Music makes such a huge difference when it comes to enjoying TV’s top shows, on a level that goes well beyond a theme song. Great composers create an aural language that’s as tangible and essential as the actors or sets on screen, aided by music supervisors who discover undiscovered tracks as well as essential classic gems —without which the show’s most powerful moments would have no impact.
Even the Television Academy agrees: For this first time, this year the Emmy Awards handed out a prize for outstanding music supervision. Susan Jacobs won the award for the “Big Little Lies” episode “You Get What You Need.”
There were so many shows that changed the way music was used on television this year — whether it was Tom Petty’s “American Girl” becoming a shout of protest, an obscure Elvis Presley cover becoming one of our favorite tunes of the year, or a song we might best remember from “Transformers: The Movie” becoming a power ballad for female empowerment. Here are some of the best.
“13 Reasons Why”
One of the biggest details from Netflix’s grim series that follows in the wake of teenager Hannah’s suicide is a throwback in the first place: Hannah leaves 13 audio cassettes for classmates to find and listen to in lieu of a suicide note. In some ways, this is reflected in the series’ complex soundtrack, which ranged from dreamy and poignant to inspired and frenzied. Some ’80s tunes like Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and The Cure’s “Fascination Street” give the soundtrack retro cred; they’re tunes that could’ve been originally listened to on a Walkman. On the flipside are the contemporary tunes, pop and indie alike, that are straight from Clay’s collection. Perhaps the most heartbreaking song — and therefore the most perfect — is Lord Huron’s “The Night We Met,” the song that Tony plays for Clay and Hannah at the dance. It is forever linked to that bittersweet moment, and it’s no wonder that it became part of the rotation of many radio stations after the series debuted.
“Big Little Lies”
This soundtrack would qualify on the strength of one song, and that song is Michael Kiwanuka’s “Cold Little Heart.” The soulful tune serves as the opening theme, and forever set the mood for the series’ gorgeous aesthetics. It’s the tune to cruise along the seaside or sip champagne to (not at the same time though). Fortunately, the rest of the soundtrack lives up to that first salvo, with tracks from Otis Redding, Sade, Frank Ocean, The Flaming Lips, Alabama Shakes, The Temptations, Charles Bradley, Sufjan Stevens, Martha Wainwright, Fleetwood Mac, and more. Really, this is the ultimate soundtrack for a romantic night in or just hanging with friends who might help you cover up a murder.
And yes, as a bonus, there’s lots of Elvis Presley, courtesy of the Audrey & Elvis trivia night theme. While some of the entries were played for laughs as the participants rehearsed for the big night, Zoe Kravitz (in Hepburn’s “War and Peace” attire) performing “Don’t” has become an instant favorite. It takes a queen to do justice to The King.
The twin stories of discovery and resilience of Martin and Nan made for one of the most exciting and refreshing new shows of the year. But one of the things that breathed life into the show was the reliable string of tracks as an end-of-episode uplift. How better to close out a pilot than with “Seasons (Waiting on You)” by Future Islands? What better way to capture the promise and uncertainty of the world outside than Passion Pit’s “Moth’s Wings”? “True Affection” is the perfect title for a song dealing with the complicated relationship between pet and human, but The Blow song fit perfectly in the flow of the series. And to cap it all off, TV on the Radio helped soundtrack the show’s farewell episode, proving that this “Wolf Like Me” was one worth remembering.
Yes, yes, there’s another show set in the ‘80s that boasts a totally rad soundtrack, and you can check out IndieWire’s “Stranger Things” pop culture references if you want the list, but for our money, the ‘80s soundtrack for “GLOW” really captures the show’s rebellious and irreverent spirit. The whole thing is basically a love letter to the era, but inspirational, “Eye of the Tiger”-style tunes. There are a lot of driving, killer anthems like Scandal featuring Patty Smyth’s “The Warrior,” the Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane” and “Invincible” by Pat Benatar.
You can blast these tunes while running or training to execute a perfect flying wrestling move. In fact, that’s exactly what Stan Bush’s “Dare” is used for as Ruth (Alison Brie) and Debbie (Betty Gilpin) learn to get comfortable with basically being badass women who dare to get bruised, dare to express their inner fighters, and dare to dream. There’s something magical about this song, which was first heard in “The Transformers” animated movie and later in “Boogie Nights.” It has transformational properties, and that’s what the show is all about.
“The Handmaid’s Tale”
There’s no denying that some of the Emmy-winning drama’s musical selections, as well as the way they were dropped into the narrative, were controversial for fans — the shamelessly bold infusion of pop music into some of the show’s more still moments was polarizing for some. But when we remember the audacious and hilarious insertion of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me,” or the defiant and somewhat hopeful use of Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” there’s no denying that “The Handmaid’s Tale” wasn’t afraid to take chances — ones we won’t ever forget.
Like every other component of “The Leftovers,” the music for the third season was a nearly equal mix of emotional devastation and irreverent glee. There are too many amazing song choices to mention, either serving as sharp contrast to the action on screen (The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”; A-Ha’s “Take On Me”) or in perfect sync with what was happening, like Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)” and Sarah Vaughan’s “Frasier (The Sensuous Lion).” Max Richter’s impeccable score brought bombast when necessary, but more often found its most powerful moments in the most delicate piano melodies. It all came together for an extraordinary season of television, showcasing the deep thought and care behind every episode.
Between the eclectic music pulls, including artists ranging from M83 to Wang Chung to Cypress Hill to Fiona Apple, to Mac Quayle’s all-too-appropriately electronic-based score, “Mr. Robot” sounds like nothing else on TV — which fits, given that it’s like nothing else on TV. Without a doubt, the highlight of Season 3 was the use of Robbi Robb’s “In Time,” a song best known for appearing on the “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” soundtrack, for the emotional climax of Episode 8. Watching Elliot (Rami Malek) and Angela (Portia Doubleday) separated but united as the lyrics promised that “in time, we’ll be dancing in the streets all night” was one of the most unexpectedly affecting musical moments of the year.
Much like the show itself, the music of “Sense8” Season 2 is all about love and unity, with an indulgent fondness for some sick beats and drops. Is that emphasis on EDM and trip-hop born of the fact that Riley (Tuppence Middleton) is a professional DJ who knows how to rock the club right, or entirely due to showrunner preference? It’s a mystery for the ages. But given how many of “Sense8’s” most profound moments have always been driven by music, it’s one we feel no need to solve. Combined with a score by Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer that never fails to echo the energy of the show’s riveting action sequences, the result is a musical soundscape that is undeniably eclectic, but undeniably “Sense8.”
“Star Trek: Discovery”
“Star Trek,” as a franchise, has always been so driven by its soundtrack (just ask William Shatner) but Jeff Russo — a 2017 composition MVP, whose work on other series included “Legion,” “Fargo,” “Lucifer,” “Bull,” and “Ghosted” — found new dimensions to approach when executing the score for “Discovery.” Big and epic from its reconceived take on the classic theme song (that shift into a minor key still gives us chills) to tracks underscoring space battles, epic betrayals, and personal tragedies, “Disco” even managed to infuse some actual disco into the season’s best episode, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad.” Well, sorta. Arguably one of the year’s best-eve needle drops was when the playlist for a rager on board the Discovery included the Wyclef Jean/Refugee All Stars track “We Trying to Stay Alive,” and the repeated sample of the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” made for a haunting refrain as the peril increased with each time loop the crew experienced. Toss in a later dance featuring Al Green’s “Love and Happiness,” and it was aural gold.