The albums of the year lists are beginning to roll in, but the focus is in the wrong place – the real music stars of 2014 have come from the movies. Lorde’s new soundtrack to the latest in the Hunger Games franchise, newly released, might be the coolest film and music tie-in since Trainspotting, and elsewhere the sounds of the screen have dominated the charts.
Film soundtracks have provided two of the biggest songs of this year. Pharrell’s Happy, from Despicable Me 2, was officially the UK’s best-selling song of 2014 at the last count. Meanwhile Let It Go, sung by Broadway star Idina Menzel in the Disney smash Frozen, feels like the most ubiquitous, especially if you have young daughters.
As this paper’s music critic, I listen to a lot of great stuff. As a father, I can say without hesitation that this year I listened to Let It Go more times than anything else (apart from, possibly, Do You Want to Build a Snowman?). I get asked things like, “Daddy, what’s a kingdom of isolation?” Even I can’t resist that mighty key change at the climax, though, and I’m gratified that the “sod it” message of the song has proved powerful enough to gain an adult fanbase as an LGBT anthem.
The film is huge, of course, but in the US in particular, the album has swallowed 2014 whole. Over there, Taylor Swift’s 1989 has just become the only artist album to sell more than a million copies, and she has a considerable way to go before she comes close to Frozen’s 3.5 million.
The scale of this success has helped music to gain parity of importance in a film campaign, where once the songs were often forgettable spin-offs to sit beside the Happy Meal toys. There’s still plenty of sub-classical orchestral guff, coupled with B-side-standard band songs that you’d need superpowers to spot in the actual movie. But done right, the soundtrack can outlive the film. No one would have been looking to a kids’ cartoon sequel to provide the most popular song of the year, until Pharrell’s breezy, handclaps-and-sunshine favourite Happy did just that. And he might do it again, too, with this week’s announcement that he and Gwen Stefani have written a new song, Shine, for the Paddington movie (though it won’t be unveiled until the US release).
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt.1 soundtrack has made a smart move that is sure to be repeated more frequently. It’s a compilation of multiple acts, but handed over to teen pop sensation Lorde to “curate”. Unlike soundtrack king Quentin Tarantino’s technique of making dusty old songs (and actors) seem cool again by placing them in striking new contexts, here the music is all new and offers an impeccable guide to what’s hip right now. It’s as edgy and intriguing as any artist album out right now.
“As someone with cinematic leanings, being privy to a different creative process has been a unique experience. I think the soundtrack is definitely going to surprise people,” Lorde has said. The kiwi singer born Ella Yelich-O’Connor is a perfect choice to provide songs for the arrow-slinging exploits of Katniss Everdeen, as an 18-year-old from humble beginnings who is fast becoming the voice of her generation.
The soundtrack allows her to be back at the forefront of pop, more than a year after the release of her debut album, without really doing that much. She’s got two new songs on the tracklist, a powerful original called Yellow Flicker Beat and a Bright Eyes cover, Ladder Song, as well as offering a vocal cameo on a Stromae composition. But she also gets to demonstrate her fine taste with commissions from up-and-coming rapper Ruary and fast-rising R&B singer Tinashe, and show her influence by featuring major stars Ariana Grande, Grace Jones and Kanye West.
The dominance of one musician gives the songs a unity of feel that soundtracks don’t usually manage, when chase sequence and snogging songs by different bands are uncomfortably forced together. You may have dug out Simon and Garfunkel’s perfect soundtrack to The Graduate when the film’s director Mike Nichols died last week – a masterclass in sustained atmosphere. More recently, the icy Eighties synths of Cliff Martinez’s score for Drive in 2011 upped the arthouse thriller’s cool quotient more than a few notches. As an indication of the film’s power, last month it was the first movie chosen for a high profile new Radio 1 experiment, Radio 1 Rescores, for which DJ Zane Lowe persuaded artists of the calibre of Bastille, Laura Mvula and The 1975 to provide fresh tunes for an alternative soundtrack.
Lorde is bridging two types: taking control of an overall sound (as Kimya Dawson, Karen O, Jonny Greenwood and Badly Drawn Boy have done before her) and alerting listeners to well chosen songs by others that they may not have heard before (like Tarantino or Wes Anderson). It’s the best of both worlds, and sets her up nicely for a second artist album that will see her become a real superstar. If Frozen leaves you cold, her new set proves that soundtracks are still cool.