Review: Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, Stranger Things OST, Vols. One and Two

On its own, the Stranger Things OST is one of the most refreshingly forward-thinking electronic releases of the year
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On its own, the Stranger Things OST is one of the most refreshingly forward-thinking electronic releases of the year
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This review contains spoilers for Netflix’s Stranger Things. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it. It’s great. This review will still be here when you’re done.

How much should we take context into account when reviewing soundtracks? After all, some scores don’t work nearly as well when separated from the works they accompany (the climax of the Ex Machina soundtrack, for example, is far less impactful without the visual component), while others are fine pieces of music in their own right (a good chunk of my recent music listening has consisted of—don’t laugh—the Donkey Kong Country OSTs). Stranger Things occupies an odd space between these two. It’s more gratifying in the context of the phenomenal Netflix series; watching a single episode makes that clear. But it also stands as a potential watershed moment in popular electronica. Its analog composition recalls the show’s 1983 setting, but the melodies are distinctly contemporary. Even traditionally analog artists like Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada have stuck to their melodic roots with their recent output, and more popular artists wouldn’t dare abandon their digital sound palettes. Electronic music doesn’t sound like this, not when it wants to reach a wide audience. And yet Stranger Things does have a wide audience. It’s got as wide an audience as any piece of media could hope for, which means that its score is free to be as daring as it likes. I’m happy to say that it delivers in a big way.

I must confess that I hadn’t listened to Austin-based duo Survive (credited here as Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein) before watching this show, but after familiarizing myself with their discography, I’m confident that this score is their best work. And before I go any further, that’s an important distinction to make: this is a score, not a compilation soundtrack. You won’t find “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” here. What you will find, though, is the show’s captivating opening theme, with arpeggiating synths that disappear as soon as they start hinting at something more magical underneath. (A little like Eleven, eh?) You’ll find the effortless and expansive joy of “Kids”, which glows with the same aura of childhood wonder as the show’s young actors. You’ll find frenetic bliss in “Rolling Out the Pool”, genuine horror in “Lights Out” and “The Upside Down”, breathtaking suspense in “Hopper Sneaks In” and “Breaking and Entering”, hopeful excitement in “A Kiss”. Every musical idea here is appropriately cinematic, but more importantly, the music itself is outstanding.

This is where context comes into play again, though; paired with the show, the music’s effectively flawless, but the album (released in two volumes, but I consider them two halves of a single work) isn’t as well-organized as it could be. I like to point to Max Richter’s soundtrack to HBO’s The Leftovers as an example of a strong soundtrack album. It contains all the main themes from the show, along with several incidental cues, but the album is structured almost like a symphony, establishing themes that are built upon as it progresses, each track leading comfortably into the next. It’s concise, but it doesn’t feel like there’s anything missing. That preciseness in track selection is regrettably absent from the Stranger Things score, which seems eager to cram in every single bit of background music featured on the show. As a result, the repetition of themes (such as “Kids Two”) feels less like development and more like retreading old ground. None of it’s bad, mind you, but it makes for a bloated listening experience, and it would have been wiser to cut these two volumes down to a single album. (It wouldn’t have been too difficult, either; I drafted an hour-long consolidated playlist over the course of writing this review.) Still, though, there are enough jolts of adrenaline peppered throughout to make the unexciting stretches more than worthwhile.

In the show’s context, this soundtrack is a solid A. Evocative, thrilling, and dynamic, it’s everything you could possibly want from a TV score. On its own, it’s one of the most refreshingly forward-thinking electronic releases of the year, even if the tracklist could use some cleaning up. Stranger Things could be what brings analog into the mainstream, and I can’t wait to see what comes of it. B PLUS