Sunday, September 07, 2008

Ranking the theme songs from 'The Wire'

Initially intimidated by the complexity of "The Wire," I finally decided to suck it up and watch its fifth and final season earlier this year. Helping sway my decision was the fact that it would delve into the world of newspapers, which intrigued me as a reporter.

After being blown away what I saw, I immediately stocked my Netflix queue with the first four seasons. A couple of months later, one DVD disc at a time, I'm now finished with the first three episodes of Season 4.

Maybe one day I'll rank my favorite Top 10 "Wire" characters, but that's much harder than I anticipated due to the sheer army of players and likability of so many. But at this point, I do feel like I can properly rank the theme songs of each of the five seasons. All are versions of Tom Waits' "Way Down In The Hole."

5th place: Season 4 (kids from a Baltimore Boys Choir):

Not terrible, but one of these themes has to finish fifth and this one's the least engaging of the five. I find myself fast-forwarding through this version most frequently, possibly because the lead vocalist isn't connecting with the lyrics. Likeliness to fast-forward: 8/10.

4th place: Season 2 (Tom Waits):

Huge jump in quality from Season 4. Obviously, the lyrics connect more here with the original artist, and Waits earns the highest marks for the way he wails every time he sings the song title. But I start to fatigue from his gravelly voice and minimalist style at the 1-minute mark of the 90-second intro. I give him props as a lyricist and I won't reject him outright, but he's definitely one of those critically acclaimed musicians I just don't "get." Likeliness to fast-forward: 4/10.

3rd place: Season 3 (The Neville Brothers):

The pace picks up a bit for Aaron and whatever his brother's name is. Also helping to set the tone are the soulful vocals and an overall vibe that makes me feel like I'm in a smoky Bal'mo jazz club. It loses a bit of steam, however, when the vocals cut out and the sax solo kicks in. Likeliness to fast-forward: 3/10.

2nd place: Season 1 (The Blind Boys of Alabama):

I'm sure a lot of people were upset when they heard this theme would be replaced by another version, albeit the original. It has the best qualities of the two subsequent themes: Tom Waits' brooding and The Neville Brothers' pacing. There's a reason "Wire" actor/director Clarke Johnson hearkened back to this theme for the final season's montage; it in many ways defines the show just as much as its characters, writing and acting. Likeliness to fast-forward: 2/10.

1st place: Season 5 (Steve Earle):

Maybe I'm influenced by how the show gripped me the first time I watched it, or because Earle holds his own playing a recovering drug addict on the show. But even as someone who bristles against anything resembling country music, I most love Earle's take, whose plucky guitar, popping percussion, smooth strings and spoken refrains convinced me to buy the track on iTunes and blast in my car to help me get in touch with my inner Bunk. Likeliness to fast-forward: 1/10.


Patrick said...

My ranking is almost the opposite of yours, and perhaps coincidentally, pretty much corresponds to the order I like the season in as well.

Season 3
Season 4
Season 1
Season 2
Season 5

After the more exciting, improv-y themes in season three and four, season five's theme song felt like a bit of a letdown. But, I suppose it's different if that's the first one you've heard.

Cliff said...

(1) Season 4.

The best season has the best theme. Haunting, menacing, made by the local kids. The echo at the end ("Keep 'im in the hole/Down in the hole...") is perfect for one of the bleakest portrayals of inner-city kids ever.

(2) Season 1

I dig the Blind Boys version. I'm still not sure if the Waits version is the original or not. But this is kind of like remaking "Ice, Ice, Baby" as some sort of new hip-hop anthem. Pretty brilliant.

(3) Season 5

Like Season 5 itself, I thought the Steve Earle version was unfairly maligned by the critics. I think like the opening lines and scenes of each episode and season, the tone of the theme song had a lot to do with the season. Season 5 had a lot to do with the media's spin on reality; Earle's shiny take on the song's dark lyrics fit in with this perfectly.

4. Season 3

Okay, so maybe the Neville Brothers version doesn't fit in with the whole thematic thing exactly. But it certainly was a preexisting cover that they didn't have to pay for!

5. Season Two

I'm not ranking this at the bottom because this wasn't used right (it was), just because this is one of those songs that irritates me. I'm not sure if this is the original, but it's certainly the best known, and it fits with the blue-collar setting, and with racial discord. Perfect for Tom Waits' notoriously minstrel show-ish version (my favorite take on this: 3rd Bass's "Soul in a Hole.")