Don’t cry, don’t raise your eye, it’s only the best music cues of the year. And as in past years, there’s an embarrassment of riches to choose from. Certainly, the sounds of the ’80s remain television’s staple crop when it comes to using preexisting pop and rock songs to complement, comment on, and enhance the action onscreen: Pose, Narcos: Mexico, The Americans, and The Assassination of Gianni Versace feature almost nothing but. Yet the approaches they take are as varied as their styles and subject matter, and when you factor in other eras and genres, the soundscape opens up tremendously. There’s more to a good music cue than syncing a great song to an important scene: Ideally, the song can put into words and music what the characters, and the world surrounding them, can’t quite express themselves. That’s what music does for all of us, after all — why should fictional characters be any different? Here are the ten best moments from a year of TV music that belong on everyone’s playlist.
10. Westworld: “Do the Strand” by Roxy Music
Few shows have been as guilty of music-cue abuse as Westworld. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s leaden and labyrinthine sci-fi parable has folded an entire Spotify playlist of classic alt-ish rock songs into its narrative via instrumental arrangements by composer Ramin Djawadi. Give a listen to his best-in-field work on Game of Thrones and it’s painfully clear he can do much better than player-piano Radiohead or Japanophile remixes of Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” or whatever.
This is what makes Westworld’s in-world cranking of Roxy Music’s boisterous 1973 hit “Do the Strand” so remarkable. Blasted at full volume by James Delos (Peter Mullan), the Scottish founder of the Westworld theme park (and, unbeknownst to him, one of its core artificial-intelligence experiments), glam rock’s answer to Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” sounds as unexpected in the dour songscape of this series as Delos’s “dance like no one is watching” behavior looks. Yet Bryan Ferry’s hedonistic lyrical promise of the next big thing — “There’s a new sensation, a fabulous creation” — and Brian Eno’s retro-futuristic flourishes as the band’s in-house effects guy fit Westworld’s themes like they were engineered in a lab to do exactly that.
9. Narcos: Mexico: “Karma Chameleon” by Culture Club
The great strength of the Narcos franchise, now available in reboot/relaunch/anthology-series format as Narcos: Mexico, is also its greatest weakness. With its voice-over narration and how-the-sausage-gets-made narrative about the inner workings of the organized-crime outfits it chronicles, the series achieves a compulsive watchability akin to playing the opening reels of GoodFellas and Casino over and over for ten episodes. But just as those movies wouldn’t have worked if all they ever did was explain how to rob airports or detect card cheats, Narcos loses something as it relentlessly frog-marches us through the rise and fall of various drug kingpins from Colombia to Mexico. In getting from point A to point B, there’s rarely room for, like, point 17 — the idiosyncratic detours, details, and storytelling filigrees that help flesh out characters and the world they live in.
But there are few problems a little Boy George can’t fix, even for the guys responsible for the largest marijuana cartel in human history. Rafa Caro Quintero (Tenoch Huerta), the impulsive botanical genius responsible for the Guadalajara cartel’s unprecedented weed production, and Don Neto (Joaquín Cosio), the avuncular old-school underboss who helped give Rafa and his ambitious partner Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna) legitimacy in their early days, find themselves holed up in a safe house after their latest fuckup, with nothing but cocaine and Don Neto’s brand-new CD player for company.
Coked to the gills and giddy beyond belief, two of the most wanted men in North America test the new technology’s resistance to skipping when jostled — unlike vinyl records — by jumping up and down and dancing around and screaming happily at each other, while they groove to the sounds of a cross-dressing Englishman’s painfully pretty love song to his band’s then-closeted drummer. Their enthusiasm is infectious, so much so that Rafa’s hilarious rock-nerd counterargument that tiny little CDs will be the death knell of the art of the album cover barely spoils the party. In the midst of all the lawbreakers, guns, and money, this raucous musical interlude rings out.
