Maybe it’s because I spend the bulk of my time reading and writing about music or talking with people who do the same, but as much as I love TV and movies on their own merits, the second or third sentence I’ll say about any given piece of visual media usually deals with what sort of music it used, and how. This isn’t to suggest music is the superior art form and deserves the bulk of the discussion no matter the circumstances—I love writing about TV and movies, too, and maybe my favorite part of any of it is talking about where the different pieces of art interact and change each other. Soundtracks are pivotal. Not just because they sometime accompany the most iconic moments—that torture scene in Reservoir Dogs, that Scorsese montage (pick one), those final minutes of Trainspotting—but because a movie or show’s use of music shapes our experience of it, whether in how music is present or in how it can be conspicuously absent. We can have boilerplate network drama characters describing their origin story with distractingly generic orchestral swells (looking at you, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) or we can have a Walter White screed backed only by vibrating silence. The power of the latter sort, the absence, partially comes from how it could then later be juxtaposed against a sunny ’60s pop song or some other surprise. Just as so many of our real life memories are bound up in music, so too can music sequences be the checkpoints in a viewing experience. Music and visuals and narrative coming together is the sweet spot where a movie or show (or, since there are some included here, video games) can hit you on all levels at once. It’s when we’ve been following along enough to have the intellectual understanding of where the narrative has taken us, but also where that extra bit of well-edited music usage makes the entire experience visceral.
Because I have been spending the holidays in the wannabe-bucolic stretches of small town northeastern Pennsylvania, I have unfortunately not had a chance to see more limited release films like the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis or Spike Jonze’s Her. With T-Bone Burnett serving as the former’s musical director and with the Arcade Fire and Karen O contributing music to the latter, I have no doubt that both are soundtracked excellently, so know that they weren’t excluded for lack of merit, just access. As for what is here, these are twenty musical moments that played very different roles in the media collected on this list. They range from cool little moments that made me stop for a second and stuck in my memory as the year went on, to inspired uses of music that became one with the narrative concerns of the work in question. From small and clever, to loud and big, to integral and genius, here are my twenty favorite uses of music from 2013.
20. The Iceman — Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”
The Iceman was a pretty good movie, but one that could’ve/should’ve been so much more. That being said, it did have one gleefully, darkly comic music sequence that stood out. Michael Shannon and Chris Evans hit the club to “Heart of Glass”—a song I’m convinced it’s impossible to dislike, and a go-to “OK, here’s a scene in a late-’70s discotheque” choice. As obvious as it might be for setting the tone of the era, though, it’s hard to imagine “Heart of Glass” has been used quite like this before. Evans and Shannon both try and fail epically to act naturally, two guys who kill other guys for a living trying to behave like normal humans. Evans’ long-haired hitman does weird little roll motions with his forearms while scoping out the floor for their target, while Shannon plays with poison at the bar before robotically strutting across the floor in prime Shannon-esque form to cough said poison into the face of John Ventimiglia (the dude who played Artie Bucco on The Sopranos). It’s a wicked smirk of a scene, Shannon and Evans quickly absconding to the blissed out organs of “Heart of Glass” as their mark dies on the dancefloor.
19. The Bridge Season 1— Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ “Push the Sky Away”
Even for the ruthless world of The Bridge, the climactic episode “Take the Ride, Pay the Toll” was bleak, as Marco’s past sins returned to haunt him in the form of the season’s primary antagonist, supposedly-dead FBI agent turned serial killer David Tate, murdering his son Gus by leaving him in a tank that slowly fills with water. As gritty and bloody as the preceding ten episodes had been, the death of Gus was surprising—the first time the violence of The Bridge’s world truly struck the inner circle of characters. The final moments of of the episode are brutal, not so much for the loss of the unremarkable character of Gus, but more so for how battered Demian Bichir seems as Marco, limping his way down from his own hospital bed to the morgue to see his son’s body.
As he stands over Gus, the funereal organs of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ “Push the Sky Away” begin to play. I’m relatively new to Nick Cave, and this episode of The Bridge is what brought his new album (also entitled Push the Sky Away ) to my attention. After listening to it obsessively for a week, I’m perplexed as to how it didn’t show up on more end of year lists. Despite its mostly somber tone, some reviews characterized the title of Push the Sky Away as an unwillingness to settle, a drive to break through even that furthest and most abstract of boundaries. The world of The Bridge can seem huge, messy and multitudinous, and yet also claustrophobic, many of the characters finding their backs against the wall at some point. “I’ve got a feeling that I just can’t shake/ I’ve got a feeling that won’t go away/ You’ve gotta just keep on pushing and keep on pushing and push the sky away,” Nick Cave intones, the only vocal bit of the song the show plays. Marco limps in that same steady way out of some garage entrance to the hospital, the severe coloration of The Bridge meaning he stalks into a sheer wall of white light as little background noise hisses up from the corners of Cave’s song. “Push the sky away” becomes a phrase of desperation here, the little fragment we hear of it as unresolved as the lives of The Bridge’s characters as they continue to wait to break out of their worlds.
Video of the scene isn’t available on YouTube, but check out the song itself. It’s great.
18. Samsung Galaxy watch commercial — LCD Soundsystem’s “Someone Great”
Normally, I wouldn’t include a commercial in a list like this, but the use of LCD Soundsystem’s “Someone Great” in Samsung’s commercial for its smartphone watch was pretty stunning. The ad is a heavy dose of retro-futurism, a series of clips from various movies and TV shows from the ’60s through the ’90s of people speaking into wrist-bound communicators of one sort or another while the instrumental bits of “Someone Great” play in the background. As one commenter pointed out when we first wrote about the commercial, Apple ran similar ads when first unveiling the iPhone, but even if this takes a cue from those older clips, it hits on a different level. What’s going on here is a canny bit of advertising—playing to people’s nostalgia at the same time as proposing a future you didn’t think you needed. It’s the sort of contradiction that, as I’ve written about on this site before, LCD Soundsystem’s music perfectly embodies. The methodically paced layering of those synths in “Someone Great” seem somehow scientifically calibrated to elicit some tinge of regret, a memory of a past never actually experienced. But still, nearly seven years on, they also sound not quite like anything else out there. A little bit of the past, a little bit of the future—a present pregnant with both, whether represented by a smartphone ad or a LCD Soundsystem song, is endemic to life in the 2000s. Even with zero interest in this product, the commercial’s match-up of image, sound, and the ideas behind them both has stuck with me.
