The Most Iconic Commercial/Song Pairings of the Last 20 Years

A generation of listeners potentially discovered Phoenix in a car commercial. These are our stories.

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The Most Iconic Commercial/Song Pairings of the Last 20 Years

No one loves watching commercials. Typically, they’re just an annoyance—a distraction from whatever it is you’re actually trying to consume. However, they’re becoming a scarcity in many people’s lives. These days, more and more of us are cutting cable and switching over to streaming-only when it comes to our entertainment avenues—and if a particular streaming outlet has ads, more often than not we’re inclined to pay the extra few dollars a month not to have to endure them. Point being: commercials, they’re a dying breed! While we’re not going to cry over a loss of distracting advertisements, it is worth looking back through the history of commercials—the last two decades in particular—and thinking about which ones felt culturally significant. For many people in the MP3 generation, brands like Apple and Volkswagen introduced us to hip new songs by artists who would later blow up—or even become our favorites. Now we have Shazam, and if we hear a cool tune we don’t have to quickly memorize lyrics so we can later plug them into Google and find the song at hand. Throughout most of the 2000s, however, we discovered commercial songs the good ol’ fashioned way. Read on for the Paste Staff’s favorite song/advertisement moments from the last 20 years. Don’t worry—we won’t try to sell you anything.

Nick Drake: “Pink Moon” (Volkswagen)

There are perhaps few song and commercial pairings as iconic—and important for both the artist and advertising—as Volkswagen’s use of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” for its 1999 Cabrio commercial (directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and filmed by Lance Acord). It introduced me, and many others, to Nick Drake (the track’s use led to record sales for Drake topping those from the previous 30 years), but it also set a standard for a marriage of commercial aesthetic and sonic harmony that would come to influence ad spots throughout the following two decades. I remember being completely taken by the world the commercial presents: the dreamy freedom of driving around with your friends, enjoying beautiful music on a gorgeous night, admiring the quiet starry sky. The lame house party was not the real destination; it was the journey there and back, the time spent in a contemplative reverie, that mattered. It’s no wonder it was so beloved, and is still a touchstone for those who experienced it during its initial run. It was romantic and beautiful, successfully selling a sense of aspirational peace and freedom that made you want to set out on your own Drake-scored adventure. Maybe even in a Volkswagen, the brand with which it became inextricably linked. —Allison Keene

Coldplay: “Viva La Vida” (Apple)

It can be hard to pinpoint the moment you got into one of your favorite bands, but Coldplay’s massive Apple campaign for their 2008 album Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends was what first hooked me. Was the title track played to death back then? Sure. Are Chris Martin’s twisting, messianic arm movements a bit much? Possibly. But do Will Champion’s “Viva” chant (featured in this commercial and prominently at their live shows) and Davide Rossi’s string arrangements still make me smile like an idiot and give me goosebumps? Absolutely. —Lizzie Manno

Madonna: “Dress You Up” (GAP)

In 1999, GAP launched a series of retro brands and paired each item with a throwback track for a memorable series of ad spots. A chorus of models led stripped-down covers of Brian Setzer paired with khaki slacks, Depeche Mode and leather jackets, Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow” with corduroys and arguably the crown jewel of the series, a sweetly unpretentious version of Madonna’s “Dress You Up” in a commercial for GAP vests. The diverse—and quite frankly, freaking gorgeous—models effortlessly coursed through Madonna’s classic 1984 cut off of the seminal Like A Virgin album. But this was 1999, grunge was over, pop was hip again, and dammit if GAP didn’t garner some serious nostalgic coolness points with this one. They even featured a young Rashida Jones as one of the models (that’s her in the red vest with the delectable voice at the 00:17 mark) in not just this clip, but also at the tail end of the “Mellow Yellow” khakis spot. These days, I still love going back through Madonna’s discography (highly recommended road trip fodder) but when “Dress You Up” comes on, it just hits different…because it takes me back to when I was 16 and GAP made sure that I didn’t forget how flat-out timeless Madonna was, regardless of whether or not I bought the damn vest. —Adrian Spinelli

Feist: “1234” (Apple)

Perhaps the most iconic Apple commercial of all the iconic Apple commercials is Feist’s 15-minutes-of-fame moment brought on by this rainbow iPod Nano spot. The folk-pop (sometimes rock) singer/songwriter didn’t quite garner the same attention as other indie-folk giants of her era, but this convenient plug provided her with some much-deserved attention in pop culture. The song “1234,” one of Feist’s poppiest renderings, remains a delight, and the commercial itself made us all want to choreograph our own multi-colored dance numbers—oh, and an iPod Nano. —Ellen Johnson

Phoenix: “1901” (Cadillac)

