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List Inconsequential: The Best Soundtracks

List Inconsequential: The Best Soundtracks

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Fight Club Original Soundtrack

When David Fincher began work on Fight Club, he was adamant that the movie be scored by someone who had never worked in film. Although a year prior Darren Aronofsky had made a similar choice when he asked Pop Will Eat Itself founder Clint Mansell to score Pi, the decision to use someone like the Dust Brothers was still a relatively novel concept in 1999.

The Dust Brothers nonetheless proved themselves to be more than up to the task, crafting a score that’s as exciting outside the film as it is in it. The Fight Club OST is mostly a heavy, dark work that marries the Dust Brothers’ crazed sample juggling with the kind of ominous synths and guitars that were more common to future Fincher collaborator Trent Reznor’s work. The duo’s breakbeat style is still obvious on tracks like “Commissioner Castration” and “Homework,” but more common are trip-hop indebted moments like “Finding the Bomb” or exploitation film digs like “Stealing Fat.”

Not that the Dust Brothers were incapable of having fun with the score. “Corporate World” makes great use of a chintzy old drum machine stuck on the bossa nova setting, with elevator music samples making the title even more fitting. “Space Monkeys” is the biggest earworm of the bunch, from its highly addictive starting bassline to the circus-like segment it’s paired with. The end result is a work that’s as fresh today as it was more than a decade ago, the only disappointing trait being the fact that it remains the only album the Dust Brothers have released under their own name. – Nick Hanover

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

There’s a lot to love about the soundtrack to Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, including a eclectic, often whimsical score by Jon Brion and a few standout pop-music selections. The way those somewhat surprising songs fit in between Brion’s particular brand of orchestration is wonderfully jarring – the two elements play of each other in a way that casts odd shadows on the sunniest of rock songs (like E.L.O.’s “Mr. Blue Sky”) and highlights how stylistically different the Willowz’ “Something” is than Brion’s shambling “Theme” or sweet “Elephant Parade.” But the real takeaway is Beck’s cover of “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime,” the 1980 downer by the Korgis. It sits somewhere in between Beck’s slowest, most open crooners and Brion’s warm quirk, the combination creating a song that defines the soundtrack and – intentionally, I imagine – the movie itself. It’s definitely a boon to both. – Michael Merline

Superfly

The problem with a lot of soundtracks is that they suffer from consistency issues, sounding less like proper albums than shoddily assembled mixtapes. The soundtrack to Superfly, as interpreted by Curtis Mayfield, avoids this problem, adapting the single-composer method used by Isaac Hayes and Shaft a year before, but this time making an overachieving album, fully able to stand alone. From the of quiet desperation of “Little Child Running Wild” to the predatory cool of “Pusherman” , the soundtrack matches and mirrors the source film, while laying the musical groundwork for both all Blaxpoitation soundtracks to come and the rest of Mayfield’s solo career. – Jesse Cataldo

Kill Bill Vol. 1

Say what you will about Quentin Tarantino or his films- the man’s got an ear for music. If you disagree, ask yourself where you’ve heard “Miserlou” before, or what you think “Like A Virgin” is about?

When Tarantino set out to craft Kill Bill, Vol. 1 his love letter to kung-fu cinema, he needed a composer as crazy and like-minded about the subject as he. What better lunatic than the RZA? Wu-Tang was founded and relies on a slavish love of violent Asian cinema, and RZA’s eclectic, electrifying soundtrack reflects keenly off of his and Tarantino’s shared passion. Where else can you find Al Hirt’s Green Hornet theme AND Luis Bacalov’s “The Grand Duel” within the same set of songs, as well as a track by Zamfir, Master of the Pan Flute?

RZA also peppers his original beats with dialogue from the film, which tell a cohesive story of their own. As it ends with snippets of weapon sound FX, it becomes quite clear that the Abbot absolutely killed it in creating a soundtrack as visceral as the film it represents. – Rafael Gaitan

Orgazmo Soundtrack

No, seriously. Before he was lighting up Broadway with The Book of Mormon, “South Park” co-creator Trey Parker made an indie gem in the late ’90s called Orgazmo, a film that to this very day remains the peak of the Mormon-Porno-Superhero movement. While it did have a small release that evolved into a cult following once “South Park” exploded, the film also boasted one of the era’s absolute best soundtracks.

