When most people think about music from “The Sopranos,” the brooding theme that opens each episode springs immediately to mind.
But “Woke Up This Morning” by A3 isn’t so beloved now simply because it’s a gritty little rocker, which it is. The cut also evokes a mood. Juxtaposed over amateur tracking shots along New Jersey roads, it whets the viewer’s appetite for love, lust, greed, mayhem, comedy, tragedy and the machinations of immediate and extended families.
Since the show debuted in 1999, though, its music has become almost as much of a star as James Gandolfini. And that’s primarily because of highly creative and uncannily apropos use of songs at key junctures. While some of the songs play passively in the background, others act as characters unto themselves, taking a moment or an event and adding a vibrant dimension to the narrative.
After combing the first five-plus seasons of “The Sopranos,” the following is a list of the 10 songs that stand out as being particularly effective. These aren’t necessarily the 10 best songs, nor are they the 10 most significant moments during the run of the show. Rather they are the finest combinations, the perfect unions of music to story points.
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They are presented here in order of coolness:
1. “Tiny Tears” by Tindersticks (Season One, Episode 12: “Isabella”). Tony has been so loaded up with Lithium and Prozac by Dr. Melfi that he has trouble getting out of bed. He stumbles around the house in a zombie-like state — while having a dream about the lovely Italian dental student named Isabella that is visiting at a neighbor’s house. Meanwhile, Uncle Junior has ordered Tony’s assassination. “Tiny Tears” plays from the time Tony finally rises out of bed until he ventures out in his SUV and buys some orange juice. The song halts when the first bullet from the hired killers shatters his juice bottle. The mournful baritone vocals by Stuart Staples are the ideal complement to Tony’s hazy state of mind, and the song ends just as the gunshot jolts him back to life. It’s a masterful blend of visuals and sound.
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2. “Living on a Thin Line” by the Kinks (Season Three, Episode 6: “University”).
2. “Living on a Thin Line” by the Kinks (Season Three, Episode 6: “University”).The notion that life is fleeting and fraught with uncertainty is addressed in this Kinks’ anthem that yearns for answers. So naturally it’s played over shots of a strip joint. This episode focused on the directionless and tragically brief life of Tracee, a stripper who is romantically mixed up with Ralph but who looks to Tony for fatherly advice. When the episode begins, the song plays while the camera pans the bar of the Bada Bing with its eager customers and its half-hearted topless dancers. It plays two more times, including over the final scene, which is also a study of the daily Bing activity. Yet this time its exasperated message — “Living on a thin line, tell me now, what are we supposed to do?” — resonates more fiercely after Ralph beats Tracee to death in the parking lot, and yet business goes on as usual.
3. “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” by Frank Sinatra (Season Two, Episode 13: “Funhouse”). Ordinarily, it’s not a good idea to eat a big Indian meal and then follow it up later with an order of mussels. But that’s what Tony gobbled, which caused him to have hallucinations, which led to his realization that his suspicions about Big Pussy being a rat were justified. “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” turns out to be the last song that Big Pussy Bonpensiero ever hears, unless you count the dulcet tones of three handguns blasting away. Tony, Silvio and Paulie take Big Pussy for a boat ride. When they go down to the cabin, Big Pussy turns on this Sinatra standard. Then Paulie turns it off just when it’s time for Big Pussy to spill his guts about his FBI involvement. The positioning of the song’s silly lovesick lyrics — “sparkles, spangles, your heart will sing, singa-linga” — at the whacking of a once-trusted mob associate and friend is delightfully surreal.
4. “I Wonder Why” by Dion and the Belmonts. (Season One, Episode One: “The Sopranos”). Care to guess why this is significant? This song plays over the first act we ever see of Tony at work. The pilot opens by introducing Tony talking to Dr. Melfi and explaining some of the stresses he is experiencing, which may have led to panic attacks. When he refers to an outstanding debt owed to him, we next see Tony and Christopher chase down a degenerate gambler named Mahaffey. Mahaffey kicks Christopher in the groin and runs, but Tony chases him down in Christopher’s Lexus, hits Mahaffey with the car, and when Mahaffey writhes in pain on the ground complaining that a bone in his leg is coming through the skin, Tony tries to make him forget that pain by creating more in his crotch and face. The idea of matching a street doo-wop hit from the ‘50s with the collecting of mob money isn’t patently absurd in and of itself. After all, the song is light, lively and upbeat — “I don’t know why I love you like I do” — the perfect background music for the breaking of kneecaps.
