Music

The Most Iconic TV Soundtracks Of The Last 25 Years

Ten years after 'Music From The O.C.', whatever happened to the TV soundtrack?

In the early aughts I worked at one of those record stores owned by a major corporation (hint: they can fly you to space now), where the only sanctioned albums on the in-house playlist were usually by Michael Bublé or Patrizio Buane. Sure, you could sneak a few spins of The Streets’ A Grand Don’t Come For Free or Sufjan Stevens’ Illinoise before the shop opened, but only if the one and only copy we had of each hadn’t been snapped up by some lost hipster. We never ran out of copies of Songs About Jane.

You can imagine my relief when generational touchstone The O.C. started releasing alt-pop soundtracks that were both palatable to our clientele and had the kind of indie-cred that I, as a 16-year-old who had reluctantly heard the James Blunt album enough times to have it burnt into my soul, sorely craved. It also sold like crazy, which meant management were happy for me and my fellow employees to actively spruik it.

Music from The O.C.: Mix 1 was released on CD in March of 2004, and preceded the soundtrack to Garden State by six months. It saw Doves, Spoon, and Jet (remember them?) sitting alongside ‘California’ theme singers Phantom Planet, each track bringing to mind the adventures of Seth and Summer and their high school shenanigans. The record went Gold in Australia and was followed by five more instalments, each of which brought indie music to the mainstream.

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Little did we know, it was coming at the tail-end of the TV soundtrack boom, following its high point in 1999, when collections of tunes from Dawson’s Creek, Ally McBeal, and South Park were among the top 30 albums sold in Australia at year’s end.

Soundtracks for everything from Miami Vice to McLeod’s Daughters used to chart once upon a time, despite usually being comprised of songs they simply “inspired” (record label speak for: we’ll get extra royalties by using some nondescript singer-songwriters from our roster to fill out these thirteen spots). But in the past five years, only compilations from Glee have managed a place in ARIA’s end-of-year Top 100s — and I’m hesitant to count them because they don’t continue the grand tradition of featuring odds and sods from the bottom of a marketing exec’s drawer, or Snow Patrol’s rejected b-sides.

Ten years have passed since The O.C.‘s first mix arrived; in that time, teen punk Benjamin McKenzie was cast as Detective Gordon on Gotham, it-girl Mischa Barton disappeared entirely, and Peter Gallagher has been engulfed by his eyebrows, probably. Movie soundtracks, like those for Guardians of the Galaxy, Frozen, Begin Again and The Fault in our Stars, keep burning up the charts, yet the very concept of a hit TV soundtrack seems like a distant memory.

Join me as I pay tribute to this forgotten artform, celebrate the best — and worst — attempts of yore, and attempt to finally pry Paula Cole’s ‘I Don’t Want To Wait’ from my heads. (Probably only an exorcism will do).

Soundtrack from Twin Peaks

Released September 7, 1990
Stats: 15th highest selling album in Australia for the year 1991, four places above John Farnham’s ‘Chain Reaction’.
Key Track: Angelo Badalamenti, ‘Audrey’s Dance’

Julee Cruise’s beautiful ‘Falling’ – the lyric-having version of the Twin Peaks theme – went to #1 in Australia back in the day. Remember that when you next glance at the ARIA charts and see Troye Sivan or Jessie J or G.R.L. sitting atop it. (Side note: Who are those people?)

The real star of the soundtrack, however, is David Lynch’s soundscape maestro Angelo Badalamenti, who made the hunt for Laura Palmer’s killer seem otherworldly, before we knew it truly was.

Songs in the Key of X: Music From and Inspired by the X-Files

Released March 19, 1996
Stats: 46th highest selling album in 1996.
Key Track: Nick Cave & The Dirty Three, ‘Theme’

Considering The X-Files‘ clandestine nature, the essential soundtrack selection has to be Nick Cave and the Dirty Three’s hidden cover of the theme song. I’d certainly take it over tracks by Filter and Rob Zombie any day.

Sadly, Songs in the Key of X was released before it could feature this eventual club-banger.

Songs from Dawson’s Creek

Released April 27, 1998
Stats: Peaked at #1 in Australia, went 5x Platinum, 5th highest selling album of 1999.
Key Track: Sixpence None the Richer, ‘Kiss Me’

This song is the best. The rest of the soundtrack has aged terribly. Shawn Mullins even makes an appearance: the man responsible for introducing to the lexicon a very specific pronunciation of the word ‘Rockabye’ (much in the way the Barenaked Ladies ruined all future utterances of ‘y’it’s Been’, and Smash Mouth did the same with ‘Some BODY’).

