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Critics Pick the Best TV Soundtracks of the Year (So Far) – IndieWire Survey

From "GLOW" and "The Americans" to "Killing Eve" and "Pose," this is some of the best music on TV in 2018.

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE

“Dear White People”

Adam Rose/Netflix

IWCriticsPick

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question:  What’s the best new overlooked show of 2018 so far?

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

The best score of 2018 belongs to Nicholas Britell for his work on “Succession.” The best soundtrack, though, comes from “Dear White People” (with “Legion” and “Atlanta” giving it a run for its money). Soundtracks enhance the story by providing punctuation marks, setting tone, and guiding (without manipulating) emotions through existing music choices. The aptly named “Dear White People Vol. 2” does precisely that. Few series are deft enough to place Erykah Badu so close to Jaden Smith, and fewer still pull in a key musical moment from a cast member — Ashley Blaine Ferguson just kills “Tyrone.” (P.S. The worst soundtrack is the blunt nostalgia bait in “Everything Sucks!,” as its song cues are obvious and song choices overused.)

My second choice is a tie between HBO’s “Barry” which music supervisor Liza Richardson kills it for song choices blending the mixed emotions that complex comedy evokes, and Netflix’s “GLOW” where music supervisor Bruce Gilbert wields ’80s earworms like a surgeon cutting into our auricular memory banks and matching the feels of a scene like a Jedi DJ. Gilbert captures everything about the ’80s time period and music perfectly. Bravo to you, clever music supes!

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

Hulu’s “Handmaid’s Tale” just nails it with their closing titles song each episode, especially Kate Bush’s “Woman’s Work” and Grouper’s “I’m Clean Now.” Every episode has a short list of pitch-perfect songs for the emotion you are left with as a viewer, and defines the moment as June/Offred is surviving her pregnancy and Gilead is unraveling at the seams, it appears.

Season 2’s music supervisor Maggie Phillips has veered the list to feature more female artists and imbued the soundtrack with a sense of strength, optimism and blunt reality all in one. Outstanding songs.

The End of the F***ing World

“The End of the F***ing World”

Courtesy of Netflix

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

Here’s my new plan: I’m answering “The End of the F***ing World” for EVERY question for the rest of the year, so your best bet is to keep feeding me questions that allow me to do so. The “End of the F***ing World” is a remarkable mixture of ’50s and ’60s and ’70s standards (and some catchy stuff that’s more current) many of which come across as somewhat banal romantic chestnuts on their own, but songs that take on added nuance and menace when juxtaposed with the violent and sardonic events transpiring on the show. It’s charming! It’s subversive! It’s a great way for The Kids to learn about music that comfortably predates them and to recognize the added layers behind a catchy melody. From Janis Ian to Spencer Davis Group to Hank Williams to Ricky Nelson to The Buzzcocks to The Belles to Mazzy Star to Bernadette Carroll, it’s eclectic and deliriously romantic and fun. Sorry, but I’m going to beat up anybody who answers something like “GLOW,” which has a fine soundtrack, but it’s also basically an ’80s Greatest Hits album. More acceptable answers include “Berlin Babylon,” if you’re one of the Cool Kids or “Luke Cage,” if you’re a hip-hop head.

Steve Greene (@stevebruin), IndieWire

Netflix comedies are having a really strong soundtrack year. Between “GLOW,” “Dear White People” and the ever-reliable “Lovesick,” all those shows have found a way to balance familiar songs with new crate-digging favorites. Plus, they’ve all had the added bonus of working those songs into the fabric of the show (“Don’t Kidnap,” “Tyrone,” and a handful of choice karaoke picks, just to name a few).

But the real standout from 2018 is composer Nico Muhly’s work on “Howards End.” As one of the pillars for an adaptation of a literary classic that didn’t shy away from a distinct, current perspective on the work itself, Muhly’s score fits right into that philosophy. Listened in isolation, it’s almost jarring how dissonant and percussive some of his melodies can be. But it always serves as a complement to the emotion on screen, fractured when called for and elegant whenever possible. It’s beauty and tragedy in balance, sometimes all at once. And it never feels like it’s doing the heavy lifting for the series, which is a feat unto itself.

Howards End 2018 Starz Field

“Howards End”

Laurie Sparham

Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), GoldDerby

If this were 2017, I’d say “Big Little Lies,” no contest. This year, I’ve enjoyed the ’90s tunes of “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” and the era-transporting hybrid mixes on “Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G.”, which had to tell the story without Pac’s and Biggie’s music. But if I’m being completely honest, the soundtrack with which I’m obsessed the most is that of everyone’s favorite new rom-com “Set It Up.” Is this cheating? Whatever. It’s great. Like any rom-com worth its salt, its soundtrack is a delightful blend of beloved pop favorites, deep cuts and upbeat oldies but goodies. As someone who doesn’t know the difference between Charlie Puth and Shawn Mendes, I was all in when Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run” started playing before the title card even popped up. Toss in a montage to Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want to Be with You,” Huey Lewis and the News’ “Power of Love” backing kiss cam antics, and using Third Eye Blind’s “How’s It Going to Be” as a killer gag, and you have my heart forever. But the piece de resistance was Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” which, of course, was part of an iconic moment in “You’ve Got Mail.” Maybe that’s why everyone’s saying Glen Powell and Zoey Deutch are the new Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. They’re not, but please put them in more rom-coms with more awesome soundtracks.

