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'SNL' just wrapped its 49th season: It's time to cruelly rank its musical guests

Bad Bunny performs on SNL on Oct. 21, 2023.
NBC
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WIll Heath/NBC
Bad Bunny performs on SNL on Oct. 21, 2023.

Saturday Night Live's 49th season was a typically mixed bag, as the show continued to adjust to cast departures, the relentless pace of current events and the usual constraints and limitations of live TV. At least the 2023-24 season wasn't truncated by outside factors, be they COVID-19 or last year's Writers Guild of America strike.

Season 49 also featured an array of musical guests that included massive stars and up-and-comers alike — each of whom is about to get ranked with bloodless scientific precision, in ascending order of quality, based in part on their ability to withstand Studio 8H's notoriously unforgiving sound mixes. This is our seventh straight year doing this (here's 2023, 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019 and 2018), so consider this ranking to be not so much one man's subjective opinion as incontrovertible truth.

That said, we've linked to every performance that's still (legally) posted on YouTube, and every one of these sets is available for streaming via Peacock in case you wish to double-check my work. You know, for science.


20. Ice Spice, "In Ha Mood" and "Pretty Girl (feat. Rema)" (10/14/23)

Ice Spice and Rema.
NBC / Will Heath/NBC
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Will Heath/NBC
Ice Spice and Rema.

Ice Spice has been a welcome presence on countless pop singles in the past few years, but her laid-back style — low in the mix, with little wasted motion — doesn't lend itself to onstage dynamism. Aside from a bit of half-speed hip-swiveling, her debut as an SNL headliner amounted to little more than a vibe: coy, lightly suggestive, vaguely indifferent.

She was also extremely ill-served by a muddy sound mix — as well as rote, thudding backing tracks — that threatened to drown her out completely. And that was before Ice Spice returned for "Pretty Girl," in which guest Rema (due for his own SNL headlining spot, but also mixed way too quietly here) showed up to assume the lion's share of vocal duties. Ice Spice has charisma, star power and famous friends — Taylor Swift even popped up to introduce her the second time around — but these sluggish two-minute performances felt like afterthoughts even as they were happening.

19. Jennifer Lopez, "Can't Get Enough (feat. Latto & Redman)" and "This Is Me... Now" (2/3/24)

Jennifer Lopez.
NBC / Will Heath/NBC
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Will Heath/NBC
Jennifer Lopez.

These two performances of songs from Jennifer Lopez's weird, misbegotten concept album This Is Me... Now presented two sides of the same lavish spectacle. "Can't Get Enough" fed us the chaotic side, complete with guest raps from Latto and Redman, plus lots of Lopez kicking at the camera as the lights behind her flickered and raged. The gloopy title track, on the other hand, fed us a cloying diet of gigantic roses and clouds of pink smoke, as portions of Lopez's nude form peeked out from behind a flower sculpture that resembled nothing if not a bulging heap of meringue.

Neither song ranked among Lopez's choicest cuts to begin with, but at least "Can't Get Enough" had energy to lean on. "This Is Me... Now," on the other hand, called for absolute stillness, and not just due to the considerable risk of wardrobe malfunction; consequently, all the pressure landed on Lopez to oversell the vocal. The result felt deadly dull and old-fashioned — a would-be showstopper that landed with a big wet plop.

18. Kacey Musgraves, "Deeper Well" and "Too Good to Be True" (3/2/24)

Kacey Musgraves.
NBC / Will Heath/NBC
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Will Heath/NBC
Kacey Musgraves.

In this year of pop-cultural grievance, Kacey Musgraves' Deeper Well hits like a welcome antidote: a softly rendered self-help reflection on ways to recover, repair and otherwise emerge from destructive patterns. It's not, however, the stuff of onstage rambunctiousness.

So, while Musgraves returned to SNL accompanied by a fully-stocked band, it was still — as in the late-night performances that accompanied her moodily undercooked 2021 album star-crossed — hard to get sucked into these motion-resistant performances. Trading the tastefully concealed nudity of her last SNL set for a folksier quilted bathrobe, the singer did a nice job conveying the hard-earned wisdom of "Deeper Well." But "Too Good to Be True" barely registered on a disappointingly low-energy night.

