The 100 greatest BBC music performances – ranked!

As the Beeb celebrates its centenary, we take a look at its most memorable pop moments, from the birth of grime to the first sightings of Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, plus TOTP goes Madchester and countless classic Peel sessions

100. Vic Reeves and the Wonder Stuff – Dizzy (Top of the Pops, 1991)

There’s a reason that Vic Reeves’s attempt to recreate the video for his cover of Tommy Roe’s 1969’s hit – complete with yellow tartan suits, washing machines and Bob Mortimer scampering between Reeves’s legs – was so shambolic: they had been drinking tequila all day, waiting for Tori Amos to turn up. Rich Pelley

99. The Stone Roses/Happy Mondays (TOTP, 1989)

The Stone Roses: Fools Gold – video

Although both acts were firmly established in indie circles by 89, having Madchester’s finest both performing Top 30 entries on the same episode of TOTP felt like a changing of the guard: the Roses were up first with a truncated Fools Gold, segueing into Mondays plus Kirsty MacColl for Hallelujah. All mimed of course – and perhaps for the best. Steve Hill

98. Lou Reed and Metallica – Iced Honey (Later With Jools Holland, 2011)

This divisive collaboration was Reed’s final project. The frailty of his voice – not always nailing the tune or tempo – contrasted with the giddy energy of Metallica, who were clearly relishing liberation from the expectations of their day job. It may not be not pretty, but it’s oddly sublime. JR Moores

97. Manic Street Preachers – Faster (TOTP, 1994)

The Manics drew more than 25,000 complaints for this fiery performance: frontman James Dean Bradfield appeared in a balaclava displaying his name, which viewers mistook for support of the IRA. The Welshmen weren’t obvious bedfellows for TOTP, but nihilism had never sounded so anthemic. Chris Lord

96. Robyn – Missing U (Later, 2018)

Robyn: Missing U – video

Each of Robyn’s three Honey-era Later performances featured a moment. Towards the end of Missing U, she finally stared down the camera, having avoided eye contact for fear of emotional collapse, while during Honey she did away with the mic stand to make room for supple dance moves. With Every Heartbeat, meanwhile, peaked when she punctured the highwire emotional blood-letting with a cheeky wink. Michael Cragg

95. Arlo Parks and Phoebe Bridgers – Fake Plastic Trees (Radio 1 Piano session, 2020)

Parks and Bridgers, both at the top of their pandemic-zeitgeist game, created introverted magic with this 2020 union. Delicate and unfussy, the duo stripped the Radiohead classic back to bones as bare as the ones that adorn Bridgers’ skeleton outfit, adding subtle gravity through Parks’ murmured harmonies. Jenessa Williams

94. The Futureheads – Hounds of Love (Radio 1 Live Lounge, 2003)

Some Live Lounge covers can be too winking, overly relying on the novelty of hearing a familiar song in a new style. But what made the Futureheads’ take on Hounds of Love an instant classic was their palpable commitment to the spirit of Bush’s original. They reimagined her characteristically theatrical take on the trepidation of falling in love, singer Ross Millard plaintive and plausible as an anxious indie boy afraid of expressing his feelings. It would take an exceptionally poor cover to diminish this song’s poignancy, but equally, it takes a great one to cast it as something new. Elle Hunt

93. Shellac – live at Maida Vale (John Peel session, Radio 1, 2004)

This set took place shortly after John Peel’s death, with Rob Da Bank filling the great man’s boots. “We are dedicating this session and probably the rest of our career to John Peel,” announced Steve Albini, while one song, The End of Radio, took on a newfound poignancy. JR Moores

92. Bob Dylan – live at BBC studios (BBC One, 1965)

Dylan goes electric in Newport, 25 July 1965.
Dylan goes electric in Newport, 25 July 1965. Photograph: Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

In June 1965, a month before he shocked the folk purists by going electric at Newport, Dylan performed a powerful, relaxed, final acoustic concert to a small audience. The much-bootlegged 12-song set included The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, If You Gotta Go, Go Now, and a classic treatment of Ballad of Hollis Brown. Robin Denselow

91. Pixies – Wave of Mutilation (Peel session, Radio 1, 1989)

Black Francis’s vocals carried like a deceptively warm and tender whisper, in a performance that could even be described as pleasant – if you don’t pay too much attention to the lyrical themes of suicide. Jumi Akinfenwa

90. Sandy Denny – live at BBC in concert (Radio 1, 1972)

Backed by a band on all her albums, Denny was also a compelling solo performer, as she proved on this historic set. Accompanying herself on piano and guitar, she performed her own songs, including the brooding Northstar Grassman and John the Gun, and a sensitive, powerful treatment of the traditional Blackwaterside. Robin Denselow

89. Blondie – Atomic/Heart of Glass (The Old Grey Whistle Test, 1979)

Here was Blondie at the peak of their powers: Debbie Harry, moving like a confectionery-coloured blur, owned the stage, and the band hit some of the biggest stops in their glittering catalogue – Atomic and Heart of Glass among them – with breakneck pace, their blend of punk energy and pop melodies at its most potent. Dean Van Nguyen

88. Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers – Now Is Better Than Before (Later, 1994)

Jonathan Richman: Now Is Better Than Before – video

The 1985 album Rockin’ and Romance is out of print physically and digitally. But this performance of Now Is Better Than Before, a wistful, typically airy Richman chanson from that record, feels like a definitive rendition, capturing its creator’s eccentricity (“guitar!”) and kindhearted intensity. Shaad D’Souza

