Kiefer’s Music Mondays: The Garden State Soundtrack

The generation-defining soundtrack turns 15 years old this week.

“What are you listening to?”
“The Shins, you know em?”
“You gotta hear this one song, it’ll change your life. I swear.”

It’s not often enough that a soundtrack holds as much weight as the movie itself, but in the case of Zach Braff’s 2004 film, Garden State, that’s exactly what happened. As the movie’s soundtrack turns 15 this week, it’s never been more apparent how this film’s music defined a generation.

For countless Millennials, this soundtrack has felt very personal for most of our adulthood at this point. This can be strongly attributed to Zach Braff being so adamant about the songs included. During the of writing the script, he spent a lot of time listening to these artists and making direct associations between the specific songs we hear.

When attempting to obtain licensing rights, Braff initially ran into a lot of trouble for his unwavering belief that the film wasn’t possible without those exact songs. He even sent copies of the script to the labels to prove the necessity of their music in his movie. Eventually, all of them made it in the film, with all but one (Alexi Murdoch’s “Orange Sky”) ending up on the soundtrack.

With the exception of Simon & Garfunkel, all the artists on the Garden State soundtrack—including Coldplay, The Shins and Iron & Wine—were fairly ambiguous at the time. Keep in mind, the film came out in 2004, between the very recent success of Coldplay’s Rush of Blood to the Head and The Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow. Songs like “Don’t Panic” or “Caring is Creepy” seem quite mainstream now, but given the time the script was written, the album is really a conglomeration of deep cuts.

Released in 2003, The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” would have been known in dedicated indie circles, but the cover version by the then-unknown folk band Iron & Wine certainly wasn’t. (Now it’s almost as known as the original.) Some of these artists like Colin Hays and Cary Brothers still remain fairly unknown, allowing this album to illuminate their talents 15 years later.

There is a nice tenderness to a good majority of the songs; a sense of mellow familiarity and easy listening, which does enforces the meandering plot of the movie. Zero 7’s “In The Waiting Line” displays a calm fluidity during a drug-fueled time-lapse. Remy Zero’s “Fair” has a building intensity that conveys the thickening of the film’s romance plot. Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy In New York” is a wonderful mirroring of the script up to that point. You don’t have to listen very hard for it to become apparent why these songs were so important to this story.

Between the film’s scripted namedrop of The Shins (which altered their career almost instantly) and the extensively curated score, the Garden State soundtrack helped start the popular avalanche of indie rock in the 2000s. It even won the Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album.

After 15 years, this compilation of music remains beloved the world over for its early exposure of alternative and indie artists in a major motion picture, as well as the exceptional quality and specificity of the tracks it represents.

Listen to: “Blue Eyes,” “Lebanese Blonde,” and of course “New Slang”