This list is exclusively the 12 best TV needle drops of 2020. If you're looking for our Critic Top 10s, you can find them here.
In 2017, the Emmys finally added a Music Supervision category reflecting the importance of the tracks picked to accompany the story unfolding on screen. The right artist can elevate emotion, the wrong can take you out of the action.
Below are 12 songs (listen to the playlist here) that cover a range of shows from historical dramas (The Crown, The Great) to the hit sports documentary The Last Dance. A variety of music genres and eras make up this curated mix, which captures an album worth of 2020 soundtrack offerings — ideal for ringing in the New Year.
“Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks ('The Crown' 4.03 “Fairytale)
The Crown has long been content with relying on a dramatic score to match the decadent palaces, but pop takes center stage whenever Diana (Emma Corrin) pulls focus in the 1980s-set fourth season. Music is a refuge for the young princess and music supervisor Sarah Bridge opts for some of the decade’s quintessential tracks to match her mood. From the “Billy Jo-el” (as the Queen mistakenly calls him) “Uptown Girl” performance to roller skating in the palace to Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film,” this is a hit parade. Bookending the episode, Stevie Nicks sings “Edge of Seventeen” while Diana celebrates her engagement with friends (and her last days as a non-royal) and is reprised during the credits to emphasize her lack of freedom.
“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Patti Smith ('The Great' 1.01 “The Great”)
Using contemporary tracks on a period drama is not uncommon and it is a signal that what we are watching is not striving for clinical accuracy. Tony McNamara’s anti-historical Catherine the Great depiction takes liberties with language, costume, and music beginning with Catherine’s (Elle Fanning) decision at the end of the pilot to fight for power rather than die by her own hand. The whispered “huzzah” directly addressed to the camera is immediately followed by Patti Smith’s cover version of the Tears For Fears ‘80s hit, making her intentions clear through an iconic artist.
“Seventeen” by Sharon Van Etten ('Sex Education' 2.07)
Taking an already emotionally charged scene and deploying the perfect song makes it hard to hear this track in any other context — this is exactly what Sex Education music supervisor Matt Biffa does in the penultimate episode. After Aimee (Aimee Lee Wood) is sexually assaulted on the bus earlier in the season, the trauma from this incident impacts how she gets to school. When Aimee’s friends show up at the bus stop to support her, Sharon Van Etten’s stirring “Seventeen” kicks in as they all get on board, emphasizing this cathartic act of united empowerment.
“Edge of Great” by Julie and the Phantoms ('Julie and the Phantoms' 1.07 “Edge of Great”)
Kenny Ortega has a proven track record of directing fun music-infused ventures and this new Netflix series is another catchy success. Throughout the 10 episodes, Julie (Madison Reyes) and the three cute ghosts — who make up her band — are infectiously charming and will no doubt leave you humming these bops for weeks after. The anthemic “Edge of Great” is an optimistic rallying cry to take us into 2021.
“Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” by The Backstreet Boys ('The Umbrella Academy' 1.07 “Öga for Öga”)
Unlike other tracks on this list, The Umbrella Academy’s use of the Backstreet Boys 1998 hit is a divisive choice that best illustrates the stylistic Greatest Hits approach — that began in earnest with the solo dance party to Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now.” Spending every cent of the music budget, the instantly recognizable intro matches the pop culture-infused aesthetic. While Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) fights off the Swedes in a fight to the death, Klaus (Robert Sheehan) is trying to exorcise his dead brother’s ghost from his body. “Brothers, sisters, everybody sing” intone the Backstreet Boys and regardless of whether you think this needle drop is too much or Umbrella Academy at its best, it is impossible not to deny this sing-along request.
