This month I’ve come to sing the praises of the Soundtrack. Once upon a time, way back in the dark ages before Spotify and Pandora, a good soundtrack provided a unique, curated listening experience. The songs selected allowed listeners to nimbly move between genres and attach new images to beloved compositions. “In Your Eyes” may be one of Peter Gabriel’s crowning achievements, but who doesn’t think of John Cusack hoisting his boombox aloft when they hear it? A good soundtrack can even make a musical career: The Shins may have already been beloved in indie circles by 2004, but when Natalie Portman handed Zach Braff her headphones in Garden State and told him that “New Slang” would change his life, it increased the size of the venues that the group was playing overnight.
Alas, the rise of iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify erased the novelty of the soundtrack. But thanks to the resurgence of vinyl and a trillion new TV content channels with shows requiring music, the soundtrack is making a big comeback. With that in mind, here is a list of some of my favorite soundtracks out there, new and old:
Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, one of the better films thus far this year, tells the story of a getaway-car-driving-savant who listens to his iPod 24/7. Played by Ansel Elgort, Baby coordinates his driving to a variety of adrenaline-building songs. And even though the film stalls in its 3rd act (sorry, I couldn’t resist), the soundtrack is solid from start to finish. There is no single genre spotlighted; from classic soul (Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle”) to glam (Queen’s “Brighton Rock”) to vintage punk (The Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat”), with room in-between for everything from The Beach Boys to Beck, Baby Driver is a really good movie and an even greater soundtrack.
Guardians of the Galaxy
2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, in addition to making a gazillion dollars at the box office, also made Chris Pratt a huge star, introduced the phrase “I am Groot” into the national lexicon, and revived the soundtrack genre. Both the original soundtrack and the soundtrack for this year’s sequel combine space-themed songs (Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky”) with ear candy (Sweet’s “Fox on the Run,” The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back”). It’s hard to pick a favorite, but the 2014 soundtrack is slightly better just because it includes David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream.”
Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino injected new life into the soundtrack genre in the ‘90s. Tarantino is famous for writing scenes around songs he’s inspired by; the best part of Reservoir Dogs was the extended opening scene, in which a bunch of gangsters sit around a cafe lunch table debating the true meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” It’s hard to pick just one Tarantino soundtrack, but my favorite is Jackie Brown. Tarantino’s low-key, nuanced take on Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch is set to some of the best soul music of the ‘70s, from The Brothers Johnson’s hit cover of Shuggie Otis’s “Strawberry Letter 23” to The Delfonics’ “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time.” As with most other Tarantino soundtracks, Jackie Brown includes snippets of dialogue from the film as well as a few selections (The Grass Roots’ “Midnite Confessions” and Johnny Cash’s “Tennessee Stud”) that don’t fit the genre yet slide perfectly into the mix. As an added bonus, Tarantino throws in a rare track from Pam Grier, the film’s star, now living in Colorado.
A superb soundtrack starts with a musically savvy Director. And few Directors are more musically savvy than Cameron Crowe, who started writing for Rolling Stone at 15 and wrote and directed the autobiographical Almost Famous, arguably the greatest movie about rock’n’roll. My favorite Crowe soundtrack is Singles, the companion to his early ‘90s film about twenty-somethings seeking love in Seattle at a time that coincided with the rise of the Grunge sound. The movie features cameos from Pearl Jam members and several club scenes of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains before most people had ever heard of ‘em. The Singles soundtrack is a grunge primer, with powerful, often rare tracks from the aforementioned bands as well as strong material from Screaming Trees, Paul Westerberg and Smashing Pumpkins (the last two bands may not be from the Northwest, but they are still an essential part of any early ‘90s playlist). Singles was rereleased earlier this year on vinyl and CD, and the vinyl edition includes a bonus CD with more music and rare tracks (the highlight of which is the Matt Dillon-led faux band Citizen Dick song “Touch Me I’m Dick”). Singles is essential listening for fans of grunge and pretty much anyone that likes their rock with an edge.
The Wrecking Crew/Muscle Shoals/20 Feet from Stardom
Here are three soundtracks that provide the best songs by the musicians depicted in their respective documentaries. The best-of-breed here is The Wrecking Crew, the portrait of the group of ‘60s LA studio musicians that backed up scores of Top 10 hits without any notoriety. Featuring soon-to-be-famous-in-their-own-right musicians like Glen Campbell and Leon Russell, The Wrecking Crew gave Phil Spector his pop, turned Brian Wilson’s melodies into art, and created the bubblegum that launched The Monkees into the hearts and minds of a million elementary school kids. The songs are all great, and the stories and bios of the musicians behind such varied sounds is a revelation. The soundtrack to The Muscle Shoals documentary spotlights the smooth, simple R&B backing that the musicians at Fame Studios and later Muscle Shoals Sound Studios added to records by Aretha, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge and others. And the great 20-Feet-From-Stardom doc focuses on the background singers who add so much, from Merry Clayton on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” to Luther Vandross on David Bowie’s “Young Americans.”