SoundTreks | The Best Movie Soundtracks of 2015
In terms of pop music, we are living through a decidedly fractured culture. There doesn’t seem to be one dominant genre in today’s music marketplace, unless you count “dance” or “club” as a genre. The bulk of the current day’s big hits are ultra-electronic, musically simple, and lyrically straightforward fluff that is meant to be grooved to on the dancefloor, or wept to in a quiet bedroom. There is, to offer an editorial, little in the way of soul. This may be why there is such a tendency by enterprising young people to rework a lot of music into a culture of remixed mixtapes. The glut of independently homemade records is bigger than it’s ever been, and if you have the resources, you could eschew pop altogether for the deep underground.
The visible older brother of mixtape culture is, of course, the movie soundtrack record. The music supervisors of major feature films are essentially (or at least presumably) the people with the best taste. The music supervisor must look at the vast history of pop – or, more gruelingly, the vast scatter of immediate pop – and construct a mood and a narrative that match a feature film. The soundtrack game is one of glorious I-have-better-taste-than-you one-upmanship.
Related: The Nine Best Indie Films of 2015
Here at SoundTreks we try to pay attention to soundtrack records, giving the world’s music supervisors their due (or their punishment, depending). We have looked back over the year of 2015, and have surmised the best soundtrack records that have been released during the year. This is not a list of the best movies with good soundtracks, but the best soundtracks that stand strongly on their own. From a movie perspective, the list may look bizarre. From a music perspective, you have eight excellent records. Here they are, in no particular order.
Rick Fuwayima’s Dope, a fierce and interesting indie film, is about a group of 17-year-old self-proclaimed non-white “nerds” living in Inglewood, CA. The main characters are obsessed with the frothy rap of the 1990s, and play in their own cross-genre punkish band called Awreeoh (pronounced “Oreo”). The soundtrack to Dope is a clever mixture of familiar tracks from the 1990s (Naughty By Nature, Busta Rhymes, Black Sheep, Onyx, and Digital Underground all get to drop their own nostalgia bombs) paired with new music in various genres, and Awreeoh’s own original compositions. It’s a solid and eclectic mix that seems to sum up the cross-history remix attitude of this generation. There is no longer old and young music. There is now merely a vast tapestry of sounds to choose from.
The soundtrack to Dope is a mixtape in the purest sense; it’s supposed to feel like something the characters assembled. It’s largely successful. You can read my full review in a previous installment of Soundtreks.
Magic Mike XXL
Magic Mike XXL didn’t have a thought in its bohunkular head, and was very up-front about its own thematic emptiness. I paraphrase, but I believe Channing Tatum spoke the theme of the film aloud when he said, “Sometimes you just need to have a good time with your friends.” The movie was meant to be a party for all the straight women in the world, who (at least when I saw it in theaters) seemed rather starved for beefcake.
It should make sense, then, that the soundtrack record for XXL should also be a party. This is not a soundtrack of narrative or mood. This is an energy mix, full of obvious, fun bump-‘n’-grind hits from the ages. The only track it’s really missing in David Rose’s famous “The Stripper.” This is a soundtrack that plays nostalgia like a kazoo, belting out all the goofy-ass hits you remember loving, but for the love of God can’t remember why. It starts with Channing Tatum’s personal anthem “Pony,” by Ginuwine, and goes on to milk Jodeci and R. Kelly. It also features the songs sung by the characters, all silly bedroom anthems of the most obvious variety. Some movies – and their soundtrack records – are just a good time.
Creed, the seventh film in the Rocky series, is (like its kin) a surprisingly down-to-earth and somber film about proving one’s self. It’s not a great film, but it’s certainly better than it had any right to be. The film features a local musician as the central love interest (played by actress Tessa Thompson), so the soundtrack record feels appropriately street-level. I have to admit ignorance when it comes to many of the artists featured (I, for instance, don’t know anything about White Dave or Meek Mill or Joey Bada$$). But I do love the overall, grounded, serious mood of the album. The opening track, “Last Breath” by future, even samples “Gonna Fly Now” before skewing dark. I like that The Roots were included. It also, like Dope, features some tracks by the in-film character, making for some trippy dance pieces amongst the serious rap tunes.
This is a heavy soundtrack – it’s not much “fun” – but it captures the dramatic tone of Creed, and actually went a long way towards hefting the movie itself above something trifling.