Executive produced by the Dust Brothers (producers of Beck’s Odelay, Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, Hanson’s “MMMBop” and the Fight Club soundtrack), it boasts everything from classic hip-hop (“C.R.E.A.M.,” “Rump Shaker”), to cutting edge underground (Dilated Peoples’ debut AND an exclusive Dust-produced KRS-ONE song), high-energy electronic mosh pit music (Atari Teenage Riot, DJ Swamp), an April March song a decade before Quentin Tarantino realized how cool she was, as well as a funny cut from Parker’s own band D.V.D.A. I remember getting this at the end of eighth grade 11 years ago and it still penetrates my ears to this day! – Chaz Kangas

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Singles

Few movie soundtracks capture a moment in time as perfectly as does the soundtrack for Singles, Cameron Crowe’s film about the inhabitants of an apartment complex in Seattle on the precipice of the city’s grunge scene’s explosion. Notables contribute to the album as well as appear in cameos (Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard and Chris Cornell among them) and tracks by the Smashing Pumpkins, Mother Love Bone, Mudhoney and Screaming Trees punctuate the extremely quotable pic (“I don’t need to be your girlfriend, I just want to know you again” and “I like your hat, and I don’t mean that in an Eddie Haskell kind of a way” are two of my favorite movie lines, ever). Hearing the opening chords of “Waiting for Somebody” by Paul Westerberg makes me want to curl up in my favorite old flannel shirt, not wash my hair for a few days and sit in a coffee shop for hours brooding over the states of both the planet and my love life. – Tara Pierson Hoey

The Twilight Zone

The visual and conceptual density of The Twilight Zone was equally complemented by its sci-fi-infused scores. Veteran Zone composers like Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith and Nathan Van Cleave scribed some of the first soundtracks with synthesizers, but the innovation extended well beyond (supposedly Van Cleave pioneered the use of the theremin in television scores, which later became a sci-fi staple). This experimental payoff defines the The Twilight Zone’s qualities: enigmatic, hallucinatory, otherworldly. Given the number of scores produced for the series, the moody and often ominous climaxes and subtleties become more rewarding with each listen. On its own, the soundtrack serves as interesting classical music for people who don’t care for the genre, and is as every bit inspiring and complex. And for those classically enthused, a little Beethoven on acid will add nice variety to your regular rotation. – Jory Spadea

Romeo and Juliet

In 1996, people were waking up all over the country to listen to Howard Stern break American taboos on FM radio, OJ Simpson was getting away with murder and Nintendo 64 debuted as the last console to use ROM cartridges – remember those? Meanwhile, saucy Australian film director Baz Luhrmann was adapting William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as the second installment to his Red Curtain Trilogy. Fleshy beauties starred, such as the barely virginal Claire Danes who returned from the cult television show “My So Called Life,” opposite of ultra-andro wonderboy of the moment, Leonardo DiCaprio, in a sweaty modern appropriation of the classic star-crossed romance in Venice Beach, California.

Though the film enjoyed success in theaters and later, as a hot rental item for years, it contributed to the staying power of the soundtrack by association, however the album harbors certain powers of its own. For starters, the first thing you hear on the disc is the pleasured vocals of Garbage’s Shirley Manson: a carnal, dizzy sound only possibly evoked from deep penetration or maybe a thorough massage. And there’s an early death rave track, Pretty Piece of Flesh that features One Inch Punch rapping about a brutal tearing of someone from entity into two, against a quintessential ’90s pulsating, lava lamp goo-shaped bass line. The cinematic compilation also features other quietly acclaimed fringe pop bands like Everclear and Butthole Surfers. The most returnable part however is the foreboding moment where young Radiohead, as moody as ever, lets on “Talk Show Host” – a track where city-leveling phasers and crunched sexy drums battle a Colin Greenwood guitar freak out.

Lest we forget, Romeo + Juliet also scored itself one the best one hit wonders, the Cardigans. “Lovefool” is a song that demonstrates break-your-teeth-on-candy pop composition and employs deft lyrical infection. The Cardigans once captured unrequited classroom heat and mall infatuations but now provides acute sonic nostalgia for the recession kids who lived to hear its birth. – Sky Madden

Batman

Stranger than Bat-nipples and shark repellent, the fact that Prince recorded an entire album that served as the soundtrack to Tim Burton’s Batman is a curious beast indeed, because there’s absolutely nothing about the Joker poisoning an entire city with green gas that says “We need a Prince song over this.” Either way, the soundtrack – a result of Warner Bros. corporate synergy – has every kind of Prince song you could hope for: funky fuck songs (“Electric Chair,” “Lemon Crush,”), fucky funk ballads (“Scandalous!”), funky songs about partying men (“Partyman”) and a duet with Sheena Easton (“The Arms of Orion”).

