It was a tumultuous year for late night laffs, with Jimmy Fallon joining the fray, Conan taking over Tonight only to find awful Leno sink the NBC ship at 10PM, and Letterman enjoying career-high ratings despite (or because of?) a sex scandal. It was, however, a solid year for late night music booking. We regularly saw bands leap from our backyards and comments section to network television, and indexed highlights for you the mornings after. Here’s a look back at a dozen memorable late night TV jams in reverse chronological order. It kicks off with last week’s surprise in which a Stroke and some ex-SNLers revisited a yuletide classic.

Julian Casablancas, Jimmy Fallon, Horatio Sanz & The Roots – “I Wish It Was Christmas Today” (Jimmy Fallon) 12/21/09
If it was any other song, the mere fact that a Stroke was performing with the Roots would be enough to make this worth watching. But it wound up something more, both an updated trip down memory lane and a semi-reunion of the Christmas-sweatered “I Wish It Was Christmas” principals (see: Jimmy Fallon and a svelte Horatio Sanz). Plus, it allowed Julian to look cool and natural and make up for this.

Weezer – “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To” (David Letterman) 10/29/09
Rivers and band continue taking turns that leave some longtime fans in the cold, but their killer performance of the Raditude standout “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To” with the Late Show band cast the new Weezer in the best light possible, showing that after all these years they’re top notch performers who are still capable of churning out a straight-up stellar pop song.

The Flaming Lips – “Watching The Planets” (Conan O’Brien) 10/13/09
Sadly NBC has scraped this from the YouTube and Hulu archives, but kudos to the Lips for holding nothing back in the single freakiest Tonight Show performance in recent memory, throwing NBC’s late-night viewers into a four-minute ’60s psych rock stupor. (Consider it the precursor to Wayne “holding nothing back” in the fullest.)

Dirty Projectors – “When The World Comes To An End” (Jimmy Fallon) 9/28/09
Always looking forward, Brooklyn-scene chairman of the board Dave Longstreth took an opportunity to plug his 2009 triumph and instead brought a bit of the suite he penned for Björk, Mount Wittenburg Orca, to Late Night. The dizzying vocals from Amber, Angel, and Haley made a lifelong fan out of Questlove (“I would follow y’all to the ends of the earth“), who months later would join the DPs on the Bowery stage for a tour-closing “Stillness Is The Move.” (And later still, Questo would invite Haley and Amber to join the Roots with Mos Def and Black Star for the Fallon show’s Black Star reunion.) Any performance capable of all that certainly belongs on a list like this.

Arctic Monkeys – “Crying Lightning” (Jimmy Fallon) 8/4/09
Arctic Monkeys joined forces with Josh Homme in the studio (and devoured the Black Sabbath back catalogue out of it) to shape Humbug, an album release as memorable for its strongest points (“Cornerstone,” “Crying Lightning”) as for Alex Turner’s new locks. Their visit to Fallon’s studio brought all of that together on this brooding then explosive “Crying Lightning,” Alex’s easy charisma and killer vocal netted Jimmy’s single most excited band response until Dirty Projectors had their way with him. Here’s a shitty YouTube because, yep, NBC.

St. Vincent – “Marrow” (David Letterman) 6/24/09
Annie spared no instrumental part in corralling a sizable backing band to recreate the Disney-swirling, staccato-sax jagged beauty of “Marrow” in Letterman’s studio. No one track does more to touch on all of St. Vincent’s pulse points; that this blend of her muscular and vulnerable sides went down so smoothly in a live televised setting, though, is what strikes the hardest. Watch it below, Ted Leo.

Grizzly Bear – “Ready, Able” (David Letterman) 6/16/09
Grizzly Bear set off a hypestorm with a pair of late night performances last year, so it’s fitting that one of their performances from this one lands on the list too. After being bumped last minute from their original date, Grizzly Bear returned to the Ed Sullivan Theatre set to impress with the ACME string quartet and Ed Droste’s voice in its finest form for a swooning (and defining) take on the Veckatimest standout.

