Habits Die Hard

Dave Heaton

In the world of soundtrack albums, overused stylistic tropes and marketing plans are everywhere, making the search for something truly special feel like a laborious treasure hunt.

PopMatters Associate Music Editor

Hans Zimmer
The Da Vinci Code: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

US: 9 May 2006
UK: 15 May 2006

Dario Maranelli
Music from the Motion Picture V for Vendetta

US: 21 March 2006
UK: 13 March 2006

Klaus Badelt
The Promise: Original Motion Picture Score

US: 16 May 2006
UK: Available as import

Don Bodin
Greed Lust and Cloning

US: 17 March 2006
UK: Available as import

Alan Menken / Various Artists
Music from and Inspired by The Shaggy Dog

US: 14 March 2006
UK: 27 March 2006

Alan Silvestri / Various Artists
The Wild: Original Soundtrack

US: 11 April 2006
UK: 22 May 2006

Various Artists
Take the Lead: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

US: 4 April 2006
UK: 24 April 2006

Various Artists
Scrubs Original Soundtrack Vol. 2

(Hollywood) (iTunes only release)
US: 9 May 2006

Various Artists
Charmed: The Final Chapter

US: 9 May 2006
UK: Available as import

Various Artists
South Pacific in Concert from Carnegie Hall

US: 18 April 2006
UK: Available as import

Who Loves the Sun (Original Film Score)

US: 6 June 2006
UK: Available as import

Decoder Ring

(Bella Union)
US: 2 May 2006
UK: 7 March 2005

Piri Thomas
Every Child is Born a Poet: The Life & Work of Piri Thomas

(American Clave)
US: 14 March 2006
UK: Available as import

"Soundtracks" might be the most musically inclusive of industry-defined genres, even more so than the catch-all "rock/pop" category. There's little that's strictly defined about a soundtrack album, especially these days when it could be a soundtrack to almost anything. Walk down the soundtracks aisle of a music store blind-folded and grab CDs at random. Listen to them, and you might hear hip-hop, you might hear opera, you might hear music from Brazil or Japan. Skipping through a batch of soundtracks is like jumping from galaxy to galaxy. You land in one alternate universe and you're surrounded by zombie metalheads trying to scare you to death; jump to another and you're in a generic, theme park sort of jazz club. Some of these worlds are exciting and some are unbearably dull, but more often than not, the setting seems really familiar, and you're sure you've been there before. Welcome to the world of soundtracks, where no stylistic trope is too well-worn, few genres are free from old habits, and sometimes the whole purpose is hard to fathom, yet there are always a few diamonds glistening through the dust.

High Drama

Hans Zimmer's score for The Da Vinci Code sounds exactly as you imagine it would. Moody strings evoke dark corridors and secrets. Church choir voices weave their way in, and everything is as solemn as can be. Even just one read through the musician credits reveals few surprises. There's harp, a soprano, and a credit for "historic stringed instruments." Perhaps the biggest surprise of the score is how silent it seems. That's mostly so the dramatic surges seem even louder when they barge in. But in any case, it's odd how much of the 68 minutes of score is so quiet you barely notice it.

One look at the expression on Tom Hanks' face in the trailer told me the film would be dull, but I didn't expect the music to be quite so much so. Zimmer is an accomplished film composer, and on one level everything here is as polished and technically sharp as could be. Yet it's a meandering score, with very little about it that's memorable. What you mostly get is mood -- overbearing in its silence and in its sweeping ambushes, of the type that wave an enormous sign in your face, screaming, "Something evil is going on!"

No less dramatic, and no more interesting, is Dario Marianelli's bombastic score for the sci-fi thriller V for Vendetta. In the soundtrack's liner notes, the film's director, James McTeigue, cites musicians as accomplished and varied as The Stooges, Arvo Part, Nina Simone, and Brian Eno as inspiration. It's hard to hear any of that in Marianelli's score, which mostly contains dramatic build-up that never leads anywhere compelling. Always aiming to build a larger-than-life mood of suspense, it resembles a narrative which is all exposition. The musicians' energy seems directed entirely at building tension, but they do so in a familiar and unexciting way. It resembles a perpetual march, the mood of a thousand military scenes where the soldiers are lining up for battle... but we never quite get to the battle.

When the final moments of the score turn into Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, it's not really a surprise, but it's also kind of refreshing. As familiar as that piece of music is, it still sounds naturally bold and dynamic, not manufactured and forced like the rest of the score. This is the release the score has been looking for, though it's borrowed. Another release built into the soundtrack is the mix of three songs into the score. Julie London's "Cry Me a River", Cat Power's cover of Lou Reed's "I Found a Reason" and Anthony & the Johnson's "Bird Gurhl" are each compelling on their own, but in between such an over-the-top score the songs just feel lost, like they've stumbled onto a battlefield and are stuck standing still, wondering why they're there.