17. The Wolf of Wall Street trailer — Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead”
Unfortunately, The Wolf of Wall Street has not been released at press time (thought it will have been the day you read this). I include this here on faith that Scorsese, ever the master of creative and iconic soundtracking choices, will once more deliver some great cues in his by-most-reports feverish three hour dive into Wall Street’s madness. But it’s also worthwhile to take a moment to highlight one of the better trailers of the year, since they’re an underrated art. When this trailer finally arrived for Scorsese’s long-awaited new film, it charged in with a beat that had by now become one of the most sinisterly addictive of the summer, one that brought a story of past finance world excess vitally into our post-recession present. That would be the beat of “Black Skinhead.”
You didn’t think we were going to pass up a chance to get one more Yeezus nod in, did you? Joking aside, there was a reason for the steady fixation on Kanye through the latter half of 2013. This year was the year that America’s heartbeat adopted the pulse of that stutteringly militaristic beat in “Black Skinhead,” whether it was the song of the year or not. Artists like Miley and Kanye continue to dominate the conversation for how they represent some inescapable American Dream narrative and its lurid, mutated flipside at the same time. With Kanye, we got a piece of art that’s at once self-lacerating and an All-American id let loose. There are few songs better to soundtrack the trailer for a Martin Scorsese movie. Both works deal with a man of massive ego corroding himself from within, Kanye’s primal scream yelps coloring snapshots of Scorsese’s party sequences a violent shade of manic. The Wolf of Wall Street ends too early in the ’00s for there to be a chance of “Black Skinhead” appearing in the movie itself, but the trailer’s breathless mix of exhilaration and anger is a compelling little piece in of itself.
16. Side Effects — Thievery Corporation’s “The Forgotten People”
In the early moments of Side Effects, the camera zooms in super-slowly onto the apartment building where Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum’s characters Emily and Martin Taylor live. It feels like you’re steadily wading into the fog so frequently referenced to describe depression in the movie, but you’re entering is the dreamlike haze of Side Effects itself. It’s a blurry movie. Light seems to play off people in watery ways. The score primarily maintains a murky ambience that suggests life under a cloud of medication, but also hints at the movie’s main thesis—the inherent and maybe dangerous unknowableness of other people. That tightening glimpse on the apartment building proves telling. The characters of Side Effects navigate the smeared information of their lives within constricted boundaries. Almost no pop music breaks that focus, that aesthetic of the movie.
When Thievery Corporation’s “The Forgotten People”—a bit of globalized trip-hop that was also once used in an episode of True Blood—plays, its exoticism seems to represent the force of nature that is Emily. Ironically, the first time we hear it the song suggests the psychological fog the rest of the movie winds up exhibiting. Martin wakes up in the middle of the night to find Emily seemingly in a sleepwalking daze from her new depression prescription; she’s blasting “The Forgotten People” on the stereo and setting the table for a meal. It’s only later—after Emily kills Martin, after her depression is shown to be a farce—when the song returns at the very end of the movie, accompanied by Emily’s viciously unreadable gaze, that it’s cemented as the eerie free radical in Side Effects. The camera zooms out as slowly as it did in the beginning, this time lingering on the walls of a psych hospital instead of Emily and Martin’s apartment building. It’s one more shot of the structures we build around the more amorphous qualities of human nature, the unnerving power of “The Forgotten People” suggesting the little bit of madness in all of us that wants to seep through them.
We couldn’t find the scenes with “The Forgotten People” online, but here’s the track.
15. BioShock: Infinite
Even if you aren’t a frequent gamer, chances are you’ve heard the name BioShock anyway in the last several years. The acclaimed series is one of the mainstream titles directly playing with questions of what video games are—not just whether or not they can aspire to art, but also how the virtual worlds we construct for both leisure and work interact and become enmeshed with our physical lives. There are naturally plenty of spoilers in an article like this but the ending of BioShock: Infinite is too mind-blowing and conversation-stimulating (and, frankly, a little too complicated) to give away here. I’ll say this much: as the game progresses, dimensional tears between your world and others open up, which are later manipulated by the protagonists. Part of the reason the BioShock games are such impressive aesthetic achievements is the little atmospheric details they plant, things you’ll miss if you just run through shooting everything but actually provide glimpses into the game’s philosophical curiosities if you’re looking. Through one tear, you hear something familiar, the distinctive chorus of “Fortunate Son” jarring you out of the alternate-history of Infinite’s early 20th century floating city. Through another, you hear Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”
Those are clever little touches, hints at a world more familiar to the player on the other end of those particular tears. If you pay attention, you’ll hear a victrola playing an old-time-y version of the Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” one of a handful of pop songs you can hear refigured into ragtime or barbershop quartet versions. It becomes unsettling, exposing the precipitousness of the reality of this game world you’ve invested in, a precipitousness that’s later confirmed. (Really, you have to play this game. The meta-commentary of the end is brilliant.) These songs are small moments, easily drowned out by a storm of bullets and moral horrors. They’re also woven into the fabric of BioShock: Infinite in a way that exhibits the porousness of the game itself, the fuzzier borders between our digital and physical lives, between imagined and real worlds.
14. Game of Thrones Season 3 — The Hold Steady’s “The Bear and the Maiden Fair”
Game of Thrones has proven time and time again that it knows how to drop the mic and walk out at the end of an episode—decapitate a major protagonist here, slaughter the two thirds of the rest of his family there. I was primed to expect something going into “Walk of Punishment” given all the internet headlines referring to Jaime Lannister’s “shocking loss,” but I was feeling pretty mellow about it since friends had already assured me “loss” did not equal “death.” (Sidenote: I was pretty much expecting him to be castrated, so maybe “mellow” is a relative term when discussing your emotions in relation to events in Westeros.) Even with that knowledge, it still took me aback to see that nightmarish last scene—the knife pressed in his eye (“Oh, OK, so he’ll get an eyepatch. Shocking loss? He’ll look aweso—oh, wait…”), then Locke’s blade coming down, and the camera actually hanging out there for a second to let you see Jaime scream in shock at his severed stump of a sword-hand. As emotionally wrenching as some of the show’s other endings have been, this has to be up in the top five for sheer “What is happening?!” quality.