White Rabbits – “Percussion Gun” (David Letterman) 5/18/09
A lot of you couldn’t believe this one was left off certain lists of the year’s top songs. For those that didn’t agree, watch this and change your mind.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Zero” (David Letterman) 4/14/09
Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ visit to Letterman in 2009 came in the early stages of their synth-pop makeover, which meant Karen was relatively stoic, making sure to nail every note of the Blitz! anthem at the expense of her trademark scenery-chewing shenanigans. And it turns out Ms. O’s an irresistible focal point even while playing with the power of her voice and presence alone. By the time YYYs toured this stuff, the yoga moves and power kicks were back in the mix, and she was again sitting alone at the top of the shortlist for this generation’s bona fide rock stars. O-verdose:

Phoenix (Saturday Night Live) 4/3/09
Phoenix’s almost suspiciously pitch-perfect three-song set at Saturday Night Live was the Wolgang coming out party, stealing the show from host Seth Rogen and no doubt helping them on their road to playing every late night talk show possible. Also helping: every song on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.

Cursive – “From The Hips” (David Letterman) 3/13/09
This was the network television debut for the longtime Omaha rockers, and all those years of waiting unleashed on the Ed Sullivan Theatre in a titanic explosion from Cursive’s hips, charming the pants off the studio audience and one David Letterman. The song is a paean to primitive instinct, and this performance is its four-minute embodiment. “Don’t want to mumble what I’m trying to say, I want to scream it from my foaming mouth”? Check. “We’re at our best when it’s from our hips”? Check. Have you watched this before? Check it, please.

Antony & The Johnsons – “Aeon” (David Letterman) 2/18/09
Last and the very opposite of least comes this show-stopper from Mr. Hegarty and his Johnsons. The Crying Light was a conceptual triumph that took Antony on a sold-out world tour with intermittent stops at local talk shows, none more visceral than this take on “Aeon” for Mr. Letterman. Backed by a rhythm and string section recreating Nico Muhly’s gorgeous compositional contributions, Antony loses himself in this fluttering ode to Aeon, interjecting “uhhs” to punctuate lyrics, bobbing and throbbing at the piano like some Ray Charles-on-Arthur Russel hybrid minstrel. Paul Shaffer never lied; he took the power back.


Finally, no offense to Craig Ferguson, whose often terrific Late Late Show didn’t make the list this year. It’s gotta be hard for any band to compete with those cold opens…


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Comments (60)
  1. Cory  |   Posted on Dec 28th, 2009 0

    Still, the best of ALL time is Pavement on Leno in 1994 simply because they performed great and because Stephen Malkmus looks stoned out of his mind!: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ojx4PfmgoE

  2. I’m sorry Cory but the best ever is My Morning Jacket on Conan performing One Big Holiday. Don’t take my word for it, just youtube it and watch Conan’s orgasmic respnse

  3. Machina_Ex_Deus  |   Posted on Dec 28th, 2009 0

    I think leaving out Bat for Lashes outstanding David Letterman performance was a mistake.

  4. Alan Knut  |   Posted on Dec 28th, 2009 0

    Yep, Bat for Lashes was a mistake. How about that is replaced with Weezer? I’m pretty sure that Weezer performance took a year off my life.

    As for all-time bests, My Morning Jacket was amazing, but I really like Ryan Adams and the Cardinals Let it Ride on Letterman. Tom Wait’s Chocolate Jesus on Letterman as well.

  5. I’m sick of that White Rabbits song. It’s pretty meh if you ask me, and I for the life of me can’t understand the hooplah surrounding it. *shrug* Sorry.

  6. I own not one single Cursive album or song, but that Letterman clip is EPIC!

  7. tommy  |   Posted on Dec 28th, 2009 0

    i know theyre a little bit underrated for the year, but why not edward sharpe and the magnetic zeros’ performance of “home” on letterman? i had never heard of the band before that and was absolutely awestruck by them after that.

    pretty sure dave liked it a lot, too.

  8. Face  |   Posted on Dec 28th, 2009 0

    Public Enemy + The Roots + Antibalas-Bring the Noise. Amazing.

    Also, I second the Jawbox reunion, though I wish they played Cooling Card.

