Some movie soundtracks play like loosely affiliated playlists filled with artists’ B-material; it looks good in conjecture with what’s on the screen, but is sort of a snooze besides. But then soundtracks, in addition to scoring a movie, hold up obscenely well on their own. Look at O Brother, Where Art Thou? which was a great movie on its own, but got the fucking Grammy for album of the year when it came out. And, as the genre and its influence have expanded, indie music is getting used more and more for soundtracks. So I thought why not highlight those soundtracks that go above and beyond? Note that whatever I say about the soundtrack/how it plays into the movie doesn’t reflect how I feel about the actual film, just the music in or around it. Let’s begin!
5. Twilight/New Moon/Eclipse (2008-2010)
Hear me out.
Imagine if I told you that Florence +the Machine, Bon Iver, St. Vincent, The Dead Weather, Metric, Band of Horses, OK Go, Vampire Weekend, Beck, Bat For Lashes, Sia, and Thom fucking Yorke, (along with bigger-but-still-alternative folks Paramore, Muse, and The Killers) were on a series of albums together. Pretty exciting, right? Because that’s exactly what the Twlight soundtracks are.
While the movies span the range of bad from stupid entertainment at best to unwatchable at worst, the soundtracks are seriously stacked. Oddly enough, the most shamelessly cash-grabbing, mainstream film franchise of the past decade has come out with the most ostensibly indie soundtracks. And what’s more is that it works. It turns out that quiet, moody indie rock/folk (“Roslyn” by Bon Iver and St. Vincent) and theatrical rock songs (“Neutron Star Collison”) are a great way to score movies where no one (including the viewer) is ever going to act happy. It’s a great way to give Pitchfork a heart attack, and for Muse to piss off their fanbase. Everybody wins!
4. Garden State (2004)
For his vanity/”I will not let JD define my life” project Garden State, Zach Braff hand-picked the music for the soundtrack based on where he was in life while writing the screenplay.
While the choices might be too on the nose, they’re still great choices. Much like the film itself, the Garden State soundtrack is wrapped up in a pretty melancholy encapsulated by modern indie rock. In addition to scoring a movie, this album could be turned on any rainy day and be instantly comforting. “New Slang” may not change your life, but that and the other Shins song “Caring Is Creepy” are still great. If the songs didn’t hold up, it could easily be considered too pedestrian or boring, but even Coldplay does a good job here.
3. Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
There were multiple reasons as to why Spike Jonze’s 2009 Where the Wild Things Are adaptation was a fascinating project. It wrung almost 2 hours of film out of a 48 page picture book. It used those ridiculous monsters in a live action setting and still made them look adorable. It was a movie made for adults about growing up. It was cute, happy, and sad all at once, just like its soundtrack.
Composed by Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and recorded with a fleet of indie musicians (and a children’s choir for added effect), the soundtrack to Where the Wild Things Are reflects the film’s childlike wide-eyed wonder and emotion. Much of the album uses acoustic instrumentation, sometimes resulting cohesive song like “All Is Love”, or in a sonic collage like “Cliffs”. Karen’s “the gang’s all here” arrangements on upbeat tunes (“Building All Is Love”, “Rumpus”, and “Heads Up”) made more lonesome moments “Worried Shoes” and “Hideaway” feel all the more aloof. Karen and the Kids (the official moniker of the project) have a surprisingly sharp ear for what melodies and chants will work, and the result is an incredibly memorable soundtrack. Also, I dare you to listen to “Sailing Home” and not hum along.
2. Singles (1992)
I’ve never seen Singles. Much like O Brother, Where Art Thou? (which, for the record, is probably the best soundtrack in recent memory), the soundtrack to Singles has eclipsed the film itself. Singles‘ soundtrack is such a grunge/alternative compilation that the only reason the film wasn’t shelved was because suddenly those subgenres were in vogue, and Warner Brothers realized that releasing the film (and especially the album with it) was a quick cash scheme.
At a base level, it worked because these were mostly grunge songs, but it worked even more because these were great grunge songs. What helps is that the soundtrack was recorded/compiled before alternative was a movement; everyone’s just playing the music they want to make. And it turns out that they make really good music: Pearl Jam’s not actively trying to avoid their Ten sound, Soundgarden’s enjoying one last play in the sludge, The Smashing Pumpkins are working on their super heavy psychedelic sound, and smaller groups like Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, and Mother Love Bone play the life out of their tunes. Singles is a success because it captures the moment right before alternative truly broke through.
1. Juno (2008)
Like many indie movie smash hits, Juno proved how much mileage you can squeeze out of personality. That holds doubly true for the 19 song soundtrack, a mix of quirk, snark, twee, and sweet. There’s a surprisingly long period of time covered by the album: the range spans from Buddy Holly in the 50’s to Kimya Dawson songs released a year before the movie. But what really sells the soundtrack is how consistently it plays in this range. It truly has the cohesion of a high schooler’s mixtape. There’s a definite favorite artist, and everything else gravitates around that sound (with the clumsy “My friend gave me this” inclusion of Sonic Youth’s cover of “Superstar” and the loud “All the Young Dudes”).
It’s likeable music, too. More than anything else, it’s all so damn cute: everything from Cat Power’s “Sea of Love” to “Expectations” inspires you to sing, hum, or at least tap your toes along. And of course, “Anyone Else But You” is a valentine of a song. Juno‘s soundtrack is funny, sweet, disarming, and a must have for any indie fan.