On Thursday, Ringer Films will debut the latest installment of its HBO Music Box series, Mr. Saturday Night, on the legendary producer Robert Stigwood. Before that film examines the man who forever changed the way music and film interact with his work on Saturday Night Fever, The Ringer will spend the day celebrating the world of movie soundtracks that he so heavily influenced.
Before we get to the list of the best movie soundtracks—and argue the qualities of Pulp Fiction over, say, The Muppet Movie—there are a couple of things to point out:
- This ranking was composed by polling the Ringer staff and aggregating their personal lists.
- There were two rules that voters had to follow: First, they had to stick to the past 50 years, from 1971 onward. Our humblest apologies to The Graduate and The Wizard of Oz. Second, in the spirit of Saturday Night Fever, only pure soundtracks were permitted—no scores. A tough beat for John Williams, to be sure.
Now that that’s covered, here are the 50 best soundtracks from the past 50 years.
50. 8 Mile
There’s a lot of baggage around this, so I’m going to try to tread lightly. The 8 Mile soundtrack is a good soundtrack. It’s a lot like most Eminem albums, but with more features. It’s got a Freeway verse on “8 Miles and Runnin’” where the Philly MC is at his barrelling peak (Hov manages to stretch his legs out for a bit on the track too).“Wanksta” may have looked like a mixtape-cut from 50 Cent’s “How to Rob” days, but it still holds up. “Lose Yourself” won an Oscar. It’s just that the cultural trappings of the record, like everything with Eminem, are so souped-up on testosterone, so acidic and sometimes just plain gross, that it no longer gets to be simply a piece of music. 8 Mile is technically brilliant. It can also be appalling. It’s a soundtrack that functions as legend-building at its most audacious. If you asked Em, he’d probably swear it was worth it. —Lex Pryor
49. High School High
The ’90s marked the Golden Age of the rap soundtrack. As hip-hop was becoming a titanic commercial force early in the decade—both on the Billboard charts and at the box office—heralded movies like Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society enlisted a bevy of established stars while unearthing new talents for their accompanying albums, and sold a boatload of copies in the process. Later in the decade, projects for The Nutty Professor and Bullworth produced massive hits that have far outlived the vehicles that showcased them. Long-forgotten movies like Soul in the Hole, Sunset Park, and Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood were all accompanied by minor-classic soundtracks, while Hype Williams’s Belly and its music have both endured as cult favorites.
There’s no better example of the power of the ’90s rap soundtrack than the one for High School High, the 1996 Jon Lovitz–helmed sendup of inner-city-schools-as-a-war-zones flicks like The Substitute and Dangerous Minds. The movie itself was a straight turkey (though I’m still partial to the “Rhinestone Cowboy” scene), but the soundtrack tracklist reads like a rap purist’s fever dream: Two Wu-Tang Clan songs! A Large Professor and Pete Rock collaboration! De La Soul! The best A Tribe Called Quest deep cut post–Midnight Marauders! Also mixed in: some of the biggest R&B stars of the era in Faith Evans, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and Jodeci, plus a gigantic R&B radio hit in the Braids’ cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and a Quad City DJ’s remix. A soundtrack this stuffed for a movie this forgettable couldn’t exist today. But High School High wasn’t an anomaly in its era—it was one of its defining documents. —Justin Sayles
48. Judgment Night
Is there any greater chasm between the reception of a movie and its soundtrack than Judgment Night? (Perhaps a better question: Has anyone who adores the Judgment Night soundtrack actually seen the movie?) The plot to the movie is fairly standard fare as 1993 action thrillers go: Some dudes (Emilio Estevez, Cuba Gooding Jr., Jeremy fuckin’ Piven) witness some drug dealers (led by Denis Leary) kill someone, so they go on the run. The soundtrack, however, offered a concept that was daring at the time: getting rap and rock acts to collaborate. Just a few years after “Walk This Way”—and just a few before “Nookie”—the Judgment Night soundtrack envisions a rap-rock future where Helmet and House of Pain, Biohazard and Onyx, and Pearl Jam and Cypress Hill are not just contemporaries but peers working in tandem, with raps exploding over pulverizing licks. (The best song here, however, remains De La Soul and Teenage Fanclub’s “Fallin’,” the only track that feels like a home game for the hip-hop artist.) The album posits the intersection of riffs and rhymes as an aesthetic choice to aspire to, not a gimmick for nu-metal weirdos. We would’ve been better off if this version of rap-rock won out, but as it stands, the Judgment Night OST remains a testament to experimentation and daring choices, even if the film does not. —Sayles
47. American Honey
I can’t fault anyone for not seeking out this small indie from 2016—after all, it’s almost three hours long. But I will implore you to dive into American Honey’s wandering, motley soundtrack with every chance I get. Scoring a tale of lost, disillusioned teenage dirtbags who travel through the dingy corners of the United States selling magazines door-to-door, the soundtrack is in kind a remarkable picture of both America and mid-2010s adolescence. Rae Sremmurd sits next to the Raveonettes; ILoveMakonnen mixes company with folk singer Steve Earle. If the road trip of American Honey ever feels transcendent, it’s thanks to the contributions of the music. Watch these two scenes if you don’t have three hours: the kids rapping E-40’s “Choices” in harmony as a “go sell some shit” pump-up; and much later, belting out Lady A’s “American Honey” in a moment of weird bonding that’s too beautiful to put into words. —Andrew Gruttadaro
46. The Breakfast Club
With one needle drop and a fist in the air, Jack Antonoff’s career was born. Seriously, the prolific producer has talked at length about John Hughes’s influence on his music, and he even once performed an original score for The Breakfast Club. While Antonoff has certainly beaten those ’80s synths to death, he’s not wrong in admiring the director responsible for maybe the most iconic ending song of all time. Yes, Emilio Estevez hurdling over bookshelves to Keith Forsey’s “I’m the Dude” and the subsequent dancing montage to Karla DeVito’s “We Are Not Alone” are memorable moments in their own right. But it’s Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” that leaves us with the lingering adolescent joy of finally feeling understood. Whether you blame Hughes or thank him for inventing Jack Antonoff is up to you. —Julianna Ress
Even the most hardened Broadway musical skeptics can’t help singing along to the Grease soundtrack. Every song, from the Barry Gibb–written, Frankie Valli–crooned title track, to John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John’s climactic chart-topping duet “You’re the One That I Want,” is almost painfully catchy. Only “Hopelessly Devoted to You” got an Academy Award nomination, but there were several more that could’ve earned that designation. “Summer Nights,” “Greased Lightnin,’” “Beauty School Dropout,” and “Sandy” are all karaoke staples to this day. With Grease, Robert Stigwood assembled a blockbuster movie/soundtrack combo for the second straight year. Like 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, which he also masterminded, the record went on to become one of the best-selling albums of all time. —Alan Siegel
44. The Muppet Movie
There are nine original songs in The Muppet Movie, and seven of them are stone-cold, 9/10-or-better masterpieces. From the iconic “The Rainbow Connection” to the road-trip anthem “Movin’ Right Along” to the boozy (it’s implied, this is a kids’ movie) barroom piano lament “I Hope That Something Better Comes Along,” there’s not a bad musical moment in this 1979 classic. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you haven’t wept openly to “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday,” you shouldn’t be allowed to vote.