So, fittingly, it was one of the few moments where the show cut to credits not accompanied by primal drums, or mournful dulcimers, or swooping orchestration falling just this side of a prestige-Medieval Times, but a pop song fully recognizable as a product of our world, not Jaime’s. Instead, the Hold Steady storm in with “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” a characteristic bit of buzzy indie-bar-rock. Given, Craig Finn’s everyman slouch of a vocal delivery and the football chant sing-along of the chorus are both drunken enough to be at home in one of those dismal pubs you find in between cities in Westeros, but if you put a bit of Springsteenian indie-rock in the moment immediately following watching a major character get his hand chopped off, you’re making a statement. It jostles you as a viewer. It’s a switch akin to—though far different in effect—when the meditative drone of The National’s “The Rains of Castamere” appeared after the landmark Season 2 episode “Blackwater.” They’re both reminders of how quickly your world can change—one moment you’re in Westeros, the next you’re in New York (or, Minneapolis). One moment you’re a famed swordsman known as the Kingslayer, the next it’s time to figure out a new line of work.
13. The World’s End
For a good forty-five minutes, The World’s End is a dizzying ride through British rock circa ’89-’93, featuring choice cuts from the peak of Madchester and the early wave of Brit-pop. Primal Scream’s “Loaded” plays as we see where the old high school friends’ lives have wound up in the subsequent two decades, The Happy Mondays’ “Step On” as they first return to Newton Haven, the Charlatans’ “The Only One I Know” in one pub and the Stone Roses’ “Fool’s Gold” in another. It’s a great soundtrack if you have any proclivities for British pop music, but while this is all danceable and the movie is hilarious, it’s clear some of the music is supposed to (at least, for a time) play as tragic. When Simon Pegg’s Gary first pulls up in the same beat-up car he’s been driving since high school, Blur’s “There’s No Other Way” echoes from within, and his friends look on in bewilderment, a sense that only deepens as they realize he’s playing the Soup Dragons’ “I’m Free” simply because he never took the tape out.
As the friends make their way through the pub crawl, some songs become more directly to the point. Pulp’s “Do You Remember the First Time?” plays in the background of the first bar, while Kylie Minogue’s “Step Back in Time” shimmers in a club full of alien robots dressed as schoolgirls. In a straight drama, it might play a bit too on-the-nose. In The World’s End, the mix of humor and pathos, and the flexibility of a loony sci-fi premise, allow the songs to have a real emotional resonance. In the hour between the Pulp song and the Minogue song, these characters’ reality has been turned upside down. It’s “Do you remember the first time?” nostalgically but exhaustedly asked as they sit down together for a reunion not necessarily asked for. Later, it’s “Step back in time” as they’re surrounded by a bunch of aliens mimicking mint-condition eighteen year old versions of people they remember. Just as The World’s End flits between different moods, tones, and subversions of genre conventions, the movie’s use of music is similarly nimble. It begins with a smirk of recognition for a long-forgotten song, but that warm feeling subsides to the creeping sensation that is nostalgia’s depressive aftertaste. That, in turn, might subside to a music cue that simply makes you laugh. Underneath the punchlines and surprisingly well-choreographed fight scenes, though, The World’s End deploys all its aged pop gems for a purpose. They help further what turns out to be a sober meditation on approaching middle age and facing change (or lack thereof), on how your high school friends and town always seem frozen in the year you left them, and how disorienting it can be to return to them to realize that isn’t the case at all.
Here’s the scene as the gang enters that first pub.
12. Out of the Furnace — Pearl Jam’s “Release”
Back in October, I offered up a list of ten of my favorite Pearl Jam songs, and to the chagrin of some readers, I didn’t include anything from Ten. Well, I still mostly stand by that, but two things occurred shortly after in quick succession that convinced me that “Release” should’ve made the list. Within a week of the list going up, I saw Pearl Jam play four times in five nights. “Release” was played second song in on the first night, and not again through any of the other nights, and it’s still maybe my favorite moment from those shows (even with a deep cut laden Philly show that aligned more with my personal taste). I’ll concede now that you haven’t totally experienced “Release” until you’ve seen its power in an arena, and it easily ranks amongst Pearl Jam’s greatest achievements. Around that same time, I saw the trailer for Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace and there it was again—Eddie Vedder’s aggrieved yet resolved cries of “Release me!” roaring out over the intense final moments of the trailer.
“Release” is the only pop song to appear with any prominence in Out of the Furnace. It serves as an opening theme, those distinctive guitar notes fading in as the perspective shifts from one rough scene of Harlan (Woody Harrelson) beating up his date and a bystander, to Russell’s (Christian Bale) life in the steel town Braddock, PA. Cooper bends one key song to multiple uses. It’s a bit of a relic, an old grunge song of overflowing, masculine classic rock power. “Release” conveys the sense of this mill town stuck in some sort of semi-recent past, but also traces the paths of these characters’ lives. When it appears in the beginning, you hear just the gentle tension of its slow-build over shots of Russell working in the factory. You’re denied the final crash of the refrain that first time around, just as these characters seem to be trapped in a loop of ever-present pressure from which there seems no permanent relief. When the song returns, it’s at the very end of Out of the Furnace, after Russell shoots Harlan to avenge his brother Rodney. Those same arpeggiated notes chime, you get a single shot of Russell sitting alone in his house, then a fade to black and an almost immediate cut to the song’s most intense moments. It seems to be the release promised by the song’s title and its placement in the movie alike, by its being cut short earlier in the movie. But given the where Russell’s wound up at the end, there isn’t anything transcendent about it. The chorus’ plea sounds ever more desperate.