17. Reneé Rapp, "Snow Angel" and "Not My Fault (feat. Megan Thee Stallion)" (1/20/24)

Renée Rapp, accompanied by Megan Thee Stallion.
NBC / Will Heath/NBC
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Will Heath/NBC
Renée Rapp, accompanied by Megan Thee Stallion.

Not just anyone gets to be a headlining musical guest on SNL: Those spots are almost exclusively reserved for major stars in pop, hip-hop, R&B, rock, Latin music and country. But exceptions can be made for lesser-known performers who just happen to star in new films produced by SNL's Lorne Michaels. Michaels really wanted you to see the film adaptation of the musical adaptation of the 2004 film Mean Girls, so he booked star Reneé Rapp to perform a pair of songs: one from Rapp's 2023 album Snow Angel and one from Mean Girls' closing credits.

Rapp herself does fine, but the sound mix makes an absolute hash of her vocals; for all its musical-theater staging, it's hard to make out more than a few words of "Snow Angel." "Not My Fault" fares a bit better, in part due to the presence of A-list ringer Megan Thee Stallion, who gamely turns up for a guest verse. Still, just four months removed from this performance, it already invites the question, "Why was this on SNL again?" Synergy, baby!

16. 21 Savage, "redrum" and "Should've Wore a Bonnet (feat. Brent Faiyaz)" / "Prove It (feat. Summer Walker)" (2/24/24)

21 Savage.
NBC / Will Heath/NBC
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Will Heath/NBC
21 Savage.

21 Savage gets points for working a fair bit of collaboration into his performances: "redrum" placed him in the middle of a smokily lit scene populated by a violinist, two singers handling the hook and two black-clad ballerinas, while his medley of "Should've Wore a Bonnet" and "Prove It" brought in vocal ringers Brent Faiyaz and Summer Walker, respectively.

The problem is that Savage himself rarely seemed invested in being there. It's hard to miss, for example, how much of the first song consisted of the rapper standing around and listlessly chanting "redrum" while everyone in his vicinity compensated with maximal energy. As for the medley, it was nice to see the SNL spotlight shine on Faiyaz and Walker, but the low-energy headliner couldn't help but get lost in the din of it all.

15. Sabrina Carpenter, "Espresso" and "Feather"/"Nonsense" (5/18/24)

Sabrina Carpenter.
NBC / Will Heath/NBC
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Will Heath/NBC
Sabrina Carpenter.

Sabrina Carpenter is an actress and former Disney Channel star who's riding the pop charts with a cryptically worded earworm called "Espresso." If that's all you knew of Carpenter going into her SNL debut, her two performances — of "Espresso," naturally, but also a medley of her songs "Feather" and "Nonsense" — were there to tell you that she's also extremely aware of her haters.

In the opening frame of her performance of "Espresso," newspaper headlines screamed about Carpenter while making light of the song's puzzling grammar. (See? She knows!) Then, her conversational asides in the medley — "I'm on SNL and you're not!" — seemed engineered to dull the sting of critiques that hadn't even been written yet.

By the end of "Nonsense," Carpenter seemed to lose steam vocally, but her notes of defiance weren't terribly necessary to begin with. There's nothing wrong with just being fun, especially this year, and Carpenter is a welcome, agreeable presence, on the pop charts and beyond.

14. Billie Eilish, "What Was I Made For?" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (12/16/23)

Billie Eilish, accompanied by Finneas.
NBC / Will Heath/NBC
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Will Heath/NBC
Billie Eilish, accompanied by Finneas.

Billie Eilish has a history of dominating SNL's Studio 8H, with inventive staging that maximizes the space around her. This Barbie- and holiday-themed set was bound to be more subdued than that, though, as neither "What Was I Made For?" nor "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" call for much in the way of motion.

Instead, this set placed Eilish in mournful-chanteuse mode and left her there alongside her brother Finneas (on the piano) and, for the holiday number, guest bassist Christian McBride. Vocally, she did a typically lovely job, though she does get dinged half a point for going with "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough" instead of "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." We "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" stans are sticklers that way.