The Muppet Movie is operating on such a high level it just throws away the coolest band name of all time—the Electric Mayhem—on a comedy band of puppets created to spoof Dr. John. And their song, “Can You Picture That,” is not just a throwaway but a rollicking, saxophone-blaring monster. This is, to paraphrase Electric Mayhem frontman Dr. Teeth, a soundtrack of very heavy-duty proportions. —Michael Baumann
43. Moulin Rouge!
Moulin Rouge! rode so many cultural waves just as they were cresting—jukebox musicals, pop music tie-ins for movie soundtracks, that weird six-year period when Baz Luhrmann got a blank check for some reason—and rode all of them to shore with delightful felicity. The cover of “Lady Marmalade,” produced by Missy Elliott and sung by a murderer’s row of ’90s pop chanteuses, is a heater, a jam, and a bop.
This being a Luhrmann movie, sometimes Moulin Rouge! poured it on a little thick. (Medical infomercial voice-over: If you lived in a college dorm between 2001 and 2007, or were exposed to theater kids singing “Elephant Love Medley” or “El Tango de Roxanne,” you may be entitled to financial compensation.) But it’s hard to find fault with the soundtrack’s sole original number, “Come What May,” which brought tears to audiences’ eyes and poor Ewan McGregor to his tippy-toes as he tried to belt out those high notes, and almost 20 years later, convinced the world that two Canadian figure skaters were more than just teammates. The greatest love you’ll ever learn is for this one duet from Moulin Rouge! —Baumann
42. Boogie Nights
What else would you expect with Paul Thomas Anderson directing a movie called Boogie Nights? With a title like that, the soundtrack simply had to to be good. From the three-plus-minute tracking that opens the movie, the viewer is viscerally transported to the ’70s with probably the best use of the Emotions’ iconic “Best of My Love” put to film. Marvin Gaye; the Commodores; Electric Light Orchestra—Boogie Nights drops classic after classic to infuse its scenes with the mood of ’70s disco, dancing, drugs, and beyond. What’s so great about this soundtrack is not simply how infectious the songs are, but also how vital they are to establishing the pace and energy of the movie. The film could’ve been average had the music disappointed; it’s one of PTA’s all-time bests because the soundtrack absolutely delivers. —Aric Jenkins
The best soundtracks somehow capture the sensibility of the film and something about the world into which the movie is released. With this in mind, Trainspotting is truly some wizard shit: at once a mixtape you could imagine the criminally minded junkies of Danny Boyle’s kinetic masterpiece listening to, as well as a soundtrack for the rising of a second British invasion. The first sound you hear is the cacophonous drums of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life,” and from there we drift into Saturday nights (New Order’s “Temptation”) and Sunday mornings (Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”; Brian Eno’s “Deep Blue Day”). At the same time, this is a tongue-in-cheek snapshot of the best British music happening at the time of Trainspotting’s 1996 release, with entries from Blur, Primal Scream, Elastica, and the club sounds of Leftfield and Underworld. —Chris Ryan
40. Top Gun
When remembering the Top Gun soundtrack, I and probably most people think of two songs: Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone” and Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away,” both of which are used in the film three or more times. While there are other fun music cues in the film—most notably the karaoke rendition of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” by Maverick and his wingmen—those two songs represent the equal parts action and romance that defined Top Gun and the now-obsolete “date night” movie genre that thrived in the 1980s and ’90s. Top Gun, though, is still very much alive, and hopefully the perpetually delayed sequel will have as many memorable music moments. For now, I’m just glad they didn’t use a gritty cover of “Danger Zone” in the Maverick trailer. —Ress
Who else would Tim Burton choose to curate the 1989 revival of Batman? Prince already won an Academy Award (Best Original Music Score) for Purple Rain in 1985; four years later, he delivered a quirky, eclectic mix of soul, funk, rock, and ballads for Burton’s blockbuster movie. “Batdance” held the no. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 for six consecutive weeks, becoming Prince’s first no. 1 song since “Kiss.” The soundtrack contains songs that give listeners an adrenaline rush and an excuse to dance (“Batdance,” “Trust,” “Partyman”) and bob their heads (“The Future,” “Electric Chair”; “Vicki Waiting”), as well as sensual ballads to vibe to (“Lemon Crush,” “Scandalous”). As a Black man, we have to address the nuance in our lives. Watching the “Batdance” video, you see the many facets of Prince: His identity as an artist, the POV of both Batman and the Joker. Prince never worried about identity. He confidently and unapologetically performed as himself every time he picked up an instrument. He never gave a damn about what people thought, which is a trait that was always ahead of its time. —Logan Murdock
38. The Royal Tenenbaums
Wes Anderson’s magnum opus about successful children stunted by the disappointments of adulthood is soundtracked by a longing for the past. Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” plays while Gene Hackman’s Royal teaches his disciplined grandsons the importance of childhood recklessness; an instrumental version of “Hey Jude” accompanies introductions to the family; and the theme from A Charlie Brown Christmas recurs with Gwyneth Paltrow’s sulking Margot. But the best needle drop of all most effectively evokes the Tenenbaums’ poignant nostalgia. As Margot steps off a bus to see her (adoptive, and also lovestruck) brother, Anderson’s usual whirlwind pace slows as the tender guitar plucks of Nico’s “These Days” enter. “These days I seem to think a lot about the things that I forgot to do / And all the times I had the chance to” sums up not just the two siblings’ relationship, but the exact feeling that brought the Tenenbaum family back together. —Ress
