Starting next week, we’ll unveil our big list of the Best Songs of the 1990s. In the run-up to the reveal, we’re featuring some of our favorite songs that didn’t make the list through our regular Track Marks feature.
When the contributors to our upcoming ’90s list talked about how they put together their individual ballots, it was inevitable that the subject of how many avenues of discovering music there was in the ’90s came up. The radio played songs we wanted to listen to! The TV showed music videos! Just when all of that was starting to fade, we went to college and found the anything-goes world of a fast internet connection hooked up to peer-to-peer filesharing! The world was our musical oyster.
But, when going over the songs that actually made it onto our ballots, one path to discovering new music—one that’s very much still used today—kept coming up over and over: movie soundtracks. We’d discuss a song, then someone would talk about how it was used to perfection in a critical movie scene. I’m sure Rob and Jesse could write a Track Marks post about every single song on the soundtrack to Danny Boyle’s A Life Less Ordinary (see our upcoming podcast for more on this); I myself almost did this post about “A.M. 180” by Granddaddy—which has been my only ringtone since my very first cell phone—a song I first heard in Boyle’s 28 Days Later. (And, you know, non-Boyle soundtracks are pretty good, too.)
But there’s a certain category of movie soundtracks that, while I’m sure we all listened to them on a loop in the ’90s, probably didn’t make it on our individual ballots: animated movie soundtracks. My long list had a few, including “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast and “Be Prepared” from The Lion King. My short list only had one: “What’s This?” from The Nightmare Before Christmas.
It’s one of the only animated-movie soundtrack songs I still listen to today; granted, it’s because I treat it as a Christmas song more than anything else. But the fact that it could have a second life in my annual iTunes Christmas playlist also speaks to its craft—I’m pretty picky about my holiday music. (Sorry, kids from South Park, your holiday songs don’t make the cut because your voices are too irritating.) To me, this one is up there with Vince Guaraldi.
What makes “What’s This?” unique for a holiday song is that it’s about looking at Christmas from the outside. Yeah, our traditions should seem both strange and incredible to an outside observer; seeing Jack Skellington’s awe invites us all to look at the holiday as if it’s our first time.
And then, of course, there’s Danny Elfman. I bet that man could write the instrumentation for 10 perfect Christmas songs in his sleep—he seems like I’d bet he’d want to add sleigh bells to nearly everything, holiday-related or not. It’s a harder hurdle to clear to seamlessly combine the musical aesthetics of Christmas and Halloween, like he does on other songs on The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack. But his performance as Jack is what really makes “What’s This?” (I should be ashamed to admit that I’ve only heard Elfman sing through Jack Skellington; my knowledge of Oingo Boingo is nil.) Through his Skellington, we get the excitement of discovery, the wonderment of Christmas, the puzzlement over coming across an unknown culture, and then the burning desire to possess and control it all.
By the end of the ’90s, The Nightmare Before Christmas became shorthand for a certain kind of Hot Topic goth. But they don’t get to own “What’s This?” the way Jack Skellington doesn’t get to own Christmas. It’s ours this time.