The 10 Best SNL Musical Guests of All Time

Saturday Night Live celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier this year, and along the way its played host to countless stars and musical guests. We’ve seen some unbelievable performances over the years, most of them good, several of them bad, and a few outrageous noteworthies. Ashlee Simpson set the bar at its lowest with her 2004 appearance, in which she ungracefully flopped about on the stage as her lip-synch track went off the rails, later blaming everyone but herself in the fiasco. 

As for the high end of the quality spectrum, we’ve compiled the ten best musical performances in the history of SNL. Clips of the show are often taken down not long after they’re posted, so you’ll have to do some digging yourself for these gems – but trust us, they’re worth the hunt: 

Radiohead (2000)

Thom Yorke flails around like an epileptic elf monkey the entire time, as the world was brought onto the Kid A train of a new-millennial digital paranoia that would mark a permanent shift in the collective musical consciousness. With staggeringly good performances of “The National Anthem” and “Idioteque,” Radiohead proved that they were behind the wheel of the transformation of rock music.

Simon and Garfunkel (1975)

The first major SNL booking took place in the show’s second episode, where host Paul Simon rejoined bitterly estranged bandmate Art Garfunkel for a performance of several songs that began icy & detached and soon became a rekindling of awareness of just how special the duo was. 

Prince (2014)

Prince has no concern for your formats and rules. Doing thing his own way, the enigmatic artist funked and strutted his way through several minutes of various performance before a full step into ”Another Love,” a rock-soul ballad that reached unforgettable status with this performance.

Run-DMC (1986)

Hip-hop was still a relative novelty back in ’86, and in season 12 of SNL the pride of Queens delivered a blasting arrival into the mainstream consciousness with a killer performance.

Nirvana (1992)

Pure maniacal badassery. After opening with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana embraced the feedback insanity of their track “Territorial Pissings,” taking a nice heaping dump on mainstream expectations, as Kurt Cobain destroyed his guitar. Then the band full-on made out during the final curtain call. Punk as hell.

Paul Simon and George Harrison (1976)

Paul Simon made a total of 13 appearances on SNL, but in 1976 he played both host and musical guest. He cold-opened the show by singing “Still Crazy After All These Years” in a turkey costume (it was the Thanksgiving episode), and later delivered an unforgettable surprise two-song set with Beatles alum George Harrison. The two performed Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” and Simon’s “Homeward Bound,” laced with beautiful harmonies and gorgeous guitar work. The duo had never once been onstage together, though it seemed as if they were old touring partners.

Cypress Hill (1993)

Cypress Hill’s first album was an unstoppable madman run of smoky greatness, and their first visit to SNL featured one particularly unforgettable moment: one of the band members lit a joint onstage during the taping, and the group was banned forever. As Sen Dog recalled to the Voice, “There’s a lot of stories behind why [fellow member DJ] Muggs lit that joint. I remember Saturday Night Live gave us a greenroom and said, ‘Do whatever you want in here, just don’t light up out of here.’ Muggs felt like he needed to make a statement with his performance. It wasn’t just the Saturday Night Live people saying he couldn’t smoke up on air. It was everyone: our record label, our management, our friends….People loved it — people at the show loved it, because at the after-party they said, ‘That was so cool.’ But when the hammer swung and we were banned from Saturday Night Live forever, we understood how serious it was. And understandably so — the world wasn’t ready for anything near that at that time.” 

Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Dogg and Eminem (1999)

Dr. Dre’s hotly anticipated return to the mic arrived just three weeks before the release of 2001, his first album since The Chronic seven years prior. Snoop Dogg and budding protégé Eminem accompanied Dre to perform the two singles “Still D.R.E.” and “Forgot About Dre,” delivering astonishingly good performances of both. 

Rage Against the Machine (1996)

Some smartass through it would be a good idea to pair billionaire Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes as host with the most incendiary leftist activist group of all time, Rage Against the Machine. The group responded on the aggressive, hanging upside-down American flags on their amps and delivering an incendiary performance. Rage was kicked out of the studio after one song.

Pearl Jam (1994)

Pearl Jam was the biggest band on the planet at the time, but the very recent suicide of Kurt Cobain left a massive crater in the spirit of rock n’ roll at the time. Taped just eight days after Cobain was found dead in Seattle, there is a particularly biting energy to this performance, particularly during the tag at the end of “Daughter”: singer Eddie Vedder riffed on lyrics that could’ve been pulled right from Cobain’s poetry journal (“Now I ply with turpentine / I give such good paradigm”) before a haunting recounting of the lyrics to Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My” – which Cobain quoted in his suicide note.