Today marks the release of “Almost Home,” Mariah Carey’s closing-credits-ready number from the Oz, the Great and Powerful soundtrack. The song verdicts are already flying fast and furious, from “loved it” to “hated it” — and while I can’t muster up much of any emotion about the song itself, listening to it does make me pine for the golden age of movie soundtracks, which I’m going to define loosely for the sake of argument as running from 1968 (The Graduate) to 1997 (Titanic).
There are perfectly fine soundtracks on either side of that bracket, of course — and there were certainly stretches between ’68 and ’97 when there weren’t many top-selling soundtracks on the charts — but it includes the five all-time bestsellers as determined by Wikipedia, which is the only source I can find for historic worldwide sales after 10 minutes of research:
- The Bodyguard (1992, 45 million)
- Saturday Night Fever (1977, 40 million)
- Dirty Dancing (1987, 32 million)
- Titanic (1997, 30 million)
- Grease (1978, 28 million)
If we look strictly at U.S. sales, the list includes Purple Rain and The Lion King, with the lower half of the top 10 rounded out by a few examples of my favorite type of soundtrack, the multi-artist extravaganza, as exemplified by records like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Ghostbusters, Footloose (seventh on the list), and Top Gun (ninth). After a decade out of favor, the genre has undergone a bit of a mini-renaissance in recent years, thanks in large part to the OSTs for the Twilight movies — and regardless of whether it’s any good on its own merits, Mariah’s “Almost Home” is a reminder of the days when major films sought out big hit soundtrack singles from major stars, which makes me happy. Here are a few reasons why:
The Soundtracks Were Often Better Than the Movies Themselves
This was actually true an awful lot of the time — even Rod Stewart’s dreaded “Love Touch” is probably better than Legal Eagles, although I’m not watching it to find out — but for me, the best example of the soundtrack-to-film disparity ratio is Paul McCartney’s “No More Lonely Nights,” a lovely, perfectly minor midtempo number that would almost certainly be better remembered than it is if he hadn’t tied it to the anchor of 1984’s horrific Give My Regards to Broad Street. Runner-Up: Rick Springfield’s “Love Somebody.”
They Helped Make Big Albums Even Bigger
Corporate synergy, baby! For example, when Peter Cetera embarked on a solo career after leaving Chicago, he had the extreme good fortune of landing the Karate Kid II soundtrack gig, and rose to the challenge with the big gooey ’80s power ballad “The Glory of Love” — which, aside from kicking off his post-Chicago years with a nice solid hit, also showed up on his smartly timed debut record, Solitude/Solitaire. That album also marked a hit duet with Amy Grant, “The Next Time I Fall,” establishing a pattern that worked pretty well for Cetera throughout the rest of the decade: Soundtrack cuts (including “No Explanation” from Pretty Woman) and duets (including “After All” with Cher, which was also from the soundtrack of Chances Are). Fun Fact: Cetera’s 1988 single “One Good Woman” was supposed to be on the Big soundtrack, but the deal fell through at the last minute.
They Gave Artists Opportunities to Be Different
Case in point: Lindsey Buckingham’s “Holiday Road,” which used a slot on the National Lampoon’s Vacation soundtrack to prove that a guy whose public persona tended to veer between pissed off and paranoid could actually crack a smile once in awhile (although it must be said that in the video, Buckingham appears to be both pissed and paranoid). For a two-minute rockabilly send-up that barely dented the charts, it’s had a pretty healthy life, too; Buckingham still plays it live, and it’s been covered by a bewildering list of artists that includes Matt Pond PA and the Aquabats. Runner-Up: Michael McDonald’s “Sweet Freedom,” which injected McD’s ballad-heavy solo career with a synth-conga-infused hit from the Running Scared soundtrack.
They Helped Revive Careers
By early 1986, Carly Simon’s once-mighty chart muscle had diminished to the point that her two most recent albums (1983’s Hello Big Man and 1985’s Spoiled Girl) both ended with her leaving the label. And then came “Coming Around Again,” her song for the soundtrack to the Meryl Streep/Jack Nicholson drama Heartburn, which rode a pillowy-soft circular synth figure and a set of midlife marriage lyrics into the Top 20. Her next album, smartly titled Coming Around Again, went platinum and earned her a Grammy nomination. Runner-Up: Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which returned to the Top 40 in 1992 — 16 years after its initial release — thanks to its memorable appearance in Wayne’s World.
They Helped Lesser-Known Artists Get Paid
Portions of this article have admittedly been at least partially tongue-in-cheek, but we have The Bodyguard soundtrack to thank for one of rock’s sweetest stories: When Curtis Stigers covered Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” for the album, he set in motion a chain of events that helped provide a perennially review-rich, cash-poor artist with an unexpected cash windfall. See that list up there with that big ol’ number of Bodyguard copies sold? They had a major impact on Lowe’s bottom line, helping him kick off the second half of his career with 1994’s lovely, understated The Impossible Bird (and, as he likes to joke in concert from time to time, helping put “a new coat of paint on the house”).