37. The Prince of Egypt
Like the movie itself, The Prince of Egypt’s soundtrack starts throwing heat from the very first frame of animation, and it does not relent until the very last. The film’s showstopping number, “When You Believe,” became a mainstream radio hit in the form of a duet by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, but—at the risk of blaspheming against two-thirds of the godhead—the film’s version, sung by Michelle Pfeiffer and Sally Dworsky, carries far more emotional weight. And even that might not be the best song in the movie. Few movie musicals, if any, bounce from the desperate brutality of “Deliver Us” to the conflict of “All I Ever Wanted” to Brian Stokes Mitchell’s jubilant baritone lead in “Through Heaven’s Eyes.” The Prince of Egypt is not only a great soundtrack, but it’s pivotal to the emotional heft of the movie; Disney has never done anything this good. —Baumann
36. Trouble Man
Trouble Man always takes me back to Marvin Gaye’s performance of the title song during his 1974 concert at the Oakland Coliseum. Years after the death of his onetime lover Tammi Terrell, he sought to conquer his stage fright on a winter evening in front of a packed Bay Area crowd. Throughout the night, he powered through his most famous tracks, including a voluptuous 11-minute “Fossil Medley,” while fighting through his notorious introversion. To understand Gaye’s performance that night is to understand his personal state of affairs during the time period: his serious battles with the IRS, his budding, tumultuous love affair with Janis Hunter, and his complicated relationship with fame. But his performance of “Trouble Man,” the third number of that 1974 evening, gives a glimpse of his fortitude. The song chronicles the life of a James Bond–like protagonist named Mr. T, who fights crime with a distinct level of cool. Moreover, T is a symbol of triumph for Black cinema in the 1970s, showing that melanin skin has agency in a predominantly white Hollywood. At the Coliseum, Gaye is attempting to achieve the same feat in his first on-stage performance in years. And with his infinite-octave voice still momentarily intact, he belts out a triumphant message two minutes into “Trouble Man” that doubles as a battle cry that will resonate for all eternity: “I come up hard, I had to win. Then start all over and win again.” —Murdock
35. The Big Chill
It’s no surprise that Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 elegy for a generation fueled by sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll would have a banging soundtrack. As Kasdan’s stacked cast of baby boomers gather together after the funeral of their friend, the feel-good Motown hits from their youth underscore the cynicism of their adulthood. The film’s most iconic scene, an impromptu kitchen dance number, has everyone in their WASPiest sweaters and khakis grooving down to the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” In a time before mixtapes took off and playlists even existed, this soundtrack—assembled by Lawrence’s Detroit-born wife, Meg Kasdan, and featuring Marvin Gaye, Three Dog Night, Aretha Franklin, and Procol Harum—was such a nostalgia-fueled hit with baby boomer audiences that it inspired a sequel: More Songs From the Original Soundtrack of the Big Chill. The original, an enduring bestseller, has been certified platinum six times. In other words, The Big Chill soundtrack walked so the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack could fly. —Joanna Robinson
2007: the year defined by side bangs, deep V-neck T-shirts, the frenzy of Facebook, and the Diablo Cody indie cut Juno. This film catapulted the exploitation of (hi, MTV!) and interest in teen pregnancy. Oh, and hamburger phones. It also simultaneously turned all 12-year-olds into Moldy Peaches fans. This soundtrack is the precursor to the wave of lo-fi indie rock to come, full of sweet songs that accurately depict the coming-of-age story Elliot Page so brilliantly portrays. Cat Power, the Velvet Underground, and Sonic Youth explain the heartache and confusion that comes with being a self-deprecating teen. “All I Want Is You” by Barry Louis Polisar is unforgettable in a Napoleon Dynamite–esque opening sequence in which Juno chugs Sunny D. I also really loved Michael Cera in those tight-ass shorts running to the Kinks’ “A Well Respected Man.” It was hot then. Maybe not so much now. —Lani Renaldo
As much as 1995’s Friday has been deified as one of the greatest stoner comedies of all time, it’s often forgotten how much of the movie unfolds like a coming-of-age tale. Fittingly, Friday’s soundtrack mirrors the arrested development of its protagonists, as if Craig’s fictional collection of new G-Funk and gangsta rap classics (Ice Cube’s “Friday,” Dr. Dre’s “Keep Their Heads Ringin’”) sits one rung below his father Willie’s funk and soul vinyls. At times the soundtrack marries the two periods—like the movie’s opening number, “Tryin’ to See Another Day” by the Isley Brothers, which is in the running for best song to sum up the entire plot of a movie and still sound good. But the film is at its funniest when it juxtaposes Craig and Smokey’s childish antics—getting high on a Friday afternoon, catcalling Nia Long—with the type of retro music their parents were probably listening to as they did the same years before (Rick James’s “Mary Jane,” Rose Royce’s “I Wanna Get Next to You”). Some things are timeless. —Charles Holmes
32. Donnie Darko
Today, using era-appropriate new wave bangers to set the mood of an angsty ’80s teen period piece might seem run-of-the-mill. But when future cult classic Donnie Darko was released in 2001, that genre hadn’t, well, become cool again. “We were just in that moment where people were not clamoring to license those songs yet,” director Richard Kelly told The Ringer in January. “Three, four years later, everyone started coming after ’80s songs.”
