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

40. SLC Punk


Capturing the punk scene in Salt Lake City in the mid-’80s 10 years after the fact requires dusting off punk rock nuggets of the time. The soundtrack for 1999’s SLC Punk does just that—and then some. Songs like Fear’s “I Love Livin’ In the City” and The Exploited’s “Sex and Violence” comingle with the Velvet Underground’s “Rock N’ Roll.” Makes sense. —Mark Lore

39. Stand By Me


Although released in 1986, Stand By Me is set in the ‘50s. The coming of age story starring a baby Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, and Corey Feldman, as well, as a slightly older Jerry O’Connell, features a soundtrack hits from the ‘50s that captures the boys’ adolescence in the midst of the birth of rock and roll. —Hilary Saunders

38. Empire Records


Empire Records carries the legacy of being High Fidelity’s less intelligent, less neurotic idiot cousin, romanticizing the implosion of the record industry without the insight of a pop culture omnivore god like Nick Hornby. That’s OK. For all of High Fidelity’s romantic realpolitiks and Tim Robbins’ amazing pony tale, the film completely lacked a soundtrack with anything half as memorable as Gin Blossom’s “Til I Hear It From You.” The Blossoms may be shafted to ‘90s nostalgia tours today, but their Beatles-inflected pop bliss infected the radio airwaves with magical tenacity. That one marquee track’s harmonies and melody line remain as infectious today as they did in 1995. The rest of the Empire Records soundtrack offers a catalogue of alterna 120 Minute footnotes like The Cranberries, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Better Than Ezra and The Lemonhead’s Evan Dando. It may not have been the most innovative musical era, but this soundtrack defined it in all of its awkward post-grunge glory. —Sean Edgar

37. Belly


Every hip-hop fan over the age of 25 has a particular era of rap that they consider to be untouchable, and for me it’s the late 90s/early 2000s. But 1998 is an especially magical year, as the year DMX dropped not one, but two great albums (his debut being a classic, and both going on to make him the first rapper to have released two number one albums in one year). It’s also the year he starred in Belly, alongside Nas and Method Man. The film’s soundtrack now stands, not only as a great reflection of the gritty and simultaneously flashy Hype Williams movie, but also as one of the best examples of what hip-hop had become at the time. This was back when, for many of us, Roc-a-Fella records and the Ruff Ryders ruled the world. Putting DMX, Jay Z, Beanie Sigel and Ja Rule (before he started singing) all on one album would have been plenty. But when you throw in a Wu-Tang track, and a soulful and lyrically gangsta D’angelo favorite, along with one of the most intoxicating reggae/rap collaborations in history (I dare you to try and listen to “Top Shotter” just once) and you have a classic album. The Belly soundtrack (with production credits from the great Swizz Beatz, Poke & Tone, Diddy, Irv Gotti and others) functions like any great collection of music, in that it transports the listener back to the exact time and place it was created—it’s so good that it’s both timeless and, simultaneously, so specific to its time. At the risk of sounding like just another old head, I have to say that we’ll never have music like this again, and hip-hop will probably never be as brilliant, dark and untouchable as it was in the time of Belly. —Shannon M. Houston

36. This Is Spinal Tap


While the 1984 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap is almost universally beloved for its satirical portrayal of big box rock’s most extravagant moments. But the movie’s soundtrack, also written by Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Rob Reiner, captures the same hilarity as the film, but in musical form. —Hilary Saunders

35. Once


We hear a lot about break-up records, but The Frames’ Glen Hansard and newcomer Markéta Irglová gave us the loveliest falling-in-love record of the decade, as the Once co-stars fell slowly for one another, both on-screen and off. Hansard’s voice is as vulnerable as an open wound, and Irglová’s is the salve that makes everything OK. —Josh Jackson

34. Rock and Roll High School


The film is as campy as you’d expect from a Roger Corman movie featuring The Ramones. But the soundtrack stands up. Side One is mostly The Ramones, including a live medley of five songs in 11 minutes, including “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Teenage Labotomy.” Side Two features Devo, Todd Rundgren and, of course, Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out.” It’s all great, brainless fun. Just like the movie. —Josh Jackson

33. Do The Right Thing


One of the most important cultural commentaries of all time, Do The Right Thing depicts racial tensions in Brooklyn though director Spike Lee’s exacting eye. The soundtrack, which blends hip-hop, jazz, and Latin music, represents the diversity of the neighborhood. But it was Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” that charted and brought the film’s social message off the screen and into people’s ears and hearts. —Hilary Saunders

