In many ways, a film’s soundtrack is every bit as important as the actors, dialog and everything else that go into making a movie. Imagine if, instead of “Stayin’ Alive,” John Travolta strutted through the opening sequence of Saturday Night Fever to the sounds of “Anarchy In the UK.” OK, bad example, because that would have been pretty awesome also, but still, totally different movie if that happens. Here is a look at 25 of the greatest film soundtracks of all time.
25. The Dark Knight – Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard
From one of the greatest superhero movies of all time comes the greatest superhero movie soundtrack of all time. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s The Dark Knight soundtrack is a brooding, menacing masterpiece. Much like in the movie itself, The Joker steals the show on this soundtrack. “Why So Serious?,” the album opener, is the perfect opening track for a score that does as great of a job of familiarizing the listener with the characters as the film itself.
24. Above The Rim – Various Artists
There was a time in the late 90′s when it seemed as if the sole purpose of some movies was to provide a reason to release an awesome hip hop soundtrack. It started with New Jack City, it peaked with Above the Rim. You remember that movie, right? Of course you don’t. But there’s a pretty solid chance that Warren G’s Michael McDonald sampling hip hop classic “Regulate” has been stuck in your head for the better part of 10 years or so.
23. The Virgin Suicides – Air
Sophia Coppola was so taken with French electronica duo Air’s debut album Moon Safari that she asked them to write the score for her directorial debut The Virgin Suicides. Fans eagerly awaiting a proper follow up from the duo were not disappointed. The soundtrack featured 50% less vocals than Moon Safari, but that just means instead of two songs with vocals there was only one. Nobody comes to an Air party to hear people sing anyway.
22. Parade (Music From “The Motion Picture Under The Cherry Moon”) – Prince
Some soundtracks are just a little bit better than their respective movies. And then, there is Parade. The soundtrack was recorded in the midst of Prince’s phenomenal run of 1980′s albums and includes some of his greatest work ever (“Kiss”, “Girls and Boys”, “Sometimes It Snow In April”). The movie. Well, that’s a different story.
21. Trainspotting – Various Artists
With the type of subject matter that was tackled in the movie Trainspotting, it was going to take a special collection of songs to put together a soundtrack that made any kind of sense. The people responsible for the Trainspotting soundtrack pulled it off excellently. Mixing 90′s britpop with classics from Lou Reed, New Order and, most memorably, Iggy Pop, works as a great listen even outside the context of the film.
20. One From The Heart – Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle
One of the last releases from Tom Waits’ early-career jazz period, One From the Heart is a tremendous soundtrack that went unjustly ignored thanks to the controversy surrounding its accompanying movie. At the time of its release, the film was met with a torrential wave of critical disdain, and deservedly so. But it’s a shame that some of Tom Waits most beautifully penned tunes of all time had to suffer as a result.
19. Star Wars – John Williams
You know who doesn’t like the Star Wars theme? Jerks. That’s who. Jerks and dead people. It’s like the Rocky theme for geeks. This soundtrack could be that one track (which is awesomely called “Rebel Blockade Runner” by the way) repeated fifteen times and it would still be worth owning. Luckily for us, this soundtrack is packed with goodness from front to back. Bonus points for the death metal sounding song titles (“Imperial Attack,” “Burning Homestead,” “Detention Block Ambush”).
18. The Graduate – Simon and Garfunkel/Dave Grusin
Despite what the song titles may suggest, this isn’t really an essential Simon and Garfunkel album. Many of the classics here appear as alternate versions and can be found in better form elsewhere. But what makes this soundtrack work is the juxtaposition of Simon and Garfunkel tunes and lounge music songs. A great time capsule of the widening generation gap at the time that made The Graduate such a great film.
