The 50 Best Movie Soundtracks

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The 50 Best Movie Soundtracks

The key to a great musical accompaniment in a film is imperceptibility. When a song is so perfect for a movie moment, audiences won’t even notice it until the scene has already begun. The fit is intuitive. But listening back to a soundtrack after seeing a movie immediately can create a different experience. The melodies and lyrics conjure visual memories from those other stories. Sometimes, though, a soundtrack stands on its own, independent of the film that united those individual tracks. Whatever the situation, movie soundtracks offer essential cultural contributions to both movies and music, and we’ve rounded up the 50 best of all time.

50. Labyrinth
Trevor Jones and David Bowie combine for a soundtrack that was very much of its time—much like the film itself. Jim Henson and George Lucas’ fantasy musical was made for Bowie. And Bowie contributions like “Magic Dance” and “Underground” could only live in the world they all helped create. —Mark Lore

49. The Bodyguard
Oh, Whitney! You timeless diva, you. Whitney Houston carried half of a soundtrack that won the 1992 Album of the Year Grammy award in her definitive peak. The movie’s lead track, “I Will Always Love You,” also won the Record of The Year Grammy and highlighted a slate of songs that also included “I Have Nothing,” “Queen of The Night,” “I’m Every Woman,” and “Queen of The Night.” Pretty ridiculous right? Not to be forgotten, is the fan-frickin-tastic collaboration between Kenny G and Aaron Neville, “Even If My Heart Would Break,” along with a Joe Cocker and another Lisa Stansfield track. Say what you will about the suspect film (Kevin Costner!) but this soundtrack was early ‘90s gold and make no mistake about it, it’s all because of Whitney. —Adrian Spinelli

48. Head
As delirious as its many influences, the Monkees’ Head—both the Bob Rafelson film and its soundtrack—is a beautifully catchy catch-all of late ’60s psychedelia, commercial pop and celebrity-obsessed culture, pulled between the two polls of avant-garde performance art and big box record label consumerism until it snaps. With contributions from Harry Nilsson, Carole King and Jack Nicholson (who co-wrote the film’s script and sequenced the soundtrack), Head perfectly encapsulates a time in which once-opposing forces came screeching together into a maelstrom/mélange of everything that made absolutely no sense in American culture at the time—which was, literally, everything. —Dom Sinacola

47. Harold and Maude
The gentle sounds of Cat Stevens take on a darker veneer when set to Harold and Maude’s macabre humor. Of course, love is at the center of this 1971 cult classic, and what is Stevens all about, if not love? The songwriter even penned two new songs especially for the film. —Mark Lore

46. Inside Llewyn Davis
Another Coen brothers film with T Bone Burnett at the musical helm, the soundtrack for 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis includes a wide selection of traditional folk songs, many of which are performed by lead actor Oscar Isaac. While Isaac’s interpretations of folk ballads like “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” and “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” stand well on their own, this soundtrack’s most impressive feat might just be introducing audiences to the music and story of Dave Van Ronk—the film’s not-so-subtle muse. —Hilary Saunders

45. Forrest Gump
The beauty of this soundtrack is that it’s an American history lesson told through the music that was prevalent during the historical events that Tom Hanks’ eponymous character lives through. In the opening scenes, Forrest gets his clanky-legged dance moves by watching Elvis’s breakthrough TV performance on the Ed Sullivan show. Later in the movie, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” plays as Forrest and Bubba land in Vietnam. And then finally, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” plays as Jenny’s return back to Greenbow culminates their epically unpredictable love story and a history that we all shared through the eyes of Forrest Gump. —Adrian Spinelli

44. A Clockwork Orange
While there is plenty of traditionally performed classical music to be found throughout A Clockwork Orange, what everyone rightfully remembers is the chilling renditions of Beethoven and Purcell works performed using synthesizers by the artist formerly known as Walter Carlos. Through those wowing tones and trilling melodies, viewers were set deeply into the world of Alex and his treacherous droogs as they terrorized a dystopian England. Director Stanley Kubrick also got in a little horrifying wink to close the film by playing “Singin’ In The Rain” over the closing credits; the same song that Alex sang as he tortured a suburban couple in their home. —Robert Ham

43. Goodfellas
Martn Scorsese reportedly had “Layla” playing on set as he filmed the scene it would soundtrack. Ray Liotta gives us voiceover, but it’s really the wistful guitar and piano that provide all the necessary explanation as we see a montage of dead bodies (Jimmy’s cronies who ignored his command to not buy flashy things with their heist money) uncovered in garbage trucks, cars and a meat truck. That concept of the soundtrack as a Greek chorus of sorts carries through all of Goodfellas—every song selection comments on the scene in which it’s featured, whether it’s Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches” setting the tone for the entire story, The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” lending a sense of awe to that long tracking shot as Henry walks his date through the Copacabana, or Cream warning us that “it’s getting near dark” with “Sunshine of Your Love” as Jimmy contemplates killing his crew. No tune in this movie is an accident. “Love Man” and not think of Swayze’s pelvis, congratulations, you’re better than me. —Bonnie Stiernberg

42. Detroit Rock City
The movie about four teenagers’ misadventures to see KISS in 1978 is better than it’s typically given credit for. And the soundtrack does a solid job of capturing the era with a mix of originals (“Detroit Rock City,” “Iron Man,” “Rebel Rebel”), and covers, including Pantera’s take on “Cat Scratch Fever.” Forget about Everclear’s cover of “The Boys Are Back In Town” to maintain your sanity. —Mark Lore

41. Juice
While Ernest R. Dickerson’s film is worth revisiting to witness just how magnetic Tupac Shakur could have been had his starring roles continued to exponentially multiply in profile, its soundtrack, produced by the Bomb Squad’s Hank Shocklee, is the film’s second breakout star. Possibly the mainstream’s first codified collection of where hip-hop was heading in the early ’90s as it became certifiable big business, as well as a confirmation that new jack swing had influenced pretty much every inch of “urban” radio at the time, the Juice OST spawned four Billboard charting singles and a template for how to capture an era’s rapidly changing musical DNA. From Teddy Riley to Too $hort to Salt ‘N Pepa, from EPMD to Cypress Hill and back to Aaron Hall, Juice whiplashes between sensitive R&B cuddle-croons and plain-faced gangsta rap, between emerging talent and icons, providing a surprisingly versatile variety of sounds and samples all pulled from the same primordial pool of influence. And yet, the soundtrack never loses its balance—even when it ends on the unabashedly bright and funky “People Get Ready” by N’Dea Davenport and the Brand New Heavies—grounded by a tactile sense of time and place throughout. That a few of the artists from the soundtrack also appear in the film (though no 2pac on the OST) is fitting, so indelible to the film’s fiber is its music, and so indicative of the time’s sense of blue-sky ambition is its cadre of should-be and soon-would-be superstars. —Dom Sinacola

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