2014 In Review

The 20 Best Soundtrack Moments Of 2014

10. St. Vincent – Bob Dylan, “Shelter From The Storm”

I still wish the credits sequence of St. Vincent — in which Bill Murray’s Vincent McKenna walks into his backyard, sneaks a smoke, and mutters along to Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From The Storm” — was attached to a greater film. St. Vincent was mostly solid, but it wasn’t a classic, and if it had been, I feel like this small scene could’ve been inducted into the pantheon of all-time great Bill Murray moments. Of course, that’s kind of the thing about it: This is a scene that works because it’s Bill Murray, and we know and love Bill Murray, and this almost just plays out as a short of some kind, our beloved aging uncle chilling out in the backyard with some Dylan. Being more or less a child of the internet era, I’m no less susceptible to adoration for Bill Murray’s late-career resurgence as a kind of mercurial indie hero prone to random, bound-to-go-viral public appearances, so there’s a pretty heavy filter to the experience of this particular bit of Murray ephemera. Still, because of all that, it’s just as charming as it was in October, and has its own quietly moving power to it.

9. Boyhood

There’s a weird paradox with Boyhood’s use of music: It’s enveloping when you’re sitting there watching the movie, literally seeing these people age over 12 years and the songs that mark the steps along that path, but it doesn’t have a ton of its own memorable music cues. Like Wild, Boyhood uses music to trace experience and memory, a few notes here and there might resurrect a face you can no longer recognize, or some other blurry childhood image. There’s no denying the inherent power that comes with that. It’s a hell of a moving experience, because even if you were nothing like this kid, there is probably no way in which this film doesn’t make you dig into your own memory while you’re watching it or as soon as you leave the theater. On that note, then, my opinion’s the same as it was in July: Those Arcade Fire songs steal the show. Hearing “Suburban War” start as Mason and his girlfriend drive to Austin evokes all those searching, restless elements of youth, but it doesn’t feel nostalgic. It remains a viewing experience that’s both viscerally immediate for how it draws you back into your own life, but also ineffable and hard to pin down — again, for how it draws you back into your own life.

8. The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby – Orchestral Manouevres In The Dark, “So In Love”

It’s a small touch in the grand scheme of the movie or amongst a lot of the more dominant moments on this list, but given what surrounds it, the scene in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby where Connor and Eleanor dance outside the car to OMD’s “So In Love” still totally levels me.

7. Land Ho!– Big Country, “In A Big Country”

Out of all the movies and TV shows on this list, Land Ho! is perhaps the smallest, most intimate of the bunch. It’s a quiet film about two old guys, ex-brothers-in-law, who go on a trip to Iceland together. The two couldn’t be more different — Colin is a soft-spoken Australian and still licking his wounds from a recent divorce (which followed the death of his first wife), and Mitch is a roughened Southerner, abrasive in an avuncular way and with an affinity for weed and turning everything into a lewd comparison. It’s one of my favorite movies of the year. When I first saw it in July, that might’ve been partially rooted in anticipation — I knew I’d be going to Iceland for the first time in November, and I was swept up in how the movie so often lingers on images of the Icelandic countryside. But Land Ho! also closes with one of my favorite soundtrack moments in recent memory.

After a brief scene where Mitch and Colin survey the land, Mitch assures his old friend: “Good times are still a-comin.'” Meaning, on their trip, but it’s also a vote of confidence after a film’s worth of their conversations dancing around being old, obsolete, whatever. After Mitch says it, there’s a quick cut to the two of them walking into the Blue Lagoon (an outdoor geothermal spa situation), robes on, drinks in hand, earning smiles and winks from cute girls in the water, Mitch throwing this goofy pistol sign with his hand, all as Big Country’s “In A Big Country” comes back for a major reprise after its briefer showing earlier in the movie. It’s a great little scene, and deservedly cinematic after a mostly restrained, realistic depiction of the trip. Besides “In A Big Country” being a favorite of mine and the scene just coming together so well, the sequence lingered with me throughout the latter half of the year. In November, I walked around Reykjavik listening to “In A Big Country” constantly. When I drove around the countryside a bit, I watched the sun set off one of those Icelandic beaches with black sand, then drove away over a hill and into an old lava field. “In A Big Country” came on right around then, those drum hits and guitars-aping-bagpipes feeling as life-affirming then as they did in Land Ho!. My trip was almost over at that point, but Mitch’s quote echoed in my head that night: Good times are still a-comin’.