Ever the stylist, Danny Boyle pushed his latest film into extreme but chic territory visually and sonically. The score was done by Rick Smith, a member of Underworld, the group Boyle helped attain mainstream attention when he used their track “Born Slippy .NUXX” at the end of Trainspotting for one of the best soundtrack moments ever. The collaboration continues to bear fruit here. Trance is a blend of a classic British crime film and a trippy psychological thriller, and Smith’s score melds house and orchestral music in a way that helps create the sort of alternate reality necessary for the genre mash-up. The throb of string-laden dance music helps give it the requisite pulse of a caper film, but also an otherworldly plasticity fitting for the dramatically shot movie’s highly-saturated visuals. And while the beats alternate between militant and aqueous, they’re always visceral, dialed up way in the mix and thrumming through confessions and confrontations alike.
In the first sequence at the auction house, UNKLE’s “Hold My Hand” blares as Vincent Cassel’s Frank and his men commence the robbery. Boyle just uses an instrumental piece of the song, particularly the small fragment that samples the opening piano of David Bowie’s “Be My Wife.” It’s almost too quick to register, but it still shakes you. It’s a brief moment of “I know that sound but it doesn’t belong here, where is it from?” and it’s taken away before you’re able to make sense of it. That sort of moment is part of the story and the experience of Trance. Just as James McAvoy’s Simon begins to fall into ever more convoluted corridors of his mind, the audience is fed little images and quotes over and over, decontextualized—some familiar, some not, many repeated, all eventually coming together in the end. It’s similar to how Boyle uses what is effectively the main theme of Trance, Rick Smith and Emeli Sandé’s “Here It Comes.” Like all the images that flash in and out of our path during the movie, “Here It Comes” is teased multiple times through Trance. It plays in the beginning during Simon’s voiceover about stealing art, again when Rosario Dawson’s character Elizabeth is introduced and shown hypnotizing patients, and once more during another hypnosis scene. They’re just hints, though, little sun-dappled synth burbles that seem to say a new world is being opened up to you or the characters, but always taking its time to show you the whole thing. It isn’t until the end—when all the hints of Trance’s disorienting story, too, have coalesced—where we finally hear the entirety of “Here It Comes” with Sandé’s vocals. It’s an effervescent bit of pop placed at the film’s conclusion, becoming the sunrise to strive towards after wandering into the darkest recesses of the human mind.
10. The Place Beyond the Pines
Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines was an ambitious epic intending to trace the consequences of two men’s actions as their legacies are passed down to their sons. There are only a handful of pop songs included, but the choices are crucial to the tone and scope of the movie. The first time it demands your attention is when Luke (Ryan Gosling) is preparing to rob a bank. As he paints his bike and steels himself, he is surrounded by the persistent murmur of Suicide’s “Che.” That song’s fuzz dissipates as he walks into the bank; the stick-up commences free of musical accompaniment, Luke’s panicked yelps and demands yielding enough anxiety on their own. Then he’s out barreling down the highway on his motorcycle, setting up a contrast between the buzzing noise of Suicide pre-robbery, and the almost-disembodied but far more tangible roar of his bike’s engine as he escapes. Cianfrance uses the play of music and pure sound to trace the small arc Luke would imagine for himself—emergence from faintly angered listlessness to masculine control spoken in the classic mechanical language of a motor. Then Cianfrance also gives you a scene with Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Gosling dancing with a dog to Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” (You also didn’t think I’d pass up on a chance to get a Springsteen nod in, did you?) For good measure, it isn’t just played as comic relief—”Dancing in the Dark” fades out over the image of Luke arriving at the diner to give Ro (Eva Mendes) the money, reminding us that these characters are mythic archetypes cut right out of a Bruce song.
Much later—about two hours our time, fifteen years in the movie’s—we’re at a house party with Luke’s son Jason (Dane DeHaan). This kid’s spinning out of control. Casual drug use is one thing, sure, but it doesn’t take much to convince him to steal some oxys from a pharmacy, and he’s about to find out he’s hanging out with the son of the cop who shot his father. He takes some of that oxy, starts making out with a girl, and SALEM’s “Trapdoor” is playing, a languorously narcotic reminder of just how far this movie has traveled both in context and theme. During Luke’s storyline, it’s still easy to glorify his actions as those of a romantic outlaw, Springsteen song and all. When you’re faced with the direct results in the form of his kid swimming into the bleary-eyed gloom of “Trapdoor,” it’s a lot harder to feel enchanted by Luke as any sort of tragic hero. A drugged up hip-hop beat makes the repercussions tangible. At the end of the movie Jason’s acquired his own motorcycle, and he rides into the countryside as Bon Iver’s “The Wolves (Acts I & II)” plays. Where most of the other songs in The Place Beyond the Pines sound like or speak of being trapped, Bon Iver’s music is spacious. You’re left hoping Jason is able to ride away into that, far away from what he inherited.
9. Girls Season 2
Two seasons in, Girls has maintained its mixture of sometimes-treacly acoustic guitars and of-the-moment indie. Ray storms into the coffee shop determined to change his life as the frazzled glam groove of Tame Impala’s “Elephant” thumps over him; Joshua puts on Father John Misty’s “Nancy From Now On” as he and Hannah relax during their two day tryst. The show even manages to eek whatever impact is left out of “Wonderwall” after it’s been bastardized by endless failed covers echoing through college dorm halls. Playing the old Oasis stalwart over credits following Jessa’s savage break-up with Thomas-John gives it the kind of emotional wallop it must still have deep down if it’s captivated so many for so long. But the secret power of Girls is how well the show soundtracks parties and social gatherings with songs that aren’t just catchy/aesthetically fitting, but also comment on the characters in question and on the show’s whole point, really. It’s way back there in Season 1—”Time to Pretend” plays in the pilot a little before Hannah drinks the opium tea, and LCD Soundsystem’s “I Can Change” echoes off the white walls of the gallery show where Marnie first meets Booth Jonathan. Hannah dances to Mark Ronson & the Business Intl’s “Bang Bang Bang” in a Bushwick warehouse while Shoshanna wanders around accidentally high on crack. (OK, maybe that song’s just catchy.)
