It goes without saying that action and suspense are key elements to the popularity of Breaking Bad. However, the show’s complexities propel the show beyond the simple confines of a Friday night nail biter . Whether it be the symbolism found in the ricin kept in the White household, the parallelism of both Gus Frain and Walter’s downfall, or the show’s constant reliance on foreshadowing, the minds behind Breaking Bad ensure that you’re getting more than just a cheap thrill. One of the elements that is often overlooked is the show’s use of music. While Dave Porter’s intense background symphonies punctuate the drama, I often find the pop songs used to be even more revealing. As a result, I decided to create a list of my top ten songs of the show.
This isn’t a list of my favorite musical moments, so you won’t be hearing about Gale’s karaoke video nor Jesse’s old band, Twauthammer (although “Falacies” was a bad ass song). This also isn’t a list of the songs I enjoy the most from the show, so you won’t be seeing any mention of The Walkmen, John Coltraine, or Thee Oh Sees. This is a list of the tunes that had the most impact on the series, the songs that both set the mood for key scenes and also added depth and complexity to the story through their lyrics. Rather than rank them in some type of top 10 list, I opted to reveal them chronologically to show how they helped shape the transformation of Walter White into Heisenberg.
“Out Of Time”
(Season 1; Episode 1)
This track, which is very reminiscent of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” arrives at the end of the very first episode (best first episode of a show ever?). The mild-mannered Walter White has just returned from one hell of a day: cooking meth with a junkie in the desert, a gun shoot-out with drug dealers, a homemade poisoning of said drug dealers with phosphine gas, a crashed RV, and a moment of desperation where he held a gun to his jaw and prepared to say goodbye to the world. Returning home to his wife, Walt is draggled, relieved, and filled with an adrenaline he hasn’t experienced in years. The one time emasculated, shell of a man has returned as “the out of time man with nothing to lose.” As Walt jumps into bed and ravages his wife like never before, the song kicks in, the organs swaggering and Mick’s calm, collected voice singing Walt’s new nothing left to lose mantra of “no use in waiting no more.”
“Who’s Gonna Save My Soul”
(Season 1; Episode 7)
This ominous song arrives at the end of the final episode of the first season. Walt and Jesse have just witnessed their distributor, Tuco Salamanca, beating one of his henchmen to death for speaking out of turn. As Tuco drives out of the junkyard, the two meth cooks stand in shock, realizing that they’ve gotten in over their heads. In the background Cee Lo Green’s voice can be heard crooning out the bluesy chorus “Who’s gonna save my soul now? How will my story be told now?”
“Negra Azul (The Ballad of Heisenberg)”
Los Cuates De Sinoala
(Season 2; Episode 7)
In season 2, Walt and Jesse are able to rid themselves of the dreaded Tuco and start-up their own rag-tag drug distribution ring in Albuquerque. The episode opens with mariachi band Los Cuates De Sinoala singing “Negra Azul (The Ballad of Heisenberg)”. What may at first come off as an upbeat, humorous song honoring Heisenberg and his pure, blue crystal quickly turns dark as the singers harmonize how his legend has spread through Mexico. As a result, the cartel is “running hot.” The band ominously warns “that homie’s dead / he just doesn’t know it yet.” As with most opening sequences to Breaking Bad, this song catches your attention and foreshadows the conflicts to come in future episodes.
TV On the Radio
(Season 2; Episode 10)
“DLZ” is probably my favorite song and musical moment ever on Breaking Bad. It doesn’t hurt that the TV On the Radio album it comes from, Dear Science (coincidence?!), was my favorite album back in 2008. In the episode entitled “Over,” Walt has just been given the good news that his cancer is in remission. Instead of being overjoyed, he displays frustration because the “out of time man” now has more time than he’d bargained for when he originally invested so much into the meth business. Reeling from the news, he spends the majority of the episode trying to return to normalcy, keeping occupied by fixing the water heater and replacing the rotted floorboards.
On one of his many trips to Home Depot, he crosses paths with a tweaker pushing a cart filled what resembles a meth starter kit. The teacher in Mr. White attempts to direct the amateur in the right direction but scares him off. For a moment, Walt stands and ponders the idea of other cooks in Albuquerque and in what I consider one of the biggest turning points in the show’s history, the Heisenberg in him decides he can’t stand for it. Cancer or no cancer, he can’t quit the venture that has given him so much excitement, so much self-worth.
As he stomps out into the parking lot to face-off with the recreational meth cooks, “DLZ” bursts out of the speakers, a menacing wall of voices and synths pushing Walt forward with a vengeance. After threatening them “Stay out of my territory,” the lyrics kick in and impeccably illuminate the moment:
You set your sights so high.
But this is beginning to feel like
the bolt busted loose from the lever.
Never you mind
Electrified, my love is better
It’s crystallized, so am I.
All could be the diamond
Fused with who’s next
This is beginning to feel like the dawn of a loser forever.
