One of the best things about watching other forms of media — TV, film, even advertising — as a music fan is getting to experience the ways that your relationships with your favorite songs can be adjusted by their use in various shows, movies and commercials. In the best cases, their deployment as soundtrack pieces can find meaning in them that you never knew existed, and which may have not even been there in the first place. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, the results can be absolutely magical.
Here were our 15 favorite such uses of songs in 2016, which helped turn unexpected karaoke performances, lip-sync-like-nobody’s-watching promo clips and show-stopping musical numbers into some of the most memorable moments in media this year.
15. Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah” (Saturday Night Live)
Did Saturday Night Live try to have it both ways by allowing Donald Trump to guest in 2015, then having franchise player Kate McKinnon (in her Hillary Clinton guise) open the first post-election episode in 2016 with a funereal rendition of “Hallelujah”? Certainly, but there’s no doubting that McKinnon’s performance was spellbinding, and that in a national moment of mourning — for songwriting great Leonard Cohen, if not for the future of the whole country — the moment was more cathartic than a lot of us would easily admit. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
14. Seal, “Kiss From a Rose” (The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story)
One of the reasons The People v. O.J. Simpson was such a thrill was that it made the ‘90s seem like a bona fide period piece. The music selections (and some extremely wide ties) certainly helped, and nothing set the mood better than hearing Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” while Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clarke showed off her now-infamous hairdo for the first time. The 1995 chart-topper — which originally became a smash after appearing on the soundtrack to Batman Forever — is one of those tracks that has become a victim of its own success: a classic, but rarely heard without some sense of retroactive irony. In other words, the sonic version of Marcia’s perm. — JAMES GREBEY
13. Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Suicide Squad)
The premise of Suicide Squad — rounding up B- and C-list supervillains in only the third installment of a massive Cinematic Universe — seemed questionable from the start, and the movie soon proved to be kind of a mess. But for one brief, shining moment, it had potential: The first official trailer was scored to a chopped-up version of Queen’s karaoke classic. It was weird, unexpected and fun, unlike anything we’d heard before in the grim DC franchise. It was enough to make viewers ask if this was the real life, even if dreams of a cohesive final film turned out to be just fantasy. – J.G.
12. Nina Simone, “Stars” (BoJack Horseman)
BoJack Horseman, both the funniest drama and most depressing comedy on
TV Netflix, always saves a wallop of a musical cue for each season’s closing sequence, and this year the show really went for the jugular with Nina Simone‘s melodramatic meditation on fame and aging, “Stars.” Simone’s live cover of the Janis Ian song plays as the animated show’s titular anthropomorphized, past-his-prime protagonist considers literally letting go of the wheel, but as the pianos swell underneath him and he sees a number of horses running free off the side of the road, he momentarily regains control — a moment of ambiguous but powerful grace in a show capable of eliciting just about every emotion at once. — A.U.
11. Beastie Boys, “Sabotage” (Star Trek: Beyond)
Captain James T. Kirk’s obsession with the Beastie Boys — music that would be centuries old by the time he’s rocking to it — has always seemed a little forced. It started as an Easter egg alluding to William Shatner’s weird way of pronouncing “sabotage” (“sabataage”), but in the new series’ surprisingly fun installment, Beyond, it becomes a crucial plot point. In order to disrupt a swarm of drone spaceships, the crew of the Enterprise needs to blast some sort of rhythmic music to jam their frequency — and “Sabotage” is the perfect choice. Subtle? Hardly. Fun? Absolutely.
10. New Order, “Elegia” (Stranger Things)
As obvious as some of the filmic reference points were for the surprise breakout series of 2016, its new wave-era musical cues were often even less nuanced, with soundtrack choices that felt forced, unnecessary, and occasionally downright anachronistic. But when creators the Duffer Brothers went a little deeper, they occasionally hit pay dirt, as with the mid-season funeral for Will Byers (spoiler alert: not really dead), set to New Order‘s foreboding instrumental epic “Elegia” — which children of the ’80s may recall previously soundtracking Andie’s pre-prom drama in Pretty in Pink — providing perhaps the doomiest moment of a show that rarely soft-pedaled its darkness. — A.U.
9. Empire of the Sun, “Walking on a Dream” (Honda commercial)
Never underestimate the power of capitalism. Thanks to a Honda commercial that dedicated TV viewers must’ve watched hundreds of times in the beginning of 2016, Empire of the Sun hit the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. for the first time with a track that was nearly a decade old. Luckily, “Walking on a Dream” lent itself well to being heard repeatedly in 30-second snippets, pleasantly welcoming the listener to its synth-powered dreamscape without being aggressive about shilling itself (or the car). Still, slightly weird that the spacey track is all about walking and running, neither of which involving driving a Honda Civic with a 174-horsepower turbo-charged engine. — J.G.
8. Tears for Fears, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” (Mr. Robot)
One of the most surreal moments of Mr. Robot‘s divisive second season — no small distinction — came at an extraordinarily unconvincing karaoke party attended by unwilling hacker and increasingly high-powered businesswoman Angela Moss. Her rendition of Tears for Fears‘ early-MTV classic, sung in a dolorous half-croon with gently plodding piano accompaniment, sounds more like a Nicole Dollanganger BandCamp cover than any empty-orchestra belting you’ve ever heard. But as impractical as the scene seemed, it made for an oddly affecting moment, with a choked-up Angela clearly relating to the song’s confidently anxious lyrics: “Welcome to your life / There’s no turning back.” — A.U.
