While Buffy included the occasional well-known song, for the most part Joss Whedon and his team sought out smaller, alternative bands to provide the show’s music. They had a knack for finding lesser-known talent, and would often have these bands perform on the show at the Bronze, often playing more than one song in an episode while the characters hung out and dealt with whatever drama they were facing. In this way music played a central role in Buffy, and helped to shape the show’s unique style and identity.
In picking my top 20 songs from Buffy, I had to establish a few rules. Only one song per artist. Nothing from “Once More, With Feeling”, otherwise things would just get ridiculous. That’s a musical in its own right and a whole other thing. I’m also counting Anya’s song from “Selfless” as part of “Once More, With Feeling”, even though it occurred as a flashback in a later episode. When choosing my top 20, I obviously focused on the quality of the songs, but I also took into account how effective their use was in the show, whether they stood out as being particularly memorable, and how they enhanced significant moments. So, here they are, not ranked, but presented in chronological order:
“Ballad for Dead Friends” by Dashboard Prophets (Season 1, Episode 2, “The Harvest”)
This darkly epic song signifies the real beginning of Buffy, as it memorably plays over the scene where Darla leads the vampires to the Bronze in the two-part pilot. Darla twirls in slow-motion as she approaches, and the song seems to stretch out over the moment—the beginning of the show’s first major conflict, and a statement of what the show was going to be. The combination of the music, the setting of the Bronze, and the vampires slowly advancing on Sunnydale’s teens sent chills down my spine, and I would never forget it.
“Sugar Water” by Cibo Matto (Season 2, Episode 1, “When She Was Bad”)
After coming face to face with the Master, being killed, and then being brought back to life, Buffy struggles to process her trauma. She lashes out at everyone around her, culminating in her dancing seductively with Xander. By doing this, Buffy manages to cruelly mess with the feelings of Xander, Willow, and Angel all at once. The song she and Xander dance to is “Sugar Water”, played by Cibo Matto in the Bronze. Fun fact, the band includes Sean Lennon, son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The song is slow, spacey, appropriately seductive, and allowed time to breathe as we take in Buffy’s actions and the other character’s reactions, with very little dialogue needed.
“Stupid Thing” by Nickel (Season 2, Episode 3, “School Hard”)
One of many bands showcased at the Bronze, Nickel gets a chance to shine as Buffy, Willow and Xander take a study break to dance to this song. It’s a catchy one: upbeat, yet with some melancholy undertones. We watch the band playing, and the friends laughing and dancing together—a perfect snapshot of life in Sunnydale. Beyond that, a certain blond vampire lurks in the background, and the song turns out to be a precursor to Buffy and Spike’s first ever meeting.
“Fate” by Four Star Mary (Season 2, Episode 4, “Inca Mummy Girl” and Season 4, Episode 7, “The Initiative”)
Four Star Mary is the real band that provided the songs for Oz’s fictional band Dingoes Ate My Baby, and as such they’re probably the musical artist most strongly associated with Buffy (with the possible exception of Nerf Herder, who provided the show’s theme song). All of their songs are great, and it was hard to pick just one to represent their huge contribution to the show, but in the end, I went with “Fate”. This is a beautiful, melodic song, on the slower side, but also filled with passion. It’s the song Dingoes are playing at the Bronze when Oz first spots Willow—dressed as an Inuit for a cultural exchange event organized by Sunnydale High—and is instantly smitten. Two seasons later, the same song plays at a party after Willow and Oz break up. Riley asks for the song to be changed when he sees how upset Willow is.
“Anything” by Shawn Clement and Sean Murray feat. Cari Howe (Season 2, Episode 13, “Surprise”)
When I first saw this episode, I thought this was one of the most beautiful songs I’d ever heard. I still do. It’s quiet and dreamlike, perfect for the surreal dream sequence it’s used in. As she approaches her 17th birthday, Buffy has a dream during which she wanders around the Bronze in her pajamas, encountering Willow speaking French with a monkey, Joyce dropping a plate, and finally Angel, who is then killed by Drusilla. As is later demonstrated in “Restless”, Joss Whedon is fantastic at capturing the strange and enticing nature of dreams, and this song helps draw us in as the weird and wonderful visions unfold.
“Transylvanian Concubine” by Rasputina (Season 2, Episode 13, “Surprise”)
Later in the same episode, Drusilla has a party. She claps to start the music, and sways down the stairs to this song in a gorgeous red dress, in that half-insane, half-graceful way that she does, while her minions spoon blood from a punch bowl. It almost seems a bit on-the-nose to have a song about vampires playing at a vampire’s party, but for a vampire as fun and unhinged as Dru—it works. The song is full of cello, deep, loud, and commanding, but it’s fun, and the vampire party vibes are impossible to ignore.