17. Garden State – Various Artists
Contrary to what Natalie Portman would have you believe, The Shins most likely will not change your life. If you’ve hit rock bottom and you’re looking for a way out, “New Slang” isn’t going to help. Try Jesus (or booze). With that said, if you’re looking for a fantastic introduction to some bands you may very well still not have heard of (and Coldplay), this is a good place to look. The fact that it includes a Nick Drake tune makes this infinitely better than most soundtracks you will ever hear.
16. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut – Various Artists
When the talk turns to the biggest Academy Award snubs of all time, you wouldn’t expect South Park to come into the discussion. But when Phil Collins beat out “Blame Canada,” that was a travesty. The original songs from the film take up less than 30 minutes of the soundtrack. To make up for it several bonus tracks are added. They didn’t need to bother though, those original songs come together to make for the most hilarious 30 minutes of listening imaginable.
15. The Magical Mystery Tour – The Beatles
It’s almost like cheating, isn’t it? Well get used to it, this isn’t the last time The Beatles will show up on this list. The movie was a trainwreck, but that wasn’t completely The Beatles’ fault. The BBC inexplicably broadcast the movie, which was intended as an explosion of vision and color, in black and white. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is, well, magical. Not only does it include some of the bands’ most underrated classics ever (“Bluejay Way,” “Fool On the Hill,” “I Am the Walrus”), but it also rights the heinous wrong committed on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” It includes “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.”
14. Singles – Various Artists
If you’re looking for a good introduction to the Seattle invasion of the early 90′s, there are definitely worst places to start than this soundtrack. With tracks from scene founders (Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone, Screaming Trees) and outsiders (Smashing Pumpkins), it’s a fantastic timecapsule of a scene just starting to blossom. No Nirvana though. That’s nonsense. Singles is also notable for tricking the music buying public into thinking Paul Westerberg’s solo career wasn’t going to be a sad shadow of his Replacements years. His two contributions here alone, his first since the band disbanded, are worth the price of the soundtrack.
13. Beat Street – Various Artists
If you can find it, there is some great old school hip-hop to be found on the Beat Street soundtrack. Afrika Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay, Melle Mel, The Treacherous Three. It’s like a who’s who of rap’s founding fathers. Sadly, it’s now out of print.
12. Shaft – Isaac Hayes
“Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?” You don’t need me to tell you. You know it’s Shaft. Sure you’re right. Aside from the ridiculously epic and legendary “Theme From Shaft,” there really isn’t too much else of note on this soundtrack. But really, what else do you need?
11. Easy Rider – Various Artists
Just like the Singles soundtrack works as a soundtrack of the 90′s, the Easy Rider soundtrack might as well be the soundtrack of the 60′s. It even excludes the most important bands, just like Singles! Missing Beatles and Stones aside, there is greatness aplenty to be found here. Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix and The Band all make appearances. But the star of this show is Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild.” You can’t hear that song without picturing Peter Fonda on a Harley. Even if you weren’t born when the movie came out.
10. Pulp Fiction – Various Artists
No matter what you think about his movies, you have to admit, Quentin Tarantino has exquisite taste in music. When he releases a film, there is always a soundtrack with tons of great songs you’ve never heard on it to go along with it. My personal favorite is the Death Proof soundtrack. April March’s “Chick Habit” over the closing credits was gold. But the Pulp Fiction soundtrack is where it all started. Al Green, Kool & The Gang, Dusty Springfield, an indie rock Neil Diamond cover. It’s all pretty damn great.
9. Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid – Bob Dylan
On paper, the idea of Bob Dylan helming a mostly instrumental western movie score doesn’t sound too great. Amazingly, Dylan and his assembled bunch of studio guns pull it off in grand style. Even if they didn’t, this is the album that gave the world “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” Much like the Shaft soundtrack, it just takes that one amazing song to make this a worthwhile purchase.
8. O Brother, Where Art Thou? – Various Artists
Gloriously, bluegrass music experienced a bit of a renaissance in the new millennium. This soundtrack had everything to do with it. Featuring tracks from bluegrass vets like Ralph Stanley, newcomers like Alison Krauss, and a killer rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow” from Dan Tyminski, this soundtrack does a stellar job of giving the novice listener a great introduction to the up-to-that-point overlooked bluegrass genre. An excellent collection of songs that will leave you wanting to hear more.