Donnie Darko features needle drops by Echo & the Bunnymen, Duran Duran, the Church, and, most memorably, Tears for Fears, whose “Head Over Heels” scores a captivating tracking shot through Donnie’s high school. But the film is actually best known for another Tears for Fears song, one that they didn’t even sing. Gary Jules and Michael Andrews’s stripped-down version of “Mad World,” which plays over the closing sequence, became an international hit. “It ingrained Gary and I into the fabric of culture, and sort of became almost like a verb,” Andrews said. “Like, ‘Oh, let’s “Mad World” that.’ Where you take something and you kind of turn it on its head.” —Siegel
Tupac Shakur was an actor before he was a rapper. A student at the Baltimore School for the Arts in the 1980s, he was known for the charm and fiery intensity he would later bring to wax. This is crucial to the mythology surrounding the rapper: When he auditioned for the role of Bishop in Juice, he wasn’t the superstar who would become one of his genre’s defining artists; he was an unknown, handsome kid who had to beat out a score of others for the part. He won the role and turned in a world-historically great villainous performance, which helped catapult him into fame, both at the cineplex and on the radio. But he’s entirely absent from the Juice soundtrack, a completely defensible decision at the time which seems like an enormous missed opportunity in retrospect.
In Pac’s stead, the Juice soundtrack includes some of the most important rap acts of 1991: Big Daddy Kane, EPMD, Queen Latifah, Too $hort, Cypress Hill, etc. Those artists all turn in solid, if not exactly earth-shattering tracks. But Juice makes this list off the strength of two songs: Naughty by Nature’s “Uptown Anthem,” which despite what the Billboard charts say may be their finest song, and Eric B. & Rakim’s “Know the Ledge.” The latter will go down as one of the best moments from the original God MC—over menacing upright bass and neck-snapping break, Rakim spits pure bragaddocio and street smarts for four minutes. It’s a rap staple—an ode to both the five boroughs and shit-talking—and the most important musical artifact from one of rap’s most important big-screen excursions (not counting the much-derided, but still lovable, DJ battle scene). That’s enough to secure this album’s legacy, even with the absence of Pac. —Sayles
30. Do the Right Thing
As much as the neighborhood, the color palettes, and the various dramatic spectacles, the soundtrack for Do the Right Thing enshrines the themes in the film. Transmitted by Samuel L. Jackson’s groovy We-Love Radio (108 FM), the music manages to convey the very climate at hand. So when Steel Pulse’s crooning reggae serenade “Can’t Stand It” appears about a third of the way into the movie, what we know is that the block is hot in more than one way—it is steaming outside and people are boiling inside. What truly sets the soundtrack apart, however, is how it’s able to wield the currents of love and hate simultaneously—how the most effective revolutionary anthem in the history of rap, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” appears perfectly in concert with Al Jarreau’s silky ballad “Never Explain Love.” On the soundtrack for Do the Right Thing, as in the film itself, the distance between love and hate is nonexistent. —Pryor
29. Space Jam
WELCOME TO THE JAM, IT’S YOUR CHANCE. From early ’90s house to techno to R&B, whoever curated this soundtrack knew and deeply understood the assignment. The beloved soundtrack features Seal, Quad City DJs, even Monica—and that barely covers the brilliance of this perfectly packaged hour and four minutes. (There’s an iconic song here that will go unmentioned, sullied as it is by its creator. But you know it, and probably remember your first time hearing it.) I’ll never forget the bliss of naively thinking Seal’s version of “Fly Like an Eagle” (originally by Steve Miller) was the best thing he’d ever penned. Not to mention, this is a children’s film that has a D’Angelo deep cut and an entire number whose sole purpose is to make fun of Charles Barkley. Finally, can someone please get “Buggin’,” the four-minute Bugs Bunny rap ghostwritten by Jay-Z, on Spotify? —Renaldo
28. Good Will Hunting
“I think even before we started shooting I was thinking in terms of Elliott’s music,” Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant told Boston Magazine about the multiple lush, melancholic songs by the late Elliott Smith that underlie Van Sant’s 1997 film. “No Name #3” plays during the “how do you like them apples?” scene. “Angeles” makes it even sadder when Minnie Driver hangs up a pay phone and convulses with just-dumped devastation. “Miss Misery,” which Smith wrote for the movie, kicks up right as Robin Williams reads the note that his client has gone to go see about a girl. (Smith performed the song at the Oscars that year, though it didn’t win, falling to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.”)