32. Dirty Dancing


We’d expect any movie with “dancing” in its title to have a great soundtrack, but one that would go on to become one of the highest-selling albums of all time? That’s something else entirely. The Dirty Dancing soundtrack managed to resonate with over 32 million people—going Platinum 11 times—by appealing to both nostalgia for the oldies (with classics like The Contours’ “Do You Love Me,” Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine,” etc.) and modern-at-the-time sensibilities with tracks written or recorded specifically for the movie, like “Hungry Eyes,” Patrick Swayze’s “She’s Like the Wind” and of course, its grand finale, ”(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” which managed to earn its writers an Oscar, a Grammy and a Golden Globe. But what really sets the Dirty Dancing soundtrack apart is the fact that nearly every one of its songs is inextricably linked to a memorable scene from the movie. It’s impossible to hear Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love is Strange” and not immediately picture Baby crawling across the floor while playfully lip-syncing. Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me” should bring to mind that slightly overwrought but somehow still perfect dance/sex scene in Johnny’s bedroom, and if you can hear “Love Man” and not think of Swayze’s pelvis, congratulations, you’re better than me. —Bonnie Stiernberg

31. Repo Man


If you’re looking for a quick and dirty introduction to the L.A. punk scene of the early ‘80s, your best bet would be the soundtrack to the cult sci-fi classic Repo Man. This spotless collection boasts the essentials like Black Flag’s “TV Party,” Suicidal Tendencies’ stop/start teen angst anthem “Institutionalized,” and Fear’s “Let’s Start A War,” while also introducing listeners to the Latino punks The Plugz, and Juicy Bananas, the one-off project led by Zander Schloss. If that weren’t enough, the whole thing is capped off by a title track by none other than Iggy Pop, who was backed up by former Sex Pistol Steve Jones and Blondie drummer Clem Burke. It’s all-powerful stuff that matched the gritty, sunbaked spirit of this wonderfully untamed flick. —Robert Ham

30. Rushmore


There are two forces at work to make Rushmore, like most Wes Anderson soundtracks, a great listening experience, even separate from the joys of watching young Jason Schwartzman tell Bill Murray, “I saved Latin. What did you ever do?” The first is Anderson’s love of classic rock from The Kinks and Cat Stevens to The Who and Faces. The second is composer and former Devo lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh. His whimsical classical guitar and harpsichord mixed with modern synths and organ melodies mashed with tribal drumming capture the enormous personality of Max Fisher. Song titles like “The Hardest Geometry Problem in the World” and “Piranhas Are Very Tricky Species” are just a bonus. —Josh Jackson

29. Trainspotting


If Danny Boyle never made another film past his second feature Trainspotting, he would still have earned a place in cinematic history for his brilliant opening gambit: two junkies, arms full of stolen good, running down an Edinburgh street with the police in pursuit…all to the tune of Iggy Pop’s rousing sex-and-drugs anthem “Lust For Life.” It set the tone for this rapid-fire picture and set us up to anticipate every perfectly placed song throughout. From the pulsing Underworld classic “Born Slippy” to the hazy beauty of Brian Eno’s “Deep Blue Day” to the disco smackdowns of New Order’s “Temptation” and a cover of Blondie’s “Atomic” by underrated Britpop quartet Sleeper, each tune commanded your attention as much as the brilliant acting and desperate situations happening onscreen. —Robert Ham

28. Pretty in Pink


John Hughes’ use of music was so distinct and masterful that to this day, lazy music writers can describe something as sounding “like it belongs in a John Hughes movie” and you know exactly what they mean. And out of all his soundtracks, Pretty in Pink is perhaps the John Hughes-iest, full of new wave classics worthy of its record store-clerk heroine. (The movie even takes its name from the Psychedelic Furs track it opens with.) It’s weird to think that there was a time when people would make out to stuff other than Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “If You Leave” at prom, but the band actually wrote the song specifically for the movie. Echo & the Bunnymen did the same thing with “Bring On the Dancing Horses.” The soundtrack manages to fit perfectly with the themes of the movie, the tastes of its characters and the musical era during which it was compiled. Even its one outlier—Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” which Duckie famously lip-syncs in yet another fruitless attempt to woo Andie, and which technically does not appear on the official soundtrack album—sounds less like friendly advice and more like a desperate plea within the context of the story. —Bonnie Stiernberg

