"What do you do with a soundtrack?" James Hunter wondered 27 years ago in "Start Making Sense," a Village Voice roundup. "You listen to it — it might also be a record." One of the most comprehensive surveys of its kind ever published, Hunter's piece tallied scores of movie soundtracks that were indeed records, but none of their track lists seemed specifically aimed at a tween audience. In fact, before the Spice Girls' quadruple-platinum Spiceworld in 1997, which probably shouldn't even count since its songs only tangentially corresponded with those in the movie sharing its name, genuine teen-pop original soundtracks were curiously rare.
The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Clueless, to name three biggies, were way too modern rock. Unless you go all the way back to the Monkees or Partridge Family, the clearest precedents might be Grease (1978) and Fame (1980). But, really, teen-pop soundtrack cross-marketing didn't fully kick in until Radio Disney began broadcasting in late 1996.
The past decade and a half, though, has seen something of a deluge — for TV shows on networks such as Disney and Nickelodeon as much as for full-length movies, theater-bound or otherwise. Discounting sets that primarily served as vehicles for individual artists — say, Josie and the Pussycats (2001), The Cheetah Girls (2003), and the massive Hannah Montana (2009) — here are eight that did what soundtracks are supposed to do: not just introduce impending superstars or showcase young acting talents for whom singing is secondary (though many did both), but work as albums playable (almost) start to finish.
Sabrina, the Teenage Witch
Starring Melissa Joan Hart of Clarissa Explains It All kiddie fame, Sabrina had debuted on ABC TV just a couple months before Radio Disney started airing, and its soundtrack track list from two years later is a testament to the changing times. You've got your waning '90s mostly one-hit-makers: Aqua, Chumbawamba, Ben Folds Five, Phantom Planet, Sugar Ray covering Steve Miller, and Matthew Sweet covering Walter Egan's great late-'70s power-pop nugget "Magnet and Steel." But 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys are both represented at the peak of their powers, Brit boy band Five try crossing the pond, Blondie and Waitresses tunes are revived (by Hart herself and some people called Pure Sugar), a couple of former Go-Go's link up with a future Uh Huh Her–er in the Murmurs, and — what's this? — a fresh face named Britney Spears, with possibly her most preadolescent ditty ever, "Soda Pop," and another up-and-comer named Robyn, with her actual U.S. Top 10 hit "Show Me Love." Twentieth century, thy days are numbered.
Bring It On
(Playtone/Epic/Sony Music Soundtrax, 2000)
And so the century begins, soundtracking cross-cultural California cheerleader competitions with a rah-rah-sis-boom-bah girl group revival you probably forgot happened. TLC are one unmistakable template: Blaque, who do two songs, including one featuring an as-yet-obscure rapper who calls himself 50 Cent, were discovered by Left Eye; 3LW are basically a TLC tribute band. Toni Basil is the other big blueprint: Cutely jigging Irish girl-powerers B*Witched revive "Mickey," Jersey goof-gals Daphne and Celeste (who put out a hilarious debut album in England, but whose U.S. output was limited to this one track) cross "Mickey" with early Fishbone in their gleefully insulting "U.G.L.Y." Liverpool post-Spice girlies Atomic Kitten likewise bid you a negative farewell — "See ya, I wouldn't wanna be ya" — and to balance things gender- and age-wise, we get comparative old dudes the Jungle Brothers and 95 South. There hasn't been a more in-the-pocket teen-pop album, or a more effervescent R&B album, since.
Darcy's Wild Life
(Sony BMG, 2005)
Old songs rule! At least if you're a Discovery Kids show about a Malibu girl who moves to a rural small town only to have wacky adventures helping take care of farm animals in a veterinarian clinic! That'd be Sara Paxton, one of those 2000s teen-pop starlets who never crossed over to a mainstream, older-than-junior-high fan base. She opens and closes this album, but unlike fellow teeny footnotes Nikki Cleary and Tiffany Evans, she doesn't get to (respectively) cover Katrina and the Waves' great "Walking on Sunshine" or Shanice's great "I Love Your Smile." Even weirder girl-rap footnote fan_3 shows up, too, plus unknowns called American Juniors doing the Jackson Five's "ABC" — executive producer Stan Rogow, previously responsible for Hilary Duff's show Lizzie McGuire, has a deep sense of bubblegum history, even if his liner notes get a bit neurotic about "real songs by real groups." Either way, it's hot ringers from ancient eras who really put this over — Chuck Brown's go-go "We Need Some Money," the Specials' ska rave-up "Monkey Man," and Rufus Thomas' minstrel-show-schooled funk rocker "Walking the Dog."
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
(Sony Music Soundtrax, 2005)
"One size does not fit all," the Waitresses once asserted in the theme from Square Pegs, but this young-adult novel turned jeans-sharing extravaganza proved them wrong, once and for all. One of the four summer-voyaging, young Maryland trouser-tryer-on-ers later wound up being Ugly Betty, but who knew then that one of the ladies on the movie's Lilith-leaning, almost-all-female soundtrack would wind up being even more famous than Amerigo Vespucci or whatever her name is? (Maybe two, if you live in England and count Natasha Bedingfield, but never mind.)
