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Breaking Bad music vs The Wire: What's better?

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If you think about it, The Wire and Breaking Bad are the Biggie and 2Pac of televised dramas. Equally revered, the two shows have similarities that are obvious, and there's a reason that one always invariably comes up in conversation about the other. What's more striking, through, are the pronounced differences, namely the way each show handles its music cues.

See also: Eight reasons Breaking Bad is the best show ever

On The Wire's DVD commentary, David Simon said, "I hate it when somebody purposely tries to have the lyrics match the visual. It brutalizes the visual in a way to have the lyrics dead on point ... Yet at the same time it can't be totally off point. It has to glance at what you're trying to say."

In sharp contrast, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan is known for meticulously planning and plotting every aspect of everything about his show, leaving clues and easter eggs at every turn. And this is especially true when it comes to the music. Given the blasé approach of Simon to music cues, it's surprising that music on The Wire is so affecting. In so many ways Breaking Bad feels like the natural successor to The Wire. But which show does music better? Let's have a look, shall we?

THEME MUSIC Theme music is obviously the music that plays on every episode during main titles.

This is an incredibly tough category to determine a winner. The Wire used "Way Down in the Hole," an original song by Tom Waits for its main titles. Interestingly, the Waits version of the song wasn't used until the second season. The darkest interpretation of the song was season four's rendition by DoMaJe, a local Baltimore act. It is also the most striking version. Can you imagine anything else playing after Omar escapes a prison hit?

That darkness of Breaking Bad, on the other hand, is matched note for note with the ominous original song created by the show's composer Dave Porter. Breaking Bad is a tour de force for interstitial music and score cues. Porter and company never disappoint with sonics that make you feel the desperation of everyone in the Breaking Bad universe. Most shows only use about eight bars of the theme song as a coda to the "cold open" events that never disappoint.

Analysis: This category should be a draw, but we'd be remiss for not mentioning "The Fall," an original composition by The Wire's music supervisor, Blake Leyh, which serves as the closing theme for every episode save season and series finales. The range of emotions that can sweep over you as a view as those high hats signal the end of another episode vary from anger, to intense anxiety, to resigned grief.

Believe me, when you hear "The Fall" (the kind of song that would be at home on a John Carpenter movie score) at the end of an episode of The Wire, you've earned it. "The Fall" leaves you immersed in the horror, and simultaneously brings you down from some fucked up experience. Breaking Bad almost always ends with no music, which is equally effective, but not half as haunting. Most Breaking Bad endings are cliffhangers, while Wire endings are slow, long drops to certain death.

Winner: The Wire

Continue on for more Breaking Bad vs The Wire musical analysis

SOURCE CUES Source cues are songs that naturally occur because they are realistically playing within a scene.

Background music that is not a part of the score, but a real part of the scene is essential to both shows. In the case of Breaking Bad, if music is playing, it's for a reason, a seriously big reason. Case in point, the opening of season three, episode two: Walt has just caused the deaths of hundreds of people ("Flight 515 R.I.P."), and he is remorseless, rollin' to the sounds of "Horse with No Name" by America. The fact that he invokes his own suffering in the plane crash that he caused to try and beat a traffic ticket speaks volumes about Walter White.

Vince Gilligan has said time and again that the producers search for just the right song to evoke the right mood and leave a little easter egg for avid fans. To the contrary, rappers like Jay-Z and the Roots were begging David Simon to include their music in The Wire. Jay-Z and Freeway even went as far as to cast almost every one from the fictional Barksdale gang for Free's clip for "What We Do."

For a show set in the 'hood, the Wire had very few rap songs that made the cut. The songs that did make it, though, were spot on East Coast, D-boy trunk funk. Mostly these songs don't matter, but when they do, the implied synchronicity is incredible. Consider how much Black Star's "Hater Players" had to do with the shooting of Detective Kima Greggs. The Wire gets bonus points because, at the time, hardly anyone outside the East Coast was checking for Black Star, and that added to the credibility of the show.

The greatest example of "source cue" genius on the Wire also happened to make Idris Elba a star. When Elba's Stringer Bell character goes to visit Donette, the baby mama of suspected snitch, and perennial fuck up D'Angelo Barksdale, she puts on "Sweet Thing" by Mary J. Blige. At this point, the whole 'hood knew that Stringer was gonna smash. When Elba's shirt comes off, you can almost hear women swooning across America. The on-screen chemistry is incredible even if the entendres are almost embarrassing. That Mary J., however, is spot on. Classic 'hood chick, jump-off soundtrack material.

The hands down winner for source cue material has to be "Crapa Pelada" by Quartetto Cetra. Wait what? That doesn't ring any bells? This kitschy Italian track brilliantly underscores the chaotic and random Breaking Bad universe. Besides, what else would certified weirdo Gale Boetticher listen to while he's making tea. (A grown ass man, making himself? Weirdo.) Breaking Bad is such a crap shoot logically, like Jesse said this year, "Whatever you think is going to happen, the exact opposite of that is what happens." If Gale had been bumping Talking Heads or Warren Zevon, we would know his fate was sealed, but for some reason "Crapa Pelada" helps you doubt that Jesse will actually pull the trigger.

Winner (by an eye hole): Breaking Bad

Continue on for more Breaking Bad vs The Wire musical analysis

WTF TUNES WTF tunes (or the "Zou Bisou Bisou" category for Mad Men fans) are songs that showed up on the soundtrack and left viewers scratching their heads, or tapping their smartphones to figure out "What the fuck was that cut?"

