It’s a Vulture holiday tradition. Once again, we’re running down the best uses of preexisting pop music on the small and/or streaming screen during the year that was. Revivals and remixes, throwbacks and callbacks, contemporary hits and decades-old staples — all of them can be successfully harnessed to further a show’s dramatic or comedic goals, as this top-ten list demonstrates. Rock out.
“Lucky Man” by the Verve
An exclamation point in lieu of a question mark, the Verve’s anthemic ’90s Brit-pop banger “Lucky Man” is a fitting conclusion to Dennis Lehane’s grueling true-crime drama. Black Bird follows a preppy gun runner turned undercover informant tasked with unearthing the truth about an incarcerated serial killer; Taron Egerton uses every instrument in his tool kit to play the informant, while Paul Walter Hauser wheezes and titters his way to infamy as the murderer in question. In the end, Egerton’s character learns enough from Hauser’s to secure his release from prison, but not before the horrible knowledge he’s gained begins chipping away at his mind. Sure, he’s a lucky man insofar as he winds up flying far away from incarceration — but can he ever be free of the abhorrent crimes he uncovered? That’s the irony of this song choice, and that’s what makes it so indelible.
Interview With the Vampire
“Home Is Where You’re Happy” by Charles Manson
“Look, Charlie Manson wrote a couple of beautiful songs. Still, he was Charlie Manson.” Controversial, Daniel Molloy! The conductor of this vampire drama’s titular interview, played by Eric Bogosian, has very little patience for the bloodsucker in question, Louis de Pointe du Lac, and even less for Louis’s psychotic, pubescent protégé, the teenage vampire Claudia. It’s her Molloy compares to Manson, the cult leader who defined the death of the Age of Aquarius … and much to my everlasting surprise, it’s Manson who soundtracks the end of this episode. Molloy is right: Manson could be a talented songwriter in very limited doses, as his buoyant ode to personal freedom, “Home Is Where You’re Happy,” makes clear. It’s just hard to hear that happiness when you recall the fate of Sharon Tate, which is what makes the song a strong choice for the soundtrack of a show about magnetic mass murderers, even when they’re of the supernatural variety.
“Animal” by Pearl Jam
“We were making a statement that this is a loud show, and you are either in or out,” The Bear creator Christopher Storer said of the choice to close the dirtbag-chef dramedy’s series premiere with “Animal,” a pummeling track from Pearl Jam’s second album Vs. Statement made, man. Recorded at the height of the band’s fame and success, it’s an us-against-the-world song, hence vocalist Eddie Vedder’s repeated chanting of the phrase “five against one”: five band members, one planet full of people eager to get at them. The track suits the chaotic, besieged energy of the kitchen where Carmy, Richie, et al. ply their high-intensity trade. Keep watching this show, it says, and expect shit to get wild.
“This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” by Talking Heads
“Home is where I want to be”? I’ll say so, Eric! In episode three of the financial drama’s second season, the gang travels to Wales for a pheasant hunt and the usual maneuvering and backstabbing. Eric believes his protégé Harper is on his side and gives her a prized pen as a token of their alliance; Harper, who’s already learned just how trustworthy Eric is, undermines him at the first opportunity. He’s left sitting stunned as the episode ends, the soundtrack playing Talking Heads’ bittersweet ode to the need for a place, and a person, to come home to; Eric now realizing he has neither.
The White Lotus
“The Best Things in Life Are Free” by Sam Cooke
By the time Sam Cooke’s playful, high-energy version closes out things in Sicily, we’d already heard this American standard play during The White Lotus’s second season: Beatrice Grannò’s aspiring musician Mia sings it at the hotel bar a few episodes earlier. But as our own Jen Chaney put it, concluding the season on this incongruously cheery note sent the ironic message that, for this bunch of avaricious jerks at least, the things they value most can only be attained by constant manipulative hustling. Still, is it possible that playing Cooke’s version while Mia and BFF Lucía stroll down the Sicilian streets happy as can be — Lucía having successfully scammed rich American try-hards Albie and Dom, Mia finagling her way to a full-time gig at the hotel by granting manager Valentina a sapphic sexual reawakening — is less cynical than it seems? Their relationship isn’t transactional, at least, and it might be the only one on the whole show. Hey, I’m just trying to find a silver lining here!