6. The Americans Season 2

For a program about two Russian spies living undercover as a married couple in early-’80s D.C., unknown even to their American children, The Americans is a fittingly paced show — intricately calibrated, coldly incisive. That being said, what makes the Cold War drama so special — what makes it one of the best shows on TV, that is — is how it manages to take the tension and stark claustrophobia of its setting and get at real, deep human themes. If you’ve followed or read about the show at all this point, you’re probably familiar with the fact that it’s really a drama about marriage. You relate to Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, giving some of the most overlooked performances on TV), and you relate to their neighbor Stan Beeman, the FBI agent who’s looking for undercover Russian spies without realizing they live across the street, because of their relationships; Stan and Philip relate to each other for the same reason. But Season 2 took it that much further, delving into the relationship between a married couple and their growing children. Specifically: Once the kids get old enough to start having fully-developed personalities and thoughts of their own, they’ll start to notice something’s off with their parents, and how do Philip and Elizabeth proceed? Paige and Henry have been raised as actual Americans. Chances are, there’s no way to preserve this family if any bit of the truth comes out.

The major music moments were few and parsed out carefully this season, but they foreshadowed some seriously dark revelations in the final episode. It all goes back to teasers from early this year, abstract commercials featuring Philip and Elizabeth twisting and turning in bed until their smeared bodies turned into a shadowy hammer and sickle, all while Sting’s “Russians” played and built toward the inevitable line “I hope the Russians love their children, too.” That was all groundwork, reestablishing the chilly atmosphere of the show. Then, in “The Walk In,” the third episode of the season, there was the stunning concluding scenes, almost entirely devoid of dialogue, set to almost the entirety of Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes The Flood.” It showed the four Jennings family members solitary, distant from one another, mainly focusing on Elizabeth burning the letter she promised Leanne, another embedded agent, that she would give her son Jared in the event that Leanne and her husband Emmett were ever murdered, which is what happened in the season’s first episode. At the time, there wasn’t much to care about with Leanne and Emmett — the power of the scene came in watching Elizabeth do this, and thinking what sort of approaching flood might be coming for her own family.

While these were striking moments on their own as the season progressed, it’s in hindsight where they become really unsettling and evocative, at the point where you realize how precisely these moments were deployed to set up your expectations in a certain way. In the season finale, we find out that Leanne and Emmett were in fact murdered by Jared, the one meant to receive the letter Elizabeth burned, because the KGB had turned him and his parents had objected. (The fact that he also murdered his sister, and the fact that part of how he was swayed to the cause was his infatuation with the Soviet handler Kate, makes the whole thing that much darker and shattering.) And they have hopes to do the same for Paige; it’s a part of their new initiative for a second generation of even more deeply embedded agents. Adopting Sting’s “Russians” line already made for a nice little complex reflection of the questions of national identity and loyalty that the show raises; now, at the end of the season, we realize the flood’s already here and the whole question of who loves who in the kid/embedded parent agent equation could get a lot messier. As always, The Americans wound up being impressively thorny thematically and narratively, but it works so well because the show seems to move effortlessly. Everyone involved seems to have total control of what they’re doing. That definitely goes for its musical decisions this season as well, which linger disturbingly, probably exactly as they were intended.

