The first in a series celebrating my all-time favorite movie and television soundtracks.
One of the many things I love about How I Met Your Mother is its original songs – from the delightful theme song to “Let’s Go to the Mall”, “Nothing Suits Me Like a Suit” to “P.S. I Love You”, “Marshall vs. The Machines” to “Murder Train” (a personal favorite of mine), the show’s creators use this music to give us glimpses into the characters, and – since this is a comedy, after all – for laughs.
We’ll probably dig more into HIMYM‘s original music another time; today, the topic is existing music. There are few things in media I love more than a well-placed pop song, and few have done it better than Craig Thomas and Carter Bays, the creators of How I Met Your Mother. It isn’t just the songs they select – although those selections are often extraordinary – but HOW they incorporate the songs into the story. In some cases, the music is used to comment on the action; in others, it’s used as a foreshadowing device. More often than not, the songs are chosen simply because they’re amazing songs. Here are my top 20 favorite uses of pop music in How I Met Your Mother.
20. “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby” – Islands | Episode: “World’s Greatest Couple”
During the first part of season 2, in the period when Lily and Marshall are apart, Lily moves in with Barney for an episode. Initially, Barney assumes Lily will cramp his bachelor style, but when a hippie chick spends the night and doesn’t want to leave the next morning, Barney realizes Lily’s potential – making the women he has sex with think he’s married (yes, Barney is disgusting, but we don’t have room in this post to get into that). Barney’s one rule is that Lily not change anything, but Lily has a better idea – redecorate his apartment to make it look like a woman actually lives there. In grand HIMYM tradition, the redecorating takes place as a wordless montage, set to Islands’ “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby”. Islands, borne from the remains of the Unicorns, a band very important to the story of Ted and future baby mama Tracy, are a little twee for my taste, but there’s no denying this catchy little ditty works perfectly here. Each time I watch the episode, the lyrics “Bones, bones, brittle little bones” are stuck in my head for a week.
19. “The Underdog” – Spoon | Episode: “Spoiler Alert”
Ted’s new girlfriend Cathy (the lovely Lindsay Price) talks – A LOT – but Ted has new relationship blinders on and doesn’t see it (hear it?). The revelation leads to the gang discovering previously unnoticed flaws in each other (Ted corrects your grammar, Robin misuses the word literally, Marshall sings annoying songs about everything he does and Lily chews loudly). In the end, everyone sets aside their annoyances to help Marshall celebrate passing the bar, set to “The Underdog” by Austin indie band Spoon.
18. “Beach Comber” – Real Estate | Episode: “Unfinished”
Barney has been “putting the moves” on Ted to get Ted to agree to being the architect of the new Goliath National Bank headquarters (Ted’s design for the building was previously scrapped). Ted insists he is over being an architect and wants to focus on teaching (“finished with that”). But by the end of the episode, Ted realizes his architecture career is unfinished, and goes to meet Barney to tell him the news; in the background, we hear Real Estate’s gorgeous “Beach Comber”.
17. “Let Your Heart Hold Fast” – Fort Atlantic | Episode: “The Final Page – Part Two”
Barney is running the final play out of The Playbook – “The Robin” – a long con to win Robin back for good. The play ends with Robin on the roof of the World Wide News building, and Barney proposing. The episode then gives us a lovely montage of Lily and Marshall with baby Marvin, and Robin and Barney, and Ted – alone at the GNB opening, hoping his true love is still out there somewhere. And it’s all set to Fort Atlantic’s achingly beautiful “Let Your Heart Hold Fast”.
16. “This Modern Love” – Bloc Party | Episode: “Come On”
Ted has finally gotten together with Robin, and happily takes a cab ride back home the following morning – only to find Marshall on the stoop, sitting in the rain and holding Lily’s engagement ring. Ted’s joy is tempered by the knowledge that his two best friends have broken up, ending the episode (and the season) on a melancholic note, a note that is heightened by the lyrics of “This Modern Love”, which bely its upbeat melody and seem to suggest that none of this is permanent.
15. “Oxford Comma” – Vampire Weekend | Episode: “Definitions”
The season five premiere finds Ted worried about his first day as an architecture professor. He should be worried; he’s going to fuck it up royally by going to the wrong classroom and spending several oblivious minutes teaching architecture to a bunch of Econ 305 students (including, he would learn later, the mother of his children). It’s excruciating for Ted – and hilarious for us. Vampire Weekend’s catchy-as-hell anthem to not giving a fuck, “Oxford Comma”, is the perfect soundtrack to the proceedings.
14. “Glad Girls” – Guided By Voices | Episode: “Right Place, Right Time”
Ted is telling his kids the story of how he ended up at the right crosswalk at the right moment (he went to his second favorite bagel shop because his first favorite had given Robin food poisoning, he stopped by a newsstand for a magazine, he had to give a homeless guy a dollar). Also at the crosswalk? His ex Stella. The meeting would lead to Ted’s teaching job, which would eventually result in him meeting the mother. As Ted explains that if he could, he’d go back and thank every person who helped him get to that place and time, we hear Guided By Voices’ stomping, infectious “Glad Girls”.