“Horse With No Name”
(Season 3; Episode 2)
The opening sequence to the episode “Caballo Sin Nombre” features Walt driving through the desert, listening to America’s “Horse With No Name.” the upbeat song has Mr. White singing along and enjoying the solitude of the open landscape. Only days earlier, his wife discovered his drug business and has taken the kids away, but for this moment, he is at peace with the world. The song doesn’t hold too much significance, although I think that throughout the first two seasons, the desert represented a solace for Walt. On several occasions he has used the excuse of going to therapeutic refuges as a cover for cooking in the RV, but in a sense, those weekends with Jesse under the New Mexico sun provided the escape he needed. The chorus of the song sings, “In the desert you can remember your name / ‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain.” It’s also a sly reminder of his fugue state, when he supposedly couldn’t “remember his name.”
“Man Chang Fei”
(Season 3; Episode 13)
I know the inclusion of two songs at once goes against the entire concept of a top ten list, but I felt both of these songs heard within Gale’s quaint little apartment were vital to setting up the final scene of season three.
Early in the episode, happy-go-lucky Gale can be seen enjoying an afternoon listen to Italian quartet Quartetto Cetra and their outlandish song “Crapa Pelada.” Not only does the song show Gale’s eclectic, cultured taste in music, but the mood of the music captures Gale’s positive outlook on the world. His artistic sensitivity stands in stark contrast to Walter’s no nonsense, scientific mind. When translated, the lyrics to “Crapa Pelada” add humor to the episode with a narrative very similar to Walt’s transformation into the bald, sad, Heisenberg:
Ladies and gentlemen, I want to tell you
the story that drives me to despair
For seven months now, I have watched my hair fall out
Now i’m bald, disappointed, sad;
I don’t know what to do about it.
The episode ends back in Gale’s apartment where he is now listening to Zang Fan’s “Man Chang Fei” while preparing some herbal tea. Even though I couldn’t locate any translations of the lyrics, the title of the song would suggest it is about the military general who served Liu Bei in the late Eastern Han Dynasty. Zang’s loyalty to Bei was very similar to Gale’s allegiance to Gus. Much in the same way Gale met his demise, Zhang Fei was assassinated by his subordinates.
“We Are Born When We Die”
(Season 4; Episode 12)
At the opening of the episode entitled “Over,” Walt can be seen playing what resembles a Russian roulette style game of spin the bottle. With each spin, the pistol points back at him, the Gods sending a clear message to just off himself and spare his family the agony. The lyrics to the smoky Apollo Sunshine groove “We Are Born When We Die” whispers: “Why say goodbye? / We are born when we die.” With his back against the wall (Gus after him, his wife giving his money to Ted Beneke, and Hank’s life threatened), Walt is searching for an answer with each spin. Then on his third twirl, the gun reveals the answer to his prayers – the Lilly of the Valley plant in his backyard that will eventually be used to poison Brock. As vocalist Sam Cohen sings “We are born again when we die,” the Walter White we once knew will soon be completely replaced by the empire ruling Heisenberg. Born again, indeed.
Danger Mouse & Daniele Lupe, feat. Norah Jones
(Season 4; Episode 13)
And boy was Walt born again. By killing Gus, the transformation of Walt is complete, and there is no turning back. As he gloats “I won,” you can’t help but wonder at what cost? The chorus to Danger Mouse’s “Black” conveys the same thematic statement: “Until you travel to that place you can’t come back /
Where the last pain is gone and all that’s left is black.” Mr. White has officially faded to black.
“Crystal Blue Persuasion”
Tommy Jones and the Shondells
(Season 5; Episode 8)
If I asked you to come up with the most memorable song from the show, it is likely “Crystal Blue Persuasion” would be the first to pop into your head. It’s amazing to think that a song written in 1969 could fit so perfectly within the world of Breaking Bad. The writers must have been chomping at the bit to use this song at some point during the first four seasons, but their patience paid off. If Mr. Chips has become Scarface, then this is the show’s “Take It To the Limit” moment. The entirety of the song is played as we see the Heisenberg Empire thriving. Spanning three months of prosperity, some viewers complained that the montage sped through too many events, but who wants to watch a show about a prosperous meth business?
“Times Are Getting Hard”
(Season 5; Episode 14)
I would argue that the episode “Ozymandias” is the finest piece of dramatic television ever. It was a Shakespearean tragedy, an old west shoot out, a Greek Melodrama, and an Italian opera, all tied into one heart-wrenching hour. After all the dust has settled, Walt is only left with barrel of cash to roll across the desert like a modern-day Sisyphus. Resembling a tumbling tumbleweed, Walt ventures across the desolate landscape as the Limeliters “Times Are Getting Hard” plays in the background. As the song unrolls the list of country music archetypes (loss of wife, loss of job, loss of money) it becomes abundantly clear that Walt has become the ultimate cowboy cliché. Little did we know that he would soon be literally saying “Goodbye to everyone.”