One of the most popular albums of the summer is associated with one of the biggest films. Barbie: The Album, the soundtrack to Greta Gerwig’s smash blockbuster, currently sits in the top five of the Billboard 200 after previously hitting the chart’s top spot. Two singles from the album, Dua Lipa’s “Dance The Night” and “Barbie World” by Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice with Aqua, reside in the Top 10.
In summers of the past, a top movie spinning off a top soundtrack would have been standard fare. But these days, a soundtrack album with legs is a unique occurrence. Barbie: The Album got me thinking about the history of soundtrack albums, and what characterizes the ones that endure as standalone works with their own identities outside of the films with which they are associated.
After thinking about this topic, I started putting together a list. I collected 50 albums in all. But before we get to that, we need to lay down some ground rules.
PRE-LIST ENTERTAINMENT: A PARTIAL EXPLANATION OF CRITERIA AND/OR A TRIBUTE TO EARLY AUGHTS NU METAL-CENTRIC FILM SOUNDTRACKS
Here are the things I will NOT be including on this list:
Albums based on musicals: A whole other thing and a whole other thing I am not qualified to judge. (This includes Disney films like The Lion King and Frozen, a decision that has no doubt royally pissed off my 6-year-old daughter.)
Albums based on film scores: Again, a whole other thing. What makes this especially tricky is that there are film scores that could also be classified as soundtracks, and vice versa. For instance, when a person from the worlds of pop, rock, rap, country, electronic, etc. is called upon to provide all of the music for a film, it might feel like a soundtrack album (in that the pieces of music work as actual songs) or it might feel like a score (meaning the music is inextricably tied with the visuals it is meant to complement or enhance). I have done my best to distinguish between the two. For instance, I did not include the brilliant score that Trent Reznor created with Atticus Ross for The Social Network. However, I did include the soundtrack that Reznor produced for Natural Born Killers.
(I have contradicted myself on this count at least four times. I will acknowledge each instance as we proceed.)
Concert film soundtracks: A. Whole. Other. Thing. But if I had included them, Stop Making Sense would be at No. 6 and The Last Waltz at No. 2.
Now, here are (some of) my biases:
Soundtracks that feel like standalone albums: Normally, I am very interested in how songs are used in films and TV shows. However, for this list, I am not concerned with it one bit. I am assessing these soundtrack albums purely as albums. I’ll give you an example: Goodfellas is one of the most famous movies ever for using rock and pop songs from many different eras. If I were making a list of movies that use songs with the greatest artistry, it would easily be in the Top 10. However, the soundtrack album for Goodfellas contains only 10 songs, a fraction of the number of tunes in the film. (One of the excluded numbers is Donovan’s “Atlantis,” aka the song that plays during the beating and near death of Billy Batts. This is a lethal exclusion.) Still a great soundtrack album, but it’s a different (and slightly less great) animal compared with the film.
(In the Spotify era, proper soundtrack albums are frequently overshadowed in searches by playlists that compile every single song in a particular film. From a practical, non-purist perspective, this makes sense. Nevertheless, I find this annoying and my list is meant to actively counteract the practice. I am not judging soundtrack playlists, I am concerned with proper soundtrack albums.)
Soundtracks released between the early ’80s and and the early ’00s: Is this merely a generational bias? No, it’s not merely a generational bias. This time period simply coincides with the era in which soundtracks felt like actual albums and not just promotional adjuncts to big films. At the risk of sounding like a geriatric man, a proper soundtrack album in my mind is a CD with a cracked jewel case that resided in your friend’s car for a good chunk of the late 20th century. If you are a person for whom the Minions: The Rise Of Gru soundtrack is generationally important, you are welcome to make your own soundtrack list in about 10 to 15 years.
Soundtracks that capture a moment in time: Circling back to the “standalone album” concept, I favor soundtracks that instantly evoke a particular aesthetic that links with a larger musical movement. To name an extremely obvious example: You can’t talk about the disco era without mentioning Saturday Night Fever. It is a definitive document of late ’70s pop culture, which is why it must be counted among the best soundtrack albums ever. (You also can’t discuss the sexual power of gold medallions interlocking with dark chest hair without mentioning Saturday Night Fever. But that’s a conversation for a different time.)
