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People at a concert in this image from Warner Bros. Studios
“The O.C.” used music, just the right amount throughout the series, including this scene where Luke (Chris Carmack) gets very into a Rooney concert. (Image: Warner Bros. Studios)

From the first episode of “The O.C.” to the last on my 20th anniversary rewatch journey, I remained impressed with not just the show's music choices but also the delicate hand with which they were used. Teen dramas can sometimes turn what are supposed to be meaningful montages into shallow music videos (I’m looking at you, “One Tree Hill”). Fortunately, “The O.C.” successfully found the balance between moving us emotionally with music without the scene being dominated by the song.

What’s your favorite song from “The O.C.” soundtrack? Drop it in the comments below! 

During my summer binge, I found some new favorites across the show's four-season run and listened to some old standbys with new ears. Find my picks for the greatest soundtrack hits of “The O.C.” below — and a few suggestions for additional listening!

'Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)'

I adored Kate Bush and this song long before “Stranger Things” brought “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)” to the forefront of pop culture last year. So I was surprised that it took me so long to place the powerful song that opened the first episode of “The O.C.” Season 4, “The Avengers.” But that's likely because Placebo’s rendition of it is so very different, and that's a good thing.

Even though nothing can replace the original, I still love this dark (or darker, I should say) version that provides the backing music for Ryan's (Ben McKenzie) life in the wake of Marissa's (Mischa Barton) death. The haunting notes are used again near the end of the episode, but this time they represent a slight hint of hope that Ryan and Julie (Melinda Clarke) will avenge, or at least begin properly grieving, Marissa’s passing.

(If you don’t know Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting,” remedy that error as soon as you finish reading this article!)

'Forever Young'

“The O.C.” music editors were great with the reuse of songs, sometimes via covers, sometimes in the same episode (like with “Running Up That Hill”), and sometimes to tie different episodes together in the same season or over the course of the series.

An old favorite, Alphaville’s “Forever Young,” covered here by Youth Group, was used to effectively close out the fourth episode of Season 3, as Ryan and Marissa choose it as “their” song. The music comes back around at the end of episode 16 — when they break up. You can get all those heartbreak feels again by listening to it on Music From The O.C.: Mix 5, one of six companion albums released for the show.

'Carol of the Meows'

During the show's second edition of the amazing holiday known as Chrismukkah, I laughed so hard when I finally realized that what I thought was a humming of the holiday classic “Carol of the Bells” was actually the word “meow” being sung over and over. The song parody, called “Carol of the Meows,” comes from the band Guster.

It’s an especially fitting choice for “The Chrismukkah That Almost Wasn’t,” which depicted a big ol’ familial mess when Lindsay (Shannon Lucio) was revealed to be Caleb's (Alan Dale) illegitimate daughter. While there's obviously nothing funny about that, the episode had plenty of comedic moments to complement the dramatic twists. This song, if that’s what it can even be called, made me laugh all over again listening to it now.

'California 2005'

All of us “The O.C.” fanatics of course know and love the opening credits song by Phantom Planet. It's first introduced not at the very start of the pilot but a little later in the episode, as Ryan is kicked out of his home and Sandy (Peter Gallagher) takes him to Newport for the first time.

Rivaling that usage is the song's inclusion in Season 3’s “The Shape of Things to Come,” where we hear a new, acoustic version titled “California 2005.” It's somehow more chill and sad at the same time — a harbinger of troubles ahead, considering the episode ends with Ryan punching Harbor’s dean of discipline in the face.


The defining song and memory that has stuck with me in the almost two decades between my original viewing of “The O.C.” and my recent rewatch is the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah.” As I mentioned in my Season 1 reflection, I didn’t remember its early uses in the show, only its final one.

The song, for which Cohen received little acclaim back in the day, was arguably made most popular by Jeff Buckley. I was thrilled to discover that Buckley's cover played in the second episode of the series when Ryan and Marissa start to recognize their romantic feelings for each other. It's then heard again at the very end of the first season as they're forced to part.

But it was Imogen Heap’s version, playing when Marissa died, that I spent most of Season 3 anticipating. When I came to that point in my rewatch, I was glad they didn’t use the Buckley rendition again. Hearing this lesser-known version made it feel very personal to Marissa and Ryan's final moments together.

'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea'

This summer, I watched 92 episodes of “The O.C.”

I will confess, I skipped roughly three minutes of the series. When Season 3, Episode 3, was drawing to an end, I heard the opening notes of a song that made my throat tight, a song I find too sad to ever listen to again. It took me another note or two to be sure because it was a cover (by, I’ve since researched, Matt Pond PA.)

The original song is Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” and it’s simply the most beautiful and heartbreaking song I’ve ever heard. I’m sure that it was used for an incredible impact on “The O.C.” But for me, “Aeroplane” stays, as Seth would say, in the vault. For you, though? Give it a listen sooner rather than later.

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