Volume Two of Stranger Things 4 has been out for nearly two weeks and is still heavy on many minds, including my own. Though some criticized the super-sized episodes of this dense blockbuster season, not even their dismissals can shake the truth: Stranger Things is reaching for parts of television not yet explored, and doing it in unforgettable, addictive ways.
We’ve hit the midway mark of the year, and few publications have placed the show on their “best of 2022 so far” lists, which has been customary since Season 1. The near-perfect first chapter was singular and could’ve existed as a one-off, but showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer took the buzz from their initial outing and transformed it into a full universe akin to the MCU. It’s gone from a gang of friends solving a self-contained, semi-spooky mystery to a legion of cops, vigilantes, secret agents and super-powered kids fighting the myriad evils that have overrun the once-quaint little town of Hawkins, Indiana. The critical consensus is divided: Some love the enormous scale; some resent the way the plot has swollen into four different factions operating concurrently.
The show sometimes stretches itself too thin, but it just as quickly recoils back into the potent machine everyone fell in love with in 2016. Netflix has spared no expense when it comes to Stranger Things, funneling millions of dollars into the hands of the Duffer Brothers—staking the company’s hope on the show’s potential and popularity. The Duffer Brothers have launched their own production company to keep expanding the franchise’s universe with spinoffs, stage plays and adaptations of other media, including Stephen King’s The Talisman (which made a cameo in Season 4). Stranger Things is a 1980s nostalgia machine, throwing in references to everything from New Coke and George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead to Lite Brites and Dungeons & Dragons. The characters battle alternate-dimension monsters akin to those of D&D lore, like the Demogorgon, Demodogs, the Mind Flayer and, now, Vecna (or Henry, or 001), along with very real human antagonists who either provoke the otherworldly foes or unleash their own terror in the real world.
The Duffer Brothers have written over a dozen characters with complex arcs that reach as far as the show can take them. Over a narrative that spans four calendar years, many of the show’s viewers have grown up alongside those characters. They aren’t just fighting indescribable evil; they’re coming of age in a world hellbent on wiping them out. In tow are countless action-packed moments and just as many emotional checkpoints. In the Season 4 finale alone, there are as many audible “fuck yeah”s as there are puffy eyes and tear-soaked cheeks.
One of the crowning achievements of Stranger Things, amid the highs and lows of its narrative, is the music. Score composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein have fashioned their own sonic world that complements the show’s landscape perfectly, with cuts like “Tammy,” “Presumptuous,” “Eulogy” and the title theme pulling deep emotions out of whomever is watching. Yet what Stranger Things does the very best is use contemporary music from the era in which it takes place, along with classic and, sometimes, more modern tracks, to emphasize the stories and provide the show with a memorable, always-expanding soundtrack. To bookend Season 4 of Stranger Things, here’s a definitive ranking of the 25 best needle drops featured in the record-shattering Netflix show so far.
The only song on our ranking that plays over an episode’s end credits, “Hazy Shade of Winter” soundtracks the immediate aftermath of Season 1’s second Upside Down kidnapping, when Barb (Shannon Purser), sitting poutily by Steve’s (Joe Keery) pool and examining her bloody, bandaged hand, is taken into the Upside Down. Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), looking for Will (Noah Schnapp), is photographing the house from the nearby woods and doesn’t initially notice her sudden absence. The pool is now empty, some lights flicker, and Steve and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) are making out in the house. The Bangles’ autumnal classic emphasizes the nighttime dread and edge-of-your-seat worry the scene preceding it evokes, as we learn that Will’s disappearance was not a one-off—and that more people would leave Hawkins and enter the town’s dark underworld.