87. Coldplay – live from the BBC (BBC Two, 2009)

This exclusive set performed outside BBC Television Centre came after similar concerts by Green Day, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Beyoncé. It’s hard to imagine the latter now deigning to perform in a car park, and yet something about the quintessentially British set-up brings out the best in Coldplay. At this point, they were still at their peak, having just released Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends: their most idiosyncratic, challenging record. In this performance, you get the feeling the band knows it, too, with Martin’s characteristic self-deprecation offset with youthful rock-star swagger. Elle Hunt

86. Bananarama and Lananeeneenoonoo – Help! (Comic Relief, 1989)

This chaotic Beatles cover remains the best charity single to come out of the Beeb, as French and Saunders (and Kathy Burke) joined the real Bananarama on stage and had a go at being pop stars. They harmonised badly, danced terribly and spent all their time desperately hogging the limelight. Pop perfection, in other words. Rebecca Nicholson

85. Dizzy Gillespie – Chega de Saudade (Jazz 625, 1965)

“Now, before we go any further,” Gillespie said mid-set, “we’d like to take this opportunity to introduce the musicians in the quintet.” He proceeded to acquaint his band with one another by encouraging them to shake hands. It was a great gag, though when the horn is at his lips for songs like Chega de Saudade – the band immaculately dressed and flood-lit, Diz’s famous pouched cheeks extended to impossible proportions – nothing could have been cooler. Dean Van Nguyen

84. Nico – The End (Peel session, Radio 1, 1974)

Nico’s staggering cover of the Doors song The End has a haunting quality that made Jim Morrison sound like a little boy by comparison. This stunning performance showed how Nico’s solo material perfected the aesthetic of the gothic high priestess, with her deathly live harmonium playing on Janitor of Lunacy more than delivering on the song’s pledge to “petrify the empty candle”. Thomas Hobbs

83. Adele – Right as Rain (Later, 2008)

The real gem from Adele’s pre-proper fame Later performance isn’t a typically grandstanding Hometown Glory, but this playful take on 19’s less ubiquitous Right as Rain. As well as getting the full range of Adele’s voice, from mischievous low notes to jabbing full belt, we also got flashes of that south London attitude via each delicious eye roll and dismissive hand wave. Michael Cragg

82. Stormzy – Fire in the Booth (Radio 1Xtra, 2014)

Stormzy: Fire in the Booth – video

“Get the tears for free, you have to pay for tissues,” proclaimed Stormzy in this star-making turn. Humbly dressed in a tracksuit that looked like a Pepsi Max can, the Croydon MC rapped into the microphone as if he was face-to-face with his worst enemy – not just confirming imminent icon status, but also breathing fresh life into grime. Thomas Hobbs

81. Alice Cooper – Is It My Body? (OGWT, 1971)

The Detroit shock rockers’ UK debut found them offering this eerie hymn to body dysmorphia, sung as Alice unfurled a boa constrictor across his shoulders. It was the ultimate portrayal of adolescent anxiety – though a year later they were No 1 with the confidently rampaging School’s Out. Garth Cartwright

80. Rihanna – Umbrella (BBC Switch, 2008)

Rihanna pictured in 2008.
Rihanna pictured in 2008. Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/REUTERS

Youth programme BBC Switch might have only lasted three years, but hosts Nick Grimshaw and Annie Mac did a valiant job of capturing the poptimistic chaos of the late MySpace age. You’ll certainly never catch Rihanna performing Umbrella to an audience of builders in a dodgy-looking warehouse ever again. Jenessa Williams

79. Gabriels – Love and Hate in a Different Time (Later, 2021)

The boogie-woogie pianist’s long-running live pop show is sometimes criticised for being safe, but it does a sterling job of platforming future hot acts. This showstopping 2021 performance of the driving, soulful Love and Hate in a Different Time saw Los Angeles-based Gabriels take full advantage of the platform: snazzily coated singer Jacob Lusk’s raised eyebrow to camera was brilliant TV. Dave Simpson

78. Neneh Cherry – Buffalo Stance (TOTP, 1988)

To be a pregnant popstar in 2022 means a carefully orchestrated bump reveal via Instagram. In 1988, when Cherry performed Buffalo Stance while seven months pregnant, it was cause for concern: asked at the time if it was safe to perform, Cherry replied: “It’s not an illness.” There’s a brilliant moment where a hyped-up Cherry gestures to her Lycra-clad bump as she smiles “who’s looking good in every way”. Quite. Michael Cragg

77. Prince – live at the BBC Radio Theatre (Radio 1, 1993)

This 1993 concert with the New Power Generation is 20 minutes of Prince in full-throttle funk. After opening with a breakneck-speed medley of 1999 and Baby I’m a Star, the indestructible New Power Generation rhythm section switched into a thundering version of America, providing a glimpse of Prince at his band-leading best: channelling James Brown while keeping things teetering on the edge of breakdown. Ammar Kalia

76. Joni Mitchell with James Taylor – live in concert (Radio 1, 1970)

James Taylor and Joni Mitchel c 1970, recording backing vocals on Carole King’s tapestry.
James Taylor and Joni Mitchel c 1970, recording backing vocals on Carole King’s tapestry. Photograph: Jim McCrary/Redferns

