Movie soundtracks can make or break a film.
A great film with an average soundtrack will probably remain great, but an average film with an awesome soundtrack can suddenly be elevated to cult status on that fact alone. And then of course you have the cherry on the cake, great movies with great soundtracks. Here are 20 of the best movie soundtracks of all time (so far).
A movie is only as good as its soundtrack, and when the music is as good as the film, magic happens. Here are 20 of the best movie soundtracks of all time.
Velvet Goldmine – Dir. Todd Haynes (1998)
There are about five million reasons why you should see this movie, but number one would have to be because it was one of the best movie soundtracks ever. The narrative is loosely based on David Bowie, though the original Starman reputedly disliked the script and vetoed the use of his songs. This was probably for the best, given that the film subsequently drew incredible musical talent from across the board. Featuring glam icons like Marc Bolan and Lou Reed, the soundtrack also comprises some excellent covers and originals.
Radiohead’s Thom Yorke was joined by Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay to form the fictional Venus In Furs. While Ewan McGregor’s Wydle Rattz (channelling Iggy Pop) was actually the work of The Stooges’ Ron Asheton, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Mark Arm of Mudhoney. Not only that, but Placebo make an appearance performing their now well know version of T-Rex’s 20th Century Boy.
Listen: Baby’s On Fire – Venus In Furs (with vocals by Jonathan Rhys Meyers)
High Fidelity – Dir. Stephen Frears (2000)
So you’ve made a film where the main protagonist is a snobby record-store owner, you’re going to need a soundtrack that would do him proud. This is where High Fidelity hits straight home. A glorious selection of both groundbreaking and obscure tracks, all touched with the gold of nostalgia and heavy on the heartache. Ranging from The Kinks and Velvet Underground right through to Beta Band and Royal Trux… Not only a perfect sonic accompaniment to the movie, you know that Rob Gordon (said snobby record store owner) would approve.
Listen: You’re Gonna Miss Me – 13th Floor Elevators
Bombay Beach – Dir. Alma Har’el (2011)
Part documentary, part feature film and part music video, Alma Har’el’s Bombay Beach features a beautiful soundtrack to match the visual content. With music from Bob Dylan and Beirut, there’s a wistful exoticism and quaintness to what is at its heart a very American score. A snapshot of different lives in one of California’s most impoverished communities, underscored by Zach Cordon’s dreamy compositions and Dylan’s inimitable voice.
Listen: Tomorrow Is A Long Time – Bob Dylan
A Clockwork Orange – Dir. Stanley Kubrick (1971)
Another visionary where soundtracks are concerned, Kubrick outdid himself on A Clockwork Orange. Utilising the music as an expression of protagonist Alex’s psychological conditioning, the soundtrack moves from simply an accompaniment, to a place inside the film itself. Juxtaposing high violence with high culture, the film is famed for its use of classical music. Specifically Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which Alex is then conditioned against using the Ludovico Technique. Wendy Carlos (formerly Walter) also contributed eerie electronic music to the film’s score, in fact March Of A Clockwork Orange is credited as being the first recorded use of a vocoder.
Listen: Overture To The Sun – Terry Tucker
Clerks – Dir. Kevin Smith (1994)
A true cult classic, the soundtrack for Kevin Smith’s low budget debut was famously inexpensive compared to the cost of its soundtrack. The official release is peppered with soundbites from the film, much like Tarantino’s Django Unchained soundtrack. The meat of the track listing is hefty alt-rock with a definite 90’s vibe.
Heavy weight artists like Alice In Chains and Bad Religion mix in with the less recognised Girls Against Boys and Love Among Freaks. The latter contributed the theme for the movie via a four track tape recorder in their garage.
The soundtrack has actually been often maligned as a stand alone release, which frankly seems needlessly critical given that it is a film soundtrack. In its defence, taken as a stand alone piece, it’s actually a tired, angsty, restive compilation. Alternative and repetitive, this is truly the perfect sonic expression of what Clerks is about.
Listen: Love Among Freaks – Clerks
The Big Lebowski – Dir. The Coen Brothers (1998)
The Coen brothers could well expect multiple entries on this list, but we’re going with stoner classic The Big Lebowski. An eclectic soundtrack, they enlisted the help of T-Bone Burnett for this one – who insisted on being credited as ‘Music Archivist’, rather than Supervisor.
Originally they had Kenny Rogers’ Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) in mind, along with various Creedence Clearwater Revival and Gypsy Kings tracks. But Burnett brought in a smorgasbord of variety, giving each character their own musical signature.
