The 20 Best Movie Soundtracks of All Time

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By the Editors

Oscar weekend is upon us, and so, therefore is talk of movies—and movie soundtracks. Which got us here at Weeping Elvis wondering– what are the best movie soundtracks of all time?

Now, a movie doesn’t need a defining soundtrack to be great … but it it sure helps, especially in the case of generation- and genre-defining pictures.

In discussing and assembling this list, criteria was critical. Film scores, no matter how great (Star Wars, Johnny Greenwood’s work for There Will Be Blood) were out. We’re still essentially talking about pop songs being enlisted to serve a film. But we also largely eliminated retrospective anthologies designed to evoke nostalgia (Big Chill, we’re talking to you) in favor of highly curated contemporaneous soundtracks designed to evoke place, time and mood.

This, then, is our list…

20. Empire Records

It’s not surprising that a movie about an independent record store and its employees would have a soundtrack that takes a perfect snapshot of the musical zeitgeist at the time. What is surprising is that the soundtrack caught on the way it did despite the fact that the movie was never released theatrically. (See our sidebar feature from the film’s music supervisor, Jonathan McHugh.) While the cast of Empire Records were a bunch of young up-and-comers at the time of its release (1995), they now read like a who’s who of Hollywood. The soundtrack, however, was packed with new, hit songs by some of the biggest bands of the 90s: Gin Blossoms, The Cranberries, Toad The Wed Sprocket, Cracker and introduced Edwyn Collins to the States with “A Girl Like You.” – JEEVES


19.   Repo Man
As a buzz-cut and angst-ridden Emilio Estevez wanders with Harry Dean Stanton through director Alex Cox‘s nihilistic dystopia of 80s Los Angeles with a radioactive alien in the trunk, we are treated to a musical snapshot of teenage punk alienation at its cynical best. Iggy Pop singing the theme song. The Circle Jerks performing a lounge version of “When the Shit Hits the Fan.” Plus Suicidal Tendencies! Black Flag!! Fear!!! But be forewarned: listen too long to this soundtrack and you’ll soon find yourself behind the wheel of a glowing ’64 Chevy Malibu, eating a plate of shrimp and singing “Secret Agent Man” in Spanish as you cruise down the middle of the L.A. River looking for “tense situations.” – HUEY


18.   Grosse Point Blank/Say Anything/Hi Fidelity
The soundtracks to these three movies launched more Gen X makeout sessions than Bartles & Jaymes.  There was a time in the 90s when you were guaranteed a kickass soundtrack if John Cusack was in the movie, as though he were personally moonlighting as music supervisor in every film in which he starred. Taken together, the soundtracks to the “Cusack Trilogy” are enough to make you want to throw on a Members Only jacket, a pair of Vans and some Vuarnet sunglasses as you recategorize your music collection—not alphabetically, but autobiographically. – HUEY

17.   Garden State
Much of the credit (or blame) for the hipster proliferation can be attributed to this movie and its Grammy-winning soundtrack. Zach Braff handpicked these songs (like another writer/director on this list) as he was writing the screenplay, so it’s no surprise that these songs together, within the context of the film, resonate so strongly. Many people’s first introduction to The Shins (Natalie Portman passes her headphones to Braff and declares, “You gotta hear this one song — it’ll change your life; I swear.”), occurred with this album, and deep, lyrical contributions from Colin Hay, Thievery Corporation, Frou Frou and Iron and Wine (covering The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights”) round out the soundtrack. So if you see a bunch of 5′ 7″ guys wearing scarves in 80-degree weather and hopping off their Vespa complaining about their First World problems, chances are good that this soundtrack is in their iPod. Coachella wouldn’t be Coachella without Garden State. – JEEVES


16.   Trainspotting
The U.K. had its own creative explosion in the 1990s, led by the BritPop and Madchester scenes where drugs flowed faster than the River Irwell. Fitting, then, that this thematic soundtrack to the Danny Boyle film included many artists who battled addiction over the years, like Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, as well as post-punk/New Wave influences like New Order and Brian Eno. Sleeper‘s perfectly-updated cover of Blondie’s “Atomic,” Elastica‘s frenetic “2:1”, and Primal Scream‘s 8-minute trip through heroin-inflected chimeras all serve to enhance the theme and treat the ears.  The iconic Underworld track “Born Slippy” is perhaps as identifiable with this film as any song could be, capturing the mad race onto the slippery slope of addiction and the difficulties of making it back up that treacherous hill.  BEHRNSIE


15.   Almost Famous
This is what you get when a wunderkind writer/director—the youngest-ever writer for Rolling Stone—writes a thinly veiled autobiographical account of the impact music had on him growing up. Cameron Crowe‘s love for music is as innocent, pure and bright eyed as the protagonist in the movie and the hand-selected songs on this 2001 Grammy-winner show that. The songs by Elton John, Paul Simon, The Beach Boys, The Allman Brothers, David Bowie and others aren’t their most popular or well known (before this movie). But they all serve a distinct purpose for Crowe, a director who will curate and play songs during takes that he thinks capture and enhance the feeling of the scenes for his actors. – JEEVES


