It's not movies alone that produce hit soundtracks these days. Witness these recent collections taken from popular television series:
"The Sopranos: Music From the HBO Original Series" (PlayTone-Columbia-Sony Music Soundtrax). The much-acclaimed, much-honored series begins its new season Jan. 16; here are key tracks from Year 1, including A3's menacing theme song, a murky voodoo remix of "Woke Up This Morning," followed by the equally menacing postmodern blues of R.L. Burnside's "It's Bad You Know." There's the haunted irony of Frank Sinatra's "It Was a Very Good Year," Nick Lowe's conflicted self-examination "The Beast in Me" and Elvis Costello's anxious parable "Complicated Shadows." Alongside such macho declarations as "I'm a Man" (Bo Diddley) and "Blood Is Thicker Than Water" (Wyclef Jean) is the churning love ballad "Inside of Me" by Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul; Steven, who now goes by Steve and is surnamed Van Zandt, plays Soprano family member Silvio Dante in the series.
"King of the Hill: Music From and Inspired by the TV Series" (Elektra) is a mixed bag of mostly country covers by rock acts and rock covers by country acts. The good include Brooks & Dunn on Bob Seger's "Against the Wind" and Tonic on Jerry Reed's "East Bound and Down." The bad include Deana Carter's unimaginative reading of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'," overmatched Mark McGrath's wobbly duet with Willie Nelson on "Angels Flying Too Close to the Ground" and a flaccid take on Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart" by Faith Hill (no relation). Hank Hill (series creator Mike Judge) gives a surprisingly credible reading of Red Sovine's maudlin CB-radio fable "Teddy Bear," and Luanne (Brittany Murphy) tries her best on the inspirational "One Tin Soldier." Series fans will also appreciate "Mow Against the Grain," an all-cast collection of aphorisms arranged in the manner of Baz Luhrmann's "Everybody's Free (to Wear Sunscreen)."
"Go Simpsonic With the Simpsons: More Original Music From the Television Series" (Rhino). A much-needed follow-up to "Songs in the Key of Simpson," this includes stylistic variations on Alf Clausen's end-credits theme (from Philip Glass to Sonic Youth), various offerings from "singing, dancing, entertainment machine" Homer Simpson and his family (a lovely duet with Marge on "Those Were the Days"), wicked parodies of stage and screen musicals ("Mary Poppins," "Paint Your Wagon," Gilbert and Sullivan taking on "Cape Fear"); assorted tunes for Krusty the Clown, Apu, Itchy and Scratchy, Mr. Burns, Chief Wiggum and Ned Flanders, among others. And, of course, snippets of dialogue and fake ads. A Simpsonian bonanza.
"Friends Again" (Reprise-Warner Bros.). The follow-up to 1995's platinum soundtrack to the series "Friends" includes a few spot-on remakes--Smash Mouth on Let's Active's "Every Word Means No" and a buoyant Robbie Williams on the Pet Shop Boys' "I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing." Semisonic reinvigorates "Delicious" from its debut album, while Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong duets with Penelope Houston on the punky plaint "Angel and the Jerk." Duncan Sheik and newcomers Deckard and the Waltons contribute whiny-sensitive tracks. For series fans, there are a few snippets of dialogue, a thoroughly unnecessary rap version of the show's theme song and, finally, the hilarious "Smelly Cat Medley" featuring Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow) and helpmates Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders.
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Album" (TVT). This smart collection tracks the series's spooky teen-angst mood swings, highlighted by Garbage's twirling "Temptation Waits," Alison Krauss's icy-cool "It Doesn't Matter" and the Sundays' exhausted "Wild Horses" (you'll be convinced they're tired of living). There's ethereal agony to K's Choice's "Virgin State of Mind" and Hepburn's Natalie Imbruglia-style "I Quit," and plaintive irony to Bif Naked's "Lucky." Other made-to-order tracks are provided by Rasputina (a goth-rock "Transylvanian Concubine"), Guided by Voices (a surprisingly playful "Teenage FBI"), Face to Face ("The Devil You Know") and Four Star Mary (the band behind the show's Dingoes Ate My Baby) on the aptly titled "Pain."
CAPTION: Steve Van Zandt's hit "Inside of Me" is featured on a new "Sopranos" CD.