Freaks & Geeks is now on Hulu. That’s great news for fans of the ’80s-set dramedy that launched the careers of James Franco, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini, Seth Rogen, among others. Yet it’s also, in a way, a minor miracle for newcomers.
While DVDs of the series remain in print, the show has been largely shelved from streaming circulation due to music clearances. These issues tend to affect variety shows that include music performances — like The Muppet Show or Saturday Night Live — but Freaks & Geeks runs into licensing challenges due to its heavy use of classic pop music.
All too often, the series featured multiple hit songs from major artists like The Who or Van Halen. Rewatching the series now, it’s clear how effectively Paul Feig, Judd Apatow, and the rest of the team used this period-appropriate music to define its teenagers. The show truly understands how central, vivid, and ridiculous pop music can be at that age.
So, to celebrate the streaming return of Freaks & Geeks, here are 10 of the best needle drops from throughout the show’s run. These descriptions are full of spoilers, so if you’ve never seen the series, do yourself a favor and binge it as soon as possible.
10. Joe Jackson – “Look Sharp”
Featured In: Episode 11, “Looks and Books”
The Drop: Poor Sam Weir (John Francis Daley) can’t stop humiliating himself in the hallway (see No. 6 on this list). In “Looks and Books”, he’s focused on dressing better in hopes of winning the attention of his popular crush, Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick). This plan goes spectacularly awry when he winds up strutting down the McKinley High hallway in a sky-blue “Parisian night suit” (so, yes, a jumpsuit) with feathered hair, realizing with dawning horror that he looks a lot less cool than he thinks.
Joe Jackson’s “Look Sharp” is the perfect way to start out on a high that can only come crashing down. Speaking of crashes: The show often uses multiple songs from the same artist in a single episode, and this one throws in Jackson’s “I’m the Man” in its opening scene, playing on the radio in the Weir family station wagon before Lindsay (Cardellini) and the freaks get into a car crash.
In both instances, the upbeat swagger of Jackson’s music is quickly and cruelly curtailed. And, as Nick (Segel) points out when the others jeer “I’m the Man”, he’s got a killer bass player. That bassist, Graham Maby, also has geek cred; for several years, he backed up They Might Be Giants.
Save It for the Yearbook: “Tell me what they’re wearing this year/ Go on and laugh at me ’cause you don’t see/ That I got something going right here.”
09. Bob Seger – “You’ll Accomp’ny Me”
Featured In: Episode 16, “Smooching and Mooching”
The Drop: Though it’s hard to picture any of its characters actively listening to Bob Seger — except maybe Nick, whose secretly omnivorous music taste becomes a running character note throughout the series — he’s a fixture in this episode and elsewhere. As Sam actually realizes his dream of making out with Cindy Sanders, Seger’s gently corny tune provides wistful, well, accompaniment.
Save It for the Yearbook: “Someday lady you’ll accomp’ny me/ Out where the rivers meet the soundin’ sea/ You’re high above me now, you’re wild and free/ Ah but someday lady you’ll accomp’ny me.”
08. The Cars – “Good Times Roll”
Featured In: Episode 12, “The Garage Door”
The Drop: It might seem like a standard-issue ironic cue playing “Let the Good Times Roll” as the geeks bike around with a mysterious garage-door opener in search of the home of Neal’s (Samm Levine) dad’s mistress. But there is something genuinely affecting about the juxtaposition of youthful fun (riding bikes with your best friends) to adult complications (marital affairs) that adolescents aren’t yet equipped to deal with but have to confront anyway. The slow, simple churn of this Cars track similarly mixes simplicity with a trudging inevitability.
Save It for the Yearbook: “Let the good times roll/ Let them knock you around/ Let the good times roll/ Let them make you a clown.”
