Some superhero dramas choose to take their subject matter quite seriously. And then there’s The Umbrella Academy, which never shortchanges the emotional journeys of its characters, but also is completely fearless when it comes to having fun with its soundtrack. This is something showrunner Steve Blackman has said is a big part of the writing process, explaining during a recent virtual panel that “unlike most shows, we don’t add the music after we shoot. We write the music into the show. It’s in the scripts.”
If you look at the complete list of songs picked to accompany key moments of the series, whether it be intense fight sequences or major revelations, you’ll see a wildly eclectic yet overall wonderful array of picks, the vast majority of which aren’t just one-note musical jokes, but fully incorporated into the world of the show. Below, I’ve ranked 15 of these needle drops which made the biggest impact over the course of the first two seasons, though, really, any song Blackman and music supervisor Christine Greene Roe have picked for this soundtrack is worth your attention.
[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for The Umbrella Academy Seasons 1 and 2.]
15. “Happy Together” (feat. Ray Toro), Gerard Way (Season 1, Episode 5)
Having Gerard Way involved as a co-creator and executive producer of your TV show means fun treats like his cover of “Happy Together” are possible. And this provides an elegant segue from Diego and Luther getting Klaus back to Vanya (Ellen Page) and Leonard (John Magaro) getting together. (They of course won’t be happy together for very long, but hey, we don’t know that yet.)
14. “Hello,” My Kullsvik (Season 2, Episode 5)
It might take a moment for you to recognize what song Swedish artist My Kullsvik is covering, but once you get it, this sequence, featuring a Viking funeral and a heartfelt confession, delivers in a whole new way.
13. “Bad Guy,” The Interrupters (Season 2, Episode 5)
In a recent interview with Collider, Aidan Gallagher mentioned that this fight scene with Lila (Ritu Arya) was one of the toughest he had to film in Season 2, but you can hardly tell, in part because this Interrupters cover of Billie Eilish slaps really hard.
12. “Stormy Weather,” Emmy Raver-Lampman (Season 1, Episode 8)
Here, Allison remembers why her daughter is no longer in her life; in case you didn’t know this, Emmy Raver-Lampman is a Broadway-caliber actress whose credits include the original ensemble cast of Hamilton. Having her big band cover of this song serve as the bleak soundtrack for this heartbreaking series of events is truly apt.
11. “Sinnerman,” Nina Simone (Season 1, Episode 3)
It’s a bit disappointing they didn’t go for the full 10-minute version, but Nina Simone‘s iconic take on the jazz/gospel/spiritual song slaps as the accompaniment to Hazel (Cameron Britton) and Cha Cha (Mary J. Blige) attacking the Hargreeves siblings at the titular Academy. Bonus points for having it diegetically woven into the show by revealing that Klaus is tuned out of the fight because he’s jamming too hard to this song.
10. “Saturday Night,” Bay City Rollers (Season 1, Episode 10)
Did the Bay City Rollers write this song specifically for fight scenes set in bowling alleys? If they didn’t that comes as a surprise, because it works really well for this purpose.
9. “Dancing In the Moonlight” (2001 Remix), Toploader (Season 1, Episode 6)
There’s something wistful and sad about Luther (Tom Hopper) and Allison’s dance fantasy, which flips from reality to the beautiful idealized version they wish they were living together, and having such a relentlessly perky song like Toploader‘s upbeat cover of “Dancing In the Moonlight” accompany it makes for a perfect contrast.
8. “Twistin’ the Night Away,” Sam Cooke (Season 2, Episode 5)
The Umbrella Academy doesn’t put all that much effort into making sure its song choices are authentic to the respective time period (and on some level, who cares?). But not only is “Twistin’ the Night Away” period-appropriate — it was released in 1960 — it’s also a sweetly innocent choice for this Breakfast Club-eque dance sequence that lets us spend some quality time with these beloved characters.
7. “Right Back Where We Started,” Maxine Nightingale (Season 2, Episode 1)
This 1976 track is an underappreciated gem by Maxine Nightingale, and brings a lively energy to the montage tracking where — and more importantly when — each of the Hargreeves children arrived in Dallas. (The use of “My Way” during the subsequent apocalyptic confrontation was fun, for the record, but didn’t make this list on account of being pretty damn on the nose.)
6. “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” They Might Be Giants (Season 1, Episode 1)
What does this classic ’90s bop have to do with Five fighting off an entire squadron of soldiers? Who knows. But it works really well. There are other choices on this list that are more random than They Might Be Giants‘ tribute to fallen empires, but not a lot of them.
5. “Major Tom – Coming Home,” Peter Schilling (Season 2, Episode 5)
Sure, this song gets overused by shows that have even a little bit to do with space travel, but Baby Pogo rules and so does the way in which his story fits with Peter Schilling‘s unofficial sequel to David Bowie‘s “Space Oddity.” Another great example of The Umbrella Academy not just using a song, but really letting it play.
4. “I Was Made for Lovin’ You,” KISS (Season 2, Episode 4)
Another iconic example of The Umbrella Academy‘s love for unexpected songs as battle soundtracks. The KISS version of this particular song has always had a very angry vibe to it, though, making it a love song worthy of a knife fight.
3. “Run Boy Run,” Woodkid (Season 1, Episode 2)
For a little while, a couple of years ago, it felt like every movie trailer was sampling “Run Boy Run,” but that’s because the thrumming beats of this Woodkid single provide such a great rhythm for editing purposes. And The Umbrella Academy makes perfect use of this, timing each of Five’s small leaps into the future with the song’s arcs, before letting the haunting bridge accompany his realization that he’s gone farther than he ever should have.
2. “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” Backstreet Boys (Season 2, Episode 7)
It should. not. work. And yet, this extended sequence, featuring two separate fights, uses way more of arguably the Backstreet Boys‘ greatest contribution to the Great American Songbook than you might expect. Says Blackman of what led to this choice: “It was 2:00 in the morning in Toronto. These guys were shooting somewhere in the snow. I had to change the song. I had a couple of cocktails. I remembered a song that I love from [the Backstreet Boys]. I thought this can’t possibly work over the scene. The more I played it as I read and wrote the scene, I realized this was a perfect match.”
1. “I Think We’re Alone Now,” Tiffany (Season 1, Episode 1)
The Tiffany classic has been used countless times over the years, but rarely (if ever) as well. This iconic montage from the series premiere is a pivotal moment of the show, defining each individual character while simultaneously creating a complete portrait of this extraordinarily dysfunctional family. “I Think We’re Alone Now” was a magical, declarative moment for the series, one which set the tone and made it clear that there was fun to be found in this dysfunction. Said Raver-Lampman during a recent panel: “I feel like [the song] has kind of become the anthem of this show.”
The Umbrella Academy Seasons 1 and 2 are streaming now on Netflix.