A TV soundtrack sets a tone, can leave you humming a piece of music for weeks on end, and has the power to add to the emotional impact of devastating scene. 2017 has been an exceptional year for television, and in a landscape crammed with options across network, cable, and streaming platforms it can be hard to stand out. One way to do this is to have a playlist that viewers will want to seek out and listen to on repeat, and to be the kind of show that causes one to rewind and Shazam an unfamiliar song because you know you’ll want to hear it again.
Because we live in the era of Peak TV, there are undoubtedly tracks missing from this list that you might have included. But the list below does cover a variety of genres and eras of music from shows set in the 1970s to present day. Drama, comedy, teen TV and reality shows all feature, five tracks are performed by cast members, two tracks are lip-synced (or not), and one features a rousing one person sing-along.
There are 27 shows in total represented, and some couldn’t be whittled down to just one song choice; Big Little Lies, The Leftovers, Twin Peaks: The Return, This Is Us, The Americans, Insecure, Master of None, The Handmaid’s Tale and Ru Paul’s Drag Race all get two.
The placement of these songs within the shows are important to note, as nearly a third of these played during the final scene or over the credits. Some of these climatic songs are from a season finale, like “I’m on Fire” by Chromatics for The Mindy Project. Jake Bugg’s “On my One” from Preacher and Bob Dylan’s classic “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (which featured in the season three finale of Casual) are from shows which have since been renewed, but their future was not certain when the episode aired, meaning these songs were chosen as possibly a last moment for us to remember from each.
Taking final episode moments to new heights is Master of None in the episode “The Dinner Party.” The full version of Soft Cell’s “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” plays over a scene featuring a dejected Dev (Aziz Ansari) in the backseat of a car, alone and silently musing on what could’ve been. It’s a highly evocative moment that feels like a mini-music video, and it’s why it closes out this playlist. The opening track here also comes from the end of an episode; the now sadly even more topical “American Bitch,” from the final season of Girls. Hannah (Lena Dunham) exits writer Chuck Palmer’s (Matthew Rhys) apartment to the strains of Rihanna’s “Desperado” (and director Richard Shepard recently noted the significance of this particular building).
No show did an episode closing though quite like Twin Peaks: The Return, as almost every episode ended with a live performance from The Road House. My first pick, Au Revoir Simone, captures the dreamlike quality evoked by this structure and the revival of Twin Peaks as a whole. The other Twin Peaks choice comes from the incredible eighth installment and a track from 1950s takes on a creepy vibe. Gotta light?
Music from the era a show is set in is common, but it can be a challenge to find a song that doesn’t come with an association to another show or movie. Certain tracks can also feel a little on the nose, a la Mindhunter with “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads, but sometimes you just have to go with the obvious, especially given how fun to hear this song as Holden and Tench head down to their new basement offices. However, The Americans has a habit of thinking outside the box with their ‘80s selections. Last year Soft Cell’s cover of “Tainted Love” played over an operation gone wrong, Roxy Music’s “More Than This” takes this mantle in Season 5 and “Slice of Life” by Bauhaus ramps up the tension as Paige falls further into their spy world.
The Leftovers mixes genres of music like no other, from trampolining to Wu Tang Clan, to slow dancing to Otis Redding, with the latter taking place in the emotionally charged season finale. Halt and Catch Fire also delivered a stunning final season, so much so that it is hard to hear this particular song from Dire Straits without getting misty-eyed. For more tear-inducing song moments look no further than This is Us, because of course. Emmy-nominated guest star Brian Tyree Henry sings “We Can Always Come Back to This” in the Randall-William standalone episode “Memphis” and Chrissy Metz performed Fleetwood Mac’s iconic “Landslide” in Season 2. The women of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend deliver the timely and super catchy “Let’s Generalize About Men,” while Issa Rae included her own work with artists such as SZA in Insecure, and Riverdale reworks classic Kelis.
One playlist I’ve had on repeat since the show first aired in February is Big Little Lies. Music supervisor Susan Jacobs won the first ever Emmy in this new category for her work on the hit HBO mini-series. And there was no way I couldn’t include the full version of Michael Kiwanuka’s “Cold Little Heart;” the song equivalent of a hot soothing bath. This isn’t the only theme song featured, though, as “Changes” by Charles Bradley is the perfect song for one of the best new shows of 2017, Big Mouth.
Pop is also well represented this year, including the Whitney Houston classic “So Emotional,” which was the song Sasha Velour whipped off her wig to and showered the stage in rose petals during the Drag Race finale. There was also the jaw-dropping Drag Race moment earlier in the season when Valentina initially refused to take off her mask while lip-syncing to Ariana Grande’s “Greedy.” Ru Paul put it best, “It’s a lip-sync, what part of that don’t you understand?”
For songs to dance, sob, and sing-along to while celebrating some of the best TV of 2017, look no further than the list below. The full track list includes what episode the song featured in, and you can also listen to the playlist in its entirety on Spotify. And if you want to see how it compares to 2016 click here.
For more of the Best of 2017, check out Allison Keene’s top 25 TV shows of the year, Chris Cabin’s top 25, Dave Trumbore’s list of the best new animated series, and Evan Valentine’s ranking of the year’s superhero TV.