5. The Leftovers Season 1 – James Blake’s “Retrograde”

Back in April, HBO released the teaser for its new show The Leftovers. And it was totally entrancing. Set to James Blake’s “Retrograde,” it featured enough foreboding and action and stunning imagery to suggest a whole season, and it turns out all that was packed into the first episode. Some critics took issue with The Leftovers’ near-unwavering brooding, its near-belligerent bleakness to some a sign of the negative fallout of prestige TV’s developing legacy. Shows have to go dark, have to go heavy, to be taken seriously, etc., etc. Well, I was onboard with this show from the start (maybe I have the benefit of never having watched Lost, and not having the same lack of trust in showrunner Damon Lindelof). The Leftovers’ darkness does make it tough to binge-watch; each episode demands a lot emotionally, and can certainly take its toll. But, still: It’s a richly acted and written darkness, one worth luxuriating in once a week. Musically, the show often opted for sarcastic placement of songs far too pleasant for the environments they were now heard in, whether old soul tracks or boozy blues riffs. The moments where the music matched the tone of the show, however, were crushing.

After the teaser used “Retrograde,” the pilot also made use of it too, soundtracking the tense moments leading up to a remembrance day for those that disappeared in the show’s catalyst, a Rapture-like event. It’s also an event bound to be ruined by the Guilty Remnant cult’s protest. Where the teaser’s impact was located in how it was edited just right — portentous lines delivered over the unsettling build of “Retrograde” — the pilot lets it play out, with no dialogue. It has its own power, but the teaser is so expertly put together that it still might be the most effective use of music The Leftovers has yet to offer. That’s not to say there weren’t more to follow. Soon after that “Retrograde” sequence, all hell does break loose at the ceremony, and Fuck Buttons’ “Sweet Love For Planet Earth” provides what Fuck Buttons is really good at providing: some aural equivalent of the fabric of human existence and society getting worn away by the brutal insistence of nature. A similar rupture comes up in the season finale, when the Guilty Remnant exits their compound to an orchestral version of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters,” and you just know all hell’s about to really break loose this time. (It does.) Still, there’s a special quality to that first teaser, seemingly giving away so much but only barely hinting at what was to come in this season. It worked up so much anxiety in the best way, and even though HBO’s giving the show a truncated second season, I imagine it’ll continue to deliver.

4. Guardians Of The Galaxy

There seems to be a slight age gap when it comes to the soundtrack for Guardians Of The Galaxy. People older than me — say, old enough to remember these songs as new, from when they were children — don’t seem as taken with James Gunn loading up this space opera with occasionally ridiculous ’70s music. Others cried “Tarantino-lite.” Somewhat understandably, those fatigued by All Marvel Everything could’ve seen it as one more crass Illuminati plot for global domination: The zaniness mixed with nostalgia that is Guardians’ soundtrack made it a really successful product in its own right, a nice little bonus tacked on to the movie’s impressive box office haul. To all of which I say: Whatever. Guardians Of The Galaxy was some of the most fun I had watching anything this year, and that soundtrack played a significant role in that.

Matching with the ridiculously good banter between the central characters, the movie’s fixation on ’70s music only adds to the inherent and appealing goofiness of the whole thing. Here’s a faux-serious sci-fi intro of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) entering a cavern and turning on Redbone’s “Come And Get Your Love” so he can dance around using alien lizards as a mic. And the moments pile up from there: Quill’s prison escape to “(Escape) The Pina Colada Song,” David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” as the crew flies into Knowhere, the building-up-to-the-final-battle walk to the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb.” Everything here is just so vibrant: the crazy spectrum of colors, the big, crunchy ’70s cheesiness of the music. Even as someone who likes following all the minutiae of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, Guardians Of The Galaxy was a welcome thing: Its music might be old and at times nostalgic, but it’s deployed in such a weird setting, with such weird characters, that it helped make the whole movie one of the fresher, more exciting things to watch in 2014.

3. Mad Men Season 7A

A few weeks ago, I started to re-watch the entirety of Mad Men, and some things immediately struck me. I had forgotten Don Draper used to really be alluring, that he had an impossible charm that hooked everyone on the show and all of us viewers. There was, after all, a reason we wound up following him down more repulsive pathways as the show’s latter seasons have worn on. The whole show had this stately glamor back then. It might’ve hammered home the racism and sexism of the early ’60s, but there was also an inescapably enticing element to it all. Here’s Manhattan and America in glory days, stylish and rich. Back then, there was a lot of jazz in the score, lightly dancing beneath the whole thing and giving it this playful step. Even with the earlier seasons’ darker moments, those first episodes have the quality of just inviting you to come hang out with these people, in this time, before the show steadily amplified the drama.

