Past generations have had American Bandstand, others had Soul Train. Then, came MTV. But there was a time when one of the loudest voices in the visual music market wasn’t any “live” performance show with hastily performed lip-syncing—it was The Simpsons.

For decades, The Simpsons was like Studio 54, Whiskey a Go Go, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame all rolled into one. Over the years, the show has had a seemingly endless list of incredible musical guest stars. From legends to lowlifes, The Simpsons has had them all. Here eight of the best—and worst—musical guest stars on The Simpsons.

Best: Aerosmith – “Flaming Moe’s”

This one is a no-brainer. In Season 3, Episode 10 (1991), Homer Simpson accidentally creates a new alcoholic beverage by combining all the remaining drops from the liquor cabinet along with children’s cough syrup after running out of beer. “It’s not without its charm,” remarks bartender Moe Syzlak—that is, until you light it on fire. Immediately, it becomes the “hottest” drink in town, bringing a veritable who’s who into Moe’s Tavern, including Aerosmith.

While the band is sharing a pitcher of “Flaming Moe’s,” which is somewhat odd considering the band’s “comeback” status in 1991 when they supposedly got sober, Moe beckons them to play a couple of songs. They deter the offer, only to eventually relent when Moe offers them free pickled eggs. As they come up to the stage, frontman Steven Tyler gets into rockstar mode,

“Hello St. Louis!”

“Uh, that’s Springfield, Steve,” Joe Perry corrects him.

“Uh, yeah, right.”

Even though the show’s artists, hopefully unwittingly, make Tyler look like a pallid skeleton, the band’s charisma and sex appeal still transition to the cartoon world of Springfield. They even bring up Moe on “Walk This Way” for one of my all-time favorite sit-ins.

Then, later in the episode, Edna Krabappel holds Joey Kramer hostage by refusing to hand over his drumsticks, enticing him to “come and get ’em.” Because every teenage girl in 1975 fantasized about drummer Joey Kramer when Toys In The Attic came out.

Aerosmith, Moe Syzlak – “Walk This Way”

[Video: Hungry Homer Clips]

 Best: David Byrne – “Dude, Where’s My Ranch”

Another must for this list is Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. The Season 14 (2002–2003) episode, “Dude, Where’s My Ranch?”, begins with Homer trying to write a Christmas carol, which eventually morphs into “Everybody Hates Ned Flanders”, about his least favorite neighbor-ino.

As Homer regales the folks at Moe’s with his delightfully cruel hate song, who should walk by but David Byrne, who offers to record Homer’s song. Long story short, the song becomes a national sensation, being played all day long on the radio and inspiring covers from a host of artists including William Shatner. In an effort to escape the craze, the family decides to head to a dude ranch for vacation, but not before Byrne catches up to them to show them the extended salsa mix (which I argue is even better than the original).

What makes a good Simpsons musical guest star great is the self-aware ability to poke fun of one’s self. This is precisely what Byrne does as enters the show with his first line, “Excuse me, I’ve been researching indigenous folk music of Springfield…” Plus, even though his Talking Heads days are long behind him, he throws on the comically large suit from Stop Making Sense, and even lets Homer in it too.

Homer Simpson, David Byrne – “Everybody Hates Ned Flanders”

[Video: CP]

Worst: Lady Gaga – “Lisa Goes Gaga”

As previously stated, what makes musical guest stars great is the ability to poke fun at themselves. Be it Phish‘s insistence that they see someone’s medical marijuana card before continuing the concert or Homer telling Weird Al that he’s pretty much the same as Alan Sherman. That self-aware humor is exactly what is missing from one of the crown jewels of Jump The Sharkdom known as “Lisa Goes Gaga”.

Widely hailed as one of the worst episodes of The Simpsons since the original “worst episode ever”, “The Principal and the Pauper”, this Season 23 finale (2012) drew ire from Simpsons fans old and new. When Lisa is declared the most unpopular girl at Springfield Elementary, Lady Gaga just happens to be passing through Springfield (by train) and has a psychic premonition that Lisa needs to be helped. The result is a case study in vein attempts at cross-platform promotion, with all of the meager handful of jokes serving to push Gaga’s brand.

This episode came at the height of Gaga’s Little Monsters stardom, long before A Star Is Born or her recent fundraising of $35 million for COVID-19 relief. Instead, this self-serving episode has Gaga come to save the day by teaching Lisa about being herself by following Gaga’s example, which is itself inherently paradoxical. Something A.V. Club writer Rowan Kaiser pointed out in her initial review of the episode is that the overwhelming majority of Simpsons musical guest stars are only on screen for a few minutes, tops. “Lisa Goes Gaga”, however, focused entirely on the pop singer and her messiah-like ability to fix the problems of the entire town.

Lisa Simpson, Lady Gaga – “Superstar”

[Video: EssiUnicorn]

Worst: Paul & Linda McCartney – “Lisa The Vegetarian

The Simpsons had three out of four members of The Beatles guest star over the years, and one of the episodes was bound to not be a winner. This isn’t really about the episode very much at all, actually. The Season 7 (1995) episode, “Lisa The Vegetarian”, is an important moment in Lisa’s overall character development in the show. Before this, Lisa’s dissenting voice had been fairly subjected to the background and only brought out for minimal comic relief. In “Lisa The Vegetarian”, however, the entire episode focused on Lisa’s evolving morals as she comes to grips with the realities of the meat industry. Plus, it is a rare instance of something happening in one episode of a cartoon that remains constant through the rest of the series. Unfortunately, that latter point was dictated directly by Paul and Linda McCartney.

