You can keep your carols — naming the year’s best TV needle drops is our favorite musical holiday tradition. Sure, some shows rely a bit too heavily on obvious nostalgia for a crowd-pleasing fix (sorry, Stranger Things fans), but a strong sync of a preexisting pop or rock song can elevate a scene, communicate emotion, illuminate a character, or even serve as the spine for an entire season. The ten songs below do all that and then some, proving that music cues are as vital a tool in television’s artistic arsenal as any other.
10. Russian Doll: “Gotta Get Up” by Harry Nilsson
The year’s biggest earworm is actually from 1971. Every time Natasha Lyonne’s character dies and inexplicably returns to her own birthday party, “Gotta Get Up,” a cynical little ditty by the famously dissolute singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, plays in the background. The track is such a standout that simply Googling “Russian Doll song” leads you right to it, along with approximately a bajillion articles explaining the song and its phenomenal irresistibility. Is the whole thing maybe a bit too much like the way Groundhog Day used “I Got You Babe”? Yes. Does it still make you want to sing along in between outbursts of “Sweet birthday, baby”? Also yes.
9. The Punisher: “Rooster (Unplugged)” by Alice in Chains
The Punisher did yeoman’s work to put the Marvel vigilante and his infamous skull emblem’s association with gun nuts and Blue Lives Matter reactionaries behind it, primarily by making virtually every villain a crooked cop, a rogue ex-military mercenary, or a right-wing oligarch. So why not repurpose Alice in Chains’ ode to singer, songwriter, and guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s Vietnam-vet father as the soundtrack to an execution while we’re at it?
With its melancholy and more than a little creepy atmosphere — rendered spare and haunting in this rendition from the band’s MTV Unplugged session — “Rooster” is a story of survival in the face of a war, and a world at large, that wants its subject dead. So when Frank “The Punisher” Castle arrives to confront his best friend turned worst enemy Billy “Jigsaw” Russo with the track playing in the background, you’re tricked into believing this, too, will be a story of living through the worst. Instead, Castle plugs his frenemy unceremoniously, in the middle of an attempted apology for his wrongs. “You know he ain’t gonna die”? Think again. It’s a clever and unsentimental song choice for a story about what war turns men into.
8. Mindhunter: “M.E.” by Gary Numan
After a shaky first season that was all over the map in terms of what we were supposed to feel about its main characters — remember the stiff Holden Ford romance subplot? — Mindhunter settled into a comfortably macabre groove in its second season, chronicling the drudgery involved in tracking down some of the world’s worst people. In the case of the musical montage set to “Cars” singer Gary Numan’s synth stomper “M.E.,” the drudgery is the whole point.
The sequence follows FBI Agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench as they stake out bridges where they hope to trap the perpetrator of the Atlanta Child Murders. It’s a joyless slog of bad sleep, shitty room service, buzzing mosquitoes, muggy weather, cigarette smoke, and ever-shortening patience. Numan’s song, sung from the perspective of a machine that survived the apocalypse alone, provides a surprisingly apt accompaniment to a routine that breaks Ford and Tench down until they feel unmoored from the very humanity they’re trying to protect.
7. Pose: “Vogue” by Madonna
In which Madge’s chart-topping 1990 hit is not so much a music cue as a whole raison d’être. The second season of Ryan Murphy’s ballroom-culture drama Pose is all but about Madonna’s “Vogue” — the way it shined a spotlight on a community hungry for mainstream representation and full of artists bursting with enough talent and creativity to conquer the world if given the opportunity. But the song also arrived at a moment when that community was, in many ways, on death’s door, as the AIDS crisis took one life after another. It’s a contrast as stark as the black and white of David Fincher’s iconic music video, and from that contrast, Pose derived its drama.
6. The Act: “Bonnie and Clyde” by Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot
Michelle Dean and Nick Antosca’s true-crime series The Act takes place in the cavernous gap between the idealized, glamorized world of mad love and the sad, fumbling reality. A victim of years of medical abuse by her smothering mother Dee Dee, Gypsy Rose Blanchard reached out to her internet boyfriend Nicholas Godejohn for help, and the result was murder. After the deed was done, the two ride off into the sunset — actually, they take a bus to Wisconsin — for a new life together, one that lasts little longer than a day before the cops catch up to them.
The song that soundtracks their flight to freedom is “Bonnie and Clyde,” by the louche French icons Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot. It’s a glamorization of bank robbers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker — already glamorized by the film starring another extremely sexy pair, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. The gulf between the song’s worldliness and the sordid facts of the real Bonnie and Clyde is already massive; you’d need a telescope to bridge the distance between it and the half-assed homicide executed by Gypsy and Nick. The song’s whirring strings and striking, disconcerting vocal whoops create an atmosphere of anxiety that belies its surface smoothness, as if Gainsbourg and Bardot are, at least on some level, aware of the ugliness under the romance.
