Pete Douglas runs down his favourite TV soundtracks of all time after killing the mood at a party with some tense Twin Peaks tunes.
Here’s a hot party tip: if you play the theme song from Twin Peaks in the middle of a Saturday night gathering it’s a bit of a mood dampener. I learned this the hard way on the weekend when it popped up on a playlist – that trebly 50’s guitar, the slow build to a daytime-soap-theme-sounding crescendo that would be cheesy, if it wasn’t so bloody unsettling. You could see guests stop their conversation dead and quietly reflect on the part of the show that creeped them out the most (for me it’s still “the man from the other place” and his backwards talking).
This got me thinking, what are the best TV soundtracks of all time? Any list is going to cause debate (don’t @ me Mad Men bros), but here are my favourites:
10) True Blood
A modern vampire tale set in Louisiana swamp country is probably going to be heavy on the music, but True Blood doesn’t just use atmospheric southern tunes (though there’s plenty of that, including the killer opening theme ‘Bad Things’). The soundtrack roams through modern country, alternative rock and even pop, with every episode being named after a song that features prominently within it.
A great little show about the last corner of the music industry that plays by its own odd set of rules, Nashville unsurprisingly has music at its core. Under the guidance in the first season of American roots music gatekeeper T-Bone Burnett, and in later seasons producer and songwriter Buddy Miller, the original songs more often than don’t adhere to the rules of shiny modern country, giving some grit to the soapy gloss.
Named after the David Bowie song, time travel procedural yarn Life on Mars was probably gonna feature more than a few great tunes, but it avoids cliche by digging into the slightly underappreciated world of early ’70s British glam rock. Cue some great trashy T. Rex, Slade and Sweet cuts.
7) The Americans
A Cold War thriller about a couple of Russian spies posing as an American couple in Washington D.C., The Americans uses period music particularly well to ratchet up the paranoid tension. See: the coke-addled ranting of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’, or how the bizarre international game show essayed in Peter Gabriel’s ‘Games without Frontiers’ almost seems like it was written specifically for the show.
This soap opera about a hip hop impresario (Lucious Lyon, played by Terrence Howard) – and the backstabbing that takes place between him and his family after his rise from rags to riches – could have fallen flat on its face if the music wasn’t right. But under the guidance of bona fide hit maker Timbaland, and with show’s genuinely talented young stars, the soundtrack to Empire has worked brilliantly, even generating some actual real life hits.
5) The O.C.
Elle Hunt’s terrific reminisce on The O.C. the other day made me remember all over again how this often dubious teen soap had all the best music at its peak (well, all the white indie music anyway). Seth Cohen’s Death Cab for Cutie obsession got the band signed to a major label, and getting a song on the show meant you had truly made it. My favourite episode features Sandy (Pete Gallagher) serenading his wife Kirsten at her birthday party, having such a great time he turns his initially grand romantic gesture into his own personal soul revue. God bless you and your great eyebrows Pete.
4) 30 Rock
30 Rock creator and comic genius Tina Fey, along with her composer husband Jeff Richmond, executed some wonderful musical moments over seven seasons of the beloved show. There are simply too many great send ups to capture (‘Night Cheese’ for life) but big shout out to Jenna Maroney’s Britney-esque ‘Muffin Top’, the soft rock Christopher Cross in-joke of ‘Lemon’s Theme’, and best of all, Tracy Jordan’s bizarre and utterly inspired ‘Werewolf Bar Mitzvah’ (“spooky, scary, boys becoming men, men becoming wolves”).
Rather than trying to stay at all true to period music for the critically acclaimed slave drama Underground, musical director John Legend instead brought on board a range of great contemporary hip hop and R&B, which makes the action urgent and vital rather than what it could be – a 19th century-style museum piece. Kanye West’s ‘Black Skinhead’ was identified early as a key touchstone, and it makes for a brilliant opening at the very start of the series.
2) Twin Peaks
It’s not only the main theme that makes the music of Twin Peaks great; how about the late night dread of ‘Laura’s Theme’, or maybe the jazz-shuffle-in-a-horror-house of ‘Audrey’s Dance’? Composer Angelo Badalamenti somehow takes Mark Frost and David Lynch’s weird obsessions and puts the perfect soundtrack to them, something which seems all the more remarkable listening all these years later.
1) The Sopranos
Sure, aside from that famous opening song by Alabama 3, The Sopranos did lean a bit hard on musty old boomer music, but the show always used slightly obscure gems deftly, particularly in closing scenes. See Johnny Thunder’s ‘You Can’t Throw Your Arms Around a Memory’, the jaunty Van Morrison number ‘Glad Tidings’ playing over the utterly tense season five closer, or the sad resignation of The Rolling Stones ‘Thru and Thru’.
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