From Big Little Lies to Twin Peaks: Here Are Our Favorite TV Soundtracks of All Time

Television’s hot-button drama of the moment has been the HBO miniseries Big Little Lies, which was helmed by veteran TV writer David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, etc.) and Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallée. If you’re a member of an alien race–reading this post years in the future, seeking to learn about what television meant to humankind at the unsustainable apex of its popularity–then take it from us: patch the HBO archives into your ship mainframe and sample BLL. It’s good. 

One of the most-discussed elements of the series is its expertly deployed pop music soundtrack, which is mostly reflective of the precocious tastes of Madeline’s (Reese Witherspoon) sprite-like six-year-old daughter Chloe. (The songs from the soundtrack also had a huge spike on Shazam as people watched the show–the standout track from the series premiere, Michael Kiwanuka’s “Cold Little Heart,” is the most frequently searched.) Reflecting on the musical components of BLL–which is crucial to heightening the series’ grand melodrama–caused the SPIN staff to question whether its soundtrack deserves to be counted among TV’s all-time greats. 

Is Big Littles Lies’ haunting retro-chic competitive with all-time great soundtracks like The Sopranos and Twin Peaks? How about the tastemaking playlists that helped garner The O.C., Gossip Girl, or Miami Vice such rabid fanbases? What about series with original songs–anywhere from Empire to Nashville to Tim and Eric? How about the historical signposts–the future-shock space-age cues of Star Trek or Henry Mancini’s big-band surf rock for Peter Gunn?

We assembled a team to pay tribute to some of the best TV soundtracks ever, keeping the definition of “soundtrack” a bit loose (not all of the shows had official music releases). See our list below.


Buffy the Vampire Slayer

 

A good chunk of Buffy took place at an actual night club, where real-life bands were invited to play their real-life songs as Buffy and her friends navigated the week’s crisis. Some of these appearance were fairly haphazard, as about a thousand random ‘90s bands you barely remember passed by. (How about Bellylove, or Velvet Chain?) But there was occasionally room for legitimate alt-rock standards like the Breeders and Cibo Matto, and latter-day appearances by acts like Michelle Branch—which fan could forget “Goodbye to You” scoring the brutal montage dissolution of the gang’s personal relationships?—and Aimee Mann were wonderfully memorable. (Read a previous post we did about some of those musical appearances.) — Jeremy Gordon


Freaks and Geeks

 

From the Joan Jett song that opens each episode to Lindsay Weir’s spiritual experience with the Grateful Dead that brings the series to a close, Freaks and Geeks used music to invite you into its character’s heads and their sticker-covered lockers and composition notebooks. The songs in the show were the songs its cast of nerds and aspiring dropouts trapped in early-’80s suburban Michigan would have actually listened to: “Bad Reputation,” “Box of Rain,” Van Halen, Styx, Bachman-Turner Overdrive. This approach was hugely successful from an artistic standpoint, and also hugely expensive: the show took several years to get to DVD after going off the air in 2000 because licensing the music cost “over a million dollars,” according to Judd Apatow, and when Fox Family picked it up for reruns, the network substituted some of the music for cheaper soundalike songs. The show’s depictions of how it feels to play music as a bored suburban teen, mostly conveyed via Jason Segel’s earnest drummer character Nick Andopolis, were equally affecting. When Nick fails the audition to join a group of mediocre white bluesmen covering Eric Clapton’s cover of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” you experience his dejection; when he jams along to Rush’s “Spirit of the Radio” alone in his basement, you share in the feeling that a single righteous rock song can make your dreams come true, if only for a few minutes. — Andy Cush


Hannibal

 

The soundtrack for the most gruesome, deviant show NBC has ever aired was as avant-garde as the series itself. The searing, percussion-heavy orchestrations of Brian Reitzell–of Lost in Translation and Friday Night Lights fame–would have made some of the fiercest atonal composers of the last century blush. The score was one of the hallucinatory, often terrifying show’s main characters, creating arguably more jump-scares than Mads Mikkelsen’s dead-eyed Hannibal Lecter (creepy and naturalistic enough to even surpass Anthony Hopkins’ tongue-flicking prototype). Reitzell’s unexpected blasts often became the demented bells and whistles going off in Will Graham’s head when the hunt for Lecter pushed him toward indulging his darkest urges. They became the seams between fugue state and reality being split, and central to the show’s heavily mannered atmosphere. When succulent-looking human flesh was served up to an unsuspected dinner guest of Lecter looking like a petit four, Reitzell’s music softened to gentle background music; he and the show’s architects knew well enough when to push the macabre drama and when to play against it. — Winston Cook-Wilson


Gilmore Girls

 

The iconic mother/daughter series of the early 2000s is punctuated by two recurring themes: the insane amount of junk food and coffee consumed by main characters Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) and her daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel) and the show’s theme song. “Where You Lead,” originally written and released by Carole King on her album Tapestry in 1971, was re-recorded as a duet between King and her daughter Louise Goffin for Gilmore Girls. King even makes a few cameo appearances in the show as a local music store owner named Sophie. 

Rory’s teenage dramas and fast wit is mirrored in the music for the show–she loves Sonic Youth, Belle and Sebastian, and Franz Ferdinand. Her first kiss with moody bad-boy Jess is to the XTC’s “Then She Appeared.” (Jess also wonders if Rory’s other romantic fling, Dean, even knows who Björk is while referencing “Human Behavior.”) That musical nerdery makes it onto the show’s soundtrack, Our Little Corner of the World: Music from Gilmore Girls, with songs from the Shins, Erasure, PJ Harvey, Yo La Tengo, and Yoko Ono. 

