The Ten Best Music Cues on The Sopranos

In early March 2020, a coworker asked me what I might do if Chicago instituted a two-week lockdown to fight Covid. “I don’t know,” I joked. “Maybe finally watch The Sopranos?” It was a huge gap in my television viewing history, if an understandable one. I was twelve when it first began airing in January 1999, and while my family had a free year of HBO thanks to a cable deal, I was clandestinely absorbing the antics of Sex and the City rather than Tony and the gang. Despite later enjoying, to varying degrees, shows that owed the series a debt, from Mad Men to Breaking Bad to The Americans, I was always daunted by the idea of taking on The Sopranos. It felt like a project. Is it really worth it? And when would I find the time? Still, as Twitter flooded with sourdough starters and Duolingo prompts in the ensuing months, I resisted the modest goals I set for myself. I felt too unmoored and confused to accomplish even something as simple as watching a show. It wasn’t until a full year into the pandemic, the same year that Sopranos movie prequel The Many Saints of Newark was scheduled to release, that I pressed play on the premiere, but I was surprised at how quickly the show’s characters began to feel like companions. (Living alone will do that to you.) It can be easy to forget now, but The Sopranos truly was a game-changer, and one made with more care than the contrarian in me anticipated. The music is a huge part of that, much of which creator David Chase handpicked himself, to the point where even a casual fan of the show could come up with a unique top ten list. As a recent convert, I humbly offer mine on the occasion of Many Saints of Newark hitting theaters and HBO Max this week.

The 10 Best Music Cues on The Sopranos According to a First-Time Viewer in 2021

10. “Tiny Tears” – Tindersticks

Season 1, Episode 12: “Isabelle”
Tony’s therapist Dr. Melfi wasn’t always a character the show knew what to do with during its run, but in many ways she’s the reason it exists to begin with, her counsel acting as the moral wrinkle that Tony will spend seven seasons attempting to smooth over. She’s not explicitly featured in the two scenes that use the melancholic “Tiny Tears” as a backdrop, but her shadow hangs over them both in fascinating ways, matched by the deliberate pacing of lead singer Stuart A. Staples’ doleful baritone. In this first season, Tony has been going to great pains to keep his panic attacks a secret, which has perhaps been worse for his health than Carmela’s platters of manicott’. The first time we hear “Tiny Tears,” Tony is in the midst of a depressive funk brought on by recently prescribed lithium, slumped over in his bathrobe, the orchestral swell of the song’s bridge threatening to drown him. The second time it provides the build-up to a botched hit on his life that was ordered by his mother, the same orchestral swell now breaking over him like waves, spurring him to action as he takes his would-be assassins out instead. The canny use of musical repetition is a trick Chase would employ many times in the series’ run, but this first instance remains one of the best.

9. “Kid A” – Radiohead

Season 4, Episode 2: “No Show”
This will probably seem like a bit of a left-field pick to fans, since “No Show” isn’t regarded as an especially memorable episode of the series, nor is this ambient titular Radiohead track likely to make any top ten lists of their work. But context matters, and the choice to backdrop the first fissures in the Soprano marriage that will lead to a (nearly) definitive break for the couple by the fourth season’s end with the off-putting blips and mechanical moans of “Kid A” is a stealth genius one. The Sopranos was always much more of a show about a family than “the family,” which often put it at odds with a certain sector of its viewership. The bust-ups between Tony and Carmela could be as violent as any execution, though, and there’s a genuine tension to their interactions in this episode’s closing scene that feels distinctly painful to watch. The way the staging separates the spouses even though they’re in the same room foreshadows what will soon become literal, and the lack of lyrics to the song playing beneath highlights how little they have to say to one another. When you’re in need of something to aurally encapsulate alienation in the new millennium, only the masters will do.

