Back before the Compact Disc became a deer in Napster’s headlights, soundtrack compilations were king. Bands enjoyed real paydays by landing tracks on Love Jones, Wild Wild West, or Pulp Fiction, or Trainspotting.
Yet, with rare exceptions, most 1990s soundtrack comps trafficked in forgettable chart-eaters and shitloads of filler, some of it not even appearing in the accompying movie.
The patient could be rewarded: Paul Westerberg gifted Singles with two of best post-Mats songs. Elliot Smith gained fame via Good Will Hunting. Judgment Night paired Teenage Fanclub and De La Soul, or Slayer and Ice-T, together on single songs, and it was happily insane, if not always good. And it sold. Luckily, today we can enjoy our own streaming playlists, which destroy any current justification for soundtrack compilations.
Behind 90s comps, and not always released on their own, stood amazing, little known scores. In the following instances, original scores provided far more bump for your CD buck – if you could find them. On this unseen scaffolding, former high-profile pop/rock songwriters like Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh or Clint Mansell (Pop Will Eat Itself) went on, in the next decade, to build true fulltime careers in scoring movies for last fifteen years.
I’m only leaving Mansell or Mothersbaugh out, as well as the legion-like Danny Elfman, because their fame in their day jobs didn’t make them so much of an odd scoring choice. I’m also omitting some fan-only things like J. Mascis’s score for Gas, Food and Lodging (1992), or Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman’s score for Ravenous (1999), although relegating the later to honorable mention was a tough call.
In ascending and descending order:
Horse Flies –Where the Rivers Flow North (1993)
Revered in the 1980s for electrifying banjos on their two excellent, if out of print Human Fly and Gravity Dance albums, The Horse Flies provided a perfect, slightly odd pastoral score for Where the Rivers Flow North, featuring Rip Torn lurching around the woods in a drunken rage. This is almost impossible to obtain as a single piece of music.
Air – The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Amazingly, Air’s soundtrack which, OK, isn’t altogether lost or unheralded, nails the AM radio synthesizer atmosphere of 10CC’s “I’m Not in Love” (also in the film) so dead-on that you’d be forgiven thinking their original score isn’t original at all. Of movies tackling suburban white middle class seventies, nothing gets it more correct than The Virgin Suicides, not even Linklater’s Dazed and Confused.
Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet- Double Happiness (1994)
Best known as the band behind The Kids in the Hall, SMOASP were far more. In the midst of the Pulp Fiction-inspired, surf-band zeitgeist of the 90s, with excellent bands like the Mermen, or Man or Astro Man? making interesting records, SMOASP dropped the two best, out of all of them: 1991’s Dim the Lights, Chill the Ham and 1993’sSport Fishin’: The Lure of the Bait, The Luck of the Hook. Their first official release, 1988’s Savvy Show Stoppers, functioned as a comp of their initially scattered singles and EPs, but also includes the fantastic Kids in the Hall TV theme, “Having an Average Weekend,”which made me watch the show.
Double Happiness launched the career of the excellent Sandra Oh, who puts in a dynamite performance in a pretty well-made, humble indie flick about a 1st generation Chinese-Canadian. The soundtrack of original work by SMOASP is impossible to find – I don’t own it. Recent reissues of their first three albums included extra tracks, but I’m unsure if any came from Double Happiness. From watching clips, I know some of their work for this movie doesn’t yet exist in any form on its own, and that’s unfair, universe.
Hal Hartley scores for Trust (1990)and Simple Men (1992)
Hartley continues to compose and record his own music for his films, but nothing notches above the original scores he credits to “Ned Rifle” for his films prior to and including 1994’s Amateur (for which he went half-compilation with the likes of Jesus Lizard, PJ Harvey, etc). His original scores for Trust and Simple Men rank as masterpieces of DIY scoring. Not only that, both movies launched the career of Martin Donovan (hail Hydra!). Good luck finding them as separate, complete releases. The compilation I own, on CD, took serious searching.
John Lurie – Manny & Lo (1996)
Manny & Lo may rank as the breakout performance of a particular twelve-year-old by the name of Scarlett Johanssen. It’s more than a decent movie, too, worth your time tracking down. John Lurie’s score, however, is another thing altogether, lending the film a dimension few understated American indie dramas sported amid a real explosion of indie film. Lurie aficionados should know he avoids saxophone almost entirely, favoring guitar (by Mark Ribot, it sounds like) and marimba to overwhelmingly positive results. Lurie’s score for Manny & Lo is usually packaged with his score for African Swim, an unreleased (possibly fictional?) film.
Scott Walker – Pola X (1999)
I’ll just give you the whole thing. Walker is allowed to go his usual batshit crazy with an entire orchestra. It’s like giving Herschell Gordon Lewis a Spielberg budget.
Neil Young –Dead Man (1995)
The best thing Neil Young did in the 90s was his DIY-partially-recorded-outside-by-the-sea score to Jarmusch’s Emily Dickinson-inspired 19th century western. This is one of the most expensive vinyl records I own, and no, it’s not for sale until I need to pay for a week of college for my kids.
Tom Waits – The Black Rider (1993)
Of his three collaborations with stage director Robert Wilson, Waits’s original music for Wilson’s The Black Rider is the spookiest, and the best. In total “creeper” mode, Waits sounds like a skull-ghost beckoning you into a circus tent at the edge of a Bavarian forest.
Polaris – The Adventures of Pete and Pete (1992-96)
Miracle Legion count Michael Stipe and Radiohead (and me! I interviewed them in ’97) among rabid fans of their relatively short existence and unfairly difficult to find albums. Although I doubt Radiohead ever watched Nickelodeon’s The Adventures of Pete and Pete, an excellently surreal kids’ series with more in common with Hal Hartley’s films than ICarly. Stipe appeared in an episode, as did a slew of other musicians and actors and comedians not usually found on kids’ shows. Miracle Legion, sans one member and renamed Polaris, provided the theme and a load of incidental scoring, all of it shaggy jingle-jangle of the first rate.
RZA – Original Score, Ghost Dog (1999)
Upon the release of Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, a soundtrack song-compilation appeared, containing interesting Wu-Tang tributaries, but it wasn’t the movie’s score by RZA – which was wholly instrumental, and unlike anything before it and, really (maybe with the later exception of RZAs Afro Samurai score; I’m willing to be corrected) nothing since: A serious DJ/producer, of the hardest-core of hardcore rap outfits, crafting an atmospheric, subtle movie score without sacrificing anything. I tracked down a Japanese release of the score itself, in the 90s, and don’t regret having paid a pretty penny. I’m not sure the entire score got a proper release. A crime if it didn’t.
Various (1991) –Until the End of the World
OK, a compilation by definition, and one of the best of the 1990s, but also an original score. Why? Because, for most tracks, Wim Wenders submitted a basic film synopsis, pre-production, to all bands involved (save for U2) and asked them to write and record songs based on that synopsis alone. Nick Cave pays back Wenders for Wings Of Desire exposure with one of his best choruses ever, and the likes of Depeche Mode and T-Bone Burnett deliver tunes way above their pay grade. Graeme Revell’s original instrumental score is provided as a few tracks, and his work incorporating pygmy chants deserves issuance on its own.