  9. Anne  |   Posted on Dec 28th, 2009 0

    Paul Simon accompanying Steve Martin (banjo) on Jimmy Fallon’s couch was a once in a lifetime. Martin’s banjo album The Crow is awesome and it was very cool to see him perform.

  10. Val  |   Posted on Dec 28th, 2009 0

    404 Error
    Jawbox Not Found

  11. Can we include Later… with Jools Holland? Yes, Ok then!

    The Low Anthem
    The xx
    Miike Snow
    Regina Spektor
    Little Boots
    The Mummers
    Golden Silvers
    Grizzly Bear

    …and the list goes on.

  12. Missing H  |   Posted on Dec 28th, 2009 0

    Yeah so i gave that White Rabbits tune another shot, since it has been pointed out that many people expected it on a “best of” list…ommission accepted, all systems go.

    P.S.- I had no idea that the “two weeks” lady from Total Recall (ya know, who’s head opens up to reveal Arnold by the Mars aiport security check scene) played/sang for Antony and the Johnsons! Go Priscilla!

  13. 404 Error
    Jawbox Not Found


  14. jjazznola  |   Posted on Dec 28th, 2009 0

    A lot of mediocrity. No Public Enemy? There’s a lot more music out there besides boring, middle of the road, white indie bands. I do like St Vincent & The Yeah Yeah Yeahs though. It is cool that there is so much live music on tv these days. Too bad the other 55 minutes of the shows suck.

  15. Dance the Night Away  |   Posted on Dec 28th, 2009 0

    Marrow on cbs in nyc…I admire Fallon for aspiring for the Peter Tosh Mick Jagger thing on a good night…

  16. that was a cool moment, but i gotta say – paul simon/the roots/antibalas doing “late in the evening” made me catch the holy ghost.

  17. Brian  |   Posted on Dec 28th, 2009 0

    I’m not the biggest Animal Collective Fan-boy around but Their performance of Summertime clothes on Letterman was really crazy and really good.

    But nice list overall. And for the record, St. Vincent played Marrow on Jimmy Kimmel a few weeks after that and it was a much better performance all together (in my opinion).

    • Val  |   Posted on Dec 29th, 2009 0

      That AC performance of Summertime Clothes is pretty fantastic. Especially since it looks like they borrowed a few members of the CCAA Booty Patrol for their background visuals.

  18. Jeff  |   Posted on Dec 28th, 2009 0

    Dirty Projectors on Fallon, man.

  19. Don’t overlook Airborne Toxic Event on Letterman, January 09.


  20. Any performance that gives me goose bumps while watching it wins. This year’s performance went to Grizzly Bear doing “Ready, Able” on Letterman.

    But still it didn’t top this Late Show performance from last year: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dx7_Gmr4qMM&feature=PlayList&p=674BED489A6826B2&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=9

  21. ron washington  |   Posted on Dec 28th, 2009 0

    this is the most predictably terrible list ever assembled.

  22. dland9393  |   Posted on Dec 28th, 2009 0

    the killers a dustland fairytale on letterman was easily the best late night performance of the year. I know it scares you to put them on a list but that performance was amazing

  23. Andrew Bird on Conan. I tried to find a video to no avail :(. But trust me, it was excellent. I’m pretty sure he played “oh no”

  24. Adam  |   Posted on Dec 28th, 2009 0

    I would add Regina Spektor on SNL. Though it was an otherwise unmemorable episode but her performance was fantastic.

  25. Jack  |   Posted on Dec 28th, 2009 0

    Rza and the Black Keys bringing Blakroc to Fallon!


    • nathan  |   Posted on Jan 6th, 2010 0

      YES! Thanks, Jack. That performance was fantastic. Watch for a super nerd in a yellow shirt spazzing the hell out behind the band.

  26. tiffany  |   Posted on Dec 29th, 2009 0

    BAT FOR LASHES on LETTERMAN–better than the album version.

  27. can’t believe that fallon christmas song is on this list that shit is just terrible. julian’s not even singing in key. this list would fail completely if it were not for antony.

