Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The 20 greatest soundtracks

What makes a great soundtrack? For one it has to have at least one piece of music that takes you straight back to the film. Think of the use of Layla in Goodfella's or Lust for Life in Trainspotting. Second it has to work as a body of work both in the film itself and seperately at home. This is often difficult as the incidental instrumentals that work so well on the big screen often underwhelm when subjected to hime listening. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly of all it has to hang together as a whole - like any album (and perhaps more so) it needs to take the listener on a narrative journey which echos the storyline.

Many soundtracks have one or two tracks that really stand out (Pulp Fiction, The Deerhunter) or work well as in incidental score (The Proposition, There Will Be Blood) but what I've sought to capture here are those, irrespective of whether they are original scores or not, that work both in capturing the feel of the film but also stand alone as a great collection.

A few that missed the cut? Shaft, The Last King of Scotland (great Afrobeat), Donnie Darko (worthy of inclusion for the Killing Moon alone), Rocky, Resevoir Dogs and perhaps most controversially - Bullit (Lalo Shifrin's finest hour many would argue)..disagree with my choices? Leave yours below....

20. The taking of Pelham 1,2,3

A really enjoyable soundtrack in the traditional sense. Dramatic opening sequence followed by lots of jazzy incidental music. Composed by David Shire the soundtrack manages to convey the urgency (and indeed seediness)of the New York subway which was so central to the movie which starred Walter Mathau.

19. Big Lebowski

A little bit uneven this one if I'm honest. The mix of country, opera, singer-songwriter and classical doesn't quite ebb and flow in the way you would like but there are two absolute killer tunes on this one. Firstly Kenny Rogers' Just dropped in which is used so well in the film during the bowling sequence and then a latin version of Hotel California from the Gypsy Kings. Great fun and works so well in a brilliant movie.

18. Bugsy Malone

Perhaps a surprising inclusion but there are some great songs here. Tomorrow, memorably sung by the black cleaner is unexpectedly touching, Fat Sam's grand slam a great reprisal of various clapper girl tunes and We could have been anything that we wanted to be is a corker. A saw a freind play this at a wedding at the end of the night once and the whole place went off!

17. Vampiros Lesbos

Think go-go girls and psychadelic projector visuals. This would be the perfect soundtrack for a wife swapping party. The film was a 1971 erotic horror movie and the soundtrack incudes a nice instrumental version of Satisfaction by the Stones and the tune that Missy stole the Get your freak on sample from (the vocal not the indian bit). The track you will recognise immediately (honest you will!) is alluringly entitled The Lions and the Cucumber.

16. Life Aquatic

Well known for Seu Jeorge's Bowie covers. Busker versions of Life on Mars, Rebel Rebel - you get the drill. Also notable for its use of Sven Liabeck's Inner Space. Sven was an Aussie soundtrack composer and this is some of his best work.

15. Dazed and Confused

...or the frat house party that punk forgot. American white collar seventies rock pretty much all the way. A few numbers (Ted Nugent, Lynyrd Skynyrd) go on a bit and there are a few too many 'come on baby's but there is much to enjoy including the guilty pleasures of Kiss, Alice Cooper and ZZ Top while the Nazareth track shows pretty much where W Axl Rose got his vocal technique from. My only quibble is that Aerosmith's Sweet Emotion which opens the film and always sets the hairs on my neck off whenever I see and hear it isn't even included.

14. A Fistfull of Dollars/For a Few Dollars More

Few names immediately scream soundtrack more than Ennio Morricone - still performing to this day (and definately on my list of acts to see live). These two soundtracks are often available together and well worth picking up. Its all spooky whistles and rolling drums and it immediately captures the spirit of the wild west (Arizona not Devon). For a few dollars more was later regurgitated as The Mexican which in turn became a staple of the B-Boys of the Bronx and thus was in some part responsible for the birth of hip hop.

13. Paris Texas

A piece of music as notable as much for what it lacks as much as what it is. The sense of space in Ry Cooder's slide guitar is relaxing in the best way. Dialogue from the film and 40's tunes are interspersed with some of Cooder's best work.

12. Bladerunner

If there is any soundtrack that is more atmospheric then I've yet to hear it. Sometimes, as Brian Eno or the Orb would no doubt tell you, less is more. OK, so Rachel's theme is all a bit 'Clannad' but Vangelis' 1982 score set the template for ambient sci-fi soundtracks and his mellow synths perfectly complimented Ridley Scott's strange future. A 1994 CD re-release includes extra tracks. A record to smoke and dream to.