In a show about the 1980s that sometimes leans extra-heavy into the period, the counterculture-era, Alice in Wonderland-inspired “White Rabbit” quickly sneaks into the very first episode. After a Hawkins Lab agent shoots Benny (Chris Sullivan) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) flees the scene, the hypnotic Jefferson Airplane cut memorably rushes in. Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) stares intently out of the restaurant doorway, as Grace Slick chirps, “And if you go chasing rabbits / And you know you’re going to fall.” It foreshadows his, and his whole crew’s, inability to catch Eleven throughout the season. It’s an odd, but psychedelically perfect fit.
“Psycho Killer” is a fitting descriptor for Jason (Mason Dye), Season 4’s human antagonist. He’s a jock, and a traumatized vigilante, whose girlfriend, Chrissy (Grace Van Dien), was just murdered by Vecna, though he believes she was killed by Hellfire Club leader Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn). Jason rounds up his basketball-playing goons and riles them up, demanding they help catch Eddie before he and his “cult” of D&D players cause any more harm to Hawkins. All of it’s done to the tune of Talking Heads’ thrilling, sputtering gem from their first LP.
This Jackie Wilson track, the only non-orchestral score or cast-sung song in the Season 3 finale, arrives after Hopper (David Harbour) kills a Russian guard, as Steve, Robin (Maya Hawke), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Erica (Priah Ferguson) are driving towards Dustin’s “cerebro,” a HAM radio that can reach across the country, in a yellow 1984 Eldorado Biarritz with the license plate “TODFTHR.” The climax of the scene comes when the convertible can’t climb up the hill that the cerebro is on. It’s a great comedic moment in an otherwise emotional episode, and is a memorable use of Wilson’s timeless gold record.
Though the scene is short, one of Queen’s most underrated songs soundtracks an essential moment in the Stranger Things universe: introducing the friendship between Steve and Dustin. As Brian May’s scintillating, tough-as-nails riff haunts the background, the future Scoops Troop leaders drive toward Dustin’s house in search of Dart, the Demodog he’d been harboring that’s now loose and about to wreak havoc on Hawkins for the Mind Flayer. Steve and Dustin’s friendship was an unlikely one that has since become a big part of the show’s soul. Matarazzo and Keery have a delightful chemistry that was so immediately obvious, and how lucky we were to watch it first unfold atop the badassery of Queen.
The Duffer Brothers are obsessed with Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which makes sense, because it’s an all-timer. Season 3 is especially indebted to Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe’s teen classic, beginning with Billy’s (Dacre Montgomery) introduction as the Hawkins Pool lifeguard set to the tune of The Cars’ “Moving in Stereo” (which, classically, soundtracks that very famous Phoebe Cates scene in Fast Times). As all of the hot moms in Hawkins eye-fuck Billy from their chairs, Billy is especially taken aback by Mike and Nancy’s mom, Mrs. Wheeler (Cara Buono), with whom he memorably flirted with at the end of Season 2. A lot of Stranger Things is rooted in nostalgic callbacks to the flicks that inspire the men who make the show, but this is an instance where the reference is so heavy-handed that it toes the line of being overdone—luckily, it works, because Montgomery’s charm helps the scene stick the landing.
Before Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) momentarily outgrow D&D in Season 3, Season 2 finds them, Will and Dustin as close as ever, obsessed with arcades and Ivan Reitman’s supernatural comedy Ghostbusters. For Halloween, they’ve elected to dress up as the film’s protagonists, Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, Egon Spengler and Winston Zeddemore (which leads to Lucas calling Mike on his racist bullshit), and the Duffer Brothers give us a great montage of the four boys getting ready and having their pictures taken by their moms. Parker Jr.’s tune even turns into a cute a cappella performance by the crew as they arrive at school on their bikes. The kids will be all grown up and obsessed with girls (well, sans Will) by the next summer, canonically, which makes this moment extra fleeting, and a good representation of how strong the core characters’ friendships are and how they remain the show’s beating heart.
