The Best Late Night TV Performances Of 2011

Our annual list of late night television’s best performances has quickly become an annual exercise in big-upping Jimmy Fallon’s music talent booker. Way to go, person responsible for pointing those Studio 6B HD-cameras at our tag cloud: Bang the Fallon gong (btw, there should be a Fallon gong), a full 70% of this list comes from Late Night With Jimmy Fallon’s 2011 archives. [And while we're blanket congratulating Fallon and his staff, please join us in a hat tip to the Roots for making the list's Top Two performances Top Two-ier.]

This list is ranked according to a scientific formula which is objectively true and impossible to argue against, which will probably frustrate people who want to disagree with it. Sorry! I’ll let you in on two critical factors in my analysis: There is a heavy premium placed on performances being meaningful, and/or memorable. Accordingly, this list has love for a beloved, reunited post-hardcore outfit; a present day siren covering a song from the past; a present day siren (very) lost in the dance; a present day siren flaunting her ability to count backwards/fertile womb; breakout moments for rap outfits; and a fucking sax solo. If somehow you still disagree with SCIENCE then you are in fact welcome to let us know how you would have run things. We can hash it out together, like a family that has very strong opinions about late night TV performances.

Now then, to the fun: let’s watch these 10 videos together and remember the year that was:

10 The Dismemberment Plan – “The City” (Late Night With Jimmy Fallon) – 1/20/11

Earlier this year, Travis Morrison reclaimed his legacy and sped up the heart rates of fans of his seminal, brainy post-hardcore outfit by embarking on a hailed reunion tour. The Dismemberment Plan kicked all of that off at Late Night with a precise take on Emergency And I‘s “The City,” for the benefit of a studio audience that included noted ’90s-heads Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen. This clip was great, and it’s sad that we can’t track down a working embed for it. If you have one, please post and we’ll add it. (And for all the Fallon back-patting, maybe someone over there could re-up it? For history?) UPDATE: Still no “The City” but thanks Fallon music supervisor Jonathan Cohen for sending over the band’s web-exclusive performance from that night, “What Do You Want Me To Say?,” instead.

09 Girls – “Honey Bunny” (Late Night With Jimmy Fallon) – 9/14/11

Breakout Children of God product Chris Owens brought his heartworn vagabond singer-songwriter swagger to Fallon, with JR and the same soulful background singers that highlighted Girls’ shows in major markets this fall. It worked! “Honey Bunny” is the most unabashedly optimistic track in his band’s sterling oeuvre, and it came at just the right time for Chris to breathe some ease into those lost teenage souls out there tuning in to TV in hopes for some direction. They exist; I remember being one of them. If I was a teen and this beamed into my living room I would have bought this record the next day. (This statement endorsed by the entire Stereogum editorial staff.)

08 Wild Flag – “Romance” (Late Night With David Letterman) – 11/13/11

It’s rare that you’ll find a supergroup of ’90s-era heroes like this pull together and mint a project with quite so much vital spirit, but then, it’s rare that you’ll find a supergroup of ’90s-era heroes like this in the first place. Thanks to David Letterman for giving Carrie Brownstein a stage to high-kick and continue her considerable life-winning-streak, and let us pause to acknowledge that at the tail end of this performance Paul Shaffer calls Wild Flag is his new favorite band. He is a man of taste.

07 St. Vincent – “She Is Beyond Good And Evil” (The Pop Group Cover) (Late Night With Jimmy Fallon) – 11/7/11

Annie could feasibly have made this list on the back of her performance of Strange Mercy’s single “Cruel” on Letterman a few months earlier, but also, nah. Not after she did this to the Pop Group’s “She Is Beyond Good And Evil.” It is a ferocious performance, and one that mirrors the live-wire electricity she pumped into her similarly killer take on Big Black’s “Kerosene” at Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life tribute show at Bowery. You are welcome to watch her strangle her guitar while working some fierce heels below:

06 Robyn – “Call Your Girlfriend” & “Dancing On My Own” (Saturday Night Live) – 12/10/11

It’s weird that 30 Rock’s Studio 6B can sound so great, and that the soundstage just two floors up can be notoriously crap, but there you have it: SNL rarely turns out music performances with good mixes, which is a titanic bummer given what an obvious and estimable mark of distinction it is to play it. Robyn, for her part, was always well calibrated to overcome 8B’s audio minefield by doing what Robyn does: dance like an inspired ’80s FM-pop maniac would dance, at home alone getting ready in her mirror — just more inspired and, you know, better. She’s Ducky gone h.a.m. It doesn’t hurt that these singles are jams, nor that she is singing here to backing tracks. And on that note: Backing track detractors (backing detractors, as I will call them from now on) please relax: If you’ve seen Robyn live or know her work, her ability to sing these parts unaccompanied and live is not in question; choosing to lean on some audio supplements in order to hump the ground and dance like Taran was, for all intents and purposes, just a very solid decision.