27. Grosse Pointe Blank


For his darkly funny tale about a hit man who returns home to attend his 10-year high school reunion and take out a target, writer-producer-star John Cusack turned to friend and Clash frontman Joe Strummer to supply the score—and the retro mix of punk, pop, and rock cuts collected here is just as hip. U.K. ska icons The Specials cover Toots and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop,” Guns n’ Roses take on McCartney’s “Live and Let Die,” and the Violent Femmes and Pete Townshend show up in trippy remixes of “Blister In the Sun” and “Let My Love Open the Door,” respectively. Of course, The Clash are amply represented (“Rudie Can’t Fail,” “Armagideon Time”), and an equally worthy follow-up disc (“More Music From”) features a funky instrumental Strummer composed for the film. —Amanda Schurr

26. Drive


You might expect a film with such a title to be filled with high-octane modern rock, but Drive instead fuels its neo-noir coolness with poised synthy gems. Kavinsky’s “Nightcall” is darkly mysterious yet undeniably alluring, much like Ryan Gosling’s unnamed “Driver;” and the College/Electric Youth collab “A Real Hero” sounds so authentically ‘80s, it had to have been created using Doc’s Delorean. Unsurprisingly, it’s a great collection of tracks to drive to—-especially if you happen to be wearing an awesome scorpion jacket. —Trevor Courneen

25. American Graffiti


This soundtrack has gone triple Platinum. More than three million albums—of a soundtrack—have been sold. With 41 singles, the double LP includes a range of early rock ‘n roll hits from Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys, and Fats Domino to instantaneously recognizable songs like “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock,” “Green Onions,” and “Heart and Soul.” These are the sounds that defined rock ‘n roll and provided the foundation for what it would become. —Hilary Saunders

24. Reservoir Dogs


More so than any other filmmaker of his generation—and a few years in advance of fellow audiophile Wes Anderson—Quentin Tarantino wrote his earliest screenplays around and based upon the playlists in his head. For this, Tarantino’s era-defining debut feature, deadpan comic Steven Wright served as the now iconic, though still unnamed, voice of K-BILLY’s retro radio show that ran throughout the bloody exploits of the colorful crooks Mr. Pink, Orange, White, Blonde, et al. Interspersed with Wright’s spoken interludes—along with that now classic character dialogue about the meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”—is a jukebox of kitsch ranging from Harry Nilsson (“Coconut”) to Blue Swede (“Hooked On a Feeling”) to the George Baker Selection (“Little Green Bag”) to Stealers Wheel, whose “Stuck In the Middle With You” so vividly soundtracked a scene we got an earful of in more ways than one. —Amanda Schurr

23. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou


Once upon a time, an angsty 16-year-old was driving through the hip and trendy part of her hometown blaring her favorite soundtrack. Mark Mothersbaugh’s masterpiece of a score, “Ping Island/Lightning Strike Rescue Op” was playing. She passed by the neighborhood cinema and a dastardly handsome man on the street screamed out, “YEAH! LIFE AQUATIC!” Surprise! That 16-year-old was me. As a grown-up I have a better appreciation for the album musically, but I still hold fast to my opinion that I had when I was a teenager—it’s one of the best soundtracks out there. From the heartfelt Zombies’ “The Way I Feel Inside” to all of the Portuguese Bowie covers by Seu Jorge to the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy,” this album is perfect. —Annie Black

22. (500) Days of Summer


Any soundtrack that puts Black Lips together with Regina Spektor, The Smiths and Hall & Oates just gets me. Though “You Make My Dreams” will now forever conjure images of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his absurdly choreographed dance scene in my head, you don’t have to see the movie to appreciate the glory of this curation. It plays like my early college iPod was put in a blender, a mishmash of artists that don’t intuitively play well together but that somehow works. I dug the movie, but I dug the soundtrack even more. —Emiy McBride

21. 24 Hour Party People


When you have a movie about Factory Records and the Madchester scene of the 1980s, you better get the soundtrack right. Fortunately Michael Winterbottom’s film gets it right, starting out with The Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” and ending with Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” In between are tracks from The Happy Mondays, The Buzzcocks and The Clash. Legendary British DJ Pete Tong, who produced the album, even got Moby and Billy Corgan to record the Joy Division song “New Dawn Fades” with New Order, specifically for the movie. —Josh Jackson