Depending on who you ask, Season 3 is either the weakest or the strongest installment in Stranger Things, but there is one shining consensus: Steve and Dustin’s friendship is its saving grace. In a scene that also includes Howard Jones’ “Things Can Only Get Better,” the two scour the Starcourt Mall in search of Russian spies. When they see a blonde, long-haired man in an all-black jumpsuit carrying a duffle bag, they follow him all the way through the mall until he settles in at a local jazzercise club. After he pulls a large boombox, hits play on Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and leads a group of spandex-clad women through a routine, Steve and Dustin ogle their gyrations in a funny, well-timed moment that eases the viewer before the season erupts into grody, bloated, Independence Day-style action.
All hail Eddie Munson! After we watch cheerleader Chrissy suffer from an extreme hallucination at the hands of Vecna, the Hellfire Club-leading Dungeon Master and metalhead is introduced in the lunchroom through The Cramps twofer “I Was A Teenage Werewolf” and “Fever” as he mocks a Newsweek article about Satanic Panic—a theme that lingers underneath the Hawkins plot of the season. It’s an underrated pair of ’80s classics that mimic Eddie’s larger-than-life, D&D-influenced grandeur—despite his self-proclaimed cowardice. “No one understood me,” the former song rings out, delivering a pointed thesis on Eddie’s character arc, and the monologue he gives his Hellfire crew about graduating, where he proclaims that 1986 is “finally his year,” comes full-circle by the season’s end in the most gutting way.
Before Hopper became an over-the-top, way-too-loud caricature of himself—and Tom Selleck—in Season 3, we got to watch him become a real dad to Eleven in Season 2, which began with the two cleaning up his family cabin together. Cheekily, Hopper drops a needle to Jim Croce’s You Don’t Mess Around With Jim on a record player that somehow still works, despite years of dust and cold winters, calling it “real music” and, to the tune of the title track, teaching Eleven how to use a broom and dustpan. It’s a memorable moment in the show that reappears one season later, as Hopper loudly sings the song in his truck after successfully splitting Mike and Eleven up for one day. The song goes from being a fun bonding tool for a daughter and surrogate father to a somewhat-mean-spirited fit of comic relief. Either way, it’s still really, really fun.
As is with every season, episode ones are always set-ups where we get reacquainted with all of the characters after some time apart. When we travel to Hawkins High, we learn that Lucas is a benchwarmer on the basketball team and a part of the Hellfire Club with Mike and Dustin. Those worlds collide when Eddie’s big Dungeons and Dragons campaign is scheduled to occur on the same night as Lucas’ championship game. He chooses basketball over D&D and Erica takes his spot in the campaign. The result? A sick montage played out to the tune of KISS’ “Detroit Rock City,” a head-banging riot in its own right. As Dustin, Mike, Erica and the rest of the Hellfire crew attempt to defeat Dungeon Master Eddie’s Vecna, Lucas gets put in the game after a starter comes out injured. The song sputters out as Lucas hits the game-winning shot and Erica’s roll delivers a critical hit on Vecna. In an opening episode full of good tunes (The Beach Boys’ cover of “California Dreamin’,” Starpoint’s “Object of My Desire” and Extreme’s “Play With Me”), “Detroit Rock City” is the most memorable, as it sets up Lucas’ internal struggle, balancing popularity with friendship, throughout Season 4.
Season 1 is so emotional and heavy that it’s easy to forget just how fun it can be. When Nancy and Barb head to Steve’s house for a party with him, Tommy H. (Chester Rushing) and Carol (Chelsea Talmadge), they gather around the Harrington pool, drinking beers, smoking cigarettes, calling each other clichés and shooting the shit. Before Barb cuts her hand while attempting to shotgun a beer and, well, eventually becomes Vecna’s first onscreen victim, Steve pushes Nancy into his pool—unleashing the intoxicating chorus of “I Melt With You,” which had been subtly rocking in the background. In a calm-before-the-storm-like moment, four kids enjoy a night of being carefree and young, encapsulated by the Modern English’s hit—though “You’ve seen the difference and it’s getting better all the time” is a line that has not aged well in the Stranger Things canon.
