The Best New Wave Soundtracks

I haven’t seen Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette yet, but I was immediately intrigued the first time I saw the trailer because she used the song “Age of Consent” by my favorite band, New Order. I then found out that the film actually opens with my second favorite song of all time, “Natural’s Not In It” by Gang of Four. A quick look at the soundtrack listing reveals Marie Antoinette is a pretty decent New Wave soundtrack. (Though, admittedly, Gang of Four is post-punk and not New Wave.) There are better New Wave soundtracks out there, however.

Anyone who channel surfed past the Family Channel during the holiday season of 2006 doubtlessly either flew past or stayed with one of the multiple airings of The Wedding Singer. The Wedding Singer is one of the all time great New Wave soundtracks, featuring my number one favorite song of all time, “Blue Monday” by New Order. In addition it contains the classic Smith’s song “How Soon is Now” which also is fortunate enough to be well utilized within the movie, its gloomy industrial sound providing a perfect audio accompaniment to Adam Sandler’s mood during the scene in which it appears. Although I would obviously prefer a multitude of other Elvis Costello songs, at least “Everyday I Write the Book” isn’t his worst. On the other hand, “Love My Way” by the Psychedelic Furs is one of that band’s best. You’ll also find songs by David Bowie, the Thompson Twins, and Culture Club on the Wedding Singer soundtrack. Just in case you buy the soundtrack to The Wedding Singer and you’re wondering where the movie’s opening foray into its New Wave milieu is—“You Spin Me Round”—you’ll be happy to know it’s on the Wedding Singer soundtrack volume II. This volume also contains the not-particularly-new wave but still entertaining “Love Stinks” by the J. Geils Band as well as songs from the B-52, Cars and Depeche Mode. It also contains one of the songs that proves A Flock of Seagulls was not the one hit wonder most people think. Yes, “I Ran” was a huge hit, but “Space Age Love Song” was streaming from car radios in the early 80s. For that matter, so was “Wishing” which isn’t included on the soundtrack, but further undoes the one hit wonder lie.

When it comes to actually using New Wave songs in a movie, I’m not sure any movie does it better than Donnie Darko. I’m talking here about the original, not the director’s cut, which manages to undo that very strength. The original opens with the haunting strains of Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Killing Moon” which is absolutely perfect not only due to the lyrical content, but to the fact that the band singing the song has the word “bunny” in its name. If you don’t know why that is just simply brilliant, then watch the movie. Equally affecting is the use of Tears for Fear’s “Head Over Heels.” I was never that big a fan of that song, but after watching how it was utilized in the incredible sequence in which over half the characters in the movie are introduced while it is playing I know find myself playing it over and over. And then, of course, there is elegiac cover version of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” that plays near the end of the movie, creating a sense of both sadness and giddiness. Although underutilized in the movie, the soundtrack also features Rolling Stone’s Single of the Year for 1979, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division; the band that became New Order following the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis. You’ll also get a great Oingo Boingo song, “Stay” if you buy the Donnie Darko soundtrack.

Like The Wedding Singer, there are two volumes featuring music from or “inspired by” the cult classic Trainspotting. In addition to being one of the best films of the 90s, the Trainspotting soundtrack is one of the best for catching up on classic New Wave songs. Obviously, you’re going to find Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” which enthusiastically and memorably opens the film. And then there’s another New Order classic, “Temptation” as well as the Fun Boy Three’s slower and more ominous version of the Go-Gos hit “Our Lips are Sealed.” But you also get some newer artists that would have felt right at home during the early 80s, such as Blur, Sleeper and Elastica. Not as good as The Wedding Singer, but still worthwhile.

And then there’s the king of New Wave soundtracks, the ultimate collection of New Wave songs and artists that really is a must for anyone interested in the great alternative tunes of the late 70s and early 80s. The soundtracks for Valley Girl really is more of a New Wave greatest hits package, a sampler album featuring both recognizable classics and less popular gems. If you’ve never seen Valley Girl—and you really should since it contains Nicolas Cage’s best performance, still—you should know that it not only is packed with songs from beginning to end, but it’s the best high school movie of the 80s. Far better than Fast Times at Ridgemont High or any of those Brat Pack abominations. Valley Girl so overflows with great music that it takes two volumes and even then some of the songs from the movie are still missing.

What’s on the soundtracks? Volume one contains two incredibly infection Josie Cotton songs, “Johnny, Are You Queer” and “He Could be the One.” It also features the late, great LA punk band the Plimsouls and their touchstone song “Million Miles Away.” How about “Angst in My Pants” from Sparks? And let’s not forget “Who Can it Be Now” from Men at Work, as well as the P. Furs’ “Love My Way” again. And, finally, Modern English’s great romantic work of art, “I Melt With You.”

The follow-up More Music From the Valley Girl Soundtrack is even better, since it features a wider range of artists. Sparks is still there with their incredible “Eaten by the Monster of Love” and “Cool Places.” Instead of Josie Cotton, you get the Josie Cotton sound-alike of “Girls Like Me.” The Jam’s masterpiece “Town Called Malice” and Bananarama’s “He Was Really Saying Something.” Also featured on volume two are songs by Culture Club, Thompson Twins and Rachel Sweet. And who can ever forget Total Coelo’s “I Eat Cannibals.”

It’s hard to imagine any soundtrack featuring songs from the past decade ever being worth listening to whether you’ve seen the movie or not. New Wave was ridiculed by many at the time, but most of these songs sound fresher today than most new songs. New Wave songs have a frenetic energy and a sense of fun that is sorely missing from the repetitive, rap-heavy garbage that dominates radio today. Not only that, but notice how differently the songs sound; you can actually tell the difference between the music of the Plimsouls and New Order, between the Jam and Josie Cotton. Today’s music is so homogenized and pre-packaged and market-tested that it all seems to have been produced by one man. And I’m not just limiting that description to the utterly redundant and repetitive rhythm and lyrical content of rap. To lend further credence to the argument that today’s music says nothing to people about their life, consider that most of the songs used in Napoleon Dynamite are from the 80s and are New Wave. Can you imagine getting the same feeling from watching Napoleon Dynamite with contemporary songs?

There are other soundtracks that feature good New Wave songs and I highly recommend the soundtrack for Grosse Pointe Blank for its wonderful ska tracks. But if you really want to get a full taste of the best music from the New Wave era, these will probably do the trick.