Jacob Oller (@JacobOller), Paste

“Aggretsuko.” Though “Westworld’s” covers were sublime and “The End of the F***ing World’s” song selection was plenty charming, nothing comes close to the death metal Hello Kitty that is “Aggretsuko.” Powerful guitar licks and the unending storm of double bass drums accompany the adorable red panda Retsuko’s workplace breakdowns – and her rumbling screams from hell. The lyrics are raw and often hilariously blunt diatribes against bad bosses, additional work, and gossipy co-workers, but the juxtaposition is the real treat. At first getting shocked laughs, the varied songs of the series (not all metal) uniquely flesh out an interior life for a character otherwise doomed to dronehood. Now if she only had a female vocalist.

"Aggretsuko"

“Aggretsuko”

Netflix

Marisa Roffman (@marisaroffman), Give Me My Remote

I’m a sucker for good ’90s nostalgia and the prematurely-canceled “Everything Sucks!” is hitting all the right music spots for me. I’m still making my way through the show, but not only do they have a killer soundtrack, but they also reference ’90s-era music touchstones (“Ironic”! Tori Amos! Columbia House CDs in the mail!) in the characters’ conversations. Sigh. I’m already bummed the show won’t return for a second season.

Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com

Am I allowed to cheat and choose a series that hasn’t quite debuted yet? If so, HBO’s “Sharp Objects” makes excellent use of its classic rock soundtrack in an interesting way, meaning the sounds of Led Zeppelin aren’t just there because HBO could afford them; they’re there because they play a role in the story. Obviously it’s great when music and narrative come together in this way, but I will also be totally honest: This soundtrack is important to me because I love classic rock and I get tired of being that person yelling “What the hell is this crap?” at shows littered with popular music. Basically, more classic rock on TV, please! Also, “Everything Sucks!” had a great soundtrack that not only took me right back to the ’90s but also played a role in its story. And now I’m gonna go listen to it.

"Everything Sucks!"

“Everything Sucks!”

Scott Patrick Green/Netflix

Diane Gordon (@thesurfreport), Freelance

“Grown-ish” uses a mix of contemporary R&B, hip-hop, rap and soul to complement Zoe Johnson’s (Yara Shahidi) freshman year of college hijinks. Chloe and Halle Bailey, two of the actresses in the show are also featured on the soundtrack as Chloe X Halle. The show is especially good at scene-setting and immersing viewers into the campus atmosphere and mindset, and the music is a big part of that. They also nail Zoe’s wide-ranging emotions as she deals with finding balance between studies, friends, dating and activism.

Three Season 2 shows immediately spring to mind: “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Dear White People” and “GLOW.” The songs they incorporate into episodes work as memory devices and emotional button-pushers.

Music supervisor Maggie Phillips masterfully uses songs in “The Handmaid’s Tale” to frame June’s state of mind in pre-Gilead times or to emphasize Offred’s current bleak situation. This drama really knows how to use silence so when they choose to use music, it’s meaningful.

"GLOW"

“GLOW”

Erica Parise/Netflix

“GLOW” music supervisor Bruce Gilbert skillfully chooses songs for their retro vibe and as emotional counterpoints to the storylines. If you’re old enough to remember when the songs were first released (as I am) that adds a little extra oomph. If you like Gilbert’s work on “GLOW,” a reminder that he also did a fantastic job with the songs on “Transparent,” where he worked with his ex-wife Jill Soloway.

My personal favorite is “Dear White People” because the songs deliver truly emotional gut punches. Music supervisor Morgan Rhodes includes hip-hop, rap, soul, R&B, funk and more as the individual character stories unfold. The songs provide deep emotional notes for the stories, which range from abortion, gay identity, first romances, internet trolling, and the death of a parent. Added bonus: for Season 2, the show created Spotify playlists for each main character, which led to the discovery of more new music.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 02/10/2017 - Programme Name: A Very English Scandal - TX: 01/10/2017 - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: First look picture of Ben Whishaw playing Norman Scott in BBC One's A Very English Scandal Norman Scott (BEN WHISHAW) - (C) Blueprint Television Ltd - Photographer: Kieron McCarron

“A Very English Scandal.”

BBC/Blueprint Television Ltd

Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire

There are a lot of great potential choices (the needle drops on “Luke Cage” Season 2 might have been the best thing about the season) but I’ve been a huge fan of Murray Gold’s music ever since I heard not just his reimagined theme for the 2005 revival of “Doctor Who,” but the beautiful “Song For Ten” he wrote for David Tennant’s first Christmas special. Gold has scored no shortage of writer Russell T. Davies’ projects over the years, and just recently he gave “A Very English Scandal,” the new three-part miniseries starring Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw and streaming now on Amazon, a fast funky vibe that kept the show’s action moving fast through decades worth of story. Gold’s music pairs perfectly with Davies’ sensibilities as a writer, but his work holds up on his own. Always excited to see his name in the credits.

