The 13 Most Iconic Music Moments from 'The O.C.'

Hey, do not insult Death Cab!

BY Allie Gregory and Alex HudsonPublished Aug 12, 2022

The O.C. is finally streaming, having arrived on Prime Video back in June and kicking off a collective rewatch of the classic early aughts teen drama. This means revisiting all the scandals surrounding Ryan, Seth, Summer, Marissa and the gang — and, of course, diving deep into the show's generation-defining soundtrack.

When the show premiered in 2003, indie music was reaching a new level of mainstream acceptance, and The O.C. helped to introduce then-emerging bands like Death Cab for Cutie, Iron and Wine, and Bright Eyes to a primetime network audience. Music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas became a tastemaker for an era of fairly polite-sounding, folk-inflected music for mix CD-Rs everywhere — giving rise to the aesthetic simply known as "indie," regardless of whether the artists were actually independent or not.

For a show that was synonymous with the explosion of big indie, a rewatch reveals that The O.C.'s music is wildly inconsistent. For every great moment, there's a dud: multiple Dandy Warhols placements, more than one cover of "Wonderwall," and an entire episode based around pretending to know who the band Rooney is. (Not coincidentally, Rooney frontman Robert Schwartzman is the brother of O.C. theme song drummer Jason Schwartzman and a member of the Copolla family.)

Still, there are many music moments that are truly iconic — expertly chosen anthems that heighten the show's gravitas, at least a couple of which were so perfect that they became full-blown memes. We determined this list based not on the quality of the song, but how well they're placed in the show for maximum impact. These are The O.C.'s 13 most iconic music moments.

13. Death Cab for Cutie
"A Lack of Color"
Season 1, Episode 21

For all The O.C.'s talk of Death Cab for Cutie, the band don't actually get all that many memorable needle drops. But there is a nice one when Anna tells Seth that she's leaving for Pittsburgh, which is immediately followed by Marissa trying to be supportive of Ryan's burgeoning relationship with Theresa. Transatlanticism highlight "A Lack of Color" perfectly articulates the characters' angst, playing quietly throughout the scene before swelling up for the big lyrical payoff: "And on your machine I slur a plea for you to come home / But I know it's too late / And I should have given you a reason to stay."

Death Cab reappear later on the show in Season 2, performing live at fictional local venue the Bait Shop, although this scene out on the steps of Harbor High School is still the most memorable.

12. Finley Quaye
Season 1, Episode 14

The fucking Oliver storyline! It's by far the worst arc of Season 1, spanning six excruciating episodes, but it does yield this standout moment, which plays as Ryan bursts in just before midnight on NYE in order to share a kiss with Marissa while Oliver slinks off. Listening to it out of the context of the show, it's not all that great of a song, mixing cocktail lounge trip-hop vibes with over-sung pop melodrama — but as a slo-mo needle drop moment, it's absolutely perfect. For anyone who needs to hear it, here's a relationship tip: if you need to rush in to stop your girlfriend from kissing someone else, the relationship is already doomed.

11. Placebo
"Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)"
Season 4, Episode 1

Season 4 is arguably the worst of all, but its opening moments were truly something to behold. Starting off the final chapter way back in '06 on a strong note, Ryan, still reeling from the death of Marissa, has inexplicably joined a cage fighting ring following his 18th birthday. Sandy, unable to force his now-adult adoptive son to come home, is left trying to convince Ryan to leave his life of violence through a steel door, as the bloodied-up Atwood evades his care by hopping out a dingy back window. The whole thing is set to Placebo's cover of Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill," one of the many ways a millennial might have been introduced to the '85 classic in an era before Stranger Things, Spotify or TikTok.

10. Bob Seger
"Night Moves"

Season 1, Episodes 19 and 24

Soundtracking the most underrated arc of the season, Bob Seger's "Night Moves" is both the impetus and the swan song for Julie and Luke's flash-in-the-pan romance at the Mermaid Inn. Don't worry! Luke is totally 18 years old when he and Julie start hooking up, even though this simply cannot be unless he failed several grades. Water polo players, amirite? Luke goes to the Cooper house to tell Julie about how much of a MILF she is, and the Seger tune makes its smoochy debut. Age-gap relations aside, the moment is admittedly pretty hot. This episode also gifts us with Seth and Summer awkwardly losing their virginities to each other. Happy Valentine's Day!