Good soundtracks from bad movies (or movies that have no good reason to have any kind of soundtrack at all): Here’s the part where I want to discuss the original soundtrack album for 2000’s Mission: Impossible 2. I couldn’t find room for it on the proper list. But it’s precisely the kind of soundtrack album I love. As possibly the most “the year of our lord 2000” album ever made, it definitely captures a moment in time. Limp Bizkit (of course) kicks things off. The next song is the Metallica original that leaked online and inspired Lars Ulrich to go after Napster and the Metallica fans who used the site to rob him. (This subsequently inspired Limp Bizkit to partner with Napster as a sponsor of their free summer 2000 tour.) Later, Foo Fighters cover Pink Floyd’s “Have A Cigar” with Brian May as Uncle Kracker rubs filthy elbows with Godsmack and Buckcherry. At the end, Tori Amos shows up and almost classes up the joint.
This album is not good. That’s why I didn’t include it on my list. But the idea of the Mission: Impossible 2 soundtrack is irresistible to me. I grew up in a world in which big-time summer action films were required to have an accompanying album compiling the dumbest aggro-dudes of the present year. But that practice started to peter out no long after Mission: Impossible 2. And that’s why I wanted to honor it.
(I could have also talked in this slot about the soundtrack album for Scream 3, which came out the same year and includes contributions from Creed, Slipknot, System Of A Down, Godsmack, Fuel, Incubus, Orgy, and Staind. Or really any soundtrack from this time that includes a Godsmack track. Because there a lot of soundtracks from this time that include a Godsmack track.)
50. The Breakfast Club (1985)
This album often ranks high whenever people make lists of soundtrack albums. (This is the last time I will acknowledge other soundtrack albums lists. This is the only soundtracks albums list from now on.) However, I think The Breakfast Club is overrated. As the most famous album associated with a John Hughes film, it definitely captures a moment in time. But it’s not the best John Hughes soundtrack. (That would be Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which weirdly did not have an official soundtrack album until 30 years after the fact. How were people not clamoring in the streets for Yellow’s “Oh Yeah”?) What The Breakfast Club exemplifies is the kind of soundtrack that has one undeniable classic song — which of course is Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” — and a lot of tracks that sound like they came out of an ’80s soundtrack filler factory. No disrespect to Ken Forsey’s “I’m The Dude,” the song that scores the least convincing marijuana sequence ever committed to film.
(I should also mention The Graduate in this context, which did not make my list due to my previously stated criteria. In the history of films that memorably use pop songs, The Graduate is an obvious landmark. But since I am considering only the album and not how the music is used in the film, it must be pointed out that The Graduate soundtrack album surrounds a handful of Simon & Garfunkel jams with many more selections from Dave Grusin’s score, which for my purposes makes it less essential.)
49. Back To The Future (1985)
A lot of soundtrack albums follow the “one undeniable hit plus anonymous filler” formula, which explains why the form peaked before the Internet age. After that, you couldn’t get away with a transparent farce like the Rocky III soundtrack, which roars out of the gate with Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger” and then limply follows up with some nepo-baby Frank Stallone tracks. (Though it does eventually come through with the inevitable appearance of “Gonna Fly Now” by Bill Conti.)
As an 8-year-old in 1985, I convinced my mother to buy me the Back To The Future soundtrack because (like all right-thinking Americans of any age) I loved “The Power Of Love” by Huey Lewis and The News. At least — in accordance with the “one undeniable hit plus anonymous filler” formula — they had the decency to put the hit as the first track, which allowed you to rewind the tape immediately back to the start. But if you did get to the second track of the Back To The Future soundtrack, you found (unlike The Breakfast Club) some serious gold in the form of “Time Bomb Town” by ’80s soundtrack MVP Lindsey Buckingham. I don’t know if the song is actually about time travel, but it does have “time” in the title, which is good enough. (Sadly, you can’t get that song on streaming services but it is on YouTube.)