Dominique Jackson, "Pose"

Dominique Jackson, “Pose”

JoJo Whilden/FX

Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine

The Category is “Pose” 1980s realness! As a teen survivor of the day-glo decade who has a very expensive case of musical A.D.D.(so many cassette cases!), this tunes on this show speak to me on so many levels. There’s the R&B sex-glory of the Mary Jane Girls, Grace Jones, The Jets and Midnight Star that had this fat little queen groovin’ like he had any business thinking he had soul. Then they’ll amp up the Brit pop of Tears for Fears, Bryan Ferry and Kate Bush to remind me of my moody, dyed-black home-perm period (I was insufferable). And then the radio-friendly Top 10 gems start pumpin’ and I have Janet Jackson, Whitney, Sheena Easton all up in my iTunes searches. But more than the personal vibes the music on “Pose” set off, they also fit so perfectly in the time and place of the show, the underground and mainstream worlds traversed by characters who are as diverse and fun and memorable as the songs that surround them.

Erik Adams (@ErikMAdams), A.V. Club

Just as the final season of “The Americans” paid off long-simmering tensions while bringing its poignant-marital-drama-disguised-as-a-Cold-War-spy-saga to surprising and satisfying conclusions, the music supervision team of PJ Bloom and Amanda Krieg Thomas revisited much of what had previously worked for the series while giving viewers some things they never knew they wanted. Selections from Fleetwood Mac and Peter Gabriel amounted to an “Americans” greatest-hits platter (with Gabriel’s “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37),” a song haunted by history, underlining a pivotal decision for Elizabeth Jennings), while Talking Heads snuck not one, but two tracks into the show’s canon of post-punk paranoia. In “The Americans”’ hands, culture was a valuable export, a persuasive tool, and a potent weapon, be it high (Tchaikovsky and foreign films), low (Eddie Rabbit and Roy Rogers restaurants), or somewhere in between (Crowded House and Frusen Glädjé). The final season was no different, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the show’s themes of family and assimilation all wrapped up in a sack of McDonald’s and an epic U2 single. Still, it’s the words of the season’s first song that stick with me at the end of the best TV show of the 2010s: Hey now, hey now – don’t dream it’s over.

THE AMERICANS -- "Start" -- Season 6, Episode 10 -- (Airs Wednesday, May 30, 10:00 pm/ep) Pictured: Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. CR: FX

Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider

As much as I love the distinctive piano twinkling of “Sucession’s” main theme, or enjoyed the creepy, dark, yawning bass notes of “The Alienist’s” soundtrack, or even adored the plucky and sometimes deeply emotional orchestral pieces in “Mozart in the Jungle,” “The Americans” has to win for the best TV music of 2018. Yes it’s partly nostalgia and enjoying those songs on their own, but Bono wailing in “With or Without You” during the train scene in the finale will haunt me forever. “The Americans” has always had stand-out choices when it comes to pairing ‘80s classics to the narrative in perfectly complementary ways, so hats off to music supervisors P.J. Bloom and Amanda Krieg Thomas – your work on that show will be truly missed!

Hanh Nguyen (@Hanhonymous), IndieWire

Argh, this post was all ready to go but then I realized none of my esteemed colleagues mentioned “Killing Eve.” I am so ashamed for them. How the hell could that get overlooked?! And so I will make the rare exception and participate in my own survey.

While the show is rightfully lauded for its excellent performances, writing, pacing, style, and sausage-based humor, its soundtrack delivered a reciprocal aural experience. Ranging from the upbeat French-language “Roller Girl” by Anna Karina or “Contact” by Brigitte Bardot to the dreamy “Gnossiennes” piano composition by Erik Satie and the ambient pop sexiness of “K.” from Cigarette After Sex, these tracks alone would well represent the show’s particular moody yet groovy personality.

Jodie Comer, "Killing Eve"

 

But it’s the Unloved that truly brings the show to life. The trio consisting of DJ/composer David Holmes, composer Keefus Ciancia (“True Detective”), and songwriter Jade Vincent provide more than half of the soundtrack with tunes from their “Guilty of Love” album. Led by Vincent’s sultry vocals, the songs offer a distinctly ’60s vibe with retro guitar sounds and slick beat arrangements with a few experimental detours into trippy psychedelia or dreamy landscapes. For lack of a better word, these songs are cinematic and have the power to evoke entire stories in and of themselves. Paired with a series that showcases all of these things and more, it’s a lovely and lethal combo.

Honorable Mention: “Blue Planet II.” Hans Zimmer, along with Bleeding Fingers’ Jacob Shea and Jasha Kleme, have created a soundtrack that is nothing short of masterful in how it’s able to translate the drama of the underwater realm into pure emotion. Only they can get me to care more about the secret lives of fishes and cephalopods than I would at a sushi restaurant.

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “GLOW” (five votes)

Other contenders: “A Very English Scandal” (three votes), “Hannah Gadsby: Nanette” (two votes), “Animal Kingdom,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Pose” (one vote each), one abstention

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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