Top 5 Movie Soundtracks (by Claire)

Movies are where you start the life long process of hearing a song and wanting to hunt it down; soundtracks are the first space where you get a sense of music used to develop a theme and convey a style. I don’t remember much about seeing Matilda as a kid, but I know I hummed “Send Me on Way” by Rusted Root for years because of it. I’ve been exposed to incredible music through soundtracks where whole genres were split open, tracks were compiled to create mini-masterclasses on everything from bluegrass to ska, and powerful songs were lodged in my head.

Goodfellas (above: “Playboy,” by The Marvelettes)

Goodfellas is composed of giant swathes of music, each one precisely and impeccably used. Toe-tapping Motown girl groups show up in droves: The Crystals, The Chantals, The Shangri-Las, The Ronettes, and The Marvelettes. Classic boy bands are laced throughout the film’s first half: The Moonglows, The Harptones, The Cadillacs, and The Drifters. Table side shows and romantic moments feature slick 50s crooners: Johny Mathis, Bobby Vinton, Bobby Darren, Jack Jones. And that’s not the half of it, that’s not a quarter. If you talk about the music in Goodfellas with even the most devout fan, they won’t point to those bands. They’ll tell you the most pressing soundtrack moment was Henry Hill trying to outrun a plane and fate with a hodgepodge of solid rock unfurling in the background, his mounting paranoia reflected in the music’s impact on your now racing heart.

The first time I watched Goodfellas was with a group of people who had seen the movie about 100 times. They got together twice a year to watch it in full while swilling cheap wine and playing the Goodfellas drinking game. A guy I barely knew leaned over and told me “Goodfellas is a mini musical education.” Then he yelled out the names of the artists before each song played. He was obnoxious, and he was right. I can still hear him bellowing “THE SHANGRI-LAS!” moments before the first notes of “Leader of the Pack.”

Magnolia (above: “Save Me,” by Aimee Mann)

Magnolia introduced me to the mighty Aimee Mann. The soundtrack is composed almost entirely of Mann songs, including tracks that appeared on her previous album I’m With Stupid and on her later album (and one of my Top 10 albums ever) Bachelor No. 2, or, the Last Remains of the Dodo. The tone to the soundtrack is wistful and a little dark, a combination that’s best exemplified in the stand out track “Save Me.” The soundtrack also features a few lost SuperTramp gems (when Gym Class Heroes’ “Cupids Chokehold” exploded and none of my friends caught the reference, this album was my key to temporary smugness) and a killer cover of Harry Nilson’s oldies-radio-standard  “One” performed by Aimee Mann.

High Fidelity (above: “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)” by Stevie Wonder)

The soundtrack for High Fidelity was so powerful that when I read the book, long after having seen the movie, Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever) immediately lodged itself in my brain as I finished the last page. It’s the song that wraps up the film and plays through the credits. High Fidelity boasts some of the only movie credits I’ve ever seen, and I owe that to Stevie Wonder, whose song holds you in the throes of the movie for a just a few minutes longer, even though all you’re watching are scrolling names. There’s so much good music here it’s hard to sift through it—there’s Lisa Bonet redeeming Peter Frampton with her cover of “Baby I Love Your Way,” there’s Rob’s record store mind manipulation accomplished through a well-timed Beta Band song, there’s the rich discovery that Jack Black is an amazing singer as he belts “Let’s Get It On.” There’s also the quiet loveliness of Dylan’s obscure “Most of the Time,” which I believe could sway a Dylan hater.

O Brother Where Art Thou (above: “I’ll Fly Away,” sung by Alison Kraus and Gillian Welch)

I had no idea I liked bluegrass and old school country music until I heard the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Until then, in my ignorant mind, country music belonged to Shania Twain and Garth Brooks. It was twangy mediocre pop, full of ten gallon hats and bad politics, and I wasn’t having any of it. And if I had stuck with that, I would have missed so much. I would have missed Emmylou Harris and angel-voiced Alison Kraus, I would have missed Gillian Welch and Ralph Stanley. I would have missed everything with a banjo, every last thing. And all this music led me to Roseanne Cash, The Carter Family, Lucinda Williams, college Americana music classes, rowdy bluegrass shows at divey old theatres in my first college town. So thank you T-Bone Burnett for lifting me out of my musical ignorance. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time, or the last.