Later in the season, Luke, on his way to tell Julie he loves her, stumbles into her and Caleb's proposal at the restaurant. He peels out, parks on the side of the road and starts smashing brewskis while "rocking out to Seger." Totally wasted, he drives off in pursuit of Julie, wrecking his car and ending up in the hospital. Luke and his dad move to Portland after he gets Marissa to forgive him for banging her mom — closing the chapter on the greatest romance The O.C. has ever known. 

9. Smashing Pumpkins
"To Sheila"
Season 1, Episode 4

Cotillion was going so well! Ryan and Marissa and Seth and Anna get paired up for the ceremony, Anna calls Marissa Princess Mononoke (because she's tall?), we get an eyebrow-raised "confidence, Cohen," and Julie is being deliciously bitchy the entire time. That all comes crashing to a halt when Jimmy Cooper gets his face smashed in by Holly's dad (yes, that is Christopher Cousins who gets his face smashed in as Ted Beneke on Breaking Bad), and the night of pomp and circumstance is totes ruined. Marissa, always looking for an excuse to weep, later spends the episode's final moments staring off into the middle distance over a cliff, while Ryan comforts her as best he can with his tux jacket and stoic presence as she watches the life she knew crumble beneath her. Billy Corgan sings as the "twilight fades," and Luke busts up the moment, acting all sorrowful. Much emotion is had by all. 

8. Jeff Buckley
Season 1, Episode 2

Oh the model home, we hardly knew ye! Ryan is on the verge of being prematurely booted from the Cohen house (only two episodes in!) when Seth and Marissa hatch the genius plan to stow him away in one of the Newport Group's model homes. They bulk him up with supplies — toilet paper, CDs and candles — and he camps out while Sandy tries to track him down. One of those CDs turns out to be an old-timey romantic mix CD that Marissa burned for Ryan. Marissa shows up at the home while the CD is playing Jeff Buckley's version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," which is included in the mix, she says, because "this song reminds me of you." We can only presume the rest of the mix was filled out by the Cramps, Stiff Little Fingers, the Clash and Sex Pistols, as Marissa reveals in the episode that she's "angry," and thus really into punk "right now." The cover plays again during the Season 1 finale when Ryan leaves town with a newly pregnant Theresa, and we get another flash of Marissa looking moody on the driveway — yeesh. 

7. South
"Paint the Silence"
Season 1, Episode 9

I guess Oasis and the Verve said no — surely that's the only way The O.C. ended up with this post-Britpop soundalike, a triumphant acoustic rocker that swells to absurd levels of grandeur with canned strings. Still, it's the perfect soundtrack for Ryan and Marissa's first kiss on the ferris wheel, when South's heart-lifting chords capture the aha moment that Ryan experiences when overcoming his fear of heights.

The O.C. was great at choosing songs to soundtrack key moments in romantic relationships — see also Seth and Summer's coffee cart anthem "Something Pretty" by Patrick Park, or how "Hello Sunshine" plays every time Summer takes off her shirt during their early sexual experiences. For capturing the mood of the moment, "Paint the Silence" is one of the best. But speaking of relationship anthems...

6. Mojave 3
"Bluebird of Happiness"
Season 1, Episode 20

Mojave 3's hymnal dream-folk ballad becomes something of a theme song for Ryan and Theresa, as it plays while they walk down the beach eating Balboa bars at golden hour, marvelling at the strangeness of Orange Country and discussing whether to return to Chino. It plays again later in the episode, when Ryan shows up at Theresa's hotel room and they acknowledge their feelings for one another with a kiss. With mantra-like repetitions of "Gotta find a way back home," it's the perfect soundtrack for the familiarity of rekindling an old flame.

