The short first season of AMC’s zombie apocalypse series ended with a few deaths, a massive explosion, a bittersweet escape — and Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is A Long Time,” a deep cut that kicked around in cover versions for several years before appearing on 1971’s Greatest Hits Volume II. It’s a desolate track for a desolate moment, and one of those instances when a song can convey a feeling that dialog might overstate. Listen to the song here.
Friday Night Lights: “Devil Town” by Tony Lucca
Lucca’s cover “Devil Town” (the original, minute-long song is by Daniel Johnston) is a sort of recurring theme on this fantastic, under-appreciated series about a small town in Texas that lives for high school football. It’s even showed up in haunting promos, like the one above. We’ll never forget its most jarring appearance, in the Season 1 finale, after the team has won the state championship. The song plays as the conquering heroes parade through town — a warning that even the most apparently joyous moments can be more sinister than they seem.
Six Feet Under: “Breathe Me” by Sia
We don’t make a habit of crying about TV shows, but the series finale of Six Feet Under was a major exception. We actually didn’t finish bawling until approximately half an hour after the credits rolled. The culprit was the final six and a half minutes, in which we watch Claire Fisher — who turns out to be the show’s true protagonist — drive across the country as her future (including glimpses of how she and her friends and relatives eventually die) flashes across the screen. Sia’s “Breathe Me” is a somber and delicate soundtrack to the sequence, with which is will forever be associated. Of course, the scene is also the ultimate spoiler, so don’t watch the clip above if you don’t want to know how the show ends.
Seinfeld: “Desperado” by the Eagles
In a very funny episode called “The Checks,” Elaine dates a man who has claimed “Desperado” as his theme song — and he freezes and won’t listen to her whenever it comes on the radio. She tries to replace it with “Witchy Woman,” which she thinks would work as a tune for both of them. Of course, he isn’t hearing of it.
The O.C.: “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley
The O.C.’s first season ended in quiet crisis, as Marissa watches Ryan leave with Theresa and then takes her first drink since getting sober. Meanwhile, Seth lights out on his boat, leaving notes for Summer and his family — who take it pretty hard. The entire sequence is wordless, its only soundtrack Jeff Buckley’s cover of the Leonard Cohen classic “Hallelujah.”
The Sopranos: “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey
We’ve all debated what happened in the final moments of The Sopranos. But would the family’s fateful dinner have had the same impact if it hadn’t begun with Tony jamming a few quarters into his tableside jukebox and queuing up this working class hero anthem?
Gossip Girl: “Power” by Kanye West
“Power is the greatest aphrodesiac,” says Blair Waldorf — who knows what she’s talking about — in “Goodbye, Columbia,” the fifth episode of the current season. It’s no coincidence that the line is uttered in the same episode that has Kanye West’s undeniable anthem “Power” playing as the cast receives a Gossip Girl blast implying that Serena has an STD. Is it any coincidence that the camera freezes on Juliet’s face as we hear that great King Crimson sample, “21st-century schizoid man”? Watch the whole episode here; the “Power” clip starts at about 7:45.
Mad Men: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones
To stick it to NBC before leaving the network, Conan O’Brien famously played the song on one of his final episodes — joke being, it costs a shitload of money to license “Satisfaction.” But the folks at Mad Men weren’t just throwing their money around when they stuck it in the eighth episode of last season. First of all, the song, released in 1965, was perfectly contemporary to the period. More importantly, it’s a track that embodies all the contradictions of Don Draper: he may be the guy on TV, with the starched white shirt and cigarettes, but he’s also Mick Jagger, the guy who can’t get no satisfaction, although he tries and he tries and he tries and he tries.
“Wild World” by the cast of Skins
It’s hard to explain if you haven’t seen the cult British series about a clique of drinking, drugging, sex-having teens, but Skins can somehow get away with things that would just seem cheesy and overwrought. Take this clip, from the finale of its first series. As the season ends in (some would say well-deserved) tragedy, its cast members walk around, cry, and sing Cat Stevens’ “Wild World.” And the whole thing is unexpectedly touching. An American version of Skins is coming in January to MTV — likely without all the great music that appears on the original show.
Ally McBeal: “Hooked on a Feeling” by Vonda Shepard
What, you thought we would leave out the synergistic moment when a neurotic lawyer, a dancing CGI baby, the creepy “ooka chaka” chant, and Shepard’s cover of “Hooked on a Feeling” came together? Luckily, it’s all covered in the I Love the ’90s segment on the show.