Clueless (above: “Shake Some Action,” by Cracker)

The Clueless soundtrack (and movie) was my way of peeking into teenage life. It was the music pouring out of the poster covered bedroom of the big sister I didn’t have, and whose lip gloss I totally would have stolen. It’s chock full of deliciously 90s not-quite-classics by artists like the Beastie Boys, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Coolio. Now I’m way out of my teens, and that imaginary big sister is probably a lawyer in Buffalo with unstealable lip gloss, but even after all this time the album still sounds fresh. A little dated, sure (remember 90s ska, guys?), but fun and defiant, like something you could listen to turned up loud in the car or turned up loud while crying over a boy. It gives me a flicker of adolescent nostalgia, but not the cringey kind I get from music I actually listened to as an adolescent.

Top 5 Snowed in Songs


Funkadelic – Maggot Brain

This song is what it sounds like – it’s a ten minute guitar solo. I’m not big on them as a rule, but this one is different and a little (and mostly likely apocryphal) backstory is necessary: The guitarist, Eddie Hazel, was sat down in a room with a guitar and given a whole bunch of acid. When he was tripping balls, the band started playing a slow backing rhythm. George Clinton then told Hazel that his mother was dead and to start playing the guitar. Halfway through the blistering, emotionally raw solo, Clinton shouted to Hazel that he lied and his mother was alive. You can hear in the track how the playing changes. Still, it’s an awesome song to be snowed-in to. It’s long, it’s haunting, and if you let it, it will take your breath away easier than that draft seeping in the window.

D’Angelo – Untitled (How Does It Feel)

What do you want when you’re snowed in? I know I want a blanket, some hot chocolate, a roaring fire, and a special someone to snuggle up next to. This song is perfect for that – Snuggle up next to your baby and the fire and put this on. Soon enough you’ll be generating enough heat together to want to put that fire out.

The Band – Acadian Driftwood

This isn’t exactly the happiest song. It speaks of the expulsion of the Acadian people from Canadian islands and the hardships they endured during and after. But the melodies and somber and soothing and the guitar is lilting and strangely powerful. It also has great winter lyrics, my favorite being “I set my compass north; I got winter in the blood.” And the singing of Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson always sets my mind to ease.

Miles Davis – All Blues

I was very close to making this list all jazz. There’s something to be said to huddling around in blankets with the windows covered in snow and listen to Miles Davis or John Coltrane soulfully eek out a wonderfully crafted solo. This song has that in spades. It’s slow-moving and plodding, helped by having a simple blues 1-4-5 chord progression played in a 6/8 waltz feel. The head is an almost dark, muted affair mingling Davis solo with harmonies by saxophone and trombone. This whole album is good for a snowy day, but I find I gravitate towards this song and the lead track, “So What,” namely because their dark motifs remind me of the windows being caked in snow and it being dark, darker than it should be for 2 in the afternoon. Brew up some dark coffee for this one.

The Decemberists – The Crane Wife 1 & 2 / The Crane Wife 3

These are the title tracks the Decemberists’ fourth album, comprising one of their best song cycles. It retells the Japanese folktale of the crane wife. She is found, in the form of a crane, by a lonely peasant, who nurses it back to health from an arrow wound. Once she is set free, she returns as a beautiful women…well, why don’t you just listen to it? It’s heartbreakingly beautiful and impeccably sparse. Colin Meloy, the singer/songwriter for the band, is in rare form in this song cycle. An interesting side note about the songs: “The Crane Wife 3” is the track that opens the album, while “The Crane Wife 1 & 2” is the second to last track. It’s a great choice – “3” sets the tone for the album and piques the interest of the listener, who’s being let into the story in medias res.

Honorable Mentions:

The Decemberists – January Hymn: Disqualified from the main list simply because it’s too on the nose. Otherwise, a beautiful track.

Jamie Cullum – High and Dry: I normally hate Radiohead, but Jamie Cullum’s mournful vocal tone makes one glad you’re not outside.