13. “Black Tears” – Miss Derringer | Episode: “The Platinum Rule”
Ted is going on a date with Stella, the dermatologist removing his butterfly tramp stamp. The gang is attempting to convince him not to go, with Barney imploring Ted not to break “The Platinum Rule”, the antithesis to the Golden Rule – never LOVE thy neighbor. Three nested flashbacks tell the stories of Barney, Robin and Marshall & Lily breaking that rule – and the consequences they suffered for doing so. When Barney reaches the “submission” stage of the rule, we see the gang giving in to their desires, set to Miss Derringer’s retro-girl-groupish “Black Tears”.
12. “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” – The Proclaimers | Episode: “Arrivederci, Fiero”
Marshall has to say goodbye to his beloved Fiero (and it had just hit 200,000 miles, too!), and through flashbacks, we see all of the adventures the Fiero has taken them on – Ted and Marshall bonding over road trips home, Lily and Robin bonding over spilled Chinese food and cigars, Barney finally attempting to learn how to drive. How does the guilty pleasure Proclaimers hit factor in? Marshall bought the cassingle back when he first started driving the Fiero, and it’s been stuck in the cassette player ever since. But if you’re sick of hearing the song, don’t worry – it’ll come around again.
11. “Alright” – Supergrass | Episode: “The Duel”
It’s 2 am. Robin has had a long, hard day. We rewind to the beginning of the day, and a montage – set to Supergrass’s delightful ode to youth, “Alright” – shows us that Robin’s day actually started out well. As the day progresses, though, life comes at Robin pretty fast, and at the end of it, all she wants to do is see Ted. The storyline actually concludes in the following episode, “Nothing Good Happens After 2 A.M.”, and we know things will end badly because, well, it’s right there in the title. But for a brief, shining moment, everything seems “Alright”.
10. “Rewind” – Goldspot | Episode: “Double Date”
Ted meets Jen for a blind date, and partway through the evening, they realize they’d been on a blind date before – seven years earlier. It turns out the date hadn’t gone that well (Jen didn’t reach for the check, Ted didn’t offer her his coat, Jen has too many cats, Ted points out menu typos and tells cheesy dad jokes), and Ted never called Jen for a second date. They attempt to recreate the first date in the hopes of discovering why they’re scaring off potential mates. At the end of the evening, they imagine how things might have ended up if just a couple things had gone differently that first night. The perfect accompaniment? Goldspot’s “Rewind” (“You see, you’re the only star/In the film I never made”). In the end, Ted and Jen realize they want to be loved by someone FOR their quirks, not in spite of them, and amicably go their separate ways.
9. “Young Folks” – Peter Bjorn and John | Episode: “Monday Night Football”
The gang has to miss the Superbowl to attend the funeral of a MacLaren’s bartender none of them can remember, so they DVR it to watch on Monday. They all spend the day attempting to avoid news of the game (it’s especially tricky for Robin because she is literally a news anchor). Ted spends the day working from home and only has to leave the apartment to go get chicken wings from a sports bar. To avoid spoilers, he creates the Sensory Deprivator 5000, a device that ensures he sees and hears nothing. The soundtrack for his perilous, hilarious journey? The whistling portion of the delightful “Young Folks”.
8. “Mother of Pearl” – Roxy Music | Episode: “Milk”
In the penultimate episode of season one, a dating service has matched Ted with his perfect woman – plays bass, wants two kids, reads “Love in the Time of Cholera”, etc. Ted imagines his wedding to the perfect woman, with Robin in attendance, and the scene is set to Roxy Music’s glorious “Mother of Pearl”. Ted realizes that no matter how perfect this woman is, she isn’t Robin, and decides not to go on the date. By the end of the next episode, “Come On” (see #16), Ted would finally win Robin over.
7. “The Funeral” – Band of Horses | Episode: “Farhampton”
The most haunting and beautiful foreshadowing of the titular mother’s death. In a flashback, Ted has returned to the Farhampton train station, where he will meet the mother the following year, to ask Klaus (the always superb Thomas Lennon) why he doesn’t want to be with Victoria. As Klaus explains how, when you meet the right person, you just know, Band of Horses’ heartbreaking “The Funeral” plays in the background. At the end of the sequence, a taxi arrives at the train station a little ways down the road, an unseen woman grabs her guitar case out of the trunk of the cab and walks up to the platform, and the meeting of Ted and the mother has almost arrived. It is one of the most gorgeous sequences in the series, and I weep every time I watch it.
6. “Victoria” – The Kinks | Episode: “The Naked Truth”
One of the most amazing uses of music as a foreshadowing device EVER. Throughout the episode, we’re treated to bite-size nuggets of the melody, but the lyrics are saved for the end, when we get the big reveal: Ted’s ex Victoria, who is in charge of the cupcakes for the Architect’s Ball that Ted is attending. If you aren’t familiar with the song, or aren’t paying that much attention, you’ll probably miss it (I did, the first time through the episode), which is what makes it so brilliant.
