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RECORD RACK

Movie soundtracks of 2009

'Avatar,' 'The Princess and the Frog,' 'Nine' and more.

December 26, 2009

For the final Record Rack of 2009, we take a look at some of the year's most prominent soundtracks and scores.

"Avatar"

James Horner

(Atlantic Records)

** 1/2

James Cameron's "Avatar" succeeds in introducing filmgoers to a new world; James Horner's score follows the filmmaker's lead. It's mood-setting music, at times full of wonder. Iridescent synths mix with woodwind instruments, and "The Bioluminescence of the Night" is New Age glitter. Horner avoids sci-fi and fantasy clichés -- choirs and sound effects whiz by, and orchestral flourishes descend into tribal nuances without warning. Still, though it's obvious that there's something important going on here, the music suffers when it's divorced from Cameron's eye-popping images.

-- Todd Martens Big Easy bent

"The Princess and

the Frog"

Various artists

(Disney)

***

Composer-songwriter Randy Newman channels the rich musical history of New Orleans through a fairy tale lens on the soundtrack to Disney's latest animated entry. There are flashes of gospel ("Dig a Little Deeper"), a swift Cajun waltz ("Gonna Take You There") and feather-light takes on early jazz ("When We're Human"). Newman even channels pianist Jelly Roll Morton on "Down in New Orleans," with Dr. John providing the vocals for added authenticity.

-- Todd Martens Funky vibe

"Black Dynamite"

Adrian Younge

(Wax Poetics)

** 1/2

"Black Dynamite"

Various artists

(Wax Poetics)

***

So it doesn't have Curtis Mayfield, but this modern blaxploitation spoof is teeming with music. Adrian Younge's 15-track score largely transcends silliness by lovingly recreating a vintage funk feel, one full of bluesy, funky vibraphones and analog sounds. A second disc, sold separately, is a treasure trove of '70s temp music. A collection of library funk, commissioned for now-forgotten films and television programs, it's more than just a time warp. It's a trip.

-- Todd Martens Sprightly tunes

"Fantastic Mr. Fox"

Various artists

Abkco

*** 1/2

Director Wes Anderson's whimsical style is just as present musically as it is visually, and "Fox" is one of his finest showcases on both fronts. Anchored by tender but sprightly sketches from Alexandre Desplat, the soundtrack veers into familiar but still fruitful territory with a version of "Ol' Man River" from the Beach Boys and a few charmers from Burl Ives. In this playful mix, Jarvis Cocker's twangy banjo ditty fits right in.

-- Margaret Wappler A love letter

"Nine"

Various artists

Geffen Records

***

"Nine" is a perfumed love letter to Italian cinema -- namely Fellini's "8 ½" -- so the soundtrack can get a little cloying. But surrender to all the breathless vamping, drippy strings and faux Italian accents and the next thing you know, you'll be tempted to stand up in the middle of the office and sing about your inner Roman fantasy. Hopefully that guy from HR will come running in with a spotlight so you'll be properly lit. The highlights: Fergie attacks "Be Italian" with gusto and Marion Cotillard reminds us of her brilliance.

-- Margaret Wappler Self-discovery

"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"

Various artists

Matriarch/Geffen Records

***

Co-executive produced by Mary J. Blige and released in part by her Matriarch Records, the soundtrack for "Precious" is an upbeat collection of self-discovery songs, modern-day gospel for the therapy crowd (Blige practically has the market cornered on that kind of thing). "Precious" visits many of her inspiration points, including songwriter extraordinaires Gamble and Huff, Queen Latifah and LaBelle.

-- Margaret Wappler

Unexpected turns

"Sherlock Holmes"

Hans Zimmer

(Watertower Music)

***

Hans Zimmer doesn't give this holiday blockbuster a canny, heroic theme. Instead, like his score for "The Dark Knight," which he composed with James Newton Howard, Zimmer goes for something more challenging. There are plenty of short, furious violin notes, and there's also some devilish good fun, as instruments twist, screech and take unexpected left turns. And just when one is comfortable with the bouncy accordions, Zimmer offers a jolt of klezmer. At 50-plus minutes, it's not always zany, but Zimmer makes the best of his moments.

-- Todd Martens Mood altering

"Up in the Air"

Various artists

(Rhino Records)

***

Largely comprising entries from singer-songwriters, this souvenir from Jason Reitman's recession-friendly film breaks its reflective mood with two selections from Rolfe Kent's fine score -- his "Security Ballet" is an intoxicating mix of rhythms. There are more choice finds here, namely a smoldering R&B turn on "This Land Is Your Land" from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Kevin Renick's title cut will melt hearts, and Sad Brad Smith's "Help Yourself" is a winning nod to Simon & Garfunkel.

-- Todd Martens todd.martens@latimes.com

margaret.wappler@latimes .com

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