5. The Flash: “Flash Gordon” by Queen
“I’ve been saving this for the right moment since day one,” says Cisco of the song he chooses to play while his friendly neighborhood speedster runs into and back out of a black hole. I’ve got a feeling he’s speaking for pretty much everyone involved in the production of The Flash. I mean, you’ve just got to drop Freddie Mercury & Co.’s “FLASH! AH-AHHHH! SAVIOR OF THE UNIVERSE!” on Barry Allen’s adventures at some point, and it may as well be now.
The beauty of this music cue is its simplicity. There’s nothing arch or subversive or even particularly clever about it, yet it doesn’t rely on the usual crutch of nostalgia to work. It’s just a bitchin’ song about a guy named Flash, accompanying a bitchin’ maneuver by a guy named Flash. Sometimes, the obvious thing is the right thing. Ah-ahhhh!
4. Watchmen: “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker
I could have gone in a lot of different directions in choosing a music cue from Watchmen, from the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! to the Beastie Boys’ “Egg Man.” Ultimately, though, I chose a needle drop that pops up from as far out in left field as the show’s most memorable images, from squidfalls to Lube Man. The moment you hear Desmond Dekker’s unmistakable voice singing about getting up in the morning and slaving for bread, his reggae smash hit “Israelites” completely changes the atmosphere of the show. Having it accompany the dissolute aristocratic mastermind Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt’s attempt to build a homemade space suit is perfectly perverse given Dekker’s far more down-to-earth concerns; the fact that at the time it’s not clear what the hell Ozy’s doing makes it work even more weirdly and wonderfully.
3. Mr. Robot: “Run Away With Me” by Carly Rae Jepsen
This one hits like a ton of bricks. The star-crossed semi-romance between hacker Darlene Alderson and FBI Agent Dom DiPierro looks like it’s about to fall apart when they say their good-byes at an airport, with Darlene fleeing the country to escape prosecution and Dom staying behind to face her responsibilities. Then that unmistakable saxophone riff from Carly Rae Jepsen’s most rapturous track hits, and suddenly your heart’s pounding a million miles a minute. It’s like the music itself is telling you, “No, wait, maybe this will all work out! Maybe these two crazy kids have a shot after all!”
Of course, this is Mr. Robot, a show that has zigged instead of zagging ever since creator Sam Esmail got it up and running four seasons ago. Darlene and Dom end the sequence with their positions reversed, no closer to each other than they were at the start. But for a brief, beautiful minute or two, Carly Rae made us believe. That’s the power of pop, baby.
2. Too Old to Die Young: “Homicide” by 999
Nicolas Winding Refn and Ed Brubaker’s slow-burning, neon-noir crime saga is truly an embarrassment of needle drop riches. Prince Buster’s skeevy ska track “Ten Commandments” during an attempted assassination! Barry Manilow’s maudlin “Mandy” during a multistate slow-speed car chase! Goldfrapp’s glam banger “Ooh La La” in its entirety as Jena Malone dances to welcome the apocalypse! Any of these choices would be valid, and to be honest I was sorely tempted just to fill up the list with this show and be done with it.
But for my money, the smartest and most representative music cue Too Old to Die Young served up is 999’s nihilistic dance-punk anthem “Homicide.” It accompanies a party in which Martin Jones, the taciturn cop turned hit man played by Miles Teller, watches his too young girlfriend Janey celebrate her 18th birthday with her coked-up friends and rich, pervy father. The song and its declaration “I believe in homicide” is all fun and games for them; for Martin, whose brain is overloaded with visions of dead bodies and crime scenes, it’s a way of life. It’s a music cue every bit as bold, thoughtful, and soul-deep nasty as the show in which it appears. Crank it up.
1. The Affair: “The Whole of the Moon” by The Waterboys / “The Whole of the Moon” by Fiona Apple
Behind the scenes, The Affair may have eerily echoed its own fictional conceit that different people experience the same events in completely different ways. On camera, however, it had its uplifting shit completely sorted out, and its use of the Waterboys’ swoon of a song “The Whole of the Moon” is a case in point. The track first makes its appearance in the show’s finale, as the soundtrack for a flash-mob dance at the wedding of Whitney Solloway, daughter of main characters Noah and Helen. Here, it’s the sonic equivalent of a goofy lovestruck grin, full of the awe that was key to the Irish band’s concept of “the big music.”
When the song returns at the end of the episode to accompany our final glimpse of Noah Solloway — now an old man, standing at the edge of the sea — it takes on new complexity, thanks to a cover version created for the show by the singer of its theme song, Fiona Apple. Apple sings the song as if every syllable could cause her voice to crack, her throat to tear, her heart to break; its effusive praise of the singer’s lover now almost sounds like a cry of condemnation. Love is a challenge, this version of the song seems to say — a challenge to live up to the wondrous spirit of the people we love. This entails more than a little heartbreak, but Apple makes it sound worth it. At its best, so did the show.