It’s October 1970. Mitchell’s fourth album, Blue, doesn’t yet exist in the world when she steps on to London’s Paris theatre stage, Taylor in tow. They’re in love. He’s all baritone warmth and anecdote, calling her by her given name, Joan. And Mitchell, whether detailing the purpleheart wood her mountain dulcimer is made of or the Cretan tuning she uses on Carey, is positively aloft with mastery. Dale Berning Sawa

75. Kano – Fire in the Booth (Radio 1Xtra, 2016)

Transforming a J Dilla beat into an eight-minute long masterclass in pure rap poetry, the level of wit and interplay on show is even more astounding considering it’s all being crafted on the fly. “Oh wait – they ain’t all one take?” Kano asked 1Xtra’s Charlie Sloth afterwards, in stunned disbelief at his lesser peers. El Hunt

74. Ravi Shankar – in concert (BBC Two, 1974)

This 1974 concert, featuring only a single, 30-minute raga, is testament to Shankar’s decades-long partnership with tabla player Alla Rakha. Meandering from a yearning alap opening to the increasing rhythmic intensity of the teentaal beat cycle, the pair undertake a mesmeric wordless dialogue solely through the mastery of their instruments. Ammar Kalia

73. Mogwai – Like Herod/Helicon 1 (Evening Session, Radio 1, 1999)

Steve Lamacq broadcast Mogwai’s session across four separate nights, presumably to avoid upsetting sensitive listeners. It included the definitive recording of Helicon 1 and an apocalyptic Like Herod, lasting nearly 19 minutes simply because that’s how much studio time remained. JR Moores

72. Little Simz – Selfish (Radio 1 Live Lounge, 2019)

Little Simz: Selfish – video

Simz’s usual heft is on ample display here – impeccable flow, indelible lines, “stacked and stylin’” – but what kills is her melodic swagger. As she sits at the keys for Selfish, she unfurls a groove you wish would never end. Lianne La Havas joins on a cover of Headie One’s Both that tantalises with the prospect of future collaborations. Dale Berning Sawa

71. George Michael – Live at the BBC (Radio 1, 1996)

This 1996 performance sees Michael’s triumphant return to the BBC Radio Theatre after Older broke a six-year break without new material. He plays that album’s hits, including a deeply funky version of Fastlove and a rousing, choral Star People, though it’s his haunting version of Bonnie Raitt’s I Can’t Make You Love Me that highlights his unforgettable voice. Ammar Kalia

70. Cookie Crew – Got to Keep On (TOTP, 1989)

After the popularity of Rok da House, Cookie Crew’s breakthrough single with Beatmasters in 1987, MC Remedee and Susie Q were ready to head out alone two years later with debut album Born This Way! They made their second appearance on Top of the Pops decked out in matching striped sweatshirts, with a trio of backing dancers and the American singer Edwin Starr, whose 1969 track 25 Miles the duo sampled on the song. Arusa Qureshi

69. New Order – Regret (TOTP, 1993)

New Order: Regret – video

The Joy Division/New Order story is one of rock/pop’s most enduring, but few could have foreseen this incongruous collaboration. Half a world away from Manchester’s monochrome gloom, live by satellite from LA, the band bash out Regret amid the bronzed bodies while David Hasselhoff of Baywatch hams it up. Steve Hill

68. Self Esteem – I Do This All the Time (Later, 2021)

Rebecca Lucy Taylor spent much of her pandemic-era Jools debut singing directly to camera, determined to bridge the gulf of weirdness created by socially distanced filming restrictions. “Don’t be embarrassed that all you’ve had is fun,” she urges, pure joy breaking through her deadpan delivery like bright sunshine – a transcendent, star-making performance. El Hunt

67. Giggs – Fire in the Booth part 2 (Radio 1Xtra, 2013)

Giggs, Hollowman, the Landlord himself graced Radio 1Xtra in 2013 with a follow-up to his 2011 FITB freestyle. Watching the road rap star concentrate on his delivery, fans were as glued to the screen as he was to the hanging mic, as proved by the video’s near-12m views. An iconic bar-a-thon. Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson

66. Lorde – Royals (Later, 2013)

When it came time for Kiwi teenager Ella Yelich-O’Connor to face up to the success of Royals overseas, the stripped-back song gave her little to hide behind. Jools offered her first international spotlight. Accompanied only by keyboard and drums, she showed a confidence and clarity of vision that would have been striking in a musician twice her age, not to mention a captivating look: her cascading dark hair, closed eyes and spidery hands had the audience eating out of her palm. Elle Hunt

65. Drake – Fire in the Booth (Radio 1Xtra, 2018)

Drake: Fire in the Booth – video

Sipping prosecco out of a paper cup and looking slightly terrified of DJ Charlie Sloth’s manic yells and police siren sound effect, Drake solidified his connection with the UK scene with this regal freestyle, where he talks about getting money from hedge fund investors, the pricelessness of loyalty and repeats the word “ting” like he’s a Brixton native. While self-proclaimed “real” hip-hop heads may struggle to understand Drake’s popularity, here he glides across the beat, looking and sounding like a million dollars. Thomas Hobbs

64. Mary J Blige – No More Drama (Later, 2002)

Mary J Blige in 2002.
Mary J Blige in 2002. Photograph: Jim Cooper/AP

It’s easy for your eyes to wander during Jools’s weekly jamboree, either focusing on the audience or the other acts twiddling their thumbs. During Mary J Blige’s No More Drama, essentially a five minute gut-punch set to music, however, you have no choice but to stare slack-jawed as she exorcises decades of pent-up anger before sitting with newfound resolve. Michael Cragg