Nowadays, it's almost a prerequisite that at some point every "great" show has to have a "Zou Bisou" moment. That moment when a song it features breaks into our mainstream culture. Breaking Bad has had painfully few of those moments, and the one that stands out is monumental to the story arc of Walter White, but had minimal ripples in mainstream culture.

If you've been trying to pinpoint the moment when Walter completely gives way to Heisenberg, when he stops rationalizing and starts dominating, it would be right around the time Kyp Malone from TV on the Radio sings, "This is beginning to feel like the dawn of a loser forever." Savor the fact that as Walter pauses just for a moment Kyp sings "Congratulations on the mess you've made of things." Unfortunately in season two when this scene takes place, Breaking Bad didn't have the audience that it has now. Can you imagine how big "DLZ" by TVOTR would be if it did?

Similarly, The Wire never had much of a viewing audience while it was on air. People come to the show through DVD rentals and HBOGO passwords. The Pogues probably see a random spike in sales every time that happens because of the show's liberal use of "The Body of an American" to eulogize fallen cops. Even if "Fuck tha Police" stays on your iPod, you can't help but sing along to those Irish Blues.

The same way the Pogues puts you in the state of mind of the Baltimore police, Los Cuates de Sinaloa transports you to an alien world, a world where drug dealers are so famous, they are immortalized in song. "Negro y Azul" is the WTF tune that opens the seventh episode of Breaking Bad's second season. Walt and his product are famous in the southwest, his empire is growing, and unfortunately, as the song says, "That Homie's dead, he just doesn't know it yet."

Winner: Breaking Bad

Continue on for more Breaking Bad vs The Wire musical analysis

MONTAGES A montage is used to tell parts of the story, both shows are famous for these.

No one has ever mastered the montage like The Wire and Breaking Bad. Usually a montage is a cheat device to get exposition out of the way and keep running time short. In the hands of these shows, the montage becomes a piece of art unto itself. The montage on Breaking Bad is often like a micro-short, or the most fucked up music video you've ever seen. Mostly, Breaking Bad uses the montage to completely fuck up your expectations. Like how they forever changed the way we think about the breezy '60s hit "Windy" by the Association.

It's telling that a montage is also one of the most well known scenes from the show. "Crystal Blue Persuasion" is used to chilling effect. It rivals the greatest montages ever captured on film. But perhaps the most incredible montage on Breaking Bad is also the shortest. Gilligan is up to his kitschy chaotic tricks again, setting mass murder to the smooth sounds of Nat King Cole's "Pick Yourself Up." Incredible.

As effective a tool as the musical montage is for Breaking Bad, it's rarely as essential as the montage on The Wire. David Simon and crew have so much faith in the musical montage that just a few minutes sums up an entire season's worth of events. The season ending montage on The Wire can be a deeply cathartic experience for viewers. Considering that they don't care much about what they choose for music, what they accomplish in the season ending montages is nothing short of legendary.

The montage that closes the underrated second season of The Wire is one of it's most profound. In fact, I will let YouTube user "armando luna" take it home for me: "I get teary eyed every time I watch this scene. When you look back at all the efforts by every individual character in Season 2 to try to better their own little worlds and then you look at this montage and realize that nothing changes. Jobs are lost. Lives are taken and ruined. But the world keeps spinning. All our efforts tucked away into an evidence box and forgotten."

Season four of The Wire is commonly known as the season with "The Kids." It's the most well known season and probably the most heartbreaking. For a brief moment, the show offers us some sort of hope for a few of the characters, but by the time the season ends, you clearly understand what the characters mean when they say "the game stay the game." If you somehow missed that point, none other than Paul Weller shows up to sing "I Walk on Gilded Splinters" as we watch any sense of hope disintegrate. After all is said and done everybody is just out for themselves.

Nothing beats the stroke of genius that is the series ending montage. The Blind Boys of Alabama return with their version of "Way Down in the Hole," as we watch the faces change but the roles remain the same. By returning to the first song ever heard on the show, Simon and his crew capture the repetitive cycle of drugs and violence and immortalize the idiotic reactionary war on drugs.

Winner: The Wire

Continue on for more Breaking Bad vs The Wire musical analysis


Like 2Pac and Biggie, these shows will always be connected and almost always end in a dead heat when compared to each other. But fuck all that, we need a winner. Television and film are just as influential as radio in getting us interested in music. Once a show becomes culturally relevant, its music goes meta. Breaking Bad has been enjoying a lot of meta attention lately, and for good reason. Who could forget Gale's rendition of Major Tom?

Or the "oh no they didn't" Breaking Bad R. Kelly supercut.

But as sublime and enjoyable as those things are, they just can't mess with "The Wire: The Musical." Even if you've never seen the show, this sketch gives you a sense its depth, and the meaning that the characters still hold for those that love The Wire. In fact, almost five years after its final episode, The Wire is still in the conversation when it comes to TV and the use of music on TV. Considering that, and the fact that Tom Waits is getting some much deserved royalty checks the winner is clear..

Final verdict: The Wire rocks harder than Breaking Bad -- that is, until this Sunday's series finale "Felina," when Vince Gilligan and his crew will likely do something to make this shit a draw. Again.

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