8. The Looming Tower: “Wahhabi” by Biz
Is The Looming Tower a particularly good show? No, not really. Journalist Lawrence Wright’s best-selling book on how American intelligence agencies and the politicians who oversee them failed to stop Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks despite half a hundred opportunities to do so just doesn’t translate into prestige-TV mini-series format, no matter how much you play up Jeff Daniels’s character’s complicated sex life. But you don’t need a good show, or even a particularly innovative scene, to have a good music cue. Sometimes, you just need to unearth a banger and let it play.
That’s what happens when the world-music/trap hybrid “Wahhabi” by Biz hits. Overlaid on a scene of various Al Qaeda luminaries greeting one another in an Afghanistan training camp, it makes them look like the glorified gangsters they really are. Played as one of the surviving U.S. embassy bombers in Nairobi blends into the crowd of wounded and staggers away for help, it makes his plight seem daring and desperate. Used as background music for the FBI’s Arabic-speaking star agent Ali Soufan, it makes him seem like a cool slo-mo-walking badass. It even works as a soundtrack for a Jeff Daniels sex scene.
With an American beat, instrumental samples from Azerbaijan, and sampled voices singing about an extremist Islamic sect and the capital city of Iraq — looped and cut rapidly to resemble nothing so much as DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat” — the song itself feels like a globe-trotting secret agent. A weird fit for a series that ends with thousands and thousands of dead people and the launch of our Forever War? Perhaps. But when a song goes this hard, a lot can be forgiven.
7. Pose: “In My House” by Mary Jane Girls
“The bitter comes out better on a stolen guitar.” When David Bowie sang these words in “Hang On to Yourself” during his gender-bending Ziggy Stardust phase, he was on to something. (Wasn’t he always?) There’s nothing quite like swindling the culture that’s been holding you down to add a certain oomph to countercultural art: Just ask the young musicians who went on to form the Sex Pistols, who legendarily took Bowie’s words to heart and stole his equipment.
Pose, the heartfelt tribute to ball culture from super-producer Ryan Murphy, makes the case for theft as praxis in a beautifully ballsy sequence set to the Mary Jane Girls’ “In My House.” Seizing on an idea from her future breakaway rival Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista (Mj Rodriguez), Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson) leads the members of her House (get it?) into a museum stuffed to the gills with priceless cultural artifacts from around the world. After gazing with longing recognition at busts and statues from African-Egyptian antiquity — looted, of course, during centuries of invasion by white Europeans — Mother Elektra and her “children” hide from security as the lights go out and the museum shuts down for the day.
When the coast is clear, the House of Abundance turns the tables, reemerging to rob the joint of all the impossibly luxurious costumes and clothing from the courts of Europe that they can carry. They’re momentarily stymied by the museum’s locked doors; “I look too good not to be seen!” Elektra proclaims before breaking the glass and making a run for it. They all look so damn good during the ball that follows that it’s as if the clothes were made for them to wear.
Which, in a way, they were. Sure, the cooing come-ons of the Mary Jane Girls provide a period-appropriate soundtrack for the shenanigans, but they’re also an assertion of command and control that’s impossible to ignore. By looting the looters, Elektra, Blanca & Co. have made the museum their house. They may not have the cultural, political, racial, or sexual clout that the kings and queens of old did, but their work is just as valid and vital, their sense of glamour and artistry every bit as on point as anything on display from the great masters or their rich and powerful patrons. They turn MJG’s sexy song into a declaration of independence.
6. Better Call Saul: “Big Rock Candy Mountain” by Burl Ives
Like Breaking Bad before it, Better Call Saul is famous for its musical montages, more so perhaps than any other series. This season boasted several, including a wonderfully wry split-screen depiction of shifty lawyer Jimmy McGill and his more straitlaced partner Kim Wexler’s slow drift apart, set to a cover of the Frank and Nancy Sinatra jam “Something Stupid” by Lola Marsh, that had every TV critic on earth singing its praises (and its lyrics).