48. Last Action Hero (1993)
Along with playing to my “good soundtrack to a bad movie” bias, this is another “moment in time” soundtrack, and it’s an extremely specific moment at that. Last Action Hero approaches the summer of 1993 (when alt-rock was dominant) like it’s the summer of 1991 (when Terminator 2: Judgement Day merged with Guns N’ Roses’ “You Could Be Mine” to create a hype tsunami for mulleted teenagers everywhere) in a manner that captures the slow recognition of rapidly changing youth culture by corporate media in the last decade of the 20th century. (An accompanying soundtrack in that regard is 1992’s Wayne’s World, which introduced Alice Cooper’s “Feed My Frankenstein” to a generation just getting into Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.)
On Last Action Hero, the title track is by the quasi-acoustic thinking man’s metal band Tesla. AC/DC, Megadeth, Def Leppard, and Queensrÿche are also prominently featured. The inclusion of two Alice In Chains songs and a Cypress Hill track from Black Sunday are the only nods to modernity. (Unless you count Michael Kamen collaborating with Buckethead. And why wouldn’t you?)
47. Cruel Intentions (1999)
The opposite of the “one undeniable hit plus anonymous filler” soundtrack. In 1999, purchasing the Cruel Intentions soundtrack was a convenient way to procure both The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony” and Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You,” two of the biggest “homemade mixtape” hits of the late ’90s. Beyond that, you get the all-time best Placebo song (“Every You Every Me”), the 26th best Counting Crows song (“Colorblind”), and a Blur song for people who did not wish to fork over $18.99 to hear the rest of the recently released 13.
46. Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
I have a soft spot for this one because it was among the first soundtracks I ever owned. In my mind I had it categorized as a “one undeniable hit plus anonymous filler” soundtrack. That one hit (most of the time) is Harold Faltermeyer’s “Axel F.,” one of the great synth movie themes of the ’80s, though depending on my mood (or proximity to Buffalo Wild Wings) it could also be Glenn Frey’s cheese-sax classic “The Heat Is On.” But upon revisiting Beverly Hills Cop, it’s a deeper album that I remembered. It’s particularly rich with tasty mid-’80s electro-R&B cuts from The Pointer Sisters, Patti LaBelle, and Shalamar. (Though sadly it does not include the single greatest song featured in the film, Vanity 6’s “Nasty Girl.”)
45. FM (1978)
This soundtrack to a forgettable late ’70s comedy about a radio station is essentially Classic Rock: The Album, even if it predates the rise of the classic rock format by a few years. If you were to start a classic rock radio station — a questionable choice in 2023, perhaps, but I support it — this is the only record you would need to own. Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” is on this album. Foreigner’s “Cold As Ice” is on this album. Side Two (it’s a four-sided LP) begins with the Eagles’ “Life In The Fast Lane” and ends with Boston’s “More Than A Feeling.” Sadly, there is no moment to “Get The Led Out,” as it were, but that’s practically the only classic rock radio convention that’s missing here.
And then there’s the impeccable title track, which comes courtesy of Steely Dan one year after they released Aja and two years before they released Gaucho. “Give her some funked up Muzak, she treats you nice,” Donald Fagen sings, a perfectly pitched moment that registers both as irony and invitation.
44. The Color Of Money (1986)
If FM is the definitive late ’70s “Classic Rock Radio Before There Was Classic Rock” album, The Color Of Money is the ultimate document of a slightly later period in the mid ’80s that I affectionately refer to as “Michelob Rock.” This is a reference to the ad campaign that featured stars like Eric Clapton and Genesis, but it also applies more broadly to a brand of vaguely bluesy, well-monied, and state-of-the-art rock music made by aging rockers who were managing middle age by embracing synths and donning trench coats. That’s the scene captured perfectly on The Color Of Money soundtrack, an album that evokes the sound, feel, and smell of a medium-terrible bar in 1986 like no other. Michelob Rock icons like Clapton, Don Henley, and Mark Knopfler make an appearance, as does Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves Of London,” which was revived in popularity because of this movie.
(The only reason The Color Of Money isn’t higher on my list is that it doesn’t include Phil Collins’ “One More Night,” which goes unbelievably hard in the film. For all the props that Martin Scorsese gets for utilizing songs, he doesn’t get enough credit for merging Paul Newman’s melancholy with the signature ballad from No Jacket Required.)