7. The Last Waltz -The Band w/various artists
The soundtrack to the greatest rock documentary ever. Put a camera in a room with a band on the verge of a breakup and normally you can expect total chaos (see Let It Be, for example). Not so with The Last Waltz. Live performances from The Band and heavyweights like Eric Clapton and his faulty guitar strap, Neil Young and his digitally removed cocaine booger and Neil Diamond and his chest hair are mixed with interviews with the band members reminiscing on better days. This soundtrack collects all of the performances from the documentary. You should own it.
6. The Harder They Come – Jimmy Cliff w/various artists
Bob Marley is often credited with bringing reggae music to the masses. And rightly so. But this compilation had a lot to do with it also. Jimmy Cliff starred in the film and stars on the soundtrack as well with five songs, including the stone classic title track. Cuts from Toots and the Maytals, Desmond Dekker and others round things out and make this a great introduction to one of reggae music’s greatest periods.
5. Superfly – Curtis Mayfield
Isaac Hayes may have pulled off the most memorable song from the blaxploitation era, but Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly soundtrack is the more superior album by a million miles. If this album was released today, it would probably still be a hit. In short, if you don’t own this, you should be ashamed. The movie is worth checking out as well, if for no other reason than to hear this hilariously dated quote…”You’re gonna give all this up? Eight Track Stereo, color T.V. in every room, and can snort a half a piece of dope everyday? That’s the American Dream, ni**a!”
4. Grease – Various Artists
More than anything else on this list, the Grease soundtrack is the one that damn near everybody has heard. Released thirty years ago, the movie, for reasons I’ve never been able to comprehend, still resonates with new fans every year. As a result, we will probably never know a world devoid of Olivia Newton-John’s “Hopelessly Devoted To You.” Whether we like it or not. The disco-riffic title track sticks out like a sore thumb in this sea of 50′s parodies, but it’s still kind of awesome.
3. Saturday Night Fever – The Bee Gees w/Various Artists
Disco music in general may have died a slow, ugly death, but this soundtrack is still as essential today as it was back when your parents were sporting butterfly collars and leisure suits. It sold over 30 million copies worldwide, which makes it the crowning achievement of the disco era by leaps and bounds. The Bee Gees turn in eight tunes on the soundtrack, and they’re all deadly. “How Deep Is Your Love,” “You Should Be Dancin’,” “More Than a Woman.” It plays like a greatest hits album. Oh, and there is that “Stayin’ Alive” song too. Some people seem to dig it.
2. Purple Rain - Prince
Purple Rain is that rare album where, without exception, every song could have been released as a single. For the most part, the songs don’t really have a damn thing to do with the movie, but who cares? He did perform most of them live in the film, that’s good enough. Easily Prince’s most popular album ever, some of his most enduring tunes can be found here. The title track, “I Would Die 4 U” and “When Doves Cry” by themselves make this an essential purchase. Sadly, thanks to his newfound religion, he doesn’t perform “Darling Nikki” live anymore. Come back, Nikki indeed. Most of the other songs are still staples in his live show to this day.
1. A Hard Day’s Night – The Beatles
The Beatles’ first album of all original material opens with, quite possibly, the most instantly recognizable guitar chord in rock history. The sound, courtesy of George Harrison’s 12-string Rickenbacker, would go on to inspire countless artists. John Lennon dominates, singing lead on nine of the thirteen tracks. You know what else dominates? The entire damn album. It still sounds incredible, over forty years after its release.
Subscribe to the AUDIOTUTS RSS Feed featuring great content for music and audio lovers.
- 7 Unexpected Moments of Guitar Awesomeness
- How to Create Twisted Grooves Using ReCycle and Reason
- 5 Former Music Badasses Who’ve Lost Their Way