14.   Apocalypse Now
This is the end” warbles Jim Morrison during the unplanned and very real Martin Sheen smashup scene of booze, blood and glass that gets the action started in one of film’s greatest opening moments. How foreboding and foretelling this lyric comes to be. When the song gives way to eerie silence in the following scene, we feel as if we have already experienced a movie’s worth of roller coaster-like emotion. Musical accompaniment was critical to director Francis Ford Coppola, as he gives us a flying cavalry of helicopters storming to their destination as if propelled by Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries,” a late-teens Lawrence Fishburne jamming to The Stones’ “Satisfaction” and Robert Duvall’s company of men taking the waves to The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ Safari.” But no matter how light or dark a moment might be, it is always expertly underscored by the exquisitly chosen songs and score that guide us into the heart of musical darkness that is the soundtrack for Apocalypse Now. – CLEM


13.   Singles
Cameron Crowe spends a great deal of time on his soundtracks, and in the case of Singles, brought in a samurai master (Paul Westerberg) to score the film while creating the most coherent compilation of early 1990s rock music (conspicuously absent: Nirvana). Westerberg curated as only an outsider could (see: De Tocqueville, Alexis) and pulled two fantastic original songs from Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins, a hypnotic Zeppelin cover, the best of Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees and Mother Love Bone, and threw two gems of his of his own on top.  All that while tipping his hat to the role Jimi Hendrix played in developing the sludgy sound of 1990s Seattle, and creating an album that went platinum and reached the Top Ten. – BEHRNSIE


12.   American Graffiti
Sometimes greatness emerges from adversity. George Lucas was forced to make his semi-autobiographical 1973 film about life in central California with a budget of only $775,000. The studio wanted to save bucks and use “sound-alikes,” but Lucas wanted the original songs of the 50s and early 60s, as the film was set in 1963.  After licensing deals were struck (save with RCA, thus no Elvis songs), however, there was now no budget for a film score. So the 40 songs he now had the rights to became soundtrack and score–with artists like Bill Haley and the Comets, Buddy Holly, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry and The Platters being introduced by nationally syndicated DJ “Wolfman” Jack. – CLEM


11.   Super Fly
Curtis Mayfield’s 1972 masterpiece Super Fly is the musical eruption that resulted when 60s soul met 70s funk and spawned a genre all its own: blaxploitation music. One of the few soundtracks in history to outgross the film on which it’s based, the Super Fly LP is the definitive chronicle of the urban blight that engulfed inner city America as a decade of idealism gave way to a stark new reality. From the bongos and high-hat groove of the intro to “Little Child Running Wild,” you’re suddenly deep in the ghetto, and (funky horn section and wah-wah pedal notwithstanding) it’s not a welcoming place. Equal parts James Brown and Gil Scott Heron, the record is so funky that you could easily get caught up in its hypnotic groove, almost oblivious to the trenchant social commentary in Mayfield’s lyrics. Almost. HUEY


10.   Valley Girl
Next to the John Hughes films of the period, this story of a punk rocker from the city (Nicolas Cage) meeting a girl from the Valley (Deborah Foreman) captured the zeitgeist of what was cool in the early 80s.  An array of new wave artists including The Psychedelic Furs, Josie Cotton, Modern English, the Payolas, Sparks and The Plimsouls provided the audio backdrop that powered this romantic comedy. Although many of the bands were one-hit wonders, the album as a whole hangs together as an iconic collection, and its influence can be felt by many teen themed soundtracks that have since followed. Totally rad. – FERRISE


9.    Easy Rider
At first blush, it’s easy to dismiss this score as another hippie trip down Memory Lane in Boomer-ville, USA. But there are key difference between this soundtrack and, say, Good Morning, Vietnam or Forrest Gump. First, it was released contemporaneously, in the middle of the movement itself, not 20 years later. And second, much of the material here isn’t radio-friendly; Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9” and Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher” was challenging stuff, even in its time. Befitting for a film that challenged the hippie dream as much as it glorified it. – SIR DUKE


8.    Saturday Night Fever
Forget the bell bottoms, John Travolta’s hair and dance moves that have become a wedding-reception punchline. There may never have been a soundtrack that defined a moment–albeit a fleeting one–like this. The infectiously upbeat music on this album became the soundtrack for an earlier generation of club kids, whose discotheques were an escape from the urban decay and the Carter-era malaise around them. Sure, the Bee Gees dominate, but the credits read like a murderer’s row of late 70s pop artists, with Kool and the Gang, K.C. and the Sunshine Band and Tavares rounding out the mix.   SIR DUKE


