Insomniacs marveled this year as the late night scene evolved before their eyes. Over at NBC, Jay Leno stepped down (once again), handing The Tonight Show to Jimmy Fallon, who did the same with Late Night for Seth Myers. A similar shift occurred behind-the-scenes over at CBS — Stephen Colbert and James Corden for David Letterman and Craig Ferguson, respectively — but those changes won’t actually go down until 2015.
Meanwhile, TBS let Conan be weird and creative with special nights and commemorative weeks; Comedy Central continued to bank on The Daily Show and (for one last time) The Colbert Report; and ABC kept things vivid and loud via Jimmy Kimmel Live! with its many outdoor performances. Needless to say, there were no yawns until the wee hours of morning.
However, it cannot be said enough: If you win over Letterman, you win ’em all. Amidst his final year, the legend continues to stay relevant by booking every buzz band and veteran on demand. Odds are that streak will only get hotter in the months leading up to his final swan song, so be prepared to lose even more sleep next year.
Or, thank us in the morning for catching you up.
10. St. Vincent on Saturday Night Live
The Saturday Night Live finale in May of this year saw a slew of surprise guests, as usual, but St. Vincent’s performance helped steal the show. She got viewers to put down the remote and watch as a woman channeled David Bowie, PJ Harvey, and the creeping eeriness of a futuristic self warped by digital means. Her performance was an introduction to St. Vincent as a fully-developed character, as a moniker for a performer, not just a musician. While Twitter wasted no time comparing Clark’s silver hair and dark outfits to those of Beetlejuice, those willing to hear her out were surprised. The twisted jolts that the song’s synth and guitar squealed out made every move of her band’s choreography all the more synchronized, likely inspired by her work with David Byrne in 2013. She pulled it off. It was the debut of a self-assured theatrical self, showing that her genius expands far beyond the frets of her beloved, worn guitar. –Nina Corcoran
9. Al Green on Late Show with David Letterman
In a year where David Letterman has reacted pretty aggressively to performers on his show, it’s nice to get a little perspective in the form of 68-year-old legend Al Green. While that’s not to say that the other performances didn’t deserve their Letterman Wows — trust me, those’ll be coming up later in this countdown — the recent Kennedy Center honoree delivered a breathtaking pair of songs, songs that’ve been in the canon for decades and yet still sounded as full of life as ever. Dave’s simple introduction (“This is all you want, my friends”) says it all: Even as the first few words of “Tired of Being Alone” ring out in Green’s iconic voice, every single person in the audience bobs and grooves along, and the energy radiates out of the screen to get every couch-dweller moving too. Then, as if that weren’t enough, he blissfully leads the room through “Let’s Stay Together”, encouraging people to sing along as if it would be humanly possible not to. We’ve all been crooning along to these songs forever, echoing those incredible, soulful vocals, and this performance was certainly no different. –Adam Kivel
8. The Replacements on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon
A sigh of relief. That’s the best way to describe The Replacements’ heroic return to Rockefeller Center this past September. The feeling’s all in the body language of a very lean Paul Westerberg, who ricochets through “Alex Chilton” with the jubilance of a teenage rebel crashing homecoming with last year’s prom queen. Much thanks goes to perpetual nice guy Jimmy Fallon for smoothing things over with the ever stodgy Lorne Michaels. Bygones are bygones, but it was hard to imagine the tenacious producer would ever forgive the Minneapolis outfit for their disastrous 1986 appearance on Saturday Night Live, which involved on-stage cursing, excessive drinking, and extensive damages to the show’s dressing room. Then again, as my mother used to tell my teachers, “How could you stay angry at that bullshit grin?” Rascals! –Michael Roffman
7. Prince on Saturday Night Live
Watching Prince perform seems like it would draw comparisons to watching Prince play ping-pong or make pancakes, even. The former would be discernibly more entertaining — but his poised, unruffled nature would assuredly remain. His every move seems tactical, yet relaxed at the same time. From the casual flip of his third-eye glasses to his dexterous guitar handling, no movement goes out of place. The Purple One has filled the Saturday Night Live music slot three times in his career, but in November we were given a first — not just for Prince, but for SNL. The icon scrapped the standard two four-minute songs for an eight-and-a-half-minute medley. The stream featured “Clouds”, “Plectrum Electrum”, “Marz”, and “Another Love” from the pair of albums he released in September. It also served as a salivation point for those — myself included — dreaming of a Prince tour in 2015. –Kevin McMahon
6. FKA twigs on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon
The genesis for “Two Weeks” in two separate lines: “I can fuck you better than her” and “My thighs are apart for when you’re ready to breath in,” revealing FKA twigs wooing a man away from his unsatisfactory, sexless relationship. For a culture so obsessed with butts, boobs, and bondage, pop stars who nail the notion of sex by tonguing lyrics that seduce and spurn the listener are few and far between. It’s difficult to mention FKA twigs’ debut album, LP1, without mentioning the sexuality she presents in both her songwriting and her live performance, so when her American TV debut during The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon found her wielding the stage in a molten-hot gold bustier that could easily double as a protective layer of second skin chain mail — well, it was extraordinary. The beyond-human hypnotizes as she switches from sultry vixen to angelic anomaly, gliding through the air like the wax inside a lava lamp, rising over rhythms and skipping through synths, gurgling into the soft-focus cyborg stoically posing with large sheets of shimmering fabric that twist and unfurl around her in a vortex — as though it, and her, function without gravity. Her visuals are entwined in her approach to sound. Then, the rhythm clicks back as she completes her takeover. “I’ve never seen anything like that before, oh my god!” says Fallon, proving a point: This is FKA twigs’ world, and now we see her. –Lior Phillips
