Finding the perfect song for a big emotional scene, a montage sequence, or to close out a season — or even series — is no easy task. The Emmy Awards finally recognized this last year with the introduction of Outstanding Music Supervision, where Susan Jacobs deservedly won the first Emmy in this category for Big Little Lies. Her work on Sharp Objects and Maniac missed the 2018 Emmy cut-off date, but both are celebrated here as we run down this year’s Best Songs on TV.
On Sharp Objects, music is integral to Camille’s (Amy Adams) state of mind; fragments of songs provide insight. Led Zeppelin rarely appear on a soundtrack, as they don’t give away the rights to their songs to just anyone, but this iconic band features in multiple episodes of the HBO critical hit. It was hard to pick one track, but “Thank You” sums up Camille’s relationship with her hospital roommate Alice (Sydney Sweeney), as well as her attachment to Alice’s cracked iPhone.
The mark of a great music supervisor, though, is someone who can weave in songs from different time periods and genres. Jacobs does exactly this, so it would be remiss if this playlist didn’t feature one of the many croon-worthy tracks from Camille’s step-father Alan’s (Henry Czerny) extensive record collection. Songs that he plays while pretending everything is okay include Englebert Humperdink’s “The Way it Used to Be” in the premiere — but as viewers of Sharp Objects will know, everything is far from okay. But the soundtrack certainly helps.
The 36-track playlist below features music from 26 shows covering comedy, drama, horror and even a stand-up special. In this age of Peak TV, it is impossible to watch everything, but those with double entries represent some of the best-curated soundtracks on television. Streaming, broadcast, and cable shows are all included, as well as one foreign-language entry. The latter also happens to be performed by a cast member (the huge cabaret number from Babylon Berlin has been stuck in my head for months, even though my understanding of German is rudimentary at best). “Zu Asche, zu Staub” is a fever dream of a performance by Svetlana Sorokina (Severija Janusauskaite) in drag as Nikoros at the Moka Efti nightclub. Set in 1929, everyone in this venue knows the same dance routine, and for a brief moment, they can pretend the world isn’t about to set on fire.
Sometimes watching Riverdale can feel like a fever dream, too, such as the time the River Vixens performed “Jailhouse Rock” at a football game taking place in the Leopold and Loeb Juvenile Detention Center. The other cast performance on the list comes courtesy of the brilliant Rachel Bloom and another song from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend that perfectly skewers stereotypes about women. And while she is not a regular cast member, Aimee Mann’s cameo in American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace is both incredibly surreal and quietly devastating. Seeing Mann perform in such an intimate venue sounds like heaven, but this moment allows Darren Criss to really flex his range of emotional muscles in his portrayal of killer Andrew Cunanan. His crumpled teary face is in stark contrast to the track that kicks off this playlist,“Gloria,” where Andrew is blasting it and singing along at the top of his voice in an earlier episode.
Premieres and finales dominate — 17 tracks come from either the first or last episode of the season — as this is often when notable songs are utilized. This could mean a montage, an introduction, or a vital scene aided by the emotional heft of a big track. In the final season of The Americans, music supervisor P.J. Bloom didn’t hold back on using the song budget, delivering one last use of Fleetwood Mac as Philip (Matthew Rhys) begrudgingly gets pulled back into the espionage game in the season premiere. Philip and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) have come a long way since “Tusk,” but it sure does feel good to hear this band even when this relationship is at its most fraught.
Picking a track for The Americans finale that many viewers most likely associate with another iconic television moment is a risk, but even with those Friends connotations, “With or Without You” by U2 ended up being a strong choice for a devastating sequence.
Hulu’s Casual also finished its run with an excellent final season, as Tom Petty sings “Time to Move On” over the last sequence (I have not, however, moved on). Outro music often has a semblance of hope, which is indicative of how the second season of GLOW ended. Everything changes, but also stays the same, as the Pretenders accompanied Deuce montage reveals. But let’s also not forget how Season 2 began with Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) giving it all that disco steeze as she enters Club 366 in a fur jacket and cut-out white jumpsuit perfect for a Barry White accompaniment.
Atlanta‘s “Teddy Perkins” is not only one of the best episodes of the year, it is also incredibly unnerving. Not one, but two Stevie Wonder tracks feature in it: “Sweet Little Girl” plays early and “Evil” closes things out as Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) leaves the house minus the piano he came for. Nina Simone’s “I Shall Be Released” is then heard over the final moments of Atlanta’s incredible “Robbin’ Season.” This was another case of struggling to whittle it down to two tracks, though, as music supervisors Jen Malone and Fam Rothstein have done an outstanding job, particularly when it comes to those final episode moments kicking into the credits. Those are the songs that often stay with you long after the episode is over.
Broadcast scheduling means This Is Us is the only entry with songs from two different seasons (both of which aired in 2018) including one that might leave fans on the teary side. It is This Is Us after all. Speaking of, Max Richter is someone I have a Pavlovian response to in the crying department, so Castle Rock using “On the Nature of Daylight” in the Sissy Spacek showcase “The Queen” just about broke me. This is one of the episodes of the year. Doctor Who also knocked it out of the park on the emotional front with “Rosa,” Andra Day’s “Rise Up” tipped me over the tear-stained cheek edge.
Max Richter is not the only composer on this playlist, Dan Romer’s “Annie and Owen” from the Maniac score injects some hopefully whimsy into Cary Joji Fukanaga’s mind-bending Netflix miniseries. On Succession, Kendall listens to the Beastie Boys on his way to a meeting, but it is Nicholas Britell’s score and particularly the title theme, which gets you pumped for whatever rich people negotiating antics are about to unfold. A mix of piano, strings, and hip-hop beats that ups the drama levels and makes me type quicker whenever it comes on.
A variety of decades and genres make up this 2018 Best Song on TV playlist; there are songs to make you dance around the kitchen, sing-along to in your car or weep to at your desk. The full track list below includes what episode the song featured in, and you can also listen to the playlist in its entirety on Spotify. Finally, if you want to see how it compares to 2016 and 2017 click here and here. Happy listening!