The most striking uses of music in Season 2 both happen in parties, but they are very, very different scenes. One is an endorphin rush. Hannah and Elijah’s night-long coke binge peaks with an emphatic sequence set to Icona Pop’s “I Love It.” The camera fixates on Hannah and Elijah’s faces as they mouth along to Charli XCX singing things like “You’re from the ’70s/ But I’m a ’90s bitch.” Given how their friendship sours not long after, it’s easy to go back to this scene and view it uncomfortably, but regardless of all the circumstances surrounding it, for a moment it feels cathartic. It’s a far cry from a later episode, when Adam accompanies his new girlfriend Natalia to a gathering at a bar and, after a chance encounter with Hannah outside, winds up relapsing. Girls has shown characters doing stupid things while drunk or high, but accidental crack highs and one-night coke binges were mainly played for laughs. Adam’s alcoholism was one of the elements that helped add depth to the character originally, and the sequence of him drinking and dancing with Natalia set to Fiona Apple’s “Valentine” would be crushing even if it wasn’t followed by that disturbing sex scene. It’s a far journey from Icona Pop to Fiona Apple, and even as we’ve yet to see whether the relapse will be a major plot point for Adam, in that episode it feels like you watch a small tragedy unfold.
8. Mad Men Season 6
The use of music on Mad Men has always been impeccable. Weiner & co. have a way of picking songs that immediately evoke the era and the emotional state of these characters, while also managing to mainly avoid the too-obvious calling cards of your typical ’60s period piece. By mixing in the very famous with the more or less forgotten, Mad Men’s musical direction has not only felt authentic, but it’s deepened the world of the show. So, last year in Season 5 we finally got a Beatles song. “Tomorrow Never Knows” still sounds insane and it’s almost fifty years old, but instead of cuing it up for a trippy ’60s montage, Mad Men used it to express anxiety and disassociation. It’s one of the show’s best uses of music to date, and one of the first moments where the psychedelic turns of the latter half of the ’60s seep into Don Draper’s world. This year, with Season 6, the reigning mood wasn’t so much the artful dread and anxiety of past seasons. Rather, it was those qualities deadened into sweaty nausea and steady delirium. Fittingly, some of the best uses of music on Mad Men this year stayed psychedelic, tapped into the dark sprawl of its sixth season.
In an early episode, Joan goes to the Electric Circus and makes out with a stranger while Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot’s “Bonnie & Clyde” plays through the club. The tightly elliptical nature of its string part and those background vocals seem outside of their time—too persistent, looped. Even as it plays sensuously in the azures and violets of the club, that structure says something. It sounds like you’re spinning in place, which, of course, would eventually make you nauseous. The pace that song sets is picked up episodes later, during Don’s bad hashish experience in California. The Fly-Bi-Nites’ “Found Love” (a perfect example of something that immediately screams ’60s while not being as readily recognizable as like, Jimi Hendrix) haunts the air as Don’s death trip spirals out from an encounter with an apparition of his wife and of the soldier from Hawaii, and ends with him facedown in the pool. It’s a gripping, disturbing sequence, the sort you’d imagine would shake Don out of his stupor. He isn’t done sinking for the season, though, and there’s one more poignantly seasick bit of music in the Monkees’ “Porpoise Song” heard over the closing image of Don in the fetal position on his office couch in the final moments of “The Quality of Mercy.” For a lot of viewers, Season 6 was a hard one to swallow, for a host of reasons. The glamor of the ’60s is already giving way to the garish fallout of the ’70s—New York’s falling, Vietnam looms large, and everyone’s starting to sport comical sideburns and questionably colored sportcoats. It only makes sense that the music, too, would reflect Don’s sickening sway through a world that seems to be falling apart around him.
Deep inside the dense technicolor smog that is Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, there is some sort of meaning. It’s just hard to tell the difference sometimes between what the movie’s actually saying, what we think it’s saying, what it’s exploiting, or what we think it’s exploiting. Though its initially seems set up as a critique of our contemporary party culture, Korine casts a wider net—white appropriation of hip-hop culture, video games, drug culture, a willful disruption of the virginal Disney-fied pop diva machine. It all bleeds together into an American fever dream of pop iconography. For the score, Korine recruited Cliff Martinez—now visible for the influence of his Drive soundtrack—and Skrillex. How did those meetings go exactly? Is there any way Skrillex’s presence here is self-aware at all? That he’s in on the joke? Korine uses his music as the camera ogles bodies in slow motion, de-eroticizing and then dehumanizing them altogether, the screeches and wobbles of “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” soundtracking decontextualized flesh. Later, his “Goin’ Hard” mix of Birdy Nam Nam’s “Goin’ In” (which had by then been sampled for A$AP Rocky’s “Wild for the Night,” and sort of sounds unfinished without his verses) blasts as the female protagonists of Spring Breakers party in a hotel. Korine taps Skrillex’s music as an avatar for our eye-rolling at the EDM phenomenon, then pushes it headlong into synonymity with a disgust for American excess.
Through the movie, images and lines float back in and out, the repetitive build and release of dance music a fitting counterpart to movie’s blurry spiral. The recurring echo of a gun being cocked and the harshness of Skrillex’s synths contrast to the soft glow of Martinez’s score. There’s a formless unease to it, a neon haze in which Korine situates a handful of pop signifiers as little landmarks. Skrillex is the contemporary one. Britney Spears is the classic pop singer one—Korine’s erstwhile teen girl stars sing “…Baby One More Time,” and there’s an absurd montage set to the ballad “Everytime.” James Franco’s Alien is a twist on an even older pop icon, a white-guy rapper reflection of Gatsby (a friend recently pointed out how the now infamous “Look at my shit!” scene is a grungier version of the moment where Gatsby shows Daisy all of his shirts). It all culminates in an elegiac apotheosis of everything at once—Candy and Brit, clad in neon bikinis, storm Big Arch’s compound and murder his whole crew in a firefight set to an orchestral arrangement of “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites.” It’s a stunning sequence, right out of a video game indeed, but using visuals and symbolism of EDM, hip hop, and pop. No other movie this year used day-glo trashiness as effectively as Spring Breakers did in dismantling the American psyche.