The music in Good Will Hunting also includes other work, like the rollicking “Fisherman’s Blues” and the sleazy “Baker Street,” as well as Danny Elfman’s tinkling score. But it’s Smith’s music that defines some of the film’s most affecting moments and traces the moody, hopeful relationship between the characters of Will and [extremely Boston accent] Skylar. —Katie Baker
27. Black Panther
If the degree of hype surrounding Black Panther’s release—the dashikis upon arrival, the children entranced, the idolizing acclaim—has dulled in recent years, the film’s soundtrack stands as an indelible monument to that moment. A collection of songs that grew into a stand-alone project, Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther: The Album, was a herculean task. It is a record made by the most critically acclaimed rapper of his generation and a stirring supplement to the most well-received outing of the most popular film franchise ever. And it’s excellent, by the way, even if its excellence differs from Kendrick’s standard fare. The Album understands all the ways a drum can talk. It conveys the infinite formats of African existence. It’s got a great verse from Future. Most of all, you can’t listen to it without thinking that if the album has all this, the film must be limitless. —Pryor
26. Marie Antoinette
Sofia Coppola’s historical drama about the last queen of France is a stylistic display of monarchical decadence, from immaculately decorated pastries, to intricate pastel gowns, to a soundtrack of loud punk and indie rock. The film opens with Kirsten Dunst as the titular queen in a large feather headpiece, sticking a finger in cake frosting while Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not in It” blares in the background. But Marie Antoinette is more than just lavish style—it also deals with themes of loneliness and adolescence, which are reflected in the music: The Strokes’ “What Ever Happened?” plays as Marie Antoinette longs for the extramarital affair that just ended, and the lush New Order cut “Ceremony” fades in over her 18th birthday party. Through it all, the Marie Antoinette soundtrack proves that teen angst is timeless. —Ress
25. Forrest Gump
The Forrest Gump soundtrack isn’t the soundtrack of a movie; it’s the soundtrack of America in the 20th century. It’s Now That’s What I Call Music: GOAT Classics. Everyone who’s anyone is on here. Aretha Franklin. Bob Dylan. Fleetwood Mac. Gladys Knight. Shoot, even Elvis, too (hilarious that he co-opts Forrest’s leg brace dance for “Hound Dog”; the King has a habit of stealing ideas from marginalized people.) If a movie is going to document the ebb and flow of American society over the course of 40 years, the music has to be integral—and Forrest Gump gets it spot on. From the “Fortunate Son” entrance into Vietnam to the subsequent “Turn! Turn! Turn!” peace protest, Forrest Gump consistently pairs the right tunes to the right scenes. And despite the vast range of emotion present in this movie, pretty much every song save for Joan Baez’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” is a banger (still a banger, in a different way). Go ahead and put on the Forrest Gump soundtrack at your next cookout or something—see if anyone really complains. —Jenkins
24. Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen brothers reunited with O Brother, Where Art Thou? super-producer T Bone Burnett to dig into the ’60s folk explosion in Greenwich Village. As with O Brother, the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack is packed with lesser-known traditional songs reimagined by modern performers like bluegrass legend Chris Thile and Marcus Mumford. Unlike O Brother, this album features multiple performances by its star, a pre-mega-fame Oscar Isaac, as well as vocally gifted supporting players Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, and Adam Driver. From the lone original track, the goofy “Please Mr. Kennedy,” to Isaac’s wailing solo on “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” the soothing folk harmonies blanket over the tumultuous struggle of trying to make it as an artist. The album could stand on Isaac’s emotional vocals alone, but Burnett sneaks in preexisting gems like Llewyn Davis’s real-life inspiration Dave Van Ronk on “Green, Green Rocky Road” and an unreleased studio recording of Bob Dylan’s “Farewell.” —Robinson
23. Dirty Dancing
You put a song from the Wall of Sound era on a soundtrack and I’m in (spoiler: Goodfellas is coming). But beyond including the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” the Dirty Dancing OST pulls off the remarkable feat of capturing the vibes of both the time the movie’s set in and the time when it was released. The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night” and Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs’ “Stay” firmly place Dirty Dancing in the era just before music would change teendom forever, while Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes” and the Patrick Swayze/Wendy Fraser collab “She’s Like the Wind” evoke the soft-rock glory of the 1980s. And is there any movie song bigger than “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”? No one puts that song in a corner. —Gruttadaro
22. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Fake movie music is a perplexing genre. Real musicians can barely manage to conjure a decent hit on their best days, so the process of watching an actor try to accomplish the same feat onscreen is often brutal. If filmmakers are lucky, they might trip into an Oscar-winning tune like Three 6 Mafia’s “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” but usually you end up with a monstrosity like Ally’s weird pop song “Why Did You Do That” in 2018’s A Star Is Born. That’s what makes 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, a movie ostensibly about a battle of the bands, such a peculiar artifact.
Based on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s successful graphic novels, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a rom-com centered on a battle of the bands where most of the characters have the fighting talents of a shonen manga. Through all of this, it’s Scott Pilgrim’s music that possibly ages the best. Most of the bands in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World are played by real musicians from 2000s-era indie rock: Beck created Sex Bob-Omb’s coarse and amateurish sound within 72 hours after being approached by director Edgar Wright and music producer Nigel Godrich. But Metric’s “Black Sheep,” played by the fictional Clash at Demonhead, is the film’s crown jewel. Sung in the movie by a pre–Captain Marvel Brie Larson, “Black Sheep” is the rare fake movie song that’s as good as the genre it’s riffing on. The world didn’t need a movie full of the type of early-aughts indie rock that’d make a Pitchfork critic salivate, but we got it. And Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is the best version of what could’ve been an insufferable timeline. —Holmes
21. Hustle & Flow
It got Triple Six an Oscar. That’s really all that needs to be said. We could talk about the fact that the soundtrack to Hustle & Flow contains some of the few decent rap performances by an actor ever (courtesy of Terrence Howard). We could discuss the collection of features from Juvenile, T.I., Trina, and 8Ball & MJG that furnish the record, one of which even charted in the Billboard Top 100. But really, all that matters when it comes to this soundtrack is that Three 6 Mafia, the Memphis polymaths behind “Slob on My Knob,” went up on stage at the 78th Academy Awards and deservedly accepted the Best Original Song prize for the song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” —Pryor
20. The Harder They Come
Years before Bob Marley’s Legend introduced a mostly white American audience to reggae, there was The Harder They Come, the 1972 Jamaican film starring Jimmy Cliff and its blockbuster soundtrack featuring Cliff and Trojan Records staples like Toots and the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, and the Melodians. Arguably, the soundtrack has had a bigger influence than the movie over the past five decades: While the noir lives on mostly as a film-school and cult concern, the OST routinely places in historical best–album lists, holds a place in the Library of Congress, and has been the recipient of massive deluxe reissues. That’s a credit to Cliff’s aching, all-time great performance on the title track, but also the infectious riffs of album cuts like “007 (Shanty Town).” Reggae didn’t need The Harder They Come in order to break out in the States, but it gave many listeners their first—and for many, their most enduring—taste of music from the Island. —Sayles
19. Velvet Goldmine
They say necessity is the mother of invention, and for his jukebox musical about the rise and fall of glam rock, director Todd Haynes faced quite the constriction: While he initially set out to make a straightforward David Bowie biopic, Bowie famously refused his blessing, leaving the director without the right to use his muse’s name—or, crucially, any of his songs.
