30 Greatest Music Performances of the Year, Ranked
Can we get an encore?
Any talented artist can sing a great song, but it takes some serious star power to put on a phenomenal performance. And lucky for us, 2018 was a year full of stars. From Hollywood darlings like Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake to sizzling newcomers like Camila Cabello and SZA, musicians upped their game and delivered some truly unforgettable performances. Read on to find them all—ranked from best to even better—and take a musical walk down memory lane.
Vince Staples Brought It All to the Stage at Coachella
West Coast rapper Vince Staples brought more than 50 screens to the main stage at Coachella in order to enhance his 2018 performance—but that was nothing compared to the fact that he also brought out Kendrick Lamar for his Friday night set. The pair had the crowd jumping during their finale, a pumped-up rendition of “Yeah Right” from Staples’ 2017 Big Fish Theory album.
Ciara and Missy Elliott Leveled Up
Hip-hop queen Missy Elliott returned to the stage in a major way to perform at the 2018 American Music Awards for the first time since 2005. The rapper helped Ciara knock out “Dose,” as well as her “Level Up” remix.
St. Vincent Did a “180” at Coachella
Post-modern rockstar St. Vincent (real name: Annie Clark) revealed in a Coachella live stream that she wanted to do a “180” when it came to her performance at this year’s event, according to Consequence of Sound. She also explained that fans would witness “a blistering, disturbing rock show.” She did just that while treating the crowd to a set that included hits like “Los Ageless” and “New York” from her 2017 Masseducation album.
SZA Was Timeless at the Grammys
As a nominee in the Best New Artist category at the 2018 Grammys, singer SZA delivered a timeless rendition of her song “Broken Clocks” at the award show. Her backup singers literally took a seat while SZA stepped up to show viewers why she deserves to win the next time around, even though she may not have nabbed an honor this year.
Mariah Carey Debuted Her New Song Like Only a Diva Could
After taking to the stage in a massive flower-like dress, Mariah Carey performed her single “With You” for the first time on TV at the 2018 American Music Awards in October. The dress seemed a little odd at first, especially since the singer appeared to be unable to move. However, the true nature of the outfit became apparent when dancers began to emerge from beneath the gown one by one.
Lady Gaga Had a “Million Reasons” to Love the Grammys
Fans have come to expect Lady Gaga’s performances to be a delight on both the eyes and the ears—and her 2018 Grammy’s performance didn’t disappoint. “This is for my father’s late sister Joanne,” she said as she sat down at a piano that was covered in massive angel-like wings. “This is for love and compassion, even when you can’t understand.”
She then sang the tribute tune, which shares the same name as her aunt, as well as “Million Reasons,” both which were released as part of Gaga’s 2016 fifth studio album.
Camila Cabello Earned a Standing Ovation at the AMAs
After leaving behind Fifth Harmony, the group that brought her fame, Cuban-American pop star Camila Cabello is still trying to prove that she can make it as a solo artist. And thanks to her appearance at the 2018 American Music Awards in October, she just might have done it. The singer donned a black and rose gown with matching silk gloves as she stood alone in the center of the stage and sang “Consequences,” which earned her a standing ovation from the crowd.
John Legend and Chrissy Teigen Gifted Fans With a Star-Studded Special
Real-life couple and Hollywood darlings John Legend and Chrissy Teigen are such a delight that in 2018, NBC decided to offer the pair their very own musical holiday extravaganza. A Legendary Christmas featured Chrissy’s cheeky comedic ways and John’s stunning singing talents along with a slew of famous friends, including Kris Jenner, Darren Criss, Meghan Trainor, Raphael Saadiq, Jane Lynch, Kenan Thompson, and all Fab Five members of Queer Eye.
Jennifer Lopez Was Limitless at the VMAs
Jennifer Lopez reached another milestone in her career when she was awarded the Video Vanguard statue at the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards. She also delivered a stunning performance that night, belting out hits like “Waiting For Tonight,” “On The Floor,” “Love Don’t Cost A Thing,” and “Get Right”, as well as the debut of “Limitless,” which is exactly how fans would describe the energy and passion that Lopez still puts into her work.
Eddie Vedder Honored the Late Tom Petty at the Oscars
It was a sad responsibility to deliver the 2018 Academy Awards “in memoriam” tribute to the late Tom Petty, who passed away on October 2, 2017. But when Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder sang Petty’s “Room at the Top” at the Oscars ceremony in March, everyone watching knew that Vedder had done a fitting job when it came to honoring a musician who was loved by so many.
Taylor Swift’s Surprise Performance with Hayley Kiyoko
In early December 2018, Taylor Swift surprised those attending musician Jack Antonoff’s The Ally Coalition benefit concert by showing up and grabbing an acoustic guitar for a stripped-down version of the song “Delicate” from her 2017 Reputation album. But the singer wasn’t alone. The unannounced set was, in fact, a duet with “What I Need” songstress Hayley Kiyoko, who joined Swift onstage to the delight of those who shared the moment on Twitter.