So okay, it's 2005, and you gotta predict which one. If you picked U.K. pop rockers the Faders (whose Brit hit "No Sleep 2nite" is the most energetic thing here), Canadian piano songstress Chantal Kreviazuk, Virginia piano songstress Rachael Yamagata, North Dakota blues-guitar songstress Shannon Curfman, L.A.-via-Nashville songstress Alana Grace, or even Seattle Triple-A songstress Brandi Carlile, you would lose, though together they do add up to quite the useful sampler of the much maligned coffeehouse style. But if you selected the Wesley Willis–name-dropping singer of the Sisterhood's penultimate track, "Simple" — an only recently secularized ex-Christian-pop artist named Katy Perry, whose debut pop album was still three years off — congratulations!
(Epic/Sony Music Sountrax, 2006)
Teen pop is one of those genres in which the girls frequently give you the idea that they could beat up the boys, a rule of thumb-wrestling that this musical tie-in to a half-Australian mermaid movie (once again starring Sara Paxton) demonstrates really well. The males toward the album's end — go-nowhere NYC post-Strokes hypes stellastarr* and "Mony Mony"–interpolating Down Under electro-dance duo BodyRockers — manage to sound simultaneously slimy and simpy, and thereby prove less effective than when a pre-fame Jonas Brothers wed beats from Katrina and the Waves to a title from REO Speedwagon in "Time for Me to Fly." But the girls here fare much better: Veteran Mandy Moore covers Melissa Joan Hart's cover of Blondie's "One Way or Another," Emma "niece of Julia" Roberts vacations on Weezer's "Island in the Sun," Courtney Jaye forgoes allegedly hippiefied roots for early-'70s-style bubble-pop, and Nikki Cleary sunbathes through a summer song cowritten by JEFF the Brotherhood's dad Robert Ellis Orrall.
High School Musical
(Walt Disney, 2006)
And here's where the concept hit the jackpot, obviously. Not much to say, except that no album in 2006 sold as many copies as this one, even with no recognizable household names singing. So, the missing link between West Side Story and Glee, maybe, and who needs that old cinema when you've got the Disney Channel? Plus, there's the brilliant iTunes-era marketing coup of letting almost every individual song chart as a single, blah, blah, blah. When popular culture gets this big, fighting it would be about as sensible as fighting a mountain. To my ears, the soundtrack's second half (Ashley Tisdale/Lucas Grabeel "Bop to the Top" into Zac Efron/Vanessa Hudgens "Breaking Free" into full-cast "We're All in This Together" into Tisdale/Grabeel/Efron/Hudgens "I Can't Take My Eyes off of You," before the B5 cameo and karaoke instrumentals) handily beats the first half. But that is only one opinion, out of five million or so.
Another Cinderella Story
(Razor & Tie, 2008)
In teen-pop soundtrack land, 2008 was a battle between Miranda Cosgrove on Nick TV's iCarly and Selena Gomez in the Warner Premiere direct-to-DVD Another Cinderella Story, your age-old working-class-girl-gets-the-popular-boy tale. (The title's most relevant word is another: Hilary Duff had gotten there first, four years before.) Gomez's career has gone way more places than Cosgrove's in years since (she's also made better albums than Justin Bieber, for what it's worth), so it's probably okay to declare her victory by now. And here, you already can hear her mixing and matching several danceable modes of '80s to '00s pop (Thriller, new jack swing, Latin freestyle, "Funky Cold Medina," Paula Abdul, M.I.A.) in numbers like "Tell Me Something I Don't Know" and "Bang a Drum," while male lead (and High School Musical secret weapon) Drew Seeley tosses in a capable faux-Timberlake when necessary. The pinnacles, though, might well be Tiffany Giardina's desperately emoted Flashdance disco-AOR "Hurry Up and Save Me" and "Don't Be Shy," the Miami bass throwback by Small Change (featuring Chani and Lil' JJ), "Don't Be Shy."
Shake It Up: Live 2 Dance
(Walt Disney, 2012)
Disney's been making shows about the lives of girls who have fictional TV shows ever since the Hannah Montana days, so the formula must work, on some level. Shake It Up revolves around two teen backup dancers in Chicago, and this is actually its second soundtrack, but its first highlighted by a supercatchy single recited in text-speak: namely "TTYLXOX," wherein Bella Thorne manages to chant stuff about "Be, be, be, my BFF! / 'Cause IDK what's comin' next! / LMHO with the rest!" without cracking up. No doubt being just 14 years old helps. Either way, not since Nikki Cleary's lost decade-old Radio Disney smash "I.M. Me" has the subliterate language of gadgetry provided so human a hook.
Live 2 Dance also features pan-Asian girl group Blush going "Up Up and Away" with a beautiful balloonlike chorus and dubsteppy break, plus skippity-stuttery, Morse-coded, Auto-Tune-era filler galore. Coco Jones manages the most swag, Adam Trent (a magician singing about magic) has a blue-eyed-soul falsetto sweet enough to pass for a Justin, and an entity called TKO & Nevermind contribute some gabba-gabba electro-chipmunk silliness in "Critical." A couple of the artists have been spotlighted on a Radio Disney platform known as "Next Big Thing," though only time will tell whether any deserve the title.