there used to be a time when you could reexperience your favorite movie just by listening to the soundtrack. Soundtracks created a parallel universe that took you back, song by song, through each pivotal moment in the film. These days, "Music from and loosely associated with the movie" would be a more appropriate tag for most film soundtracks, which often have less to do with the films they were "inspired by" than with some media conglomerate's cross-marketing scheme.
Still, even the most egregious examples of this trend (see: "Men in Black") can offer insight into the mood the filmmakers were trying to create, even if they failed in the attempt. With retro chic at its zenith, it's no surprise that Burt Bacharach was the real inspiration behind blockbuster soundtracks like "Austin Powers" and "My Best Friend's Wedding," while indie films like "Dreams with Fishes" and "Star Maps" saw a revival of more fashionably obscure artists like Nick Drake.
Below are our picks for this year's best (in their category) summer movie soundtracks.
Best Soundtrack that has absolutely zero to do with the film that inspired it: "Men in Black" (Sony)
Will Smith apparently filled the quota for black talent with his "I'm Just a Crazy Black Fella" role in Steven Spielberg's latest, because you won't hear a single measure of music from this soundtrack during the film, save for the brief Danny Elfman score at the beginning. And it's too bad -- with great tracks by De La Soul, Snoop Doggy Dogg ("We Just Wanna Party With You" is basically a heavily sampled remake of Kool and the Gang's "Get Down on It"), Nas, Tribe Called Quest and even Smith himself, the music might have offset the embarrassing and racist planetary jingoism that drives this intergalactic buddy movie. (CJ)
Best Soundtrack that has everything to do with the film that inspired it: "Star Maps" (DGC)
The makers of "Star Maps" say they wanted to present an authentic Latino perspective with their bizarre, unexpectedly compelling film about a young Latino who goes to L.A. seeking fame as an actor and ends up working in his father's prostitution ring. While the film falls short of that goal (due in part to sometimes amateurish acting) the soundtrack makes up for it. The album is a primer in contemporary Latino music, a mix of hip-hop, rock, alternative and acid jazz that should help to put these artists -- several of them (La Portuaria, Juana Molina, Control Machete) already stars in the Spanish-speaking world -- on the Anglo-American map. (CJ)
Best Soundtrack to close the era of retro chic already: "Austin Powers" (Hollywood)
For all the horrible fads spawned by retro chic, thank god the eight-track wasn't one of them -- otherwise, you'd have to suffer through all the irony-cloaked crap on this soundtrack just to get to the best tracks. Skip over the bastardized Bacharach (Susanna Hoffs' breathy version of "The Look of Love"), the even cheesier version of Tony Hatch's "Call Me" by those groovy ghoulies the Mike Flowers Pops and the interesting but ultimately ineffective Bacharach/Posies collaboration on "What the World Needs Now" and go straight to the Lightning Seeds' trip-hoppy version of the Byrds' "You Showed Me," as well as to the several other songs that ultimately make this a worthwhile album: the Cardigans' "Carnival," the Divinyls' "I Touch Myself" and Luxury's "These Days." (CJ)
And if you thought Hollywood's enthusiasm for all things retro was a sure sign of the genre's impending demise, think again ...
Best Soundtrack to ring in the era of '80s retro already: "Grosse Pointe Blank" (London)
There oughta be a law prohibiting nostalgia for an era that starts before the era that followed it is even over. Forget "MTV Unplugged" -- there's probably an "MTV Reissued" already in the works. But judging from this soundtrack, there's really nothing to fear -- in fact, there's really nothing you don't already hear in regular rotation on most rock stations. With songs like the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun," the English Beat's "Mirror in the Bathroom," Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now" and David Bowie and Queen's "Under Pressure," the "GPB" soundtrack is really the mix tape your brother (Class of '83) made for the road trip to college -- and the inclusion of songs by the Jam and the Specials and a high-class brass version of "Blister in the Sun" suggested he would eventually develop more daring musical tastes. (CJ)
Best imitation of a K-Tel techno compilation: "The Saint" (Virgin)
"The Saint" soundtrack is jacked-up space-age background music, filled with driving, generic techno from acts like Daft Punk, Underworld and the Chemical Brothers. Surprisingly, David Bowie's energetic stab at a house anthem ends up being one of the album's most interesting tracks, along with a beautiful breakbeat-infused love song by Everything But the Girl. The rest of it -- a dull piece of slick trip-hop from the Sneaker Pimps, a throwaway Luscious Jackson song and a cheesy glam-ballad by Duran Duran -- lacks any texture or mystery. In 10 years, when K-Tel is hawking their electronica collection on late-night TV, this is what it will sound like. (MG)
Best Muzac Version of Vangelis' "Blade Runner" Score: "The Fifth Element" (Virgin)