20. Quadrophenia


This soundtrack album for Franc Roddam’s 1979 film provides an interesting compare/contrast exercise for fans of The Who. The majority of the tracks on the double LP are remixed versions of the songs found on the group’s 1973 album of the same name, as well as tossing in a few newly recorded tunes that were written for, but left off of, the initial rock opera. Nothing is lost in the translation, thankfully, and in fact, the story of the troubled mod Jimmy only finds deeper meaning through it all. The original soundtrack also features a full side of pop hits by the likes of James Brown, The Ronettes, and The Chiffons that were featured in the ‘60s-set film. —Robert Ham

19. Singles


Cameron Crowe’s ode to love in the early ‘90s was a flop upon its release, but its accompanying soundtrack album went double platinum. That’s thanks to the director tapping into the rising grunge and alt-rock scenes to set the stage for each scene following the trials of a bunch of lovelorn Seattle residents. With the exception of Paul Westerberg’s bubbly pop tunes and Chris Cornell’s moody solo track “Seasons,” Crowe homed in on loud jams by Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees, and Soundgarden, with a little classic rock flair provided by Jimi Hendrix and a Led Zeppelin cover performed by Nancy and Ann Wilson of Heart. —Robert Ham

18.The Jazz Singer


Indeed, 1980 was a fan-terrible year for Neil Diamond. After 14 albums of gilded, gravel-voiced rock, the singer/songwriter earned the lowest and highest accolades of his career: the first Worst Actor Razzie for his performance in The Jazz Singer, a remake of the commercially successful 1927 “talkie,” and the best-selling record of his career for his soundtrack for the same film. So a Neil Diamond in blackface might have been the first and last stop of his theatric career, but these tracks mark an auteur at his height. Like a proto-pop Bruce Springsteen, Diamond channeled earnest, echo-in-your-bones anthems like “America” and “Hello Again.” We’d watch a million more shitty remakes for a record just as timeless. —Sean Edgar

17. Dazed and Confused


It’s no accident that Dazed and Confused starts and ends with a song. From the moment that orange GTO pulls up to the last day of school to Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” to the end when a still-buzzed Mitch slaps on those headphones and vibes out to Foghat, Richard Linklater’s classic coming-of-age tale is absolutely littered with perfectly selected songs befitting both its tone and its 1976 setting. Is there any other song to fling the contents of your locker into the hallway to after that last bell besides “School’s Out”? No. Are you gonna listen to something besides “Tuesday’s Gone” when the keg runs dry and you say your goodnights? Doubtful. Dazed and Confused’s soundtrack is so deeply rooted in a specific time—in history, sure, but also in life itself. It sounds like the ‘70s, but it also sounds like being a teenager. In other words, we keep getting older, but it stays the same age, and to that we say “alright, alright, alright.” —Bonnie Stiernberg

16. 2001: A Space Odyssey


Like so many of Stanley Kubrick’s films, if you took away or altered 2001: A Space Odyssey even a little bit, it would irreparably damage its impact and grandeur. That goes treble for the music chosen to accompany the still-startling images throughout. Where would the opening sequence be without Richard Strauss’s titanic “Also Spake Zarathustra”? Or the gentle dance of the space station orbiting to the tune of Johann Strauss II’s Blue Danube Waltz? For many people, including this writer, it was also their first introduction to the work of 20th century composer Gyorgy Ligeti whose unsettling Lux Aeterna made man’s first encounter with the Monolith so memorable. —Robert Ham

15. High Fidelity


Like the “play at home” version of the movie, High Fidelity’s soundtrack lets you, the viewer, act out all the best scenes from the film. Anguish over an ex-lover to the 13th Floor Elevators! Turn people on to the Beta Band! Make your sweetheart a mixtape to Stevie Wonder! Stand in the rain to Bob Dylan! The game’s as fun as the movie is funny. —Austin L. Ray

14. Almost Famous


I always cringe whenever a film is made about music. It makes me so nervous that somehow the soundtrack is going to be terrible, that the music director won’t do the historical and social context of the film justice. For Almost Famous, this was not the case. The soundtrack fits the film perfectly. The ’70s were a prime time for rock ’n’ roll, and that is explicitly shown thanks to the tracks selected. Even the fake band for the film, Stillwater, sounded exactly like an American ’70s group. Of course, I’m not the only one who thought this album was worthwhile—it won a Grammy for Best Soundtrack in 2000. —Annie Black