Haynes has since proved himself one of our finest living chroniclers of pop legends, actually matching the creative genius of his subjects instead of merely depicting them. I’m Not There cast Cate Blanchett, among others, as a facet of Bob Dylan; the documentary The Velvet Underground uses a scarcity of actual footage to its advantage, using abstraction that does John Cale proud. Before either of these projects, though, there was Velvet Goldmine, which used Bowie’s absence to tell a story at once more oblique and more explicit than an overt Bowie tribute. Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s Brian Slade is a bit Bowie and a bit Jobriath; Ewan McGregor’s Curt Wild has bits of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. The fictional songs they play include works by both Reed and Bowie producer Brian Eno, plus contemporaries like Roxy Music and T. Rex, with originals artfully woven in between. (“The Ballad of Maxwell Demon,” named for Slade’s in-text alter ego, has Ziggy Stardust written all over it.) As a movie about music, Velvet Goldmine’s soundtrack was always going to be crucial to its success. But without any one source to lean on, it became a proxy for the film’s roving curiosity and clever conceit. Bowie didn’t realize it at the time, but he did us all a favor. —Alison Herman
18. Lost in Translation
The soundtrack of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is a model for contrast. Squarepusher, Air, Death in Vegas, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and Phoenix provide the synth-pop vibes that paint such a full picture of and give immense meaning to Bob and Charlotte’s “Is this it?” wanderings through Tokyo. It’s the music video for a whole sub-era of music starring Scarlett Johansson. Elsewhere, Patti Smith, Carly Simon, the Pretenders, and Roxy Music lend the soundtrack an air of maturity and wisdom (and stand alone as great karaoke picks). But it’s all beautiful and wistful and light. Until, of course: “suckin’ on my titties like you wanted me.” The Peaches needle drop in Lost in Translation is legendary, in large part because of the sonic context it’s forced into. “Fuck the Pain Away” isn’t nearly as triumphant if it’s not next to “More Than This.” —Gruttadaro
17. Romeo + Juliet
It’s safe to say critics were divided on Baz Luhrmann’s made-for-MTV spin on Shakespeare’s most famous love story. The film’s legacy only grew as its devoted teenage female fans sent its soundtrack up the charts. Album producers Nellee Hooper and Marius de Vries remixed a lesser-known Garbage B-side, “#1 Crush,” into the band’s only no. 1 single. Bouncy pop hit “Lovefool” made Swedish rockers the Cardigans a household name. Des’ree’s showstopper, “Kissing You,” performed during Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio’s electric fish tank meet cute, may be the song most iconically associated with the film. But, controversially, a track written for the film, Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)” isn’t on the album at the band’s request—they saved it for 1997’s OK Computer instead. No worries, though: Hooper’s remix of Radiohead’s “Talk Show Host” is more than a consolation prize. —Robinson
16. Garden State
Look, you just had to be there, OK?! This legend of LimeWire, this dean of the dorm room, this setlist of indie infamy: It’s Zach Braff’s ambient and once-omnipresent 2004 Garden State soundtrack, which the then-man-child himself described as “a mix CD with all of the music that I felt was scoring my life at the time I was writing the screenplay.” (He even went so far as to send prospective actors a copy of an actual mix CD along with said screenplay.)
Featuring moody Coldplay, multiple Shins songs, trippy Zero 7 and Thievery Corporation, and older tracks by Nick Drake and Simon & Garfunkel, the Garden State album sounded the way a dark, dank New Jersey basement with garish powder room wallpaper near an abandoned quarry felt. Braff’s choice of music, like his movie itself, is often discussed in a spirit of retrospective mockery and embarrassment, but it was extremely popular—even perceived by some, uh, friends of mine as profound!—at the time. And it has a lasting legacy: You gotta see this one meme. It will change your life, I swear. —Baker
Isaac Hayes is a somewhat odd avatar for Blaxploitation soundtracks. By the time he penned his first, he was already a massive mainstream success, with two Billboard top-10 albums and a third just a few months away. A composer today with a similar résumé wouldn’t be pigeonholed in Black, largely underground cinema. But the times being what they were, Hayes was tapped for his first soundtrack for Shaft, Gordon Parks’s film that punched its way out the trappings of its genre and became one of the biggest movies of 1971. At least part of that success can be traced to Hayes’s ubiquitous soundtrack, which included an iconic theme and perhaps the most instantly recognizable hi-hats in recorded history. The song would top the singles chart and later win an Academy Award. (Another song, the vocal number “Do Your Thing,” would land in the top 40.) The Shaft score cemented Hayes as one of the key figures of the Blaxploitation world—three years later, he’d both create the music for and star in Tough Guys and Truck Turner, which both failed to reach Shaft’s heights at the box office or the music charts but live on as samples for classic rap tracks. In the years that followed, the Blaxploitation genre fell out of favor and mostly disappeared. The Black Moses would never helm another soundtrack again. But with one as enormous as Shaft under his belt, he didn’t need to in order to go down as one of the greatest of all time, Blaxploitation or otherwise. —Sayles
It’s hard to flesh out a character who doesn’t even have a name, but as Ryan Gosling prepared for his lead role in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, he clued into how the Driver was essentially a caricature of brooding antiheroes. “This is a guy that’s seen too many movies, and he’s started to confuse his life for a film,” Gosling told Rotten Tomatoes in a 2011 interview. “He’s lost in the mythology of Hollywood and he’s become an amalgamation of all the characters that he admires.” That philosophy certainly extends to Drive’s soundtrack: a collection of Europop and synthwave tracks that, along with Cliff Martinez’s ambient score, sounds like what someone who wants to be cool thinks should belong on a cool guy’s driving playlist. Nevertheless, from the foreboding throb of Chromatic’s “Tick of the Clock” to Desire’s dreamy “Under Your Spell,” the Drive soundtrack is as irresistible as it strives to be. We can only hope the soundtrack to our own lives can sound as suave as this. —Miles Surrey
A myth about Cameron Crowe’s Singles is that it shamelessly capitalized on Seattle’s then-fertile music scene. But the truth is that the movie was shot in the spring of 1991, several months before Nirvana’s Nevermind came out and alt-rock went mainstream. The soundtrack to the romantic comedy, which wasn’t actually released until September 1992, is a perfect introductory sampler to grunge. There are songs by Pacific Northwest–bred bands like Mother Love Bone, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Screaming Trees. Chris Cornell, who makes a cameo in the film just like Pearl Jam, also contributed the memorably moody solo track “Seasons.” (Smashing Pumpkins, from Chicago, gave Crowe “Drown.”) The album is certainly Seattle-centric—Jimi Hendrix’s ballad “May This Be Love” is in there as well—but two of its best songs, “Waiting for Somebody” and “Dyslexic Heart” are by former Replacements frontman and Minneapolis-born Paul Westerberg. Singles is universal. —Alan Siegel
From its raucous album-opening treatment of “Kids in America” to its sassy (and Sassy-inspired) “Supermodel” kicker, the Clueless soundtrack is a reminder that just because you’re young, rich, beautiful, and rolling with the homies in Southern California doesn’t mean life isn’t hard, too. Overseen by music supervisor GOAT Karyn Rachtman—whose other work includes Reality Bites, Pulp Fiction, and Romeo + Juliet—the Clueless soundtrack is filled with angsty covers and performances from then-up-and-comers like Luscious Jackson, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Radiohead. (The latter being “complaint rock,” as Cher puts it to her stepbrother, Josh, echoing the real-life views of director Amy Heckerling.)