Songs from Ally McBeal

Released May 5, 1998
Stats: Peaked at #1 in Australia, 19th highest selling album of 1998, 13th highest selling album of 1999.
Key Track: Vonda Shepard, ‘Searching My Soul’

Benefits of revisiting Songs from Ally McBeal: err, maybe it’ll bring back some fond memories of unisex toilets, short skirts, and Greg Germann? Otherwise: Jesus Christ, the banality of the music on this show! Not even RDJ and Jane Krakowski could save Calista Flockhart from Starbucks soundtrack hell.

Chef Aid: Songs from South Park

Released November 24, 1998
Stats: Peaked at #1 in Australia, 13th highest selling album of 1998, 30th highest selling album of 1999.
Key Track: Cartman, ‘Come Sail Away’

This was the very first album I ever bought — or was it The Writing’s on the Wall? my timeline is murky — and it’s still a very amusing listen. Built around the dearly-departed Chef’s inappropriate sex anthems, it’s Cartman’s Styx cover that steals the show.

Music from The O.C.: Mix 2

Released October 26, 2004
Stats: Peaked at #90 on the American Billboard Chart.
Key Track: The Killers, ‘Smile Like You Mean It’

Released simultaneously with a ‘Chrismukkah’ album, Mix 2 improved upon its (in-retrospect fairly average) predecessor by actually featuring Seth’s favourite band, Death Cab For Cutie, alongside Interpol, Eels, The Walkman and The Killers. The latter two wound up performing at the show’s very own Peach Pit, The Bait Shop.

Music from The O.C.: Mix 4

Released April 5, 2005
Stats: Peaked at #56 on American Billboard Chart.
Key Track: Sufjan Stevens, ‘To Be Alone With You’

The O.C. mixes just kept getting better from there, with Modest Mouse, Beck, Sufjan, A.C. Newman, and The Futureheads all making appearances here. So does Imogen Heap, but seeing as the soundtrack was released a month before the immortal Season 2 finale, we don’t get ‘Hide And Seek‘.

Music from The O.C.: Mix 5

Released November 8, 2005
Stats: Peaked at #108 on the American Billboard Chart.
Key Track: Stars, ‘Your Ex-Lover Is Dead’

It took them five goes, but they finally perfected the form. Mix 5 is an ideal document of its era, thanks to Youth Group’s hit cover of ‘Forever Young’, a new take on the theme song, and tracks from such time-stamped bands as Kaiser Chiefs, Shout Out Louds and Kasabian. Plus, the show’s other theme song – ‘Hide And Seek’ – finally gets showcased. They did it guys. They finally did it.

Grey’s Anatomy – Volume 1

Released September 27, 2005
Stats: Peaked at #109 on the American Billboard Chart.
Key Track: Rilo Kiley, ‘Portions for Foxes’

Grey’s Anatomy, just like The O.C., also became a cottage factory for soundtracks featuring MOR indie bands. Sometimes they got it very right, as in this first mix, which highlighted a classic Rilo Kiley cut and tracks from Róisín Murphy and Tegan and Sara. Later, they would give The Fray and Snow Patrol a platform, ruining our lives forever.

Packed to the Rafters Volume 1

Released November 29, 2008
Stats: 49th highest selling album of 2008.
Key Tracks: Josh Pyke, ‘Memories and Dust’ & Lisa Mitchell ‘Neopolitan Dreams’

Ah, 2008; a time when the nation’s insatiable taste for local troubadours allowed oddball talents like Josh Pyke and proto-Lorde Lisa Mitchell to find some runoff success from the Pete Murrays of the world. What a time to have been alive.

(NB: There were, shockingly, two more hit soundtracks to PTTR, but no others featured Jessica Marais listening SO SENSUALLY to her iPod on the cover.)

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Girls, Vol. 2: All Adventurous Women Do

Released February 7, 2014
Stats: iTunes says it’s so far the best-selling TV soundtrack of 2014, after Nashville.
Key Track: Jenny Lewis, ‘Completely Not Me’ 

There’s hope yet for the form, thanks to All Adventurous Women Do, a rare charting entry in 2014 and a mostly impeccable collection, including tracks from Beck, Miguel, Aimee Mann, Cat Power, Father John Misty, Vampire Weekend and M. Ward. The only one you might skip is, maybe, ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis, but only because you’ve surely heard it enough by now. (Or maybe you prefer Ryan Adams‘ cover from The O.C., which, criminally, was never put on a single mix. Is it too late for them to release a seventh, and right this wrong?)

Simon Miraudo is Quickflix’s AFCA award-winning news editor and film critic. He is also co-host of The Podcasting Couch and tweets at @simonmiraudo.