6. Frances Ha — Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s A Winner” & David Bowie’s “Modern Love”
The soundtrack to Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is grab-bag of classical music and a smattering of retro pop choices. While some of it leans too whimsical, the great moments are some of the best this year, starting with the cinematic sweep of T. Rex’s “Chrome Sitar” doing a supporting role in the background at a party and following through to one of the most counter-intuitive uses of Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s A Winner” one could imagine. Baumbach stretches out the sequence with “Every 1’s A Winner” brilliantly. It first plays as Frances is on the plane to France, then fades and returns throughout the Paris scenes. It’s not quite a montage—there’s a decent break for Frances’ phone call with Sophie—but it plays as a sardonic theme for what is, at least till that point, Frances’ most listless and isolated moment.
If the funk-pop of “Every 1’s A Winner” is recontextualized so that its title hits with a sarcastic thud, David Bowie’s “Modern Love” becomes the sound of victory in Frances’ life. Earlier in the movie, after she’s just moved in with Benji and Lev and seems to be, for a moment, feeling a sense of direction, she runs giddily through Chinatown to Bowie’s infectious rhythm. Later, just when the movie feels as if it’s going to end with some too-cute piano, that guitar and drum intro to “Modern Love” comes in once more. This isn’t a particularly happy song. I’ve always felt like its genre falls somewhere in “Vaguely sad, vaguely remorseful dance party.” It feels jubilant at the end of Frances Ha, though. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent a few years as a twenty-something in New York, or maybe because I’ve developed an obsession with ’80s pop songs in that same timespan, but Baumbach’s use of “Modern Love” is one of my single favorite uses of music this year in one of my favorite movies of the year. A lot of the other material on this list was chosen for how it created a different world, surprised or enveloped the viewer. Frances Ha has a simple, relatable charm. In a black and white story focusing on directionless twenty-somethings in New York, distinctively ’80s tracks like “Modern Love” and “Every 1’s A Winner” should come off as ironic, or at least cheeky. Instead, they’re amongst the movies most emotive scenes. You feel this one.
5. The Americans Season 1
The Americans begins in cinematic fashion—a black screen simply saying “FX Presents” and the saxophone peal that introduces Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart.” Throughout its first season, the show alternated between musical choices that reflect the different genre conventions it weaves into its identity. The original score—all foreboding string swirls—has the requisite chilliness for a spy thriller, but the period-piece family drama at the core of the show is augmented by a handful of brilliant pop choices scattered throughout the thirteen episodes we have thus far. Occasionally, these worlds collide, as they did with a remarkable scene soundtracked by Pete Townshend’s “Rough Boys.” Seeking vengeance for the murder of General Zhukov, Elizabeth targets a high-level CIA man named Patterson and stakes out his favorite bar. He puts “Rough Boys” on the jukebox and approaches her; within the span the song’s four minutes, Elizabeth seduces Patterson, leads him into the bathroom, and as the song reaches its blaring final horn blasts, she beats him up and kidnaps him by shoving him out the bathroom window to Phillip, who’s waiting with the car. Within a single song’s length, you get the whole span of the show—how seamlessly Elizabeth functions within this world when she wants, how viciously she can break that facade when she needs.
Long before that episode, The Americans had already established it knew how to blend its drama with the pop of its era. Aside from the aforementioned use of “Harden My Heart,” the pilot episode had two other great music cues. There’s the layered complexity of the “In the Air Tonight” sequence, which progresses from Elizabeth and Phillip disposing of Timoshev’s body together to them having sex in their car, the first time we see the intricacies of their relationship and the shadowy borders between their assigned identities and their real personal connection. The pilot’s best moment, though, is the opening foot-chase set to Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk.” The score segues in on a drumbeat and an atmospheric guitar figure weaving through the “Tusk” chord progression as Phillip, Elizabeth, and Rob track Timoshev. When Timoshev bolts, “Tusk” begins in earnest, its frayed but inevitable groove making for shockingly apt music for an opening action sequence. Utilizing and extending the perpetual marching band build of “Tusk,” the chase intensifies as they subdue Timoshev, then race to deliver him to their contacts, then fail. Elizabeth angrily kicks the car door closed, the show’s title pops up for the first time, and the song abruptly cuts off. Not an hour into the series, and three pop songs later, we already know so much about these two protagonists and how they operate with one another. “Tusk,” in particular seems to capture the ever-rising tension of The Americans, and I still sort of feel like it should be the opening credits theme. The sequence sold me on the show immediately.
The scene itself isn’t available, but check out Pete Townshend’s “Rough Boys.”
4. The Bling Ring
The first time I saw The Bling Ring, I was inclined to agree with critics who argued Sofia Coppola had created what was essentially a very long music video—plenty of great, if sometimes expected, music sequences, but not enough content. The movie felt a little slight. Upon re-watching it for this piece, I was a lot more impressed; the movie’s shallower moments now seem intentional and crucial to its larger meaning. Sure, there’s a seemingly endless cycle of the same sort of scenes for such a short movie. Here they are driving and singing along to M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls”; here they are driving and singing along (and snorting coke to) Kanye’s “All of the Lights.” Here they are in the club dancing to Azaelia Banks’ “212,” now to Avicii. The empty cycle of it all is part of the point though, right?
Speaking of emptiness, what’s striking about Coppola’s use of music here is how, on first viewing, The Bling Ring can feel like a noisy succession of pop bangers meant to channel the superficiality of the protagonists’ lives. As it turns out, there’s liberal use of silence and ambience against which the pop songs stand out in sharp relief. The opening shots of the movie are totally quiet aside from the sounds of the sleepy neighborhood and of Rebecca, Marc, & co. climbing over the gate. “Let’s go shopping,” they proclaim, and the movie roars to life as soon as we first see them step inside a celebrity’s house, to the indelible riff and drum throb of Sleigh Bells’ “Crown on the Ground.” Later, there’s that stunning scene of them burglarizing Audrina Patridge’s house, shot entirely from outside the house’s glass walls and accompanied by no noise but the crickets. That exists alongside another break-in to the thumping krautrock of Can’s “Halleluwah.” That’s the common link between almost all the pop music here—the looped cycle of percussiveness and artificiality alike, the mechanical bloodlust. Elsewhere there’s just an ambient hum, an almost anti-score of abstraction when the club scene’s turned slow-mo, or when they break into Rachel Bilson’s house. These characters lives are turned on by the big flashy pop songs, but Coppola surrounds them in enough silence and formless synth beds to expose the massive void this whole story occurs in.
