Watch Heat again. Not just because Michael Mann crafted one of the best, heaviest action movies ever made, but because of the music. For that matter, Netflix a few of Mann's other soundtrack-enhanced crime sagas: If you forgive the hammy ending, Collateral is a good bet; if you forgive Colin Farrell's existence, there are some amazing chunks of audio/visual candy in Miami Vice. But Heat is where Mann's synthesis of seemingly dated music and obsessively constructed imagery becomes euphoric, even stunning: When Moby's ethereal "God Moving Over the Face of the Waters" plays late in Heat's third act, it instantly crystallizes everything gorgeous and otherworldly about Mann's hyper-stylized vision of Los Angeles.
Now that Moby jokes are so easy to make, almost 10 years after every track from Play shamelessly soundtracked a thousand commercials, Mann could find an equal replacement in Canadian indie poppers Stars. After all, there was a period before Moby's instrumental schtick got lame and clichéd and Coldplay-ified, when popular ambient soundscapes mattered, at least a bit. I'm hesitant to say that they ever counted as music, exactly—they never contained quite enough soul to convey actual emotion—but as soundtrack fodder, they instantly conveyed a mood and a tone. And as embarrassing as all that ambient business eventually got (VAST, anyone?), there was something worthwhile in there, somewhere.
Stars are the first band to remind me how good instrumental pop used to be, which is weird, since there are plenty of vocals on their albums. But nevertheless: Throughout Stars' captivating compositions, there's a cinematic flair, a focus on a rich underlay of music that can't help but summon dramatic images. Drag their latest, In Our Bedroom After the War, onto your iPod, then go walking around the city at twilight—preferably catching a glimpse of the downtown cityscape, or the epic arc of the Fremont Bridge against a darkening blue sky—and try not to be caught up in Stars' luxuriant, smart, electronic-tinged orchestrations.
Stars can get overly precious (the spoken dialogue of "Personal" borders on eye-rolling, as does the maudlin narration of "Barricade"), but under the occasional ill-advised emo soap operatics, the music beneath is something beautiful: Subtle and rich and melancholy and dance-y, it's consistently, earnestly emotive.
On In Our Bedroom, Stars veer from channeling chipper '80s pop ("The Ghost of Genova Heights") to more familiar indie rock riffs ("Bitches in Tokyo"). It's all effectively toe-tapping and dense, but—harkening back to their first album, Nightsongs—their best stuff is that which sounds like it's been snatched from the audio track of an imaginary movie. It even gets explicitly cinematic at one point, on In Our Bedroom's "Life 2: The Unhappy Ending": Over a plinking beat that eventually builds to a soaring climax, it comes out that "Life was supposed to be a film/was supposed to be a thriller/was supposed to end in tears/But life could be nothing but a joke." And the music beneath builds, and enthralls, catchy and with just enough heart to get your imagination spinning. If nothing else, it's an elegant, near-perfect soundtrack for a film that has yet to be made.