Sorry Eleven, and no shade to Steve “The Hair” Harrington, but the most important character in Stranger Things is arguably the soundtrack. It’s hard to imagine this series would be nearly as ubiquitous as it stands all these years later without its essential needle drops. The music has framed this franchise, not only by offering instant blasts to the past, but by delivering emotional left hooks that bruise the heart as often as they tickle our toes.
This season is no exception. In fact, music is so vital at this point, it’s saving some of our favorite characters’ lives. And by proxy, it’s giving us some of the strongest marriages of sound and screen to date. With that in mind, we thought we’d turn back time — ahem, to borrow from Cher — and sort through the best needle drops to hit Hawkins, Indiana. These are the tracks that made us laugh, made us cry, and made us fall in love with this world.
Like any D&D campaign, though, we’ve got some ground rules: For starters, we didn’t include any of the score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. That’s not to say they aren’t worthy — “Kids”, “Eulogy”, and “You’re a Fighter” alone are top five material — but they’re technically not needle drops. To add to that, we also tried to skew away from the diegetic use of music as this series is flooded with background tunes that we all keep on constant rotation.
No, these are the inescapable drops, the ones that the Duffer Brothers and music supervisor Nora Felder put front and center — and for good reason. As you’ll read below, these songs amplify the greatest moments of each season, capitalizing on their respective familiarity to take us higher and higher, to borrow from Jackie Wilson. So, take inventory of the 11 best needle drops and let us know what we missed in the comments below.
Of course, it goes without saying: Beware of spoilers for all four seasons.
11. Kiss – “Detroit Rock City”
Season 4, “Chapter One: The Hellfire Club”
By 1986, “Detroit Rock City” would already be 10 years old, and Kiss would be glamming it up with new guitarist Bruce Kulick as they continued to support 1985’s Asylum. But the persisting rumors of the Jewish rockers worshipping at the altar of Satan would prevail long after Destroyer began collecting dust. (After all, troubled parents didn’t have Snopes at the time to tell them Kiss doesn’t mean Knights in Satan’s Service.) And yet that’s why this drop works so well in a season that leans heavily on the contagious Satanic panic of the ’80s. History books aside, though, it’s also just a killer anthem that makes D&D look as epic as it reads, turns a high school basketball game into a bonafide rock concert, and — perhaps most importantly — gives Hellfire Club leader Eddie Munson some sizzling swagger.
10. The Scorpions – “Rock You Like a Hurricane”
Season 2, “Chapter One: Madmax”
Every high school has that one asshole who careens into the parking lot blasting some muscle jam. (Full transparency: This writer was that asshole too many times in the early aughts.) For Hawkins High circa 1984, that asshole was Ace Merrill twinner Billy Hargrove. So, it’s perhaps fitting that the first time we meet the new bully in town, he’s adding an exclamation point to his arrival with The Scorpions‘ iconic FM hit. Sure, it’s an on-the-nose track — c’mon, it doesn’t get more literal than “Here I am/ rock you like a hurricane” — but that’s what makes it so fitting for Billy. He’s not exactly the most subtle guy out there as “King Steve” Harrington comes to learn both on and off the court. In lesser hands, this would all be laughable, if not ludicrous, but stud Dacre Montgomery looks too damn sexy being so sinful.
09. Foreigner – “Waiting for a Girl Like You”
Season 1, “Chapter Three: Holly, Jolly”
This one’s so elegantly cruel: On one end, you have Steve Harrington and Nancy Wheeler consummating upstairs to the silky sounds of Foreigner‘s after-hours power ballad. Meanwhile, outside by the pool, Nancy’s wet blanket Barb is being mercilessly dragged into the Upside Down, where she’ll become a midnight snack for the Demogorgon. Again, it’s a terrifically mean juxtaposition, but the best thing about this cold open is how the early ’80s hit bleeds into the ensuing nightmare. Thomas Dolby’s dreamy synths only adds to the surreality of our first otherworldly plunge into the Upside Down. It’s a stylish beat by the Duffers that also serves as a reminder that not everyone’s phoning home in this nostalgic nook.
