The second Alex Greenwald’s angsty voice joins forces with the catchy chords of Phantom Planet’s “California,” you can sense The O.C.‘s soundtrack is going to be special. The song, which went on to accompany the 2003 drama’s opening credits, first plays a few minutes into the pilot, setting the tone for one of the best TV shows to ever happen to music.
Over the course of its four seasons, The O.C. curated a soundtrack that masterfully emphasized character emotions, gave rise to influential pop culture moments, and immortalized a generation of indie bands. From repeatedly namedropping Death Cab for Cutie and reigniting a love of mix tapes to booking live concerts at the The Bait Shop and being so obsessed with Imogen Heap that Saturday Night Live had to chime in, the series harnessed the power of music in ways no show had before.
Nearly 20 years later, The O.C. soundtrack remains in a class all its own. So to celebrate August 5, the anniversary of the show’s premiere, we looked back at the songs that started it all. From mainstream 2000s hits by The All-American Rejects and Black Eyed Peas to underrated gems by Mazzy Star and Joseph Arthur, here are 11 of The O.C. pilot’s perfect music moments.
“California” (Tchad Blake Remix) – Phantom Planet
Ah, just like Phantom Planet we’re right back where we started from. As noted above, The O.C. pilot sets the soundtrack standards with the 2002 song “California.” It starts to swell after Ryan (Ben McKenzie) gets punched by his mother’s boyfriend and kicked out of the house, rides away on his bike, posts up at a payphone, and calls everyone he knows to find a place to crash. Out of options, he reaches out to his trusty lawyer Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), who picks him up and takes him home for the weekend. As the Cali anthem blares, we see Ryan stare pensively out the passenger window. Shots of waves, beaches, and opening credits carry the car to a gated community, which Sandy enters before driving up to his gorgeous mansion.
The song is a quintessential embodiment of The O.C.‘s whole vibe. It simultaneously invigorates and moves people. It gets you excited and nostalgic. And when laid over a montage of show clips and shots of the sunny state, it packs a perfect punch. No doubt about it, “California” is one of the greatest theme songs in TV history.
“Show Me” – Cham Pain
When Sandy goes inside to fill Kirsten (Kelly Rowan) in on their new house guest, Ryan heads to the end of the driveway to smoke and has a meet cute with the Cohen’s neighbor, Marissa (Mischa Barton), who’s waiting at the end of her driveway. This scene births one of The O.C.‘s most memorable exchanges. Marisa asks Ryan, “Who are you?” Cigarette in mouth, he replies, “Whoever you want me to be.” SWOON! After cigarettes and small talk, Marissa’s preppy jock boyfriend Luke (Chris Carmack) rolls up in a menacingly large black truck. It’s hard to hear what he’s blasting, but the fan consensus seems to be Cham Pain’s “Show Me,” a perfect track to tank the flirtatious mood and let everyone know he’s a tough guy.
“Sweet Honey” – Slightly Stoopid
The next morning Ryan and Seth (Adam Brody) have their meet cute. The two hit it off within minutes and after a video game sesh Seth takes Ryan out sailing on his boat, “Summer Breeze.” As Slightly Stoopid’s 2003 song “Sweet Honey” plays and serotonin levels skyrocket, Seth shares his dream of sailing to Tahiti and his massive crush on one of the most popular girls in school, Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson). The track’s upbeat reggae vibes paint a peaceful version of California — the calm before the chaos — and symbolize the safe, strong foundation of Ryan and Seth’s brotherhood.
“All Around the World” (Punk Debutante) – Cooler Kids
Our next lively music moment takes place at the charity fashion show Marissa invited Ryan to the night they met. Upon entering the fancy soirée, Seth says, “Welcome to the dark side.” Thus begins one of many nights spent reluctantly schmoozing at an O.C. event. When everyone takes their seats and the light dim, Marissa thanks them for coming and the music begins. Summer struts her stuff in a dress that screams 13 Going On 30, she later meets Marissa in the bathroom where they secretly down some alcohol, then Marissa takes the stage looking radiant as ever and flashes Ryan a smile (much to Luke’s dismay). All the while, “All Around The World” is thumping in the background, giving big 2003/Lizzie McGuire Movie energy. The song serves as a fun, delightfully deceptive shroud for the slew of personal problems these characters are keeping secret.