Even when she indulges in a few more on-the-nose choices, it’s just too well-executed to fault her. The gang walking down the sidewalk to Kanye West’s “Power,” adorned in possessions stolen from celebrities or bought with stolen money, is one of the movie’s most enduring images. And, sure, Phoenix’s “Bankrupt!” and Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids” play over the credits, but the way Phoenix’s synths are edited to sound like an intro for Ocean’s song is just too brilliant to pass up. Even if Coppola’s music usage is all about surface style this time around, that ironically just gives The Bling Ring more to say.
3. Grand Theft Auto V
Is there any other game series that has the footprint of the Grand Theft Auto franchise right now? Is there any other contemporary piece of art that does? From the moment Rockstar released the first trailer—visions of the new Los Santos, the Small Faces’ bite-size psychedelic epic “Ogden’s Gone Nut Flake” playing under Michael’s monologue about giving the American Dream a shot but turning back to crime instead—it was clear Grand Theft Auto V was going to be an event. And that it would maintain the series’ impeccable music curation that had already given us classic moments like those Vice City commercials with A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran (So Far Away).” The instincts of the minds behind GTA have succeeded time and again in putting together soundtracks that are simultaneously familiar enough to remind us of the time and places they’ve drawn inspiration from, but also thorough enough to feel like their own, self-sufficient worlds.
You spend a lot of time driving in GTA, and in previous installments the content of GTA’s radio stations has always been the focus. That tradition continues here on a whole new level. Flying Lotus plays DJ for one station; Soulwax for another. My personal favorite is Vinewood Boulevard Radio, a station hosted by Wavves’ Nate Williams and Stephen Pope and featuring a scuzzy selection of garage- and psych-inflected indie rock from the likes of Thee Oh Sees and the Black Angels. Wavves themselves contributed a glorious piece of slack-jawed stoner rock with “Nine Is God,” which is a better track than anything on the record they released this year. My radio was usually tuned to this station, but there are plenty of gems hidden elsewhere, some great listening and some just adding to the satire of GTA’s world. It’s a wonder that the franchise has had the restraint to wait until now to include Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time.”
But as extensive and predictably impressive as GTA V’s radio selection turned out to be, the new achievement of this installment in the series is how music is woven more seamlessly into the overall atmosphere of the game. There are the perfect little touches of how each character’s cars are always tuned to a station that reflects their age and personality, or how Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls” plays in Trevor’s strip club safehouse. For the first time, there’s also a score (primarily handled by Tangerine Dream) that plays during missions, police chases, and gunfights. This means GTA V’s music manages to achieve two goals seemingly at odds with each other: its game world at once feels more cinematic and more believable. You can live inside it, but it still provides all the fantasy you want out of a video game. From a soundtracking standpoint, maybe GTA V has an unfair advantage—you inevitably spend more hours with it than with a movie or a TV show. But that also means more pressure to draw us in, and the depth and variety of its music only succeeded in furthering the immersive potential of the game.
2. American Hustle
In the reviews of David O. Russell’s new American Hustle, admirers and detractors alike have described it as Russell doing a Scorsese riff. Fair enough, American Hustle has the same scope, the same fast-talking megalomaniacs, the same Big American Ideas in the Big American Century at its core just as many Scorsese movies do. But Russell’s version is unapologetically cartoonized ’70s bloat. I wouldn’t mind hearing Led Zeppelin in one of Russell’s movies, but that’s not the kind of film American Hustle is. Instead, Russell prefers ’70s hits that are as immortal and infectious as they are cheesy and seedy. He doesn’t shy away from what, in less poptimistic times, would’ve been deeply uncool choices even for a period piece, and he walks away with a whole clutch of super-memorable music cues. There’s a maybe-obligatory inclusion of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” underpinning Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams’ trip to the discotheque. There’s Christian Bale and Jeremy Renner drunkenly singing along to Tom Jones’ “Delilah.” A spotlight absurdly explodes, and Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams dramatically walk through the smoke as Elton John keens those high notes in the chorus of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” The drugged out horn squawks of the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” float above Jeremy Renner playing tour guide through a casino. There is the high-camp of Jennifer Lawrence singing and dancing along to “Live and Let Die” as she frenetically cleans her living room, her son looking on, entranced and flabbergasted.
Any of these alone would be enough to guarantee American Hustle a spot on this list, but then there’s that Electric Light Orchestra song. Goddamn, that song. I’m talking about “10538 Overture,” a bombastic, string-driven epic that has become the de facto theme of American Hustle much in the same way as the Heavy’s “How You Like Me Now?” did for The Fighter. It was used in the second, superior trailer for American Hustle, those slashing strings hitting all the clips of “Here’s where things get crazy” that happen at the end of all trailers—Christian Bale raising a gun, Bradley Cooper breaking out into a frantic sweat, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence stalking around like the force of nature women they are. It’s hard to tell what you should want when a song is used so well in a preview for a movie. Can it possibly have the same impact when not playing over a succession of the movie’s most dramatic images, but over just another scene? But if it isn’t used, does it feel like something’s missing, since you’ve already incorporated its tone into your perception of the film’s DNA? When “10538 Overture” does finally pop up in American Hustle, it’s in a too-brief but crucial moment: the beginning of the scam, when the supposed sheik steps onto the tarmac. Its power is reserved to signal the beginning of the fiction that drives the movie’s plot. Thankfully, it does return for a bigger spotlight—playing over Bale’s final wrap-up monologue in the movie’s last moments. If this is Russell’s Scorsese homage, that moment is his “Layla.” From now on, every time I do something I think is badass or dramatic, I want “10538 Overture” playing in the background.