For me, there’s a far more affecting musical choice, one that encapsulates the weary and wounded heart of Saul’s bleakest season yet. As stone-faced cartel fixer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), kindly German architect Werner Ziegler (Rainer Bock), and their construction crew journey underground to work on the subterranean meth lab that will one day be the workplace of Walter White & Co., Burl Ives croons “Big Rock Candy Mountain” as gently as a lullaby. Delivered in the soft, warm tone that endeared Ives to generations as the snowman narrator of the Rankin-Bass Christmas-special perennial Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, folk singer Harry McClintock’s ode to a paradise for “hobos” — a land where booze, cigarettes, and sweets grow on trees, and the cops, railroad bulls, and guard dogs who assault and harass them for the crime of being poor and homeless are utterly powerless — sounds like a dream come true.
But a dream is all it is — a pipe dream, one that will never come true. And in the context of that cavernous, unfinished meth lab, which will lead countless characters directly or indirectly to their deaths, it’s sharply painful to hear. If only Mike and Werner could have listened.
5. Atlanta: “Evil” by Stevie Wonder
There’s something to be said for punching an audience in the face and then singing them gently to sleep as they collapse. Reservoir Dogs got this back in the day, when it followed its climactic bloodbath with the gentle acoustic strumming and childlike lyrical nonsense of Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut.” Hereditary got it this year, when it capped off its screamingly harrowing saga of madness and manipulation with Judy Collins’s angelic “Both Sides Now.”
And Atlanta got it this year too, when, at the end of its terrifying out-of-nowhere episode “Teddy Perkins,” it showed its shocked audience to the exits to the mournful strains of Stevie Wonder’s “Evil.” By then we’d seen the episode’s protagonist, Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), narrowly escape the eerie title character, a man warped by decades of abuse, jealousy, and self-loathing as his family’s fortunes in the music industry rose and fell. Throughout the episode, references to horrors both cinematic (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Get Out) and all too real (the tyrannical reign of Joe Jackson over his talented children, the murder of Marvin Gaye by his own father) abound.
Like Darius alone in a house populated by madmen, we’re left feeling adrift in … well, evil, grand and inevitable and inescapable. It makes Wonder’s song feel less like a repurposed classic and more like a brand-new rumination on the events of the episode itself, and on everything in the real world this dark fairy tale was created to represent.
4. The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story: “Vienna” by Ultravox
Like Pose, the other Ryan Murphy show on this list, The Assassination of Gianni Versace wrangled a host of hit pop songs — mostly from the ’80s, which spree killer Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) clearly considered his glory days — to help tell its often frightening, always deeply sad true story. It was so damn good at this that I could have picked any number of other cues and been perfectly happy with the selection: Andrew rolling up to a high-school party (to which he was driven by his middle-aged sugar daddy) in full Eddie Murphy red-leather regalia to Devo’s “Whip It”; Andrew dancing in his underwear while menacing an incapacitated client during his beach-hustler phase to Philip Bailey and Phil Collins’s “Easy Lover”; Andrew celebrating his newfound notoriety following his fourth kill by sticking his head out the window of his stolen truck and singing along, badly, to Laura Branigan’s “Gloria.”
But while all these musical moments, the “Gloria” sing-along in particular, are case studies in how found recordings can be used to help build character and heighten emotion rather than simply doing the hard work themselves, Ultravox’s austere, elegiac “Vienna” is the one that moved me most.
The song soundtracks the opening minutes of the season’s final episode, a trickier proposition than it sounds. Versace’s reversed storytelling structure started with Cunanan gunning down designer Gianni Versace (Édgar Ramírez) and then worked its way backwards through his other killings and deep into his troubled childhood before returning to that fateful day for the finale. So as singer Midge Ure coos, “We walked in the cold air” over minimal synths, Andrew walks through the Miami Beach streets toward Versace’s mansion to kill him all over again. Ure’s impassioned, repeated line “This means nothing to me” accompanies Andrew marching toward Versace, arm outstretched, gun in hand. The rueful chorus of “Ah, Vienna,” a eulogy for the lost halcyon days of high European culture before two World Wars shattered its illusion for good, follows Versace to the ground.
