HBO’s The Sopranos was a true game-changer for television. It was among the first original scripted content that HBO would produce, and the first hour-long, cinematic drama of its kind. Though it ended its glorious run in 2007, The Sopranos remains as popular as ever in 2021.
The depth of the writing and the craftsmanship of the production are what give the show its enduring replay value. Part of what makes the series so rich is its use of music to set the mood, enforce the themes, and even foreshadow certain events. David Chase, the show’s creator, is a huge music fan, and so these 10 song choices are simply perfect.
In season one’s “Isabella,” Tony finds himself in a depression over his associate’s disappearance. He imagines a beautiful Italian woman in his neighbor’s backyard, only to realize she was a hallucination once they return from vacation. The British indie band Tindersticks’ “Tiny Tears” plays twice during the episode, perfectly describing Tony’s emotional state.
Later in the episode, an attempt is made on Tony’s life. The song abruptly cuts out when a bullet crashes through Tony’s car window. Nothing like the sudden need to fight for your life to snap you out of a funk.
“All Through The Night”
Tony attends his daughter Meadow’s high school choir concert, where they perform a soothing version of “All Through the Night.” Tony is seen in the audience, trying to relax and enjoy the performance, but is obviously distracted.
The scene is intercut with two violent acts that are taking place simultaneously. First, we see Uncle Junior’s goons drag Christopher out to the docks and frighten him with a mock execution. Then, we see Junior himself and his associate Mikey Palmice carrying out a hit on Christopher’s friend Brendan. All while the lullaby plays … all through the night.
“Take Me To The River”
Georgie, the bartender at the Bada Bing, gives Tony a singing Billy Bass as a gag gift. Tony is originally amused as it begins to play the hit Al Green song “Take Me to the River,” but then becomes disturbed when the fish turns his head and addresses Tony directly and sings during the song’s chorus.
Of course, Tony’s longtime friend Big Pussy “sleeps with the fishes,” and was killed by Tony, Paulie, and Silvio, out on a boat. One could say they “took him to the river,” and “dropped him in the water.”
“Living On A Thin Line”
David Chase is a fan of The Kinks, a band whose music is featured multiple times throughout the series, most effectively in the infamous “University” episode. “Living on a Thin Line” is a brooding, moody tune that foreshadows the horrific fate of Tracee the stripper, who’s beaten to death by Ralph towards the episode’s conclusion.
The song’s chorus, “Living on a thin line, tell me now, what are we supposed to do?” also describes Tony’s dilemma on how to respond to her murder: he wants to avenge her, but he can’t because Ralph is a made man.
“Peter Gunn”/”Every Breath You Take” Mashup
One of the most clever and groovy musical choices in the entire series is the mashup of Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” and The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” in season three’s “Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood.”
FBI Agents pose as utility workers in the neighborhood and stake out each and every member of the household to figure out when the house is empty, so they can move in wiretap the Soprano home. The show’s editors matched the keys and tempos of the two songs and mashed them together in brilliant fashion to create a brand new track unique to The Sopranos.
Van Morrison’s “Glad Tidings” is upbeat and happy sounding, yet the lyrics are unmistakably sad. This made it a perfect choice for the scene when Tony kills his cousin Toby Blundetto, played by Steve Buscemi.
The lyrics begin, “And they’ll lay you down, slow and easy,” foreshadowing the events of the scene. After all, Tony kills his cousin not out of malice, but of mercy, to save him from the slow and painful death he’d have suffered if the rival New York family got to him first.
“When It’s Cold I Like To Die”
“Join The Club” is a brilliant episode that takes place mostly in Tony’s subconscious while he’s in a coma. In this alternate dreamworld, Tony is not a mafia boss, but a traveling salesman.
Actor James Gandolfini drops Tony’s thick Jersey accent, and for this episode, plays a typical American everyman who plays by the rules. In the episode’s final moments, Tony sits in his hotel room, alone and afraid, staring out the window as Moby’s “When It’s Cold I Like To Die” plays in the background. It’s a moment unlike any other in the series, and it comes together brilliantly, thanks to this perfect song choice.
At the end of season six’s “Stage 5,” New York boss Phil Leotardo vents his frustration to his associate Butchie at having been wronged too many times without exacting revenge on his enemies. He vows, “No more,” as British punk rocker John Cooper Clarke’s “Evidently Chickentown” crescendos in the background. The song plays through the episode’s final scene, where Tony becomes the godfather to Christopher’s baby daughter at her baptism.
The more conventional song choice here would have been a somber, more operatic selection, but “Evidently Chickentown” is so fraught with kinetic tension that it makes the sequence a chilling harbinger of the bloodshed that awaits the rival families in the subsequent episodes.
“Woke Up This Morning”
The pulsing drum and bass beat of Alabama 3’s “Woke Up This Morning” plays under the opening shot of Tony’s SUV emerging from the Lincoln Tunnel – so begins what is perhaps the best opening titles sequence in television history.
Tony drives his way through the industrial landscape of northern New Jersey, cigar smoke obscuring our view of his face, as the New York City skyline and the Statue of Liberty are seen out the car window.
“Don’t Stop Believin'”
It’s a testament to how perfect this song choice is that a tune as famous as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” is still inextricably linked to Sopranos lore to this day. Audiences thought their cable went out when The Sopranos‘ series finale abruptly cut to black, along with the music, after one last look at Tony’s face as Meadow enters the diner.
The iconic song blares over the show’s incredibly tense final moments when Meadow struggles to parallel park her car as a suspicious character leers at Tony from across the restaurant, and walks past him towards the bathroom. Whether Tony lives or dies in the end is still a hotly debated subject. What’s beyond question is the enduring power of the series’ final moments, thanks in large part to its genius musical selection.