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.