To embrace Stranger Things is to embrace ’80s nostalgia in all its Farah Fawcett-hairsprayed glory. Nods to the everything from Mr. Mom to RadioShack to a bitchin’ blue ’78 Camaro turn almost every frame into an outtake from Gremlins or Goonies. But nothing transports the viewer back a few decades like music.
While some of the inevitable blow-back on the Duffer Brothers’ series is that its references are too on the nose, I think that’s part of the show’s charm. The soundtrack to the second season isn’t full of the post-punk B-sides that music nerds like me might have hoped for, but having lived through 1984 as a 12-year-old, the mix of pop, New Wave and hair metal is what life sounded like at that time.
The second season makes use of 60 different synch licenses over nine episodes, according to Tunefind (compared to 39 in Season One’s eight episodes), from Devo’s “Whip It” at the Arcade to “Every Breath You Take” at the Snow Ball. The theme and background music of Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon are the heart of the show’s soundtrack. But here are eight songs that took us back to 1984.
8. “Islands in the Stream” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton
Episode: “Trick or Treat, Freak”
Bob is undeniably uncool, and “Islands in the Stream” could be his theme song. And with kids who bond over The Clash, his uncoolness is striking to the Byers family. But he’s a good guy—a fellow nerd who endured the same kind of bullying and nightmares that Will faces. And there’s a sweetness to his earnestness in the midst of the freakshow that Joyce has had to endure.
7. “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” by Jim Croce
Episode: “The Pollywog”
Chief Hopper isn’t a smashing success as a father figure in Eleven’s life, locking her away in the cabin and expecting unquestioned obedience. So it’s nice to see him trying in this renovating montage, dancing like a doofus and making the place safe and habitable. He even teachers morse code and sets some booby traps around the property. All to Croce’s soft, soulful tune.
6. “Runaway” by Bon Jovi
Episode: “The Lost Sister”
Okay, so Eleven’s trip to Chicago was not a high point of the series, but if you’re going to send her into the most stereotypical homeless den to grace a screen since 1985, you might as well go all in with the pulsing keys and screeching guitar of Bon Jovi. “Watch it kid.” “Mouth breather.” Eleven is finally striking out on her own, trying to make sense of her past and what it means for her future. Millie Bobby Brown makes it work.
5. “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by the Clash
Episode: “The Mind Flayer”
The callback to season one is Jonathan’s way of trying to reach out to Will, who can only communicate through taps on the chair. Will has been through more than anyone in Stranger Things (not named Barb). Here he gets to fight back with the support of those who love him.
4. “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper
Episode: “The Gate”
Slow dance time. Lucas getting the nerve to almost ask Max to dance. Zombie Boy getting asked to dance. Dusty striking out with the ladies until Nancy saves him. The kids deserve this and so do we.
3. “The Way We Were” by Barbra Streisand
Episode: “The Gate”
Candlelight, a bubble bath, a romance novel and Babs. That’s all Mike’s mom Karen asks for after a hard day, but her lazy, disengaged husband can’t even go answer the door. That’s okay because their guest is none other than Billy Hargrove, dressed for a date and looking ready to grace whatever the sequel is to Joanna Lindsay’s Heart of Thunder, the book she just put down. There hasn’t been much for Cara Buono to do on the show other than play the stereotypical clueless ’80s mom, so this was a fun side of her to see.
2. “Rock You Like a Hurricane” by Scorpions
If you’re going to introduce a new character in the first episode, you need to get the walk-on music right, and Billy Hargrove = Scorpions. Steve and Nancy’s sweet declarations of love are interrupted by a revving engine revving. Out comes Billy in his Canadian Tuxedo—blue jeans with matching jacket—flicking away a cigarette away. The swagger matches the squealing guitars. And he puts the hair back in hair metal.
1. “Every Breath You Take” by the Police
Episode: “The Gate”
Eleven’s second great entrance of the season. The song is perfect for young romance and first kisses (or second in the case of Eleven and Mike). And it’s also a creepy tale of the narrator stalking his prey. “Oh can’t you see/You belong to me.” What better way to transition from the innocent Snowball dance back to the Upside Down?