The Mad Men we arrived at for this year’s first half of Season 7 is a much different show. This isn’t a universally held opinion, but to me the things Mad Men has done wrong add up to a very, very short list; the repetition of wallowing in Don’s slow and steady decline is all part of the point. What’s remarkable about how Mad Men has depicted these characters, over seven years of our lives and through one of the most dynamic and tumultuous and imagination-grabbing decades in American history, is how the show itself has adapted along the way. It’s become more brazenly stylish, playing with its format and focus here and there to reflect the changes in the society it’s talking about. This, naturally, includes music — if you haven’t heard, the ’60s are quite a mythologized decade, musically. Looking back at that first season of Mad Men, it’s hard to compute that it’d be the show to use the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” in a montage come Season 5.

Brilliant musical moments have piled up as Mad Men has progressed, from the Nashville Teens’ “Tobacco Road” closing the first episode of Season 4, to “You Only Live Twice” closing Season 5, to an obscurity like the Fly-Bi-Nites’ “Found Out” soundtracking Don’s bad trip at a Hollywood party in Season 6. But few matched two that occurred in Season 7’s first half. In the first episode, when we first see Don again as he arrives in California, the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m A Man” plays. Later in the season, when he and Peggy reach some kind of reconciliation, they dance to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” on the radio. Mad Men, of course, has a way with symbolism and intricately layered scenes. From a musical standpoint, these were some of its greatest achievements in that regard. Both of these scenes were so complex, said so much about these characters now and where they’d been together in the past. That’s the benefit of making it to a seventh season and maintaining the quality Mad Men has: When you build up that kind of momentum, these moments feel huge and rewarding. They’re great songs, they’re great scenes, but they have some extra-special something for this big tapestry they get to play within.

2. Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies have good trailers. The trailers for The Master were like little pieces of art in themselves, weird and suggestive and with every shot looking like a painting. When the Inherent Vice trailer dropped in out of nowhere in September, it was another masterpiece. The kaleidoscope of scenes and characters here, cut quick as if in one big conversation with another, gets at the zany, convoluted, hazily druggy vibe of the film. As Anderson makes his way through a bunch of films chronicling America in the 20th century, this is of course the one dealing with hallowed material (a minor Pychon novel, but still Pynchon) and the fallout from a hallowed era — while Mad Men’s song choices point it toward the encroaching end of the ’60s and the fallout of the ’70s, Inherent Vice is just a bit ahead on the calendar. Sly & The Family Stone’s “I Want To Take You Higher” was the main song in the trailer, and it’s one of the single best music moments of the year. That’s a song that can get you amped up if you hear it alone, but in this context it shudders. It’s the sound of the unraveling, loopy America depicted in Inherent Vice.

The film itself is more sprawling and maybe a little slower than the trailer would suggest. It’s never boring, though, always colorful and bizarre and idiosyncratic. But it does travel at more of a lope than that trailer would suggest, more of a confusedly steady pulse through an increasingly weird zig-zag of a story. To that end, Can’s “Vitamin C” is the perfect opening song, clattering to life as Shasta pulls away from Doc’s street and he walks away, the big neon Inherent Vice logo flashing onto the screen, covering him. The song persists in the background, like a lot of songs do in this movie — again, that druggy, loopy pulse. The thing about Inherent Vice is it balances this gonzo degradation of America coming into the ’70s with a pang of nostalgia. There are characters here that’d certainly miss the ’60s, that would still believe in that dream. So there’s some really poignant music in here, too, from the sunburnt guitar lines in Johnny Greenwood’s score to one scene in particular backed by Neil Young’s “Journey Into The Past.” It’s a flashback to the halcyon days of Doc’s relationship with Shasta, with them running through a rainy street looking for drugs and then collapsing into a storefront to kiss. But that’s tarnished nostalgia, because we know where their relationship went and we know the ’60s didn’t keep running. Whatever journey into the past Anderson’s currently on himself (this, though far different in tone, is his third 20th century period piece in a row following There Will Be Blood and The Master), it’s a rewarding one: the images and sounds of Inherent Vice combine into a gorgeously broken vision of a lost American era.