43. Into The Wild (2007)
As I mentioned, I have tried to delineate soundtrack albums from film scores, which was among the most difficult aspects of writing this column. For instance, I really wanted to include Air’s The Virgin Suicides, an album I adore, because I think it obviously works as a standalone work apart from Sofia Coppola’s 1999 film. But on the album cover, it is clearly denoted as a score, not a soundtrack. (There is an actual soundtrack album composed of ’70s soft-rock songs plus a brilliant ’70s soft-rock homage by my beloved Canadian power-poppers Sloan. The soundtrack also includes two Air songs, including an instrumental version of a song that’s on Air’s score, which only further complicates matters.)
There are other issues with the soundtrack vs. score problem, which I’ll address on this list as we get to them. But for now, I will praise Eddie Vedder’s soundtrack (which is also kind of a score) to Sean Penn’s 2007 film about would-be survivalist Chris McCandless for communicating the movie’s anti-consumerist spiritualism with more heart and emotion than even Penn can manage. By connecting with the idealism of McCandless, Vedder re-discovers the muse that prompted him to write so many classic youth anthems in the ’90s.
42. Natural Born Killers (1994)
I already spoiled this one. (And I still have regrets about not putting The Social Network on here.) But Natural Born Killers truly is a satisfying experience as a pure mix of wide-ranging songs — Leonard Cohen into L7 into Cowboy Junkies into Dr. Dre — that express a solitary vibe of foreboding lunacy that (if you were a teenager at the time) seemed, like, totally fuckin’ crazy, man! And Reznor’s work as producer/curator really does take the soundtrack to the next level; he comes off like a decadent rock star whose real passion is making cool “diverse” playlists after the show on his tour bus.
41. Velvet Goldmine (1998)
I’m not ashamed to admit that this album introduced me as a 21-year-old college student to one of the best songs in the history of the world, Brian Eno’s “Needle In The Camel’s Eye.” For that reason alone it makes the list. The conceit of Velvet Goldmine is taking glam-rock songs from the early ’70s (like Roxy Music’s “Ladytron” and The Stooges’ “T.V. Eye”) and re-recording them with rock musicians from the late ’90s (like Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, and Thurston Moore). Director Todd Haynes revived this idea for the soundtrack to his Bob Dylan picture I’m Not There, but it works better with Velvet Goldmine because it aligns with the film thematically (Haynes is concerned with the transformative power of glam rock via aspirational posturing) while also producing an album that’s really fun to play loud.
40. Above The Rim (1994)
This is an essential sampler of mid-’90s hip-hop and R&B, particularly the West Coast/Death Row variety. The Tupac songs are great and not overexposed. The SWV track is killer and Tha Dogg Pound does Tha Dogg Pound things. But I’m going to be honest: Back in the day, this was my Warren G and Nate Dogg delivery device. Before you could stream the finest G-Funk era anthem ever, “Regulate,” nonstop from your nearest device, you needed this album.
39. The Big Chill (1983)
The most Baby Boomer album that every Baby Boomer’ed. Which is to say: It’s the second most annoying “significant” soundtrack of all time. (The most annoying is Forrest Gump, which is The Big Chill for people who thought that the nostalgia in The Big Chill was too subtle.) I enjoy all of the songs on this album, but the baggage from the film is hard to overcome. Like, when I hear The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” in this context, I can’t erase the close-up image of Glenn Close’s ass moving in rhythm to the impeccable swing of Motown’s in-house band, The Funk Brothers. Nor can I forget Kevin Kline’s indignant rant about how there’s been no good music released since the ’60s. My appreciation of “Whiter Shade Of Pale” is only so strong. Nevertheless, I acknowledge this soundtrack’s historical significance — as much as any single album it codified the concept of “oldies radio” — in spite of my personal, Gen-X resentments.