13. Travis Scott, "My Eyes" and "Fe!n (feat. Playboi Carti)" (3/30/24)

Travis Scott.
NBC / Will Heath/NBC
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Will Heath/NBC
Travis Scott.

Give Travis Scott credit: The man is willing to attempt some big swings. Take his SNL performance of "My Eyes," which opened with the rapper lying in repose as a Bon Iver sample rolled behind him. Giving the track time to build, Scott hung back as the song bloomed into something disorienting and wild and full of motion — in its lighting, in the screened projections behind him and in his own frenetic physical presence.

Then, in "Fe!n," that willingness to experiment took him almost entirely off the rails. Thanks to thick smoke, strobe lights and herky-jerky camera motions — courtesy of a pair of hydraulic arms that swung wildly and kept pulling Scott and guest Playboi Carti out of frame — the song was rendered almost entirely incoherent, both sonically and visually. At one point, the only clear image on the screen was of one of Carti's white boots, which ... wasn't a lot to go on.

12. Chris Stapleton, "White Horse" and "Mountains of My Mind" (4/13/24)

Chris and Morgane Stapleton.
NBC / Will Heath/NBC
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Will Heath/NBC
Chris and Morgane Stapleton.

Chris Stapleton has built a tremendous career — and won countless awards — working from a foundation of no-frills, guitar-forward country-rock. But while that sturdy songcraft makes Stapleton one of the most reliably compelling figures in modern music, a resistance to stagecraft can make it harder for SNL performances to reach towering heights.

Instead, Stapleton settled for cranking out two absolutely stellar songs — one with his band ("White Horse") and one with just an acoustic guitar ("Mountains of My Mind"). The former labored to overcome an iffy sound mix — Stapleton's wife Morgane was almost inaudible — but the latter song got stripped down enough to let listeners hang on the singer's every word. Sometimes, shining a light on exceptional raw material is enough.

11. Justin Timberlake, "Sanctified (feat. Tobe Nwigwe)" and "Selfish" (1/27/24)

Justin Timberlake.
NBC / Will Heath/NBC
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Will Heath/NBC
Justin Timberlake.

Justin Timberlake is nothing if not a committed maximalist — this is, after all, a guy who turned up at the Tiny Desk backed by 14 other musicians — and that commitment to grandiosity served him exceptionally well in his SNL performance of "Sanctified." The arrangement leaned on take-'em-to-church energy from the jump, but the whole thing got more viscerally exciting as it went along — especially once Tobe Nwigwe and a team of dancers showed up for a full-blown strobe-lit spectacle.

"Selfish," on the other hand ... hoo boy. You could make a strong case that it's the most uneventful single of Timberlake's solo career, and it was done no favors by flat staging that stranded the singer at the center of it all. Timberlake is a superstar, no question, but the vibes here were giving "low-energy Robin Thicke."

So there you have it: dizzying highs, deadening lows and nothing in between. There isn't much choice, then, but to grade this one squarely in the middle.

10. Bad Bunny, "Un Preview" and "Monaco" (10/21/23)

Bad Bunny.
NBC / WIll Heath/NBC
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WIll Heath/NBC
Bad Bunny.

Puerto Rican superstar Bad Bunny pulled double duty as musical guest and host, which can often lead to scaled-down performances. In the case of "Un Preview," that held true, as the artist rapped over a prerecorded track in front of a spare white set and a gyrating mechanical rocking horse — visually striking yet not terribly memorable, unless you really like gyrating mechanical rocking horses.

For "Monaco," the production value improved considerably, as Bad Bunny sat on a table while flanked by a frenetic coterie of seated, bug-masked dancers. A pair of string players even helped flesh out the instrumentation — a step up from the rote backing beats of "Un Preview" — but neither performance made the absolute most of Bad Bunny's weapons-grade star power.

9. Foo Fighters, "Rescued" and "The Glass (feat. H.E.R.)" (10/28/23)

Foo Fighters and special guest H.E.R.
NBC / WIll Heath/NBC
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WIll Heath/NBC
Foo Fighters and special guest H.E.R.

It feels silly to refer to a Foo Fighters appearance on SNL as "long-awaited," given that Dave Grohl's band has been a featured musical guest nine times in the past three decades. But this was actually a makeup date, as the group was supposed to close out the previous season, before said season got truncated by the Writers Guild of America strike.

