Rihanna & The Rest Of ‘SNL’ Season 40’s Musical Guests, Ranked From Worst To Best

Carl Williott | May 18, 2015 6:30 am
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Saturday Night Live‘s 40th season was what they call in sports terms “a rebuilding year,” which is just a nice way of saying it was an aimless mess and nobody involved had the skill to clean things up. But at least each episode offered a pair of musical performances to help wash down all those uninspired sight gags and flubbed “Weekend Update” lines. In fact, a few of this year’s sets could be considered all-time SNL music moments.

But most will be cast off to the Wikipedia dustbin in peace — and one has been given a much worse fate. Read on for our completely correct worst-to-first ranking of all 21 musical performances from this season of SNL.

21. Iggy Azalea
Episode 4 (10/25/14)

This wasn’t quite a Lana-level catastrophe, only because the blame could be spread around for this one. There was Iggy’s short-of-breath faux-South sputter (I’m still trying to figure out which part of ATL pronounces “this” as “deece”), another chance for Americans to scratch their heads at the sight of Rita Ora, plus a shrill, out-of-pocket feature. The cherry on this failure sundae was a mixing job with the tinny acoustics of an old-timey ear trumpet.

20. Blake Shelton
Episode 12 (1/24/15)

Yeesh. No sign of these videos on the web, but all you need to know is they were dwarfed by “Wishin’ Boot” anyway.

19. Maroon 5
Episode 2 (10/4/14)

Maroon 5’s fifth SNL performance, or “The Diminishing Returns of Adam Levine‘s Falsetto,” was even blander than the corporate synergy meetings that led to it.

18. Wiz Khalifa
Episode 19 (5/2/15)

If Paul Walker knew his death would lead to something called Charlie Puth passing off this goopy-ass cheese in his “memory,” I bet he’d regret ever becoming famous enough to be the subject of a tribute song.

17. Ariana Grande
Episode 1 (9/27/14)

Look, Grande can wow listeners with her throwback diva pipes. But on her debut SNL appearance, her peanut-butter-mouth delivery was more pronounced (ironic!) than ever, amounting to garbled diva-in-training melisma over a clean backing track.

16. Zac Brown Band
Episode 15 (3/7/15)

These guys filled the banjo slot that the newly electrified Mumford & Sons vacated, making the Mumford bros seem cool by comparison, which is a first. And that was before trotting out a haggard Chris Cornell for some butt rock. That cameo probably made parents everywhere explain, “No really, this guy was a rock god in the ’90s,” kinda like how they try to convince their kids that Eddie Murphy used to be funny.

15. Hozier
Episode 3 (10/11/14)

Well, for an artist who was largely unknown before stepping onto the stage at Studio 8H, it certainly could’ve gone worse than a limp rendition of a dramatic studio single (again: Lana). Hey, do you think anyone not named Hozier knows the name of the second song?

14. One Direction
Episode 10 (12/20/14)

Ah, happier times, when Zayn Malik was still in the group and not Twitter-feuding with Louis Tomlinson. 1D’s latest SNL gig was a clear attempt at showing how “grown up” and “serious about music” they are, and we know this because the mics stayed in their stands and Niall Horan was strumming an acoustic guitar throughout. But they ended up zooming right past “mature” and drifting to the flaccid no-man’s-land of adult contempo.

13. Carly Rae Jepsen
Episode 17 (4/4/15)

The Canadian singer delivered a pair of perfectly fun and well-executed, if unmemorable, performances. As cool as it was to see her out there with Dev Hynes for second song “All That,” be honest, you were secretly hoping she’d break out “Call Me Maybe” for old time’s sake (and to remind the half-asleep olds who she was).

12. Mumford & Sons
Episode 18 (4/11/15)

Their new album makes U2 seem edgy and could be slipped onto Christian Rock radio without anyone batting an eye. But even when they’re performing neutered stadium rock, these guys are good for a 90-second burst of bracingly earnest intensity.

11. Charli XCX
Episode 9 (12/13/14)

Apparently the internet has been scrubbed of all video of this appearance, but I recall Charli being bubbly and sassy, giving off the slight DGAF vibe of someone who’s been there before. And I remember thinking her Robert Palmer-inspired backing band was kinda badass. Basically, all the things her “Fancy” partner’s performance was lacking.

