Like parents in frantic pursuit of Beanie Babies, pop soundtracks usually reek of desperation—in their case, for as many hits in as many different radio formats as possible. But a strange and wondrous occurrence took place this fall in record stores the land over: For the first time since the crossover-dream mentality set in, soundtracks started making sense again.

Take, for instance, the companion album to Good Will Hunting (Capitol). Nearly half of the record is given over to the twig-delicate melancholia of slacker folkie Elliott Smith. Most of these songs have already appeared on Smith’s own albums, but their recurring themes—love, rejection, breakups and the ensuing loneliness—are remarkably in synch with Matt Damon’s janitor-savant title character. Wafting through the album and film, Smith’s breathy tenor and gingerly strummed guitars (especially on ”Between the Bars,” a contemplative drinking song) are the forlorn ties that bind Good Will Hunting together.

The rest of the album is devoted to the usual motley soundtrack crew. Smartly, though, director Gus Van Sant and his co-compilers chose music that extends Smith’s introspective ambiance, be it soul oldies (Al Green’s buttery ”How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”) or street-smart alt-rock (Luscious Jackson’s brooding ”Why Do I Lie?”). (Hearing Smith’s sometimes twee folk every other track is also a good thing.) Don’t press ”skip” when the orchestral tracks arrive, either; Danny Elfman’s autumnal meditations add to the album’s beautiful-losers seamlessness.

Clint Eastwood always boasts of his love of jazz, but he puts his money where his clenched jaw is on the soundtrack for his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Malpaso/Warner Bros.). Eastwood recruited sharp, esteemed players (like saxist Joshua Redman and bassist Charlie Haden) to back an odd lot of cabaret vets and pop stars, all singing songs by Johnny Mercer. It’s less a soundtrack than a late-set jam at a swanky supper club.

The vocalese isn’t always as steady as the accompaniment. Alison Krauss sounds too sweet to capture the dashed hopes of ”This Time the Dream’s on Me,” and Eastwood himself hams it up in ”Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive.” Those moments are compensated for by the album’s uniform mood and arrangements, rare for a pop soundtrack. The dark shadows around Cassandra Wilson’s voice enhance ”Days of Wine and Roses,” Rosemary Clooney sounds appropriately wary on the one-more-fling ”Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread),” and Paula Cole pulls off an intimate ”Autumn Leaves.” Whether you feel love is good or evil, this is impeccable music for a midnight sulk.

A different kind of cohesion has run rampant through Quentin Tarantino’s choice of music; savvy and knowing, his soundtracks are akin to a cutting-edge oldies station. Jackie Brown (Maverick/Warner Bros.) maintains that momentum. What better accompaniment for a grittily filmed crime caper featuring ’70s blaxploitation butt kicker Pam Grier than a dose of period soul? Rather than relying on the same recycled disco anthems, though, Tarantino has unearthed unjustly forgotten, son-of-Shaft treasures like Bobby Womack’s majestic ”Across 110th Street.” Familiar R&B hits, such as Randy Crawford and the Crusaders’ ”Street Life,” never sounded so sweetly funky.

The Tarantino formula is heard too. Instead of the Statler Brothers, we get Johnny Cash; in place of Stealers Wheel, the requisite white-bread pop nugget is the Grass Roots’ glorious ”Midnight Confessions.” But like its predecessors, Jackie Brown adds up to a frisky compilation that pumps new life into oldies and introduces you to ones you may have missed. Tarantino still ‘tracks it like he talks it.

Of course, we’ll continue to be assaulted with jumbles like Scream 2 (Capitol), which recruits au courant hitmakers (Sugar Ray, Master P) and then presents us with tracks that aren’t even as annoyingly hooky as the singles that made them such promising one-hit wonders. The only interesting aspect of Scream 2 is the way it unintentionally chronicles the history and co-optation of alt-rock. Campy remakes (like ”I Think I Love You” by Less Than Jake) recapture the music’s wiseass early years, while the interchangeable mainstream-flannel bands that followed are heard in cuts by Tonic and Everclear. Where does the music go from here? The Foo Fighters’ creepily becalmed ”Dear Lover” shows one survivor attempting adult grunge—a prospect as daunting as, say, fending off a serial killer? Good Will Hunting: A- Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: B+ Jackie Brown: A Scream 2: C-

Good Will Hunting
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