From Fargo to Bob’s Burgers: our guide to the Best TV Soundtracks
Binge-watching telly used to be for losers. Now it's for winners.
We’re always being told the present day is a Golden Age for TV. It’s hard to disagree. The deep pockets of Netflix, HBO and Amazon mean that the big budget productions we only used to see at the cinema are now becoming the norm on the small screen. From The Wire to Game of Thrones to Mad Men to The Sopranos, the list of must-watch TV shows grows with every passing year.
But what about scores to these amazing shows? Great soundtracks can often be taken for granted, but try to imagine The Leftovers without Max Richter...you can't, can you? So if you're one of those folk who finds themselves hitting Google as the credits roll, not to find out more about the actors or the director but to discover the genius behind the music, we've picked out some of the best soundtracks from some of the best TV shows for you.
Black Mirror: San Junipero
Black Mirror has grown from an obscure Channel 4 sci-fi anthology into a worldwide phenomenon and is now seen as one of Netflix’s prime shows. Season three gave us the Emmy award-winning San Junipero episode that featured Clint Mansell’s now-iconic score. ‘In Sickness, in Health’ and ‘Waves Crashing on Distant Shores of Time’ are the two tracks that really stand out, the former resonating with gentle melancholic piano notes, and the latter sweeping the listener into its urgent synth strings and ethereal melody.
Mansell’s soundscapes capture the nostalgic and romantic themes of an episode that is primarily set in the 80s, while slowly taking us through the 90s and 00s. San Junipero is a rare positive tale about technology in the Black Mirror canon and Mansell’s compositions provide the perfect backdrop to this space-defying love story.
The Bob’s Burgers Music Album
If you’ve always wondered why Cyndi Lauper hasn’t yet sung a song called ‘Taffy Butt’ then this is the album for you. The Bob’s Burgers Music Album contains over 100 (short) tracks running for over two hours and is an essential buy for fans of the show. If you can’t get enough of the Belcher family’s original compositions or attempts at some cheesy classics, here’s your chance to hear them all in one place.
The album delves deep into almost every type of genre pastiche you can think of. ‘Lifting Up the Skirt of the Night’ is pure Michael McDonald, while fake boy band Boyz 4 Now nail the insufferable popstar tropes. A genuine love of music runs throughout Bob’s Burgers and this, aside from its relentless positivity and restaurant shenanigans, is one of the key elements to making the show endlessly watchable.
Halt and Catch Fire
In an era where it’s essentially mandatory to own some sort of computer, Halt and Catch Fire was perfectly pitched to capitalise on 80s nostalgia and take us back to the beginning of the home computing revolution. Ex-Tangerine Dream member Paul Haslinger was a great pick to shape the retro atmosphere needed for the setting. As you would expect, there is no shortage of vintage synths with many of the cues veering away from complex melodies with devastating results.
Given the time period of the show, this is right in Haslinger’s wheelhouse and he sonically evokes the wind of electronic change that would go on to alter all our lives. His score manages to avoid many of the digital music clichés of the time and instead creates a suspenseful and thematically rich ambience.
Master of None
Master of None didn’t initially arrive with much expectation attached to it, yet the show has gone on to become essential Netflix viewing. After its heavily NYC-focused initial season, Aziz Ansari shifted the story to Emilia-Romagna in Italy, and the soundtrack for season two retains its Big Apple sound while reflecting the surroundings of the new sun-kissed location.
There’s an eclectic selection of artists and songs used throughout the show including Italian lounge music from Ennio Morricone, Kraftwerk, Ryan Paris’ ‘Dolce Vita’, David Bowie and even a touch of Vengaboys. The music used in Master of None is never intrusive enough to detract from the story but is always the right pick to complement the setting and the scene. It’s one of the many reasons why in only two short seasons it has won over so many new viewers.
Utopia was one of the most refreshing and challenging mini-series seen on British TV in many a year. A great cast, fantastic writing and a self-proclaimed “guerrilla” score from composer Cristobal Tapia De Veer made it an engrossing thriller dripping with paranoia and suspicion. De Veer’s unorthodox recording styles and use of unusual instruments can be heard in every episode, ranging from a Chilean trutruka recorded in a tube station, to percussion made from Zimbabwean rhino turd. Maybe that’s why it sounded so potent.
The end result was a range of cues that were as disconcerting as Utopia’s plot. Unsettling electronic tones and strange whirring moans drift into your ears to leave the brain startled by what it is hearing. The Utopia score is exactly what De Veer envisaged it to be – a challenging and utterly unique collection of compositions that keep you reeling through the constant twists and turns.
The seeds of the current TV boom were sewn back in the early 90s with David Lynch – of all people – playing a big role in bringing cinematic style to the small screen. His trademark dark stories set in small-town America began to take shape in his 1986 film Blue Velvet, so it made sense that Lynch would again team up with composer Angelo Badalamenti to score the equally unsettling Twin Peaks. It is also one of the rare examples of a soundtrack sounding just as evocative and powerful when played separately from the visuals.
The eerie creepiness of Badalamenti’s score is often the first thing commented on, its eeriness balanced with a soft sentimentality and soap opera melodrama that the show intentionally aped. Brooding synths met soaring strings, while Julee Cruises’ dreamlike vocals send you into a trance. Like the character herself, “Laura Palmer's Theme” was the centrepiece of the show, moving from dark, to light and back to darkness again, a mood that encompassed the experiences of everyone living in the town.
Taking over the mantle of one of 90s cinema’s most iconic villains was a tough ask but it’s a job Mads Mikkelsen was more than able to handle. Brian Reitzell had spent years working on video game and movie soundtracks but Hannibal is where he is at the peak of his powers. Crafting 20 cues to encompass the first two seasons of the show, starting off with a gentle and consoling piano piece before developing into an imposing and unsettling sonic landscape.
