'Glee': Madonna! Stevie Wonder! Top ten tribute episodes -- ranked!
As anyone with even a passing familiarity with Glee — or iTunes charts — is aware, the show knows its way around a tribute episode, a.k.a. an episode where all of the music is from one artist or film. A ‘tribute episode’ also typically means there are seven or eight songs in the hour-long dramedy, as opposed to the usual standard of four. Great news for those of us who are watching the show for the karaoke! (I can’t be the only one dancing around my living room to Madonna or Lady Gaga Glee covers, right?)
Last night, Glee added Stevie Wonder to the diverse group of icons the show has celebrated, which got me thinking — where does Wonder fall among the Glee kids’ homages? Below, check out our rankings of the top ten tribute episodes Glee has undertaken in the past four seasons — along with some videos of the best performance from each musical-icon-filled hour.
10.) The Rocky Horror Picture Show; originally aired October 26, 2010
What we loved: This episode certainly had its detractors, but the show should be commended for introducing a whole new audience to Janet, Brad, Dr. Frank N. Furter, and the gang. With the inspired idea of having the show be McKinley’s own musical — and with an appearance by John Stamos (remember when he was on this show?) to help it along, this hour did shot-for-shot remakes of some of Rocky Horror‘s most famous scenes. Where else are you going to be able to check out Kurt as Riff Raff?
Best Performance: “Time Warp”
9.) Grease; originally aired November 15, 2012 (Note: the songs from McKinley’s production were divided over two episodes)
What we loved: It’s one of the most iconic movie musicals of all time, and it takes place at a high school — of course Glee had to put their own spin on it. While some numbers were simply karaoke (and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that), the best moments were when the tune had a little something extra from the original. The climactic “You’re The One That I Want” may have sounded similar to the Rydell High version, but the direction gave the number an inspired twist, with Rachel and Kurt imagining dancing up onstage with their one-time paramours.
Best Performance: “You’re The One That I Want”
8.) Saturday Night Fever; originally aired April 17, 2012
What we loved: They may not hold a candle to the Bee Gees’ original falsetto, but the fun quotient was next-level in this tribute to the iconic 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever. Polyester suits? Check. I’m a fan of episodes like this and Rocky Horror because — while fans of the originals may decry them — they introduce iconic older movies to a new audience. If these tributes lead to more people checking out John Travolta’s moves or listening to the original “If I Can’t Have You,” then strut away, Gleeks.
Best Performance: “Stayin’ Alive”
7.) Britney Spears; originally aired Sept. 28, 2010 (“Britney/Brittany” was the first of two hours billed as Britney Spears tributes. Oops, they did it again earlier this season.)
What we loved: The pop princess (who even cameoed in the episode!) had her biggest hits on display, either in direct retellings (like “Me Against the Music”) or different interpretations, such as Artie’s “Stronger” — which, as everyone knows, is one of the best Britney Spears tracks of all time. This episode was great because age-wise, it was super believable that the kids — both on the show and at home — would have fond memories of Miss Brit.
Best Performance: I loved both “Stronger” and the exact recreation (Brittany can move!) of “I’m A Slave For You.” Unfortunately, a lot of the video from this episode isn’t available, so here’s Rachel’s by-the-numbers “…Baby, One More Time.”
6.) Stevie Wonder; originally aired May 2, 2013
What we loved: Glee‘s most recent tribute pretty much landed in the middle of the pack. The Mercedes-heavy episode — which featured her gospel-y spin on his most famous hits such as “Superstition” — definitely gave a good sampling of the Wonder’s songbook. But more so than some of the other more pop-y icons the show has celebrated, this tribute mostly had me longing for Wonder’s iconic originals.
Best Performance: “Uptight”
NEXT: Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and…!
5.) Lady Gaga; originally aired May 25, 2010 (“Theatricality” was the first of two episodes billed as Gaga Tributes. Note: neither were full hours of Lady Gaga’s music.)
What we loved: Much like the earlier Madonna episode, the best part of this hour was how Little Monsters could feel like the overall message of the artist — in this case, self-acceptance — was front and center. The costumers on Glee deserve a special shout out for this episode (bubble dresses can’t be easy to come by!). We can’t forget about the piano-only “Poker Face” standout, either. The sheer, well, glee, that Chris Colfer and Co. used to perform her numbers was a real treat.
Best Performance: “Bad Romance”
4.) Fleetwood Mac; originally aired May 3, 2011
What we loved: While this episode wasn’t technically billed as a Fleetwood Mac tribute episode, all the songs came from their iconic album Rumours — and hopefully introduced a bunch of kids to the wonders of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. The data suggests it did; when the episode aired, the original Rumours (not the Glee covers) shot up the Billboard charts. A bunch of kids — after listening to solid McKinley High interpretations of “Songbird” and “Dreams” — surely realized those songs can make anyone feel everything — and that’s definitely something worth celebrating. (“Landslide,” also by Fleetwood Mac, was performed earlier in the season).
Best Performance: “Go Your Own Way”
3.) Whitney Houston; originally aired April 24, 2012
What we loved: Airing several weeks after her death, this tribute celebrated Houston’s complicated-but-iconic legacy with fun spins on classics such as “Dance with Somebody” and “So Emotional.” We’ll just agree to forget about “It’s Not Right But It’s OK,” yes? The best was the opener: The show stepped away from its typical karaoke covers and performed a moving, stripped down rendition of “How Will I Know.” Note: “I Will Always Love You” was not performed during this tribute, but was wonderfully featured several weeks earlier by Mercedes, ironically airing just a few days after Houston’s death.
Best Performance: “How Will I Know”
2.) Michael Jackson; originally aired January 31, 2012
What we loved: The King of Pop’s tribute was a nostalgia-fueled trip through various ages of Michael. From the early Jackson 5 “ABC” days to “Smooth Criminal” and “Ben,” the jam-packed hour (nine songs!) were a great homage to the best of Jackson. This episode scored especially high for doing both classic covers and different interpretations of some of Jackson’s most iconic work.The standout was a new version of “Smooth Criminal” that I haven’t stopped listening to since it originally aired.
Best Performance: “Smooth Criminal” featuring 2Cellos
1.) Madonna; originally aired April 20, 2010
What we loved: “The Power of Madonna” was easily one of the show’s all-time greatest hours. Narrative cohesion blended seamlessly with Madonna’s catalog (What’s up, on-the-nose “Like A Virign”). The best part was that, like Lady Gaga’s tribute that would come later, it felt like Team Glee truly understood and embraced the message behind the artists — in Madonna’s case, female empowerment. The ending treatment of “Like A Prayer” — complete with a gospel choir — was an inspired fantasy.
Best Performance: It’s too hard to choose! Here’s “Like A Virgin,” featuring the sorely missed Jesse St. James.
What were your favorite Glee tribute episodes? What would you like to see them cover in the upcoming fifth (and sixth!) season? I’m not encouraging it, but I sort of can’t believe we haven’t gotten a full-length Beatles homage yet — Lima Road here we come?
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