Arguably their biggest hit next to “Lisztomania,” Phoenix’s “1901” (from 2009’s still-perfect Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix) just sounds like a car commercial—in the best way possible. It’s sleek, glossy, kinetic. It just makes you want to go outside and run around for a while—or maybe go hop in your car and rack up some mileage. Cadillac had the same idea when they had the wherewithal to attach the song to a commercial back in 2009—just after the album’s release. It fits with the classic white-guy-in-sweater-driving-at-night car commercial motif, but adds just a little more color. Shoutout to Cadillac for zooming in on the thumbnail on the little iPod screen in the passenger’s seat—we may not have all fallen in love with Phoenix otherwise. —Ellen Johnson

Madness: “Our House” (Maxwell House)

I unironically love this song and used to get it stuck in my head all the time as a kid. Madness’ “Our House” is pure, G-rated pop at its finest. This ode to the family unit is maddeningly corny on paper, but Suggs’ cheerful, charming voice gives it an undeniable zest. The Maxwell House rendition of this song, featuring coffee-themed lyrics, doesn’t exactly evade cheesiness like Madness’ version, but I’m definitely not immune to the soppy Full House energy that’s radiating from this commercial. —Lizzie Manno

Anderson .Paak: “’Til It’s Over” (Apple)

This commercial was buzzy as soon as it was released. Featuring a groovy song by Anderson .Paak and some slick dance moves by FKA twigs and direction by Spike Jonze, this little number was pretty much unstoppable from the beginning. Edited versions of the vibrant short film graced our television screens for months, but the real magic happens in the extended cut, which you can watch below. FKA twigs is just another exhausted member of the workforce looking for something different in the mundane, and she finds it upon realizing dance has the power to transport you anywhere. Visually, it works more like a high-budget music video than a commercial, which is why it’s so effective. But it’s still not effective enough to get me to buy an Apple HomePod when I can scoop an Amazon Alexa for a third of the price. —Ellen Johnson

The Avett Brothers: “Head Full Of Doubt/Road Full Of Promise” (Northwestern Mutual)

This may be the most recent entry on this list, worthy of inclusion mainly because it’s pretty shocking no one thought of this concept before. The sweeping folk-pop number from The Avett Brothers I And Love And You has insurance commercial written all over it. Protect yourself and your family from the “darkness” and “doubt” with a nifty life insurance package, and you’ll never have to worry again. It’s not exactly the meaning behind “Head Full Of Doubt,” a song that’s obviously spiritual in nature, but hey: It works. And every time I hear that rousing chorus leaking from my speakers, I can’t help but feel at ease. —Ellen Johnson

Yeah Yeah Yeahs: “Runaway” (Calvin Klein)

I mean, need I say more? Long have I been fascinated by perfume commercials, with their gauzy lighting, bizarre artifice, and overly styled fripperies, but this holy trinity of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Rooney Mara, and David Fincher is the zenith of ads de parfum. As opposed to Klein’s immensely popular Euphoria, Downtown is a scent aimed at younger “trendsetting” women, and there was never a more perfect face for that goal than Rooney Mara. Alongside Mara is “Runaway,” an underrated track from Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ 2009 electropunk album It’s Blitz!. Karen O’s doleful voice is paired with simple piano chords writhe with tension out of a noir film. The commercial has a beautiful sense of movement, with cascading fabrics and flipping pages, and, as we follow Mara throughout her day, we really do want to be her. That’s what a perfume ad is supposed to do, right? It’s as bewitching as the perfume itself. —Austin Jones

The Vines: “Ride” (Apple)

It feels like The Vines’ “Ride” accompanied every vaguely white suburban montage from the 2000s. Movies like Agent Cody Banks and Kicking and Screaming were particularly amusing examples, but this song backed a number of big brand commercials too, like Apple, Nissan and NASCAR. Looking back at the Apple commercial which featured the song, it’s insane that a goateed dude with a chaotic zippered hoodie and suit jacket combo and one of the very first iPod models was seen as cutting edge, but I digress. Oh, to be a skateboarder in a mid-2000s commercial backed by The Vines. —Lizzie Manno

The Human League: “Don’t You Want Me” (Swiffer)

Any of the Swiffer commercials featuring sad, jealous brooms and mops would be solid choices here, like the ones featuring The Isley Brothers’ “That Lady” and Player’s “Baby Come Back,” but The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” will always win. Plus, the wholehearted attempt from the nerdy, space age DJ—insane handlebar mustache and all—to reunite Mary and Mr. Broom is the kind of utterly ridiculous but tuneful faceplant worth commemorating. —Lizzie Manno

Bright Eyes: “First Day Of My Life” (Zillow)

It takes real twisted advertising genius to introduce Bright Eyes’ “First Day of My Life” to folks making a huge financial choices. Millennials won’t even get to own homes, but Zillow has to rub it in their face that they’re not just looking for a house. They’re apparently looking for a place for the first days of their lives to happen. If you thought it was bad enough to allow the aching sincerity of Conor Oberst’s warbling voice to score the beginning of new relationships, think of what kinds of crazy decisions you’ll make if you hum it during an open house. —Jane Song

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