5. Ty Segall on Conan
With silver lips and dots under his eyes, Ty Segall stared directly into the camera during his performance on Conan. Sometimes breaking the fourth wall is done in television to emphasize the absurdity of the moment (think The Office), but Segall’s eyes imply something far more dangerous. It’s as if he’s saying, “If you dare try and turn the channel or look away, I’ll jump out of this screen, and you’ll regret it.” In many ways, this was Segall’s “coming out” with his new, star-child image. It was his ascension from grimy garage rocker to shimmering rock god. The Manipulator symbol gleamed off of his shirt as he growled and wailed, backed by a lineup featuring Mikal Cronin on bass, Emily Rose Epstein on drums, and Charlie Moothart on guitar. The band ascends the typical stagnancy of late night performances and manages to capture the haphazard insanity that comes with Segall’s live sets. With one last shriek and guitar solo, it’s clear even to Conan that Segall and co. left only rubble in their wake. –Dusty Henry
4. Kendrick Lamar on Saturday Night Live
“They wanna say it’s a war outside and a bomb in the street/ And a gun in the hood and a mob of police,” spat Kendrick Lamar over that lounge-y backdrop of “i” during his sophomore appearance on Saturday Night Live on November 15th. The late night appearance has been a hurdle for many of Lamar’s contemporaries, but for these four-plus minutes, Lamar kept it funky, smooth, fierce, and provocative. The performance alone was powerful, amplified by an array of gospel singers providing the inspiring “I love myself” hook, Lamar himself unable to keep the incendiary flow contained for long. With his eyes veiled to the world, the Compton MC was a man possessed, the energy intensifying with each blast from the live drummer. Framed within the context of the ongoing law enforcement brutality turmoil, the performance was monumental. “i” is a protest song rich in self-love and self-respect, traits we all strive for but which have been forcefully taken from portions of American society. With all these factors in line, Lamar established a new standard for hip-hop on the late night platform, a bar that it would seem only he might be capable of reaching. –Derek Staples
3. Father John Misty on Late Show with David Letterman
For Josh Tillman, his Father John Misty persona has always been about the performance. Using the moniker has freed Tillman to morph into a bizarrely engaging, schmaltzy frontman — one that hams it up on Conan in a bright white suit or rides a toy unicorn during a Lollapalooza festival gig supporting 2012’s Fear Fun. Then, he was often just funny, a goof singing lines like “Please come help me, that Canadian shaman gave a little too much to me!”
Now, with the premiere of “Bored in the USA” on Late Night with David Letterman, the first preview of his upcoming I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman takes his persona to its natural conclusion — a satirical take on the sleazy lounge act crooner. The performance starts off with him at the piano, backed by a full orchestra. As the song progresses, Tillman turns to the camera to reveal he’s been “playing” a self-playing piano. Later, there’s canned laughter over lines like “They gave me a useless education/ And a subprime loan/ On a craftsman home,” a line that lands especially hard considering his television audience. The whole thing is political, weirdly funny, and wonderfully clever — in the vein of predecessors like Randy Newman and Warren Zevon. Depending on the success of I Love You, Honeybear, this could well be a performance people deem important in the future. –Josh Terry
2. Kendrick Lamar on The Colbert Report
Kendrick Lamar’s performance on The Colbert Report had a lot going for it even before he spat his first verse — the fact that he was the show’s last (announced) musical guest ever, the fact that he was going to debut a brand-new song from his upcoming third album, the fact that he was so good-natured in the preceding interview. And, as for the music itself, the back-alley percussion, Thundercat bass and Terrence Martin saxophone, and tense crescendos — which eventually transformed the catchphrase of Bébé’s Kids into a rallying cry for black rights — rivaled his SNL appearance.
But while much is rightfully being said about the social justice being called for in “Untitled” (and “i”, for that matter), the song’s live premiere was equally as special for its sense of dramatic flair. I’m not saying there wasn’t booze in that flask, even if Lamar’s said in the past that he doesn’t drink — it just came off as another facet of an enigmatic character he may be or may not be developing for his forthcoming record, right up there with the no-iris contacts on SNL and the nod to Heath Ledger’s Joker in the music video for “i”. It’s too soon to say for sure, but K. Dot may be mixing a message of self-empowerment with theatricality and, most exciting of all, danger. –Dan Caffrey
1. Future Islands on Late Show with David Letterman
Causing one of the biggest fangirl moments of David Letterman’s lengthy and storied career as a late night host is arguably one of the best coming out parties a band could have, and Future Islands shot into the public consciousness with their performance of “Seasons (Waiting on You)” in early March. Making their television debut, the band was firing on all cylinders, and Samuel T. Herring cemented himself as one of indie rock’s most passionate frontmen with his peculiar but wonderful dance moves creating a frenzy to rival the “Shmoney Dance”. The emotions on his face throughout the song are so engaging; it’s truly chill-inducing, in a good way. When he smacks his chest with his fist, you can feel the intense joy he gets from his craft, and with a group of such talented musicians backing him up, Herring really gets a great platform to make a name for the group. Letterman’s reaction to our song of the year is unbridled enthusiasm, a man truly blown away by the showmanship and the powerful music that the band displays. This performance will be remembered not just as a Future Islands career highlight, but a memorable moment from a talk show host who gave us so many. –Pat Levy