From disco to doomsday: The best TV music soundtracks and scores
As you’re likely aware, we’re currently living in what many people consider to be the golden age of prestige television. What you may not have considered up until now is that we’re also living in the golden age of television soundtracks and scores, too.
In the past couple of years there have been numerous innovative and unexpected soundtracks featured in some of the best TV shows. Naturally, we know you want to be reminded of the ones you should be turning up to eleven on whatever sound system you favor. So here are thirteen of what Film Daily considers to be the absolute best TV soundtracks and scores of the past few years.
Big Little Lies
It isn’t just that the HBO show offers a set of unexpected musical cuts like P.J. Harvey’s “The Wind” or Death in Vegas’s “Hands Around My Throat” that makes the soundtrack of Big Little Lies such a standout.
Big Little Lies develops personal relationships between characters & music and portrays their emotional inner-worlds through the songs. Jane ending a run by singing (and screaming) along to Martha Wainwright’s “Bloody Mother Fucking A**hole” expresses more about her character (and her pain) than an entire page of dialogue ever could.
As well as boasting an original score by Brian Reitzell (Lost in Translation), the quirky pop-culture-loaded vibrancy of American Gods is also brought alive by a soundtrack featuring collaborations with Mark Lanegan, Debbie Harry, and Garbage’s Shirley Manson. American Gods is full of strange, distorted, and vivacious cover songs, twisting the foundations of classic tunes into stark brooding urges.
From the bare piano cover of The Pixies’s “Where is My Mind?” (referencing the show’s brazen Fight Club style twist) to the tonally discordant blast of Roxette’s “Listen to Your Heart” in soundtracking the murder of a key character, Mr. Robot makes the boldest, most innovative musical choices on TV.
As well as featuring an eclectic set of surprising needle drops (in smart ways) from bands like Crowded House, Fleetwood Mac, and Talking Heads, The Americans also features one of the most intriguing, somber scores on TV.
Composed by Nathan Barr (Carnival Row), The Americans’s original score is filled with mystery, taking sharp turns between the dark and solemn to the strange, the curious, and the disarmingly off-kilter.
The soundtrack for Netflix’s wrestling drama is an eclectic roar of 80s power and exuberance. Ruth (Alison Brie), Debbie (Betty Gilpin), and the rest of the Glorious Ladies of Wrestling train throw down and terrorize their motel to such gigantic classics as “Stir It Up” by Patti LaBelle, “The Look” by Roxette, and “We Don’t Get Along” by The Go-Gos. It makes for a headlock of a playlist.
13 Reasons Why
From The Kills’s “Doing It To Death” and Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” to Elliott Smith’s delicate cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen” and Roman Romains’s cover of “The Killing Moon”, 13 Reasons Why is packed with haunting songs lamenting about life, death, love, and growing up.
The songs add exclamation points to already heightened states of emotion in the show. But listened as a standalone playlist and they have the capacity to transform you into the angsty insubordinate of your youth. You can find royalty free music to make your own dramatic playlists inspired by the show.
Providing music as nostalgic and beguiling as the Netflix Original show, Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein’s retro synth soundtrack for Stranger Things offers a helping of John Carpenter worship (with a side of bedroom musician sweetness).
The score is phenomenal, but with tracks like “Dead End Justice” by The Runaways and The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” used to soundtrack key moments and define the relationships between characters, Stranger Things also packs one hell of an 80s punk and new wave playlist. We blame that gloomy Jonathan Byers boy.
The Handmaid’s Tale
Hulu’s wholly depressing (but wonderful) adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic made smart musical choices ranging from the strange and the chilling to the darkly comedic. While Daft Beatles’ slow, almost ghostly remix of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” drags the song from disco to doomsday, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds evokes a sad moment of victory for Offred (Elisabeth Moss).
While the original keyboard-composed tunes of aspiring musician Gene Belcher (Eugene Mirman) have been a delight since the first season of the Fox animated comedy, later seasons boasted slick musical collaborations, proving the show has one of the coolest soundtracks on TV.
It’s so good, they even released a double album soundtrack of Bob’s Burgers including such musical hits as “Taffy Butt” (featuring Cyndi Lauper), “Bad Girls Theme” (featuring St. Vincent), “A New Wave” by Sleater-Kinney, and the “Working Girl x Die Hard” mashup theme “Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl” (featuring Carly Simon). It’s a thing of absolute wonder, folks.
The CW show demonstrates some gloriously subversive takes on a classic teen story and of Americana, so it stands to reason the Riverdale soundtrack would be just as incendiary. While the standalone background choices are fairly run of the mill, the show really shines whenever Josie (Ashleigh Murray), Veronica (Camila Mendes), or Archie (K.J. Apa) decide to rework a classic song together.
The result? You get a saccharine cover of Kelis’s “Milkshake” performed on top of Pop’s Diner and an oddly solemn cover of Tears For Fears’s “Mad World” performed in a biker bar while Betty (Lili Reinhart) does an impromptu striptease.
Mozart in the Jungle
One of the few (if only) shows on television that actually understands classical compositions, in (the now cancelled, thanks Amazon) Mozart in the Jungle, music is a character.
With live performances like the now iconic Rikers Island jailhouse gig, high-profile musician cameos, and beloved compositions covered throughout the show, Mozart in the Jungle explores the form of classical music as well as its influence, impact, and instincts.
Assembled by Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones), the eerie mechanical piano covers of popular rock and alternative hits are as perfectly suited to the HBO show as they are fantastically uncanny for audiences to hear.
The compositions – which include reworkings of songs like Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun”, Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box”, and The Rolling Stones’s “Paint It Black” – bring viewers into the Delos Incorporated synthetic universe by twisting the familiar into a preternatural duplicate.
As well as featuring an astounding cameo from Wu Tang Clan’s Method Man, the Netflix Marvel show also features a series of incredible live performances from musical icons on stage at Cottonmouth’s club, Harlem’s Paradise.
R&B icon Raphael Saadiq, soul legend Charles Bradley, and even the oft-sampled The Delfonics took to the stage for cameo performances. However, the best use of the soundtrack has to be Luke Cage hyping himself up for a fight by throwing in some ear buds and turning up the volume on Wu Tang’s “Bring Da Ruckus”.
This is the second one of these sorts of compilations I’ve looked at and they’re all for very recent series.August 1, 2020
I haven’t heard all of them as I haven’t seen all these shows and I generally like most of the soundtracks I encounter these days, but as far as I’m concerned, it is unlikely there will ever be a TV soundtrack that can hold a candle to Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn.
Currently on Prime.