The late night performance is an increasingly important arena for new music. Not only do the spots get millions of eyeballs from TV audiences, but millions more online (where you're spared Fallon's Pros and Cons before an incredible FKA twigs performance and aren't forced to watch Letterman coast into retirement). Then again, maybe old Davey ain't so bad; in drafting this list, it became pretty clear (especially when considering honourable mentions like Perfume Genius): he and his music producer, Sheryl Zelikson, have the game in a chokehold. Just ask Future Islands.
Future Islands on Late Show with David Letterman
Handily a defining moment of music in 2014 (evidence of the power of the late night stage, we've argued here) and certainly the buzziest such gig, we watched a workaday band enter a higher orbit in an old world, "this is your big break, kid"-type way. From his modified Grapevine to the emphatic growls, Samuel T. Herring's charisma campaign doesn't let up — all along, he just needed the right vehicle to deliver this bomb to the masses.
Kendrick Lamar on Saturday Night Live
Some people said "i" was soft, that the prodigal son had left for the pop charts, but here on this SNL spot — one of the most breathless televised musical performances I can remember — "i" is fire. Kendrick's message of self-love isn't meant to be cute (he isn't doing "Happy"), his is an expression aimed at moments of overwhelming fear and pain and unrest. It's a protest song right when we need one.
David Byrne and the Atomic Bomb! Band on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon
The Atomic Bomb! Band is a supergroup featuring Sinkane, Pat Mahoney of LCD Soundsystem, and Money Mark, dedicated to playing the songbook of Nigerian funk star William Onyeabor. David Byrne, who fronts here, has been a champion of Onyeabor's catalogue through his Luaka Bop label — an exemplar of what cultural exchange done well looks like.
The New Pornographers on Late Show with David Letterman
The New Pornos are consummate professionals, a band of ringers. A tighter, more precise act, I couldn't imagine. There are more than a handful of brilliant songwriters among their ranks, like the Brill Building they're riffing on. This Letterman performance is a masterclass in composition and dynamics.
St. Vincent on The Colbert Report
I was hoping to include Annie Clark's more splashy, thoroughly stagecrafted rendition from SNL, but NBC can be really precious about their clips. Whatever. In February, St. Vincent debuted her digital queen persona on Colbert and we got a taste for what art-rock in expert hands can look and sound like.
Kanye West on Late Night with Seth Meyers
Kanye dropped by the second to air episode of Late Night with Seth Meyers for a victory lap on Yeezus and an extra special medley, spanning College Dropout through his 2013 tour de force, reminding us again that, boy, he's had one hell of a decade.
Father John Misty on Late Show with David Letterman
Backed by a full orchestra and accented with a laugh track, the ex-Fleet Fox delivers a patently postmodern Late Show performance, sending up the whole practice with his very appropriate "Bored In The USA."
Sharon Van Etten on Late Show with David Letterman
"Every Time The Sun Comes Up" is a classic piece of songwriting; to my mind, one of the very best tracks of the year. It underlines a folly in network television that the genius line, "I washed your dishes, but I shit in your bathroom," stirs the censor's hand.
Le1f on Late Show with David Letterman
One of the most exciting talents in hip-hop makes his network television debut, flanked by dancers and Blood Orange, twisting through "Wut" off his Hey EP. This is the future of the genre: inclusivity, more perspectives, and not just as a side show.
The Replacements on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon
Alt-rock's most influential ne'er-do-wells return to 30 Rock after famously being banned from SNL in 1986. This is such a Replacementsy Replacements performance — there's the botched guitar parts, Paul Westerberg artfully flubs all your favourite lines — and still this 27-year-old piece of fan mail to Big Star songwriter Alex Chilton, makes you want to start a band in your parents' garage.