s dynamism. After playing “Terrible Love” on Fallon, it dawned on The National that this might have been a mistake, singer Matt Berninger later admitted. A re-recorded “Terrible Love” similar to the Fallon version later appeared on a deluxe edition of High Violet.
15. Janelle Monae on The Late Show With David Letterman (2010)
For starters, I must apologize for not including Monae’s second Letterman appearance from 2013, which peaks with Janelle climbing Dave’s desk and doing some James Brown moves. However, I must give the slight edge to her 2010 debut, if only because it has that “holy shit this person is a superstar!” quality. Also: “Now shut up!” One more also: The James Brown cape. Actually, this performance has at least a dozen “also” moments.
14. Kendrick Lamar on the MTV Video Music Awards (2017)
Kendrick Lamar was such a powerful presence on TV shows in the mid-’10s that he started handicapping himself. Would Kendrick be less compelling if you paired him with Imagine Dragons? Nope! Would you be distracted from looking at Kendrick if you put him next to a swordsman who’s been set on fire? Surprisingly no! If by some chance Kendrick Lamar is reading this: We need you back! A new album would be awesome, but in lieu of that could you just show up on an awards show and do this again?
13. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds on Austin City Limits (2014)
Even if you know the “whisper to a scream” structure of this mesmerizing story song by alt-rock’s Prince Of Darkness, it’s still bracing to watch The Bad Seeds build from a soulful glower to an all-out sonic assault over the course of about seven minutes. All the while Nick Cave swaggers from one end of the stage to the other, taunting stunned Texans. And then he sits at his piano to play a quick lick, and then he goes back to swaggering. But what really sells this performance is the fact that the band found an actual blonde vampire to dance in the front row. That fan is practically the star of the show as everything goes to hell.
12. Jay-Z on MTV Unplugged (2001)
MTV Unplugged by and large is a ’90s phenomenon, but Jay-Z backed by The Roots can go toe to toe with the most iconic installments of the series from any era. If you haven’t seen this. go directly to the 19:17 mark of this video and then ask yourself why Jaguar Wright didn’t immediately become a huge star after this aired.
11. Sturgill Simpson on Saturday Night Live (2017)
On his fourth album, 2019’s Sound And Fury, Simpson supposedly came out as a rock star. But anyone who witnessed him on SNL two years earlier could see that he already was one. Though instead of the stoner-metal riffs of Sound And Fury, Simpson utilized a horn section and his own highly excitable band. The result on “Call To Arms” feels like Sturgill does Springsteen, in which he attempts to “prove it all night” for the people of 30 Rock in the space of four minutes and 39 seconds.
How big of a deal was Beyoncé in the mid-’10s? For a while there, the VMAs made it a semi-annual tradition to just hand over about 15 minutes for Beyoncé to perform a medley. In 2014, it was a collection of hits. Two years later, she performed a suite from her landmark album Lemonade. Honestly, this is pretty much unprecedented: Michael Jackson, Prince, or Madonna never got this sort of treatment in their primes. But when you watch the Lemonade medley, you can see that Beyoncé mastered the art of presenting her music visually. Even in an award show environment — which is naturally chaotic and a ripe environment for technical flubs — she had the ability to deliver perfection.
9. At The Drive-In on The Late Show With David Letterman (2000)
Whereas Beyoncé kept the chaos of live TV at bay, At The Drive-In leaned into it on Letterman while promoting Relationship Of Command. You know you’re watching a band go for broke when the lead singer starts humping the floor during the first verse. You might assume that there’s nowhere to go from there. But this post-hardcore institution just keeps on leaping and yelping and humping while playing with incredible force. We can argue about whether At The Drive-In was the best band in the world in the year 2000. But not while watching this clip.
8. The Walkmen on Late Night With Conan O’Brien (2004)
Can someone check in on Walkmen drummer Matt Barrick to see if his arms still hurt 17 years later?
7. Radiohead on Saturday Night Live (2000)
By the time they showed up on SNL, Radiohead’s most polarizing album, Kid A, had only been out for a few weeks. While the LP in time came to be viewed as a classic, opinions were still divided in October of 2000. But if Radiohead was concerned about public acceptance, they certainly didn’t show it on SNL. Rather than stick with their new album’s most “Radiohead-esque” numbers like “Optimistic” or “How To Disappear Completely,” they front-loaded two of their most challenging tracks, “The National Anthem” and “Idioteque.” On the latter number especially, Radiohead barely resembles a rock band at all, with their lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood instead playing an ancient synthesizer that looks like a phone switchboard from the 1960s.