08. The Police – “Every Breath You Take”
Season 2, “Chapter Nine: The Gate”
We get it: The Police‘s single is creepy. Ever since it first popped up on 1983’s Synchronicity, it’s been analyzed to death, remixed to hell and back, given slow covers by the saddest saps out there with a guitar, hell, it’s even been referenced in a Halloween young adult novel. And yet, no matter how many times critics, listeners, family, or friends call out this dark side, it still doesn’t change the fact that — at face value — “Every Breath You Take” is a balmy, romantic ballad. Alas, that fire and ice, sugar and spice, naughty and nice dichotomy is why it’s such a choice closer for Season 2. So far in the franchise, it’s the only finale that fans can truly say wraps up on a happy note. El gets her dance with Mike, Dustin’s told by Nancy he’s her favorite, and Hopper and Joyce share a nostalgic smoke. Like the song, everything looks fine and dandy on top, but below, the Mind Flayer awaits. You might say, it’s watching them. Get it?
07. Corey Hart – “Never Surrender”
Season 3, “Chapter One: Suzie, Do You Copy?”
Speaking of genuinely happy moments, they’re admittedly few and far between in this series, especially for Eleven. If there’s anything to glean so far from Season 4, it’s that life hasn’t been so peachy for the Hawkins Lab MVP. So, when you consider our reunion with the gang at the beginning of Season 3, this is probably the happiest we’ve seen them, at least when it comes to Mike and El’s relationship. Like so many of the needle drops on this list, there’s duality in the use of Corey Hart‘s Boy in the Box blockbuster here. On one hand, there’s pure joy seeing Mike romancing El with a boisterous sing-a-long, but zero in on those lyrics: “Just a little more time is all we’re asking for/ ‘Cause just a little more time could open closing doors.” Knowing where they wind up by the end of Summer 1985 — the summer that changes everything, if you recall — those lyrics are not only melancholy but eerily foreboding. Sadly, time is never on their side.
06. The Clash – “Should I Stay or Should I Go”
Season 1, “Chapter Two: The Weirdo on Maple Street”
In just about every bar across the world, The Clash‘s Combat Rock single either elicits a boozy sing-a-long or a reluctant head bob. In Joyce Byers’ living room? It’s a jolt of terror. Put yourself in her shoes: Her boy is missing. Nobody has answers. And everyone’s telling her to stay home. So, naturally, she’s about 37 cigarettes removed from a complete anxiety attack when her house starts acting funny. Funny how? Well, the lights twitching is one thing, but the stereo turning on? That’s Poltergeist territory. The genius of this drop is how the signature chords serve as its own ominous jump scare. Because no matter how many memories we have tied to the anthem, there’s no denying its chill factor here. Granted, we soon learn it’s a message from Will, and more of a beacon of hope, but let’s be real: We’d all be running out of the house like Joyce, staring at our home and trying to tell ourselves we’re not in an episode of Sightings.
05. John Harrison – “Breakdown”
Season 3, “Chapter Six: E Pluribus Unum”
Some of the best music cues are the ones that genuinely surprise you, and the sheer niche value of this drop is worthy of a top five placement alone. Yes, the kids all go see George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead at the beginning of Season 3, but did anyone ever think John Harrison‘s score would pop up — counts list — five episodes later? Let alone a deep cut? Not only that, but two minutes into said deep cut? It’s so oddly specific that you just have to stand up and applaud the team. But, of course, none of it would matter if the scene didn’t count, and it does. It’s the first time we see Steve and his Scoop’s Ahoy partner-in-crime Robin Buckly strike a bond. No, not that scene, but their Last Crusade moment, which sees them tied up on the floor and reminiscing about, of all things, home room. It’s a tender scene ripped right out of a John Hughes rental, and Harrison’s score adds some understated magic to the moment.