Even six months later, Foo Fighters' performance of "Rescued" and "The Glass" marked the band's first TV appearance since the death of Taylor Hawkins in 2022. And, given the themes of the group's newest album — last year's excellent But Here We Are reflects on the loss of not only Hawkins, but also Grohl's mother — the band invested this performance with considerable, long-pent-up emotion.

Surrounded by vintage electronics — low-tech radar screens, black-and-white TVs, that sort of thing — Foo Fighters' members bashed their way through "Rescued" with abandon, as Grohl pushed the limits of even his own vein-bulging intensity. "The Glass" felt more contained, bringing in H.E.R. to lend the band a fourth guitar (complete with solo) and transform the song into a ragged but moving duet. Not unforgettable, but solid, for sure.

8. Dua Lipa, "Illusion" and "Happy for You" (5/4/24)

Dua Lipa.
NBC / Will Heath/NBC
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Will Heath/NBC
Dua Lipa.

Dua Lipa may have inspired the "go girl, give us nothing" meme, but she's evolved into a flashy stage performer who's unafraid of cardio-intensive choreo. Aided by a phalanx of men in mesh tank tops, "Illusion" went all-in on synchronized grinding, complete with body rolls. Though the overall effect felt a little robotic, it's difficult to argue with the effort level.

"Happy for You," which closes Lipa's new album, Radical Optimism, didn't go quite as hard on the SNL stage, but that's not all bad: A refreshingly generous breakup song, the track stood up well to the sparkly staging Lipa gave it. Flinging her hair against a barrage of smoky white high beams, the singer looked and sounded for all the world like an icon of dramatically lit magnanimity.

7. Vampire Weekend, "Gen-X Cops" and "Capricorn" (5/11/24)

Vampire Weekend.
NBC / Will Heath/NBC
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Will Heath/NBC
Vampire Weekend.

On paper, Vampire Weekend's assignment didn't seem tough: Veteran rock bands on the SNL stage are generally expected to bypass the high-tech stagecraft expected of younger pop, hip-hop and R&B stars. But Vampire Weekend's fifth album, Only God Was Above Us, doesn't translate to the stage easily, with complex, unsettled, frequently abrasive songs that pour on the clutter.

Praise is due, then, for pulling off the new tracks "Gen-X Cops" and "Capricorn" without sacrificing their layered intricacy. It helps that the band filled the stage with supporting players to help bring these tracks to life, and it's a testament to Vampire Weekend's diligence that everyone involved stayed on the right side of the blurry line between "ornate" and "chaotic." Ezra Koenig's vocals didn't always pop the way they should, but he and his band pulled off performances that were considerably trickier than they may have looked.

6. Tate McRae, "Greedy" and "Grave" (11/18/23)

Tate McRae.
NBC / Will Heath/NBC
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Will Heath/NBC
Tate McRae.

Canadian pop singer and dancer Tate McRae first achieved prominence as a finalist on So You Think You Can Dance, so it's only natural that she'd lean into physicality in her SNL debut. Clad in short shorts and a small cape made out of what appeared to be tattered rags, McRae performed her ubiquitous hit "Greedy" on a set of bleachers, flanked by dancers in an arrangement that poured on the choreography — particularly later on, when McRae handed off the mic for a positively gymnastic bit of solo gyration.

It's a performance that scored maximum points for effort, while still standing on its own vocally. The ballad "Grave" proved less eventful, as it brought McRae to a literal standstill, but by then, she'd already demonstrated that she belonged on that stage.

5. Noah Kahan, "Dial Drunk" and "Stick Season" (12/2/23)

Noah Kahan.
NBC / Will Heath/NBC
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Will Heath/NBC
Noah Kahan.

Remember that scene in Spider-Man: No Way Home where a portal opened and a bunch of the villains from past Spider-Man movies poured out? We're having a moment like that in music, except replace "villains" with "earnest, oft-bearded folk singers" and "past Spider-Man movies" with "a folk-rock sound that was hugely popular a decade ago." Noah Kahan, Benson Boone, Teddy Swims ... heck, Hozier is back! Mumford & Sons released a new single earlier this year; this is not a coincidence, people.

