I’ll be honest, I didn’t watch a whole lot of late night television in 2017. I didn’t especially want to. The whiplash of the same comedy platforms that helped normalize the encroaching decay of our standards of dignity as a country puffing up a whole lot of hot air against the man who embodied it to record ratings made me at best uncomfortable, and at worst bitter and cynical. I was never in the mood to simply laugh off the appalling headlines that comprised this hellscape of the last 365+ days, especially as they were quarantined off in “opening monologues” from white men all named Jimmy trying to sell me another celebrity’s latest project. Last year I cited late night musical performances as “one of the last remaining monocultures of music consumption,” but as tensions over issues of real consequence become increasingly irreconcilable — as our self-definition comprises more of what we aren’t than are — the idea that the shows selling us “carpool karaoke” are going to bring us all together made my stomach churn.
Yet there’s a double-edged beauty to how the internet strips all context from our content, and that’s how we can enjoy our favorite artists tear it up on a national stage without first sitting through commercialized “entertainers” making jokes about political atrocities that in most cases will not affect them. The point is, late night slots are still a uniquely significant setting for live music (if no longer for comedy). They’re often a band’s first exposure to the wider public after toiling away in perpetual print praise. And when veterans return to the platform, they often do so to make a statement out of the space — rearranging the narrative constructed for them with the powerful combination of simply a camera and their own voice. The following names on this list represent everything from loudmouth breakouts that proved personally validating during a year when our collective rancor felt increasingly unheard, to an expectedly expectation-bending display from the most recently-inducted legend of the form. These musicians continued to make shine the sole bright spot in an increasingly dim medium.
Cardi B: “Bodak Yellow” (Jimmy Kimmel Live!)
Look, Late Night has never been a particularly taste-making platform. The bookers simply fail to catch heat before it’s already hot and rarely take risks on artists that haven’t already garnered some kind of clout. Even still, there were countless names that cast huge shadows over 2017’s musical momentum that failed to materialize when the sun went down. I mean, how has Brockhampton not been welcomed yet on one of these shows? Same with Julien Baker, Charly Bliss, and Pinegrove. But while these are some key oversights, to be sure, at least Late Night didn’t let us down with Cardi B. Strutting in a sparkling, feathery, all-pink fireworks display of an outfit in and of itself, she delivered her signature #1 hit (and what could have been this year’s national anthem) “Bodak Yellow” with the attitude and boisterous grace that’s gonna keep her a staple of these performances for a long time to come.
Taylor Swift: ”New Year’s Day” (The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon)
Could you imagine if this was how Taylor Swift started her latest album cycle? If she hadn’t gotten down and out about the “liars and dirty, dirty cheats of the world” and instead decided to return without fanfare or consideration for her villainous narrative to what she still (thankfully) can do better than anyone else? “New Year’s Day” was already among the best (and truthfully only good) tracks on Reputation, and it’s the only one that maintains her signature storytelling strengths: how she frames small details as focal points and reignites cliches through sheer personality. A last second performance for a mourning Jimmy Fallon — a context which opens up lines about a romantic love to a more general, empathic expanse — it could make you believe against all the evidence Taylor herself won’t let us forget that she’s exactly the friend you’d hope to have walk you home on the darkest nights.
The War On Drugs: ”Holding On” (The Late Show With Stephen Colbert)
How many guitars on stage is too many guitars? For the War On Drugs, it’s definitely not four. Four actually seems like a measly amount for a band that at rest sounds like a gargantuan pirate ship wrestling rocky waves over a screaming sunset. The more the better, because what project mastermind Adam Granduciel can orchestrate with the instrument is beyond limitation. This performance of the A Deeper Understanding’s jet-setter second single proves as much, fitting four guitars on stage for a song that’s mostly synth-based anyway and having none of them come across redundant. Instead each adds overlaying shades of atmospheric brushstrokes to the song’s panoramic sonic canvas, that when combined with the additional three keyboardists on stage (plus the standard bass and drums back-up, of course) depict a painting of your soul soaring on fire, every sound gripping onto the edges of the frame as if they could escape from reality altogether instead of hanging so precipitously at its borders, stretching the ends to show us just a little more than we could see with our own eyes on their way out.
Lorde: “Green Light” (Saturday Night Live)
Before Melodrama was out in the world — setting it ablaze via the hearts of anyone who’s ever been young for even a moment and still longs to return — and Lorde was still just a precocious songwriter and not the heavyweight superstar the album destined her to be, she graced SNL to play the only two songs we had heard from it at the time. But even then, it was clear that Lorde was transcending to a new level from the clever goth-pop of Pure Heroine. Staring down the camera with an impassioned distance, every musician backing her gradually illuminated as their parts came in, Lorde’s face itself performed “Green Light”’s lyrics of deception and self-redemption with as much expressive presence as her emphatic voice. She was just a curiosity with potential back in 2013, but as soon as she struck the song’s chorus with all her might that night she became fully realized as an unignorable presence. All that remains are those charmingly restless dance moves, representing nothing short of pure, unfiltered youth.