38. Garden State (2004)
The Big Chill for millennials. That this soundtrack became a cultural shorthand for a brand of indie music that aging punks with Fugazi social-media avatars felt compelled to mock or outright condemn speaks to its stature. Love it or hate it, the Garden State soundtrack has an identity as an album that outstrips Zach Braff’s modest homage to The Graduate. Also: Natalie Portman was right. The first Shins album really will change (or at least moderately enhance) your life.
37. Clueless (1995)
I thought about putting Fast Times At Ridgemont High on this list, but the soundtrack is larded with too many past-their-time arena-rock acts that either worked professionally with the film’s co-producer Irving Azoff or palled around with Fast Times screenwriter Cameron Crowe. Both men were at odds with director Amy Heckerling, whose punk/new wave sensibility was more in line with youth culture at the time. You can tell that Heckerling got her way with Clueless, another L.A. teen comedy whose alt-rock soundtrack practically screams 1995 in bright pink letters. What that means is plenty of sugary bangers from the likes of Supergrass, Luscious Jackson, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Smoking Popes, Counting Crows, and The Muffs.
36. Romeo + Juliet (1996)
In Clueless, the protagonist Cher (Alicia Silverstone) refers to Radiohead as “the maudlin music of the university station” and, later, “complaint rock.” But in the mid-’90s, Radiohead was also “soundtrack rock.” And if you were a fan, you were often strong-armed into buying soundtracks with Radiohead songs that weren’t easily available elsewhere. In the case of Clueless, it was an acoustic version of “Fake Plastic Trees.” For Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, it was one of their best B-sides, “Talk Show Host.” While the original version could be procured by purchasing the “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” single, the sleek “Nelle Hooper remix” version included on this soundtrack became canon. (The band also supposedly wrote “Exit Music (For A Film)” for Luhrmann, but wisely held it back one year for OK Computer.) I also must mention the thoroughly delightful confection “Lovefool” by The Cardigans, a huge hit that subsequently helped to make the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack a huge hit.
35. The Crow (1994)
Low-key one of the most ubiquitous CDs of the mid-’90s. Every friend group had at least one person who kept this album inside of their Case Logic at all times. “Big Empty” by Stone Temple Pilots was the most popular track, but The Cure’s “Burn” might be the most beloved number in retrospect. (To all of the people who complained that I did not include “Burn” in my recent column by The Cure: I hear you, and you are correct.) Upon revisiting The Crow, I was surprised that it didn’t include any nu-metal. And yet the cumulative effect of putting The Cure, Rage Against The Machine, Nine Inch Nails, Helmet, and Pantera in the same bucket feels very nu-metal.
34. Judgment Night (1993)
The Crow soundtrack did not actually invent nu-metal, of course. That’s because nu-metal was invented one year earlier by the Judgment Night soundtrack. I am being (kind of) serious here. As any student of ’90s soundtracks will tell you, Judgment Night is a thriller starring Emilio Estevez (ha), Cuba Gooding Jr.(haha), Jeremy Piven (lol!), and Denis Leary (rofl!!) that nobody saw in 1993. (For a minute I thought I did see this movie, but I was really thinking of Walter Hill’s Trespass, which has virtually the same premise as Judgment Night but came out in 1992.) But the soundtrack entered the bloodstream of American suburbia and rewired teenaged nervous systems everywhere. The idea for each song was to take an alt-rock band and a rap act and have them collaborate. The resulting tracklist is pure chaos. Dinosaur Jr. and Del The Funky Homosapien? OK. Teenage Fanclub and De La Soul? Sure. Sonic Youth and Cypress Hill? Whatever. Pearl Jam and Cypress Hill? Now that’s when the early ’90s ended and the late ’90s began.
33. Batman Forever (1995)
When Christopher Nolan took over the Batman franchise in the mid-aughts, the implicit idea was that it would correct the sins from a decade prior, when Batman Forever was a willfully silly springboard for the lush, romantic pop smash “Kiss From A Rose” by the Heidi Klum whisperer himself, Seal. In modern times, Batman movies are stern, serious, and staunchly anti-pop. But this only makes the Batman Forever soundtrack more appealing as a departure from the present-day, long-established, and kinda drab norm. This album goes way deeper than you probably assume. U2’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” is the other famous track, and a capstone of their Achtung Baby/Zooropa period. There’s much more beyond that, though. The original Nick Cave and PJ Harvey songs are way better than they need to be. Michael Hutchence credibly covers Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.” Method Man does a theme song for The Riddler and does not embarrass himself. Some kind soul decided to kick Sunny Day Real Estate some much needed cash by including a number from “The Pink Album.” Does this soundtrack album need to exist? Of course not. And yet it more than justifies its existence.