While the German nihilists are trailed by techno-pop, in homage to Kraftwerk, Jeff Bridges has his own theme in the form of CCR. Faced with a difficult negotiation over Townes Van Zandt’s cover of The Rolling Stones, Burnett apparently won over former Stones’ manager Allen Klein with footage of The Dude declaring “I f*ckin’ hate The Eagles, man!”
Listen: My Mood Swings – Elvis Costello
Wild Style – Dir. Charlie Ahern (1983)
A soundtrack might often be an excellent snapshot of an era or genre, but it’s not every track listing that can be described as “one of the key records” of a particular aspect of music. However, that is exactly what Wild Style’s soundtrack could be considered to 80’s hip-hop. The film centres around New York graffiti artists, but is famous for features a number of seminal figures from the hip-hop scene at the time. With appearances from Grandmaster Flash, Rocksteady Crew and Cold Crush Brothers among others, Fab 5 Freddy worked alongside Ahern on the production of the movie. The soundtrack features all the above, and has been cited as highly influential by artists like Nas, J Dilla and A Tribe Called Quest.
Listen: At The Dixie – Cold Crush Brothers
Easy Rider – Dir. Peter Fonda & Dennis Hopper (1969)
Did Easy Rider define what we now know to be the sound of a road trip, or did the music bring that epic bike ride to life? It’s impossible to know. But we are damn sure that the $1 million worth of licensing that went into the soundtrack was worth every cent. It was also a historic move away from scored pictures, using compilation tracks. Interestingly, Fonda originally wanted Crosby, Stills & Nash to write an original score for the film. However once film editor Donn Cambern stuck in some place holders from his own record collection, the music became inseparable from the visuals.
It fell to Hopper to break the bad news to Crosby, Stills & Nash. Which he did with grace and aplomb; after they turned up in a limo for a meeting, he informed them: “Look, you guys are really good musicians, but honestly, anybody who rides in a limo can’t comprehend my movie, so I’m gonna have to say no to this, and if you guys try to get in the studio again, I may have to cause you some bodily harm.” Which left us with Steppenwolf, The Electric Prunes, The Byrds and Jefferson Airplane. What a shame…
Listen: (We Ain’t Got) Nothin Yet – The Blues Magoos
Singles – Dir. Cameron Crowe (1992)
By 1992, grunge was definitely part of an international lexicon with Nirvana’s Nevermind released the previous year. However, the wider Seattle scene was still relatively unknown to a larger audience. This Gen-X rom-com story was so submerged within grunge that it is attributed with helping open the door on the music scene. A backdrop of Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone went a long way to crystallising Seattle grunge for the world at large.
Listen: Would – Alice In Chains
The Life Aquatic – Dir. Wes Anderson (2004)
Much like Anderson’s visual aesthetic, the soundtrack for The Life Aquatic is quirky, retro, unexpected and perfect. Famous for featuring Seu Jorge’s cover versions of David Bowie hits (these ones Bowie apparently liked), the songs weave in and out of background music and performance’s by Jorge’s character in the narrative. The intention was to put the well known tracks into an international context, echoing the explorative nature of the film. The result was a collection of surprisingly successful bossa-nova covers. Though Jorge admits he may not have been quite faithful to the lyrics…
Listen: Rebel Rebel – Seu Jorge
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon – Dir. Ang Lee (2000)
We are clearly fans of compilation soundtracks. But the classical film score should not be underestimated, in fact it is very rarely completely ignored as nearly every film with contain some original music. Of course you’ve got your heavyweight Hollywood composers – Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore, John Williams… but we’re going with the award winning score by Tan Dun for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Classical arrangements meet traditional Chinese instrumentation and melody in this beautiful score. Evocative, gorgeous and theatrical, it is a soundtrack in the truest sense of the word.
Listen: The Glade Part II – Trevor Jones (yes, this is from Last Of The Mohicans, but consider it a sneaky extra as another amazing score)
Children Of Men – Dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2006)
An intense film with a soundtrack so immense they release two of them! On one hand we have John Taverner’s beautifully composed score, lending ‘spiritual comment’ according to Cuarón. On the other, we have a gloriously unexpected compilation. Prog rock entries come into their own in the portrayed dystopia, but who would have thought that a sci-fi thriller would be such a good setting for Roots Manuva’s Witness? Or Deep Purple, or early Libertines?
