As noted in our Best TV Shows list, there was just a lot of television in 2022. It’s so, so easy for great work to get lost in the relentless churn of new streaming content, even as reality programming bends us ever closer to the “30 Rock” universe. It’s even easier for great musical work to get lost on television, where scores are able to have an ambition and originality the rest of a legacy IP production might lack, or to embrace experimental elements viewers may not even notice while they’re watching a conventional-looking scene. We double-checked that film legends John Williams and Howard Shore came to TV to score themes this year, because it feels like a million years ago already now.
Speaking of legacies, Ramin Djawaldi and Siddhartha Khosla pushed the boundaries of some of the most iconic recent scores on television even as “The House of the Dragon” and “Only Murders in the Building” continued to lean on memorable old themes. Newer thrillers like “The Resort” and “1899” mined great tension and atmosphere out of their scores, even if they never reached the cultural earworm heights that “Stranger Things” ran up that hill this year. There are hidden sonic gems all over the TV landscape, from documentary to comedy to even true crime. Whether they distinguished themselves for their sheer emotive power, originality in instrumentation and rhythm, or their collaboration and integration with the drama of their series, it might be the biggest compliment we can pay the scores that made our Top 10 list this year that they are first among many, many equals.
10. Gaslit (Mac Quayle)
“Gaslit” has a bunch of tricky tones it needs to hit all at once: it’s a political thriller about one of the most told stories in American politics, a commentary on power itself, a darkly funny comedy, a Julia Roberts performance vehicle, and probably the most stressful story about a cat on TV this year. What on Earth does all of that sound like together? Well, it sounds like Mac Quayle’s score, which blends twisting strings and flutes with more full orchestrations that can make the events onscreen look either demonic or ridiculous or, sometimes, both at once. More than tying music to any one character, Quayle ties the score to Nixon’s Washington D.C., with all its ostentation with rot at its core; he builds and breaks musical refrains with the glee of a child knocking over a block tower and blows the sound up big only to have a solo piano cut through it like a knife. The music of “Gaslit” perfectly captures the twists and turns of the show’s story and creates a sonic environment to match the wood-paneled rooms where idiot men thought they could get away with anything. —Sarah Shachat
There’s a very unnerving marriage of ticking percussion and electric drones and delicate piano running throughout the “Severance” score, but generating unease isn’t the beginning or the end of what composer Theodore Shapiro is able to achieve with the music or the show. The world of “Severance” is an unnervingly layered puzzle box of corporate dread, and Shapiro built a score that is, paradoxically, ambitious in its restraint. The show’s central theme obsessively recurs in fits and starts and variations, giving us a musical window into how inescapable and dense the reach of Lumon is and perhaps also a sense that our characters’ experiences as both their “innie” and “outie” selves, in and out of work, is connected in ways none of us understand. Because Shapiro is operating within a very confined musical space, too, listeners are able to track small changes in the music and give them the force of a giant key or instrumental change. Each time Shapiro frays, distorts, and reframes the show’s core musical idea prompts the viewer to lean just a little bit closer to the screen and get sucked a little bit deeper into the mystery. He’s also able to fold some of the characters’ tenderness towards each other into the repeating piano chords, too, and that hope that a theme will be able to break free and realize its fullest expression ramps up the tension and makes the inevitable wrong note all the more heartbreaking. —SS
8. “Interview with the Vampire” (Daniel Hart)
“Operatic” is a descriptor you truly have to earn. In setting an immortal and doomed love story to music, Daniel Hart’s violin-heavy “Interview with the Vampire” score arpeggiates its way into the infinite. Vampire tales, especially through Anne Rice’s conception and the series interpretation, are a blend of tragedy and romance. Hart provides both. The aggressive bowing and dissonant piano melodies give way to graceful, lush lines of discovery. You can feel the thrill and despair of Louis de Pointe du Lac (Jacob Anderson) as he discovers what his new life brings with it. Much like Louis savors the riches of a New Orleans evening while facing the burden of forever, Hart can tiptoe his way between something full and fierce and a haunting music-box feel. Expect nothing less from a show that turns the simple idea of tuning into its own knowing, transgressive act. —SG
7. “Rings of Power” (Bear McCreary)
