The album has had a rough 2014. The platinum club was a wasteland until Taylor Swift showed up, and records by even the biggest names are being delayed under murky circumstances, this week offers an opportunity for redemption via the movies. The opening of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, the third film to be wrung from the dystopian novel trilogy, brings with it the release of its soundtrack album. Curated by Lorde — whose rapid ascent was one of the biggest pop stories of last year — it has a chance to capture some of the attention given to the movie during its biggest prerelease push, and maybe even beyond that.
The Hunger Games soundtracks also offer a glimpse into how the pairing of music and film has evolved since the turn of the century. The first film in the Jennifer Lawrence-starring series, released in 2012, came accompanied by an album (Songs From District 12 and Beyond) produced by T-Bone Burnett, whose work putting together the folk-heavy soundtrack for the Coen Brothers’ 2000 American epic O Brother, Where Art Thou? brought Appalachian folk back into the pop consciousness. Its makeup was in line with that particular aesthetic — the ghostly Taylor Swift/Civil Wars collaboration “Safe & Sound” provided a boldfaced name, while Neko Case and the Decemberists lent a patina of “indie rock.”
The soundtrack to 2013′s Catching Fire, the second film in the Hunger Games series, was overseen by Alexandra Patsavas, the music supervisor who worked on Grey’s Anatomy and The O.C. Patsavas also headed up the development of the Twilight series’ soundtracks; those records, like her TV offerings, blended mainstream pop with tastefully appointed indie. They simultaneously grabbed headlines while harnessing the respect of late-’00s music bloggers. (Paramore‘s aching, regretful “Decode” anchored the soundtrack of the first film, while the Breaking Dawn Part 2 companion album included songs by St. Vincent and Feist.) Catching Fire‘s soundtrack was similarly apportioned; Christina Aguilera got the Ryan Tedder treatment on “We Remain,” while the National and Patti Smith provided the cool points.
That album also included Lorde, who mournfully covered Tears for Fears‘ sparkling New Wave track “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” and whose status as an actual teen drops her squarely in one of the Games series’ key demographics. Placing her name atop the soundtrack for Mockingjay makes sense, and thankfully, her contributions to it go beyond the “likeness and photo shoot” input that celebrity advisors often offer up. Her brooding “Yellow Flicker Beat” was its lead single, and Kanye West remixed the track. She’s beamed into Miguel and the Chemical Brothers’ noisy, paranoid collaboration “This Is Not a Game”; she has writing credits on the Major Lazer/Ariana Grande team-up “All My Love” and on Stromae’s “Meltdown,” which also includes contributions from Pusha T, Q-Tip and HAIM. While the word “curation” might be drastically overused, there is a single informing aesthetic here.
If you count Mockingjay, Part 1, which will likely sell well this week, three of pop’s biggest successes this year have been soundtracks. Before Taylor Swift’s 1989 shattered the million-moved mark a few weeks ago, the album accompanying Disney’s icy fairytale retelling Frozen — led by the Oscar-winning and eminently memeable “Let It Go” — was 2014′s biggest-selling record. Meanwhile, Awesome Mix Vol. 1, a Guardians of the Galaxy-affiliated mix that has a track listing resembling a TV-advertised K-Tel compilation from 30-plus years ago, spent time in the Billboard 200′s top spot shortly after its release.
There’s a reason for this trend, and you can even trace a few parallels in two of the year’s other biggest success stories. The releases of 1989 and Beyoncé‘s self-titled album became news stories in themselves, and much of the attendant press — the reposts of Swift’s Instagrams at Target, the breathless reports on how Beyoncé kept her iTunes-only release a secret — served the dual function of letting potential buyers know they could purchase these records at particular outlets. The decimation of the brick-and-mortar music-buying sphere and the rise in music-news noise — discussion of gossip or endless updates about nothing, not to mention overlong prerelease campaigns that result in consumer weariness — have contributed to confusion over when, and where, albums might be available. A huge, splashy blockbuster is a great entertainment-news peg to hitch an album’s release to; it’s even better if that record contains some legitimately solid tracks by big-name artists.
Perhaps the movie business could, over the coming months, do their compatriots in the record business a solid and install kiosks where soundtracks would be available for purchase once a movie ended — it would allow people who enjoyed the music accompanying the movie they’d just seen to get some post-credits instant gratification, and it could even get theater chains some extra scratch to make up for their own dwindling crowds.