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Top 20 Late Night TV Performances of 2014

Dec 22, 2014
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Late night performances are a weird, mixed bag for artists and listeners alike. Not counting Later…With Jools Holland, most late night shows tack on their musical guests as some footnote to everything else that’s going on. They can strip the power of artists and their songs (which the artists are probably playing at their most-polished), mainlining them as some curious side attraction to whatever comedy bits stand to take the Internet by viral storm. That said, late night performances are also the platform from which many artists kickstart their public momentum, indulging the whims of up-too-late teens who may grow up to be music nerds (or music journalists). Given that the past year inspired some massive changes to this platform, with David Letterman’s and Jay Leno’s retirement preceding the consecration of Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert in their new positions (and guiding the inevitable rise of Seth Meyers), we’re seeing late night television retake its place as a major engine for up-and-coming artists of all genres.

Even though The Orwells started this year off with a stage-writhing bang, we’re not saying a whole lot about them now. A year of non-stop stellar releases from visionary artists of all genres yielded more than enough stand-out performances to pack this list. Is your favorite below? By Sameer Rao


Future Islands

\"Seasons (Waiting on You)\"

Late Show with David Letterman

Not since Ian Curtis has a white man unintentionally set the template for indie rock dancing like Future Islands\’ Samuel T. Herring. The rest of the world paid attention too, making the Baltimore synth pop group\‘s network TV debut among the most blogged-about live performances of the year. At no point did Herring\‘s yearning, raspy passion fall out of lock-step with the rest of the band, whose metronomic precision didn\‘t let up once. This was probably a controversial inclusion to some, but who can argue with devotion like this? Perhaps 2014 still would\‘ve been Future Islands\’ break-through year based simply on releasing their best album yet, Singles. We\‘ll never know. But as it stands, this performance catapulted the band to a much wider audience and even greater acclaim, something few late night TV performances have been able to do.


Kendrick Lamar


The Colbert Report

We were about ready to give this slot to Kendrick\‘s bizarre, explosive performance on Saturday Night Live, but this star-studded performance (the final music performance on The Colbert Report before he takes over for Letterman) of an untitled new track completely blew that other one out of the water. The Compton emcee stood unassuming in a black hoodie, flanked by a backing band whose agents of killer musicianship included Flying Lotus collaborator Thundercat on bass and jazz-RnB-fusion legend Bilal on backing vocals. The song\‘s erratic funkiness, reminiscent of some material on the new yet-to-be-fully-understood D\‘Angelo epic Black Messiah, channels the best of cathartic music with social justice messages-and does so with a sobering relevance to current issues taking up major real estate in American headspace. No other performance would be worthy of such a quick inclusion in this list. No other could.


Run the Jewels

\"Early (feat. Boots)\"

Late Show with David Letterman

Hip-hop records like Run the Jewels 2 aren\‘t supposed to move as close to the mainstream as it has, but Killer Mike and El-P\‘s gatling-gun-heavy songs are getting some well-deserved attention. This performance of \“Early,\” probably the album\‘s best track (and the one whose heart-wrenching narratives of police violence most clearly resonate with Killer Mike\‘s own current public statements opposing the Mike Brown and Eric Garner verdicts), put everything Run the Jewels stands for out on public display. The technical execution is flawless, the backup singers\’ face paint is somehow both absurd and unsettling, and the live cameo from wunder-producer/musician Boots (who helped architect much of Beyonce\‘s most recent album) proved their credentials to anyone who\‘s been sleeping on RTJ.


Prince Medley

“Clouds,” “Marz,” and “Another Love”

Saturday Night Live

Prince\‘s recent removal of pretty much his entire public profile from the Internet is tragic for a lot of reasons. This stellar medley from this season of Saturday Night Live is pretty much non-existent now, but rest assured, it justified the famously-reclusive musician\‘s general public absence and mythic prowess as a performer. There were lots of roaring guitar solos, motion-stopping vocal leaps, and blindingly flashy lights to go around. We promise. (Okay, we found this less-than-great-quality video that should give you some idea.)




Late Show with David Letterman

Late night performances that try to capture the spirit of clubs or dance studios run the risk of falling seriously flat. Somehow, Canadian songstress and dancer Kiesza avoided that and additionally brought the audience into her world by performing throughout the Letterman studio and the street outside. \“Hideaway\” is already an international dance hit, but with performances like this (whose flawless dancing and singing calls to mind mid \‘90s Janet Jackson TV appearances), Kiesza\‘s well on her way to becoming a household name.


FKA twigs

\"Two Weeks\"

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

With music this intricately layered and woven together, FKA twigs could be forgiven for having trouble recreating her works live. Fortunately for us, her soft-textured vocals actually translate well to the stage. Add some well-timed lights, industrial fans, pastel fabrics, and adept self-censorship, and you have easily one of the most visually-stunning live performances to hit the small screen in a while. It would\‘ve been cool to see her backed by Questlove and crew, but who cares? Watch the video (which can\‘t be embedded) here.


The Roots


The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

Speaking of The Roots, they managed to put out one of the most conceptually remarkable and musically adroit albums of the year with ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. This gives them the unique chance to step out of their role as joke-ready house band and flex their deep-ingrained artistry. For this performance of the epic \“Never,\” they do it big with chamber musicians and a Kraftwerk-esque physical presentation that\‘ll make you look at them with new eyes. But then again, this is The Roots, so weren\‘t you doing that already?

The Roots x A-Trak -“Never” f. Patty Crash Live… by nicsleone


The War on Drugs

\"Red Eyes\"

Late Show with David Letterman

Of course, this countdown isn\‘t only limited to those artists who throw something big out on stage and confound or stupefy viewers. There\‘s plenty of room for reliable, sonically inventive artists who know how to flawlessly execute their own songs. The War on Drugs did just that, to dizzyingly simple effect, with this performance of \“Red Eyes.\”


Kanye West

\"Heartless,\" and \"Black Skinhead\"

Late Night with Seth Meyers

I don\‘t need to be another music journalist talking about Kanye West, or how his live performances are some of the grandest artist statements coming out of contemporary pop. I can say, though, that this retrospective medley on Seth Meyers\‘s new show (which has a stronger presence in the latter half of this calendar) showed us that Kanye\‘s still remarkably proud of his earlier material.

Kanye West performs medley live on Late Night w/ Seth Meyers from HungryLikeThaWolfe on Vimeo.


Sharon Van Etten

\"I Love You But I\'m Lost\"

Later... with Jools Holland

Again: sometimes, the simplest elements are the best. Look no further than this Later… with Jools Holland standout from Sharon Van Etten, whose haunting take on \“I Love You But I\‘m Lost\” from this year\‘s devastating Are We There packs all the punch of her grandiose works in a much more intimate (and, thus, powerful) way.


Father John Misty

\"Bored in the USA\"

Late Show with David Letterman


The National

\"Graceless\" and \"I Need My Girl\"

Saturday Night Live



\"Chandelier\" (featuring Lena Dunham)

Late Night with Seth Meyers


Jhené Aiko

\"The Worst\"


Jhené Aiko - The Worst [Live on Conan] by nicsleone


Arcade Fire

\"We Exist\"

Later... with Jools Holland


Against Me!


Late Show with David Letterman



\"The Day You Died\"

Late Show with David Letterman


Ryan Adams


Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon



\"Everything is Wrong\"

Late Night With Seth Meyers


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