Chen Kaige's martial arts epic The Promise is no doubt just as over-dramatic a film as V for Vendetta, yet Klaus Badelt's score for it is so much richer. The 72 minutes of music on the soundtrack album are completely epic in scope, with heroism and tragedy, victory and loss serving as obvious emotional touch points for a score that seeks to be majestic and stirring at every step. But instead of just sounding like it's seeking those qualities, the music attains them, embodying grandeur.

Performed by the Chinese Symphony Orchestra, with occasional vocals by Hang Yue, Badelt's score is big and grand, like a large-scale historical drama should be. It's familiar in mood, but never in sound or melody. Instead it's distinct and satisfying, filled with both sweeping melodies and quieter moments. And there's sensitivity here as well -- the tone is often soft, tender, and sad even, while still resembling the hero's themes of yesteryear. It's classic film music: purposely oversized, but also filled with emotion.

Another composer/musician attempting to write music that captures the mood of the classic film scores is Don Bodin, who has certainly listened to his share of scores. At least that's how it appears, based on Greed Lust and Cloning, which isn't a soundtrack to anything in particular, except to the films Bodin has dreamed up in his head. Greed Lust and Cloning is an imaginary spy movie which Bodin has written a score for. On the album it's performed mostly by one guitarist/bassist, a drummer, a viola player, a cellist, and one singer, who mostly contribute faux-opera vocal sounds to add to the drama.

The tone of Greed Lust and Cloning's music is some kind of chic urban after-hours mystery. It's all shadows, eeriness, midnight jazz, and near-funk, with a heavy dose of Morricone to boot. Ultimately it sounds like a mish-mash of a hundred scores you've heard before: not exactly special, but competent enough. It's at least fresher sounding than some of what Hollywood's composers are coming up with these days; Zimmer could learn something from Bodin's spunk.

Lighter Than Air

The Shaggy Dog remake, starring Tim Allen as the man-dog, isn't exactly where I'd expect to find an enjoyable film score. But Alan Menken's score, as heard on the album Music from and Inspired by The Shaggy Dog, is quite good. It's a breezy orchestral score, as you'd expect, and has a dominant, recurring melodic theme that's a lot of fun. But the score never feels like a trifle, and also has a fair amount of suspense and drama built into its mood. It's a visual score in a way; as the music lightly swoops and rises, you can imagine the hijinks ensuing on-screen. It sounds like a delightful movie, though I know better. Or at least, the rest of the soundtrack album indicates otherwise.

On the album Menken's score comes after six pop songs obviously aimed at the film's target audience: children. Akon's "Big Dog" is first, and the only one actually in the film. It's a dumb song that I can easily imagine little kids loving, singing along to its incessant "feeling like a big dog" hook. And I imagine parents hating it, cursing the day that it entered the house. Most of the "inspired by" songs are even worse. Buy this album for your kids, and expect constant barking sounds and refrains of "Woof! There it is!" for months to come. Which is likely Disney's purpose behind the soundtrack anyway, to keep the franchise near the top of kids' minds, to keep that Shaggy Dog money rolling in. And how many of those barking music consumers will keep the CD playing when the instrumental score comes on? Next to none, which is why the album is ultimately such an unfortunate one. This is a case of marketing machinations burying music that's actually worth hearing.

The Wild soundtrack is another Disney production, and another song/score hybrid. In this case, the songs are a little better, or at least three of the four are. I can't find any kind words for Lifehouse's over-earnest Hallmark ballad "Good Enough", but Everlife's cover of the old rockabilly song "Real Wild Child" is at least spunky (though she's no Iggy Pop), and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's dumbed-down swing music actually works better when it's explicitly presented as the children's party music that it is. Eric Idle and John Du Prez's "Really Nice Day" also makes for fun, if very Lion King-esque, children's music, and no doubt features prominently in the film. Alan Silvestri's score is less distinct, though pleasant enough. He goes for an Indiana Jones-style adventure tone, but the compositions aren't memorable enough to carry that ambition through.

Breezy and fun is also the mood on the Take the Lead soundtrack album, though the audience is at least a few years older. An urban ballroom dancing film needs a soundtrack that's dance-oriented but hip, timeless but fresh, and that's what this album shoots for. "Sexy salsa / what's that all about?", Q-Tip raps on the opening track, an awkward remix of Lena Horne singing Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm". That's the basic story here: jazz, salsa, hip-hop, and soul are all brewed together, and the results are more often awkward than not. The less the musicians try to force genres together, the better the album gets. Rhymefest's "These Days" is the standout track, and even the middling pop-rap of Black Eyed Peas' "Feel It" sounds somehow pure compared to that Q-Tip track and the mash-up wanna-be "I Like That You Can't Take That Away From Me", which cuts between Jae Millz's "I Like That" and June Christy singing Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away From Me", with portions of Eric B. and Rakim's "Follow the Leader" thrown in for extra hipness.

Star Power

Trying against the odds to engineer a soundtrack album for a target audience is one approach producers take; another involves putting together a bunch of songs by already-established musicians who can lure in their fan base. So much of what's in the Soundtracks section is a result of movie/TV show/video game creators bringing together musicians who fit the right image and getting them to a contribute a song, one that will appear in second-long snippets in the actual show, if at all. How much music can you work into a 30-minute sitcom, anyway, and how artistically important can that music really be to the show?

