Why is it so hard to make a good soundtrack album?

The third CD that I ever bought was a film soundtrack (the first two were Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” and Garth Brooks’ “Greatest Hits”).  It was the soundtrack to Independence Day, and I actually bought it in the hopes of it having R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” which for some reason I really wanted on CD.  I was disappointed when the song was missing from the soundtrack album, but after listening to the CD I realized how much I enjoyed the score, composed by David Arnold.  Thus began my obsession with film scores, and my collection of albums showcasing them.

I’ve been listening to the Jurassic Park soundtrack for the past week or so on my commute to work, and I’ve realized that there are several very big problems with the film score album as a whole in the industry.  I don’t know why it’s so damn hard to put together a decent album from a film score, but I’ve come up with a list of several of the problems:

1) Order

It really shouldn’t be that hard.  If your CD holds 80 minutes of music, you fill up the CD with that music in the order it appears in the film, cutting out what you feel is less interesting in order to get down to that length.  But it often feels like this is just impossible for the people putting these albums together.  The Jurassic Park soundtrack is a perfect example.  It’s got most of the memorable cues from the film, but it’s like they had them all on individual discs and dropped them and picked them up again in a random order.  The sequence with Nedry stealing the embryos happens after the brachiosaurus tree encounter, and the entry through the main gate is almost at the end.  This isn’t limited to just score soundtracks either, as the song soundtrack to A Prairie Home Companion has the same problems.  The climactic “Frankie and Johnny” is right smack in the middle instead of at the end.  I can only imagine that the people putting the album together did so in a way that they felt made for a pleasant listening experience, but considering most soundtracks are bought by film buffs, things need to be in order, so as to mirror the film.

2) Splicing/Rearranging

This problems can be somewhat less noticeable.  Often, in the process of cutting what I’ll call the “boring” segments of the score, though for me there really is no such thing, individual songs will get spliced together to create something more akin to what an orchestra might play in a concert.  They’re more what you might call samplers of the score than actual pieces from the film.  Jurassic Park has several of these, where the 3 major themes from the movie appear in one track where there’s no story-related reason for them to.  I guess this is to appeal to the masses, but if you want to do a suite of your film’s various themes, do it in the end credits and put that on your soundtrack.  Or, alternately, do a special medley track that is either at the beginning or end of the album.  It’s jarring to hear this concert-arranged piece of music in the middle of an otherwise orderly film score.

The other side of splicing is when pieces get slightly rearranged.  I listened to the soundtrack to Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End for the longest time while feeling something was slightly off before I realized that the final battle track was out of order.  The first half of the track is the final sequence of the battle, and the 2nd half of the track is the middle portion, with the first portion missing completely.  It’s odd, and I’m not sure why it was done that way, but it’s a common problem with film soundtracks.

There will always be problems with editing, where something that I feel important was cut because the editor felt it wasn’t worthy of a slot.  I can accept this, but it’s disappointing on song scores for musicals when verses get cut for no apparent reason.  On the deluxe edition of the Les Miserables soundtrack (2 discs, which should theoretically contain everything from the film), almost the entirety of “Look Down” is missing, as are several of Fantine’s lines from “At the End of the Day.”

3) Filler

This is the one that really pisses me off.  Many movies these days offer a film score soundtrack and a “music inspired by” soundtrack (see Disney’s upcoming The Lone Ranger).  But sometimes the two get combined, and you end up with a Frankenstein situation, with popular songs designed to sell more albums mixed with a bare minimum of score selections.  Often the popular songs that were included are not even in the film at all.

But what is much worse is when the score only gets a portion of the CD in order to make room for worthless crap.  The soundtrack for Star Trek: Generations ends with a selection of sound effects for no apparent reason.  And 7 of the 18 tracks on the Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides album are dance remixes of songs from the film saga.  It’s insane!

Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t great soundtracks out there.  The Avengers has not broken any of these rules as far as I can tell.  And even some of those that do break the rules can still be great.  I love Jurassic Park even if its order was decided by a crazy person.  Twister is actually rearranged pretty artfully, turning the album into a series of 3-track suites, where each track is almost a different movement, though I still would prefer everything in order.  It’s just a huge pet peeve of mine, because it seems like it ought to be so simple to put a soundtrack together in a coherent fashion.

What do you think?  Am I the only one bothered by this?  What’s your favorite film soundtrack?  (I’m I outdated to still be referring to CDs?)  Let me know in the comments!

3 thoughts on “Why is it so hard to make a good soundtrack album?

    • One of these days I’ll get around to Cloud Atlas. Are the songs in order, not spliced or internally rearranged, and not stuffed with filler crap? No techno dance remixes of songs?


  1. Pingback: In Memoriam: Bill Paxton | The Love Pirate

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