Many of the cues are deceptively simplistic and mix together beauty with chaotic noise to mirror the horror of Hannibal’s character arc. Once enveloped within Reitzell’s psychotic soundscape there is no option but to succumb to its madness, with only the occasional ray of light poking through. In an ever-crowded sea of TV show scores, it’s far from easy to stand out but Hannibal devours its competition without remorse.
The Coen Brothers have a loyal and very protective set of fans and remaking one of their most beloved early films was a risky move. But the TV adaptation of Fargo exceeded expectations with Jeff Russo’s score playing an important role in achieving that. It perfectly complements Carter Burwell’s soundtrack for the 1996 film, evoking the dark humour and freezing atmosphere of life in a North Dakotan town filled with oddball characters.
Russo gave each one their own motif and used specific instruments to give them a distinct sound and placement within the show. From small woodwind flutters and pizzicato strings to ironic sleigh bells and heart-breaking violins, the score moves through a range of emotions in line with the development of Fargo’s residents. Like the whitewashed landscape on which the story takes place, the music often feels cold and lonely, with a strong emotional undercurrent keeping it all together.
Whether you’re an 80s kid or one of those millennials, Stranger Things wrapped the viewer in such a warm sense of Spielbergian nostalgia it was almost impossible not be won over. The narrative is stripped down to the basics of kids vs. monsters, good vs. evil – setting the scene for adventures that recapture your childhood imagination. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s score sits at the very heart of that strong sense of nostalgia, wrapping itself within layers of synths reminiscent of classic John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream and even touches of Goblin.
The score perfectly captures the yo-yo atmosphere of the show, deepening the darker moments of danger and lurking evil, while also segueing into more upbeat territory to celebrate the goofy mishaps and central friendship of the characters. You hear the fears, concerns, love and wonder of the kids all immersed within Dixon and Stein’s score, taking us back to a time when (aside from a nightmarish alternate dimension to contend with) things seemed much simpler.
Set in the cut-throat world of San Francisco’s Silicon Valley (big surprise!), this critically acclaimed HBO comedy performs the impressive balancing act of celebrating advances in technology while ruthlessly mocking the self-involved people claiming to lead the charge of progress. To match the gigantic egos of the central characters, the soundtrack features a slew of electronic tracks and beats from some of hip-hop’s greatest artists. This works in Silicon Valley because it amps up the absurdity of these self-proclaimed social pariahs tinkering away with potentially world-shaping code, making and losing billions at the drop of a hat.
The soundtrack features some unexpected but great collaborations such as DJ Shadow’s team-up with Nas. Shadow also brings in Run the Jewels, Method Man and Raekwon, with even the hardcore stylings of Onyx making an appearance. Fans of leftfield hip-hop will appreciate the inclusion of Dr. Octagon’s (Kool Keith) ‘Blue Flowers’, as well as Too $hort and Danny Brown thrown in for good measure.
Game of Thrones
No matter how much anticipation there is for other TV shows in-between seasons, Game of Thrones remains the daddy of them all, towering overhead waiting to smite pretenders to its crown at a moment’s notice. An epic show requires an epic score and that is exactly what Ramin Djawadi’s soundtrack delivers. In a programme driven so heavily by dialogue, it can be hard to strike the right compositional balance but that has never been an issue with Djawadi’s work.
Where needed, he can find the emotional resonance of characters who are thought of so dearly by millions, while scaling things up to match the high drama and intensity of the battle scenes. Djawadi has been grounded in the themes of the Westeros world since the beginning, and his innate understanding powerfully shines through to add to the mythology of the show.
The Walking Dead
The scope and high stakes of Walking Dead’s post-apocalyptic world have ramped with every passing season, helping it become one of the most watched shows on TV. There was a long wait for a collection of Bear McCreary’s musical work for the show to be released and the soundtrack doesn’t disappoint. Watching the show can be an emotionally exhausting experience and the cues always feel ideally positioned to extract as much meaning as possible from the scenes.
The show’s ability to throw us into the daily struggle of life in a world where everything wants to either eat or kill you is supported by a powerfully immersive score. With several seasons to choose from, it must’ve proven difficult to narrow down the selection, but the soundtrack does a fantastic job of retaining the show’s spirit and meaning to make it a must-have in any collection.
Setting the scene for 140 million people suddenly disappearing from the face of the Earth requires a pretty special score. The Leftovers has this covered thanks to Max Richter. Relying on a mixture of strings, piano and electronics, although many of the cues are shorter, they are not lacking in emotional weight. Tracks like ‘De Profundis’ remind us why Richter can scale orchestral heights many of his contemporaries struggle to match, combining choral vocals with evocative strings.
Richter understands how to maximise emotional impact in a short space of time and his score is one of the reasons why so many people are invested in the show. He builds the music around three simple, yet effective themes heard in ‘Departure’, ‘AfterImage’ and ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’, adding layers to a potent story about humanity’s strength in the face of extreme adversity.
If ever there was a character justified in believing the men in suits are coming to get him, it would be Rami Malek’s Elliot Alderson. Mr. Robot is filled with paranoia in almost every scene and it gives credence to the idea that even the barmiest of conspiracy theories could be true. Mac Quayle’s anxious score is founded on low synth pulses, slowly building to create an almost unbearable atmosphere that suffocates the viewer just as much as the characters.
There are occasional nods to great composers such as Vangelis and Cliff Martinez but it never once feels derivative. It’s the sort of soundtrack that, if played on your headphones as you walk down the street, will have you nervously looking over your shoulder. Even though it’s incredibly claustrophobic it’s also highly addictive.