The second season of Glee ended with a bit of a wet fart last week. I don’t agree with the common wisdom that the show suffered from a sophomore slump, but the last few episodes were definitely a disappointment, and the season introduced a raft of new flaws to replace some of the ones it fixed from the first season. The erratic personality swings were still there. The overwrought, over-familiar make-ups and break-ups kept coming. The horrific mash-ups still made themselves heard.
Yet the show’s biggest crime is over-familiarity. That’s usually what ’sophomore slump’ really means; that the thrill of novelty has gone. The show has to work harder to keep its fans interested. Next year they’re moving beyond their three-man writing staff and introducing a writer’s room, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a bounce-back.
And the show still gets one thing right. It still knows how to put on a performance. Last year I talked about the fifteen best numbers from season one. This year felt like it had more songs, but the total was actually about the same, so I think what it actually had was more good songs. This year I’m giving you my top 25. Click on the titles or play the videos to hear the tracks. (No original songs feature on this list, and nor do any Matthew Morrison numbers. Take the hint, Glee.)
25. The Most Wonderful Day of the Year
New Directions (Ep 10, A Very Glee Christmas)
The Rudolph TV special has no cultural cachet for me, but this song about misfit toys was a perfect fit for Glee’s first Christmas episode. It had tons of charm and character, and was that rare ensemble number that gave a little something to everyone - like Santa!
Sam/Chord Overstreet (Ep13, Comeback)
It’s a Justin Bieber number but, as Santana says, ‘this song is actually really good’. I know that can be a hard thought to process, but it’s a future classic and a new karaoke staple. Hearing someone with a more pleasant voice than Bieber’s helps sell it. (Justin Bieber is a talented young man, but that pubescent squeak is something only a tween could love.)
23. Don’t You Want Me
Rachel & Blaine/Lea Michele & Darren Criss (Ep 14, Blame It On The Alcohol)
Season two has leaned too heavily on contemporary songs, neglecting its season one diet of Broadway and American rock. The 80s have barely ever got a look in, so it was a strange and welcome delight to hear this Human League song from the show’s biggest voice and its most engaging performer.
22. My Man
Rachel/Lea Michele (Ep 21, Funeral)
Rachel Berry does Barbra Streisand (does Fanny Brice). In theory Barbra is untouchable, but Lea Michele seems to walk that walk every day, and on this number she elegantly threads the needle between an admirable Funny Girl and a very Rachel Berry moment.
21. Thriller/Heads Will Roll
New Directions (Ep 11, The Sue Sylvester Shuffle)
Glee cannot do mash-ups. Or so I believed, until the Super Bowl episode came along. Thriller/Heads Will Roll was a mash-up in the modern sense; a dance remix weaving two numbers into a workable stomp.
20. Unpretty/I Feel Pretty
Rachel & Quinn/Lea Michele & Diana Agron (Ep 18, Born This Way)
And this was a mash-up as well! Actually, as a medley it was less successful - the West Side Story elements should have been dropped - but the women’s voices flattered each other so well on the TLC parts that it was a delight to listen to.
Holly, Santana & Brittany/Gwyneth Paltrow, Naya Rivera & Heather Morris (Ep 15, Sexy)
Glee’s stunt casting has usually tended towards Broadway stars that most people have never heard of, so the arrival of Gwyneth Paltrow was a big deal, and in her first episode at least it actually worked. ‘Sexy’ was her second episode, where she started to outstay her welcome, but Landslide was a great moment in spite of her slightly nasal tone, because it spoke to the ‘Britana’ story, and because the harmonies were lovely.
Sunshine/Charice (Ep 1, Audition)
The other bit of stunt casting was a smaller name unless you’re Filipino, in which case Charice is a huuuuge superstar. She’s certainly a huge voice, and though the show never did as much with her as it could have, she got a few showcase moments, and the best of them was on this, the lesser of the big Dreamgirls ballads.
Sam & Artie/Chord Overstreet & Kevin McHale (Ep 1, Audition)
I still don’t fully know who Bruno Mars is or why he got a near-Gaga number of his songs featured this season, but this number (introducing us to the show’s new blond pretty-boy Sam) was fresh and lively, and I find Chord Overstreet’s voice very easy to like.
16. Baby It’s Cold Outside
Kurt & Blaine/Chris Colfer & Darren Criss (Ep 10, A Very Glee Christmas)
The big story on-screen this season was the homophobic bullying that pushed Kurt to a rival school where he met dreamboat Blaine. The big story off-screen was the making of a new star in Darren Criss. This romantic winter duet between two gay teenagers was an unprecedented TV moment that kept the cold roaring winds of the haters at bay.
15. Marry You
New Directions (Ep 8, Furt)
Musicals are all about big emotional moments, and Glee has pulled off more than a few of them, but I didn’t expect I’d be made to care about the wedding of two minor supporting characters. This feel-good ensemble number, replete with dorky dancing, worked that magic - and YouTube will show that real-life couples are already trying to recapture it.
14. Hey Soul Sister
Blaine & The Warblers/Darren Criss & Tufts Beelzebubs (Ep 9, Special Education)
Tufts Beelzebubs are the sort of vocal group I expected Glee to be about when the show first started; preppy, primped and a capella. The show turned out to be about a rougher bunch with a lot more pop than prep, but it was nice to get a few glimpses of this other world and to enjoy the sterling showmanship of the Beelzebubs on numbers like this. The song is contemporary, but the performance is old school.