Howard Shore may have penned the title theme for Amazon’s “Lord of the Rings” prequel, but it’s composer Bear McCreary who makes the world of “The Rings of Power” so musically rich and inviting. The score is a force of nature unto itself, whether McCreary is scoring the first eruption of Mount Doom or finding a musical way to convey the call of Paradise. But what makes the “Rings of Power” score so exceptional is the way that McCreary organizes it to convey storytelling and character information. The show uses score not just to differentiate the many realms of Middle Earth’s second age, but also to subtly position how the main characters fit (or don’t fit) within them. The instrumental, choral, rhythmic, and temperature choices that McCreary makes for elves, men, dwarves, halflings, and TBD magical entities are so clear you can close your eyes and listen to the tracks on the score that underlie big moments of action and understand the dynamics at play without needing to see a thing. That would be accomplishment enough. But McCreary composes with a wonderful awareness of the work of his predecessor, never copying but sort of reverse engineering the sounds that would, a couple thousand years of story later, lead the Celtic strings of the nomadic Harfoots to sound a lot more like the county fair fiddles of the Hobbits of the Shire. The score achieves exactly the impossible feat the series sets out for itself: to sound both completely new and exactly like the Middle Earth we remember. —SS
6. “The Baby” (Lucrecia Dalt)
When you’re dealing with a show about a little tiny toddler who may or may not have come from Hell itself, you need some music that really sells that idea. There are a few classic horror story signifiers here, but Lucrecia Dalt also whips up what sounds like fragments from other works trying to worm their way into what the audience hears. Drum fills with clanking bottles? Bass-heavy thrums that could fill a giant oil tanker? Tiny synth patterns that bore right into your frontal lobe? Is that a harmonica or an airy saxophone or someone trying to control your brain? Dalt moves back and forth between all of these ideas with ease. She also weaves in some otherworldly humming and breathing, sometimes layered as if the singers themselves were using their vocal cords like the found percussion items peppered in everywhere else. (The closest “The Baby” has to a featured melody is a simple rhythmic breathing that lies somewhere between heartbeat and ancient curse.) Dispensed in shorter bursts in the overall flow of the Sky/HBO series, every new piece has the kind of destabilizing effect you want for a show that straddles genres, decades, and maybe even dimensions. It’s a whirlwind, it’s an attack, it’s a symphony. —SG
5. “Better Call Saul” (Dave Porter)
Over almost a decade and a half, Dave Porter has honed the own sound of Albuquerque. Through anger and evil and heartache, as the main characters in “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” have done the unforgivable, Porter has been right there with an industrial grittiness to back it up. The final “Saul” season had plenty of that, but like so many other artisans who’ve worked in this universe for that long, Season 6 was an ideal chance to pull out all the stops. To the usual arsenal of heavy guitar fuzz, versatile drum samples, and ambient synthscapes, Porter brought in some “Terminator”-style firepower for the series’ unstoppable forces. When the show made a wintry move to a black-and-white hideaway, there was the composer showing off his gentler, sneakier side too. Dense, layered, and propulsive, Porter’s series-long work adds up to a vibe that few would ever think to bring to these sprawling personal tragedies. And it’s impossible to imagine this show’s twists and turns sounding any other way. —Steve Greene
4. “Pachinko” (Nico Muhly)
Nico Muhly is mostly a classical composer and his approach to the music on “Pachinko” is correspondingly timeless, bound up in rich strings, piano, and choral work. But Muhly’s choices fit perfectly with a family saga spanning three countries and three generations, where what connects the story of young Sunja (Minha Kim) all the way to her grandson Solomon (Jin Ha) is the emotional longing for more, for a better life. This is a Romantic score with a capital “R” and a quasi-chamber music feel, creating a structured sound that compliments the visual ways directors Kogonada and Justin Chon achieve intimacy with their compositions. Muhly’s music is never overemphasizing what we can see and always instead adding another dimension to it. The themes composed for Sunja find ways to expand and echo out across time with a wistfulness and not a little bit of heartbreak, but there’s an underlying strength to them, too, and a conscious beauty that matches the Korea she eventually leaves behind. The result is, simply, one of the most gorgeous scores of the year. —SS
3. “Candy” (Ariel Marx)