8. “When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die” – Moby

Season 6A, Episode 2: “Join the Club”
Death was always a threat on this series, and it had toyed with the possibility of Tony’s as early as the penultimate episode of season one. But the longer the show went on, the less likelihood there was in the big guy getting permanently taken out, even as literal ghosts began to haunt the margins of the show’s landscape. The sixth season was notoriously ordered in two batches, with Chase and co. left in the dark about how many episodes they’d be granted in the second half until the first began airing. Thus there’s a certain petulance to what unfolds here, directed as much at the suits as the audience: at the end of the premiere, Tony gets accidentally shot by his senile Uncle Junior. The series had employed dream sequences before, but viewers tuning in at the time were subsequently immersed in Tony’s coma-induced hallucinations with no clear idea of when they might end, or if he might recover. It’s an unnerving way to kick off the endgame, but watching Tony meander through this purgatory, which is filled with familiar faces even as his identity is scrambled (having James Gandolfini speak without the Jersey accent might be the most frightening thing the show ever did), builds in poignancy the longer it stretches on. It reaches its emotional peak at the end of the second episode as he gazes out a hotel window and sees a mysterious flashing light while Moby’s shimmering electronic strings envelop us with the kind of warmth that conceals death inside it. “If I holler let me go,” guest vocalist Mimi Goese warbles, a sentiment that we know a Tony in his right mind would outright reject. He won’t end up going gently into that good night, but in that moment, we feel as stranded as he does. It’s such a perfect use of the song, in fact, that it’s shocking another series would attempt it again. Sorry, Stranger Things, but why even invite the comparison?

7. “Black Books” – Nils Lofgren

Season 3, Episode 7: “Second Opinion”
Ah, Carmela Soprano. Before Betty Draper and Skylar White, she was the O.G. female character that (usually male) viewers loved to loathe, a haranguing impediment, or at least a regular irritant, to her husband’s more entertaining misdeeds. It’s a willful misreading of her, albeit an understandable one. For much of the first two seasons, we weren’t often let into her head, though Edie Falco’s superlative performance allowed glimmers of her dissatisfaction to shine through her shellacked Jersey housewife surface. It’s not until Meadow Soprano goes to college that we see firsthand how much Carmela has allowed herself to compromise, and how much she’s willing to ignore, to live as she has. Nils Lofgren’s delicate ballad “Black Books” provides the soundtrack to her descent into depression, particularly during a striking moment of stillness when Carmela waits for Meadow in her Columbia dorm that feels like it lasts an eternity in T.V. time. While Lofgren spins the tale of a young woman looking to step out on a lover, the camera lingers on Falco’s face as the darkening clouds of unspoken emotions pass across it. Carmela’s ability to advocate for herself, or interest in doing so, would wax and wane over the course of the series, but for viewers who were paying attention to this moment, she already told us all we needed to know without any words at all.

6. “This Magic Moment” – The Drifters

Season 6B, Episode 1: “Sopranos Home Movies”
Every viewer has their favorite of Tony’s crew, from the slick Sil to chronic joke-repeater Paulie to dependably dumb Christopher. Mine is Bobby Baccalieri, the doggedly loyal driver of Junior Soprano who eventually works his way up to captain. But dogged loyalty for Tony is not a quality to be trusted but tested, and the second Bobby confesses to his boss (and, by that point, brother-in-law) that he’s yet to actually kill anyone, you know it’s only a matter of time before Tony forces his hand. As petty retaliation for a drunken fistfight over Tony’s sister Janice, Bobby is tasked with carrying out a hit against a man who’s at best an inconvenience to a smuggling operation that Tony wants to jumpstart with a couple French Canadians. He doesn’t deserve to die (as much as that can be said about anyone, even on this show) and Bobby doesn’t need to kill him. But he does, pulling the trigger with grim determination, the life going out of his eyes along with his victim’s. The shivery strings of this summertime classic emerge as Bobby returns to the lake house where his family has been staying. The waves shimmer with the sunset, his daughter runs to embrace him, his wife smiles. Everything he wants he has, as the song goes. He turns toward the water, but his gaze has narrowed to the scope of a gunbarrel. And he knows it’s only a matter of time before he’s looking down the end of one himself.