One of the best parts of Stranger Things has been Steve Harrington’s character arc. He went from a stereotypical douchebag boyfriend in Season 1 to a trusted babysitter in Season 2, and a wholeheartedly good and irreplaceable friend in Season 3. Everything finally comes to a head in some random couple’s Winnebago in Season 4, when the former King of Hawkins High opens up to Nancy and tells her he wants to have a family—of “six little nuggets”—someday, pointing to his time spent with Dustin and his friends as what’s helped him mature. “Fire and Rain” is a song about the death of a friend, which made the entire fandom’s worst nightmare flare up, as it seemed like a definite prelude to Steve dying before the season’s end. Luckily, he survived with only a couple of Demobat wounds and a nasty neck bruise, and James Taylor’s great track lives on in the show as a tender moment between exes—one delivering hope that Steve and Nancy might return to one another again before the show says its goodbyes in Season 5.
Though the Duffer Brothers attempt to give Billy a minor redemption arc in Season 3—after his villain story in season two saw him as the hotheaded, racist brother of Max (Sadie Sink), and foil to Steve—he remained a deeply troubled character, heavily impacted by abuse and his mother’s abandonment. Even while being possessed by Vecna, Billy’s viciousness still shone through, punctuated by the scene in which he and his fellow-flayed Heather Holloway (Francesca Reale) poison and kidnap her parents for the Upside Down army. Playing through the Holloways’ record player is Don McLean’s opus “American Pie,” which provides a memorable, hilarious soundtrack for Heather’s chauvinist pig dad, Tom (Michael Park), getting hit over the head with a wine bottle. The scene, and episode, ends with a close-up of Montgomery’s face as he watches Eleven and Max ride away from the Holloway house on their bikes. His performance is the reason the scene is so impactful, but “American Pie” seals the whole shebang.
It feels weird to say that without “Dream A Little Dream of Me,” there wouldn’t be “Running Up That Hill,” but Victor Creel (Robert Englund) letting it slip that Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s rendition is what saved him from Vecna is essential to Season 4’s plot. Its reappearances throughout the season only grow eerier at every turn, as the song’s rich melody and pastoral lyrics quickly become weapons against those who wish to see where Vecna’s been. Even though the song saved Victor, the now-blind survivor of the Upside Down’s hellish wrath still wishes he were dead—not even the most beautiful creations can give its listeners eternal immunity from trauma and grief, an idea punctuated in Max’s story near the season’s end.
Season 3 of the show rarely passes the Bechdel Test, but one of Stranger Things’ greatest relationships is the bond between Max and Eleven, which culminates in the two girls going on a shopping spree together at the Starcourt Mall—all to the tune of Madonna’s Like a Virgin hit “Material Girl.” It’s here where Max helps Eleven revel in her own independence, showing her how she deserves to exist outside of Hopper and Mike. “Material Girl” is an on-the-nose signal toward Max’s influence on Eleven, as she opens the superhero up to a world of self-spoiling. It’s an important, foundational memory for both of them, which becomes an essential part of the show’s story in Season 4.
On a first watch, this performance may feel like an unnecessary and corny detour that solely existed as a timeline explanation for Billy’s death and Hopper’s eventual capture (both of which probably could’ve been avoided if this plot point was omitted from the final cut). But, the more time you spend with it, the more Dustin and Suzie’s (Pizzolo) duet will grow on you. Is it absurd? Yes. Is it a waste of two minutes? Yeah, probably. Could we have found a better way to get the numbers of Planck’s Constant? Absolutely, and I blame Murray for not remembering it. The show could live without this moment, but the fun part is that it doesn’t have to! It’s not filler, but a meticulous decision by the Duffer Brothers. The world could only be saved if Dustin sang the title track from Wolfgang Petersen’s 1984 classic, and that story choice endures as a glimpse into the couple’s goofy and wholesome long-distance relationship that, somehow, carries more narrative weight than you’d ever expect.