That small-town indie feel is accentuated by the musical elements scripted into the show itself. The Stars Hallow troubardour is a recurring character played by musician Grant-Lee Phillips, and was often shown singing in the town square. (One episode shows a battle between traveling buskers for who would become the “official” troubadour for the town–guest stars included Sonic Youth, Sam Philips and Mary Lynn Rajskub.) But the funniest detail of the show’s ties to music comes from Rory’s best friend Lane Kim’s band, which featured Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach as a mellow guitar bro named Gil. — Geena Kloeppel


Entourage

 

Admittedly, selecting the soundtrack for HBO’s meaningless celebration of male hedonism doesn’t sound like the hardest job in the world. The show required no musical cues other than, “Okay, everything happening in this scene is extremely cool.” But it does seem like the job was about as fun as the show itself. Helmed by Scott Vener–who would go on to be music supervisor of spiritual successors How to Make it in America and Ballers–the music of Entourage is a wonderful time capsule of the early 2000s. Vener’s soundtrack swerved between some of the biggest pop hits of the era (“Pon De Replay,” “Hollaback Girl”), fêted indie crossovers (Interpol, Franz Ferdinand), the more bro-y end of cool rock (many early Kings of Leon songs), classic rock (Jimi Hendrix, The Doors) and a bunch of rap ephemera that sounds perfect in 10-second snippets (Slim Thug mixtape tracks, Obie Trice). Existing within this ongoing Lollapalooza, though, were bits of genuine curation that felt genuinely novel to hear on the TV, like DJ Quik deep cuts or music nerd favorites (Teedra Moses, M.I.A) that may have never sniffed the airwaves otherwise. Also, S02E01 opens with “The Boys Are Back in Town.” And why not? They were.  — Jordan Sargent


Empire

 

Its soundtrack raises fewer eyebrows than each episode’s did-that-really-just-happen twists, but no current TV show uses original music more effectively than Empire. From record mogul Lucious Lyon’s old-school rap to his son Jamal’s socially conscious R&B to the glossy hip-hop of the youngest Lyon, Hakeem, each character’s style is a reflection of their personality. Empire is also savvy about the politics of hit-making; its writers understand that a guest verse on a hot artist’s single can make a young rapper famous and a duet can bring both musicians a new audience. Each song exists to drive the plot. And some of them—like Hakeem’s maddeningly catchy “Drip Drop”—are just as likely to get stuck in your head as anything you’ll hear on Top 40 radio.  — Judy Berman

https://youtube.com/watch?v=4-cAjYzQncQ


Grey’s Anatomy

 

A little known fact about Grey’s Anatomy is that it gave a few up-and-coming artists a huge platform. Take Tegan and Sara, for example, whose “Where Does the Good Go” soundtracks the first season’s look into the best-friendship that would develop between Meredith and Christina. (That was in 2005, and the song appeared again in 2014 when Christina leaves Seattle in season ten.)

Outside of the small indie triumphs, the show’s music is at its best when taking difficult relationship dynamics (and drama) and amplifying their emotional heft and agony with song. In season two James Blunt’s “High” plays during the birth of quints, Rósín Murphy’s “Ruby Blue” as Christina collapses in surgery due to an ectopic pregnancy, Anna Nalik’s “Breathe (2AM)” soundtracks the clip of Meredith taking a bomb out of a body cavity, the sounds of Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” as Alex gently lifts Izzie from her dead fiance’s hospital bed. (Don’t even get me started on Bailey’s wedding in season nine, where we see a close-up of Richard, who lost his wife only an hour before, as Ed Sheeran’s “Kiss Me” plays in the background.) Grey’s Anatomy owes a large part of its success to the music that draws out and makes tearjerkers out of their most memorable scenes. — G.K.


The X-Files

 

When series creator Chris Carter first approached composer Mark Snow about creating a theme for The X-Files, he sent The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” as a point of reference for how it might sound. Moz and company might seem like an odd choice for a sci-fi thriller at first, but it’s easy to hear what Carter heard in the song: Johnny Marr’s razorlike tremolo guitar would pair neatly with visuals of two stylish FBI agents suiting up and putting on their sunglasses, with Mike Joyce’s reverbed snare tracking their footfalls as they chase the bad guy of the week down a dank alley somewhere. Of course, even one listen to the theme Snow eventually came up with is enough to make it obvious that he decided to disregard Carter’s suggestion entirely. Instead of buttoned-up rock’n’roll cool, we get empty space and anxiety; instead of electric guitar, an eerie hollow sound that Snow created by layering his E-mu Proteus synthesizer with his wife Glynn’s whistling. The melody is both disorienting and instantly recognizable, always beginning a breath before you expect it to, refusing to settle into the downbeat established by its digital piano accompaniment.

The incidental music Snow created for each episode, all silvery synth strings and dramatic percussion, isn’t as iconic as his theme. How could it be? Watching the show today, I think about Jason Segel’s unhappy TV composer character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall: “It’s not music. There’s no melody. It’s just tones! Just dark, ominous tones. The masturbating dog killer is on the loose again!” But those dark, ominous tones did a lot to bring genuine tension and fright to the X-Files’ plots about