13. The Blues Brothers


People who really like The Blues Brothers sometimes act like the film completely rediscovered a lost musical genre, like archaeologists brushing the dust off a centuries-undisturbed tomb, and perhaps this was true—for white people in the audience who looked something like Jake or Elwood. In reality, though, the blues has never gone anywhere, and The Blues Brothers soundtrack is a raucous celebration of its influences. It absolutely venerates all kinds of great performers, name-dropping them constantly in the film: Magic Sam, Wilson Pickett, Elmore James—these guys don’t even appear in the movie. Then there are all the actual show-stopping performances from the likes of James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway and Ray Charles, not to mention Belushi and Aykroyd. The fact that their first album, Briefcase Full of Blues, became a bonafide hit and went double platinum speaks to how tight their band truly was. You can be a blues hipster and turn up your nose at the songs as being somehow whitewashed, but the passion is immediately and palpably obvious. —Jim Vorel

12. Shaft


There are few cinema characters who have ever benefited so strongly from the film’s opening credits music as John Shaft. Before Richard Roundtree even speaks a word, the heart-stoppingly funky bass of “Theme From Shaft” is your companion as a jaywalking Shaft strides confidently across busy New York streets, stopping traffic dead with his machismo. Isaac Hayes’ Grammy and Academy Award-winning delivery (the first non-acting Oscar ever won by a black performer) immediately establishes Shaft as the ultimate badass from the very first line: “Who’s the black private dick who’s a sex machine with all the chicks? SHAFT!” It’s equal parts ridiculous and wonderful, 100 percent a product of its time and sincere in a way that would be impossible to replicate today without irony. The entire soundtrack is like the King James Bible of Shaft. —Jim Vorel

11. Easy Rider


By 1969, the schmaltzy strings of traditional Hollywood soundtracks had been usurped by rock and roll. But Easy Rider, with its hypnotic marriage of electric guitars and revved-up motorcycles, made it feel like art unto itself. The track list is a map of moods, cruising from psychedelic landmarks (Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9”) to roots-rock staples (The Band’s “The Weight”) to obscure freak-folk (The Holy Modal Rounders’ “If You Want to Be a Bird (Bird Song).” —Ryan Reed

10. Buena Vista Social Club


Almost two decades before Obama ushered in a new era of cross-cultural exchange, Wim Wenders’ Academy Award-nominated documentary introduced audiences to the joy, poetry and exile of a members’ only Havana collective of musicians essentially embargoed since the titular club’s shuttering in the 1940s. The audio document of Wenders’ and musician/producer Ry Cooder’s efforts—which culminated in sold-out performances in Amsterdam and at Carnegie Hall—is transcendent, a testament to Cuba’s rich heritage exemplified in the voices of Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Compay Segundo and other seasoned talents. Songs like the signature “Chan Chan” and the title track, performed by legendary pianist Rubén González, feel both vibrant and nostalgic, paving the way for a companion series of solo albums—and international tours that continue to this day. —Amanda Schurr

9. Saturday Night Fever


Not only did this film introduce the world to the smoldering screen presence of John Travolta, but it cemented the Bee Gees’ place in pop culture history. Their four tracks that kick off the double LP disco primer—“Stayin’ Alive,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” “Night Fever,” and “More Than A Woman”—are stone cold classics and have remained so for nigh on 40 years. The rest of the soundtrack is equally vibrant and important in capturing the tone of the ‘70s, from disco remakes of the classical canon to a little Latin boogaloo to plenty of pop hits that are wedged firmly in the consciousness of everyone alive post-1977. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to strut down the street carrying a paint can, looking cool as can be. —Robert Ham

8. The Royal Tenenbaums


Every aspect of a Wes Anderson film is presented with immaculate precision, and his soundtracks are no exception. The Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack remains one of his greatest curations, with everyone from The Clash to Paul Simon to Bob Dylan rounding out the unmistakable aesthetics. Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” during Richie Tenenbaum’s (Luke Wilson) attempted suicide and Nico’s “These Days” atop Margot Tenenbaum’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) slow-motion walk from the Green Line bus are the most memorable standouts, adding that perfect final layer that keeps such scenes ingrained in your brain. —Trevor Courneen