Cardi B Showed Us How She Likes It With J Balvin and Bad Bunny at the AMAs
Rapper Cardi B’s chart-topping hit “I Like It” featuring J Balvin and Bad Bunny was undeniably one of the top songs of 2018, which is why it was an obvious choice to perform at the American Music Awards. Along with a backing band that included heart-pumping percussion and horns, the trio had the audience out of their seats and dancing for every second of the song.
Mary J. Blige Brought a “Mighty River” to the Oscars
Along with being nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category at the 2018 Academy Awards thanks to her role as Florence Jackson in Mudbound, Mary J. Blige also co-wrote and sang the movie’s Oscar-nominated main track, “Mighty River.” Though Blige missed both awards, her performance of the Best Original Song contender was just as incredible as when we heard it in the film itself.
Elton John and Miley Cyrus Teamed Up for the Grammys
Miley Cyrus may be one of today’s hottest musicians, but when she took the stage at the 2018 Grammys, it was alongside Elton John, who, along with his writing partner Bernie Taupin, was being honored with the Recording Academy President’s Merit Award. Cyrus, in a gorgeous raspberry-colored gown, and John, in a signature sparkly suit, performed a duet of his beloved hit, “Tiny Dancer.”
Eminem Didn’t Forget About Dr. Dre at Coachella
It’s hard to imagine anyone topping Beyoncé’s stage-shaking performance at Coachella in 2018, but Eminem did his best to follow her epic act when he was tasked with headlining the very next day. However, the rapper stunned the crowd when, during his second set, he halted his performance to bring out Dr. Dre. Together, the iconic duo performed “Still D.R.E.,” “Nothin’ but a G Thang,” 2Pac’s “California Love,” and, of course, “Forgot About Dre.”
Pink Did the Country Proud Performing the Super Bowl National Anthem
Before Justin Timberlake wowed the 2018 Super Bowl crowd with his halftime show, three-time Grammy-winner Pink impressed everyone with a dynamic rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Despite the fact that she was sick with the flu at the time—yes, that was why you might have spotted her spitting out a lozenge right before she started singing—she still managed to deliver a performance of the national anthem that scored big points with fans.
Justin Timberlake Went for a Win at the Super Bowl Halftime Show
In 2018, Justin Timberlake raised the roof at the wildly popular Super Bowl Halftime Show. Kicking things off with “Filthy” from his latest album, Man of the Woods, the former *NSYNC member then delighted fans with favorites like “Rock Your Body,” “Senorita,” “SexyBack,” “My Love,” “Cry Me a River,” “Suit & Tie,” “Until the End of Time,” “Mirrors,” and “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” even sitting down at a piano for “I Would Die 4 U,” and stopping to take a selfie with a young fan who experienced a brief moment of fame thanks to the spontaneous moment.
Janet Jackson Proved Why She’s an Icon at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards
Janet Jackson stepped away from the limelight in recent years to focus more on her personal life, which included welcoming her son, Eissa, into the world in January 2017. But in May 2018, she returned to the stage to perform at the Billboard Music Awards where she was being honored with the Icon Award. The Jackson family member performed a club-worthy medley of “Nasty,” “Throb,” and “If”—all songs with powerful themes that felt perfectly apt in the current cultural climate.
Gladys Knight Led an Aretha Franklin Tribute at the AMAs
Legendary singer Aretha Franklin passed away on August 16, 2018, and the American Music Awards decided to honor the beloved icon with a performance during its October event. After a touching video tribute, singers Gladys Knight, Donnie McClurkin, CeCe Winans, Ledisi, and Mary Mary performed hymns that Franklin had been famous for covering, including “Amazing Grace,” “Climb Higher Mountains,” “Mary Don’t You Weep,” “How I Got Over,” and “Old Landmark.”
Childish Gambino Made a Statement on Saturday Night Live
If it wasn’t already clear, 2018 was the year for artists to use their music to make a political statement. Childish Gambino (whom you might also know as the award-winning actor, writer, comedian, and creator and star of Atlanta, Donald Glover) used his May 5 Saturday Night Live appearance to bring a scaled-down version of his “This Is America” music video to the stage.
Though things started off rather mildly as five dancers moved around the rapper while the song wound up, Childish Gambino was soon surrounded by an almost surreal display of lights as he capped off the striking set.
Janelle Monáe Shared the Love at the BET Awards
Pop-R&B artist Janelle Monáe owned the 2018 BET Awards thanks to a set that took the night’s energy through the roof. Along with a team of dynamite dancers, Monáe performed “Django Jane” and “I Like That” as well as “Dirty Computer” and “Crazy, Classic Life.” She also grabbed a guitar for “Screwed,” and told the crowd, “Love whoever you want!”
Cardi B Revealed Her Pregnancy While Performing on Saturday Night Live
Rumors about a possible pregnancy had been following Cardi B for months before she decided to confirm the news during her April 7, 2018, appearance on Saturday Night Live. For her first set of the night, the rapper performed a medley of her hit “Bodak Yellow” and “Batier Cardi.” But it wasn’t until she stepped onstage for the second time to belt out “Be Careful” that she revealed her baby bump in a form-fitting Christian Siriano dress.