07. Madness – “One Step Beyond”
Featured In: Episode 6, “I’m With the Band”
The Drop: This episode opens with Nick triumphantly pantomiming his rock-star moves to Rush’s “Spirit of the Radio” before the unpleasant reality of his barely-there drum skills is revealed to the audience. But in this band-centric episode, the most memorable music cue soundtracks Sam’s nightmare-level nude sprint through the school.
When locker-room bullies grab his towel and shove him into a hallway, the ska backbeat of “One Step Beyond” by Madness sets the pace for the hilarious/mortifying antics that ensue. In fact, the catchy tune is the last line of defense against the scene turning the corner into genuine horror.
Sam’s hellish sprint is preceded by a slow-motion trudge to the showers set to Cream’s “White Room”, proving that not only does this show have amazing individual moments, but it can compile a hell of an episode-long mixtape, too.
Save It for the Yearbook: “One step beyond!”
06. Dean Martin – “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” / Neil Young – “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”
Featured In: Episode 15, “Noshing and Moshing”
The Drop: This episode about Neal confronting his dad over his infidelity and Daniel (Franco) experimenting with punk rock on his own closes out with a montage: Lindsay self-reflecting, Neal’s parents cleaning up after an awkward party, Neal cracking himself up despite his pain, and Daniel tearfully reconciling with Kim (Busy Philipps), all set to the swinging sounds of Dean Martin. In this context, he sounds both charmingly old-fashioned and ironically peppy. Fun fact: The original choice for this sequence was Neil Young’s gorgeous After the Gold Rush tune “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, which posed licensing problems and had to be replaced with Martin.
But the episode did air in Canada with the track included; I know firsthand because for years I treasured my complete VHS set of Freaks & Geeks episodes provided by a generous bootlegger, which utilized Canadian broadcasts of some episodes that hadn’t yet aired in the United States. (Yes, the licensing headache was in service of an episode NBC never bothered to broadcast.) So, I can confirm: The Neil Young song plays even better than the Dean Martin. At the same time, it’s admirable that the creative team went in a different direction entirely when replacing it, rather than trying to replicate its starkly melancholy beauty.
Save It for the Yearbook: “The world still is the same, you’ll never change it/ As sure as the stars shines above/ You’re nobody till somebody loves you/ So find yourself somebody to love.”
05. Billy Joel – “Rosalinda’s Eyes”
Featured In: Episode 7, “Carded and Discarded”
The Drop: In one of the show’s most hilariously heartbreaking plots, the geeks add an actual girl to their tiny clique when Maureen (Kayla Ewell) transfers from another school. They have a week or so of fun before she’s scooped up by the popular crowd, and the bittersweet arc of this relationship is scored with multiple Billy Joel tunes.
The hit single “Don’t Ask Me Why” accompanies one of the group’s outings, but the show brings out a deeper cut from 52nd Street in “Rosalinda’s Eyes” to serve as Maureen’s theme. It’s played during a rocket-shooting montage and reprised wistfully as Maureen switches up her lunch table, leaving the boys’ hearts heavy with the understanding that she won’t be coming back.
The familiarity of Joel’s vocals combined with the less ubiquitous tune makes these moments feel both accessible and personal.
Save It for the Yearbook: “When she smiles she gives everything to me / When she’s all alone she cries / And I’d do anything to take away her tears / Because they’re Rosalinda’s eyes.”
BONUS TRACK: Alice Cooper – “I’m Eighteen”
Featured In: Episode 7, “Carded and Discarded”
The Drop: The freak story in “Carded and Discarded” follows Lindsay and her friends on their quest for fake IDs, so they can go to a rock show at a local bar. Hilariously, the episode is bookended by cover performances of Alice Cooper’s angst anthem “Eighteen”: First, relentless guidance counselor Mr. Rosso (Dave “Gruber” Allen) plays it for the group on his acoustic guitar, and then he reprises it toward the end of the episode as it’s revealed that Feedback, the band they’ve procured expensive fake IDs to see, is actually fronted by Rosso. Naturally (if good-naturedly), he narcs out their underage drinking.