7.    Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino not only created a movie genre, but redefined and the scope and power of the soundtrack as it relates to a film. Part surf rock, part 70s funk and soul, these songs were extensions of the characters, blinking beacons into Pulp Fiction‘s world. The movie’s dialogue was so lyrical and tight, snippets made it onto the album as tracks as well. Hear Dick Dale and his Deltones “Misirlou” opening the movie and boom, you were in it. Uma Thurman singing along to Urge Overkill’s cover of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” might be the greatest sex scene without any actual sex ever. – JEEVES


6.    Pretty in Pink
To say that John Hughes’s films, like the Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, were integral pop culture touchstones for 80s teens is an understatement. However, in 1986 when Pretty in Pink came out, it wasn’t the teen angst plotline of Molly Ringwald’s life that caught people’s attention so much as the soundtrack.  Whereas previous Hughes soundtracks had one or two standout songs, every track here was solid. Plus, contributions from the Smiths with “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want,” New Order’s “Shellshock” and Suzanne Vega’s “Left of Center” added a darker quality that wasn’t present in the auteur’s previous films. From INXS to Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark to the Psychedelic Furs’ re-recorded version of “Pretty In Pink,” the album is unsurpassed in capturing the spirit of the decade. FERRISE


5.    O, Brother Where Art Thou?
What do you do when you want to set the true Americana tone of a film set in the Depression-era South? If you’re the Coen Bros., you tap musician/producer T-Bone Burnett to create your sonic canvas before a script is even written and let that help to determine the look of the movie. You record maybe our purest bluegrass singer, Dan Tyminski, voicing a couple of versions of “Man Of Constant Sorrow” for George Clooney, and you get some of our greatest Americana vocalists like Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris to give a nightingale’s touch to a number of tunes. You even go DEEP into the world of traditional country and Gospel and add The Cox Family and The Whites for total authenticity. And who but Burnett could imagine using the a capella voice of Dr. Ralph Stanley on the Appalachian folk tune “Oh Death”—juxtaposed against a droning chant, a la the guards in The Wizard of Oz—as the backdrop for a KKK rally? – CLEM


4.    The Harder They Come
With the possible exception Bob Marley’s 1977 magnum opus Exodus, the 1972 soundtrack to the film The Harder They Come is the greatest reggae album of all time. (If it’s any consolation to Mr. Marley, it took six phenomenal artists—including Toots & The Maytals, Desmond Dekker and The Melodians— to give him a run for his money!) The songs on this accompaniment to Jimmy Cliff’s star turn as a Kingston gangster were curated by Cliff himself and represent some of the purest expressions of ska, rocksteady and roots reggae ever recorded. There are very few examples of absolute perfection in the world; this album is one of them. – HUEY


3.    Purple Rain
Nearly everyone of a certain generation can tell you where they were the first time they heard “When Doves Cry,” one of two No. 1 hits spawned here. Innovations like a lack of a bass line, envelope-pushing synth sounds and a brilliant vocal performance by His Purpleness shaped not only “When Doves Cry” but the rest of the soundtrack’s songs as well. Then there were the Grammys, The Oscar for Best Song and sales of over 20 million. Not just great songs, these concert favorites moved the plot of Purple Rain like the score of a Broadway musical. Prince, (who now would add “The Revolution” to his act’s name ) was already well-established in the wake of his breakout 1999 but the success of Purple Rain ratcheted that up another notch as this album/soundtrack managed to be as commercially successful as it was artistically innovative. – CLEM


2.    The Graduate
In a just world, there would be festivals, symposia, required curriculum and a multitude of statues and other venerations for The Graduate.  Not surprisingly for a film of this caliber, the soundtrack not only plays a fundamental role in its emotivity, but also heightens the sense of time and place while reinforcing both scene and theme. It is simultaneously cohesive, incisive, thematically poignant and ballsy (the soundtrack opens and closes with versions of “The Sound of Silence”!) There’s a bracing juxtaposition of the gentle, post-adolescent ennui inherent in Simon and Garfunkel’s folk vis-à-vis the strident confidence of affluence symbolized within the elder generations’ foxtrots and big band. This generational gap is further echoed in the versions of beautiful and harmonious songs like “April Come She Will” and “Scarborough Fair,” where the addition of a dissonant layer of orchestral strings presages the art rock compositions that emerged decades later with bands like Sonic Youth. It is a soundtrack that captures the timeless love of love itself and the pristine pursuit of happiness that Benjamin and Elaine found in the back of that bus… or so we hope.


1.    A Hard Day’s Night
Almost alone in pop culture, Hard Day’s Night offers up a groundbreaking film, which still lands on many critics’ top 100 all-time lists, and combines it with a soundtrack that has a place on many all-time great album lists. Released in 1964 just when Beatlemania was in full flower, the accompanying album–their first of all-original material–also represents Lennon and McCartney coming into their own as songwriters, and beginning to build the bridge to what we’d come to know as “the 60s.” Roger Ebert quips: “Untold thousands of young men walked into the theater with short haircuts, and their hair started growing during the movie and didn’t get cut again until the 1970s.” – SIR DUKE

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