*SPOILERS AHEAD FOR TV SHOWS FROM THE EARLY 2000s*

TV series have a way of getting you emotionally invested in the lives of fictional characters, and music plays a huge role in this connection. I’m not talking about the theme song, or the score. I’m talking about those tracks that perfectly capture that monumental scene, such that they are forever associated. You can’t think of one without thinking of the other. Here are my top picks. (Note: these were the ones that most resonated with me, based only on TV shows I’ve watched over the years.)

Alias – S02E14, 2003

“God Put a Smile Upon Your Face” – by Coldplay

The premise: a thriller-drama about a female super spy turned double agent, Sydney Bristow (aka Jennifer Garner.) The story lines, characters, plot twists, and all the lies, were all so well woven together in this show.

The scene: Sydney and her CIA-handler beau Vaughn (played by the dashingly handsome Michael Vartan) are hanging out at her place, making dinner. But the food never makes it to the table, because they decide to get distracted by their physical attraction to each other.

Why it makes the list: a seemingly innocuous scene where nothing actually happens. Except they’ve had such a will-they-won’t-they relationship thus far, and in this scene, it seems everything is finally perfect. They’re so into each other, they can’t contain it; you can see it in their eyes, their body language, their faces. You can feel the heat between them. This track is a fantastic choice for this scene, because it has just the right amount of sexy and excitement, mirroring exactly what’s happening on screen.

 

Grey’s Anatomy – S02E17, 2006

“Breathe (2AM)” by Anna Nalick 

The premise: a medical drama. I have no idea how/why it’s still on the air 14 (!) seasons later. I cut ties after season 2, because I just couldn’t anymore. Meredith’s face never stopped pouting, George’s hair got obnoxiously curly, and don’t even get me started on the Izzie/Denny story line.

The scene: somehow, Meredith (aka Ellen Pompeo) got herself in a predicament where she was holding on to a bomb inside a patient’s chest cavity. If she let go, it would go off, so she had to slowly remove it, and hand it over to hunky, green-eyed bomb squad leader (ie Kyle Chandler, ie Coach Taylor.)

Why it makes this list: in spite of the show’s shortcomings, its earlier seasons were actually pretty good. Anything went. People died, bad stuff happened. This scene is incredibly intense. That bomb could go off any second. Yet this airy, light pop track is playing in the background, for a supposed calming effect. It’s a perfect distraction, making what happens next completely unexpected. I haven’t been able to trust this song since.

 

Scrubs – S08E19, 2009

“The Book of Love” – by Peter Gabriel 

The premise: a medical comedy that follows 4 friends, JD (Zach Braff), Turk (Donald Faison),  Elliott (Sarah Chalke) and Carla (Judy Espinosa) as they navigate through life, evolving from lost puppies, to strong women/men in charge, all while maintaining their friendships.

The scene: JD finishes his last day at the hospital, walks out and in front of him he sees glimpses of his possible future projected on a movie screen. A montage of yet-to-come events, to the backdrop of this beautiful song.

Why it makes this list: “Scrubs” was one those shows that was kind of like having a best friend around at all times. The characters felt real, their friendships felt real, the love felt real. JD is the sappy, cheesy type, so this finale fit him perfectly. I’d never heard this song prior to watching this episode; now whenever I hear it, this scene is all I see.

 

Six Feet Under – S05E12, 2005

“Breathe Me” by Sia 

The premise: the story of the Fisher family, who owned, lived and worked in their funeral home. Warning: this is a heavy show. It’s dark, raw, emotional, slow and also very well done (just don’t try and binge watch all 5 seasons – it’s too tough.)

The scene: the series finale. The series ended with youngest child Claire Fisher finally getting her life together and leaving her family’s (funeral) home to take on the world. As she drives away, flashes of how all the characters eventually die come through, soundtracked by this equally dark, raw, emotional, slow and very well done song. Easily one of the best finales I’ve ever seen.

Why it makes this list: it was a very character-driven show, so by the end you felt like Ruth, Nate, David and Claire Fisher were family, because you just knew them so well. Their good, their bad and their ugly (the episode where David gets attacked still haunts me.) Not to mention the acting chops on Michael C. Hall, Lauren Ambrose, Peter Krause and Frances Conroy. This entire video comes into view when I hear this song. It still gives me chills, and this scene alone made the entire series worth watching.

 

ER – S06E13, 2000

“Battleflag” – by Lo Fidelity All Stars 

The premise: another medical drama.

The scene: it’s Valentine’s Day and the ER staff are throwing a small party in the hospital. Dr. John Carter (aka Noah Wyle) stops by, and goes looking for a med student he’d asked to treat a patient.

Why it makes this list: it’s purely personal. I was obsessed with ER back in the day. I never missed an episode, watching it all in real time. No bingeing, no PVR. This was such a monumental episode because it changed the lives of so many characters. It’s an utterly benign scene, so you’d have no reason to expect anything major was going to happen. As things go awry, the music gets louder and louder, until it’s all you hear. To this day, I feel the pain of this scene all over again, any time I hear this track.

