Throughout its 25-year history, Saturday Night Live has consistently showcased an eclectic mix of rock’s most engaging performers. The show has played an important role in the history of rock and provided us with plenty of memorable moments along the way, from Lorne Michaels’ failed offer of thousands of dollars to the Beatles for a one-show reunion to Rage Against the Machine setting fire to the flag and the tempers of the show’s advertisers. Everyone’s seen Saturday Night Live, and everyone’s got a favorite Saturday Night Live musical moment. After 25 years, the show’s producers feel it’s finally time to put them on a CD.
Compiling the best SNL performances out of the hundreds that have taken place is a daunting task, but the people behind The Musical Performances have come through admirably. While it would be nice to hear more from the show’s early years (most of the songs collected here are from the 1990s), and some of SNL‘s most memorable performances have been neglected (the aforementioned Rage, for example), there are few artists on Volumes 1 and 2 who don’t deserve inclusion.
Volume 1 is the more mainstream/pop-rock oriented of the two discs. Obvious highlights include Jewel’s jazzy rendition of “Who Will Save Your Soul,” which takes on a completely different feel than the studio version of the song, and Counting Crows’ surprisingly urgent “Round Here.” The Grateful Dead’s timeless “Casey Jones” sounds exceptional as does Eric Clapton’s stirring “Wonderful Tonight.” David Bowie performs a strong version of “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps),” but the recording sounds poor and the song seems out of place sandwiched between Elvis Costello’s brilliant “Radio, Radio” (which he breaks into after abandoning his record company’s choice of song, “Less Than Zero”) and Randy Newman’s classic “I Love L.A.,” which serves as a perfect closer to the disc. Songs by Paul Simon, James Taylor, Tom Petty and Billy Joel also stand out, while only an uninspired Sting, Annie Lennox, Lenny Kravitz (“Are You Gonna Go My Way” sounds exactly the same as the version you heard daily on the radio a few years ago) and Dave Matthews Band disappoint.
Volume 2, while suffering from horrible sequencing, showcases some of the biggest names of ‘90s alternative rock and hip-hop, and it’s definitely the better of the two discs. Nirvana kicks things off with “Rape Me,” a jarring rendition which sounds just as haunting and powerful as it did in 1993. R.E.M. performs a beautiful “Losing My Religion,” the Beastie Boys blaze through a fiery “Sabotage,” and Oasis shine with “Acquiesce,” amazing considering the song was originally a B-side. Arrested Development always knew how to liven things up on stage, and their “Tennessee” is no disappointment, while Mary J. Blige’s “Reminisce” is heartfelt, passionate soul at its best. Courtney Love’s pain on “Doll Parts” is absolutely frightening, while Beck’s “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” and the Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand By You” are even more moving than their studio incarnations. Green Day, TLC, Alanis Morrissette and Neil Young are also great as well. In fact, the only disappointments are Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place” and Dr. Dre’s “Been There Done That,” which is surprising considering his performance with Snoop Dogg and Eminem earlier in the 1999 season was one of the best any artist has given on SNL in years.
Take note, neither disc of The Musical Performances is essential. As mentioned earlier, there are a handful of uninteresting songs on Volume 1 and Volume 2 is so horribly sequenced that it’s at times difficult to listen to as an album. But there are plenty of great performances on each disc—especially on Volume 2—and the selection of artists is so eclectic that it’s impossible not to find one you love. So while Saturday Night Live: The Musical Performances is hardly a necessary purchase, it’s also a hard compilation not to enjoy.