63. Radiohead – Paranoid Android (Later, 1997)

Paranoid Android, the lead single from Radiohead’s third album, OK Computer, had only been released five days before this episode, meaning this legendary Later performance was the first time anyone had witnessed the band indulge in their six-minute Bohemian Rhapsody. To this day, everything from Jonny Greenwood’s sweatbands to Thom Yorke’s teeth remain mesmerising. Rich Pelley

62. Pulp – Wishful Thinking (Peel session, Radio 1, 1981)

Fourteen years before Common People, a teenage Pulp made their radio debut using an ironing board for a keyboard stand. Neither the lineup or post-punky sound would last much longer, but songs such as Wishful Thinking (“Well I was with this girl last night / She held me tight, it turned me on”) provide a teasing glimpse of Jarvis Cocker the romantic storyteller long before he became famous. Dave Simpson

61. James Blake – A Case of You (Zane Lowe show, Radio 1, 2011)

Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You cuts so close to the marrow of love it becomes almost painful to listen to. It’s a testament to Blake’s chops as an arranger that this version captures the same magic, transforming the casual sublime of the original into a lush piano ballad that stumbles over itself with feeling. Emma Garland

60. So Solid Crew – 21 Seconds (TOTP, 2001)

Within a few months of this appearance, it would become almost impossible to watch the south London rap crew in the UK. Vilified by press and politicians, police costs made touring unfeasible. This televised going-overground moment, though, would cement their influence on two subsequent decades of Black British creativity from grime to dubstep. Fergal Kinney

59. PJ Harvey – Oh My Lover/Victory/Sheela Na Gig/Water (Peel session, Radio 1, 1991)

PJ Harvey: Oh My Lover – video

A few months before releasing her debut album, Dry, PJ Harvey gave John Peel a preview of four tracks in session. It is so tight that it’s barely distinguishable from the studio version that would follow, a testament to the raw, vivid energy that heralded the arrival of a thrilling new star. Rebecca Nicholson

58. Optimo (Espacio) – Essential Mix, Radio 1, 2006)

The Glasgow duo had been using Ableton (software that enables DJs to tempo- and pitch-shift any music into mixable form), to transformative effect for four years, but this was the first mainstream platform for their highly influential eclecticism, which made natural dancefloor bedfellows of Prince, Crass, Divine and Ricardo Villalobos. Tony Naylor

57. Sparks – This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us (TOTP, 1974)

Sparks in 1974.
Sparks in 1974. Photograph: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

“It was equidistant between the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and the Daleks on Doctor Who,” The Sparks Brothers director Edgar Wright said of this landmark pop TV moment. Camp, theatrical, sexy, strange and wildly inventive, this performance of a piece of inimitable pop-rock (that predates Bohemian Rhapsody) birthed new pop stars in Britain overnight. Daniel Dylan Wray

56. Ms Dynamite – Dy-Na-Mit-Tee (Later, 2002)

Shortly after picking up the Mercury prize for her debut album, A Little Deeper, Ms Dynamite took to Later for an effortlessly cool performance of the album’s second single. She transcended Jools’s tinkling away on the piano, her potent vocals echoing out above the restrained percussion, acoustic guitar and double bass accompaniment. Ayusa Qureshi

55. Japan – Ghosts (TOTP, 1982)

Easily one of the most arresting performances in TOTP history: the camera remains glued to David Sylvian, the song’s eerie lyrics and instrumental distorting his unsettlingly clean appearance, creating a sense of dread that feels as though it’s creeping out of the screen and into your home. No wonder it became such a fixture for pre-eminent philosopher Mark Fisher. Emma Garland

54. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Sunshine of Your Love (Happening for Lulu, 1969)

Halfway through playing the pre-planned Hey Joe, Hendrix suddenly announced “We’d like to stop playing this rubbish and dedicate a song to Cream”, who had just split up. Cue a fearsome Sunshine of Your Love as the credits rolled and producers blew gaskets. Hendrix’s insubordination got him banned by the BBC. Dave Simpson

53. Soft Cell – Tainted Love (TOTP, 1981)

“We wanted to be a pop band, but provoke people,” recalled Marc Almond. The two impulses never worked so well in tandem as during their first TOTP appearance. Almond’s performance occupied a weird space between passion and high camp and had switchboards jammed with complaints: the single went to No 1. Alexis Petridis

52. Half Man Half Biscuit – D’ye Ken Ted Moult?/Arthur’s Farm/All I Want For Christmas Is a Dukla Prague Away Kit/The Trumpton Riots/Ol’ Tige (Peel session, Radio 1, 1985)

Peel would bestow national treasure status upon Birkenhead’s finest, and this debut session provided an early insight into the brilliant mind of Wirral wordsmith Nigel Blackwell. The Trumpton Riots and All I Want for Christmas Is a Dukla Prague Away Kit remain live staples to this day. Reader, I’m wearing the kit. Steve Hill

51. Dusty Springfield – I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself (Top Gear, BBC Light Programme, 1964)

In this unashamedly earnest performance, Springfield’s delivery is so utterly convincing that you believe she might just die from singledom. The yearning brought on by heartbreak is captured by her powerful mezzo soprano and live orchestra, complete with thudding drums that replicate that sinking feeling when you know you’ve got to go it alone again. Jumi Akinfenwa

