And by “definitive ranking” I mean “ranking I came to just now over the course of a few hours as I rewatched all these performances, bearing in mind I could do the same exercise a year from now and come to an entirely different conclusion.” But all that doesn’t fit in a headline, does it?
15. “Something About the Way You Look Tonight” (Elton John)
Stage of Competition: Week 6
Weekly Theme: Elton John songs
Anne’s take: I’ve binged 1D’s X-Factor performances enough times that most of the songs on this list sounded pretty familiar. This is the one that I saw and thought “Wait really? They did ‘Something About the Way You Look Tonight’ on X-Factor?” It’s a bit of a shame because Elton John has done so many great high energy songs, and 1D could’ve really brought the house down with “Crocodile Rock” or “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” or had ITV allowed the profanity, “The Bitch Is Back”. If you ARE going to go with the sappy love ballad, you need to give Zayn more solos than he had here, and I’m not usually one to say that Harry should’ve had fewer solos.
14. “My Life Would Suck Without You” (Kelly Clarkson)
Stage of Competition: Week 2
Weekly Theme: Heroes
Anne’s Take: I’m 99% sure that whatever the hell Zayn was doing with his voice throughout this performance was more interesting than anything the other four were doing, but his voice is too low in the mix for me to really know.
13. “Summer of ’69” (Bryan Adams)
Stage of Competition: Week 8, 1st of 2 songs
Weekly Theme: Rock
Anne’s Take: You can tell that Simon Cowell picked this song out and none of the boys really had a palpable emotional connection to it. And why would they? It’s a song about looking back on your teenage years and wishing you could relive them, which is kind of hard to relate to while you’re still a teenager. The vocals are passable, but no one really gets a great opportunity to show off what makes his voice special. At times, it feels like I can’t even hear any live vocals over the backing track. I know that’s not the boys’ fault but it still makes it harder to enjoy the performance.
12. “Only Girl (In the World)” (Rihanna)
Stage of Competiton: Semifinals, 1st of 2 songs
Weekly Theme: Club Classics
Anne’s Take: I know the theme is “club classics” but I don’t think this song choice was quite right for a group intent on not doing any choreographed dancing. One possible avenue would’ve been to take a club classic and strip it down into a ballad, but they didn’t do that. Instead we get some great backup dancers bringing a ton of energy to the party… and also One Direction’s here. It is refreshing to feel like Zayn actually enjoys the song he’s singing, so that’s nice.
10. “You Are So Beautiful” (Joe Cocker)
Stage of Competition: Week 8, 2nd of 2 songs
Weekly Theme: Rock, though I’m not 100% sure if both songs had to be rock or just the first one.
Anne’s take: Look, I wanted to rank this one higher, I really did. A lot of the 1D performances on X-Factor care more about proving that the boys are cute and young and marketable than on proving that they can actually sing, so this is a refreshing change of pace. The vocals are great, and Harry’s high note towards the end is iconic. But I can’t ignore the fact that Niall and Louis do basically nothing in this. Sure, they get to sing “ooh” in the background, but I didn’t even notice that the first time through, and I had to re-watch the whole thing just to confirm that they didn’t throw unnecessary microphones in front of Niall and Louis to trick me. The backing vocals don’t enhance the song in anyway, but are just there to provide busy work for the two guys who apparently couldn’t be trusted to carry a solo. If you’re not gonna give all five of them solos (which I admit is difficult since X-Factor performances are only like two minutes) at least try to do a proper chorus of them together, something that the solo contestants wouldn’t be able to do.
11. “Nobody Knows” (P!nk)
Stage of Competition: Week 3
Weekly Theme: Guilty Pleasures
Anne’s Take: A decent, but mostly forgettable performance. I wish there were more solos from people who aren’t Liam. At times this feels more like Liam w/backup singers than it does a group performance. HOWEVER, right at the very end, when I thought all hope was lost, Zayn swooped in with some falsetto. That makes this THE first One Direction performance where we got a glimpse of that falsetto so magical it can wake people from comas, make your baby stop crying, help you lose 10 pounds, and make that one boy text you back. Those brief seconds of falsetto are really the only reason this didn’t rank any lower.
9. “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (Bonnie Tyler)
Stage of Competition: Week 4
Weekly Theme: Halloween
Anne’s Take: This remains one the more memorable X-Factor performances that I still go back to even when I’m not binging all of them together. It’s one of the first times that I feel like the boys really came together and sounded like a GROUP rather than just 5 people who happened to be singing the same song together (even if Liam did get a disproportionate amount of solos). I also love how this song gives them a unique opportunity to show their capacity for quiet ballads as well more intense moods, and they handle those dynamic shifts with ease. It’s one I wish they would’ve re-done in the later years because after Harry developed the power vocal he has today, this could’ve been something amazingly special.
