People are still in shock at the news of actor James Gandolfini's passing Wednesday night, no doubt even those without HBO, Italian ancestry or pretensions of an angst-ridden suburban-Jersey gangster lifestyle. Many cultural tastemakers believe at least parts of The Sopranos -- and especially Gandolfini's role as Tony -- rank at the very top of the 21st century's great works of art, regardless of the medium; this one just happened to be premium cable television. Rocks Off has seen all the episodes and own a couple of seasons on DVD, and we see no reason to argue with that.
For us, shockingly, we loved The Sopranos because of the way it treated music. It's no surprise to us that the only notable project David Chase has done since the series went off the air is direct 2012's Not Fade Away, his film about a fledgling '60s garage band starring Gandolfini as a disapproving dad. For the series, its music savvy extended to the casting, where E Street Band alumnus Miami Steve Van Zandt turned out to be so much more than a stunt and the guest cast was littered with names like Frankie Valli and Lady Gaga; can you name the Season 3 episode where the postmodern pop star has a cameo? (Hint: it takes place in an indoor pool.)
Music also spilled over into the plotlines, like Christopher's short-lived Season 1 friendship/business relationship with the rapper Massive Genius in aptly-named episode "A Hit Is a Hit." But in the end, the music supervisors at The Sopranos wound up choosing exactly the right song for whatever was going on in the script so many times, we couldn't help but just pick five of our favorites. A couple may be rather obvious, but that should just go to show what an impact they had. What are yours?
5. The Kinks, "I'm Not Like Everybody Else" The Davies brothers close the Season 5 episode "Cold Cuts," as Janice chases Tony around his kitchen with a fork, emblematic of a dysfunctional sibling rivalry perhaps surpassed only by Ray and Dave.
4. The Rolling Stones, "Undercover of the Night" A politically charged track about South American intrigue from 1983's Undercover , this song was almost forgotten until it ran over the end credits of Season 5's "Rat Pack." Now the Stones are playing it on tour again.
3. Frank Sinatra, "It Was a Very Good Year" The Sopranos' montages were not averse to using all three, four, five minutes of a song, often brilliantly, if that's how long it took to tell the story. Here, Ol' Blue Eyes croons his autumnal September of My Years masterpiece as Tony's mom languishes in the hospital, Uncle Junior is released from prison, Silvio gets fitted for typically natty new threads, FBI agents update their Tony-tracking corkboard, and The Sopranos' world spins into Season 2. Frank Jr. himself appeared (as himself) later that season in "The Happy Wanderer."
2. Alabama 3, "Woke Up This Morning" There have been other opening-credits songs that have defined their series and even crossed over onto the pop charts (Friends, Cheers), but this track from the UK electronica trio with an odd proclivity for American roots music may be the only TV theme that still functions as an excellent time capsule from the groggy, paranoid post-9/11 U.S. Never mind that it was originally released in 1997.
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1. Journey, "Don't Stop Believin'" Closing out the series in that enigmatic diner scene everybody understood to be about death, but nobody really understood, the surprising appearance of "Don't Stop Believin'" stripped the song of all the humdrum qualities drummed into us by millions of classic-rock-radio spins, and restored its status as one of the most melancholy, affecting, inspirational power ballads in rock history.