Pitch Perfect 2
A cappella music has been getting its due in recent years, thanks largely to Josh Groban, reality TV, and the Pitch Perfect movies. Indeed, a cappella music – as openly pointed out in the first Pitch Perfect – is a pure and natural extension of mixtape and remix culture; what is an a cappella arrangement of an existing pop hit but a remix unto itself?
I admit I have a powerful attachment to a cappella music, and own numerable a cappella records, so it’s a pleasure to have a soundtrack record that is constructed almost entirely of voices, right down to the Universal fanfare. Pitch Perfect 2 is a darn silly movie, so it makes sense that the soundtrack record should be comedic and playful. This soundtrack was also the first one reviewed by SoundTreks, so it has some personal significance as well.
When the soundtrack for Guardians of the Galaxy was released last year it became one of the best-selling records of 2014, largely because of its obvious 40-year-old nostalgia-bating (and yes, I spelled that correctly), and because of the public’s affection for the film. Looking over that soundtrack, I find a lazy mixtape constructed of some of the most up-front oldies you have heard.
When it comes to soundtracks constructed of obvious oldies, I’d much rather put my money on the soundtrack to Minions, a surprisingly hip collection of British ’60s pop hits, and hilarious gibberish Minion-speak versions of Beatles and Monkees songs and a number from Hair. Guardians of the Galaxy had the Blue Swede version of “Hooked on a Feeling” and “Cherry Bomb.” Big dumb ’70s rock. Minions has Donovan, The Who, and The Kinks. More arty, if just as obvious, ’60s choices. This was a film that probably introduced a generation of youngsters to some of the more hip pop of the era, and it’s a wonderful listen.
Like Creed, the soundtrack to Southpaw is downbeat and serious, and features a lot of the same ground-level sound. What is it about boxing that invites hefty moods? I guess that comes from a sport that involved repeatedly being pounded in the face. The soundtrack to Creed, even if it was from various people, felt local. Like the music was being made by the people in the movie. Southpaw, by contrast, is bigger and more produced. This is music coming from inside the lead character’s head.
There are many notable rap stars on the OST to Southpaw, but Eminem is the binding tissue. Eminem is a controversial figure to say the least, but I think that his intense and blunt (and deliberately provocative) rapping conveys a weird honesty about his character. He does’t give a shit, and that’s both exhilarating and wince-worthy. The honesty marks the tone of this record perfectly, and we have another moody – but more up-front – record as a result.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings (Special Edition)
And speaking of soundtrack from within a person’s head…
Montage of Heck is an excellent HBO documentary about the ever-important Kurt Cobain. The soundtrack record (available in regular and extra-crispy) is constructed of early demos recorded by Cobain, as well as his spitballing, rambling, and other off-the-cuff play that he did at home. He experiments with various sounds, but overall this is, in its rawest form, the very spirit of the 1990s. And, since we know the Cobain story so well, we can’t help but assign a deep, abiding sadness to each track (even apart from Cobain’s tendency to write poetically depressive music).
I have heard such albums of “unreleased demos” in the past, and they can often feel like indulgences intended only for the most invested of fans; who else would want to listen to something so unpolished? But it’s one thing to listen to boring take after take of a Beatles song, and quite another to hear the lonesome, dirty outpouring of hurt from the man who came to be known as the primary perpetrator of “grunge.” The sloppiness is a virtue, and the record is oddly emotional.
Many critics often accuse director Spike Lee of being too serious for his own good; he’s not one to give a message gently, preferring to wear his own personal outrage right on his sleeve. His latest film Chi-Raq is no exception, weaving a sad, intense cautionary tale of the copious gang violence in Chicago. What critics rarely mention, however, is how energetic and mischievous he can be.
The soundtrack to Chi-Raq has some seriousness to be sure (Nick Canon’s opening track “Pray 4 My City” also opens the film as a confrontational litany of how horrible the street death really is), but is overall more playful than the film would have you believe. Lee seems to know that having a somber soundtrack in a serious movie would be dramatic death, so many of the tracks on the Chi-Raq soundtrack skew funky and energetic. I love the funk of “Born in Chicago,” which has serious lyrics, but there is more defiance in the sound than sadness. Lee made a record that holds up its fist, visibly angry. He doesn’t want to mourn the dead, he wants action. This mood is what the Chi-Raq OST conveys. It’s pretty exhilarating.
Photo: Warner Bros.
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.