The first use of “Heroes” comes in Season 1, when Hawkins authorities discover a body in the nearby quarry, which they presume is Will’s. Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Eleven are watching nearby, and their disbelief that it’s their friend packs such an emotional punch that it lingers into a shot of a crying Mike and his mom embracing in the living room while Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Jonathan hold each other in their driveway—all while cop cars can be seen heading towards the latter in the distance. When the song returns again, at the very end of Season 3, it marks the Byers family (including Eleven) moving out of Hawkins after Hopper is presumed dead from the reactor explosion. The song has become a red herring in the series, always playing when a beloved character is presumed dead, but is, in fact, alive and not so well. Gabriel’s rendition of the classic David Bowie track is one marked by strained, prolonged grief, much like the episodic moments it soundtracks.
Though the 1980 single “Atmosphere” never made it onto a Joy Division album, it finds a proper home in a powerful, heavy montage from Season 1, where Hopper, Jonathan and Joyce wrestle with the immediate grief of authorities, supposedly, finding Will’s body at the quarry. We see Hopper sport a devastated, overcome look in his truck, as Jonathan clutches himself while listening to music in bed and Joyce contemplates knocking on his door. Ian Curtis’ haunting, monotone vocals perfectly capture the shock of a small-town tragedy, and the song catalogs Jonathan’s deep love for his brother and how he retreats into music to combat his long-running, cumulative trauma. But most importantly, the track hints at Joyce’s persistence in finding her son, and the “Don’t walk away in silence / See the danger / Always danger” line foreshadows what she will discover later in the episode: Will is still alive, but in another dimension.
The Snow Ball scene in the Season 2 finale contains multiple hitters (Olivia Newton-John’s “Twist Of Fate” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”), but none can touch The Police’s 1983 number-one hit. It plays throughout the Hawkins gymnasium as Max and Lucas and Mike and Eleven dance and share their first, bonafide kisses together as couples. It’s a beautiful moment, until the song grows haunted and we watch Hawkins turn into the Upside Down, where the Mind Flayer watches over the town. This song and setting reappear in Season 4, by way of Max’s memory, and eventually turns into another spooky rendition of “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” Though it plays in what Eleven believes is Max’s best memory, it doesn’t hold enough power to save her from Vecna, which is a heartbreaking turn away from the hopeful power it held two seasons prior.
Oh, Billy Hargrove. You’re such a terrible, unforgivable person, but your introduction scene is an undisputed banger. The Scorpions track is not just a pinnacle of glam metal in the real world, but also the perfect sonic illustration of Billy’s vicious, denim-laden, mullet-sporting presence in the show’s. Some might see the “Here I am / Rock you like a hurricane” chorus as a bit too on-the-nose, given how Billy immediately assumes the role of Hawkins’ foremost human antagonist and disrupts the gang’s attempts to save the world—but Stranger Things has perpetrated way more obvious needle drops than that (see numbers 16 and 20 on this list). It’s an important moment, too, because it’s where we meet Billy’s sister Max, with whom he has a troubled, abusive relationship. Her disinterest in her brother’s cocky, ‘80s villain stereotype sets the tone for how his presence will affect her friendships during the season, but Max rises above his torments and, eventually, becomes, arguably, the show’s most important non-superhero character. It’s wild how we didn’t even have a clue back then.
Eddie Munson’s shining moment comes in the Season 4 finale when he and Dustin are tasked with distracting Vecna’s Demobats while Steve, Robin and Nancy attempt to burn his entranced body in the Creel house. Once Eddie plugs in his black Warlock guitar, says, “This is for you, Chrissy,” and launches into the opening riff to Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” it becomes an instant-classic moment in the show. After eight episodes of running away, Eddie stands tall atop his uncle’s trailer in the Upside Down and spins out one of heavy metal’s toughest, meanest athems. In the episode prior, Robin ribbed Eddie’s cassette collection, which didn’t include “real music” like Blondie or The Beatles, but held a plethora of Iron Maiden—to which Eddie yelled, “This is music!” The same can easily be said about his rendition of “Master of Puppets,” a Metallica-approved highlight of his quick, bittersweet rise to becoming—unbeknownst to the masses—Hawkins’ hero. This was, finally and truly, Eddie Munson’s year.
