Written by Lindsey Cook
Almost as soon as I started binging my way through Hulu’s Looking For Alaska, I found myself grinning ear to ear thanks to some genius needle drops. The mini-series, adapted from John Green’s novel of the same name, is set in 2005 and thus features plenty of incredible throwback jams, including but not limited to: "The World At Large" by Modest Mouse, "So Here We Are" by Bloc Party, and most important of all, "Tipsy" by J Kwon.
The great song choices should not have come as any surprise, of course, since Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage helmed the series as co-showrunners. You may know their names from such shows as The OC and Gossip Girl, two shows that are also known for their iconic, era-defining soundtracks. As soon as I finished Alaska (and wiped away my tears) I immediately dove into The OC’s soundtrack, reminiscing about the series and the beautiful songs that have stayed on my iTunes for over a decade now.
Good music can have an incredible effect on a series. The right song can take a moment from good to great, and a song featured in a climactic moment can catapult to iconic status. More than that, however, shows can shape the musical tastes of their viewers based on the songs they feature. I would not have the same love for alternative rock that I have today were it not for shows like The OC. Just like these shows formed so much about my worldview, the music within inspired my own musical tastes.
Here are a TV soundtracks that mean a lot to me. This is by no means a comprehensive list, just a collection of shows and music I personally love, so be sure to comment with your own favorites!
The OCI’m not sure if you can talk about great television soundtracks without The OC. It heralded in a wave of indie pop, featuring the tunes of bands like Death Cab For Cutie and Rogue Wave, but it also featured a number of acoustic or reimagined covers of 80s hits, bridging the gap between the then-modern teens of The OC with their brat pack counterparts in The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles.
There are dozens of iconic moments that I adore to this day: Ryan and Marissa's New Year's Eve kiss to "Dice", Jem's cover of "Maybe I'm Amazed" as Ryan and Marissa share a bittersweet dance, and of course, the unforgettable "Mmm watcha say" heard round the world as Marissa shoots Trey to the sounds of Imogen Heap. Because that moment existed, we have this timeless moment, and for that, we thank you, OC.
Gossip GirlAnother iconic Josh Schwartz project, he and co-showrunner Stephanie Savage turned the world of Manhattan’s elite teens into one of the most talked-about shows of the 2000s. The first season started when I was in the eighth grade, so I caught it at just the right time to be absolutely enamored with the lifestyles of these fancy Upper East Siders. The fashion trends may fade, but I still look back on Gossip Girl’s soundtrack with immense fondness. In fact, that first season I was so obsessed with the show that I can still tell you the episode title and scene of any song that played in the first season.
Who could forget Serena Van Der Woodsen getting off the train at Grand Central to the upbeat whistles of Peter Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks”, or the dramatic episode wrap-up to OneRepublic’s then-not-yet-overplayed “Apologize”? More than anything, Gossip Girl shaped a lot of my music tastes as a teen, introducing me to artists like The Kills and Lana Del Rey.
EntourageSome—okay, most—aspects of Entourage have aged poorly, but the soundtrack is still a gem in 2019. While there were countless memorable needle drops over the titular entourage walking onto the scene, where I think the show’s music really shined was in the closing credits, with resonant tracks playing over the final moments and carrying over into the credits. The cue of Phoenix's "If I Ever Feel Better" still gets me.
InsecureSince moving to Los Angeles, I have developed a soft spot for movies and TV shows set in the City of Angels, and Insecure does LA like no one else. The music is cool and laid back, just as life on the West Coast should be. Music supervisor Kier Lehman does a phenomenal job mixing big names like Miguel and SZA with up-and-coming acts; there have been more than a few instances where I’ll hear a song on Insecure and then it will blow up a little while after.
Stranger ThingsI grew up in a 70s music household (my mom was very thorough about our 70s music education, making us listen to reruns of American Top 40 on Sirius Radio every weekend) so for me, Stranger Things was a big introduction into the music of the 80s. Of course I knew most of the big hits, but watching Stranger Things is what encouraged me to take a deep dive into the 80s, and boy, was I missing out. Sorry mom, you know I love my ABBA and Carole King above all else!
See also: GLOW and The Assassination of Gianni Versace for more 80s music education.
GirlsLike Gossip Girl before it, Girls aired at the perfect moment in my coming-of-age, with the first season starting just as I was heading off to college, making the characters just old enough to be slightly aspirational for me (though decidedly less glamorous than Blair and Serena). The music was also hip and resonated with me. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the scene of Hannah and Marnie dancing to Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own”, or Marnie’s cringe-inducing cover of Kanye West’s “Stronger” (okay, that one I may want to forget).
ScrubsOkay, I know you’re probably expecting another popular medical show here, but for me, Scrubs was the only doctor show that grabbed my attention long term. The series could have me in laughter, then tears, then laughter again, all in the span of a minute, thanks to the quirky tone that still knew when to take things seriously. From the ultra-catchy theme song to peppy jams like "Catch My Disease", Scrubs introduced me to some good indie pop acts, as well as classics like "The Safety Dance” and “Poison”.
Also, the Scrubs musical episode is a masterpiece worthy of all the awards, and you should definitely watch it if you haven’t. It’s pure joy.
Honorable MentionsI’ve only seen episodes of Grey’s Anatomy here and there, but even I know that it has an iconic soundtrack. The Fray’s "How To Save A Life", used on a medical show? Genius! The strange musical episode (far inferior to Scrubs’) rendition of "How To Save A Life"? Not as great.
The songs on Big Little Lies are moody and sultry, but other than the opening credits song, they don’t stick out to me as individual moments, but rather an overall feel.
The Handmaid’s Tale features some total bops for a show set in an ultra-conservative hellhole, but sometimes they can get too on-the-nose and cutesy with musical choices.
What TV soundtracks are your favorites? Let me know!