1. Breaking Bad’s Final Season
Breaking Bad would’ve been near the top of this list for one moment—you know it, and we’ll get to it soon—but when it came to talk about the show’s last eight episodes, it became evident that not only was there a sort of trilogy of musical moments in its final three episodes that were amongst the most unique and most narratively influential of any of these other soundtrack moments, but also that it was time to honor the series’ excellent use of music as a whole. Like some of the other entries on this list, Breaking Bad’s music choices stood out for how sharply they contrasted to the rest of its world. The sparse percussion of certain intense scenes—an electronic stand-in for the frightened heartbeats it might inspire in its viewers—wove in between confrontations where the silence itself seemed to scream. After you watch any of Walt’s darkest moments in the final season, and consider the yawning, unforgiving nothingness that surrounds them, just try to go back and watch a typical network drama with traditional music cues. It’s hard. It reminds you of just how exceptional this show was. Months later, I’m still in withdrawal, sitting there bitter when a lesser show fails to do what Breaking Bad made look so easy in terms of atmosphere, how expertly the show manipulated sound.
But, I imagine, it wasn’t easy. Or, at least, they had to work towards it. Due to the Point A—Point B structure that generally defines Breaking Bad, it built towards an inevitable conclusion, picking up more and more detritus along the way. Part of the reason its musical choices struck so deep was because of how well the show cultivated and deepened its identity as it went on. Its idiosyncratic choice in pop music was perfect for its heightened, semi-alternate reality.
The recent classics are the ones most readily remembered. Finally, a meth-cooking montage set to Tommy James & the Shondells’ “Crystal Blue Persuasion” in the first half of Season 5. Or a two minute montage of Mike’s informants being murdered in jail to the smooth sounds of Nat King Cole & George Shearing’s “Pick Yourself Up,” as Walt, now the kingpin, stares out his window. Those song’s represent the show’s tendency to soundtrack dark material with some old-time, often discordantly bouncy pop music. They did the same thing in a Season 3 episode that opens with a montage of Wendy, the methhead prostitute, turning tricks at her motel while the Association’s jangly “Windy” plays. Thee Oh Sees’ druggy surf-rock “Tidal Wave” plays at the pool party as Don Eladio and all his men begin to collapse from the poison Gus had given them. These songs remind you the show always had strains of black comedy, and can sometimes be paradoxically darker than using more noticeably bleak music . When the show did go more foreboding musically, it was gripping. The Season 2 scene where Walt threatens would-be competitors in a department store parking lot is one of those early badass Heisenberg moments—before such moments became terrifying—and it’s perfectly accompanied by TV on the Radio’s “DLZ.” In Season 4, Jesse’s reeling from having murdered Gale, screaming as he drives alone around a go-kart track, sitting numb amongst the drug den he’s let his house become, all to the brooding Fever Ray song “If I Had a Heart.” Back then, it was hard to imagine the show getting darker than it already was.
Of course, it had further to go. Those last eight episodes were some of the most unrelenting and exhilarating TV out there, making good on the rare premise that literally everything that had happened over the course of the series was culminating here. Fittingly, even as storm clouds settled comfortably over the whole of the remaining eight episodes, Breaking Bad’s diverse music selection stayed on course. There were still sly winks, like Todd’s meth lab playing Steve Perry’s “Oh, Sherrie,” or when his phone rings moments later and we find out that the ringtone he has assigned to Walt is Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science.” These uncool pop moments are more sinister now, though, when we see Todd as a character who is potentially going to hurt the characters we love; “Oh, Sherrie” plays like a funhouse soundtrack to the villain’s world.
From a musical standpoint, the last season’s triumph was in the trilogy referenced above—the Limeliters’ “Take My True Love By the Hand” in “Ozymandias,” the extended Breaking Bad Theme in “Granite State,” and, of course, Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” in “Felina.” Each defined one of the last three episodes of the series. The Limeliters song marks one ending of Breaking Bad. After watching Jack murder Hank out in the middle of the desert, Walt is alone pushing his last remaining barrel of money through the barren landscape. “Say goodbye to everyone you know,” the Limeliters croon, and true enough “Ozymandias” is the episode where Walt’s fake empire finally crumbles entirely, and his family casts him out. In many ways, that is where Breaking Bad as we know it ends, “Granite State” and “Felina” functioning as a sort of post-script. “Granite State” too could’ve served as a deserved end for Walt—to slowly die alone in remote New Hampshire, with no final knowledge of his family’s fate. Just when he has resigned himself by going to a bar and calling himself into the police, that hybrid of Walt/Heisenberg pride gets triggered once more when he sees his old associates Gretchen and Elliot on TV with Charlie Rose, trying to downplay their former friend’s legacy. This moment is key, the only time we hear the twang of the Breaking Bad theme in its extended form during the entire series’ run. It’s where Breaking Bad transitions from the entirely bleak ending we had arrived at, and into a postmodern Wild West legend.
It all ends with Badfinger’s “Baby Blue.” After Walt’s final showdown with the neo-Nazis, after Jesse makes his desperate escape. It’s just Walt alone in the meth lab, serenely but eerily glancing upon the clean silver surfaces through which he created his product, and thus created himself. “Guess I got what I deserve,” the song begins, perfectly, as Walt stands there bleeding out. The chorus hits just as Walt falls to the ground, “The special love I had for you, my baby blue” sung as we see Walt’s dead, distantly content face as the camera zooms up. Some critics felt it was more of an outlaw’s death than Walt deserved, but the series always had to have this moment, just as much as it needed the fallout of “Ozydmandias.” Coupling them together, and parsing the details of “Felina,” reveals how it’s an outlaw’s death still shot through with contemporary tragedy. And it’s soundtracked by a band that was supposed to be the next Beatles, but ended in failure and with its singer’s suicide. I can think of no music moment as layered or emotional from this year. I can think of no ending more perfect for Breaking Bad, one of our greatest shows.