All it takes is three chords at the end of the opening credits sequence to sell you completely on this bewitching score from Ariel Marx. In lesser hands, the sound for this Hulu whydunit would come off as ironic or tasteless, with fairy-tale flutes and mallet percussion making an obvious contrast to the haunting, real-life murder story at the heart of the series. But Marx manages to blend the feel of an unassuming North Texas coziness with the very real trauma of an entire town processing a senseless death. It’s a magical sound with decay all around the edges, a trick she also manages to pull off in her work on “A Friend of the Family.” When paired with the sing-song patter of church mothers and secret afternoon trysts, it becomes the musical equivalent of the peppermint circle Candy herself hands out: seemingly sweet on its own, but with some extra added pangs in context. —SG
2. “Andor” (Nicholas Britell)
Few shows were more musically ambitious or more richly rewarding this year than “Andor.” Cassian Andor’s (Diego Luna) adopted homeworld of Ferrix has innate musical characteristics to it, which series creator Tony Gilroy and composer Nicholas Britell needed to hammer out well before shooting started. That early work helped Britell come up with a score that advances the musical language of “Star Wars” just as much as Gilroy’s story richly fills out the evils of the Empire. “Andor” dips into synths and trap sets, experiments with mixing in the metal and hammers of Ferrix, and the events of the Season 1 finale turn on the arrival of a second line that has the same achingly perfect out-of-tune sound as its New Orleans counterparts. But when Britell crafts thematic material for Cassian, it conveys just as much longing and wonder as John Williams was able to imbue into Tatoonie’s binary sunsets. If there’s a little bit more sadness and a little bit more anger and a little bit more cello in “Andor,” well, that’s only fitting for how this story will end. But Britell’s music proves there are thrills to be found in corners of the galaxy untouched by Jedi or Mandalorians, and that the undercover agents of the nascent rebellion can be just as breathtaking and heroic as the sunrise we know they’ll never see. —SS
1. “The English” (Federico Jusid)
Hugo Blick’s Prime Video series doesn’t so much revise the Western as much as it frays its edges and somehow, Federico Jusid finds that same tension between expectation and execution. “The English” is yet another series with a pitch-perfect opening theme woven through the episodes that follow, stirring when it first pops up again and gutting when it’s brought back in an altered form later in the series. It’s fitting for a show that thrives on a specific mix of beauty and brutality. Where the story itself often feels dominated by the latter, Jusid provides a kind of counterbalance. There’s a gentle yearning in the show’s quieter moments, particularly as Cornelia (Emily Blunt) and Eli (Chaske Spencer) struggle to find the words for what they come to mean to each other. Jusid fills in those unspoken gaps, but not just with the grand sweeping orchestral language you might expect. The melody of their love story is filled with starts and stops, like the rocky terrain that often stretches out in front of them. There’s an elegance here in those quiet heart-to-hearts and even in the show’s more violent moments. It wouldn’t feel out of place in the classics of Hollywood past, yet Jusid’s work here feels inextricably linked to this different conception of what was lost in the West rather than won. —SG
Bonus track: “Station Eleven”
We cannot order programming slates to slow down any more than we can order the tide to go out, but what we can do — because it’s our list — is issue an Emeritus pick and honor a score that we simply refuse to forget about. The arrival of HBO’s “Station Eleven” at the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022 couldn’t have been timelier even if some viewers maybe didn’t feel emotionally ready for a show that deals with the aftermath of a deadly global pandemic in the middle of the Omicron winter. But the show is as worth discovering now as it will be 10 and 20 years from now, because “Station Eleven” isn’t some cruel-edged, post-apocalyptic tragedy. There is tragedy, and also “Hamlet,” but “Station Eleven” is about hope and art and connection and comic books, and nothing in the world could be warmer, kinder, or more heartfelt than composer Dan Romer’s music for the series.
There’s an unfussy, lo-fi, homespun quality to much of Romer’s work that perfectly matches the handmade aesthetic of the show’s nomadic theater company, The Traveling Symphony; and yet the score can rocket into pure orchestral beauty, conveying meaning across timelines and storylines, life and death, shared pain and love, in moments where words and images alone aren’t enough. Romer’s music acts as the emotional glue that makes the show’s jumps across time so potent, and the score includes some fun original compositions by Romer and series creator Patrick Somerville, and a baller instrumental version of “Midnight Train To Georgia” besides. Only three of the show’s ten episodes came out in 2022, but they contain some of the Romer’s (and the show’s) most vital work, including the finale that brings all the disparate focuses of “Station Eleven” together in multiple moments that would not work without Romer’s themes acting as an unseen scene partner. We must add it to the wheel before we move on. —SS