7. The Harder They Come


For every college student who’s ever had a Bob Marley poster on his or her wall, every Millennial who’s ever taken the time to grow dreadlocks, every human being who’s ever smoked weed religiously—the soundtrack to The Harder They Come should be buried permanently in the silt of their subconscious. Perry Henzell’s vehicle for reggae stalwart Jimmy Cliff carries the honor of not only being Jamaica’s first feature film, but of bearing a near perfect distillation of reggae’s most forward-thinking musicians, assembled by Cliff with his penchant for fusing traditional reggae with ska and rocksteady, featuring such heavies as the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, the Melodians and the Slickers. Far from holistic, the film’s soundtrack is better than a primer for trustafarians, it’s a detailed, celebratory glimpse of the political/spiritual/socioeconomic realities behind a kind of music popularly known for its worst parts. —Dom Sinacola

6. Superfly


Superfly was a 1972 blaxploitation film about a a cocaine dealer who gets the better of two dirty cops. The only reason we remember it is because of its soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield, which managed to outgross the movie it accompanied. While the film may have glorified the life of a drug dealer, Mayfield’s concept album addressed the victims of social injustice and pushed back against the realities of life in the ghetto. Songs like “Freddie’s Dead” were laments, speaking out for those ruined by drugs and the violence they wrought in the inner city. —Josh Jackson

5. Help!


The Fab Four’s fifth LP, and second soundtrack, is the first major turning point in their discography: more sophisticated sonically, more poignant lyrically. “Help!” found John Lennon submerged in life crisis; folky “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” mined (and matched) Bob Dylan. Meanwhile, “Yesterday,” the orchestral pop ballad to end all pop ballads, proved the mop-tops could break hearts as well as they shook hips. —Ryan Reed

4. The Graduate


These days, “The Sound of Silence” is what we use to turn sad Ben Affleck into a meme, but it’ll forever be linked to a different angsty Ben—Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), drifting aimlessly in the pool in Mike Nichols’ masterpiece, The Graduate. What Nichols managed to do for Simon & Garfunkel with the film—and, perhaps more accurately, what Simon & Garfunkel managed to do for the film with their songs—is nothing short of remarkable. “Mrs. Robinson” would have been “Mrs. Roosevelt” had it not been for the movie, and had The Graduate’s iconic final scene featured anything other than a reprise of “The Sound of Silence” as Ben and Elaine’s smiles slowly fade and they drive off into the unknown, it would’ve never landed like the punch to the gut it is. It’s a running gag now, but in The Graduate it was gorgeous, sad and nothing short of revolutionary. —Bonnie Stiernberg

3. Garden State


The Garden State soundtrack has been praised by indie lovers to the point where it’s not really even “cool” to talk about anymore, but it can’t be avoided on this list. It’s a given that it’s an amazing compilation of artists, and it deserves mention almost any time great contemporary film soundtracks come up. Way to go, Zach Braff, for thrusting The Shins into mainstream culture, opening my eyes to the glory of Nick Drake (I was a young’n at the time, so don’t judge) and fostering my obsessive love for Frou Frou and Imogen Heap. Garden State came out when I was early in my high school years, totally malleable and idealistic, and this soundtrack helped shape my musical landscape for years to come. And I’m not ashamed to admit it, either. —Emily McBride

2. Purple Rain


It’s difficult to hyperbolize this album and be called out for going too far. Prince’s sixth LP and the sonic, piquant periwinkle-scape to his first feature film, Purple Rain is monumental both within Prince’s discography—merging his fetishizing of chart-topping synth-pop with his epically lascivious dancehall tendencies to refine, once and for all, his Minneapolis Sound—and within the world of soundtracks in general, pretty much defining for a whole decade what a cinematic soundtrack should be. Whether that’s an overblown statement or not, Purple Rain was Prince’s most successful album, a commercial triumph that sacrificed nothing of the artist’s quirkiest, weirdest, most obscene tendencies. Whatever the industry, be it music or film, Prince catered to no one, convincing the world with radio-ready songs about magazine masturbation and garish, nuclear precipitation that his was a will not to bend, but to bend to. Have you ever purified yourself in Lake Minnetonka? Listening to Purple Rain, you’ve got no real choice. —Dom Sinacola

1. O Brother Where Art Thou?


The Soggy Bottom Boys were the sensation of rural Mississippi in this Depression-era retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, and their hit “Man of Constant Sorrow” made the T Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack a surprise sensation at the turn of the Millennium. You may have been seeing the face of George Clooney, but you were hearing the voice of Dan Tymisnki (a dream-come true for his wife, according to Tyminski). Thanks to contributions from Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris and Ralph Stanley, the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ comedy became the unlikeliest Platinum-selling album and Grammy winner in recent memory, bringing old-timey, bluegrass and country roots to the mainstream.—Josh Jackson