Back in the old days, music for television was a wholly different beast.
You either had studio-employed orchestras bringing the compositions of such masters of the genre as Lalo Schifrin and Mike Post to life, or working songwriters were crafting catchy theme songs in a Brill Building-style operation. While those methods spawned some of the most infectious earworms in existence (try getting Andrew Gold’s theme for The Golden Girls out of your head), it was hardly music you’d take with you in the car on a long road trip.
But in our current New Golden Age of TV, as series continue to evolve toward a grander, more cinematic scope and networks and basic cable channels vie for relevance against not only Showtime, Starz and HBO, but Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, and an ever-growing list of competitors, we’ve entered a brave new world for the possibilities of music in original programming.
While music composers still remain a crucial cornerstone of small-screen sonics, showrunners have been quite partial to a playlist methodology as well in a way that’s more Quentin Tarantino than Norman Lear. And if you have a producer on the payroll who has excellent music taste, chances are you’ll be thanking your favorite TV show from now on for all the great new tunes you’ve discovered, rather than your favorite DJ.
Here are the 10 best TV show soundtracks that have emerged in the last year.
10) Bob’s Burgers
Since the heyday of Spike Jones on through to Portlandia, every generation has a TV soundtrack to ease the inner id of musical comedy fans. On May 12, Sub Pop Records will release The Bob’s Burgers Music Album, which features 107 songs from the first 107 episodes of the Emmy-winning FOX animated hit.
The music is largely performed by the main cast members—Bob (H. Jon Benjamin) and Linda (John Roberts) and their children Tina (Dan Mintz), Gene (Eugene Mirman) and Louise (Kristen Schaal)—singing songs about doody, derrieres and doing it mostly, but with enough room for asides on Christmas, mononucleosis and Harry Truman, not to mention covers of both “Hava Nagila” and “99 Red Balloons.”
There’s guest spots from such Burgers vets as Aziz Ansari, Sarah Silverman, Kevin Kline, Bill Hader, Zack Galifianakis and Fred Armisen, and appearances from Cyndi Lauper and Carly Simon, too. The album also includes an additional five “Bob’s Buskers” cover versions of songs from the show performed by St. Vincent, The National, Låpsley, and Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields.
This music is ridiculous and hilarious, and will surely ruffle the feathers of the same people who get offended when you complement somebody on their looks. Yet regardless of how sensitive you are, you can’t help but smile when a song like “Butts Butts Butts” travels through your earholes. All due respect to Father John Misty, but The Bob’s Burgers Music Album is true pure comedy.
At first we were annoyed by them. But now in its final season, Sunday nights are going to feel a little emptier knowing this will be the last time we invite Hannah Horvath and her idiosyncratic hipster community of friends, lovers and family members into our homes when the last episode of Girls airs this upcoming Easter.
As with the previous five seasons, this sixth dive into Hannah’s world is rife with great music so perfectly placed to complement the right situations, from the use of Joni Mitchell’s “A Free Man in Paris” in “Hostage Situation” to closing out the episode titled “Gummies” with the 1973 Linda McCartney single “I Got Up” to bookending this past weekend’s “Goodbye Tour” with Bert Jansch and Banks. I’m really going to miss these girls.
Transforming the concept of Archie Comics into a Twin Peaks-style mystery series was one of the biggest tricks you’ll see performed in 2017. But the way Archie Comics’ chief creative officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and executive producer Greg Berlanti alter the 76-year-old Riverdale universe while staying doggedly faithful to the characters is what has made this show so successful.
But the coolest upgrade we experience in Riverdale exists within the Archie brand’s rich music history. In this modern version, young Mr. Andrews is not aiming for AM immortality with songs like “Sugar Sugar,” but rather the SoundCloud generation with his emo-bro hybrid of John Mayer and Elliott Smith, while Josie & The Pussycats have been reintroduced as an all African-American R&B trio in the vein of FKA Twigs or Solange.
