“Don’t you wonder sometimes ’bout sound and vision?” Judging from the year in television, the industry’s showrunners and music supervisors would definitely answer David Bowie’s question with a big “yes.” Music has been a key part of prestige TV ever since David Chase’s astutely curated soundtracks for The Sopranos, but as an ever-increasing number of scripted shows sprawl across a wider range of tones and time periods, the smart deployment of songs has escalated into an artistic arms race. While some shows edge into musical overload — ahem, Westworld and Stranger Things — others craft truly memorable scenes with music as their guide. Below is Vulture’s list of the year’s ten best musical moments on TV. As Bowie would say, they’re to be played at maximum volume.
The Americans: “End of the Line” by Roxy Music
From “In the Air Tonight” and “Tainted Love” to “Under Pressure,” The Americans has never hesitated to go for the jugular with the Reagan-era pop that populates its soundtrack, occasionally to a fault. (To be fair, as cloyingly literal as the “Under Pressure” cue was, Fear the Walking Dead‘s use of “Five Years” and Stranger Things‘ Peter Gabriel cover of “‘Heroes” were far more egregious abuses of David Bowie’s memory, especially during a year when any show could grab a song from the late artist’s catalogue for a quick shortcut to emotional resonance.) The show’s best musical tv moments, courtesy of supervisor P.J. Bloom, tend to have a quirkier, more complicated bent to them — much like the use of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” in the pilot episode’s opening espionage sequence.
This season’s standout comes in “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears,” which ends with Roxy Music’s “End of the Line,” a deceptively jaunty bit of faux country rock from mid-’70s album Siren. The song’s easygoing rhythm and pleasantly lilting melody set the tone for the accompanying scenes, in which everything goes back to “normal” for the show’s rival FBI and KGB agents following the white-knuckle saga of Martha Hanson, the hapless secretary who’s unwittingly converted into a Soviet agent by Philip Jennings. But the lyrics tell a different story, in which lasting love is an impossibility. That’s what these scenes truly depict: At the end of the line, the Jennings’ happy-family routine is a sham that’s supported by forcing their teenage daughter, Paige, to serve as an informant.
Atlanta: “Elevators” by Outkast
Donald Glover’s FX dramedy chronicled the life of an up-and-coming rapper and his inner circle, leavened with a healthy dose of Atlanta’s culture and more than a touch of the surreal. What better aural accompaniment could there be than Outkast, the legendary duo whose far-out sounds helped put the city on the musical map?
This presented Glover and his music supervisor, Jen Malone, with a stark choice: Atlanta could have stuffed as much Big Boi and André 3000 into the soundtrack as possible, diminishing returns be damned. Or they could do exactly what they wound up doing: keep their powder dry until the last moment of the season, then drop a marvelously atmospheric, relatively deep cut at exactly the moment it mattered most. The scene that “Elevators” accompanies (at the suggestion of editor Isaac Hagy) is one of quiet triumph for Glover’s character Earn, who’s seeing his first share of financial and interpersonal success. Considering how well-earned the use of Outkast’s music feels here, the character’s name is entirely apt.
Better Call Saul: “Scorpio” by Dennis Coffey and the Detroit Guitar Band
No show does the musical tv montage better than Better Call Saul. Like its predecessor Breaking Bad, with whom it shared creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould and music supervisor Thomas Golubić, Saul rejects the hoary cliché of advancing the plot in a hurry with a sprinkling of musical sugar to help the medicine go down. Instead, it uses montages to showcase some of the most formally innovative and daring filmmaking on TV, accompanied with songs that would do any crate-digging music nerd proud.
The “Scorpio” montage in “Inflatable” is this season’s highlight, and in many ways its centerpiece. To the raucous tune of Dennis Coffey’s ’70s instrumental — sampled by innumerable hip-hop classics, from LL Cool J’s “Jingling Baby” to Young MC’s “Bust a Move” — Jimmy McGill kisses his brief stint as a buttoned-down lawyer good-bye and starts sporting Saul Goodman’s signature wardrobe, i.e. suits as loud and funky as the song itself. The visuals match with rapid-fire splitscreens, frames within frames, and shots of the inflatable tube dancer that inspired Jimmy’s makeover, as if they’re all moving to the beat. Who wouldn’t?
Game of Thrones: “Light of the Seven” by Ramin Djawadi
With a scope, complexity, and sheer epic sweep to rival the interlocking themes that film composer Howard Shore concocted for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Ramin Djawadi’s Game of Thrones score has a sound as immersive as its sprawling fantasy setting. So when Djawadi threw that all away for the opening minutes of the season six finale, “The Winds of Winter,” the effect was shocking.
Jettisoning the lush orchestration and ever-so-slightly goth ominousness that characterizes the show’s score, Djawadi unleashed “Light of the Seven,” a delicate piano ballad that played while Kings Landing prepared for the religious sham trial that would end in death, explosion, and a new ruling order. The instrument had never been prominently featured in Djawadi’s score before, let alone given a solo spotlight of this magnitude. The implication was clear: Something unprecedented was about to go down.
Written By Sean T. Collins | Vulture Magazine
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