50. Christine and the Queens – Tilted/I Feel for You (Later, 2016)

Christine and the Queens: Tilted/I Feel for You – video

Chris’s memorable Later debut was an onslaught of newness, his cartoonish, highly physical choreography meeting tender songwriting that spoke of feeling like an outsider, and embracing the beauty of difference. Plus, it’s just loads of fun to watch. Who else put their back out trying to mimic the routine as he segued into Chaka Khan’s I Feel for You? El Hunt

49. Kirsty MacColl – In These Shoes/England 2 Colombia 0 (Later, 2000)

Though already a Later veteran, by the millennium MacColl was enjoying a creative renaissance, the Croydon singer’s acerbic and sharply feminist character sketches galvanised by her deep immersion in Cuban and Brazilian culture. But her life was tragically cut short in a still-unresolved accident that December, and this soaring performance would be her last on UK screens. Fergal Kinney

48. Cat Power – Covers (Peel session, Radio 1, 2000)

Just months after releasing her first Covers album, Chan Marshall performs a host of other songs that she loves, from Duke Ellington to Mary J Blige to Oasis to a haiku of a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover. It’s four lines and 35 seconds long, and even hard-nosed Peel is properly taken by it. Dale Berning Sawa

47. The Replacements – Kiss Me on the Bus, (Whistle Test, 1986)

Discussions of the Replacements as a live band tend to foreground boozy mayhem, but this performance reveals the rest of the story. The pop heart of this Paul Westerberg gem is lit up by the antic genius of guitarist Bob Stinson, who appears to have 30 years of rock history at his fingertips. Huw Baines

46. Mariah Carey – Vision of Love (Wogan, 1991)

Mariah Carey in 1991.
Mariah Carey in 1991. Photograph: Anonymous/AP

Faced with claims that she was incapable of singing live, due to her reluctance to tour at the time, this a cappella rendition of Vision of Love showcases Mariah Carey in all her melismatic glory. Her MTV Unplugged session the following year would put the criticisms to bed but this performance proved that her vocals were more than just studio magic. Jumi Akinfenwa

45. Mazzy Star – Fade Into You (Later, 1994)

In the summer of 1994, as grunge fans mourned the death of Kurt Cobain, a much mellower, narco-hazy strain of alternative guitar music was in the ether, as encapsulated by California dreamers Mazzy Star. As elfin singer Hope Sandoval lost herself shut-eyed in the halcyon daze of what is pretty much the quintessential dream-pop anthem, the Later TV cameras may as well not even have been there. Malcolm Jack

44. 808 State and A Guy Called Gerald – On the Wire session (BBC Radio Lancashire, 1988)

Recorded at On the Wire’s 1988 Christmas party at Manchester’s Ritz, here’s a compelling snapshot of northern house music’s messy birth: Raagman rapping with 808 State; Zippa from jazz-dancers Foot Patrol MC-ing for Gerald as Colin Thorpe lays down jazzy keys, capturing that scene’s tangled origins. Tony Naylor

43. K Koke – Fire in the Booth part 1 (Radio 1Xtra, 2010)

K Koke: Fire in the Booth part 1 – video

There’s something infectious about watching an artist swimming in the thrill of their own talent. That’s exactly what you got with K Koke’s effortlessly slick, startling FITB debut. It was clearly enough to twig the excitement of one Jay-Z, who signed the Stonebridge rapper to his Roc Nation imprint a year later. Will Pritchard

42. X-Ray Spex – Identity (Peel session, 1978)

A biracial punk rocker with dental braces, singer Poly Styrene caused stuffy jaws to drop and redefined the image of women in rock when she appeared on TOTP in 1978. Weeks earlier, however, their first Peel session had demonstrated that she was lyrically ahead of the curve too, tackling such now-contemporary subjects as identity politics and genetic modification. Dave Simpson

41. Youssou N’dour – Dem Dem (Later, 1994)

Making his first Later appearance, the Senegalese star gave the audience a classic taste of his mbalax dance style with Dem Dem. Re-titled Leaving, it became the opening track on The Guide (Wommat) which also included 7 Seconds, his hit with Neneh Cherry, and was the bestselling album of his career. Robin Denselow

40. Skepta – Freestyle (Tim Westwood, Radio 1, 2008)

Skepta’s clarity, diction and way with a cute, not-too-smart one-liner had long made him one of the must-listen MCs on the pirate radio circuit of grime’s golden years. His ability to bring the same energy to a national station helped set him up for stardom. And then? He came back a year later and did it all over again. Will Pritchard

39. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Rich/Pin/Bang/Tick (Lamacq Live, 2002)

Lamacq has always had a knack for catching bands at their most fizzing. This Yeah Yeah Yeahs session – recorded the year before their debut album Fever to Tell would inject them into the indie rock stratosphere – captures a band operating at its unfettered creative peak, ripping through material that would soon be imprinted on to the adolescence of thousands of angsty, arty teens worldwide. Will Pritchard

38. Talking Heads – Psycho Killer (OGWT, 1978)

In primary school polo shirts with instruments strapped high, the taut, deadpan control of Talking Heads’ OGWT set is a masterclass in deceptively casual delivery. Weaving around each other like threads on an old tapestry machine, the whole thing is framed by the flourish of Tina Weymouth’s iconic bassline, every bit as thrilling now as it was in 1978. Jenessa Williams

