A movie soundtrack won’t necessarily make a bad movie good (Batman Forever, for example), but it can make a good movie great, or a great movie unforgettable. Pushing just the right musical buttons with an accompanying soundtrack is a great first step on a path towards cinematic timelessness.
So, what are the greatest movie soundtracks of all time? Here are our picks.
Batman (1989) and Purple Rain (1984)
Let’s start off right away by acknowledging two of the greatest movie soundtracks ever created by the same person, the now sadly-departed Prince. For 1984’s Purple Rain – Prince’s autobiographical musical adventure of a film – he whipped up a groundbreaking and fantastic album complete with straight-on rockers (“Let’s Go Crazy”) straight-on jams (“When Doves Cry”) and true epics (“Purple Rain”) that has sold an astonishing sold 22 million albums. If that wasn’t enough, five years later the darkly funky and soulful soundtrack to Tim Burton’s Batman became another massive smash, with singles like “Batdance” and “Partyman.” Rest in peace, O Purple One – what a loss.
Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Widely acknowledged as the greatest soundtrack album of all time, this 15x platinum disco smash is an enduring phenomenon. Of the top tracks of the disco era, most are in here – from the Bee Gees contributions (“Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “Jive Talkin’,” “You Should Be Dancing”) to The Trammps’ “Disco Inferno” and KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes.” This isn’t just a legendary soundtrack – it’s the defining record of a genre.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
This folksy soundtrack from the Coen brothers’ depression-era Odyssey adaptation is a sweet burst of Americana from producer T-Bone Burnett. The lovely soundtrack captures a range of folk, bluegrass and country, producing a smash hit with “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” and the haunting “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” and “O Death.”
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Quentin Tarantino’s supercharged soundtrack starts off with Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” and runs through an eclectic mix of perfectly-placed pop songs, from Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” to Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town” and the gorgeous “Son of a Preacher Man” from Dusty Springfield. Soundtracks have always been one of Tarantino’s strengths; Reservoir Dogs or Kill Bill could easily have been on this list.
No filmmaker has ever made better use of popular music within his films than Martin Scorsese, and Goodfellas is the proof. From the intro, set to Tony Benett’s “Rags to Riches”, to the beautiful “Layla” piano montage of murder and the exquisite strategic use of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy”, Scorsese’s music choices are absolutely unforgettable.
Dazed and Confused (1993)
It’s probably not surprising that a movie named after a Zeppelin song would have a great soundtrack. That song isn’t on here, but the accompanying album to Richard Linklater’s masterpiece has pretty much all of the greatest rock songs from the mid- to late-1970s, from Foghat’s “Slow ride” to The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb” and so, so, so many others.
American Graffiti (1973)
George Lucas’s pre-Star Wars coming-of-age hit is a slice of life of early-1960s America, and the staggeringly huge soundtrack (41 songs!) is a musical chronology of the era. It’s got just about every great pop song you’d see offered later on those Time-Life infomercials – “Rock Around the Clock,” “16 Candles,” “That’ll Be the Day,” “Johnny B. Goode” and “Teen Angel,” for example.
24 Hour Party People (2002)
Michael Winterbottom’s chronicle of the English “Madchester” era is a musical journey through the 1980s Manchester scene, defined by bands like Joy Division (“Love Will Tear Us Apart”) and the Happy Mondays (“Loose Fit”). Even better, the film goes back into the late-1970s punk rock scene (the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks) to tell more of the story. For a nice pairing, watch the Live Forever documentary right after this – which picks up on the British music in the Oasis-Blur era.
With Cliff Martinez (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Only God Forgives) at the helm, Drive’s electric soundtrack heightens the sensory experience of this heart-pumping, adrenaline infused, visual masterpiece. The atmospheric soundscape effortlessly blends soft retro pop tunes like, College’s “A Real Hero,” with stirring Martinez originals like, “Kick Your Teeth In” and “Hammer.” Whether watching the film or jamming solo, Drive’s soundtrack is sure to have a pleasantly haunting effect.
We know there are more out there, so we want to hear from you: which soundtracks made a good movie into a GREAT one for you? Comment below and share the article if you like ours.