Though recency bias has made a certain Kate Bush song the most memorable music moment in Stranger Things, The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” is the foundational text that first established the show’s relationship with music. The song first appears in Season 1, episode two, when a flashback depicts Jonathan showing it to Will while their parents fight off-screen. That alone is a powerful moment, illustrating their bond as brothers, and the traumatic experiences they’ve shared and navigated together, but the song’s inclusion in Season 2 is where it becomes tethered to Stranger Things forever. As Will is possessed by the Mind Flayer and acts as his real-world spy, Jonathan has an epiphany that he, his mom and Mike can use the song to speak to the part of Will submerged consciousness. Nothing about “Should I Stay or Should I Go” is profound, but the show makes it so. It’s an anthem of brotherhood and of memory, a perfect Byers family soundtrack that the show hasn’t been able to replicate since—and hasn’t needed to.
It must be said, first and foremost, that Sadie Sink deserved a place among Tuesday’s Emmy nominations for her performance in “Dear Billy,” the fourth chapter of Season 4. The episode’s arc revolves around her looming death at the hands of Vecna, as she has realized the monster placed a curse on her—as penance for her unconfronted trauma and shame revolving around Billy’s death. Near the episode’s end, when Vecna is preparing to kill Max, Nancy and Robin discover, by way of Victor Creel, that a person’s favorite song can help free them from the monster’s clutches. Cue a cassette tape blasting Bush’s ethereal, powerhouse track “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God),” along with Sink giving a once-in-a-lifetime performance, and you’ve got one of the most profound and memorable moments in television this year. Bush’s song plays over and over throughout the season, before and after this episode, but it’s here, as Max momentarily evades Vecna’s wrath in kickass, profound fashion, that it shines brightest. No other television show can claim they brought a near-40-year-old song back atop the Billboard charts, putting the Stranger Things bump in a league of its own.
Two of Stranger Things’ most emotional moments, period, feature the heart-wrenching closer from Moby’s 1995 LP Everything Is Wrong. It first appears in Season 1 when Hopper resuscitates Will in the Upside Down, the scene intercut with flashbacks of his daughter Sarah dying from cancer. The Duffer Brothers parallel that exact scene again three seasons later, when Max, left blind and paralyzed by Vecna, is pleading to Lucas that she isn’t ready to die. Her heart stops momentarily, only for her to be brought back to life by Eleven a minute later. At the same time, Eddie, irreversibly wounded after fighting the Demobats to buy Steve, Robin, and Nancy more time at the Creel house, dies a hero’s death in a sobbing Dustin’s arms. For all of the power that “Running Up That Hill” holds in Season 4, “When It’s Cold I’d Like To Die” possesses that same monumental energy and tops it with a shuttering palace of sadness that leaves me a blubbering, snotty mess every single time. The Duffer Brothers understand how to use music onscreen—how songs aren’t meant to tell the story, but, rather, serve as engines evoking whatever emotions the words and actions can’t—and “When It’s Cold I’d Like To Die” is their greatest triumph. When we watch our favorite characters fight for their lives amid the falling wreckage of the world, Moby singing, “Where were you when I was lonesome? / Locked away with freezing cold / Someone flying, only stolen / I can’t tell this light’s so old,” points our hearts to this immense, unshakable grief, paired with the heartbreaking truth that the characters in Stranger Things are not immune to loss—that even the bravest and strongest fighters, beloved by so many, sometimes cannot be saved.
Matt Mitchell is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. His writing can be found now, or soon, in Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Paste, LitHub and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @matt_mitchell48.