37. Young Fathers – Toy (Later, 2018)

Young Fathers: Toy – video

Edinburgh’s uncategorisable Young Fathers had won the 2014 Mercury prize by the time they made their Later debut four years on, yet most viewers still wouldn’t have known what hit them when the trio exploded out of their screens with this righteous performance of the jittery Toy, the rapid-fire editing capturing the exhilarating feeling of never knowing quite where to look. Malcolm Jack

36. Lynyrd Skynyrd – Free Bird (OGWT, 1975)

A 40-minute slice of southern-fried rock broadcast from Shepherd’s Bush, eyebrows were raised at the appearance of an enormous confederate flag during Sweet Home Alabama. But it’s the duelling guitars of the oft-repeated Free Bird that have persisted, played with apparently Charles Manson’s doppelganger on drums. Steve Hill

35. Akala – Fire in the Booth part 2 (Radio 1Xtra, 2012)

North London rapper Akala’s most famous BBC appearance is arguably his 2013 dismantling of Tommy Robinson on a BBC Three show called Free Speech – a clip that still does the rounds on social media on a near-monthly basis. But, as his gold-plated FITB appearances show, he had been tearing down structures much more complex than Robinson over hip-hop and grime beats for years already. Will Pritchard

34. Battles – Atlas (Later, 2007)

With prog-metal virtuosity, alien voices chanting an infernal hook, and a relentless techno glam beat increasing in intensity over almost eight minutes, Warp-signed Battles were not typical Jools fodder to say the least. God knows what fellow guests Crowded House and Richard Thompson thought, but the audience was ecstatic. Joe Muggs

33. Iron Maiden – Running Free (TOTP, 1980)

Iron Maiden performing on TOTP.
Iron Maiden performing on TOTP. Photograph: BBC

Perennial enemies of miming to a backing tape, Iron Maiden were the first band since the Who to decimate Top of the Pops completely live. Those twirling riffs and Paul Di’Anno’s punk snarl are emblematic of what made the Londoners the leaders of the new wave of British heavy metal. Matt Mills

32. Converge – Live at the BBC (Radio 1 Rock Show With Daniel P Carter, 2010)

Recording in Maida Vale’s hallowed confines for Daniel P Carter’s longstanding show, the Massachusetts crown princes of hardcore punk brought nothing less than pure, unfiltered, guttural delight. Guitars have rarely sounded crunchier, or vocal cords so gloriously torn. And the drums, good lord, the drums. Will Pritchard

31. Dr Feelgood – Roxette (OGWT, 1975)

Roxette is a song about stealing someone’s girlfriend, but you would have been more concerned about your car getting nicked if you had spotted this gang of Essex pub rock geezers on OGWT, none of whom would have looked out of place getting flung over the bonnet of a Ford Granada in The Sweeney. Malcolm Jack

30. Lana Del Rey – Video Games (Later, 2011)

Lana Del Rey: Video Games – video

Del Rey’s lacklustre 2012 Saturday Night Live performance cemented an unfair reputation as an untalented performer and turbocharged the misogynist debate about how “authentic” she was. Her haunted, transfixing Jools Holland performance just three months earlier – swaying in place, eyes trained down the camera just a second too long for comfort – feels like a more accurate representation of her strange, confrontational style of pop. Shaad D’Souza

29. Black Sabbath – Behind the Wall of Sleep/NIB/Black Sabbath/Devil’s Island (Peel session, Radio 1, 1969)

Black Sabbath’s debut album invented heavy metal, but the rawness of their subsequent Peel session somehow made their songs even scarier. Although the DJ only had the band on his show twice (their breakthrough single Paranoid allegedly turned him off), this early showcase legitimised rock’s freakiest burgeoning subgenre. Matt Mills

28. Ariana Grande – Them Changes (Radio 1 Live Lounge, 2018)

Ariana Grande: Them Changes – video

This cover is not better than Thundercat’s squelching original, but it did add shade to our idea of Grande as a musician. Like an athlete pushing to outpace their PB, it gave her an opportunity to work a little, to exist outside pop structure and find her way into a loping, unconventional groove. Shaad D’Souza

27. Meat Loaf – Paradise By the Dashboard Light (OGWT, 1978)

There are more famous OGWT performances, but none with more sheer WTF? dementedness than Meat Loaf’s UK TV debut: a sweaty, deliriously OTT extravaganza that reaches a pinnacle of madness during the instrumental break, where Meat Loaf and duet partner Karla DeVito pretend to get off with each other. Alexis Petridis

26. Desmond Dekker – Israelites (TOTP, 1969)

When Dekker appeared on TOTP on 10 April 1969, it represented a watershed moment for Britain’s Black communities. Addressing the nation on prime time in a thick patois, this forceful and flamboyant voice from home deeply resonated as he sang of daily struggles to survive. David Katz

25. Patti Smith Group – Because the Night (OGWT, 1978)

Smith’s first OGWT appearance in 1976, doing Horses and Hey Joe, was a landmark moment, but the second is perhaps more significant: her bewitching performance of Bruce Springsteen’s Because the Night gave a tantalising preview of the song that subsequently made her famous. Dave Simpson

24. Wretch 32 and Avelino – Fire in the Booth (Radio 1Xtra, 2015)

During the promo run for their 2015 collaboration, Young Fire, Old Flame, don Wretch 32 and don-in-waiting Avelino stopped by Radio 1Xtra to deliver just under nine minutes of pure lyrical wizardry – showing how north London has become a stomping ground for some of the sharpest pens in the game. Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson

