Streaming services may be rising in popularity, but there’s something about turning on a TV to see a musician gearing up to take the stage that makes their accessibility so much more thrilling. This year was a leveling of fame. Angel Olsen and Car Seat Headrest played the same stage as Kendrick Lamar on Colbert. Wolf Parade and Michael Stipe came out of hiding to celebrate a return or honor a fallen hero, respectively. Laura Jane Grace talked about hating the word “Tranny” on Seth Meyers while Vic Mensa took on the police with “16 Shots” on Kimmel. Even Ty Segall shook things up by sporting a baby mask as he performed an evil, twisted version of “California Hills” to a fearful Conan crowd. The power of televised performances returned, and 2016 threw a dash of magic over each one.
Perhaps the most surprising turn was that of Saturday Night Live as a whole. The live comedy show is notorious for booking massive marquee names and then draining their performance with poor mixing, most noticeably when funneling a rock performance through traditional pop setups (see: overblown vocals, lowered guitars, and heavy bass). This year, the show either hired a new live mix crew or decided to, you know, pay attention, and everyone they brought on sounded fabulous — as if they weren’t already. Kanye West, Margo Price, Alicia Keys, Courtney Barnett, Drake, Solange, and more graced the stage, gifting performances on par with their usual delivery. About time.
But our favorite moments on the televised stage this year weren’t just the moments that were perfect. It was the thrill of seeing a musical comeback, of seeing an act return to the stage with the type of poise we remember them once having. It was the moment when a controversial set steals your breath only to return it a few hours later, setting both the internet and mouths ablaze with verbose opinions. It was the fuzzy joy of seeing two minds come together, a collaboration that elevates a song to its next level. It was the jittery pride we felt when a smaller artist got their chance to wow the musically unplugged, giving it their all in front of the camera during their big breakthrough. And, of course, it was the shock of seeing the unexpected, of watching bands get weird for the sake of keeping viewers on their toes.
Television is full of magic. We see that enough in an episode of Black Mirror or Westworld. What we don’t see enough is the magic of music captured on television. This year stole greats from us with unprecedented greed, but it gifted us a slew of phenomenal live sets and, better yet, a chance to relive them, a chance for them to be broadcast around the world, and a chance for viewers to go to bed with a renewed love for live music.