1. True Detective

When something has the out-of-nowhere, meteoric rise of fervent internet attention and speculation that True Detective did, there’s bound to be some blowback. As the show’s eight episodes unfolded, and in the wake of it ending, critics argued its depiction of women was misogynistic, that the show took Rust Cohle’s hack philosophy too seriously, that there was a lot of depressive flash covering up tired substance. This is another instance where I was sold from the first episode, and was totally willing to let this warped show engulf me for its entire run, perhaps aside from a mildly disappointing ending. (It really says something about where this show took my expectations that the relief and surprise of a happy ending somehow qualified as “mildly disappointing.”) Like Fargo and The Leftovers, True Detective was another of 2014’s new shows that arrived with a very clear idea of itself, even more so than either of the former. There are all sorts of reasons for this, between the fact that Cary Fukunaga directed every episode with crazy impressive grace and precision in the dilapidated Louisiana setting, and that showrunner/creator Nic Pizzolatto wrote every episode himself. But the reason True Detective sits at #1 this year is, of course, that T Bone Burnett’s music supervision also played a fundamental role, giving us a handful of brilliant soundtrack moments.

One thing has stayed true since February: The moment that really hooked me on True Detective, the moment where I sat there and unequivocally thought, “Yeah, this is how TV should be made,” was when the Black Angels’ “Young Men Dead” kicked in right after 2012 Rust — Matthew McConaughey in steady McConaissance, with grungey long hair and smoking inside and daytime sixpacks of Lone Star — tells the two detectives to “start asking the right fucking questions.” The riff of “Young Men Dead” never fails to impress, even as many years as it’s been around now: It always gets the blood boiling, or conversely always brings a chill to your skin. It’s the kind of song that just says shit is going to go down, and doesn’t wait for you to get prepared for it before it’s scuzzy downbeat crashes in. Part of the weird thing about all the attention that was paid to True Detective is that this built up in only eight weeks; it wasn’t like that at all for the first few episodes. When this first episode aired and this “Young Men Dead” moment happened, it was just a gut punch notifying you of this vicious new show with two movie stars hanging around.

The atmosphere of dread was well-maintained throughout the subsequent seven episodes, occasionally veering towards the hallucinogenic, playing at Rust’s history of drug abuse as well as the eerier, more mythological portents that hung around the story. There was that opening theme, the Handsome Family’s bleary “Far From Any Road” playing over all sorts of creepy shadow images of the characters and their landscape. Unsettling discoveries were accompanied by unsettling, otherworldly songs, like the 13th Floor Elevators’ “Kingdom Of Heaven when Rust finds the church mural at the end of the second episode, or the Bosnian Rainbows’ “Eli” when he looks through the school at the end of the fifth. Over the course of the season, the music selections ranged from this side of things, to drunkenly down and out country, to visceral waves of id, all of it mixing together to sum up the universe True Detective had sketched out. The fourth episode alone packed in more variety in its music use than most shows do in general: a plaintive sequence set to Lucinda Williams’ “Are You Alright?” leads to the Melvins’ “A History Of Bad Men” at a biker club, leads to Wu Tang Clan’s “Clan In Da Front” and Grinderman’s “Honey Bee” bracketing that still totally insane tracking shot that closed the episode.

I remember reading somewhere, at some point, that the music in True Detective was “too cool” or something. That the choices were more reflective of an overly savvy music supervisor than they were of the songs that people would actually be listening to. That’s insane! This is a damn good TV show, with damn good music in it. Its music choices might not have been totally real to our world, but they’re very real to True Detective’s. Considering the show was always a surreal, disturbing portrait of America’s fringe, of the darker corners we’d rather look away from, everything from the shoegaze drones of “Eli” to the sludgy stomp of “Honey Bee” to that first kick in the face courtesy of the Black Angels was masterfully curated, a key piece in what True Detective achieved.