“Full of Grace” by Sarah McLachlan (Season 2, Episode 22, “Becoming: Part 2”)
This has to be one of the most memorable and one of the most emotional instances of music being used in Buffy. When Angel’s soul is returned, but Buffy has to kill him anyway to save the world, a sequence follows with this song playing. Buffy leaves a goodbye note for her mom, watches her friends at school from afar, then gets on a bus headed to L.A., alone, at the end of Season 2. It’s a fairly lengthy sequence, and from the moment of Angel’s death, Buffy doesn’t say a word to anyone (we don’t even see what her note says), though there is some dialogue between the other Scoobies. Instead, her pain is represented by Sarah McLachlan’s incredible song and vocals—moving, familiar, and at this point like a comfort blanket to Buffy fans the world over.
“Tales of Brave Ulysses” by Cream (Season 3, Episode 6, “Band Candy” and Season 5, Episode 17, “Forever”)
“Band Candy” is one of the most fun Buffy episodes, and in this fantastic scene we get to enjoy Giles playing a Cream record for Joyce—both he and Joyce having reverted to their teenage selves—and pointing out his favorite part to her with a declaration of, “This bit rocks!” The song does rock, Anthony Stewart Head is at his sexiest and funniest, and the whole episode is a joy. A couple of years later, this song is featured again in the episode “Forever”. After Joyce’s funeral, Giles sits in his apartment with a drink, listening to it and reflecting on his memories of Joyce.
“My Way” by Gary Oldman (Season 3, Episode 8, “Lovers Walk”)
Another fun one—Spike has always been the ultimate punk rock vampire, partially inspired by Sid Vicious, so it makes sense to have him singing along to Sid Vicious’ cover of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” as he speeds out of town at the end of “Lovers Walk”, having regained his confidence and optimism. It’s actually the Gary Oldman version from the movie Sid and Nancy, in which Gary Oldman played Sid Vicious, but the effect is the same. Aside from the punk rock connection, it’s actually the perfect song for Spike, since he’s never been one to play by other people’s (or other vampire’s) rules, instead following his heart almost to a fault.
“Virgin State of Mind” by K’s Choice (Season 3, Episode 16, “Doppelgangland”)
This is an amazing, sexy song, and is probably my absolute favorite on this list. It’s the perfect accompaniment to Vamp Willow entering the Bronze, still trying to process the confusion over no longer being in her own reality. This is also one of those instances where the show gave a lesser-known band a chance to stand out, with the focus shifting between K’s Choice performing on the Bronze’s stage, and Vamp Willow curiously wandering around the club. The song and the atmosphere are really given time to sink in before the action of the scene starts. The first time I saw the episode, I fell in love with this song. Several friends and I sought out K’s Choice albums after seeing them on Buffy. They’re a great band, and they’re definitely worth checking out, although this song is a bit darker and more sensual than their usual upbeat, alternative sound.
“Lucky” by Bif Naked (Season 4, Episode 3, “The Harsh Light of Day”)
Here we have the fantastic band Bif Naked in the spotlight, but this time they’re playing at a college party Buffy attends, rather than at the Bronze. “Lucky” plays over a few scenes—while Buffy dances with Parker, has a conversation with Parker, and has sex with Parker. It’s a romantic and understated song that quietly builds into something larger. Obviously, Parker turns out to be the worst, but the song is still great, and at the time Buffy (as well as any first-time viewers) doesn’t know how terrible he is—she’s just caught up in her feelings. Bif Naked have a lot of great songs besides the three featured in Buffy, and they’re another band whose album I tracked down after being introduced to them here. I definitely wasn’t disappointed.
“It’s Over, It’s Under” by Dollshead (Season 4, Episode 3, “The Harsh Light of Day”)
This is actually in the same episode as the Bif Naked songs (as well as one of my favorite Four Star Mary songs, “Dilate”. What a great episode for music!). Like a couple of other songs on this list, this one totally blew me away as soon as I heard it in the episode—I remember obsessing over it, needing to find out what it was and who it was by. It’s electronica at its best, with soaring melodies and stunning vocals. This song is also played over an extended sequence of scenes (I’m starting to wonder how this episode managed to fit in any actual dialogue), while Buffy looks for Spike and Harmony, Spike looks for the Gem of Amara, and Buffy keeps checking to see if Parker has called (surprise, he hasn’t).
“Dip” by THC (Season 4, Episode 6, “Wild at Heart”)
Just as Four Star Mary did for Dingoes, THC is the real band that provided the songs for the fictional band Shy, fronted by Veruca—the seductive singer and werewolf who Oz finds himself drawn to (a fact which Willow is well aware of at this point). A few THC songs appear in Buffy over Veruca’s short arc, but this one is my favorite, and the most memorable. The Scoobies (including Giles, bizarrely) are at the Bronze, when Veruca and her band take the stage. The song is amazing, as is Veruca, and everyone knows it. Oz, Xander and Giles can’t take their eyes off her, and Giles comments on her incredible presence. Interestingly, due to the Oz/Willow/Veruca triangle, the fact that the song is so good is actually the cause of a massive amount of tension in the plot. The better the song is, the worse the emotional fallout of the scene is—and the song honestly could not be better. It’s electronica, intense, sensual, and achingly enticing, with vocals to match.