Not every song from the movie made its way into the soundtrack; most notably, “Just a Girl,” which Rachtman included in the film shortly before No Doubt released it as their first single from Tragic Kingdom, was left off the official soundtrack because of competing record label pettiness. But plenty of other work did, including from the Beastie Boys, Coolio, and Counting Crows. The result is a mostly high-tempo album that brims with the teenage frustration and heady energy of 1990’s adolescence, putting “As if!” into music. —Baker
11. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Hitting no. 1 on the Billboard 200 and winning three Grammys doesn’t automatically make a soundtrack great, but very few soundtracks can make similar claims of cultural popularity and penetration. O Brother coursed over the cultural landscape like floodwater, bringing banjos, folk music, and three-part harmonies to turn-of-the-century Hollywood. This soundtrack turned folk standards into modern earworms: “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” became a mainstream hit thanks to the Soggy Bottom Boys. Bluegrass icon Alison Krauss’s influence made “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” into a literal siren song, and put “Down to the River to Pray” into the repertoire of every high school choir in North America. This would’ve been an all-time great soundtrack if it had left no shadow at all, but you can draw a direct line from O Brother to the hipster-folk-and-Americana revival that shaped so much of the late 2000s and 2010s. Would there otherwise have been a Trampled by Turtles, Mumford and Sons, or the Lumineers? Would Chris Thile have remained a genre artist instead of becoming a MacArthur-anointed “genius” had Everett and the boys not busted up Homer Stokes’s gubernatorial campaign? I think not. —Baumann
10. Saturday Night Fever
No offense to rug-cutting Academy Award nominee John Travolta, but without its soundtrack, Saturday Night Fever would not be considered an American classic. Producer Robert Stigwood’s brainchild, which stayed on top of the Billboard chart for six months, is one of the best-selling albums of all time. (The only soundtrack that’s sold more copies is Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard.) Three of the songs that the Bee Gees contributed—“Stayin’ Alive,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” and “Night Fever”—hit no. 1. Yvonne Elliman’s version of “If I Can’t Have You,” which the Bee Gees wrote, also topped the chart. The movie’s music cues have been referenced so much that they became too much of a cliché to even spoof in a fresh way. Not that that doesn’t make them any less iconic. —Siegel
9. Dazed and Confused
Richard Linklater’s 1993 high school classic, set at the cusp of the summer of 1976, was a film with music so good and so densely packed that it spawned not one but two soundtrack albums that became absolute CaseLogic staples. (The tag line to the second one: “They Found Your Stash…Again!”) Dazed and Confused’s music captures what it feels like to be a teen driving around, and around, and around, on an endless quest for a moon tower of one’s own. Many of the songs appear in the film by way of someone’s car radio.
As Steven Hyden wrote for The Ringer, Linklater’s musical choices throughout the film were not cheap, with songs from Bob Dylan and Aerosmith running in the five figures. But the payoff came in the form of a specificity that keeps Dazed and Confused feeling fresh and familiar. Those opening chords of “Sweet Emotion” shimmer like a hot Texas sunrise. (That song, along with “Hurricane,” are in the movie but not on either soundtrack album.) “Jim Dandy” sounds exactly like a bunch of dudes up to no good. “Love Hurts” will forever equate to junior-high slow dance; “Why Can’t We Be Friends” will always mean mustard. And “Tuesday’s Gone” is the official song of a hungover glance in one’s rearview mirror, that moon tower having finally been found. —Baker
8. Almost Famous
In putting together the soundtrack for Almost Famous, former rock journalist Cameron Crowe set himself two impossible tasks. He had to both create a believable hit for his fictional band Stillwater and assemble an album worthy of a film that worships at the church of 1970s rock ’n’ roll. For the former, Crowe had an ace up his sleeve: his then-wife, ex-Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson. The track, “Fever Dog,” with howling lead vocals from Aerosmith producer Marti Frederiksen and guitar from both Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready and Wilson herself, easily makes the case for Stillwater. For the latter challenge, Crowe mixed deeper cuts like the Beach Boys’ “Feel Flows” and a bootleg David Bowie cover of “I’m Waiting for the Man” with familiar hits like Cat Stevens’s “The Wind,” and, most memorably, Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” Crowe’s semi-autobiographical love letter to 1970s rock is so pure it inspired Led Zeppelin to allow their songs on a soundtrack for the first time ever. Though the original Grammy-winning album is a banger, it barely scratches the surface of the music used in the fim. Thankfully, in 2021, a 20th anniversary “super deluxe” edition of the soundtrack was released featuring over 50 additional songs. —Robinson
7. The Bodyguard
It is undeniable that Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston are infatuated with one another in this film. (They should’ve been together. Fight me.) It is also undeniable that Ms. Houston can sing her ass off. The Bodyguard is the bestselling soundtrack of all time, and it’s easy to see why. It’s built on a foundation of genius. The track list is laden with emotionally charged hits like “I Will Always Love You” (shout-out Dolly Parton, nothing will ever top that key change) and “I Have Nothing.” Plus, Whitney’s funky Chaka Khan cover, produced by C+C Music Factory, “I’m Every Woman” is extraordinary. There’s also an LA Reid–Babyface cut, in which Kevin Costner is surrounded and wrapped up in Whitney’s brilliance. Whitney had us all trying to sing like her. Especially that girl on Vine. —Renaldo
6. Above the Rim