The real star of the show, however, is “Batdance,” which is an indescribable clusterfuck medley with audio clips that Animal Collective should totally cover, with a music video that anticipates the stagey, sterile hospital room kink of Lady Gaga. How in god’s name was any of this allowed to happen? Some people have too much money. Batman the album is not as good as Purple Rain (the film or the album), but it has novelty on its side. – Danny Djeljosevic

The Shining

Some things can be both beautiful and unnerving. I find the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece, The Shining, to be a helpful reminder of this. To varying degrees throughout the music, I actually want to stop listening. During the atonal harmonies in Ligeti’s “Lonato” or the crowded squealing strings of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Polymorphia,” you feel this certainty in your gut that something is coming to get you, something with tentacles. I never do shut it off though, because it’s really, really good and I guess I’m kind of brave.

Repeated, sustained listening has got to be antithetical to long term mental stability, but it does give you an appreciation for just how much pathos a soundtrack can bring to a film or even everyday life. Put it on while you exercise or while you work, especially if it involves any writing. Persistent low-grade terror is some of the best motivation. Careful, though. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. – Ryan Crawford

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Amélie

I am always impressed when instrumental soundtracks stay with me, and even more so when they become a cadence in my head, a body of music so rich as to take on my own mundane acts (washing dishes, walking to work, staring out a window) and convert them into what feels, at least for a moment, like the stuff of cinema gold. In many ways, Amélie is precisely the sort of film that makes such fantasies possible, blending as it does the strangely sweet and mischievous antics of an oddball little gamine with a stunningly saturated Parisian backdrop and the unforgettably beautiful, oftentimes rambunctious, always playful music of Yann Tiersen. Tiersen’s tracks constitute all but two of the pieces used in the film, and his unusual melding of folk and classical themes, elegant pianos and clickety-clack toys, typewriters and bicycle wheels, xylophones and banjos adds up to an artfully whimsical narration for director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s visual feast of a film. Amélie stands out in that it is no cookie-cutter “Paris” movie, revealing instead a delicious absurdity and neurosis that makes the French so much more likeable. And perfectly in step with this ethos, Tiersen’s accordions evoke popular imaginings of Paris, certainly – but in a way utterly new and unusual, dreamy yet grounded in the stuff of life, sophisticated and silly all at once. – Lauren Westerfield

Blade Runner

Much like the film it scores, the Blade Runner soundtrack has been released in series of permutations. But from the first release of orchestral cover versions of the score to the long-delayed official release of the original tracks in 1994, the haunting power of Vangelis’ music is clear. An unprecedented fusion of classical motifs, icy synthesizers and jazz, the music mirrors the dark noir world of 2046 Los Angeles to a spellbinding degree, emphasizing the loneliness and disconnection of Rick Deckard without ever becoming maudlin or overbearing. It’s cold but human music, steeped in both technology and emotion, just like the characters weaving in and out of the story. Even decades later, it’s the sound of sad confusion in the future. – Nathan Kamal

Lost Highway

By age 15, we’d understood, as much as we could, what an auteur David Lynch was, so my friends and I knew that the release of his first feature film in five or so years was a big damn deal. It was, however, a tall order to get one of our parents to drive us all the way to the one theater around, in Chadds Ford, PA to see the almost-NC-17-rated Lost Highway. It never happened. We did however have Sam Goody and money to blow on $18 CDs, so the relentlessly dark movie’s soundtrack, put together by future Oscar Winner Trent Reznor, would have to suffice. It didn’t hurt either that the first new song in three years by Nine Inch Nails, that high watermark of teenage, suburban disgruntlement music, would grace the disc.

In between swelling, drifting mood pieces by Angelo Badalamenti (fitting that Lynch described Lost Highway as taking place in the same universe as Twin Peaks; the respective Badalamenti pieces have much in common), we have NIN’s “The Perfect Drug,” recorded during Reznor’s brief flirtation with drum and bass (remember in ’97, that was the next big thing?), a terrible Smashing Pumpkins song (“Eye”), the U.S.’ introduction to Teutonic buffoons Rammstein and a creepy slice of industrial pop (“Apple of Sodom”) courtesy of Marilyn Manson (remember that scene?).