In 1995, The Simpsons was coming into its own as a cultural powerhouse. They had already had two of the three living members of The Beatles on, with Ringo Starr appearing in only the show’s second season. The show’s writers decided to go for McCartney, and thought that the story for “Lisa The Vegetarian” would be attractive to Paul and Linda, given the couple’s own, herbivorous ways. The McCartneys responded that they would appear in the episode, but only if Lisa remained a vegetarian for the remainder of the series. They didn’t want to see her back to eating meat the very next week. True to their word, the writers (and the many writers who replaced those writers) at The Simpsons have kept Lisa off meat since that episode nearly 25 years ago.

This once again returns to the idea of self-awareness making for a good Simpsons guest spot. Sure, Paul McCartney is one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, but has he ever written a cartoon? How is it any different than someone of any other belief, be it religious or political, dictating the terms of this show? The self-awareness is gone, and so is the comedy. The writers, however, got to have their third member of the Beatles on the show. Maybe John Lennon was right and the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, as neither Jesus nor his followers have had any direct influence on the show’s writing.

Paul & Linda McCartney – “Lisa The Vegetarian”

[Video: Lisa Simpson Liberal]

Best: Phish – “Weekend At Burnsies”

We all knew Phish was going to make it on this list. As avid Simpsons fans themselves (having made the song’s theme part of its live “secret language” in the ’90s), Phish understood what made a good guest spot. They made fun of themselves and were in and out in two minutes.

The Season 13 (2002) episode “Weekend At Burnsies” centers around medical marijuana, for which Homer receives a prescription after being attacked by a murder of crows. Some squares get all uptight and try to re-criminalize pot, so Homer and fellow marijuana enthusiast Otto Man (check his license), host a rally to gather support. Of course, they hire Phish to play, and the guys in the band take being labeled a drug band on the chin. It definitely wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last.

During “Run Like An Antelope”, Trey Anastasio stops the show because he smells marijuana, for which Jon Fishman and Page McConnell demand to see a prescription or else the band won’t play. When local sadsack Hans Moleman produces a script and gives it to Fish, he remarks, “woah, this man is seriously ill,” something Hans’ own doctor wouldn’t even tell him. The band returns to playing, and even incorporates the “D’oh” Secret Language cue, before inviting up a real “poth-eed” (which is how Page mistakenly pronounces pothead), Homer Simpson. Unfortunately, Mike Gordon has to break the news that the vote against medicinal marijuana was actually the day before the rally, and then the band is gone. In and out in barely two minutes with a few solid laughs to show for it.

Phish – “Run Like An Antelope/Banter”

[Video: Michael DiPalma]

Honorable Mentions

The Simpsons has been on for 32 years now, and still shows no signs of ending any time soon. Obviously, it’s impossible to get to every great and terrible musical guest star without this article going on for another 30 years. There are, however, some artists that definitely earned an honorable mention.

George Harrison – “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet”

George Harrison, the second Beatle to appear on The Simpsons, got the equation just right with his cameo in “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” (Season 5, 1993). He probably has about a minute of screen time between two scenes in which he’s featured, and they’re both gold. In the first scene, Homer meets Harrison at the Grammy Awards, where it turns out “the greatest thrill of [Homer’s] life” wasn’t meeting the former Beatle, but rather finding the giant tray of brownies sitting behind the musician. As Homer rushes past Harrison to the desserts, George simply remarks, “nice fella.”

Then, the real payoff comes at the end of the episode, when Homer and the titular barbershop quartet reunite for a concert on the roof of Moe’s. During the show, an obvious homage to The Beatles’ farewell rooftop concert, Harrison drives by in his limo, rolls down the window, and remarks “it’s been done.” Not a moment wasted.

Spinal Tap – “The Otto Show”

Just because they aren’t a real band doesn’t mean Spinal Tap isn’t in the running for “best musical guest spot.” The stars of the 1984 fake rockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap, show up to play in Springfield before leaving the stage after only 20 minutes. This, in turn, causes a riot and inspires Bart to become a rock musician. Tap’s time is well spent, however, as they deliver some of their trademark British rock royalty humor that epitomizes the lack of awareness that allows for such self-deprecation.

Spinal Tap – ‘Rappin’ With The Tap’

[Video: ThingsICantFindOtherwise]

Spinal Tap – “Break Like The Wind”

[Video: ThingsICantFindOtherwise]

The Ramones – “Rosebud”

For Mr. Burns‘s Lord-only-knows birthday, his dutiful assistant, Waylon Smithers, makes the poor entertainment choice of hiring The Ramones. In his introduction, an homage to Ed Sullivan‘s opening words to The Beatles’ first performance on American TV, Smithers remarks, “Here are several fine young men I’m sure are going to go far.” After Joey Ramone lets everyone know that “this gig sucks,” the punk pioneers launch into a thrash version of  “Happy Birthday”. Just before the curtain closes, C.J. Ramone implores Mr. Burns, “Go to hell, you old bastard.” Once the curtain falls, Marky Ramone remarks to the rest of the band, “Hey, I think they liked us,” while Mr. Burns demands to have the Rolling Stones killed, despite Smithers’ objections.

The Ramones – “Happy Birthday”

[Video: Michael Terpstra]

With 679 episodes under its belt and counting, The Simpsons has plenty more guest stars than this. There’s more great ones, more bad ones, and more in-between ones, ranging from the topical to the comical to the highly questionable. Personally, I was raised on The Simspons. They taught me so much about comedy and even more about popular culture. The show treated me like an adult when I was far from it. Now, there are times when it also treats me like a kid, and I appreciate that all the more. Whatever you may think of the show’s current trajectory, there will always be a time when a guest spot on the show meant more than any music video or song on the charts—and we have the episodes to prove it.