Unlike when he starred in Juice, Tupac was a known commodity by the time he was cast as Birdie in the street-ball parable Above the Rim. And Death Row Records, getting its first shot at a soundtrack showcasing its blockbuster might, took full advantage of the rapper’s rapidly rising star. Pac appears on two songs on the Above the Rim OST: the classic “Pour Out a Little Liquor” and the deep cuts “Pain” and “Loyal to the Game” (the latter two only appearing on the deluxe version of the album not available on streaming). Those alone would land Above the Rim on any soundtracks ranking, but the project is also packed wall-to-wall with massive songs from the contemporary Death Row roster (Lady of Rage’s “Afro Puffs,” Tha Dogg Pound’s “Big Pimpin’”) and songs that showed the full potential of the marriage between hip-hop and R&B (SWV’s “Anything” and its Wu-Tang Clan remix remains a throwback anthem, while Sweet Sable’s “Old Time’s Sake” flips an Eddie Kendricks staple into something both rugged and sultry). The centerpiece is one of the finest songs G-funk ever produced: Warren G and Nate Dogg’s “Regulate,” a tale of chasing women, dice games gone wrong, car crashes, and smoking weed backed by Michael McDonald. It’s as engrossing as any soundtrack named on this list. —Sayles
5. Super Fly
Shortly after I got my driver’s license at 18, I made a habit of driving around Oakland in the late hours of the night—through East 14th, up Fruitvale, and past Bancroft to the San Leandro border—before driving back home. On most nights I’d play Marvin Gaye or some out-of-pocket contemporary rap. But no album captured the essence of my route quite like Curtis Mayfield’s magnum opus Super Fly. “Little Child Runnin’ Wild” brings memories of driving by the Ira Jenkins Community Center, remembering all the childhood homies trying to make a better way. “Freddie’s Dead” provides vivid images of Highland Hospital, where many souls left us too soon, while “Pusherman,” Mayfield’s most famous track, provides a reminder that it’s time to get on the 580 freeway and head home. Those drives encapsulated Mayfield’s goal of making the score for the iconic soundtrack: to provide context to a community forgotten by society, and hopefully spark a positive change. —Murdock
I could write about the way Martin Scorsese leans on a heaping of music from 1960s girl groups—the Crystals, the Shangri-Las, the Ronettes, Darlene Love—in Goodfellas as a way to contrast a feminine innocence with the hyper-masculine violence of his movie’s characters. I could go on and on about the sonic tour de force that scores the helicopter scene near the end of the film, as the frantic cuts between Harry Nilsson, Mick Jagger, The Who and George Harrison mimic Henry Hill’s coke-addled mania; about the brilliant needle drop of Sid Vicious’ cover of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” in the credits, a perfect musical accompaniment to Henry’s closing treatise on how the good old days are dead and gone. But really, I just wanna drop in the clip of the piano keys of “Layla” kicking in as the camera pans up on a pink Cadillac, signaling the end times for a certain kind of gangster.
My work here is done. —Gruttadaro
3. Pulp Fiction
Recently, Quentin Tarantino described raiding his record collection as an integral part of the process of finding “the spirit of the movie.” “If you do it right, if you use the right song, in the right scene; really when you take songs and put them in a sequence in a movie right, it’s about as cinematic a thing as you can do,” he explains.
When the opening guitar riff of Dick Dale’s 1962 cover “Miserlou” transitions with the flick of a radio knob to Kool & the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” during the opening credits of Pulp Fiction, it does more to explain the scrapbook nature of the movie than any dialogue can. And the film’s best needle drops often have an undercurrent of dark humor. Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” soundtracks the first tense meeting between Marsellus and Butch, two individuals stuck in an excruciating game of cat and mouse. Vincent and Mia’s iconic twist scene—a momentary reprieve from Vega’s tense date with his boss’s new wife—is heightened by the inclusion of Chuck Berry’s ode to a teenage wedding, “You Can Never Tell.”
Does all this mean you should play the Pulp Fiction soundtrack at your next get-together? No. Some things are simply best loved in solitude. —Holmes
2. The Lion King
The Lion King is the reason you and/or your child became a musical person; the reason you could share an emotional connection with any number of strangers on the other side of the world just by shouting “Naaaaaziveniiaaaaa babadibabada.” You still have no idea what the exact order of letters are in those words, or even what it translates to, but it doesn’t matter. The Lion King soundtrack transcends language and borders. Never mind that Simba is essentially singing “I can’t wait for my father to die” in “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”—the song is so damn catchy. And “Hakuna Matata” became an actual phrase in the English lexicon that someone could say out loud and you’d nod and be like, “True.” It speaks to the musical genius of Elton John and his collaborators, and you should totally listen to John’s versions of the tracks to grasp the genius that went into making some of the finest songs written for film—children’s movie or not. —Jenkins
1. Purple Rain
At the end of Purple Rain, Prince sings a statement that acts like a self-affirmation but, after everything you’ve just seen, reads like the biggest understatement ever uttered: “Baby, I’m a star.”
Prince’s 1984 movie and accompanying soundtrack is a moment of pure genius and vision, on a level rarely committed to film and wax. From the opening of “Let’s Go Crazy” to the overflowing passion of “The Beautiful Ones” to the catharsis of the title track, every song on Purple Rain is mindblowing, and the true gift of the movie—aside from its good-bad leanings, which are sublime in their own right—is being able to witness Prince perform them. The way he writhes and thrusts through “Darling Nikki”! The “Computer Blue” breakdown! With one movie, and the best soundtrack ever made, Prince makes sure you know and never forget: baby, he’s a star. —Gruttadaro