What makes teenagers run to the record store with wildly reckless abandon? No, not Hanson or *NSync — they are so late-90’s — but the cutesy, hip soundtracks to “The O.C.” and “Smallville,” undoubtedly two of the cutesiest, hippest shows around. Back in the day, TV shows actually put some heart and soul into their musical mood and even composed music themselves, a la Mark Snow’s brilliant score for “The X-Files.” Nowadays, all you need is the latest version of iTunes to plug into a show’s musical mindset, while shows like “The O.C.” have even become springboards for emerging artists. Not to say it’s necessarily a bad thing, judging by the indie-hip, eclectic fun of the latest offering from our friends down California way. On “Music From The O.C. Mix 5,” offbeat artists like Of Montreal and LCD Soundsystem prove that teenagers have taste too. Unfortunately, flip the channel, and the endless summer sunshine gives way to the gloomy pop punishment of “Smallville: The Metropolis Mix Volume 2,” which plays like a worn down top-40 retread, a dumping ground for songs you probably downloaded ages ago.
Take, for example, the All-American Rejects’ “Dirty Little Secret,” Lifehouse’s “You and Me” (the “Wedding Version” no less) and Rascal Flatts’ “Feels Like Today.” Sound familiar? Most of the album screams last summer’s bad hits, while less familiar offerings like Brendan Benson’s “Cold Hands (Warm Hearts)” scream last summer’s bad hits that never were. Even eyebrow-raising surprises from Minnie Driver (on the Dido-esque “Hungry Hearts”) and the Stereophonics (on the naughty travelogue hell-a-thon “Superman”) can’t salvage this wreckage. Skewing too close towards the VH1-end of the pop-whore spectrum, it doesn’t even come off trendy or teenybopper — it just tanks.
The good news is that “The O.C.” mix is everything that the “Smallville” mix isn’t — unconventional, mostly undiscovered, and injected with a healthy dose of youth angst. Though the hipper-than-thou attitude gets a little transparent around the fringes of a few numbers, it holds up quite well, not just as a collection of songs to make your grandma faint, but as a cohesive album and honest reflection of the T.V. show. Even the liner notes, written in the form of high school yearbook salutations from Seth Cohen and company, are an endearing if cheesy way of reliving those fond Thursday nights again and again.
For the casual indie-rock enthusiast, “The O.C.” mix plumbs an impressive depth of little-known artists. Anyone heard of the Shout Out Louds? Their “Wish I Was Dead Pt. 2” is an inexplicable wonder, a melancholy medley of acoustic guitars and chirping bells over a hip-hop-flavored beat. Lead singer Adam Olenius’ pre-teen warble adds a smirkingly adorable lilt to a song that already suggests prom date make-out session. And they’re from Sweden, too. How twee.
Elsewhere on the record, Of Montreal gleefully toys with the Shout Out Louds’ Ritalin-chic Beach Boys parody on the sun-drenched workout “Requiem for O.M.M.2,” while the Kaiser Chiefs display some formidable guitar chops on the hilariously campy playground sing-along “Na Na Na Naah.” The mood shifts gears a bit, though, for the down-and-dirty hip-rock stylings of Gorillaz, whose X-Box-ready “Kids With Guns” is easily the album’s standout. Rocking the bass line like Linkin Park wish they could, “Kids With Guns” adds a heavy, industrial tone to an album that trends mostly toward those expansive California skies. Even the ominous lyrics — “Kids with guns/ Taking over/ They’re mesmerized/ Skeletons” — promise some introspection among all the disc’s youthful self-absorption.
It’s really something that “The O.C.” can issue a whopping five collections in just over two seasons and still stay fresh, while the pop noise behind “Smallville” has worn thin after only two sets. If the histrionic, ten thousand-guitar howlers “Forget It” (Breaking Benjamin) and “Wicked Game” (HIM, covering Chris Issak’s already overwrought version) don’t turn you off, the nutless, dude-with-piano weepie “Almost Honest” (Josh Kelley) most certainly will. Amped-up electronic mistakes like Depeche Mode’s “Precious” only pretend to add diversity and vigor to the otherwise one-note album; if the producers truly wanted to hit the youth nerve, they could have picked their token techno track from a band that isn’t, you know, forty.
While it’s true that today’s rip-and-burn music culture ballyhoos the spoon-feeding of junk to young ears, it’s a mistake to think we don’t long for something more. When LCD Soundsystem, one of the most cutting-edge bands on “The O.C.” mix, shows up with a fresh and funny song called “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House,” you know you’re in trouble when your hippest offering on the “Smallville” mix is from the Dandy Warhols. Putting it another way, if “The O.C.” mix is the running playlist of that hot senior in your history section, then the “Smallville” mix is his mom’s.
Smallville: One and a half stars
O.C.: Three and a half stars