8. “Your Song” (Elton John)
Stage of Competition: Finals, 1st of 3 songs
Weekly Theme: N/A
Anne’s Take: It’s a simple, yet effective performance where the vocals speak for themselves. Harry really steals the show. But what did I JUST say about covering sappy Elton John ballads and NOT featuring Zayn’s vocals? I kept waiting for Zayn to do one of his signature runs and really take the song to the next level but it just never happened.
7. “All You Need is Love”
Stage of Competition: Week 7
Weekly Theme: Beatles Songs
Anne’s Take: This is an objectively good performance. More Harry centric than it probably had to be, but Harry does do a great job of carrying the song. However, it also doesn’t really stand out from the pack of 1D’s other X-Factor performances, hence its middle-of-the-road placement.
6. “Torn” (Natalie Imbruglia)
Stage of Competition: Judges’ Houses
Weekly Theme: N/A
Anne’s Take: Harry freaking SELLS THE SHIT OUT OF THIS SONG and any proper Directioner has special emotional ties to this performance. However, it doesn’t rank any higher than this because it doesn’t feel like a true group performance yet. Liam sings the verse, Harry sings the pre-chorus and chorus, and the other three boys are really non-factors. Zayn gets some nice, but not really necessary echos, Niall gets to “ooh” in the background while Harry sings, and I’m not entirely convinced they turned Louis’s mic on. There’s no harmonies where all five boys sing at the same time. Honestly, either Harry or Liam could’ve done this song all by themselves and it would’ve worked just as well as this group version did. This 2015 version helps show just how far 1D came over the course of their first five years, albeit Zayn is sorely missed.
5. “Viva La Vida” (Coldplay)
Stage of Competition: Week 1
Weekly Theme: Number One Singles
Anne’s Take: You can tell how over-the-moon excited everyone is to be on the X-Factor stage for the first time, with no idea how many more huge stages they’d get to play later on. That energy is infectious, and the whole thing just makes my heart happy. I love the juxtaposition of Harry’s intense shoulder thrusting, Niall’s adorkable head bobbing and finger snapping, and Zayn’s R&B-esque swagger. You would think it’d be a problem that the lads were never 100% on the same page about how they were going to interpret this song… but that’s also kind of part of this performance’s charm. Each member is in his own little world feeling the music in his own way. It’s awkward at times, but you also can’t help but feel it with them.
4. “She’s the One” (Robbie Williams)
Stage in Competition: Finals, 2nd of 3 songs
Weekly theme: duets w/celebrities, in this case Robbie Williams
Anne’s Take: It’s not only a great vocal, but also just a performance that makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside. You can really see how proud the lads are of themselves and each other. It not only gets bonus points for Robbie Williams being here, but even MORE bonus points for Robbie Williams stepping away to direct the lads as they hit their highest notes, and then high five-ing each one after they nail it.
3. “Chasing Cars” (Snow Patrol)
Stage of Competition: Semifinals, 2nd of 2 songs
Weekly Theme: “Songs to Get you into the Final” which is a fancy way of saying “no theme”
Anne’s Take: So few X-Factor performances do this great a job of balancing beautiful, harmonized group vocals with amazing solos. I love how the choruses fade into just one voice showing off its range/power (Harry and Zayn take turns doing this, and both deserve hella kudos). Despite these great vocal showoff moments, we never lose the emotion this song is supposed to have behind it. They’re not just going through the motions, they’re really connecting to the song and they just want you to connect to it too.
2. “Torn” … again. (Natalie Imbruglia)
Stage of Competition: Finals, 3rd of 3 songs
Weekly Theme: N/A
Anne’s Take: This is essentially everything that was good about the first performance of “Torn” but with the added benefit of actual group vocals. They’ve had some time to gel as a group, and it really shows. There’s this confidence that wasn’t there before, especially in Harry. I love the moment where the guitar cuts out and he just goes on to nail his solo without batting an eye. And then when the guitar cuts out again and we get an actual harmonized chorus over some hand claps? It’s magic. Yet in spite of that added confidence, the song still has all the vulnerability it’s supposed to have. “Torn” just suits this group well, and that’s part of why so many fans still love any iteration of 1D singing it.
1. “Kids in America” (Kim Wilde)
Stage of Competition: Week 5
Weekly Theme: American Anthems
Anne’s Take: This is the performance where One Direction really stops feeling like X-Factor contestants and starts feeling like legitimate pop stars. There’s a confidence and energy here that just doesn’t exist in prior performances. This is the 1D that believes they actually belong here. This is the 1D that believes they can win the whole damn thing. This is the 1D that loves the crowd and knows the crowd loves them back, and they revel in it. It’s a hella fun performance, and it really gives us a great glimpse into what their first album would eventually sound like.