11. Trainspotting

Very much of its time and overheard at the time by these ears at least but any soundtrack boasting Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Blur, Plup and Brian Eno is going to be quality. The funny thing about this one on relistening to it is that the tracks you remember as the standouts (Iggy, Underworld) slightly irritate while the ones that at the time were deemed filler (Primal Scream, /Elastica) reveal themselves to be of the highest quality. The Primals track in particular could sit on a soundtrack of almost any era since the 1950's and showcases some fantastic musicianship.

10. Performance

If you are looking for the definitive soundtrack to swinging 60's London most people will point you in the direction of either Blow up or Get Carter. This is better than both and much more varied. Dirty Rolling Stones songs (Memo to Turner), Slide Guitar from Ry Cooder (Get Away, Powis Square) and indian Mysticism (The Hashishin) transport you immediately to a sleazy London Party (who mentioned Mars bars?!)

9. High Fidelity

Perhaps understandable that a film about record nerds has a great soundtrack. Dry the Rain by the Beta Band stands out as one of the great tracks and other stand outs include Smog's Cold Blooded Old Times and The Velvet's Oh! Sweet nuthin'. Even Jack Black's version of Let's Get it On isn't as bad as you might imagine. Quality most of the way...

8. The Harder They Come

Classic reggae from beginning to end. You can get it if you really want, Many Rivers to Cross and the title track are all time greats. Pressure Drop is a great bit of roots reggae too... I saw Jimmy Cliff a few years ago at Glastonbury on a sunny afternoon and it was perfect. A fantastic songwriter - period. Another great reggae soundtrack is Rockers.

7. Morvern Callar

Possibly the coolest soundtrack ever put together - Can, Aphex Twin, Velvet Underground and Stereolab are all perenial favourites of music critics and muso snobs - but this collection is also extremely listenable. Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra's Some Velvet Morning is like a duet between beauty and the beast while the Boards of Canada track is predictably wonderful.

6. Shalimar
Legendary Bollywood soundtrack which goes for a pretty penny (£30-£50) these days. This has a number of notable songs but can be enjoyed as a whole album as well. One two cha cha cha is a particular favourite of mine and like many of the Vampiros Lesbos tracks would sit nicely in a set of 60's style parlour pop. There are two editions of Shalimar on vinyl - one with a very mice gatefold (which is obviously more expensive...).

5. Easy Rider

A classic ride through 60's counterculture. Don't Bogart That Joint - forever amusing to teenagers, The frazzled guitars and spacy voices of the Byrd's on Wasn't Born to Follow, The beautiful The Weight by the Band and the classic tracks from Stepenwolf The Pusher and Born to Be Wild - forever the bikers anthem.

4. The Royal Tenenbaums

A surprisingly good collection this including Nico, The Clash, Nick Drake and Paul Simon amogst others. What makes this one so good is that the whole think flows really nicely - unlike many others which combine original scores with pop music. Ends with a enjoyably chinzey Hey Jude.

3. Midnight Cowboy

It would be sacrelidge to have a soundtracks collection without the undisputed master - John Barry. The Barry compositions here are excellent (you might recognise the track Florida Fantasy as the theme of 80's kids show Wildtrack). The theme in particular is memorable - a wonderfully downbeat melody played by harmonica. The real highlight though is Nilson's Everybody's Talking which must be one of the most effortlessly beautiful songs ever sung by man.

2. Troubleman

People talk about What's going On as Marvin Gaye's classic album and rightly so but in some ways this 1972 soundtrack goes even further in showcasing his maturity as a songwriter. Gaye explores jazz as well as the soulful landscapes for which he was becoming known to create a thoroughly enjoyable listen. The influence of the Moog which was also a key component in Stevie Wonder's sound at the time is also evident here. T Plays it Cool is a stand out as is Marvin's vocal on the title track. I could have compiled 20 great Blaxploitation soundtracks alone but for me this pips Shaft, Superfly and They call me Mr Tibbs as the best...

1. Wickerman

If you haven't seen the film, make sure you do - one of the all time classic Bristish Films. Its set on an isolated Scottish Island and as such the soundtrack (which was thought lost for many years) is dominated by the sort of ethereal folk that has been so much back in vogue over the last decade. Snippets of dialogue from the film are interspersed with creepy pagan folk songs to create a real sense of dread. Christopher Lee's proclomation of 'Come...its time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man' is particularly terrifying. Paul Giovanni who composed the music eventually died of Aids in New York but his work in taking traditional arrangements and reworking them for the film will live on for many years to come. This soundtrack takes you immediately to the outer reaches of the Scottish Islands and is as mad as a hatter but all the better for it. Search it out.

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