6. Tyler The Creator and Hodgy Beats on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon (2011)
The members of Odd Future have been such a huge part of popular music for the past decade that you can almost forget how dangerous they seemed back in 2011. But apparently some people at the Fallon show were bracing for the worst. “Once I realized who was coming to Late Night, I immediately went to The Roots’ dressing room,” Questlove recalled in a 2021 Rolling Stone interview, “and I was like, ‘I can see what’s about to happen. We’re all about to lose our jobs.’” At the time, they were the most notorious crew in hip-hop, with a penchant for shocking lyrics about murder and assault. But the impression you get from the Late Night clip now is of very young guys — Tyler was 19 and Hodgy was 20 — taking a fun-loving, pranksterish spirit to national TV with irrepressible joy. By the end, when Tyler wraps his lanky legs around Fallon for an impromptu piggyback ride, Odd Future seemed almost cuddly.
5. TV On The Radio on The Late Show With David Letterman (2006)
Shoutout to TV On The Radio for inspiring this list. The YouTube algorithm pointed me to this clip several weeks ago. It had been years since I had seen it, but revisiting it in 2021 made me come to two conclusions: 1) TV On The Radio performing “Wolf Like Me” on Letterman is at least a top five TV music performance of the early 21st century; 2) I really want a TV On The Radio-issance. Because nobody right now is doing this as well they do it.
Let’s raise a toast to “Runaway,” the most visually striking SNL music performance ever, in which Kanye dons Eddie Murphy’s red leather suit from Raw and roasts himself as a douchebag and a scumbag against an all-white backdrop accented with ballet dancers. I realize this makes no sense in print but as a visual and musical experience it is sublime.
3. Warren Zevon on The Late Show With David Letterman (2002)
It almost feels unfair to lump this in with even the best TV music performances which, in nearly every case, are basically commercials. Meanwhile Warren Zevon’s final appearance on Letterman on October 30, 2002 is nothing less than a man saying goodbye to the world, and in the process imparting some wisdom about how to confront your own mortality. Appearing not long after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Zevon was gifted an entire episode by long-time fan Letterman, “the best friend my music has ever had,” in Zevon’s estimation. When he sat for an interview, Letterman asked him directly how his diagnosis affected his perspective on life; Zevon responded with what became the singer-songwriter’s most famous maxim, “‘Enjoy every sandwich.” The performances of “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Genius,” and “Mutineer” register as heroic, given his apparent lack of strength, and they’re unbearably poignant. After the show, Zevon returned Letterman’s favor by giving him his guitar. “And I just started sobbing,” Letterman recalled in 2008. “He was giving me the guitar that he always used on the show. I felt like, ‘I can’t be in this movie, I didn’t get my lines.’ That was very tough.” Zevon died the following September.
2. Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood, and Prince at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Of Fame (2004)
I buried the lede by putting Prince last. When we talk about this performance of “When My Guitar Gently Weeps,” all anybody cares about is Prince and that guitar solo. Without that solo, this is merely a perfectly fine Beatles cover. With that solo, you have one of the most rewatched TV music performances of the modern era.
In true Prince fashion, he just shows up at the 3:27 mark, out of thin air, already wailing away. As the band keeps returning the chorus, it seems like a cue to wrap up. But Prince just keeps going. At one point, he appears to almost fall into the audience. But Prince just keeps going. Now it looks like Tom Petty is willing him to continue. (“I remember I leaned out at him at one point and gave him a ‘This is going great!’ kind of look,” Petty later recalled.) The only thing that stops Prince is him finally throwing his guitar in the air. That ax, like Prince himself, was not meant to stay on this planet.
What Queen at Live Aid is to late 20th century TV music performances, Prince’s Super Bowl halftime show is to the early 21st century. It’s the moment when a world class entertainer is put at the center of our attention, and he leans into absolutely being the larger-than-life figure who deserves that astronomical number of eyeballs. Also like Queen, Prince’s performance has an element of fate — when it actually rains during a Prince halftime show, you can only conclude that God is acting as his stage manager. Ultimately, that rain makes his singing and guitar playing (all while in high heels!) all the more awe-inspiring.
But it’s the communal nature of this halftime show that makes it feel so profound. So much of what we watch on a grand scale feels like empty spectacle. But Prince at the Super Bowl might very well be the only musical performance of modern times that everybody has seen by now. How wonderful is it that it also happens to be the best?