The Best TV Show Soundtracks of 2020

Image Credit: Jonas Leupe

Now that the finish line of 2020 is in sight, at Routenote we’re looking back over this endless year and pulling together some of the highlights from the music world. First up, TV show soundtracks.

If there’s one thing everybody excelled at in 2020, it was staring at a screen. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and the rest of the gang knew they had us trapped and could have thrown anything at us.

Luckily TV shows this year continued to commission beautiful, bold and banging soundtracks. Here’s eight of the best.

The Mandalorian (Disney+)

To help ease us through a year of lockdowns Disney+ launched in the UK, and with it came the first two series of a Star Wars spin-off featuring the World’s Greatest (killer) Dad. It also features this year’s best theme tune… Just try and get that beat out of your head. The composer, Ludwig Göransson, was also responsible for the Black Panther (2014) and Venom (2018) soundtracks. Göransson perfectly captures the feel of a Western set in space, using an array of weird and wonderful instruments and sound effects. The horns call back to the original Star Wars theme and instantly bring to mind canyons, the vastness of the open desert and the darkness of space.

I May Destroy You (BBC/HBO)

Michaela Coel’s impossible-to-define show takes you from laughter to horror in an instant. To soundtrack the intense portrayal of the lives of young Black Londoners, curator Ciara Elwis chose to put a spotlight on rising British acts like Arlo Parks and Greentea Peng, alongside Janelle Monáe and other famous names. The tracks mirror the personalities of the characters as Coel’s protagonist tries to piece together what happened on a night out.

His Dark Materials (BBC/HBO)

Another stirring instrumental that unexpectedly burrows its way into your ear for the rest of the week. The second series of the TV adaptation of Philip Pullman’s fantasy books is classic Sunday night family fare, with beautiful visuals and a stellar cast including James McAvoy. The theme creeps open with a tick-tocking solo piano, followed by dancing cello and violin before the rest of the strings bring the mysterious-sounding main theme. Composer Lorne Balfe, who won a Grammy for scoring The Dark Knight (2009), definitely seems to be channelling Game of Thrones.

Small Axe: Lover’s Rock (BBC)

One to make you ache for a good house party. (Or any party at all, for that matter.) Part of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, the highs and lows of a London house party in the British West Indian community are played out along with a gorgeous selection of ‘70s tracks. Rocksteady, Motown, pop, R&B… We follow the characters through the sweaty living room, squeeze past cramped toilet queues and up and down the cigarette smoke-filled garden path on a kaleidoscope of a night.

The Third Day (Sky Atlantic/HBO)

The music of pagan-horror three-part series The Third Day mirrors the psychological state of the characters. Jude Law and Naomi Harris’s characters are discovering how they fit into the island, and the music reflects that, slowly ratcheting up the feeling of dread. The middle episode of the miniseries, ‘Autumn’, was shot and screened live, an experimental piece of theatre that included Law digging a hole for an hour

Noughts + Crosses (BBC)

This adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s YA series is set in an alternate parallel history where the ruling race is of African descent. The soundtrack features artists like Ebo Taylor and Songhoy Blues (who are featured performing in the series). Composer Matthew Herbert was committed to finding the perfect sound, the soundtrack team even recording themselves hitting the walls of buildings with links to Bristol’s role in the slave trade to include on the score. African instruments are present but distorted, making them sound just a little different, which was the overall idea of the whole show – things are familiar, but disconcerting and dystopian.

The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)

Who would have thought watching chess could be so captivating? The series follows orphaned Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) who has both a love for chess and an addiction to tranquillisers. Carlos Rafael Rivera’s theme instantly calls to mind going into battle – armies rushing down a hillside, the upper hand switching from one General to the other. Alongside a soundtrack of 1960s tracks sits an orchestral score that mirrors the cycle of Beth’s quick mind with the turning of piano phrases and glossy repeated notes, whilst call-and-response lines follow the ticking-over of genius brains in combat.

Star Trek: Picard (Amazon Prime/CBS) and Star Trek: Discovery (Netflix)

What a year to be a Trekkie. 2020 saw the release of the first season of Picard and the third season of Discovery, both soundtracked by composer Jeff Russo. The music and overall feel of Picard focuses on one figure, beloved protagonist Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). Discovery boldly launched a new ship with a whole new crew, whereas the music of Picard mirrors one character’s emotions not just the action. Both themes finding a balance between nostalgia and new, calling back to musical elements from previous series but also pulling the story forward – Discovery most obviously, ending the title sequence with the original Star Trek Theme.

The theme of Discovery mixes a tone of wonder with adventurous choppy strings, pulling us towards action, whilst the beautiful strings and stately brass of Picard are more thoughtful but no less epic. The visuals show the shards of Picard coming together, returning to screens for the first time since Star Trek: Nemesis in 2002.

Who knows when TV productions will be able to shoot as normal again – but I’m sure the shows that premiere in 2021 will bring great soundtracks with them.

I write about music for RouteNote, sharing fun stuff, news, and tips and tricks for musicians and producers. Also a saxophonist and hater of marmalade.

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