5. Alexi Murdoch
"Orange Sky"
Season 1, Episode 1

One of The O.C.'s funniest affectations is how Chino is shown with a grainy, greyish filter, compared to the full-colour vibrancy of Orange County. That transition is brought to life by the warm, wistful "Orange Sky" by British folksinger Alexi Murdoch, which plays as Ryan and Marissa are driving back to Newport Beach after a day of prison visits and chop shop tradeoffs. Y'know, normal Chino stuff. The drive between Chino — which, according to Google Maps, takes around 54 minutes, for anyone interested in recreating it IRL — yielded some pivotal musical moments, like when Joseph Arthur's "Honey and the Moon" plays towards the end of Episode 1, or...

4. Phantom Planet
Season 1, Episode 1

Another classic "driving between Chino and Newport Beach" song! It's hard to rank The O.C.'s theme song against other music moments in the show, because this one plays at the beginning of every single episode and for that reason is probably the song most closely associated with the show. We considered disqualifying it from this list — but we're including it here for the perfect placement in Episode 1, when a longer version of the track plays as Ryan calls Sandy to pick him up after getting kicked out of his house. Appropriately, it plays as he gets driven to Orange County for the very first time, mirroring a moment that would go on to appear in the opening credits.

3. Nada Surf
"If You Leave"
Season 1, Episode 21

In hindsight, Anna kind of sucks. She's overly sarcastic, unnecessarily insulting towards Summer, and won't stop wearing ridiculous hats. (This is to say nothing of actor Samaire Armstrong's new life as a right-wing aspiring politician.) But even though we're not rooting for her and Seth like we did when the show was first on the air, her airport goodbye is one of the show's most emotional scenes, when Seth tracks her down while wine drunk just before she heads through security. "Confidence, Cohen," she reassures him in a nice callback, with Nada Surf's faithful cover of OMD providing the perfectly yearning soundtrack.

2. Imogen Heap
"Hide and Seek"
Season 2, Episode 24

You probably won't find a finale teeming with more drama than the end of Season 2 (unless you count Marissa's Season 3 death, but don't be boring). Caleb has finally kicked the bucket, and in a bit of tee-hee foreshadowing, the Newport Group mogul — whose redemption arc lasted all of 30 seconds in the previous episode, before sinking to the bottom of Julie's pool — gets his final goodbye with a funeral procession to the tune this robo a cappella ballad. It's the first of two times the song is used in the episode, and while iconic in its own right, it's certainly not the moment the song is recognized for. That would be the television-industry-shattering moment when Marissa, upon finding Ryan in a chokehold with his brother, Trey (who had just attempted sexual assault on her in Episode 21), grabs Trey's gun and shoots him point-blank in the back. Trey's slow-motion turn to the camera, as his chest drips blood onto his brother below, was so incredible that it was later spoofed on Saturday Night Live in a digital short by the Lonely Island's Andy Samberg with Shia LaBeouf, Jason Sudekis, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. (Imagine bringing that kind of star power together now for, like, Riverdale?) Try not screaming along to "mmm watcha saaaaay" as Trey's ailing body falls to the floor — I dare you.  

1. Mazzy Star
"Into Dust"
Season 1, Episodes 1 and 7

In The O.C.'s best moments, the show transcends mere melodrama, tapping into the melancholy and loneliness behind Newport Beach's luxurious veneer. This haunting ballad conveys it perfectly, acting as the theme song for Ryan saving the self-destructive Marissa — first when he finds her blacked out on the driveway and carries her to the pool house, and later when he carries her out of an alleyway when she overdoses in Tijuana. It was a perfect example of The O.C. acting as an indie ambassador for a new generation of listeners, highlighting a decade-old dream pop classic in the ideal context.

Episode 7 marked the end of The O.C.'s first run of episodes, before the show continued for a full 27-episode season (the remaining 20 episodes of which began airing six weeks after this one). Arguably, the show never quite got the vibe of these first seven episodes back — and "Into Dust" is the perfect way to cap off the perfect run of opening episodes.

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