5. “Oh, Girl” – The Chi-Lites

Season 4, Episode 7: “Watching Too Much Television”
You think I’d leave off possibly the most-memed musical moment from this show? There’s even a whole Twitter account devoted to it. Still, it’s hard to beat the impact of the original. The moments in the series when Tony cries are always intended as signifiers of more than just his current emotional state. The question of how sociopathic he is, and who and what he actually cares for, is one that viewers continue to discuss today, and season four is when Chase starts to bring this idea to the forefront, as Tony’s reactions to the people around him begin to seem both more erratic and more purposeful. His behavior may appear inexplicable in the moment, until you realize that’s all he’s thinking about: what he wants right now. Case in point: by this time, Tony had cast his old “goomar” Irina aside, partly in deference to Carmela. But her spectre resurfaces when a councilman Tony needs to pull off a boardwalk scam mentions that he’s started dating her. The Chi-Lites’ easy listening classic plays on the locker room radio during this scene, and seems little more than a nice diegetic touch. But when it pops up again while Tony is driving late at night, its reappearance causes an emotional breakdown that leads to him breaking into the councilman’s house and beating him with a belt in front of the ex-girlfriend, consequences be damned. Tony walks away unscathed but not for long, and as the season wears on “Oh, Girl” begins to feel less like a tearjerker and more like an omen of what happens to people who can’t let things go.

4. “Evidently Chickentown” – John Cooper Clarke

Season 6B, Episode 2: “Stage 5”
It’s not quite fair to say Chase was uninterested in the show’s mafia plotlines, but he was often content to let entire schemes and rivalries play out in the background of a season. But the question of masculinity and what it means to be a man in this environment was always at the center, and becomes the focal point of the final set of episodes, when Vito’s homosexuality is revealed and New York family head Johnny Sack sullies his reputation by crying at his daughter’s wedding before dying of cancer in prison. These events at first seem unrelated, but the seething frustration that results, along with the lack of a clear guiding hand, will eventually cause the rift between the two families to sever irrevocably, with predictably deadly results. That tension is reflected in this episode-ending needle drop from obscure British punk poet Clarke, an exceedingly dry and sneering spoken word cut that manages to draw a clear line from sardonic complaints about soggy chips to a mafioso ranting over perceived slights. Clarke’s sledgehammer repetition of “bloody” might not be subtle, but then again, neither is a bullet.

3. “Living on a Thin Line” – The Kinks

Season 3, Episode 6: “University”
When I told my mother that I was watching The Sopranos and she asked if she would enjoy it, I I told her she would, but that she should probably skip over “University.” That’s not because it isn’t a good episode; it might be in the top ten of the series. But even as someone who’s watched some stomach-churning violence in my time, the death of Bada Bing stripper Tracy at the hands of unhinged gangster Ralphie is almost nihilistic in its brutality, as if Chase wants to rub viewers’ noses in the reprehensible behavior we often forgave these characters for. This was always part of the compact of the show, with the catch being that Tony and his crew still had to be entertaining enough to want to watch week after week. Chase’s feelings about this were ambivalent at best, and sometimes outright contemptuous, no more so than here, where the way Tony sees girls like his daughter Meadow as deserving of protection is deliberately contrasted with how women like Tracy – a single mother and drug addict – bear the brunt of these men’s abuse. “Living on a Thin Line” makes three appearances in the episode, its moody, Morriconean instrumentation and lyrics depicting a dying empire underlining how much of Tony’s life is a foregone conclusion. “Tell me now, what are we supposed to do?” Ray Davies sings as topless dancers gyrate somnambulantly in the background. It’s a refrain that consistently crops up, practically begging someone to step in and reverse this girl’s collision course with a bad end. But Ralphie is a made man, so Tony keeps his head down and Tracy’s lifeless body will be discarded, another forgotten victim in this organization’s grinding wheels.