  28. shan  |   Posted on Dec 29th, 2009 0


  29. Sunny Day Real Estate playing “Seven” on Fallon was the best I saw by far.

  30. Pandyora  |   Posted on Dec 29th, 2009 0

    I agree, SDRE playing “Seven” on Fallon was a little slice of heaven (and male pattern baldness).


    • Sue  |   Posted on Dec 30th, 2009 0

      Agreed, Sunny Day Real Estate on Fallon was amazing. And though it flies in the face of all this site stands for, the Killers on Letterman was mind blowing as well, you’ll just never get them to admit it…

  31. yermom  |   Posted on Dec 29th, 2009 0

    cursive’s letterman performance melts faces. they nailed it!

  32. Brandon  |   Posted on Dec 29th, 2009 0

    Yeah, why don’t The Killers appear on any lists? Are they too mainstream, or not “critically acclaimed” enough? Or do Stereogum/Pitchfork/Spin/Whoever just not like them?

  33. john  |   Posted on Dec 30th, 2009 0

    what about the last Conan with the White Stripes?

  34. You guys forgot Prince on Leno. It’s ok, it was 9 months ago, I’ll forgive you.


  35. Number ONE shoulda been The Dead Weather on Conan…for shame to not include in yer flawed top 10. N although i havnt been a real fan since 1995, Pearl Jam on the Conan premier were great too.

  36. Bender Bending Rodriguez  |   Posted on Dec 30th, 2009 0

    Phoenix disqualified for the loud “helping” vocal track — one misstep from an Ashley Simpson, they were…

    Cursive on Letterman were great, and so were They Might Be Giants doing “Meet the Elements.”

  37. Phoenix on SNL ROCKED!!! but yall forgot Ultraviolet Light when U2 was on there that was killer too.

  38. peter  |   Posted on Dec 31st, 2009 0

    Fleet Foxes on SNL is still my favorite

  39. grease wizard  |   Posted on Jan 1st, 2010 0

    Brendan Benson doing “A Whole Lot Better” on Letterman should be on this list.

  40. MPC6000  |   Posted on Jan 1st, 2010 0

    Christopher Cross and Michael McDonald’s “Ride Like the Wind” on Fallon beats this whole list.

  41. Cerebus  |   Posted on Jan 1st, 2010 0

    This list is fair enough. Music, especially live performance is a personal and subjective kinda thing. Meaning, I don’t listen to half of these bands and judging what they are about by a four minute performance is nearly impossible. Still, all these four minute performances ARE quite nice. My vote for one of the best ever falls to TV on the Radio’s Wolf Like Me on Letterman in 2006 (check the YouTube of it). Dave, who I’ve been watching for two-thirds of my life, is clearly quite impressed. Love that so many of these performances are on Letterman and Fallon. Anybody else notice how many of these bands are FROM NY performing ON NY based shows.

  42. MusicObsessedJunkie  |   Posted on Jan 1st, 2010 0

    A great song and performance from Grizzly Bear, but the standout from the entire album you say?
    Surely not.

  43. Cursive=Omaha

  44. Michael  |   Posted on Jan 2nd, 2010 0

    And why isn’t Craig Ferguson on the VG “Best People” list? By any objective measure he’s about the best person there is. He’s even Scottish, for God’s sake.

  45. Levon Helm  |   Posted on Jan 3rd, 2010 0

    Indie rock is gay

    • Gemini Syringe...Airplane!...Caravan...  |   Posted on Jan 3rd, 2010 0

      Don’t do that with the good name of Levon Helm…Also check out the Staple Singers and work your way over to the Projectors…The coolest thing a band can do on TV is a new song nobodies heard before…

  46. tommy  |   Posted on Jan 3rd, 2010 0

    So, does no one notice Phoenix is playing to a recording? You would think one would be embarrassed to do that on live TV.

  47. jim  |   Posted on Jan 3rd, 2010 0

    You forgot the Jarvis cocker performance @ Fallon. We had a heated discussion of that guesting, remember? REMEMBER??? It involves ?uestlove and the word “throwed” and Michael Jackson. Damn, that and the Pixies are the reasons why I’m not quitting on Fallon yet.

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