10. Nicki Minaj
Episode 8 (12/6/14)

Two out of her three songs were heartfelt slow numbers, like she was overplaying the “serious, toned-down Nicki” angle to squeeze a few more sales out of Middle America. A feature from the always-tepid Skylar Grey didn’t help keep viewers’ eyelids up, but Nicki’s sheer pants charisma and flawless flow kept this afloat.

9. George Ezra
Episode 16 (3/28/15)

This guy’s got one of the most intense cases of voice-doesn’t-match-the-face syndrome in history. Anyway, instead of using this slot as an overwrought attempt to make his mark, Ezra seemed to treat the performance like it was just a small local live set, the likes of which he’s probably done dozens of times. That nonchalance gave it an intimate feel that’s hard to achieve on TV.

8. Rihanna
Episode 21 (5/16/15)

Along with Sia and D’Angelo, Rihanna delivered one of the season’s most striking set-pieces: Regardless of how you feel about “BBHMM,” her Tarantino-esque car chase with a hostage in the back was miles away from predictable or bland. Speaking of! It doesn’t matter how many poignant protest images you throw up behind RiRi for “American Oxygen,” it’s still irredeemably generic and squandered all the freewheeling confidence she showcased 30 minutes prior.

7. Kendrick Lamar
Episode 6 (11/15/14)

K-Dot stans were suspicious of “i,” but when he showed up with black contact lenses and disheveled hair as a tribute to Method Man and turned the song into a manic sprint, he quickly won back any doubters. Unfortunately, his second song song wasn’t from his soon-to-be-announced album — in fact, it wasn’t even a Kendrick song at all — so it was inevitably a disappointment.

6. Alabama Shakes
Episode 14 (2/28/15)

For their second album and second SNL stint, Alabama Shakes dialed into their soulful side. The warm, relaxed arrangements showcased Brittany Howard‘s range, from dusty falsetto to force-of-nature howl. Even if the songs didn’t draw you in, by the end her commanding presence was sure to wallop you.

5. Florence + The Machine
Episode 20 (5/9/15)

Few singers can make you block out everything else in the world, but Florence Welch has a voice that can do that — even when she’s parked on a stool with a broken foot and thus can’t put her full body into it. On “Ship To Wreck,” she brought back the jovial side that dominated her debut album, but the seething intensity in her eyes during the climax of “What Kind Of Man” was the true high point.

4. Sia
Episode 11 (1/17/15)

“Could your faves?” is what your Twitter TL would’ve been flooded with after Sia’s two sets on SNL, if Sia actually had stans or was anybody’s fave. But the fact is, nobody else is singing with such naked emotional power in a live setting right now. So good that she made a mime tolerable.

3. Prince
Episode 5 (11/1/14)

Prince ended the show’s four-episode season-opening slump with an extended medley featuring his band 3rdEyeGirl and Lianne La Havas. Even though he only performed new material, Prince showed off more range in those eight minutes than most musicians do in an entire career.

2. D’Angelo
Episode 13 (1/31/15)

For his grand return to the spotlight, D’Angelo may have out-Princed The Purple One. His two songs operated in their own universe, immune to the demands of contemporary pop and TV. “The Charade” hit particularly hard, with the band wearing shirts reading “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe” as the hoodie-clad front man shredded over a chalk outline. Despite SNL‘s constant political jabs, it was D’Angelo who ended up having the season’s most lasting bit of commentary.

1. Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars
Episode 7 (11/22/14)

Even for Bruno Mars, these performances gave off a level of old-school showmanship that’s both odd and invigorating to see in the modern era. The moves, the vocals, the stars happily filling the backup role in service of the whole — it’s rare to see that from a loose alliance of industry vets today. Oh, and if you thought an SNL appearance by The Weeknd in the year 2015 was improbable, then imagine the shock when frigging Mystikal showed up — and with that staggering level of hip-hop James Brown command, no less. It was a lackluster season, but this immensely fun, engaging and impressive pair of songs made it worth wading through it all.