Listen: Court Of The Crimson King – King Crimson
American Graffiti – Dir. George Lucas (1973)
Listening to this extensive soundtrack – four side vinyl pressing kind of extensive – is like hanging out all night in a real American diner. Or taking a night drive with the radio on back in the 60’s, in a ’55 Chevy preferably. Compiled by Gil Rodin, the soundtrack for American Graffiti hits all the golden spots of 50’s rock and doo-wop. We’re talking Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, The Beach Boys and Fats Domino. It may not be a goldmine of obscurity but it is the movie version of the original drugstore jukebox. Sadly it does not feature the acappella rendition of Some Enchanted Evening by a very young Harrison Ford.
Listen: Sixteen Candles – The Crests
24 Hour Party People – Dir. Michael Winterbottom (2002)
A comedic work of fiction it may be, but at the heart of it 24 Hour Party People is closer to documentary, especially where the soundtrack is concerned. Telling the story of Factory Records and the “Madchester” music scene through the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, the film charts the changing face of music. From punk and the Sex Pistols, through The Clash and Joy Division to New Order and the Happy Mondays. This is your fast-track education on an iconic time in British music, the birth of hedonism and rave culture.
Listen: New Dawn Fades – New Order, Moby, John Frusciante and Billy Corgan (Joy Division cover)
Garden State – Dir. Zach Braff (2004)
We all love a mixtape; which is probably why the soundtrack to Garden State lives as a brilliant piece of work, as Zach Braff essentially made himself a mix CD to write his screenplay to. Which then became the film’s soundtrack. Mixtapes are the realms of college kids in the 90’s, a formula which is echoed in Braff’s intellectual indie playlist. Introducing emotive indie-rock in the form of The Shins and Zero 7, he pretty much nailed what Clueless’ Cher excellently termed “the maudlin music of the university station”. It also received a Grammy Award, so you know it’s good.
Listen: Caring Is Creepy – The Shins
Blow Up – Dir. Michelangelo Antonini (1966)
When we talk about the swinging 60’s, this kind of blues jazz is one big part of that. The entire soundtrack for Blow Up was directed by jazz master Herbie Hancock and performed by New York musicians. He apparently originally tried to record in London, but found British jazz players less than satisfactory. It also features Stroll On by The Yardbirds, with both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page on guitar.
Listen: Stroll On – The Yardbirds
Woodstock – Dir. Martin Scorsese (1970)
This might be cheating but… we don’t care. 1969, Woodstock Counterculture Festival. This is the definitive music festival in the history of the world. And luckily for this article there is a docu-film covering the events, directed by a 27 year old Scorsese. Featuring live performance and studio recordings, the soundtrack spans iconic artists like The Who or Jefferson Airplane, Hendrix’s famous rendition of Star Spangled Banner and protest singer Joan Baez at the height of dissent against the Vietnam War. It’s also heavy on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young including, of course, Woodstock.
Listen: Find the Cost of Freedom – Crosby, Stills Nash & Young
Performance – Dir. Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg (1970)
Mick Jagger’s acting debut, Performance was divisive as a piece of cinematography. However, the film’s soundtrack stands as a landmark at the end of the swinging 60’s. Recorded by Jack Nitzsche for the movie, the soundtrack was built around a session band lead by guitarist Ry Cooder, despite featuring a number of performers. With tracks by Jagger and also Randy Newman, the dark and heavy production ushered in an electronic aesthetic. Musically, the soundtrack to Performance proved to be fairly defining as the 60’s faded away.
Listen: Wake Up, Niggers – Last Poets
The Big Chill – Dir. Lawrence Kadan (1983)
Although The Big Chill is set in the time of its making (that is to say the 80’s) the soundtrack for the film goes big on Motown classics. With tracks from The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and The Four Tops, it set a precedent of Motown as the soundtrack to romance. Also some good American gems on there like Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising and Three Dog Night’s Joy To The World. In fact, quite a bit of this soundtrack turns up Sex & The City… see? Romance!
Listen: Good Lovin’ – The Rascals
Kids – Dir. Larry Clark (1995)
A true cult classic, Harmony Korine’s Kids boasts an excellent, unlikely soundtrack. While the kids are getting high and getting screwed, the soundtrack playing out is not the punked-out vibe you might expect. Music duties were handed to Lou Barlow (Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh), who decided to base the sound on a kind of anti folk. Using his own lo-fi project, The Folk Implosion, and music from Daniel Johnston (both brilliant and occasionally psychotic), Barlow curated an evocative mix of alt folk and contemporary popular music.
Listen: Natural One – The Folk Implosion
Got any suggestions for the best movie soundtracks of all time? Shoot us a comment below!