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Brooklyn-based The National has been around since all the way back in 2001, but I didn’t quite jump on their bandwagon until 2007’s epic Boxer. I can’t remember if it was a friend or boy of interest at the time that swayed me on to them, but whoever it was, I am forever indebted; I’ve been enamored ever since. Matt Berninger is on vocals; brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner on guitar; brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf, on guitar and drums, respectively. If you haven’t done so yet, here’s why should give them a shot.

 

The sound: the best way to describe The National’s sound, is emotive. They’re able to masterfully evoke the sentiments of each track, pulling you deeper and deeper into their thoughtful realm. They don’t commit to any one sound exclusively, but rather to several equally. They sometimes slam the drums, and crush guitar riffs, while Berninger loses his mind on the mic. Other times, the noise is faint, the vocals barely audible, but everything is perfectly timed, building up and up with each line. You never know exactly what you’re going to get with them, which urges you to keep exploring.

 

The lyrics: there’s no hiding that The National puts out some of the most thought-provoking words out there, and with each listen, you gain more insight into their minds. They’re executed so perfectly, so delicately, ensuring every lyric has its moment to shine. Each time, their soft claws sink deeper and deeper into your soul until there’s nowhere else for them to go. You get hooked, addicted to that intense feeling. They get you to exercise that part of your brain your day-to-day life ignores. That part of your brain, that’s full of questions; that’s confused about why things are the way they are, that is full of all your vulnerabilities. They make you wonder. As heavy as that sounds, it’s also incredibly liberating.

 

The vocals: Berninger’s voice can be deep, quiet and heavy, creating a sound that reverberates in your ears, long after the music has stopped. It’s the voice we all use when we talk to ourselves, while trying to sort out everything in our minds. Berninger’s voice can also be louder and more musical, full of emotion and passion, and all the reactions to what he’s feeling. It’s the voice we use when we’re done thinking about everything and just need to let it all out. This back and forth between vocal stylings makes the lyrics and the songs all that much more relatable because we’ve all been there, we’ve all felt that.

 

The albums: when you listen to any of The National’s albums, you really have to listen to them. The albums reveal themselves more and more with each repetition, and the only way to truly understand any of them, is to pay attention. Their live shows take all of this, and heighten it even further. No song is like any other, no album is like any other. Go on their journey with them: they’ll lift you up, bring you down, and make you feel all over, but they’ll never let you go. Once you get them, you won’t be able to forget them.

It goes without saying, there’s an art to covering another musician’s work. The key is to make it your own, change as you see fit, whilst maintaining the essence of the original. The following artists missed the memo on all that.

“Get What You Give” by Felix Cartal

Why on Earth did Cartal decide to cover such an underwhelming track? 90s one-hit wonder band The New Radicals birthed this back in 1998, had their 15 minutes, then quit the industry. I tried to find a way to defend his choice – he is, after all, a fellow Canadian. But in no universe, did this make any sense. It wasn’t a good song to begin with, and Cartal just made it worse.


“Faith” by Limp Bizkit

What would possess wannabe punk rockers to make a “loud” version of George Michael’s (RIP) 80s classic? Lead singer Fred Durst along with his whiny voice, roam the streets in oversized board shorts, baseball hats, and a pathetic excuse for a goatee. It’s incomprehensible to me why someone of Durst’s lack of abilities felt he was capable of paying homage to peak George Michael. Brace your ears, this is quite the abomination.

“Fast Car” by Jonas Blue feat. Dakota

This track isn’t like the rest, because technically, it’s a remix, and not a cover. But still; even that was a poor choice by this Jonas Blue character. Tracy Chapman’s original was drowning in emotion. It hung on to that bit of hope, that bit of freedom of not having your past drag you down, and it made you feel everything. This version makes you feel nothing.  Shame on you, Jonas Blue (and Dakota.)

“Under the Bridge” by All Saints

Let me get this straight: female pop group All Saints had the audacity not only to try and cover this epic Red Hot Chili Peppers’ track, but to also do it so so poorly. The DJ-scratch over the guitar intro is offensive. They try to make a song about loneliness and getting high, into something seductive and sultry and mysterious, which for some reason requires the bearing of midriffs. They completely fly over the heart of this song, and ignore its soul. How dare you, All Saints. How dare you.

“Light My Fire” by Train

Train: you are a mediocre pop/rock group (at best) that hit the top of your game in the early 2000s, with a couple of hit singles.  The Doors:  released this song in 1967, and are one the most influential bands of all time. They helped define rock ‘n roll, and this was one of the songs that paved the way. This cover is insulting, forgettable, and keeps none of the spirit of the original. So Train, I have to ask: who do you think you are?

 

(Note: all covers of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and anything by The Beatles or Michael Jackson were omitted – there are just too many horrible ones.)