“Body” by Megan Thee Stallion
“I will kill for you, Megan Thee Stallion!” “Dial it back.” It’d be difficult to better encapsulate the tongue-in-cheek gender politics of Marvel’s most playful TV series to date than through this post-credits exchange between super-powered attorney Jennifer Walters (Tatiana Maslany) and her newest client, one Megan “Thee Stallion” Pete. Your mileage with Disney+’s onslaught of MCU material may vary, but it’s hard to object to Jennifer’s hulked-out secret identity twerking along with one of the biggest rappers of all time … and canonically, no less! I mean, this scene takes place in the same world as the Thanos snap. Now that’s a cinematic universe.
Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story
“Please Don’t Go” by KC and the Sunshine Band
Either the zenith or the nadir of the true-crime-drama craze depending on your perspective, Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan’s Dahmer studiously split its time between the infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s youth in the 1970s and his heyday as a serial killer in the early 1990s. The show’s repeated use of “Please Don’t Go,” a late-period ballad by funk-disco hitmakers KC and the Sunshine Band, suits this duality. The original recording is the kind of ’70s saccharine soft-rock dreck that expertly soundtracked several true-crime series this year, from Candy to Under the Banner of Heaven to A Friend of the Family. But through a cover version by KWS — itself a knockoff of a months-earlier attempt by Double You — the song is also a staple of dance-club culture during that strange period in the early ’90s when club music slugged it out with grunge and gangsta rap for pop supremacy, a period well represented by the dance hits that soundtrack Dahmer’s stalking of other men in the Minneapolis gay scene. It’s a music choice that’s equal parts astute and depressing.
“I Still Believe” by Tim Cappello
There’s not much I can say about singer-saxophonist Tim Cappello’s appearance in the season-two finale of Reservation Dogs that wasn’t already said better by our critic Jen Chaney, so I’m not gonna bother trying. What I will say is that Cappello’s cover of the Call’s “I Still Believe” was already one of the most legendary needle drops in movie history, summing up the big ’80s glory of director Joel Schumacher’s goth-glam vampire opus The Lost Boys in its sweat-soaked shirtlessness. To see it recur in Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s heartfelt dramedy — indeed, to see Cappello himself show up to perform it — is a delightful callback to that cinematic classic. In both the movie and the show, it’s an anthem for outcasts that suggests that while good may or may not win in the end, it’s still worth hoping for.
“Running Up That Hill” by Kate Bush
Like so many of the Netflix phenomenon’s cinematic touchstones, its auditory cues allow the audience’s established emotional associations to do the lion’s share of getting the drama over the finish line. But in much the same way I’m unlikely to complain about the dunderheaded obviousness of performing Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” to outsmart the Upside Down’s ghouls — what am I, the metalhead Grinch? — I’m not about to complain about the teen-horror blockbuster helping Kate Bush’s harrowing art-rock masterpiece “Running Up That Hill” hit the charts decades after its release. You don’t need to be invested in red-headed heroine Max’s battle with Swamp Thing look-alike Vecna to appreciate how the show deftly utilized its sway over an enormous audience to help one of the best songs of the ’80s become an unlikely pop-culture fixture, and chart hit, in 2022.
Better Call Saul
“Perfect Day” by Dresage & Slow Shiver
“And when things fell apart, nobody paid much attention.” Forgive me for quoting a very different song, but that’s effectively the message of this Better Call Saul sequence soundtracked by Dresage & Slow Shiver’s cover of Harry Nilsson’s gutting, vulnerable paean to a love where things are going great, however temporarily. In the case of Jimmy McGill, Kim Wexler, and Mike Erhmantraut, a perfect day involves the first two going about their usual business while the third works to transform their apartment, the site of the murder of frenemy Howard Hamlin, back to its pre-homicide state. Mike, being Mike, pulls it off, but the pressure proves too much for Jimmy and Kim. While Jimmy sheds the last vestiges of his normal persona, completing his metamorphosis into the scumbag lawyer Walter White will later rely on to shield his meth empire from the authorities, Kim quits both Jimmy and the law altogether. It’s the emotional high point of the entire series, the retrospectively inevitable destination of a years-long journey. This song makes it sing.