After a striking cut to the Miami skyline at night that corresponds to the introduction of the song’s synth bassline, the rest of the track plays out over Andrew’s pathetic, isolated celebration of his handiwork, drinking Champagne and watching news reports about the killing inside a house he broke into. The self-mythologizing grandeur, the romanticized nihilism, the lament for a fallen world never again to be experienced: It’s all right there, in both Cunanan and the song that kicks off his final hours on earth.
3. The Americans: “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” by Peter Gabriel
Peter Gabriel was one of The Americans’ go-to artists, and for good reason. Between his stint as the flower-costumed front man for Genesis and his blockbuster ’80 pop hits like “Sledgehammer,” the restless English art-rocker recorded a plethora of songs that feel … off-balance, somehow, like a speaker has conked out or you’re playing them at slightly the wrong speed. These austere New Wave sounds are a perfect accompaniment to the lives of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, creatures of the Cold War who are never at home in the country they’ve adopted/infiltrated, yet have been changed enough by the experience to make the methods of their masters in the Soviet Union ever more alienating to them. Alienating music makes sense.
Which is why I’ve selected “We Do What We’re Told” rather than U2’s soaring “With or Without You” as the best needle drop in this great show’s pointedly muted final season. Using a gigantically powerful song with tons of preexisting emotional and cultural weight for the pivotal moment of your entire series — and choppily extending it to better fit the scene’s length while you’re at it — feels unnecessary. (Ask yourself: If there’d been no music at all when Paige appeared on that train platform, would the scene be any less devastating? Would it be more devastating?)
But Gabriel’s alien-sounding musical meditation on the troubling Milgram experiment is different. While “With or Without You” is recognizable from the moment you hear those opening Brian Eno keyboard twinkles, “We Do What We’re Told” can sidle into the scene almost imperceptibly, as if you’re faintly hearing what’s inside Elizabeth Jennings’s head. As she receives the instructions for her most morally compromising mission yet — she’s been asked by a rogue wing of the Soviet military to thwart peace talks and commit suicide if compromised by either side of the Cold War — Gabriel’s repetition of “we do what we’re told” reads as both a bland statement of fact and a pained cri de coeur. This is the one I remember, the one that sums up what this series is ultimately about: the price we pay when we exchange ideas for ideals.
2. Billions: “Street Punks” by Vince Staples
Unlike nearly every other show on this list, big recognizable songs are the exception on Billions’ soundtrack, not the rule. With an approach less like a smash jukebox musical and more like Quentin Tarantino’s grab-bag approach to pop-rock history, the show tends toward songs with no preexisting mainstream cultural associations, selected because they match a scene’s message instead of being relied on to convey that message themselves.
The show’s use of Vince Staples’s atmospheric, thumping “Street Punks” is the finest example of this strategy. When we first hear the song, well, it’s not clear what we’re hearing, as hedge-fund kingpin Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and his wily right-hand man Mike “Wags” Wagner (David Costabile) ride an elevator downward from the meeting where they confirmed his latest narrow escape from the law. Soon it’s clear we’re hearing a huge hip-hop beat, and the two men start smiling. The elevator doors open, and Bobby emerges into a surprise party thrown by Wags in his honor — in which every guest, other than them, is an absolutely gorgeous woman.
At this point, Staples’s song is just so much background noise, something the show licensed because it needed a party jam. Surely that’s how Bobby hears it, as he starts pounding back drinks and winding his way through the crowd, slowly stripping naked as he does so. He winds up climbing into a hot tub with three equally naked women. The whole thing is so sleazy, such a portrait of how rich and powerful men can commodify the whole world and everyone in it, that you practically expect Mel Brooks to show up in a period costume and say, “It’s good to be the king” to the camera.