Kahan offers a winningly gregarious variation on this new old sound, and his SNL debut leaned hard on the stomp-and-clap agreeability of it all. You want a banjo? We've got a banjo! You want man-of-the-woods set dressing? The sticks dangling from the ceiling are there to threaten everyone in sight with impalement from above! This folk-pop sound had left the public's consciousness for a while, and both "Dial Drunk" and "Stick Season" could hardly be catchier, so ... why not? Kahan is your lovable-everyman time traveler, here to remind you that 2012 wasn't too bad in hindsight.

4. Ariana Grande, "We Can't Be Friends (Wait for Your Love)" and "Imperfect for You" (3/9/24)

Ariana Grande.
NBC / Will Heath/NBC
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Will Heath/NBC
Ariana Grande.

If you're among those who left Ariana Grande's recent album eternal sunshine feeling underwhelmed — if its synth-pop airiness crossed a line into seeming lightweight — then these performances ought to help bring its themes and charms into focus. It helps that each song was accompanied by a visual feast, as vast screens conjured up vivid plant life, celestial wonders and, during a particularly striking moment in "We Can't Be Friends (Wait for Your Love)," an all-engulfing tidal wave. Grande was essentially performing in front of the most awe-inspiring karaoke backdrop of all time, but damned if it didn't work beautifully.

Just as importantly, her voice has grown deeper and richer over time: Grande's been working in musical theater, not to mention filming the Wicked movies, and that experience has clearly carried over to her day job. It wasn't just the special effects that made the stage seem bigger than it was.

3. Raye, "Escapism" and "Worth It" (4/6/24)

Raye.
NBC / Will Heath/NBC
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Will Heath/NBC
Raye.

There's an everything-everywhere-all-at-once quality to the music of British pop star Raye, who dominated this year's BRIT Awards and has been breaking out in the U.S. after writing hits for the likes of Beyoncé and Rihanna. Raye's own songs mash together elements of jazz, blues, R&B, gospel and timeless big-band pop, with grand arrangements that make use of strings, horns and choirs.

It's a lot to digest, and she brought every scrap of it to her SNL debut: "Escapism" and "Worth It" each made full use of a small city's worth of supporting players. But at their center was the rich voice, impeccable style and easy charisma of Raye herself. Given its strength as a promotional vehicle for huge stars, SNL doesn't get a chance to feature many discoveries. But for those who might still be unfamiliar with Raye, this marked a grand introduction.

2. Olivia Rodrigo, "Vampire" and "All-American B****" (12/9/23)

Olivia Rodrigo.
NBC / Will Heath/NBC
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Will Heath/NBC
Olivia Rodrigo.

Sometimes, artists pour all their creative resources into their first SNL song of the night, then dial it back for a closer that feels like a time-filler. Not so with Olivia Rodrigo, who led with a stately, piano-forward reading of her hit "Vampire" before committing to full-on berserkitude in "All-American B****," complete with a stomped cake and a ruined dress.

As with much of Rodrigo's catalog so far, it's easy to draw a straight line from this reading of "All-American B****" to a footnoted catalog of alt-rock influences — in this case Courtney Love, whose odes to trashed beauty are emulated with perfectionist precision. But it's hard to argue with the result, which pairs brash theatrics with a vocal that's unmistakably on-point. Rodrigo is great at this.

1. boygenius, "Not Strong Enough" and "Satanist" (11/11/23)

boygenius.
Will Heath / NBC
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NBC
boygenius.

In a performance that checked every box, boygenius came to SNL armed with high-concept presentation — Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus dressed as The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, complete with a Beatles-esque logo on the kick drum — as well as a pogoing backing band, wicked ear-to-ear grins, flinging hair, the occasional light show and, in the case of "Not Strong Enough," the best song of 2023. How could this set not work?

Aside from a muffled vocal here and there, this was a master class in how to maximize the SNL stage, while having an absolute blast in the process. All it needed was a guitar flung into the abyss, and Baker checked that box with a vengeance at the close of "Satanist." Every imaginable mission: accomplished.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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.)