05 Das Racist – “Michael Jackson (Conan) – 11/28/11

I wasn’t near a television when this aired, so I searched “Das Racist” on Twitter just to make sure the guys did their thing. The online chatter — a general sense of confusion, anger, disbelief, with a smattering of heavy praise from the likely corners — told me that whatever it was DR did with their Relax track “Michael Jackson,” this national TV debut was decidedly “their thing.” And then I saw it. Confused. And then I saw it again. And decided it was one of the greatest late night things imaginable. Think about what is going on here: Himanshu literally spins his way through his first verse while censoring himself; Kool AD mans an MPC, a wig, a keyboard (which he plays with his now-wigless head) and a drum kit (he’s wilding but he can really drum); Dapwell mans a podium bellowing like a dictatorial don, and doubles Heems and Vic’s raps pitched down a level. Tearist splashes a cymbal, Patrick from Chairlift plays a drum also. There’s instrument switching, a Nirvana shirt, and a Michael Jackson impersonator. If this cut-and-paste pop-cultural collage doesn’t add up for you, that is fine, but make no mistake it is quintessentially Das Racist: it’s rap-based performance art, stringing together cross-cultural signifiers like a garland roped around the specific and singular space in which DR exists. They didn’t play it straight, but did you really want them to?

04 Neon Indian – “Polish Girl” (Late Night With Jimmy Fallon) – 9/14/11

Jimmy Fallon’s geek-out for Neon Indian on their first visit last year was fairly massive, and somehow Neon Indian’s 2011 stop at LNWJF inspired an even more effusive intro from the host. And all of this was before the performance had even started. And, great as the Alan Palomo Project was in 2010, this take on Era Extraña’s “Polish Girl,” buttressed by spectacular video-screen artwork funded by Vice’s plushly hep Creator’s Project, was a sizable step up. Palomo, Leanne Macomber, and drummer Jason Faries sparkle on camera, which is a remarkable oddity given the depths of nerdiness they and their cohorts plumb to infuse this pop music with such wonked-out synth smarts. You don’t usually find music geeks quite so telegenic, and yet, here we are. Neon Indian. This was great. Watch:

03 Beyoncé & The Roots – “Countdown” (Late Night With Jimmy Fallon) – 11/13/11

Bey’s 10-step ode to pleasing her man is one of those consensus picks on lists of 2011′s best singles. Add in the fact that she is one of the consensus picks for history’s greatest performers, and that she is backed up here by the most fabulous Roots crew, and that she is singing about trying to make a 3 from the 2 while actually being pregnant on the somewhat sly, and you have the most mathematically certain 2011 late night performance list-topper of the bunch. Whatever Lady Jay’s prenatal state required she hold back in dance moves, she repaid 10 times over with buckets of Baby Bey-glow. She’s a queen, and this moment, and performance, is ruling.

02 M83 – “Midnight City” (Late Night With Jimmy Fallon) – 11/21/11

Given that the soaring synth-pop epic “Midnight City” won this year’s Gummy Award as your favorite track of 2011, you are statistically predisposed to enjoying the shit out of this. And M83, for their part, do everything right to ensure that enjoyment: Visually, they cut fittingly slick and romantic figures in tight-fit black tops, shrouded in myriad electronic gadgets and keyboards and a general sense of sexual French je ne sais quoi. Performance-wise they own all of the aforementioned with a dialed-in and passionate take, which was already great, and then at 3:30 a sax dude strolls into frame and casually slakes the thirst for sax you didn’t know you had until that moment. The man is a hero, and helps sling the thing into the stratosphere. And even with all of that naturally occurring greatness, the deck also seemed a little stacked from a production standpoint: the Fallon camera crew seems extra-on-point here. Those camera angles? That rack focus? All killing. Also noteworthy: Anthony Gonzalez hands-behind-head hip moves, and the fact that a fan in the bleachers appears to be pumping the air with their walking stick at around 2:05. All appropriate moves.

01 Odd Future – “Sandwiches” (Late Night With Jimmy Fallon) – 2/16/11

This may well be one of the very few lists that Odd Future actually tops on the internet this year. That’s a fact that would have been much more surprising six months ago than it is today, with the tainted hindsight of Goblin being just alright, and the trenchant controversy over OFWGKTA’s lyrical themes and fan treatment having seeped its way into the critical firmament. But this list isn’t about any of that. From the sheer perspective of late night TV performances, on a list which prizes memorability foremost, what other late night TV performance even came close? The buzz-pump was primed, Tyler was offered his moment, and he slaughtered it on the altar of his telegenic, kinetic, nihilistic shtick. Even from home, on a TV screen or an internet embed, you could feel the air tighten in that studio, and knew in an instant that the next morning, hip hop — and probably a big chunk of the rest of the internet — would have a shifted center of gravity. Mos Def swagger-jacking and screaming 2011′s most overused slang with Tyler on Fallon’s back was a .gif-sized coronation. The Roots played their parts as hooded accompanists, and there was a zombie. Also, significantly creepy use of gnome. It was scary, and fun, and it was the most punk thing to happen on late night TV in ’11, and it’s here at #1.

