Saturday, January 08, 2011

Essential Albums of the '80s: Soundtracks

Rather than start this series with just one album, I'm giving you six: a quick look at the decade's most essential soundtracks.

Pop soundtracks aren't that big of a deal anymore, but in the '80s they were huge. In the '60s and the '70s, soundtracks were generally film scores or songs from musicals, but Saturday Night Fever popularized the use of soundtracks as showcases for pop songs. Most of the notable soundtracks feature a few hits from big artists to entice buyers and then tracks from lesser known or even unknown artists to round them out. Soundtracks continued to be popular in the '90s--The 1992 soundtrack to The Bodyguard, which prominently features Whitney Houston, is the best-selling soundtrack of all time--but declined in popularity in the '00s. The soundtracks I've chosen to feature are a mix of the decade's most popular and some personal favorites.

Flashdance (1983). The Flashdance Soundtrack mixes songs by well known and lesser known artists. Given the film's subject matter, it's mostly early '80s dance pop, particularly known for its two #1 hits, the synth-heavy "Flashdance...What a Feeling" by Irene Cara and the high-energy "Maniac" by Michael Sembello. "He's a Dream" by Shandi has a sexy early '80s growl to it, and I also like the film's instrumental, piano-driven love them by Helen St. John. Some of the songs by the bigger-name artists are my least favorite, like Donna Summer's "Romeo," a weak stab at post-disco dance pop, and Kim Carnes' "I'll Be Here Where The Heart Is," an unspired ballad, although I do like its heavy use of Blade Runner-esque synthesizers. Flashdance is notable as the only various artists soundtrack of the '80s to be nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy Award (Prince was also nominated for his soundtrack to Purple Rain, which is significant as an album, so I won't include it here). Best: Maniac, Flashdance...What a Feeling, He's a Dream, Love Theme from Flashdance.

Footloose (1984). I've never seen this movie, but thanks to its hit soundtrack, I definitely know its music. The soundtrack scored six top 40 hits, including #1 singles for the Kenny Loggins title track and Deniece Williams' last hit, "Let's Hear It for the Boy." Also memorable is the rock love ballad "Almost Paradise" by Heart's Ann Wilson and Loverboy's Mike Reno. Bonnie Tyler also contributes the memorable "Holding Out for a Hero" while Shalamar has us "Dancing in the Sheets." Kenny Loggins even had a second top 40 hit off it, the darker "I'm Free (Heaven Helps the Man)." A late '90s re-release added some more hits, including Foreigner's "Waiting for a Girl Like You" and John Cougar Mellencamp's "Hurt So Good." Best: Let's Hear It for the Boy, Almost Paradise, Footloose, I'm Free (Heaven Helps the Man), Holding Out for a Hero.

Ghostbusters (1984). The Ghostbusters Soundtrack was the first album of popular music that I ever owned. My friend Greg had it and I thought it was so cool, so I saved my money during the summer of 1987 and paid $10 for it at the local pharmacy. At the time, that was a lot of money for a cassette, and I wasn't aware yet that I could have paid significantly less for it at Tower Records. Oh well. The set is most notable for its #1 hit theme song by Ray Parker Jr., but it also features some other great songs, like The Thompson Twin's "In the Name of Love," and Laura Branigan's sassy "Hot Night" (Branigan was apparently a soundtrack mainstay, also appearing on Flashdance). At the time, I also really liked Air Supply's "I Can Wait Forever," but now it gets on my nerves, although a song I didn't used to care for, Mick Smiley's "Magic," is actually pretty decent, despite stealing its percussion from Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight." I also used to really like Elmer Bernstein's score cut, "Dana's Theme." Best: Ghostbusters, In the Name of Love, Hot Night, Magic

Who's that Girl (1987). Following Ghostbusters, this was the second album of pop music I ever bought and, notably, the first by Madonna. I listened to it nonstop for her four great tracks, a nice balance of songs produced by the two guys she worked with most at the time, Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray. The former worked with her on the lightly Spanish-flavored "Who's that Girl" and the downbeat ballad "The Look of Love," while the latter worked on the more upbeat dance hit "Causing a Commotion" and "Can't Stop." The other stuff isn't nearly as good, although Duncan Faure's "24 Hours" and Michael Davidson's "Turn It Up" are pretty decent. However, Coati Mundi's "El Coco Loco" is just plain silly. Best: Who's that Girl, Causing a Commotion, The Look of Love.

Dirty Dancing (1987). Dirty Dancing was a pretty decent hit, but its soundtrack was an even bigger one, selling over 42 million copies worldwide, making it one of the 10 best-selling albums of all time and the second best-selling soundtrack ever behind The Bodyguard. Musically, it is pretty great, an effective blend of new '80s pop song and '50s and '60s oldies favorites. The album's highlight is its first track, the wonderful upbeat love duet "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes. It's one of the most enduring '80s pop duets, recently sampled for the Black Eyed Peas' "The Time (Dirty Bit)." Most of the other '80s songs are pretty good, particularly Patrick Swayze's "She's Like the Wind," which hit #3 but didn't start a pop career for the actor, and Eric Carmen's top 5 hit "Hungry Eyes." Among the older material, The Ronettes' "Be My Baby" is the best, although I also enjoy the quirky Mickey & Sylvia song, "Love Is Strange," and the classic love song, "In the Still of the Night." Tying the two eras together are two hybrid songs, a new remake of the '60s song "You Don't Own Me" by the Blow Monkeys and Tom Johnston's "Where Are You Tonight," which sounds like an old song, but apparently isn't. Best: (I've Had) the Time of My Life, She's Like the Wind, Hungry Eyes, Yes, Be My Baby.

Batman (1989). Prince released several albums during the '80s that also served as soundtracks to films. Because he didn't appear in Batman, and I would generally consider the film a bitter hit than the soundtrack, I consider Batman more of a soundtrack than an album (I consider Purple Rain more of an album). It's an unusual one for sure. Batman had an orchestral score by Danny Elfman, which was also released, but this set contains only pop songs by Prince, many of which but not all appeared in the film. The songs sound like much of what Prince was doing at the time with the added bonus of snippets of dialogue from the film, most notably on the wild #1 hit "Batdance," which consists mostly of bits of dialogue from Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger. Best: Batdance, Scandalous, Partyman.


Paul said...

all good choices but more than any Dirty Dancing was on repeat and constantly in my house. Everything about it was great. My parents loved it cos it reminded them of their generation, we loved it because we thought it was a bit naughty. It was all ace. I still know all the spoken bit to Love is Strange. How sad. "Sylvia" "Yes Mickey"... :)

Batman I loved. It was the first time I really got into Prince (though I was aware of him obviously before) and that was the year I started to diversify from my very traditional pop loving like Kylie, Jason, Debbie Gibson et al to this album and to an extent Janet Jackson's RN1814. Not much of a diversification, but the seeds of musical growth were forming :)

ww_adh said...

I remember thinking Dirty Dancing was a bit naughty too! (Although it really wasn't.) Batman was also my first real taste of Prince. Odd, isn't it? Since it's such an unusual album for him.