Considering we live in the ‘Golden Age of TV’, it’s a little strange that we still revere movie composers above their small screen contemporaries. If all that binge-time during the Covid-19 pandemic made one thing clear, it’s that all the greatest showed have one important thing in common: an excellent control of music.
Broadly speaking, there seem to be three main soundtrack types that dominate the world of TV. The first is the traditional score, in which the composer’s job is to come up with a selection of original musical cues. Then, there’s the song score, in which the bulk of the music has been hewn from the pop music archives. And then, there are those shows that blend the two, combining original cues with recognisable tracks from music history.
Of course, the brilliant thing about TV is that it is freed from the limitations of the film industry – dancing to its own rhythm. As such, a couple of shows in this list do not conform to any of the above categories. In these shows, the power of TV to revitalise the world of film is the clearest of all. So, without further ado, join us as we bring you our top ten TV soundtracks of all time.
The 10 best TV soundtracks:
10. Sex Education
The soundtrack to Netflix’s immensely successful high-school comedy-drama Sex Education doesn’t attempt to convey a particular period – rather, it jumps around the musical timeline, picking up tracks as it sees fit.
Perhaps because Sex Education is set in a sem-fictional version of Britain, where English-accented students attend an American-style high school in the Welsh countryside, the music rarely fixes on one key period. That being said, there’s a heavy emphasis on music from the ’80s, with the likes of A-ha, Billy Idol, The The, The Smiths, Flock Of Seagulls popping up time and time again. Sex Education also boasts a roster of original tracks from the pen of former Vampire Weekend frontperson Ezra Furman.
9. Bojack Horseman
Bojack Horseman has made hits of long-forgotten and new releases alike. Set in an alternative animated universe populated by humanoid animals, Bojack Horseman tells the story of Bojack, a forgotten ’90s sitcom actor who is trying to make a comeback.
Not only does Bojack Horseman have one of the best opening title scores in animated TV history – thank you Jesse Novak – but it also has a rich tradition of featuring excellent closing songs, including Courtney Barnett’s ‘Avant Gardener’, Kevin Morby’s ‘Parade’, Cocteau Twins ‘Heaven or Las Vegas’ and countless others.
The science fiction series Humans follows Joe as he buys a refurbished Synth, a highly-developed robot, intending to help his wife, Laura, out in the house. Neither of them is able to predict the extent to which the Synth will impact their lives.
The show’s composer, Cristobal Tapia de Veer, is one of the most inventive and experimental composers in the game. For Humans, he crafted an immersive electronic score that combines digital instrumentation with samples of character dialogue, resulting in a score that is at once highly rhythmic, organic, and codified.
7. Mad Men
Mad Men takes place at a moment of American cultural acceleration. It’s only right, then, that the soundtrack evokes that same sense of optimism that defined the period.
Music plays an essential part in Mad Men not only because it roots Don Draper and Co. firmly in the ever-shifting trends of the 1960s – the director made a rule that no character should hear a song before they could have heard it on the radio – but because it also functions as a way of narrating the inner life of characters. Highlights include The Beatles, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan, and the king of exotica, Martin Denny.
Donald Glover’s critically acclaimed series Atlanta follows Earn (Donald Glover) as he and his cousin Alfred, an incoming rapper, try to make a name for themselves in the world of music – all while Earn is struggling to provide for his child and lover.
As you would expect from a series made by a rapper about a rapper, one of the best things about Atlanta is the soundtrack, which features hip hop gems by the likes of Migos, OutKast, Future, Young Thug, 21 Savage, as well as nu-soul and jazz numbers by Kamasi Washington, Erykah Badu and more.
How could we not include this? The hospital comedy Scrubs was something of a hitmaker in its day, establishing the career of Zach Braff’s best friend Joshua Radin, whose track ‘Winter’ was used to tear-jerking effect in season three when Dr Cox’s friend Ben (Brendan Fraser) dies of cancer.
‘Winter’ is a fitting example of showrunner Bill Lawrence using exactly the right song at exactly the right time, heightening the emotion in a scene without the need for dialogue. Other famous examples include The Coral’s ‘Dreaming Of You’, Colin Haye’s ‘It’s A Beautiful World’, Nina Simone’s ‘Sinnerman’, and Peter Gabriel’s cover of ‘The Book Of Love’
In Homecoming, we follow the life of a caseworker at a facility that helps soldiers transition back to civilian life. After she leaves to start a new life, she moves in with her mother and starts working as a waitress in the small town she grew up.
Emile Mosseri’s phenomenal score is an atmospheric swirl of piano, atonal string sections and Hermannian brass arrangments. Mosseri is one of the most talented melodic composers out there, capable of crafting distinct and memorable themes with ease, all of which are underpinned by his unique orchestrations.
3. Stranger Things
Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon’s soundtrack for Stranger Things is a perfect example of using music to locate the action in a specific timeframe and location In this case, that’s Indiana in the 1980s.
With the mesmeric analogue synth work of Stein and Dixon and a selection of recognisable chart hits of the period, Stranger Things overflows with retro kitsch appeal. However, it is Dixon and Stein’s remarkable ability to compose strong, memorable themes within strict parameters that has made the soundtrack to Stranger Things so iconic.
2. Band of Brothers
Released in 2001, Band Of Brothers follows Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division from 1942 to the end of World War II. The phenomenal score, composed by Michael Kaman, is a rousing orchestral masterpiece evoking the lush arrangements of Aaron Copeland. The score is made all the poignant by the fact that Kaman died just two years after Band Of Brothers aired.
The composer was required to score ten full hours of music for Band Of Brothers, no easy take in anyone’s book. Rather than going for a more traditional, period war film score, he chose to pursue a more sober and reflective tone, emphasising the tragedy of war. While the enormous sound of the London Metropolitan Orchestra is undoubtedly stirring, so of the most tender moments come when Kaman uses nothing more than a solo piano or a string quartet.
1. Twin Peaks
Angelo Badalamenti’s era-defining score for David Lynch’s Twin Peaks has haunted the landscape of TV music for over 30 years. The show tells the story of FBI agent Dale Cooper as he investigates the murder of a 17-year-old schoolgirl, Laura Palmer. For Lynch, getting the music right was absolutely essential.
It was this necessity that led Lynch and Badalamenti to sit down together and craft the central theme. He told the composer to imagine himself in the woods alone at night. Badalamenti began by repeating an ominous motif in the bass keys of his piano. Lynch told him to play slower and to imagine a distressed girl coming out of the darkness, getting closer and closer. Badalamenti rose higher and higher up the keyboard before resolving the melody with Beethovian gusto. Lynch is reported to have told the composer not to change a single note. They had just written ‘Laura Palmer’s Theme’.