Save It for the Yearbook: “Eighteen/ I get confused every day/ Eighteen/ I just don’t know what to say.”
04. The Who – “I’m One”
Featured in: Episode 14, “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers”
The Drop: One of the series’ most famous scenes shows super-geek Bill (Martin Starr) going about a latchkey routine: Making himself a grilled cheese sandwich, sitting on the couch, and cracking up at Garry Shandling doing stand-up on TV (inspired in part by Judd Apatow’s teenage obsessions). Crucially, the scene plays out without dialogue, sound effects, or even hearing Shandling’s routine, opting to use The Who’s “I’m One” instead.
It’s easily the strongest Who needle drop in an episode filled with them — the freaks’ plot is about going to see the band in concert. (The Who is also the band heard most often during the full series run; you suspect the show’s writers might be bigger fans than the characters.) By pairing this Quadrophenia lament with Bill’s comedy nerdery, the show teases out the band’s range and sensitivity — making a better case for their artistry than Lindsay does to her parents. Bill may not listen to The Who, but he could relate to them.
Save It for the Yearbook: “I’m a loser/ No chance to win/ Leaves start falling/ Come down is calling/ Loneliness starts sinking in.”
03. Grateful Dead – “Box of Rain”
Featured In: Episode 18, “Discos and Dragons”
The Drop: It’s fitting that a show with such great needle drops would turn a literal needle drop into one of its last major plot points. For most of the run of Freaks & Geeks, Lindsay’s interest in music has a lot more to do with social acceptance than any particular personal taste. She wants to go see The Who because she wants to hang out with her friends. She wants Daniel and Nick’s band to get better because she still hangs on to traditional ideas of success.
But in the show’s lovely de facto series finale, she’s turned on to a band that most of her freak buddies don’t care much about at all: Grateful Dead. When she borrows American Beauty from Mr. Rosso, she sinks into the music like we’ve never seen on the show before, as she gradually vibes with the whole record, represented on the soundtrack by “Box of Rain”.
For a character so often (and necessarily) defined by her reactions to other characters, getting to glimpse Lindsey on her own, falling in love with the Dead, is one of the show’s most intimate moments.
Save It for the Yearbook: “What do you want me to do/ To do for you to see you through?/ For this is all a dream we dreamed/ One afternoon long ago”
02. Joan Jett – “Bad Reputation”
Featured In: Every episode
The Drop: The show’s theme is a concise version of one of Joan Jett’s signature songs, a perfect combination of feminine perspective (singing knowingly about the “bad reputation” that seems to affect young women so much more readily than young men) and punk-rock energy. The super-fast strumming that opens the song would often play over the last few seconds of the cold open, slamming into the always-perfect opening credits sequence.
Save It for the Yearbook: “And I’m never gonna care about my bad reputation/ Not me!”
01. Styx – “Come Sail Away”
Featured In: Episode 1, “Pilot”
The Drop: The final scene in an all-time great pilot for an all-time great show plays Styx for literally its entire five minutes. The long, slow intro to “Come Sail Away” is used as both a slow burn, with enough time to establish the positions of several major characters at a school dance, and a set-up to a great gag.
By the time Sam works up the nerve to ask his crush, Cindy Sanders, to dance and the not-really couple makes their way to the dance floor, the fast part of the song kicks in, panicking Sam as his chance to slow-dance with Cindy evaporates to the tune of soaring, grandiose guitars.
Eventually, Sam has to go with the flow, giving himself over to awkward ebullience — and inspiring his sister Lindsay to make amends with Eli (Ben Foster) and join in. For a few blissful minutes, the hell of high school looks like a joyful, imperfect heaven.
Save It for the Yearbook: “A gathering of angels/ Appeared above my head/ They sang to me this song of hope/ And this is what they said.”
Below, we’ve collated all of these songs into a fun Freaks & Geeks playlist. Be sure to follow us on Spotify for more exciting film and TV-related collections, including our weekly playlists involving New Sounds and Top Songs.