5. “Prophets” – A.C. Newman | Episode: “The Leap”
“The Leap”, HIMYM’s season four finale, hits all the right notes: there’s no cliff-hanger per se, but it sets up the season five storylines – Ted’s teaching job, Robin and Barney’s relationship – perfectly. The literal leap the gang takes to the adjacent rooftop represents the metaphorical leap they’re taking in their lives (okay, for Marshall, it’s just about the literal leap), and the musical choice – A.C. Newman’s soaring anthem to breaking free, “Prophets” – is the perfect soundtrack for ushering them over.
4. “Simple Song” – The Shins | Episode: “Something New”
HIMYM tends to nail the music for the season finale episodes (see #s 5, 11 and 16) , and “Something New”, the season eight ender, is no exception to that rule. The gang – Barney and Robin, Ted and Lily, and Marshall – are headed separately to Robin and Barney’s wedding out on the fictional Long Island town of Farhampton, after which they’ll go their separate ways: Ted’s headed to Chicago for a Robin-less fresh start, and Marshall and Lily are headed to Italy for the year, where Lily will be working in her capacity as The Captain’s art consultant (or will they stay in New York, where Marshall has been offered a judgeship?). Best of all, we get our first honest-to-goodness look at The Mother, the divine Cristin Milioti, buying her ticket to Farhampton, where she’ll play her bass in the band Robin and Barney have hired for their wedding reception. And it’s all set to one of the loveliest love songs I’ve ever heard, The Shins’ “Simple Song”. By the end of the segment, you’re feeling all the feels.
3. “Two Weeks” – Grizzly Bear | Episode: “The Window”
Maggie (the lovely Joanna Garcia) went to Wesleyan with Ted, Marshall and Lily, and she was the ultimate girl-next-door. The problem was, Maggie was never single for very long at a time, and each time one of her relationships ended, the window where she was single got smaller and smaller. Now, Maggie’s window is open again, and Ted tries to take advantage of it. Of course, this being a sitcom, Ted forgets that he has a class to teach, and leaves his friends to babysit Maggie until he can get back to the bar. By the end of the evening, Maggie’s window would close one last time, as Maggie tells Ted “the second greatest love story I’ve ever heard”, set to Grizzly Bear’s gorgeous “Two Weeks”.
2. “Thirteen” – Big Star | Episode: “Ten Sessions”
I’ve already professed my love for Big Star in this blog – and will probably do so again – but seriously, “Thirteen” is perhaps the greatest paean to adolescence ever put to vinyl, and it is the perfect soundtrack to Ted and Stella’s “Two Minute Date”. Stella, played by the lovely Sarah Chalke, tells Ted she only has two minutes for lunch and no time to date, so Ted “Teds out” and ambushes Stella for a two minute date. Ted and Stella’s love story ends badly (see #20 on this list), but it certainly started with a bang; whether you find Ted’s over-the-top romantic gesture sweet or kind of creepy, you could not find a better song to set it to.
- “The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)” – George Harrison | Episode: “Big Days”
There could be no other choice for me for the #1 spot. My favorite song from my favorite Beatle from his sublime album, All Things Must Pass, “Let It Roll” is actually used in multiple episodes, starting with the season six opener, “Big Days”. The episode begins “A little ways down the road…” and we are at a wedding. We’re probably forgiven for thinking, with the little information we have at this point, that Ted is the groom (spoiler alert: he’s not). Over the course of several more episodes, we will return to this wedding day, each time getting snippets of Harrison’s gorgeous ode to Friar Park, the Victorian mansion built in 1889 by Sir Frank Crisp and purchased by Harrison in 1970. As is the way of HIMYM, giving us tiny parcels of information episodes, or even seasons, before giving us the big reveal, we won’t know who the groom is until the end of season six (“Challenge Accepted”) and who the bride is until the end of season seven (“The Magician’s Code”).
“Monkey Man” – The Rolling Stones | Episode: “Zoo or False”
“Lifesize” – A Fine Frenzy | Episode: “Doppelgangers”
“Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect” – The Decemberists | Episode: “Ted Mosby, Architect”
“Gorgeous Behavior” – Marching Band | Episode: “The Naked Man”
“Parallel or Together” – Ted Leo and the Pharmacists | Episode: “Matchmaker”
“The Man in Me” – Bob Dylan | Episode: “The Front Porch”
“Monday” – Mikey & The Gypsys | Episode: “Shelter Island”
This list represents just a fraction of the songs featured on the series over the years. There are a bunch of songs I love – by artists I love – that didn’t make it the cut; artists like Fountains of Wayne, Pixies, Radiohead and Regina Spektor are among some of my very favorites, but I wanted to focus on the way the songs were used within the context of the specific episodes. I made a playlist of about sixty of my favorite songs from the show, which includes the songs from this list and many more cool tracks.