Will we ever find out if Jughead and Betty make as good of a rhythm section as they are a couple? Looks like we will have to wait until Season 2 to find out. But in the meantime, the tunes certainly help keep Riverdale a couple of grades above the normal cheese churned out by The CW.
7) This Is Us
My wife, my college professor and about a third of my Facebook feed are all obsessed with NBC’s latest heartstrings manipulator, but I remain steadfast in my resistance to its cloying allure.
However, the people picking the music for this melodrama, which follows the lives of a Pittsburgh family in 1980, 1989 to 1995 and the present day, have serious taste amidst the tearjerking.
The first season was filled with passages of classic deep cuts from Cat Stevens, Nick Drake, Gene Clark, Memphis Slim, Richard & Linda Thompson and Sufjan Stevens among many others, counterbalancing the corn with class.
Trying to make classical music appeal to a broad youth market seems to be a lofty goal in and of itself, let alone opera.
But the Emmy-winning Amazon Prime series Mozart in the Jungle—which chronicles the lives of a group of struggling musicians in the New York Symphony Orchestra—has indeed achieved the impossible by creating a series not only rich in great storytelling but embedded with an essential primer for anyone looking to get into classical and opera as well.
The soundtrack to the show’s third season is its most varied and adventurous yet, featuring not only essential opuses from the likes of Mozart, Dvorak, Schubert, Bizet and Sibelius but great new material from such modern mavericks as Missy Mazzoli and Nico Muhly.
The player piano inside the Mariposa Saloon in HBO’s epic adaptation of the 1973 Michael Crichton sci-fi fave Westworld was as much a character in the series as the androids it flanks.
For the guests who frequent this most peculiar resort, the music played on the piano was their only real evidence of the outside world, via these languid and wordless renditions of songs by Amy Winehouse, Radiohead, The Cure, Soundgarden and the Stones that soundtracks androids gaining a collective conscious while the human guests lose theirs.
If Stranger Things captured the neon atmosphere of the early to mid ’80s, AMC’s internet origins drama channels its weird, manic energy.
In its frenetic third season, the series continues to perfectly encapsulate the frantic pace of things at Mutiny through a blend of classic material of the time from Gary Numan, Billy Joel, Thomas Dolby, Tom Waits, the Housemartins and 39 Clocks (!) and songs from such ’80s-steeped modern acts as Cullen Omori, Operators and Ruelle. They even find a way to make Go West’s “The King of Wishful Thinking” seem hip.
Some of us more uncouth individuals may have tuned in to this acclaimed series for a glimpse of Nicole Kidman in the nude. But we stuck around for the incredible music that provides the atmosphere for the HBO limited series Big Little Lies, a smorgasbord of soul music from acts like Charles Bradley, Michael K., Leon Bridges, Irma Thomas and co-star Zoe Kravitz, channeling the sultry vibe of her mom’s High Fidelity character more than her funky father Lenny with the dark doo-wop of “Don’t.”
2) Luke Cage
When you’ve got a TV show helmed by a music journalist as renowned as Cheo Hodari Coker, you know the soundtrack is gonna be tight.
But the songs selected for his vibrant Crooklyn-esque retelling of the story of Marvel’s unkillable inner-city superhero is as deep as it gets.
With its blend of Daptone soul and vintage Brooklyn hip-hop, coupled with a masterful score by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed-Muhammad, the music on display is Cage’s greatest strength.
But it wasn’t just the original Stu Phillips-aping phrasing of the Austin-based group that perfectly captured the essence of 1983—it was the incorporation of time-appropriate tunes from The Clash, Corey Hart, Modern English, Tangerine Dream, Foreigner and New Order that really sucked us into the show, as if we were on a Mongoose riding right beside Mike, Lucas, Dustin and Eleven.
It almost makes you forgive the Duffer Brothers’ anachronistic use of a song from 1987 to represent ‘83 like The Bangles’ cover of “A Hazy Shade of Winter.”