Rasputina – Snow Hen of Austerlitz (Cellist’s Revenge Mix): Melora Creager’s ethereal, haunting voice only compounds the dark, dark plucks and short bow-strokes of the cellos on this track. Put this one on then watch The Shining. You’ll be terrified of the snow afterwards. And shouldn’t you be?


Shawn Colvin — “Riding Shotgun Down the Avalanche”

The guitar, at once spare and lyrical. Colvin’s voice, with it’s rising, even-keel alto (also Alison Krauss is music’s version of salt and her voice is the definition of “dulcet tones”). The lyrics, heavy-hearted and restrained. The combination is quiet and haunting, the sonic equivalent of stepping outside mid snowstorm, when everything is silent, and neighbor’s houses and lawns are one endless blur of soft white. The chorus’s request to  “Be quiet tonight, be sure to step lightly, on this mountain of new fallen snow” is fitting. This is the beginning of the storm. This is when it’s still magical, when your home is still warm-bellied and comforting, when the days haven’t passed and the tempers haven’t flared.

Joshua Radin — “Winter”

I don’t love snow. Now that I live somewhere without it, I have a sort of idealized craving for it when I come home for the holidays. I want to watch it flutter in the street lights, I want the soft powdery snow that piles up in the backyard and demands saucer sleds and mittens, regardless of age. This song is when it stops being fun. When I’m no longer barrelling down the enormous hill in my backyard, slicing through the cold air with ruddy cheeks and layers of soaked clothing. When the darkness, cold and still, wraps tightly around my house and the slow sadness of being alone, in the dark, with my thoughts, creeps in. On the nose, to be sure, but Radin’s whispery voice and the lyrics, painfully self aware to the point of melodramatic, exemplify the “I’m starting to wish this storm would end” feeling. Or, as I call it, Day 3.

Sufjan Stevens — “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti”

There are images of writing we all want—ones with big oak desks and low light, with a cigarette clamped in your teeth and a cup of coffee going cold and oily in the corner. The kind of writing that demands typewriters, thick glass tumblers, unbuttoned shirts and pushed up sleeves. You can be that person when you’re trapped inside. I’ve never done it successfully (my snowed in writing process goes like all of my writing processes—get up every 5 minutes, wear pajama pants, become really particular about having a glass of water, or cleaning something, or doing any and all non-writing related things). This is a good writing indoors song. It makes you feel something, though it’s hard to say what, and its got the right energy for being inside, thinking, maybe even productively.

Brian Eno — “By This River”

I used to work at a tiny music memorabilia company called Connected Music. I was there for years, starting in high school, and I attribute my Brian Eno love to that time. (My Top 5 Connected Music bands: Brian Eno, Nick Lowe, Bootsy Collins, Leftover Salmon, Lucinda Williams.) During one rough winter, (personally for me, financially for the business), the three of us listened to Eno, drank black coffee by the gallon, and snuck off for frequent, jittery smoke breaks, the smoke and our breath visibly intertwined in the cold air. A storeroom full of Devo costumes and Aerosmith lunchboxes is a weird place to discover Brian Eno, but there he was, the perfect soundtrack for long cold days in a musical bunker.

Van Morrison — “I Wanna Roo You”

One bright spot in an otherwise dark list. Van Morrison is required listening for snow days. And this song, a bouncey number set on a snowed in day, is perfect. The 23rd of December has come and gone, but may all your snowed in Roo-ing (or snow-less Roo-ing, for that matter) go exceedingly well. Roo away, everyone. Roo away.

Honorary Mentions:

Counting Crows — “Long December”: This song is being fifteen, sad, cold, and terribly deep. Pairs well with red wine pilfered from your parent’s bottle stashed under the sink.

Interpol — “Obstacle 1″: Featured prominently on a mixtape someone gave me in high school, which I listened to relentlessly for years. The first notes always give me the fresh anxiety of driving through a snow storm.

Mama Cass — “Dream a Little Dream of Me”: A good moony, daydreaming song. Snow days can be joyful and lovely. Our lists don’t reflect that (much), but I swear, it’s a possibility that your snowed in day will be all cocoa and old movies, picturesque views and good food. Fingers crossed, and if it is, here’s music for that sort of day. Enjoy it.