But as Bobby sinks deeper into the bubbling water, something changes. The lyrics of the song, berating some random loser for acting like a big deal when he’s really just a fraudulent nobody, seem to eat away at Axe’s good time. Doesn’t he, too, make a living based on lies? The bass, once joyous, now sounds claustrophobic. The party goes from bacchanal to inferno. As the happiness leaves Bobby’s face completely, the show cuts to black, allowing the song’s bleak instrumental outro to be the episode’s last word. The scene picks up energy from the song; the song gains currency from the scene. It’s a perfect marriage of sound and vision.
1. Joe Pera Talks With You: “Baba O’Riley” by the Who
Normally, I’d consider putting the most obscure selection in a list at the No. 1 spot an act of trolling. Perhaps you do too. If so, I implore you: Stop reading this right now and watch this 11-minute episode of the mind-bogglingly mild-mannered comedian Joe Pera’s Adult Swim series. Who’s trolling now?
Joe Pera Talks With You follows the mundane misadventures of Pera’s eponymous character, a small-town music teacher, but you barely need to know that. This particular episode, “Joe Pera Reads You the Church Announcements,” begins with him approaching the altar to read the weekly parish bulletin, but you don’t need to know that either: He’s got bigger things on his mind. He’s just heard “Baba O’Reilly,” the Who anthem known to the world as “Teenage Wasteland” after its repeated refrain, and by God, he’s going to tell the world.
Joe’s experience with the Who song is, in large part, played for laughs. It’s funny that he’s never heard one of the most overplayed rock songs of all time. It’s funny that he keeps calling radio stations to request that they play it rather than just listen to it on his computer. It’s funny that he has a CD player installed, badly, in his car so he can listen to it over and over. It’s funny that he employs the song to rock out with everyone from the pizza delivery guy (whom he invites in to jam with him) to his basset hound (who eats some of the pizza) to his grandma (while they decorate the family Christmas tree no less) to, eventually, the church congregation (who unexpectedly sing along, but in the half-mumbled way familiar to anyone who’s autopiloted their way through a suburban Catholic church service). It’s funny that he winds up kinda shrugging about the song’s climactic violin solo and then gets his car hopelessly stuck in the snow, all while the song keeps audibly playing through his windows.
But I’ll tell you what’s not funny at all: the moment the song first hits Joe in the heart. It happens when he’s in the middle of doing dishes, leaving him unable to change the radio channel from the classic-rock station it’s currently on. He’s about to put a bowl in the dishwasher when his hand stops, frozen in midair — the first piano chord of the song’s intro has just been struck, and he’s been rendered immobile by its power. And we spend the next minute or two watching him fall in love with a song. He bobs his head to the rhythm. He grins with sheer delight at the lyrics. He reacts to every new note like he’s discovered a portal to another dimension.
I’ve been there, you know? The first time I listened to David Bowie’s Low, I was cleaning my room, but once it hit “A New Career in a New Town” I stopped dead in my tracks, sat down, and just stared at my CD player for the rest of the album, completely transfixed. The first time I heard Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” accompanied by its video, my eyes bugged out of my head, and every new twist and turn elicited an audible gasp of wonder as I sat in my office chair, nearly drunk on the sheer audacity of it all. The first time I heard the minute-long outro of My Bloody Valentine’s “To Here Knows When” on their Tremolo EP, a different version than the one on their album Loveless, I was so poleaxed by its beauty I literally had to lean against the wall of the hallway I was walking down at the time for support. It was music so profoundly powerful to me that I nearly passed out.
Maybe that’s an extreme example compared to ones from your own life, or maybe not. But surely you, too, have felt this, or an approximation of it. You’ve undergone that process of discovery, where in the space of a few notes you are just stunned by how good a song can be, and by the foreknowledge that it will be a part of your life now, forever. A goofy live-action Adult Swim comedy conveyed this feeling, this treasured exchange of experience between artist and audience, as well as I can imagine it ever being done.