“You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” by Billy Joel ('The Boys' 1.03 “Over the Hill with the Swords of a Thousand Men”)
Billy Joel’s presence is built into the fabric of The Boys, but it isn’t until Season 2 that Hughie (Jack Quaid) reveals this artist is an emotional tether to the mother who left when he was a child. “Pressure” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” feature, but it is Hughie’s attachment to the “You’re Only Human” video that stands out. Feeling lost, the sentiment behind this song keeps him going when he is at his lowest ebb.
“Partyman” by Prince ('The Last Dance' 1.03)
The image of Michael Jordan on the team bus jamming out in the limited-series finale became an instant meme with tracks ranging from “Mr. Brightside” to Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” providing the boogie-worthy beats. Throughout the series, music supervisor Rudy Chung dialed up the nostalgia levels with a soundtrack bursting with ‘80s and ‘90s hits complementing thrilling montage sequences. It might originally be associated with Tim Burton’s Batman but Prince’s “Partyman” kicking in after Doug Collins describes Jordan as “now the best player” is a slam dunk choice.
“Love Shy (Club Asylum Remix)" by Kristine Blond and Club Asylum ('I May Destroy You' 1.06 “The Alliance")
Michaela Coel’s 12-part series is not only one of the best shows of 2020, but it also features a jaw-dropping 150 music cues. These tracks include new artists and specific references to Coel’s youth — the latter is most evident in the high school episode. Serving as a time machine, music supervisor Ciara Elwis told Vulture they had troubling clearing songs for this flashback episode as a lot of the selections were bootlegs. Luckily the garage remix of “Love Shy” was available to accentuate the early-00s vibes.
“Take It Back” by Dorinda Clark-Cole ('Lovecraft Country' 1.03 “Holy Ghost”)
Another series that plays fast and loose with anachronistic tracks (including Rihanna and Cardi B on the Lovecraft playlist). Unleashing her rage, Leti (Jurnee Smollett) wields a baseball bat after her housewarming gets rudely interrupted by racist neighbors. Rather than opt for Beyoncé’s “Hold Up” — another iconic bat swinging musical moment — Dorinda Clark-Cole’s 2009 gospel track is ideal for this act of defiance. As her teal dress moves in motion, the chorus sings “Everything that the devil stole, God's giv'n it back to me.” Amen to that.
“Dedicated to the One I Love” by The Mamas & The Papas ('Schitt’s Creek' 6.08 “The Presidential Suite”)
Schitt’s Creek has scored highly on the needle drop scale from the swoon-worthy reinterpretation of a classic song to an original club-worthy banger. The series finale employed Patrick’s (Noah Reid) butter-voice talents and the Jazzagals to great effect, but it is an earlier moment of heartbreak that makes this list. Break-ups are rarely easy — particularly when both parties still love each other. The Café Tropical setting, the draped blush frock, and the maturity on display during this scene is made more bittersweet when Mama Cass begins to sing.
“Dogwood Blossom” by Fionn Regan ('Normal People' 1.04 and 1.12)
The use of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” (best remembered for appearing on The OC mix) dominated the Normal People playlist chat, but this tale of young love is more than this one track. Irish singer-songwriter Fionn Regan is first heard at the end of the college party at which Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) tries to kiss her ex. Regan’s dulcet tones seep into the day after hungover embarrassment but this relationship has legs. It isn’t heard again until the finale when it matches the quiet intimacy of the scene — proving a song’s power can be found in a different kind of repetition.
“I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)" by Da’Vine Joy Randolph ('High Fidelity' 1.10 “The Other Side of the Rock”)
Anyone who watched High Fidelity will know how much stock Rob (Zoë Kravitz) puts in a playlist track order. Ending on an emotional wallop, the cancellation of this series was made more heartbreaking when it was revealed Cherise (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) would have been the focus. Instead, what we are left with is the hint of what was to come. Stevie Wonder’s iconic love song appears in the closing moments of the movie adaption — one of several musical threads linking the two projects. All season, Cherise has shied away from singing, which has become a running joke of sorts but it makes this rendition all the more powerful.
Listen to the full 12-track playlist here.
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