Music

David Letterman's 25 Greatest Music Moments

From The Pixies to Warren Zevon, and precisely 23 in between.

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David Letterman's 25 Greatest Music Moments

The news on Tuesday that David Letterman will return to television next year—or, at least, to Netflix—with a six-episode talk show has us reminiscing about all the great musical acts that graced his NBS and CBS stages over the years. There’s no word yet from Netflix about whether Letterman will host musical guests on his new show, but we’re holding out hope. Until then, here’s a look back at our rankings, originally published on May 20, 2015 (the day of his final show on CBS), of the greatest performances during Letterman’s first 35 years on television.

25. Pixies, “Trompe le Monde”
There were few buzzier acts in 1992 than the Pixies, and this incredible performance of “Trompe le Monde” (the title track from their 1991 album) on Letterman shows exactly why. Not only does Paul Shaffer join the band for a ridiculous organ solo (which is exactly as weird as it sounds), but no one else in the band plays their regular instruments. David Lovering’s awkward maraca shaking is, well, awkward enough, but Shaffer’s unexpectedly intense organ playing is equally, and possibly painfully, memorable. —Amy McCarthy

24. Father John Misty, “Bored in the USA”
Father John Misty’s first Letterman appearance, performing “Only Son of the Ladiesman,” is worthy of its own spot on this list, but when it came time for him to return to the show and debut the “Bored in the USA” single ahead of I Love You, Honeybear’s release, Josh Tillman somehow topped himself. This time, he brings a string section with him, climbs atop a piano and shrugs his way through some of his strongest lyrics to date. Part of what makes this “Bored in the USA” performance so incredible is that the studio audience clearly has no idea what to make of it—particularly once that laugh track kicks in. —Bonnie Stiernberg

23. Counting Crows, “Round Here”
While this episode of Letterman was overshadowed by Madonna dropping the f-bomb no fewer than 14 times on network television, Counting Crows actually gave an inspired performance of “Round Here” from their 1993 debut August and Everything After on the show. Dave invited back the band multiple times throughout his career, but this initial appearance encapsulates a band on the cusp of a breakthrough. In the quiet beginning of the song, singer Adam Duritz stands awkwardly in the middle of the band with his hands in the pockets of his ripped jeans. As the song builds and the band finds its zone, Duritz unleashes a fury of emotion, boldly taking mass audiences into his anxiety-ridden reality. —Hilary Saunders

22. Pulp, “Common People”
Some of the best bands of all time came from England, but by 1995 we were stuck with either the cartoonish ogres of Oasis and their acolytes or the digressive art-school whimsy of Blur. So when Pulp made their American debut on the Late Show in 1995 with the brilliant “Common People,” they basically salvaged the reputation of an entire country. In a culture fixated on class, in a medium that at its best has always been very aware of class, Pulp somehow crafted the greatest British rock song about the subject. And then Jarvis Cocker sensually gesticulated his way through the song on CBS one night in 1995 and made the entire American nation full of nerdy, repressed boys and girls fall endlessly in love with him. —Garrett Martin

21. Janelle Monae, “Dance Apocalyptic”
The Archandroid of R&B and funk had already dazzled Letterman when she made her first appearance on the show in 2010, thanks to her skyscraping vocals and her band’s sharp, energetic playing. For her return visit three years later, Janelle Monae went that one step further, losing herself in the pulse of her then-current single “Dance Apocalyptic,” off 2013’s The Electric Lady and letting her firecracker-like energy explode all over the Ed Sullivan Theater and, for a brief moment, all over Dave’s desk. —Robert Ham

20. Sleater-Kinney, “Jumpers”
“Jumpers,” from Sleater-Kinney’s earth-moving 2005 record The Woods, is a dark tale about a lonely kid who leaps to her death from the Golden Gate Bridge. (“Four seconds was the longest wait…”) But it took on a more upbeat meaning when the band showed up on Letterman to play the track. The sheer joy of watching Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein jump up and down while they rip through the bull-dozing bridge of the song is worth the price of admission. Never mind that it’s one of the best songs Sleater-Kinney ever wrote. —Matthew Oshinsky

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