Well, there’s 10. Good job, TV in ’11. See you in ’12. And then the world will end. Bye!

Comments (40)
  1. Cool idea for a list.

  2. Mastodon. “Curl of the Burl” on Letterman.

  3. Dang, one-time indie limelight giver Conan has really fallen by the wayside, huh? In his first season on TBS, he was booking pretty good music spots left and right but I don’t see too much coverage from his show here or elsewhere for that matter.

    All of these are deserving listmakers, but a few honorable mentions: Portishead on Fallon, MGMT w/ Bradford Cox as Johnny Ramone on Fallon

  4. Panda Bear with Sonic Boom on Fallon

  5. Mastodon here in the UK on Jools was something special and definitely knocked a lot of people for six. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gInJozzMd_g

  6. Okkervil River on Letterman
    Tinariwen on Colbert
    F&tM on SNL
    Tuneyards on Fallon
    TV on the Radio on Letterman

  7. Morrisey on Conan – People Are The Same Everywhere
    Childish Gambino on Conan – Heartbeat
    Mariachi El Bronx on Letterman – Revolution Girls

  8. Nice list. Would add MGMT w/ Bradford Cox dressed as Joey Ramone doing Pink Floyd’s Lucifer Sam on Jimmy Fallon.

  9. Tune-yards on Fallon is indeed missing. Tune-yards is not missing from the end of year episode of this podcast, although one of the hosts claims he would prefer to sit on a Tune-yards record than listen to it. Not that that’s particularly unpleasant or anything, records are flat.

    http://themsthevagaries.tumblr.com/post/14535348666/28-the-cuckoo-clock-of-doom

  10. C’mon, Stereogum… since you didn’t let us vote for this category, I’m going to complain a little bit…. NO TUNE-YARDS w/ The Roots???? You’ve got to be kidding!

    Granted, the Odd Future performance should still be number one, but that Tune-Yards performance won over my 40-year-old only-listens-to-ice-cube-and-beastie-boys co-worker! It was magnificent!!!

  11. Sorry four the double-post, but I’m also surprised Stephen Colbert is represented on this list.

    Where’s the love for “Dr. Pepper Presents Stephen Colbert’s Rocktember With Radiohead”?

  12. Gotta love the ending of Sandwhiches with Tyler and Jimmy.

  13. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  14. I wish all of Goblin was as good as sandwitches

  15. Loutallica on Jools Holland

  16. Radiohead on Colbert.

  17. Turd Ferguson on Late Night with Uncle Creepy Fingers.

  18. How has no-one mentioned M83′s keyboardist’s PERFECT t-shirt?

  19. you missed the strokes on letterman, the best performance ever by julian in which he didn’t just stand there and be boring. he actually danced really cool and the song was sick. i don’t know why robyn was included… she dances like a teen girl at a rave.

    • Yeah, I’m not sure about Robyn, either. The good thing is, she seems like she’s genuinely up there doing her thing, and not trying a “look at how dorky I am” Zooey DeSchanel routine, so I can respect that. But yeah, sincerity only goes so far.

  20. This list almost seems pre-determined irregardless of the performances.

  21. Robbie Robertson’s performance with the Roots on Fallon was a surprise standout for me this year. Far superior to the album version of “Straight Down the Line.”

  22. The song being played by The Dismemberment Plan is not “The City” it is “What do you want me to say?” Come on you turkeys.

  23. MOZ on conan woulda been there at the top if it wasn’t for the fact the VOCALS were way way way too low, bad bad bad job conan audio mixing crew. Wild Flag totally killed it though, good mic levels! haha, oh and uhh Foster the People on Letterman last month was pretty great too…even though the chorus sounded pretty obviously looped and i hate cheating.

  24. beyonce’s performance is flawless.

  25. st. vincent = WHOA!

  26. FEIST on the David Letterman show, performing “How Come You Never Go There”.

  27. The Joy Formidable on Letterman a few months ago was a lot of fun.

  28. Julian Casablancas on Jimmy Fallon was by far the best!

  29. I thought Deerhunter doing Helicopter on Conan was early 2011. Maybe that was Memory Boy on Letterman, but both were great nonetheless.

  30. I second the Letterman Feist performance as well. That version was amazing…and It sounded better than the album version.

    Re-watching St. Vincent play the shit out of the guitar…HOLY CRAP. AMAZING.

    In terms of WTF craziness factor – ya, the odd future performance is #1…in terms of performance, not worthy of the top spot.

  31. I remember seeing that Odd Future performance on TV in February and thinking, “This is going to be the best year of my life. I love this group.”

    We all know that turned out. What a bummer.

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