7. Wu-Tang Clan, “Bring Da Ruckus” (Luke Cage)
Marvel’s Luke Cage was full of memorable musical moments — including cameos and stirring live performances by Method Man, Charles Bradley and the late Sharon Jones. But the track that really helped set the mood was the Wu-Tang-Clan’s “Bring Da Ruckus,” which played during Luke’s major fight scene against a horde of goons in a dark Harlem building. Luke’s fighting style is annoyed: With his superstrength and unbreakable skin, the protagonist doesn’t need to bother with fancy kung fu or “dodging attacks.” He just charges in with a thundering, steady beat and, well, brings da ruckus. — J.G.
6. Jimmy Eat World, “The Middle” (Apple commercial)
Jimmy Eat World released a pretty good new album this October with Integrity Blues, but their comeback was presaged long earlier by “Taylor Mic Drop,” the Beats 1 Radio ad featuring the titular pop megastar doing her one-woman Lip Sync Battle to the group’s Bleed American classic “The Middle,” something every music fan under the age of 35 has done at least once in the past 15 years. Really, though, Taylor: “I used to listen to this song in Middle School”? Like you hadn’t, I dunno, performed it live with Jimmy Eat World within the past half-decade. — A.U.
5. Lizzo & Caroline Smith, “Let ‘Em Say” (Broad City)
Though the third season of Comedy Central cult comedy favorite Broad City finally saw the show’s cultural momentum stall a bit, you wouldn’t have predicted any drop off based on the season’s opening scene, the exhilarating supercut “Four Seasons in the Bathroom.” Using the lavatory for just about every practical (and impractical) reason imaginable, there’s an implied full-season’s worth of action that transpires in the two-minute clip, and set to the exuberant synth-pop of Lizzo and Caroline Smith’s “Let ‘Em Say,” it feels like a greatest-hits montage of your twenties — the ones you wish you lived, anyway. — A.U.
4. Belinda Carlisle, “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” (Black Mirror)
Belinda Carlisle’s chart-topping ’80s favorite was an absurdly on-the-nose choice to close out “San Junipero,” the standout episode of Black Mirror’s Netflix revival. The hour’s big twist is that San Junipero isn’t a real California beach city after all, but a computer-simulated afterlife set in a retro, neon-lit 1980s paradise. It’s almost too perfect — heaven literally is a place on Earth (or cyberspace, at least). That, though, is exactly the point. Heaven is supposed to be perfect, and the emotional rollercoaster that precedes Carlisle’s first “ooh baby” gives the classic cheesy track an unexpectedly moving resonance. — J.G.
3. Salt-n-Pepa, “Shoop” (Deadpool)
No movie this year — and no comic book movie ever — had as much fun with its musical selections as Deadpool, which differentiates itself from the self-serious pack right from the top by having its masked hero rap along to Salt-n-Pepa’s randy rap treasure “Shoop” in one of its opening sequences. The movie gets further mileage out of pop classics ranging from Wham!’s “Careless Whisper” to DMX’s “X Gon’ Give It To Ya,” but the “Shoop” scene sets the tone for the whole blockbuster to follow: funny, irreverent, pop culture-literate and surprisingly loose with gender and sexuality norms. — A.U.
2. OutKast, “Elevators (Me and You)” (Atlanta)
Kudos to Donald Glover and company for resisting what must have been considerable temptation to use OutKast‘s “Elevators (Me and You)” early in its first year, instead holding the song until the very end of the season’s tenth and final episode. The song may as well have been written specifically for Glover’s series, 20 years in advance: the duo’s first top-20 hit on the Hot 100, a benchmark in ATL hip-hop, and perhaps the greatest song for the kind of in-transit, lost-in-your-own-world headphones listening Glover spends much of the series doing recorded in the last quarter-century. Not to mention that by the time of the song’s appearance — where Glover’s character Earn silently celebrates having netted his first $200 as a hip-hop manager — he may finally be on his way to moving up in the world like the titular conveyance. — A.U.
1. Alanis Morissette, “Hand in My Pocket” (Transparent)
In a scene-stealing Transparent season finale that no one could’ve seen coming, Judith Light’s oft-neglected Shelley Pfefferman character borrows a song that’s also come to be taken for granted — Alanis Morissette‘s once-inescapable 1995 hit “Hand in My Pocket” — for the show-stopping musical centerpiece of her one-woman show, To Shell and Back. Teased for nearly the entire season as what seems like will inevitably end up an overwrought, narcisstic endeavor (and a source of scorn for the rest of her family), To Shell and Back instead ends up a revelation thanks to Shelley’s realization of Alanis’ peerleslsy conflicted hit (“I’m sad but I’m laughigng / I’m brave but I’m chickenshit”) as her very own “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” a hidden anthem in which she finds empowerment and forgiveness in owning that she doesn’t have it all figured out just yet. — A.U.