04. Joy Division – “Atmosphere”
Season 1, “Chapter Four: The Body”
If you had a pie chart that broke down needle drops by tropes, “Going Through the Motions” would certainly take up the largest slice. Such is the case for this stunning pop-in by Manchester’s finest Joy Division. As Ian Curtis sings, “Walk in silence/ Don’t walk away, in silence/ See the danger/ Always danger,” director Shawn Levy wisely lingers around the Byers residence, where everyone’s grieving over the supposed death of Will. Distraught over another loss, Hopper can’t even bring himself to start his truck as he attempts to leave the house. Alone in his bedroom, Jonathan cries into his headphones, presumably listening to this very track. But, Joyce? Well, she’s still not convinced. Perhaps tearing a page from Jonathan’s Evil Dead poster, she heads to the work shed in her backyard, grabs an axe, and returns to the shadows of her living room unwilling to walk away as Bernard Sumner’s guitar flares up. Oof.
03. Peter Gabriel – “Heroes”
Season 3, “Chapter Eight: The Battle of Starcourt”
Some of the most affecting needle drops are those that stitch to their respective shows. Peter Gabriel‘s stripped-down cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” is one such song. When it first reared its head in the debut season, it was a stroke of genius: an ’80s icon paying homage to another ’80s icon in a show paying homage to the ’80s. (Look, this writer is well aware that Gabriel and Bowie are hardly confined to that decade. Go with the point.) So, it wasn’t surprising to hear it return at the end of Season 3 — it almost made too much sense. Emotionally, it’s a savvy callback that hits even harder because we recognize it’s a part of that world. But logistically, it adds some finality to what could have very well been the series finale. Because we’re not just grieving the “loss” of Hopper or the Byers big move away, but the end of a summer that changed everything. As we see in these last fleeting moments, it certainly did.
02. Kate Bush – “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”
Season 4, “Chapter Four: Dear Billy”
It’s a little maudlin, but the idea that music sets you free works in the world of Stranger Things. So much of this franchise is built on the idea that these pop cultural touchstones have served as essential escapes for myriad generations. So, the notion that Kate Bush could save a life in Hawkins isn’t that much of a stretch. If anything, the act is fitting for the anthem in question: “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” is one of the most enchanting pop compositions to ever grace the genre, and if you’re going to use it, you better earn it. They do by pairing the ballad with Max Mayfield, whose own traumatic past with her brother Billy Hargrove grooves to the beat of the song’s lyrical heart: “And if I only could/ I’d make a deal with God/ And I’d get him to swap our places.” The track appears early on in Season 4, but the way Levy wields it at the end of this fourth chapter truly makes a deal with the gods.
01. Moby – “When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die”
Season 1, “Chapter Eight: The Upside Down”
Believe it or not, but the best needle drop of the entire series isn’t even from the ’80s. It’s from Moby‘s 1995 third studio album Everything Is Wrong. Why does that sound familiar? Because it’s the same album that also features “God Moving over the Face of the Waters” and “First Cool Hive”, two tracks that respectively bring down the curtains on Michael Mann’s Heat and Wes Craven’s Scream. Well, it’s three times the charm for the record as another essential track pops up at the end of the first season of Stranger Things: “When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die”. The hypnotic ballad materializes when Hopper and Joyce try to resuscitate Will in the Upside Down. Making the scene even more harrowing is the way the Duffers crosscut the action with Hopper’s own memory involving the tragic death of his daughter, Sara. Moby’s spiritual sounds dance through every pounding fist and every guttural scream, be it Joyce’s emphatic pleas (“I need you to wake up”) or Hopper’s stone-cold urgency (“C’mon, kid!”). It’s impossible to watch without either straining your eyes from fighting back those tears or letting them rain down your face, a feeling that the greatest needle drops should always elicit.