Luc Besson got Tricky to play Gary Oldman's sidekick in "The Fifth Element," but it's too bad he didn't have him help out on the soundtrack as well. The film makes the mistake of trying to marry "Blade Runner"-style apocalyptic cityscapes to a mindless, Disneyfied story line, and the soundtrack follows the same path. Aside from some lovely ambient musings at the beginning, the music even seems to amplify the film's flaws -- Chris Tucker's hellacious screeching as the radio queen is even more grating without the movie's hyper-stylized visual distractions. The opera bit was one of "The Fifth Element's" most redeeming moments, but without a blue alien diva singing it, it falls flat. (MG)
Best soundtrack to slit your wrists or sleep with your best friend to: "All Over Me" (TVT)
The soundtrack to "All Over Me" is as devastating as the film about two girls growing up and apart in New York City's Hell's Kitchen. Originally, director Alex Sichel had planned the film as a documentary about the riot grrrl movement, and the scene pervades the soundtrack. Babes In Toyland open the album with the haunting "Hello," full of guitar wails and girlish whispers that turn into growls. Helium's "Hole in the Ground" is in the same vein: thick, feedback-laden and simmering. Ultimately, though, with tracks from Patti Smith, Ani DiFranco and the Murmurs, the musical world that serves as the milieu of "All Over Me" is unified less by style than by its smoldering emotional intensity. (MG)
Best soundtrack to blast while packing your bags to run away from home: "Nowhere" (Mercury)
Gregg Araki is the master of a certain kind of meth-powered teenage tragedy, and he is unexcelled at using music to capture his character's lust, desperation and pathos. The "Nowhere" soundtrack opens with Araki avatar James Duval slurring in his sultry valley voice, "Always, like, nowhere. Everybody who lives here is lost." "Nowhere's" music embodies the adolescent extremes of melancholy and murderous rage. Araki is a fan of swirling, ethereal bands
like Lush, Curve and the Catherine Wheel, all of whom are featured here. On Hole's "Dicknail," a pre-makeover Courtney Love sings about rape with as much fire and fury as anything on "Live Through This." But there are also moments of ecstatic energy. A wonderful remix of Massive Attack's "Daydreaming" features Tricky's sinister rapping, and Elastica's one-and-a-half minute piece of punk-lite heaven, "In the City," is the perfect song to play on your headphones as you split your nowhere town and head for urban salvation. (MG)
Best Reason to Revisit the Vapors: "Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion" (Hollywood)
A new generation retreats into its past! Like "Grosse Pointe Blank," "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion" is the perfect excuse for delving into the radio hits of the '80s. Every song on here is one you've heard hundreds of times before, but probably not during this decade. Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy" is a treat, as is the Vapors' catchy, un-p.c. ode to jerking off, "Turning Japanese." There are hits from Bananarama, Culture Club and the Smithereens, along with two fab tracks from the Go-Go's and one of Belinda Carlisle's better solo efforts, "Heaven is a Place on Earth." But not all nostalgia is pleasant -- Tears For Fears should've stayed locked in the vaults. (MG)
Best Soundtrack to listen to while trying to ignore the movie: "Dream with the Fishes." (Will Records)
Despite how hard this film about the lo-fi adventures of two guys (one dying, one set on killing himself) tries to earn indie credibility with its artsier-than-thou attitude, only the soundtrack succeeds. The track list reads like a Who's Who in Indie Rock: With songs by the Tindersticks, Jeremy Enigk (formerly of Heatmiser), Jeremy Toback (formerly of Brad), the Waterboys, Ween, Chaser and Nick Drake, the album exudes the hazy and desperate feel that the filmmakers failed to capture with their Super-8. (CJ)
Best Soundtrack to wonder what happened to Julia Roberts' upper lip to: "My Best Friend's Wedding" (Work Group)
It was a gay man (Rupert Everett) who saved the film from being a complete waste of time, and it's a bisexual woman (Ani DiFranco) who does the same for the soundtrack. DiFranco's version of Bacharach's "Wishin' and Hopin'" is as captivating as it is confusing (she must be joking when she advises women looking for a marital warranty to "do the things that he likes to do, wear your hair just for him ..."). Most of the other tracks are unremarkable -- a reggae version of "I Say a Little Prayer" by Diana King that sounds a little too much like better-than-average elevator fare; Tony Bennett singing "The Way You Look Tonight"; Mary Chapin Carpenter's banal remake of "I'll Never Fall in Love Again." Amanda Marshall's "I'll be Okay" is perfectly pleasant, but the cast's version of "I Say a Little Prayer" is intolerable -- unless you remember that it's one of the most hilarious moments of the film, in which case it's forgivable. (CJ)
Best "Who's Who in 1997": "Batman and Robin" (Warner Bros.)
Just as "Batman" the movie paired actors you wouldn't normally expect to find on the same set (Uma Thurman and Alicia Silverstone, for example), the soundtrack is an amalgam of otherwise unrelated artists who made a big splash last year -- Smashing Pumpkins, Bone Thugs and Harmony, Jewel, Soul Coughing, Me'Shell Ndegeocello, Eric Benet. Although most of these songs are great by themselves, such genre tokenism does not a cohesive album make. Listening to this album is a little like listening to the radio -- with the seek function on. (CJ)