5. “Core ‘ngrato” by Dominic Chianese. (Season Three, Episode 13: “Army of One”). Who knew Uncle June could sing? Tragedy strikes to end this season when Jackie Jr. is shot by “drug dealers” in the Boonton projects. He had called Tony for help, but apparently Tony had no connections with these “drug dealers” and therefore couldn’t stop it. So an emotional wake takes place, during which the true measure of being inside a mob family finally hits home for Meadow. “Core ‘ngrato” is an Italian folk song that means “ungrateful heart” but can also apply to anyone suffering from any kind of heartbreak, which covers just about all of the cast at the end of this season. Chianese, who had waited 50 years for his break as a crooner, sings an impassioned version of the song while friends and family are gathered in Artie Bucco’s restaurant after the wake. Before he sings, Uncle Junior — who may soon be facing imprisonment — announces, “I beat cancer. Now I’m gonna beat the can.” While he sings, Bobby Baccala breaks into tears, not a pretty sight. And Meadow gets drunk and starts lobbing pieces of bread at Uncle Junior. Not the ideal circumstances for a singer’s first big break, but it was a success nonetheless.
6. “My Lover’s Prayer” by Otis Redding. (Season Two, Episode 9: “From Where to Eternity”). “This is my lover’s prayer, I hope it’ll reach out to you, my love.” This song plays twice to bookend the episode. As it opens, Adriana is at Christopher’s bedside — touching a small photo of the Pope — as he recovers from an attempt on his life by two misguided mob apprentices. At the close, Tony comes back after a hard day of work — not long after murdering one of the two assassins who shot his nephew — and has a heart-to-heart with Carmela. She tells him all she ever wanted was for him to be true to her, and then they make love. Putting together any song with the word “prayer” in the title to a request that Tony keep his pants on seems appropriate. It helps also that Redding’s roots were in gospel music.
7. “It’s Bad You Know” by R.L. Burnside. (Season One, Episode 13: “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano”). A legend of Mississippi blues, Burnside had been performing locally for years but didn’t achieve widespread acclaim until he started recording for Fat Possum Records in the 1990s. He supposedly once killed a man and served six months for the crime because his boss at the time got him off. Burnside would later say, “I didn’t mean to kill nobody. I just meant to shoot the son of a bitch in the head. Him dying was between him and the Lord.” Interesting, then, that “It’s Bad You Know,” a raw, dark, lowdown dose of snarling blues, plays over a killing. It’s a rather routine hit, really. Tony goes to the dock where one of Uncle Junior’s lieutenants is working on his speed boat. He shoots him several times. But give Tony style points on this one, because he first shows up carrying a large fish, then reaches into the fish’s mouth and pulls out a gun. Then he and Silvio drive off to deal with the body. “It’s Bad You Know.” We know.
8. “Glad Tidings” by Van Morrison. (Season Five, Episode 13: “All Due Respect”). Different families handle disagreements in different ways. Some people go out for a drink and talk it over. Others shotgun their cousins in the face. Admittedly, that should always be a last resort. But that’s what Tony faced when his cousin Tony B. (Steve Buscemi) ran afoul of Johnny Sack’s crew. “And we’ll send you glad tidings from New York.” Boy, do they — sort of. This is not a sorrowful Van Morrison ballad, but rather a buoyant and energetic number that promises hope for the future. It starts to play as Tony stares into a dumpster, into which he just threw that tacky painting of him dressed as a general next to a horse. He realizes then that a real leader has to take action. The song continues as Tony B. drives up to his hideout, walks to the porch and gets a buckshot facial. It also plays later when Tony escapes the FBI raid and climbs into his own backyard. Glad tidings indeed.
9. “Thru and Thru” by the Rolling Stones. (Season Two, Episode 13: “Funhouse”). This is another from the episode in which Big Pussy’s membership in the family is revoked. Ordinarily, it’s not a good idea when Keith Richards sings. But this is an exception. “Any minute, any hour, I’m waiting on a call from you.” The song plays early in the episode as Tony, Big Pussy and others are enjoying a meal at an Indian restaurant, and continues with more dining at Artie Bucco’s. It goes well with the feeling of good friends, camaraderie and wistful thoughts that the setting conjures, but it also reminds you that one friend might soon be saying farewell forever. Later it plays over the final scene, a graduation party for Meadow. It’s a more hopeful atmosphere, yet the song feels genuine and true here, too, because it represents the many layers and fluctuations of life in and around the Sopranos.
10. “State Trooper” by Bruce Springsteen. (Season One, Episode 13: “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano”). The producers of this show have, among many other achievements of course, turned the playing of killer tunes over end credits into an art form. Throughout the course of the show, many examples exist, but this is arguably the best. It was the final episode of the first season of a sensational new series called “The Sopranos,” set in New Jersey. So what could possibly put an appropriate cap on it? Uncle Junior and some of his associates just went to jail, Mikey Palmice was killed in the woods while jogging by Christopher and Paulie, and Tony and his family found refuge during a storm at Artie’s restaurant. While they eat, the somber strumming of Springsteen’s guitar begins. “License, registration, I ain’t got none. But I got a clear conscience ‘bout the things that I done. Mister state trooper, please don’t stop me.” A Jersey icon singing ominously about avoiding the law. That works.
Michael Ventre live in Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.
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