2. “Glad Tidings” – Van Morrison

Season 5, Episode 13: “All Due Respect”
Other viewers may disagree with me on this point, but I’d argue that while The Sopranos often used ironic songs during its run (see #4 on this list), Chase very rarely deployed them ironically. Even aggressively snotty cuts like Time Zone’s “World Destruction” are meant to reflect or bolster his characters’ worldview, however unearned those views might be. The greatest exception to that might be the use of Van Morrison’s lighthearted “Glad Tidings,” which provides the deceptively jaunty backdrop to possibly the only hit in the history of the series that Tony doesn’t make out of self-interest. After its first season, The Sopranos would take on a somewhat predictable arc in each that followed: a new mobster-affiliated “baddie” with a short fuse would show up to be a thorn in Tony’s side until they inevitably had to be disposed of. Season five made that personal with Tony’s cousin, also named Tony and played by Steve Buscemi, newly released from prison. The two share an uneasy alliance, but cousin Tony’s resentment over sacrificing his freedom for the family gnaws away at him throughout the season until it explodes in the unauthorized killing of rival Brooklyn heavy Phil Leotardo’s brother. Phil vows tortuous vengeance and Tony decides to put his cousin out of his misery before he suffers even worse at another’s hands. The song makes its nimble entrance just as cousin Tony returns to his country hideout, the camera creeping up on him like a waiting assassin, Morrison promising “glad tidings from New York” right before the buckshot splits his head apart. It’s the sort of blackly comic gambit that can only be achieved late in a show’s run, when we simultaneously know enough about the characters to still be surprised by them. The choice of song highlights that contradiction, when one of Tony’s most ruthless actions is also his most humane.

1. “Thru and Thru” – The Rolling Stones

Season 2, Episode 13: “Funhouse”
The Stones are inextricably tied to the films of Martin Scorsese, to the point where even their conspicuous use in other crime-related media has become shorthand for a certain reckless swagger (if rarely deployed with the same command of irony that makes, say, “Can You Hear Me Knocking” in Casino so memorable). So maybe it was inevitable that Chase would find a way to work their songs into the series. He would end up doing so more than once, but it’s the first that stands as the best cue the show ever did, in part because it’s such an unexpected choice, a deep cut to end all deep cuts from one of the band’s least loved albums. I had to Shazaam it twice during the episode because I didn’t realize Keith Richards was ever allowed to sing lead, but “Thru and Thru” is essentially a solo piece, with only a plaintive guitar riff to support the salt-crusted wreckage of his voice for its first three minutes before the rest of the band kicks in. That unadorned vulnerability makes it perfect for “Funhouse,” which was controversial when it originally aired. It’s one of the first episodes that makes extensive use of the dream sequences that would become a metaphorical throughline as the series went on. And following a genuinely surprising death in episode 12, it doubles down by having Tony himself off one of the show’s most beloved characters for informing, a betrayal that will hang over the rest of its run. It’s the first indication that things aren’t as good as they appear, that there’s a rot at the core of these characters that will continue to eat away at them until there’s nothing left. The montage that ends the episode drives that home, and “Thru and Thru” provides the melancholic undercurrent. “Any minute, any hour, I’m waiting on a call from you,” Richards craggily croons as director John Patterson pointedly juxtaposes the lavish party Tony throws for Meadow’s graduation with the detritus of others that funds his lifestyle. By the end of the series, many of the characters in this montage will be gone, whatever they gained washed away like the waves we see just before the episode cuts to black. Other shows that followed The Sopranos would ape its cynicism toward the American Dream, but few captured the genuine mourning for that Dream that Chase allowed to surface in these moments. Some viewers grew frustrated by his insistence on lingering over philosophical questions at the expense of their genre expectations long before he ended it with the ultimate non-answer. But it’s because of these contemplative moments, the “Thru and Thru” moments, that the series endures, not just as a great work of television, but of art.