But in the middle of this dearth of spookdom, there’s Lou Reed’s bizarrely moving, effortless cover of “This Magic Moment,” a snippet of the soaring, loop-y pop of Barry Adamson’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and, last but not least, many a white teenage boy’s first flirtation with bossa nova, via Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Insensatez.” Lost Highway is a time capsule of when the mainstream couldn’t get any darker, any more extreme and it’s exactly what a lot of us boys were craving right about then. – Chris Middleman

Natural Born Killers

Scores aside, most soundtracks serve as greatest hits collections a la The Big Chill or, in the post-Pulp Fiction world, a loose compilation of music held together by incidental dialogue from the film, keepsakes that lose their potency as time marches on and the novelty of the film wears off. However, the best soundtracks, such as music from Natural Born Killers, tell a story from start to finish.

Compiled by Trent Reznor, the soundtrack moves similarly to Oliver Stone’s manic film; it’s alternately tender, horrifying, grating and exhilarating. Beginning with Leonard Cohen’s “Waiting for the Miracle” and ending 27 tracks later with the Dogg Pound’s “What Would I Do?” Reznor somehow weaves a tale where Patsy Cline, Dr. Dre, Bob Dylan, Lard, Duane Eddy, L7 and many others somehow thematically work side by side.

Although Reznor does include dialogue from the film, it actually enhances the story rather than serves as placeholder quips before the next track. Not for the faint of heart, Reznor’s collection of songs still sounds vital 17 years later. It is quite possible it will even outlast the importance of the film that inspired it. – David Harris

The Muppet Movie

Anyone can pull together a few hipper-than-thou bands emoting their hearts out, merge it haphazardly with the scenes of a big screen jaunt and yield respectable sales with the resulting mix CD posing as a major release. It takes a different talent altogether to build a cohesive musical statement around a band of happy misfits fashioned out of felt. When the great Jim Henson brought his Muppets to the big screen in 1979, he turned over the task of creating songs for the film to Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher, giving them complete creative control. They responded with a group of wildly catchy, boundlessly clever songs that also manage to perfectly capture the well-formed personalities of the characters assigned to sing them.

“Movin’ Right Along” is a bright road song with playful vaudevillian touches and “I Hope That Somethin’ Better Comes Along” is a finer lament of the perils in engaging the opposite sex in romance as any emo belters ever whipped up. They also overcame the daunting task of writing a song for Kermit the Frog, the gently introspective reflection of Henson’s own warm inquisitiveness, a character that already had a splendid signature song in “Bein’ Green.” Williams and Ascher actually managed to outdo Joe Raposo’s classic with “The Rainbow Connection,” a song that gets at Kermit’s sweet, melancholy optimism with acuity. Cool or not, the soundtrack to The Muppet Movie holds up wonderfully well as a smart, joyous, cohesive record. – Dan Seeger

Rushmore

I’m not big on soundtracks. If I want to listen to John Williams, typically I’ll just pop in a flick featuring his work. But Rushmore’s soundtrack is for some reason the one I always come back to on its own. Maybe it’s Mark Mothersbaugh’s fantastic arrangements and interludes adorning it. Maybe it’s writer-director Wes Anderson’s choice of juicy tracks and deep cuts to fill the non-instrumental voids: Cat Stevens, the Kinks, Lennon’s “Oh Yoko,” Yves Montand and the Who, all the way down to the slow-motion burner “Ooh La La” (from Rod Stewart in his days with the Faces) which rides roughshod over the film’s closing scene. A classic film and a classic OST to match make saving Latin all that much cooler. – Joe Clinkenbeard

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O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Once in a while a soundtrack comes along that turns out to be more popular and influential than the movie that spawned it. The soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ 2000 hayseed epic O Brother, Where Art Thou? sparked a mini-craze for old school American roots music, precipitating the re-release of many classic blues, bluegrass, folk and country records long left languishing in record company vaults, even if the film itself was sort of a flop. Producer T-Bone Burnett assembled the perfect collection of vintage recordings and new interpretations of traditional standards by some of country music’s brightest lights. Any album that included a cut as sublimely sultry as Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch’s rendition of “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby” would be worth owning; O Brother has a dozen tracks just as good. Starting off with a Depression-era chain gang recording of “Po’ Lazarus” and moving through several iterations of the pop-folk-shoulda-been-hit “Man of Constant Sorrow,” the album (and the world) stops dead in its tracks when the legendary Ralph Stanley takes a spine-tingling stab at mortality with “O Death.” From “Big Rock Candy Mountain” to “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” O Brother Where Art Thou? is a whirlwind tour of the old, weird America. – Shannon Gramas