“Behind Blue Eyes” by Anthony Stewart Head, originally by The Who (Season 4, Episode 18, “Where the Wild Things Are”)
Ahh, Giles. For three episodes, towards the end of Season 4, we’re treated to Anthony Stewart Head’s luxuriously soothing voice (I believe I once described it to a friend as being like an audio massage), as Giles experiments with a new hobby (or, more likely, rekindles an old one). It starts here, as the Scoobies find Giles playing guitar and singing a cover of The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” in a coffee shop. It’s a funny scene, as it’s such an un-Giles-like thing for him to be doing, and the gang’s shock at the discovery is hilarious. But Giles is a wonderful singer, and the gang acknowledges this too—with Willow even admitting that now she remembers why she used to have such a crush on him.
“Goodbye to You” by Michelle Branch (Season 6, Episode 8, “Tabula Rasa”)
I always remember this as being the song that’s playing as Giles sits on a plane, preparing to leave Sunnydale and move back to England, but apparently it’s also the song playing as Tara moves out following her and Willow’s breakup, and as Buffy gives into her desire and kisses Spike for the second time. Those are a lot of significant developments for one song, but Michelle Branch (who’s also playing at the Bronze during this extended montage) can handle it, deftly capturing the fragile emotional states of several characters, and of the viewers. It’s a bittersweet song, perfect for processing these bittersweet moments, as characters feel the devastation, but also the glimmers of hope, in the decisions they’re making.
“Out of This World” by Bush (Season 6, Episode 13, “Dead Things”)
This is one of the darkest and most disturbing Buffy episodes, and aside from the horrific main storyline about Warren and his ex-girlfriend Katrina, it deals with Buffy struggling to come to terms with her relationship with Spike. This is a fittingly dark and hauntingly beautiful song. It plays over a sequence where Buffy walks through the graveyard to Spike’s crypt, leans against the door, but then decides to leave. Meanwhile, Spike is preparing a glass of blood to drink inside his crypt when he senses Buffy outside. He also leans against the door, then opens it to find Buffy gone. The mournful desperation of the song highlights the unhealthy roots of their feelings for each other, as well as the intensity of those feelings.
“Von der Tiefe” by Stillste Stund (Season 7, Episode 2, “Beneath You”)
A slight change of pace here with some German dance music from Stillste Stund. In Frankfurt, a pink-haired Potential Slayer (though we don’t know that’s who she is at the time) is chased and eventually killed to the relentless beats of this song. The song is dark and dissonant, but intoxicating. It’s different enough to Buffy’s usual musical fare to add to the disorientation of being thrust into the action of a new setting, with an unknown character caught up in a mysterious conflict. Though she wasn’t the first Potential we saw being hunted down, and she certainly wasn’t the last, this sequence always stuck in my mind—probably due in no small part to the highly effective song choice (though I’m sure the pink hair helped as well). I always thought it was a great song, and it works fantastically to raise the adrenaline in this highly charged sequence.
“Blue” by Angie Hart (Season 7, Episode 7, “Conversations with Dead People”)
The brilliant episode “Conversations with Dead People” begins with Angie Hart playing this song at the Bronze, while Spike, Buffy, Willow, and Dawn go about their evenings. The episode ends with a reprise of the same song, while Willow and Dawn recover from separate encounters with supposed ghosts (actually the First Evil), Spike kills someone, Buffy reels from an emotional conversation with a newly-sired vampire, and Andrew kills Jonathan, instructed to do so by the First in the form of Warren. Each character struggles to process their pain and confusion alone after the evening’s events, and this song perfectly captures their emotional states.
“Pavlov’s Bell” by Aimee Mann (Season 7, Episode 8, “Sleeper”)
Aimee Mann plays this song in the Bronze, while Spike, starting to figure out that he’s being used as a sleeper agent by the First, encounters a vampire he recently sired, fights her, and kills her. It’s a fun, rocking song that works as a great backdrop to the scene, contrasting effectively with the seriousness of Spike’s growing concern, while ramping up the pacing and energy for the action-packed fight. The song’s title also gives a nice nod to Spike’s status as a sleeper agent. There’s a great moment when Spike stakes the vampire and she falls off the balcony, exploding into dust in front of everyone. The band pauses, then continues with the song, and Aimee Mann can later be heard complaining about playing vampire towns.
“It’s Only Love” by Heather Nova (Season 7, Episode 20, “Touched”)
The last song on the list occurs close to the end of the series in “Touched”, also known as the episode where everyone has sex. It’s done in a life-affirming way, as everyone prepares for the upcoming battle and faces their mortality. Faith and Robin Wood, Willow and Kennedy, and Xander and Anya all give into their desires, while for once Buffy and Spike are the only characters not having sex, simply cuddling and offering each other comfort as their relationship reaches a new level of emotional intimacy. The song itself is romantic, yet understated, and with it, the show creates a truly meaningful moment as it nears its conclusion.
What songs did I miss that you would have included? Leave a comment and let us know!