Overall, Season three was probably the weakest season yet in terms of music, especially in terms of music that was artfully inserted into the plot. There were a lot of songs this season that were there just because they apparently felt like they needed a song there, and I think that attitude is very much to the show’s detriment. That said, there were a fair number of fantastic songs this season, and I’ve come up with a list of my top ten favorites. The list will start from ten, with my favorite song of the season listed last at number one.
10. “Smooth Criminal,” sung by Santana and Sebastian (“Michael”)
This only scores so low because it didn’t really have any purpose in the context of the story or theme of the episode… but man, was it fun. The intensity of all the performers, the relentless cello music, and the gorgeous duet arrangement made this an extremely memorable number.
9. “Boogie Shoes,” sung by Wade, et al. (“Saturday Night Glee-ver”)
This song took the episode’s theme of finding your dreams and ran away with it. Despite how utterly ludicrous this performance is, it’s incredibly fun and somehow manages to capture the drama of Wade deciding to share her real self with the world. Jesse’s reaction helped a lot to keep the whole scene grounded in some kind of reality. This kind of juxtaposition of the ridiculous with the dramatic is the kind of this that Glee usually flops at, but when they succeed it can be very cool.
8. “Survivor/I Will Survive,” sung by Mercedes, Santana, et al. (“Hold on to Sixteen”)
This was a ton of fun, and it allowed Santana and Mercedes that moment of applause in the spotlight that they were craving, cementing the fact that they can be just as big stars as Rachel. The choreography of the performance is absolutely wonderful, and I love the moment, transitioning from “I Will Survive” to “Survivor” for the first time, that the girls pair off and start dancing. It’s also a wonderfully constructed mash-up.
7. “We Are Young,” sung by Rachel, Finn, et al. (“Hold on to Sixteen”)
This is a song that flew under my radar the first time I saw it, but it really is fantastic. It encapsulates the theme of the episode, that it’s okay to just stop and enjoy being young while you can. It also does enough to heal the rift in the glee club to satisfy me (though it still hurts that they never featured Mercedes and Rachel making up with each other).
6. “Rumour Has It/Someone Like You,” sung by Mercedes, Santana, et al. (“Mash Off”)
This is a great mash-up, but what really works about the performance is how Santana is visibly struggling with her emotions. She’s dealing with the new knowledge that she is going to be forced out of the closet, whether she wants to or not, and she is just a total wreck. She somehow manages to sing angrily, sadly, wistfully, confused, and scared all at the same time, and lot of credit goes to the director and especially Naya Rivera for how well this works.
5. “Somebody That I Used to Know,” sung by Blaine and Cooper (“Big Brother”)
Blaine and Cooper’s relationship was not something that “Big Brother” did very well. Cooper was just too much of a cartoon character to build those early dramatic scenes on. This song, however, almost made up for the entire plotline. Blaine takes this song and makes it his own, explaining to his brother how he feels like they just don’t have any kind of relationship at all anymore. Darren Criss puts a lot of emotion into the song, and Matt Bomer, for the first and last time in the episode, finally creates a real human character as Cooper realizes he understands what Blaine is saying to him.
4. “Cough Syrup,” sung by Blaine (“On My Way”)
The climax of Dave’s plotline (though I hope it’s not the last we see of him), his attempted suicide is one of the most powerful scenes in the entire series. This song sets the perfect tone for Dave’s devastating reaction to being outed. It also forces the viewer to compare the terribly-alone Dave with happy couple Blaine and Kurt, as Blaine performs the song for his boyfriend. When Glee does numbers with intercuts to another scene and it works, it’s often incredible (compare this with season one’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”).
3. “It’s All Over,” sung by Mercedes, Santana, et al. (“Asian F”)
This should serve as an example to future episode writers that “parody” or “tribute” numbers can really work and function in the story if they have a purpose. This bit was more or less straight out of Dreamgirls (as I understand), but it also works perfectly within the context of the episode. Mercedes feels unappreciated in the glee club, despite all the hard work she’s given them. She feels betrayed by Will because he threatened to kick her out of the club for her tantrum. She feels looked-down-upon by the other members of the club. And, lastly, she’s filled with sadness to think that her time in the club might really be over. This song captures all of that, and, despite being a parody and imaginary number, it propels the plot forward and gives insight into Mercedes’s character. And, of course, it’s a lot of fun.
2. “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” sung by Finn, Rachel, et al. (“Nationals”)
This was a great song even when it first aired, but looking at it again after seeing Finn and Rachel’s breakup in “Goodbye,” it carries with it some great foreshadowing and some bitter irony. Rachel and Finn are having a ton of of fun playing the part of high school sweethearts who eventually come to feel trapped in their relationship… but who’s to say that that’s not really where they’re headed? Anyway, this number is terrific, with great vocals, choreography, and direction. It also really sells the feeling of being up on stage as part of an important high school competition, which can be one of the most exhilarating feelings in the world to a kid.
1. “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” sung by Finn, et al. (“I Kissed a Girl”)
Considering this and last season’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” I apparently have a thing for the use of different arrangements of pop songs with re-purposed themes. Anyway, their use of this song in this way is brilliant. Santana is facing an end to her life as she knew it before. She can no longer pretend to be what everyone expects her to be, just coasting along and enjoying herself. That’s all she really wants to do. She loved her life the way it was before, but now she has to face “adult” problems like living publicly with the fact that she’s a lesbian. Finn’s slow rendition of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” acts as a kind of lament, a wistful goodbye to the kind of carefree life that Santana no longer has the luxury of.
Honorable mentions: “Anything Goes/Anything You Can Do,” “Buenos Aires,” “Never Can Say Goodbye,” “How Will I Know,” “America,” “It’s Not Unusual,” “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face,” “Cry,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Roots Before Branches.”