32. Batman (1989)
Prince’s soundtrack to the first Batman somehow is even more ridiculous than Batman Forever. And it’s even harder for me to resist. At the time, Prince was at a low commercial ebb after a series of experimental and oft-brilliant records released in the wake of another soundtrack, Purple Rain. For Batman, Prince worked quickly and aimed once again for pop appeal, and the result was “Batdance,” his first No. 1 song in three years. “Batdance” (let’s be real) is also one of the dumbest tracks in Prince’s catalogue, but the frivolousness of the soundtrack works both for the film (as a manifestation of Jack “Joker” Nicholson’s ’80s decadence) and for the album, which is one of Prince’s most accessible and mindlessly enjoyable works.
31. Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973)
Time to revisit the soundtrack vs. film score problem. There is a subgenre of film music that I will refer to as “Celebrity Rocker Makes Cinematic Instrumentals.” Notable examples include Mark Knopfler’s Local Hero, Neil Young’s Dead Man, and Richard Thompson’s Grizzly Man — all of which I adore. But none of these albums are on this list because they feel more like film scores than soundtracks. However, I am including Bob Dylan’s soundtrack to Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, even though it could (and possibly should) be grouped under the “Celebrity Rocker Makes Cinematic Instrumentals” category. But I’m not doing that for three reasons. No. 1, it says “Bob Dylan Soundtrack” on the album cover. No. 2, it includes one of his most famous songs, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” No. 3 … well, there are a lot of tracks named “Billy” that sound more or less sound like the same song. But that song is incredible.
30. Shaft (1971)
An even more egregious example of a “Celebrity Rocker Makes Cinematic Instrumentals” album sneaking on the list. Isaac Hayes’ soundtrack to the blaxploitation classic is almost entirely instrumentals, and many of them are pretty forgettable. The exception, of course, is the title track, which is such an overwhelming dose of ’70s funk that it overcomes the overall weakness of the album (and the rigid methodology of this list) to land all the way at No. 30.
29. The Bodyguard (1992)
The first three songs are indisputable. “I Will Always Love You” speaks for itself. “I Have Nothing” would be the showstopper on any album that didn’t also include “I Will Always Love You.” And then you have “I’m Every Woman,” which coming out of Whitney Houston’s mouth can only be classified as truth in advertising. Those are the songs that made this one of the most commercially ginormous soundtracks in history. But if we dig past them we find … multiple Kenny G tracks. And a woefully unnecessary cover of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding.” And a forgettable Joe Cocker number that might as well be titled “Contractual Obligation.” This has to one of the most top-heavy soundtracks ever. But the top is enough of a peak for The Bodyguard to land inside the Top 30.
28. Good Will Hunting (1997)
If you have never sat in a car with your friends driving aimlessly at dusk while listening to this album, you probably were not between the ages of 16 and 22 in the summer of 1997. In the context of Elliott Smith’s career, Good Will Hunting might seem to contemporary listeners like a footnote, since we’re now all aware of the man’s genius. But in ’97, this soundtrack introduced most of the world to the greatest songwriter they had never heard of. Listening to it now, I was kind of shocked that there are songs not by Elliott Smith on the soundtrack. I don’t think we bothered to listen to Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” or The Waterboys’ “Fisherman’s Blues,” even though those are great songs. Once you hear Elliott Smith, it is impossible to listen to anything else for a good long time.
27. Magnolia (1999)
Aimee Mann wasn’t as obscure before Magnolia as Elliott Smith was before Good Will Hunting, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s coke-fueled exegesis on grief and the tortured bonds between parents and children did put her music at the center of culture for the first time since her Til Tuesday period in the mid-’80s. Her songs are practically a character in the film, though as an album Magnolia is a more coherent (and far more succinct) expression of yearning for transcendence amid life-quaking emotional turmoil.