“Swing, Swing” – The All-American Rejects
The video above packs three pilot music moments into one. The first features a track from All-American Rejects, because what would a teen show in the 2000s be without a little AAR? As Ryan and Seth are about to head home from the fashion show, Summer invites Ryan to an afterparty at Holly’s beach house. The boys decide to check it out (in hopes of getting some quality time with Marissa and Summer) and the band’s breezy 2002 heartbreak track, “Swing, Swing,” plays as they hop in the back of Summer’s ride. The song lets viewers know these guys are flexible! They go with the flow! They swing, swing, damn it! And also, they’re about to have their hearts crushed by love.
“Hands Up” – Black Eyed Peas
Once they arrive at the party, “Hands Up,” the first track off of Black Eyed Peas’ 2003 album Elephunk, sets the scene and the musical era. Ryan and Seth survey the room, clocking drugs, make-out sessions, drinking, and more Orange County drama waiting to happen. As a callback to Seth’s fashion show quote, Ryan turns to him and says, “Welcome to the dark side,” before the night truly begins. We see Marissa sneaking extra booze into her cup, Summer drooling over Ryan, and Luke about to cheat. The party is a recipe for disaster, one only emphasized by this dramatic, horn-heavy banger.
“I’m A Player” – The K.G.B.
Next up? Marissa and Ryan finally steal some alone time. As The K.G.B.’s 2001 track “I’m A Player” blasts in the background, Marissa asks Ryan what he thinks of Newport and he responds, “I think I can get in less trouble where I’m from.” The frisky song sets the mood, and flirts and questionable life choices start flying. Seth’s drinking beer while a wasted Summer hits on Ryan. After seeing them together, Seth assumes the worst and tells Ryan off in front of the whole party. They start fighting and Seth screams, “Why don’t you just go back to Chino? I’m sure there’s a really nice car you could steal.” This prompts one of Summer’s most famous lines — “Chino? Ew!” — and turns all eyes on Ryan. A scandalous song for a scandalous moment.
“Let It Roll” – Maximum Roach
After his fight with Ryan, Seth wanders the beach alone and a group of guys start roughing him up. Ryan runs to the rescue and when Luke asks him if he has a problem, Ryan boldly replies, “You tell me.” The group starts throwing punches as this adrenaline-pumping song gets louder. It’s one of many fight scenes in the show, but it’s especially significant because it ends with Luke saying the series’ most iconic line: “Welcome to the OC, bitch.”
“Into Dust” – Mazzy Star
After three high-energy party songs the show transitions to one of its biggest tear-jerkers, a 1993 throwback from Mazzy Star. When Marissa’s friends leave her lying unconscious in her driveway, Ryan goes over to try to find her keys and bring her inside. The slow, foreboding track first plays as he carries her to the pool house and gently tucks her into bed, then again in Season 1, Episode 7, “The Escape,” when Ryan finds Marissa passed out in an alley in Tijuana and carries her just like he did in the pilot. The solemn tune is one of the most memorable songs associated with the couple, and a crushing cover by Ashtar Command appears at the end of Season 4, Episode 6 “The Chrismukk-huh?” when Ryan reads a letter from Marissa and says goodbye.
“Honey and the Moon” – Joseph Arthur
Whenever I think of The O.C.‘s soundtrack, Joseph Arthur’s 2002 single “Honey and the Moon” — a song that was in the script before the ending was even written — is one of the first songs to spring to mind. Kirsten asks Sandy to take Ryan back home to his mom after learning he and Seth got drunk and were in a fight, so before the pilot ends, we watch Ryan leave the Cohens’ house behind. As the guitar plays, we see Ryan face (black eye and all) staring in deep contemplation out Sandy’s passenger window yet again. The car backs down driveway, revealing Marissa, who’s standing at the end of her driveway watching them drive away. Ryan stares at her, a dark figure backlit by a burning sunset, and she stares back. We see his bike sticking out of trunk as the car moves forward, and Ryan turns around to catch one last glimpse of Marissa through the rear window.
Arthur’s fragile voice says all that needs to be communicated in this dialogue-free scene. The lyrics and energy perfectly capture the complex relationship these two damaged souls form on the show, and it marks one of the show’s most iconic music moments. We see a final shot of Marissa standing drenched in orange, sun-flared light before Luke’s truck pulls up and Ryan and Sandy make their way to Chino. Though part of me wishes they brought “Honey and the Moon” back for this finale scene, I like thinking the song couldn’t exist in Marissa’s absence.
End Credits – Christopher Tyng
While The O.C.‘s soundtrack was legendary, the show’s splendid score also helped the show leave a lasting impression. From stirring end credit songs to dozens of suspenseful, inquisitive, transitionary tracks over the years, composer Christopher Tyng made music magic on the series from 2003 to 2005. After Tyng, composer Richard Marvin took over for the final two seasons.
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