Swet Shop Boys: “T5” (The Late Show With Stephen Colbert)
Himanshu Suri and Rizwan Ahmed are doing more for “the culture” than most rappers who can’t shut up about it, while simultaneously boldly and defiantly representing for their own culture. They brought out an entire program for their late night TV debut, led-in by a powerful, in-flight safety skewering interpretive dance and draped in fly hybrid outfits mixing their Eastern roots with their Western worldviews. The duo delivered brash rhymes over producer Redhino’s stomping, shenai-blaring “T5” beat from last year’s incisive Cashmere, a rendition that alone would have secured them their place on this list. But they crossed the line from good to unforgettable in the last mile when the beat flipped into a sparse, tight rumble of thuds that Riz and Heems used as additional canvassing to amend their original verses. Riz offered his typically on-point commentary on bigotry while leveraging his unique Hollywood status, but it was Heems who stepped beyond his usual paygrade with the most inspired, breath-taking lyrics of the piece. “We can’t flee when they treat us like dogs with the fleas/ We say please but they beat us like dogs with disease,” he intones, before cutting as deep as he can muster: “Do I aspire to a hashtag of my memory/ How many likes will my hate crime receive?”
Vince Staples: “Love Can Be” (The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon)
Vince Staples made this same list last year for delivering another dead-eyed, soul-searching performance for Fallon, and if he keeps up the tradition he’ll always have a spot reserved. This time joined by a splattering of guests ranging from a FaceTimed-in Damon Albarn to an uncharacteristically solemn Ray J, Vince and his favorite collaborator Kilo Kish (contributing her usual expressively eccentric sing-speak) ruminate on the possibilities and pitfalls of romance over a sparse, creaking beat, his eyes closed almost the entire time as though he was just practicing at home in his bedroom and not doing it live on national television. It’s a composed, uncompromising performance, perfectly executed with all the moving parts in a way that suggests Staples is gunning for Kanye when it comes to pooling together seemingly ill-fitting puzzle pieces to make an immaculate pyramid. And he’s getting close.
Aminé: “Wedding Crashers” (Late Night With Seth Meyers)
Aminé also made this list last year, but this time around he’s not the relative unknown he was when he expertly made use of his Fallon spot to prove the power of his voice both musically and socially. Instead, he’s a certified B-list rapper with the potential to join the elite, having released a charming debut and now 2/2 when it comes to crushing his televised performances. In a ‘80s prom suit and checkered shoes, joined by a matching barbershop quartet and a lit pastor, Aminé exudes a humble, cheeky swagger as he spitefully pokes fun at an ex in a way that’s more self-deprecating than sinister. He layers puns with punchlines, belts harmonies, and even raps along with most of Offset’s verse even though Offset’s actually there already taking care of it, never letting the considerable effort he put into planning the party overshadow his naturally virtuosic charisma while it’s actually going on.
St. Vincent: ”New York” (The Late Show With Stephen Colbert)
Annie Clark’s live shows as St. Vincent are notorious for being bold spectacles — whether she’s rolling on the floor wrestling the sounds of the afterlife out of her guitar or rigid in lock-step performing synchronized, incongruous dance moves. You’d expect for her latest collection of art-pop, which is perhaps both her most brazenly immediate and unreachably weird album yet, that she’d find some new way to push the boundaries of her platform. But instead she reigned herself in, concentrating her entire being for a lovely performance of “New York” backed by the tasteful oddities of a pianist in a ski mask and an eerie cartoon curtain. Elegant and elegiac, it represents a new kind of novelty for an ever-expanding artist — depicting falling apart by standing perfectly still, with gratitude for the one person who ever made it feel like you had it together at all.
The Dap-Kings: “Sail On” & “Searching For A New Day” (The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon)
The world lost the incomparable Sharon Jones just over a year ago, but last month we were granted one final album from her and the Dap-Kings. For music made during her final months, while Jones was battling both chemotherapy and the cancer it was trying to beat, Soul Of A Woman is a remarkably lively, joyous affair. While it’s a collection that Jones herself wouldn’t live to share, the Dap-Kings made sure the lifelong celebration she embodied wouldn’t falter in her absence. In the most moving gesture you’d find on Late Night television this year, the band put down their instruments to let Questlove drop the needle on “Searching For A New Day.” Set alongside a montage of her signature stage presence, the Soul Of A Woman-centerpiece captured the beauty beyond Jones’ song and dance, emphasizing her singular, sun-rising aura. As the band picked back up their instruments to play alongside the recording, the video showed Jones throwing every ounce of her being to a crowd in awe of just how much a person can be. And even on a screen through a screen, you could still feel a bit of that magic yourself.
Chance The Rapper: “First World Problems” (The Late Show With Stephen Colbert)
Chance The Rapper had a relatively low-key 2017 after a run of increasingly astronomic years, but to a man who “told a hummingbird he too relaxed,” that still means he drew one of the largest crowds in Lollapalooza’s history, “saved” Soundcloud, and headlined the capstone event of the inaugural Obama Summit. “Laid back” is probably the least apt description of Chance as a person, but it’s remarkably well-suited for the then-untitled Daniel Caesar-backed tune he debuted on Colbert in September. On top little more than a light breeze of a chord progression, at least until the inevitable big gospel finish, Chance meditates on fame, family, friendships, and finality. “First World Problems” is a big departure from the anthemic sunshine of last year’s Coloring Book, instead intertwining elements of personal regret and political frustration that are mostly new to Chance’s repertoire. But it’s also peacefully familiar, with Chance adamant to “stay connected to the world like a long-ass voicemail,” as much an ambition as it is a promise. Few artists have kept as direct a line to their listeners, if in part because few artists have ever had as much worth saying.