Mary Poppins

I am definitely not a cool kid with this pick, but I bet you are secretly smiling in agreement when I tell you that I love the Mary Poppins soundtrack (the Disney picture disc record, naturally). My kid sister went through a HUGE Mary Poppins phase when she was seven. What fun it was to affect a British accent for the first time! I’m sure my parents weren’t annoyed at all! I remember my sister in her Bloom County’s Opus iron-on t-shirt (so intellectual at such a tender age), obsessively rewinding to the “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” scene. In retrospect, I guess she had a thing for penguins.

Yeah, the whole Bird Woman business was kind of a drag but who can argue against Dick Van Dyke in candy-striped seersucker? Magical umbrellas, kites, castor oil, “Katie Nana!,” tuppence, sidewalk chalk, bowler hats, suffragette ribbons: such is the stuff of childhood Anglophilia. Listening to the soundtrack is, for me, like jumping into one of Bert’s chalk drawings. – Stacey Pavlick

Pulp Fiction

Quentin Tarantino’s films are sure to deliver at least three things: a focus on dialogue, a significant amount of violence and profanity and a stellar collection of songs at its core. Though the use of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” in Reservoir Dogs may be his best-known musical moment, the soundtrack to 1994’s {Pulp Fiction} is his most badass compilation of tunes. Containing bits of dialogue – including the famous “Royal with cheese” exchange – interspersed amongst the tracks, it’s one of those few soundtracks that actually complements the film. Mixing rock ‘n’ roll, soul and surf – Kool and The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” Urge Overkill’s stellar cover of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” and the infamous “Misirlou” by Dick Dale and His Del-Tones all pop up-, the Pulp Fiction soundtrack plays out like a mixtape you would find in Tarantino’s basement next to the box of katana swords. What more could you ask for? – Kyle Fowle

Garden State

Because I had the misfortune of being born in 1990, I missed out on some crucial years in the development of indie rock. This, coupled with the fact that my older sister fell victim to Top 40 radio at an early age, caused me to live my life completely ignorant to the existence of bands like the Shins and Thievery Corporation for most of my young life. Luckily, at the tender, impressionable age of 14, I saw Garden State and my world changed forever. With the exception of the strange attraction I developed for Zach Braff-like big-nosed weirdos (which I’m now over, thank you), this was a change for the better because the movie’s soundtrack opened my ears to an entirely new set of sounds. In retrospect, yes, this soundtrack is a Pitchfork mixtape of music you have to claim is good, lest you be called un-cool, though at the time it showed me that there were bands who could hold their own next my beloved Simon & Garfunkel and Nick Drake on record without sounding like a bunch of amateurs. This soundtrack is great both as a listener and a viewer, standing on its own as a collection of songs and providing the perfect accompaniment to Braff’s mid-20s coming of age schmaltz on the screen. Some with supposedly more superior musical taste might scoff at the track listing, but love them or hate them, it can’t be denied that these songs fit Garden State better than Natalie Portman fits the part of “cute, quirky girl.” Garden State’s soundtrack is one I revisit frequently for the pleasant memories of the musical doors it opened for me and I don’t see myself ever being ashamed of that. Take that, music snobs. – Sam Gordon

Masked and Anonymous

Sure, Masked and Anonymous, the movie, is terrible – the type of thing that could conceivably work as a torture technique – but Masked and Anonymous the soundtrack is tremendous. It’s not easy covering Dylan, but a handful of international musicians nail it here, particularly the Magokoro Brothers on a Japanese language version of “My Back Pages” and Articolo 31 on an Italian version of the very sacred – and song most frequently butchered by anyone not named Dylan – “Like a Rolling Stone.” The songs Dylan performs are just as good, especially the snarling, growling versions of “Cold Irons Bound” and “Down in the Flood.” The Man even offers a passable version of “Dixie.”

And to whomever needs to authorize the release of the several dozen other tracks Dylan recorded for the movie that still haven’t been officially issued: get your shit together and get it done. – Eric Dennis

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