Fanboys are still gushing over the surprise TV hit of the summer, Stranger Things. SURVIVE, a middling Austin four-piece who provided the show's darkwave-mod-synth score, have been vaulted into the popular consciousness and are going out on a large U.S. tour based on the success of the Netflix original. The score — an on-the-nose set of sound-alikes in the vein of Goblin and John Carpenter — has been pressed to vinyl and is being showered with praise, alongside the show itself.
But upon closer inspection, the original soundtrack reveals itself to be merely average and is used, like cheap caulking, to fill in parts of the narrative that aren’t exactly soaring on their own, whether due to deficient writing, acting or directing (and sometimes, all three). The Duffer Brothers aren’t the first guys to try to rip off Tangerine Dream, but their nostalgia bomb of a show (Netflix claims it’s their most watched show ever) seems to be merely the amalgam of reference points, which is a cynical sign of the times. This scribe’s theory is that — à la True Detective — we’ll collectively see the emperor's bare ass come season two.
However, there are plenty of other shows and films from the past year that mine this nostalgic modular-synth aesthetic to much greater effect and create a soundtrack that feels more original and organically entwined in the story, versus a Band-Aid for uneven and wooden storytelling. There’s an old adage that goes something like: If a scene isn’t working, try slapping music on it. See if that can dig you out of a hole. And that’s what it feels like with Stranger Things: a whole lot of holes.
So, dial up your nerdy-nostalgia rage, because the following films and TV shows have much better scores than Stranger Things …
Halt and Catch Fire
Halt and Catch Fire is quietly one of the best shows on TV, even though AMC doesn’t necessarily have the same resources as Netflix. And one of the best parts of HACF is its music, from source to score. Set in the mid-’80s Dallas Silicon Prairie scene, HACF is the story of a bunch of renegade programmers and proto-tech bros trying to make their mark on the world. Instead of hiring a young composer to create cheap sound-alikes of Tangerine Dream, the creators of the show hired Paul Haslinger — an actual member of Tangerine Dream (and also composer for Fear the Walking Dead) to compose for the episodes, while Danish electronic producer Trentemøller created the score. If you are in the mood for something patient and mature (that still pricks some of those nostalgia sectors of your brain), catch up with this show.
Junkie XL (Dutch-born Tom Holkenbor) is now a veteran electronic musician who started his transition into film after a collaboration with Czech synthlord Jan Hammer, whose score for Miami Vice made him one of the most influential composers on television in the ’80s. In Deadpool, Junkie’s dark synth score plays well to the gallows humor of the titular bad boy in one of the year’s surprise fanboy hits. Junkie also lent his talents to Mad Max: Fury Road and the upcoming Wonder Woman picture.
The Mind’s Eye
This low-budget throwback horror feature by synthesizer-loving horror scion Joe Begos has the score that Stranger Things wants to have but doesn’t. The movie is influenced by mind-melting flicks like Scanners, and the telekinetic paranoia is heightened by Steve Moore of Zombi fame. Moore (whom Stranger Things probably should have hired, TBH) is probably the best of the post-’80s generations of film synth composers, and he has dedicated a lot of his time to low-budget horror films that fall into his charged aesthetic. Moore’s entire filmography and discography are worth checking out.
Though many critics have turned on the Jody Hill/Danny McBride/Rough House crew for their most recent project, Vice Principals, it’s actually a viciously dark comedic take on Macbeth. Part of the score is all militaristic drumline parts. But the score also veers into Out Run–meets–”Love on a Real Train” territory, even though it’s set in the present day. That makes it a much more interesting choice by design, and those who stick with this show will be treated to the best comedic cast on television right now. The score was created by longtime Jody Hill collaborator Joseph Stephens, and the result is something wonderfully unique that plays as an homage to both the ’80s and John Hughes movies but also something with its own distinct worldview.
We Are Still Here
We Are Still Here, a horror film from late last year, is a redressing of the classic haunted-house archetype. But the music by Polish composer Wojciech Golczewski helps underscore and amplify the eerie dread by combining classical symphonic sounds with dark synth basslines (much like the Junkie XL style of collaborating with many “traditional” film composers). But it doesn’t play to cartoonish effect the way the Stranger Things music often does; it’s earned. Golczewski’s CV is full of examples of this type of layered work.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that We Are Still Here was a Danish production.