The best soundtracks strike a personal note. Sure, the soundtracks overall must reflect the mood of the movie, but to stay in my collection, a soundtrack must reflect a time and place, or personify a relationship. There are plenty of recordings that fit the bill: Amadeus (Mozart’s “Requiem” was a favorite after a particularly painful college breakup), and then there was the joie de vivre of ‘Round Midnight, the late-night newspaper production sessions listening to Get Shorty, the thrill of rediscovering Little Willie John on Lone Star, to name a few. Here are ten others that are woven into the fabric of my life.
1. Various Artists: Easy Rider. Dunhill.
The ultimate road movie produced ten tracks custom-made for soul searching along America’s highways. It contains a cover of The Band’s “The Weight,” but otherwise these all are originals, a rarity in those days. The deluxe edition offers 19 additional tracks.
2. Wendy Carlos: A Clockwork Orange. Warner Bros.
I first saw this film on acid at a drive-in theater, and it blew my mind. The soundtrack is a mix of orchestral works by Elgar, Rossini, and Beethoven—Ludwig Van being a favorite of the film’s malevolent main character—and original score and interpretations by synthesizer pioneer Wendy Carlos. I still use the title track—Carlos’ dark, electronic version of Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary”—as a reference recording. I’ve never stopped listening to this soundtrack.
3. Various Artists: Diner. Elektra.
This collection of 50s doo-wop, pop, rockabilly, and blues personified Barry Levinson’s sweet tale of college friends coming of age in suburban Baltimore in 1959. Released in 1982, the soundtrack runs the gamut from Elvis to Jimmy Reed. It helped revive popular interest in Bobby Darin, whose catchy “Beyond the Sea” is the recording’s centerpiece. Martin Scorsese and many others have used classic rock in their movies, but few of those are as cohesive or charming as the out-of-print Diner soundtrack.
4. Giorgio Moroder: Metropolis. Heyday.
One of my first assignments as an arts reporter was to cover the Clubfoot Orchestra’s phantasmagorical performance of their original score to Fritz Lang’s silent-film classic Metropolis. This recording was captured live in “virtual audio” at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. The resulting 3-D sound is ideal for headphones. The legendary engineer Paul Stubblebine mastered the recording.
5. Vangelis: Blade Runner. Atlantic.
If I had a buck for every time someone asked for this soundtrack while I was working as a record-store clerk, I’d be rich. An orchestral version of the original score was released in 1982, but due to contractual problems Vangelis’ dark electronic music didn’t see the light of day til 1994. Alternately spacey and ominous, it remains a classic of the electronic music era.
6. Ry Cooder: Paris, Texas. Warner Bros.
This soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ tale of a broken-hearted drifter played by Harry Dean Stanton (in his first starring role) features Ry Cooder’s edgy, closely-miked resonator. It includes a haunting version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Is the Night, Cold Is the Ground,” as well as Stanton’s Spanish-language performance of the beautiful ballad “Canción Mixteca” and his sorrowful monologue “I Knew These People.” I interviewed Stanton after this film debuted and couldn’t help but feel like I had been dropped into one of his monologues.
7. Various Artists: The Hot Spot. Verve.
Jack Nitzsche co-produced the dream team of a band heard on this recording: John Lee Hooker, Miles Davis, Taj Mahal, Roy Rogers, Tim Drummond, Earl Palmer, and Bradford Ellis. I used to catch Hooker at a 100-seat West Coast roadhouse around this time and had several opportunities to hang out with him backstage. The often wordless music heard here, punctuated by growls and bluesy howls, falls very much into the film-music category—there are few songs, but plenty of soulful atmospherics and song sketches. And what’s not to like about jazz trumpet great Davis mixing it up with the original boogieman?
8. Branford Marsalis: Mo’ Better Blues. Sony.
Director Spike Lee omitted this 1990 film portrait of a rising jazz trumpeter from the recent City Winery tribute to his work, but it’s a keeper for sure. The Branford Marsalis Quartet, with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, performs the music. The album includes the classic jazz-rap track “Jazz Thing.”
9. Various Artists: High Fidelity. Hollywood.
One of the era’s most eclectic soundtracks hits hard with sides by the 13th Floor Elevators (helping to reignite interest in psychedelic pioneer Roky Erickson), early Kinks, Love, the Velvet Underground, the Beta Band, and Smog, to name a few. Strange but true, Roky once gave me his haunted color-console TV (it played several channels simultaneously).
10. Various Artists: Take Me to the River. Stax.
I fell in love with Memphis during a 2014 road trip with my wife marking our 25th wedding anniversary. What better way to celebrate than to visit Graceland, Sun Studio, the Lorraine Motel, A. Schwab’s, and Beale Street? Returning to the San Francisco Bay Area, I discovered that Talking Heads’ keyboardist Jerry Harrison, a Bay Area transplant, had produced a documentary pairing old-school Memphis blues, soul, and R&B musicians with gifted Memphis rappers.
UP NEXT: Read Soundtracks Series, Vol. 4: Jim Hannon's Top 10.