Does The Hunger Games Soundtrack Measure Up to the Movie?

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Benefiting from the Midas touch of the label "The Hunger Games"—the movie raked in $155 million in its opening weekend for Lionsgate—is the soundtrack, titled The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond,  which reached number 1 on the album chart this week. In doing so, it beat out Adele's 21, selling 175,000 copies (comparatively, 21 has sold some 8.4 million copies since its release in February of last year, so The Hunger Games still has a ways to go to beating it overall). Still, these recent numbers are not only remarkable in beating-Adele news, they're also pretty remarkable in soundtrack news: The last movie-associated album to make it to number 1 was Michael Jackson's This Is It, from a movie about Michael Jackson, featuring his music, in 2009. (Note: Twilight doesn't even get a mention here!) But the success of The Hunger Games soundtrack isn't terribly surprising given the built-in fanbase of The Hunger Games. In fact, last week writers were already jumping on the potential of this one album to revive the flagging soundtrack industry. 
The Wall Street Journal's Ethan Smith writes, "Such collections of music 'inspired by' popular films were a music-industry staple during the CD-sales boom of the 1990s. But they trailed off for a variety of reasons, including the overall decline in album sales following the rise of online piracy. Fans also became leery of 'soundtrack' albums that were larded with songs that weren’t actually in the movie. The debut of Apple Inc.’s iTunes in 2003 was the nail in the genre’s coffin, as the service freed fans to buy only the songs they wanted, instead of entire albums."
Obviously, with something as huge as The Hunger Games, there are going to be obligatory purchases from fans of the books and the film, which doesn't mean that the music's not good—only that from great fanhood springs cold hard cash. The album, like the movie, could be a total clunker, and people would still shell out for it, given that Katniss's face is emblazoned across its cover. But in general, Amazon reviewers are pretty positive about it, calling it a good fit with the dystopian narrative, though some detractors say the folksy theme doesn't fit the more violent and, by necessity, energetic movie. And one blatant hater wrote, "DO NOT BUY THIS SOUNDTRACK!!! You do get a small poster inside but you're better off just buying a poster."
Furthering its appeal to those not swayed by that note, there some big names featured, including Arcade Fire, Miranda Lambert, Neko Case, and Maroon 5. And, of course, Taylor Swift, who contributed two songs (and whose video to "Safe and Sound" has been viewed more than 7 million times). However, oddly, only three of the songs actually play in the movie, and all over the closing credits—"Abraham's Daughter" by Arcade Fire, "Safe & Sound" by Taylor Swift, and "Kingdom Come" by The Civil Wars—so it's really more of a "songs inspired by the movie" collection rather than an actual soundtrack. 

As for how they measure up to the film: Well, the album is actually pretty good! Not great, which it might have been, particularly if the songs were more incorporated into the film, but good. Overall the music is more haunting than kickass-"Hunger Games" workout type variety, but there are standouts in each category. The overall feel to the album is one of strolling slowly and pensively though a damp, green, wood, possibly, like Katniss, braiding your hair, with occasional angry sprints to break up the moody monotony, which is to say it's not unappealing. The "Appalachian" quality meant to reflect Katniss's District 12 home is a main theme, reflected most literally in The Carolina Chocolate Drops' "A Daughter's Lament" (which references a dad in the mines and a Mockingjay), and The Civil War's "Kingdom Come." There are, apparently, a lot of banjos and slow drumming and strumming and harmonizing in dystopia (even Maroon 5 gets in on this)—and, hey, it kind of works. 
Arcade Fire's "Abraham's Daughter" kicks off the album with some eerie chant-like singing set to rhythmic beats, in a way that somehow brings to mind medieval ceremonies or druids, but with light lifts that take a listener from a murky sense of dread to, possibly, a feeling of salvation or at least retribution. Birdy's "Just a Game" is soulful and soothing and may be the most "movielike" of songs on this album, it sounds like it belongs in a movie. Taylor Swift's "Safe and Sound" (yes, we know, Taylor Swift) but we really like its sweet, lilting, sad little melodies! Jayme Dee's "Rules" fits that bill as well; it's the perfect song for playing on repeat on a melancholy Sunday afternoon when the light filters in through the windows of your studio apartment and you contemplate opening the bottle of wine. Glen Hansard's "Take the Heartland" and Kid Cudi's "The Ruler and the Killer" kind of actually rock—Hansard's in a more cheesy/faux yelling 80s-rock kind of way, though it's still somewhat enjoyable (warning: may not be so after repeat listenings): You could work out to both of them, particularly the latter. The Pistol Annies' "Run Daddy Run" is pure country kitsch in the best of ways, and Taylor Swift's second contribution to the album, "Eyes Open," is the default girl power anthem here (she seems to be channeling her inner Avril). Most importantly: The Decemberists sound like The Decemberists, and Neko Case sounds like Neko Case, which to this blogger is exactly how it should be. Warning 2: If you hate melodies, this is not for you.
Our Rating: Put it on, clean your apartment while slowly sipping a glass of wine and humming along occasionally, take a quick nap, and by the time the songs stop playing, you'll feel somehow cleansed yourself. It's "nice," and great if you're in the market for some passive yet somewhat evocative background music that you can also catch some shut-eye to if necessary. Is it, however, as enjoyable as the book or movie (no) or anywhere near as good as Adele's 21? Let's just say the inclusion of "Rolling in the Deep" could have pushed it to truly amazing levels. Girl on fire. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.