As a special bonus, you also get the two greatest Supertramp songs of all time.
26. Drive (2011)
Before he was a hit-making focal point of the Barbie soundtrack, Ryan Gosling was an avatar for all of us indie kids who suddenly became obsessed with the Tangerine Dream scores for Sorcerer, Thief, and Risky Business in the early 2010s. (Again, while I love Tangerine Dream, there are not on this list due to the soundtrack vs. film score conundrum.) Actually, the bulk of this soundtrack is composed of Cliff Martinez’s fantastically atmospheric score, which makes its inclusion here another of my aforementioned contradictions. My justification: Drive captured the zeitgeist as a film and an album, with the latter proving to be an influence on everybody from Taylor Swift to The Weeknd to countless throwback indie synth-pop acts.
25. The Harder They Come (1972)
What Saturday Night Fever did for disco in the ’70s, The Harder They Come did for reggae — it introduced the (white American) layperson to an entire genre and subculture. The star of the show, of course, is Jimmy Cliff, who contributed the immortal title track specifically for the film along with a trio of previously released killers: “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “Sitting In Limbo,” and the painfully beautiful “Many Rivers To Cross.” The reminder is a top-flight sampler of highlights from the late ’60s and early ’70s from the likes of Toots & The Maytals, Desmond Dekker, and The Melodians.
24. Rushmore (1998)
When it comes to Wes Anderson soundtracks, there are Rushmore people and there are The Royal Tenenbaums people. These albums are Revolver and Sgt. Pepper for indie rock-enjoying cinephiles who came of age at the turn of the century. In this analogy, I must go with the Revolver equivalent. I value this album because it introduced me to the super fab “Making Time” by The Creation. I also appreciate all of the heart-tugging British rock ballads, from Chad & Jeremy’s “A Summer Song” to John Lennon’s “Oh! Yoko” to The Faces’ all-time credits closer “Ooh La La.” (This album also revived Cat Stevens back to his Harold And Maude-level soundtrack glory.) But what really puts Rushmore over the top is The Who’s “A Quick One, While He’s Away.” As a fellow classic rock snob, I appreciate Wes’ good taste in choosing the live version from The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus, in which Max Fischer (and all of us dorks who related to him) is finally told, “You are forgiven.”
23. Help! (1965)
Let’s say you’re the biggest rock band in the world. Let’s say you’re the biggest rock band that has ever been in the world. Let’s say you’re coming off your first film, and it’s the greatest rock ‘n’ roll comedy ever made. Let’s say you react to your immense success by turning into wake-and-bake stoners. Let’s say that for your second film you basically want to spend the studio’s money by turning the shoot into an extended vacation — at the beach, on the ski slopes, at Stonehenge.
It sounds like a recipe for disaster. But even if The Beatles weren’t operating at full-strength on Help!, this is The Beatles we’re talking about. Only the first half of the soundtrack made it in the film, and it’s half classics (“You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” “Ticket To Ride,” the title song) and half deep cuts that are fine by band standards and pretty great by regular human standards. The second half is weaker, but it also has “Yesterday,” a song Paul McCartney literally wrote in his sleep. The overall album is in the bottom half of all Beatles LPs but in the upper echelon of soundtrack albums.
22. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Incredible soundtrack that I am docking five spots for influencing the course of folk music, mustaches, suspenders, and conspicuous hats in the 21st century.
21. Repo Man (1984)
The “cool older sibling from the ’80s” soundtrack album. As Alex Cox’s film mainstreamed underground L.A. punk, the soundtrack album traveled even farther as an entry point for suburban kids who weren’t already versed in Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and Suicidal Tendencies. Well into the ’90s, this album remained an essential text for anyone rebelling against ordinary fucking people.