Beyoncé Stunned in South Africa
Beyoncé proved that she couldn’t be stopped in 2018 when she took the stage at the South Africa Global Citizen Festival in December. While looking like an absolute goddess, Bey stirred up the crowd with a handful of hits including “XO,” “Formation,” and “Run the World.” She also pleased the crowd by performing a “Perfect” duet with Ed Sheeran (which earned him some backlash thanks to his outfit choice) and nailed every single word in “APES**T” with her husband Jay-Z.
Kingdom Gospel Choir Became a Part of Royal History at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s Wedding
The May 19, 2018, wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle included an iconic performance from the Kingdom Gospel Choir, a group that was chosen when Prince Charles asked those responsible for the ceremony’s music “to bring them the best in the land,” according to Elle.
Conductor Karen Gibson led the group of singers in a stirring rendition of “Stand by Me,” which was requested by the bride and groom, as well as Etta James’ “Amen/This Little Light of Mine” as the ceremony came to a close. Gibson talked to Elle about what it was like to perform at the wedding, saying, “Surreal. Absolutely surreal. I mean, we felt, and we still do feel highly honored, highly privileged. It was dreamlike, I’ve got to say.”
A Teen Cellist Impressed the World at the Royal Wedding
The royal wedding also featured a stunning performance by Sheku Kanneh-Mason, a 19-year-old cellist. The musician, who was the winner of the BBC’s Young Musician competition in 2018, played three pieces during the ceremony, as the newly titled Duke and Duchess of Sussex signed the register after exchanging their vows. Guests enjoyed Maria Theresia von Paradis’ “Sicilienne,” Gabriel Fauré’s “Après un Rêve,” and Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.”
According to Vanity Fair, Megan Markle asked Kanneh-Mason to play during the ceremony after Harry saw the teen play at an event in June. The young musician opened up about getting the call, saying that he was “bowled over when Ms. Markle called” and admitted, “Of course I immediately said yes! What a privilege to be able to play the cello at such a wonderful event.”
John Legend and Sara Bareilles Took Things to a Higher Level With Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert
NBC (along with 9.4 million viewers) decided to mark Easter Sunday 2018 with a live production of Jesus Christ Superstar that took TV musicals to the next level. The show starred John Legend as the son of God, Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene, and iconic rocker Alice Cooper as King Herod. Thanks to seemingly perfect performances of songs like “Everything’s Alright” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” the musical was nominated for 13 Primetime and Creative Emmy Awards, and took home four.
The New York Times’ Noel Murray gave the production a favorable review, writing, “A conceptual and artistic triumph, NBC’s live telecast of Jesus Christ Superstar on Easter Sunday may have finally justified the recent live musical fad on network TV.”
Kesha Delivered an Emotional Grammys Performance
With the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements resonating throughout Hollywood, Kesha took the stage at the 2018 Grammys to bring viewers an incredibly emotional performance. The singer, who has been caught up in an extended legal battle with her former producer, Dr. Luke, used the experience as fuel for her song “Praying,” which she sang at the event. Other notable performers, including Camila Cabello, Julia Michaels, Cyndi Lauper, and Andra Day, stepped up to support Kesha by standing with her as she sang, “I’m proud of who I am / No more monsters, I can breathe again / And you said that I was done / Well, you were wrong and now the best is yet to come.”
Ariana Grande Had “No Tears Left to Cry”
On May 20, 2018, Kelly Clarkson began the 2018 Billboard Music Awards with an emotional monologue about the deadly Santa Fe High School shooting that had happened just two days earlier. Ariana Grande, who had experienced her own tragedy a year earlier when a bombing occurred at her concert in Manchester, England, followed Kelly’s speech with a powerful rendition of her hit “No Tears Left to Cry.” In the rallying anthem that focuses on surviving after grief, the singer assured us that she’s ready to continue to live and love despite the pain.
Kendrick Lamar Opened the 2018 Grammys With a Political Performance
Rap star Kendrick Lamar lit the stage on fire (literally) while performing the opening number at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony. With a minor appearance from U2’s Bono and The Edge as well as a few comedic interludes from Dave Chappelle, Kendrick proved why everyone wants to collaborate with him by nailing every word in his medley of “XXX,” “LUST,” “DNA,” “HUMBLE,” “King’s Dead,” and Rich the Kid’s “New Freezer.” The political set was performed in front of a giant projection of the American flag. Dancers started the performance dressed as soldiers; in the end, they changed into red hoodies and were metaphorically shot down one by one.
Beyoncé Turned Coachella into “Beychella”
After canceling her 2017 Coachella performance due to her pregnancy with twins Sir and Rumi, Beyoncé stepped into the 2018 headlining spot to deliver a performance that was such a success, USA Today called it a “historic moment for the festival.” Thanks to her stellar delivery of hits like “Deja Vu,” “Get Me Bodied,” “Lose My Breath,” “Say My Name,” and “Soldier,” as well as five custom Balmain costumes and guest performers including her husband Jay-Z, her sister Solange, and former Destiny’s Child members Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, it was such an epic set that DJ Khaled went ahead and renamed the festival “Beychella.” To see which of these shows were the hardest to attend, check out The 25 Hardest-To-Score Tickets of 2018.
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