13. Dog Days Are Over
Tina, Mercedes & New Directions/Jenna Ushkowitz & Amber Riley (Ep 9, Special Education)
As an apt comparison to the Beelzebubs; this is the sort of group number that the New Directions kids excel at. There were no big Journey numbers this year, and weirdly they were actually missed, but this was as good as the ensemble got in year two. Joyous and energetic.
12. Take Me Or Leave Me
Rachel & Mercedes/Lea Michele & Amber Riley (Ep 13, Comeback)
Back before it became clear that the show would not neglect its lesbian constituents, there was some grumbling about the de-gaying of this passionate lesbian hate duet from Rent, but it also works as a diva-off between the show’s leading belters. As a rock opera it perfectly bridges Rachel’s Broadway background and Mercedes’ big soul voice. For the record, they called it a tie but Mercedes won.
11. Le Jazz Hot
Kurt/Chris Colfer (Ep 4, Duets)
Kurt Hummel transforms himself into a one-man Berlin cabaret performance. Looking back, this was one of Glee’s boldest musical moments, a great character moment, and an extraordinary piece of staging. It was also incredibly, brilliantly, indulgently camp.
Santana/Naya Rivera (Ep 19, Rumours)
The one sour note of Gwyneth Paltrow’s landslide was that I wanted the focus on Santana when it came to her same-sex Stevie Nicks serenade. Four episodes later, this was the do-over, and it was everything I wanted it to be. Naya Rivera usually excels at angry singing; it was a revelation to hear her perform with such sensitivity and sweetness.
9. Ain’t No Way
Mercedes/Amber Riley (Ep 17, A Night of Neglect)
If you’re going to do an Aretha number, do a lesser-known Aretha number. Amber Riley was given a gift with this song, because I had never heard it before but I will be sure to want to hear it again and again, and it will be Riley’s number that I come back to. Riley had way more chances to showcase her vocals this season than last. This was her best solo.
8. Never Going Back Again
Artie & Sam/Kevin McHale & Chord Overstreet (Ep 19, Rumours)
This beautifully bare Fleetwood Mac number will be a popular choice for a new generation of sensitive boys with guitars thanks to its Glee revival.
Tina & Mike/Jenna Ushkowitz & Harry Shum Jr (Ep 4, Duets)
Jenna Ushkowitz does not get much love on this show. Most of her solos are used as punchlines, and most of them aren’t very funny. This one was brilliant, introducing us to the voice of the one member of the Glee club who sings even less than she does, the dancing sensation Mike Chang. It’s worth watching online if you can find it, because this one is all about the performance.
Sue & Doris/Jane Lynch & Carol Burnett (Ep 8, Furt)
Jane Lynch doesn’t get a lot of numbers - in fact I think this was only her second - but this was an ideal choice for her and guest star Carol Burnett (brilliantly cast as her mother, the Nazi hunter). Sue Sylvester was a mangled wreck of a character by season’s end, but this vaudevillian two-hander showed her at her very best; hilarious, absurd, but still recognisably human.
5. River Deep, Mountain High
Santana & Mercedes/Naya Rivera & Amber Riley (Ep 4, Duets)
If Glee continues to slide into nonsense in season three, we may look back on the episode Duets as its peak, and this duet in particular as the summit of all its joyful exuberance. Lea Michele deserves the respect she gets for her Broadway vocals, but for my money these girls are the best singers on the show, and hearing them let loose together is a too-rare treat. (I apologise for using an Italian video clip, but it was the only Fox-approved clip I could find.)
4. Rolling In The Deep
Rachel & Jesse/Lea Michele & Jonathan Groff (Ep 20, Prom Queen)
As on American Idol, when you hear a fresh arrangement of a hit song on Glee it’s often a safe bet that it’s a cover of someone else’s cover. I was disappointed to learn that this inventive version of the Adele song was a faithful copy of John Legend’s cover, re-imagined as a duet. Nonetheless, it was powerful and impressive, and absolutely perfect for the characters.
3. Happy Days Are Here Again/Get Happy
Rachel & Kurt/Lea Michele & Chris Colfer (Ep 4, Duets)
Speaking of apt choices; this number was not only right for the characters’ stories, but also right for the characters. A Barbra/Judy duet? For Rachel and Kurt? It’s what God intended! This was a medley from the days before they called all medleys ‘mash-ups’, and a master class in how these things should be done.
2. I Want To Hold Your Hand
Kurt/Chris Colfer (Ep 3, Grilled Cheesus)
It’s a little strange that Glee hasn’t done more Beatles songs, though I’m sure plenty of hardcore Beatles fans are relieved. Chris Colfer sang two in season two. One was the solemn Blackbird, made to seem goofy because he sang it to a dead budgie. The other was this usually goofy upbeat pop ditty, made beautifully solemn in this canny arrangement as a testament to Kurt’s love for his sick father.
1. Teenage Dream
Blaine & The Warblers/Darren Criss & Tufts Beelzebubs (Ep 6, Never Been Kissed)
This was the moment that we met and fell in love with Blaine and/or Darren Criss, the dreamy diminutive brown-eyed be-blazered boarding school heartthrob with the shimmying dance moves and an ever-present back-up posse of male harmony singers. Who could resist? This became Glee’s top-selling iTunes release of all time, and deservedly so, because it’s an infectious and charming re-imagining of the Katy Perry song. Yet what makes it especially extraordinary, and guaranteed it the top spot on my list, was that it was a gay kid serenading another gay kid with a slightly saucy love song on primetime network television. It was a cultural breakthrough moment.
Fact: Before this song and video became a huge hit, only 44% of Americans supported same-sex marriage. After this song, 53% of Americans supported same-sex marriage. This is because Glee changed the world.
I am only slightly kidding when I say that.