Music is certainly a component of Scrubs, at least as the soundtrack to the "deep thoughts" of JD that end each episode. Still, I would associate few of the songs on the iTunes-only Scrubs Original Soundtrack Volume 2 with the show per se, as all of them are previously released. Instead of anything with a distinct perspective to it, it resembles a typical hour spent listening to an adult-alternative format radio station. It's filled with decent enough music from Joseph Arthur, the Mavericks, Rhett Miller, the Polyphonic Spree, and others, but it doesn't add up to anything more than a relatively enjoyable batch of songs, with little to recommend it as an album. Perhaps that's the reason for its download-only status; viewers that remember liking one particular song on an episode can go get it, their lives otherwise unchanged.

The Charmed: The Final Chapter soundtrack is an actual physical album, but otherwise falls in much the same boat. It collects songs you've likely heard before, even if you've never seen an episode of the show. It's the sound of a particularly unadventurous college radio station or corporate "alternative" station, circa 1998-2002: Barenaked Ladies, Sarah McLachlan, Rusted Root, Beth Orton, Natalie Imbruglia, Liz Phair (Whitechocolatespacegg-era), Collective Soul, and so on. The songs themselves are a decent enough representation of that period in music, some of them quite enjoyable, but the whole endeavor has "mediocrity is good enough" stamped across every surface in big block letters.

Celebrity name power certainly seems at play with South Pacific: In Concert from Carnegie Hall, as Reba McEntire, Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Alec Baldwin's names and faces are spotlighted on the cover. The difference here is that the stars are present for their talent, and it shows every step of the way. The album presents a 2005, one-night-only concert version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and it's a delight from start to finish.

It's an exemplary rendition of the music from an old (and slightly old-fashioned) musical, one that showcases the strengths of the material and the performers. The vocal performances are so strong that they lift the affair to an entirely new level, and do it again and again. Mitchell has a rich, deep, very-Broadway voice that he puts to great effect each time. And all of the supporting singers and the orchestra, Orchestra of St. Luke's, are adept. But it's McEntire who steals the show, somehow still sounding like a humble country singer even while her voice is soaring to the rafters. Her exuberant and heart-wrenching performances of songs like "A Cockeyed Optimist" and "A Wonderful Guy" deliver so much real emotion, it should convince anyway who rejects musical theatre wholesale to reconsider.

Point of View

Even a project as specific and utilitarian as a soundtrack album can still display a unique perspective -- having one distinct, impressive mood is certainly one of the goals, and sometimes it takes an artist-driven approach to attain it. Over the years Superchunk/Merge Records co-founder Mac McCaughan has used the name Portastatic for a variety of projects, and here it serves as the name behind his second score, for the independent film Who Loves the Sun. This simply sounds like nothing he's done before -- not "rock" music in any way; it's a soft, bright score featuring violin, oboe, flute, and cello at its forefront, along with a variety of other instruments. It's lush, light, and lovely, conveying the mood of a childhood summer, with all the excitement, innocence, and loss which that implies. It's also a melodic, moving collection of music which has the potential to become a soundtrack for listeners' lives as well.

The Australian band Decoder Ring's score to the film Somersault is another example of musicians with creative control assembling a score which delivers an unmistakable mood. In this case the mood is that of sleepwalking. The six-piece uses a variety of instruments to create a sound that's spacey, a bit futuristic, and often haunting -- grounded in feelings of isolation, awe, sadness, and wonder. Lenka Kripac occasionally appears with gliding vocals, but mostly it's instrumental. Originally released in Australia in 2004, the album's reaching a wider audience through the Cocteau Twins-founded label Bella Union. And certainly Decoder Ring's music is rooted in the dream-pop style of the Cocteau Twins, as well as the ambient music of Brian Eno. There's times when the score falls into stasis, losing much of its spark, but it's mostly quite vivid, and generally enjoyable.

Piri Thomas is the main artist behind the soundtrack to Every Child is Born a Poet, and he's also the main subject of the film carrying the subtitle The Life & Work of Piri Thomas. Thomas is a writer, not a musician; he initially achieved fame for his 1967 memoir of growing up Puerto Rican in Harlem, Down These Mean Streets, and has parlayed that into a career as poet, thinker, truth-speaker. His line "Words can be bullets or butterflies / the truth uplifts while lies destroy" is given graphic prominence in the CD booklet, and it's a good example of where he's coming from, but his spoken-word pieces are often less lectures than vivid recollections of his rough past, and articulations of the wisdom he's gained from surviving tough times.

This soundtrack smoothly mixes his works -- themselves setting his voice over a cogent mix of street jazz and soulful jazz from Kip Hanrahan. Those instrumental pieces spiritually link to Thomas's stories, alluding to Latin-music jams, to doo-wop singers on stoops, to dreams, memories, and hardship. This album is filled with vision and feeling; it's an oasis in the soundtrack desert.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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