23. Bill Withers – Ain’t No Sunshine (OGWT, 1972)

Bill Withers was one of the all-time great between-song performers, capable of sending his audience into hysterics or making them ponder his work beyond its surface. In a striking orange turtleneck, he delivers a benediction directly to camera on the machismo that makes men hold pain inside, before a touching performance of Ain’t No Sunshine. Then there’s his funk masterpiece Use Me: Withers’ broad acoustic guitar strums lead the electric piano and axe licks as his rich voice fills the studio. Dean Van Nguyen

22. Arctic Monkeys – Love Machine (Radio 1 Live Lounge, 2006)

Fresh-faced and riding high off their breakthrough, Arctic Monkeys’ take on Girls Aloud is often remembered as the moment where the aloof teenagers first revealed their playful side. With impromptu giggles and exaggerated Yorkshire vowels, it’s more piss-taking karaoke than refined cover, but it captured the Live Lounge at its best – silly, unexpected and ultimately, quite humanising. Jenessa Williams

21. Daft Punk – Essential Mix (Radio 1, 1997)

Daft Punk in 1997.
Daft Punk in 1997. Photograph: Paul Bergen/Redferns

“Hello, this is Daft Punk speaking,” a robotic voice spluttered 25 years ago, introducing “two French blokes” to the airwaves shortly after the release of their debut album, Homework. An intrepid journey through the best of both French and Funky house swiftly followed, all of it lightyears ahead of its time. El Hunt

20. Sonic Youth – play the Fall (Peel session, Radio 1, 1988)

The Fall, Peel’s favourite band, recorded no less than 24 sessions for the DJ’s show. In tribute came this brilliant curio from October 1988, as the New Yorkers – in their Daydream Nation-era – bring trademark noisy guitars to covers of My New House, Roche Rumble, Psycho Mafia and Victoria. Dave Simpson

19. Roxy Music – Ladytron (OGWT 1972)

Notable not just for unleashing Roxy’s jolting, space-age sequin-and-satin look and the eerie soundscapes conjured from Brian Eno’s synth, but for host Bob Harris’s dismissive introduction, decrying them as “style over substance”. It was an early sign of the battle lines that would eventually erupt in punk – a genre largely staffed by huge Roxy fans – being drawn. Alexis Petridis

18. Dizzee Rascal, BBK, Lethal Bizzle, Tempa T, Fekky, Footsie and General Levy – #SixtyMinutesLive (Radio 1Xtra, 2015)

Dizzee Rascal, BBK, Lethal Bizzle, Tempa T, Fekky, Footsie and General Levy: #SixtyMinutesLive – video

The best live sets are like fantastical chemistry experiments, each added ingredient bringing new bubbles, colours and smoke bombs. General Levy bowling in to MistaJam’s studio for an impromptu rendition of Incredible – anatomy-defying hiccup squeaks and all – is the explosive sodium in the water in this hour-long takeover. The room, and everything else, erupts as soon as he touches the surface. Will Pritchard

17. Björk – Jóga (Later, 1997)

Stripping back her experimental pop to just strings and beats, 1997’s Homogenic found Björk focusing on the essentials. That joyful simplicity transposes spectacularly to this Later performance, a shoeless Björk flitting between delicate wonder and fiery passion – at one point she stomps out the rhythm on the cold studio floor – during a transcendent Jóga. Michael Cragg

16. At the Drive-In – One Armed Scissor (Later, 2000)

Here’s a band at war with itself. Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López’s mesmerising, chaotic attack on At the Drive-In’s breakout single produces shards of the sound that anticipates the avant-prog they would make with their future band the Mars Volta, while Jim Ward’s impassioned chorus is a last stand for the Texas group’s punk roots. Something had to give: only months later they split. Huw Baines

15. Spice Girls – Wannabe (TOTP, 1996)

Spice Girls in 1996.
Spice Girls in 1996. Photograph: Tim Roney/Getty Images

You could take your pick of the times that the suddenly mega-famous, world-crushing Spice Girls mimed along to Wannabe on Top of the Pops during 1996, but this one, beamed in from a temple in Japan, perfectly captured the electric, boisterous spirit of pop’s newest royalty. Rebecca Nicholson

14. Big Shaq – Fire in the Booth (Radio 1Xtra, 2017)

Michael Dapaah is a man of ease. There’s more humour in his pronunciation of the word “boom” than in half the sitcoms on iPlayer, and he cracks jokes like Jacques Pépin making an omelette throughout this momentous Fire in the Booth, which was possibly the first to win the hearts of both Drake and Jeremy Corbyn. Emma Garland

13. Andrew Weatherall – Essential Mix (Radio 1, 1993)

In 1993, Weatherall could effortlessly have followed Oakenfold, Rampling and co to megastar status. Instead, as ever, he swerved left. Starting his highest-profile mix yet with a crawling Killing Joke dub, then winding through the wonkiest techno available, was – and remains – a demolishingly great statement of perverse brilliance. Joe Muggs

12. The Fall – New Puritan (Peel session, 1980)

“Does that make you feel uncomfortable? It certainly makes me feel uncomfortable,” declares Peel as an electrifying New Puritan comes crashing to a close. While there is no single definitive Fall Peel session, this one comes close. Mark E Smith’s vocals are punchy and potent, with the band a ceaselessly charging, fiery and groove-locked unit. Daniel Dylan Wray

11. Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit (TOTP, 1991)

Had the poster boys for irreverence made their TOTP debut placidly miming a song that begins with the lyric “load up on guns, bring your friends” – as was the norm at the time – it would have been weirder than what actually transpired. Aggressively not pretending to play their instruments while Kurt Cobain sings like Morrissey suspended in bullet-time, Nirvana hammered home the message that history only happens when you break the rules. Emma Garland

10. Amy Winehouse – Stronger Than Me (Later, 2003)

Amy Winehouse: Stronger Than Me – video

You could pick any of Amy Winehouse’s Later appearances for this list – her reading of the jazz standard Teach Me Tonight is fantastic – but as a snapshot of talent in the raw, her first appearance takes some beating. She plays guitar and sounds astonishing, visibly shifting from nervous to swaggeringly confident as the song progresses. Alexis Petridis

9. Hole – Doll Parts/He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)/Violet (Later, 1995)

While nowhere near as chaotic as some of the live shows Courtney Love played in the wake of her husband’s suicide, there’s a compelling, fraught, unpredictable energy about Hole’s performance on Later, at odds with the show’s clubbable atmosphere, that amplifies the force of both the material and Love’s Stevie-Nicks-in-Hell vocals. Alexis Petridis

8. Kanye West – Bound 2/New Slaves/Blood on the Leaves (Later, 2013)

By the time of West’s second Later appearance, the noise generated by his personal life was hard to drown out, but his performance of three tracks from Yeezus – starkly lit and accompanied by Gap Band veteran Charlie Wilson on vocals – was so urgent and powerful, it achieved it: a gripping reminder of what he does best. Alexis Petridis

The Slits … Viv Albertine, Palmolive, Tessa Pollitt and Ari Up.
The Slits … Viv Albertine, Palmolive, Tessa Pollitt and Ari Up. Photograph: Ray Stevenson

7. The Slits – So Tough/Instant Hit/FM (Peel session, 1978)

The Slits’ second Peel session is the perfect snapshot of punk’s anyone-can-do-it ethos actually working: they audibly don’t know or don’t care how to play “properly”, but, rather than a mess, the results are wildly original and exciting. By their debut album, a reggae influence and increased professionalism had sanded the edges off. Alexis Petridis

6. Kate Bush – Running Up That Hill (Wogan, 1985)

Kate Bush: Running Up That Hill – video

Terry Wogan’s chatshow was not usually the place you’d go to looking for an amazing musical performance, but Kate Bush’s tense, choreographed reading of Running Up That Hill – singing at a lectern, her cowled band slowly advancing on her in a semi-circle – was so potent, it replaced the song’s actual video in the US. Alexis Petridis

5. The Smiths – This Charming Man/Back to the Old House/Still Ill/This Night Has Opened My Eyes (Peel session, Radio 1, 1983)

There’s a compelling argument that the Smiths were never better than on the Radio 1 session tracks that appeared on 1984’s Hatful of Hollow: they never bothered to re-record Back to the Old House or the incredible This Night Has Opened My Eyes from their second Peel session of 1983, presumably feeling they’d been perfectly captured. Alexis Petridis

4. Joy Division – Transmission (Something Else, 1979)

Joy Division on Something Else, 1979.
Joy Division on Something Else, 1979. Photograph: Harry Goodwin/Rex Features

Joy Division had debuted on Granada’s So It Goes in 1978, but by the time of their appearance on BBC Two’s Something Else, the intensity of Ian Curtis’s performance had ratcheted up to an incredible level: as he sings, his eyes go from pleading to possessed, creating the sense that you’re very much in the presence of something unprecedented. Alexis Petridis

3. Bob Marley and the Wailers – Stir it Up/Concrete Jungle (OGWT, 1973)

“No group of musicians has ever looked flat cooler,” wrote John Jeremiah Sullivan of the Wailers’ debut UK TV appearance, and he has a point: the band sound magnificent, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer exude insouciance, and what Old Grey Whistle Test viewers who’d tuned in to see Yes made of it boggles the mind. Alexis Petridis

2. Mala, Skream, Kode 9 and The Spaceape, Vex’d, Hatcha and Crazy D, Loefah and Sgt Pokes, and Distance – Dubstep Warz (Breezeblock, Radio 1, 2006)

Mary Anne Hobbs’ two-hour broadcast didn’t just document the nascent dubstep scene, it catalysed it in a way no radio show could in the changed landscape of 2022: it was ripped and distributed via filesharing sites, attendances at clubs boomed, the genre tipped from underground phenomenon to mainstream success. It still sounds explosively thrilling. Alexis Petridis

1. David Bowie – Starman (TOTP, 1972)

David Bowie: Starman – video

The most famous three and a half minutes of music television in British history isn’t so much about the performance itself as its impact on viewers. No matter how weird and alien you felt, you couldn’t have been as weird and alien as David Bowie and his bandmates looked: the cavalry was here for you. The point where Bowie camply throws his arm around Mick Ronson gathered headlines at the time, but its apex comes 30 seconds later. Umpteen viewers have testified to the life-changing, he’s-talking-to-me effect of the moment when Bowie points down the camera as he sings the line “I had to phone someone so I picked on you”: Lord Kitchener for weirdos, successfully recruiting an army of suburban misfits. Alexis Petridis


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