20. Dirty Dancing (1987)
“Dad Rock” is a concept that has been endlessly discussed, dissected, and debated. But when the time comes to finally parse “Mom Rock,” the Dirty Dancing soundtrack album will have to be part of the conversation. It certainly is “My Mom Rock,” in that it was one of the only tapes my mother owned, which is why I know it by heart. About half of this album is oldies, and they’re all pretty terrific and surprisingly Scorsese-esque: The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” Maurice Williams and The Zodiacs’ “Stay,” Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby,” Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange,” and The Five Satins’ “(I’ll Remember) In The Still Of The Night.” But I think my mother preferred the contemporary tracks, particularly “She’s Like The Wind,” and not only because she had the hots for Patrick Swayze. As a music critic, I’m most interested in the most famous number, Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’ “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life,” in part because it demonstrates that the gap between “Mom Rock” and “Michelob Rock” is incredibly narrow.
19. Top Gun (1986)
Speaking of Michelob Rock: Top Gun even outshoots The Color Of Money. Ronald Reagan did not literally produce this album, but he absolutely did in the figurative sense. Is this a compliment? Probably not. But Top Gun absolutely captures a moment in time as well as any soundtrack album. And what was that moment? It was a moment when the industrial-military complex was considered erotic. It was a moment when shirtless male volleyball was considered heterosexual. It was a moment when Kenny Loggins was considered an expert on identifying dangerous zones. It was a moment when people considered copulating to Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” while sheets magically waved in the foreground. It was … a moment.
Loggins might be the star of Top Gun, but my personal MVP is Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander, whose incredible vocal (sorry) elevates “Mighty Wings” beyond “’80s soundtrack filler factory” material to (sorry again) a sky-high peak.
18. Goodfellas (1990)
Circling back to what I said at the start of this list: There’s a world of difference between Goodfellas (the music used in the film) and Goodfellas (the soundtrack album). To name one example: Only one song (Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy”) from the iconic helicopter sequence (when Ray Liotta is running around town trying to sell guns in a severe cocaine haze while being tailed by the cops) is on the album. There is no “Memo From Turner.” There is no “What Is Life.” There is no “Monkey Man.” An album with all of those songs (and more from the film) is maybe the best soundtrack album ever. The album that actually exists, however, is the 18th best soundtrack.
(Shout out to Mean Streets, which does not have an official soundtrack album, though it would be an all-time contender for the top soundtrack album crown if it did.)
17. Trouble Man (1972)
As I admitted, I have contradicted myself four times on the soundtrack vs. film score problem. The first three were Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, Shaft, and Drive. This is the fourth. Trouble Man is a total “Celebrity Rocker Makes Cinematic Instrumentals” album. But it’s just too goddamn funky for me not to include it. If this undermines my credibility, so be it. It’s the cost of being a Trouble Man. For Marvin Gaye, this was the record between What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On, and it has an appropriate mix of social consciousness and full-on copulation vibes. Trouble Man also reiterates that Marvin was writing some of the most beautiful music created by anyone ever at the time, even before he opened his mouth and let out the voice of God himself.
16. To Live And Die In L.A. (1985)
Is it possible that I actually contradicted myself five times? To Live And Die In L.A. is officially billed as a soundtrack, but that feels like a technicality. It definitely could be a score. What if I said that the sort of moment that Marvin Gaye had in the early ’70s was also the kind of moment that (cough) Wang Chung had in the mid-’80s? Okay, I don’t fully believe that either. But I will argue that To Live And Die In L.A. is one of the best synth-rock albums of the decade. It both evokes the seedy underbelly of America’s glamour capitol as it stood at the time, while also inventing (or at least perfecting) many of the era’s sonic signifiers. But honestly, that’s just a bunch of critical jargon. I put this album here because “City Of The Angels” is the kind of song that will make me pull on the highway and drive way too fast, preferably in the wrong direction.
15. Miami Vice (1985)
When it comes to synth-rock soundtracks connected to crime thrillers, Jan Hammer is The Beatles and Wang Chung is The Rolling Stones. And Phil Collins is Bob Dylan. I will not be taking any further questions at this time.
14. Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood (2019)
Quentin Tarantino is the single most influential compiler of soundtrack albums in the past 30 years. Nobody comes close. He’s such a pervasive figure in this space that including one of his soundtracks on a list like this reflexively feels basic. But ignoring Tarantino would be an even greater sin, not to mention a bold-faced lie. I grew up on Quentin Tarantino soundtracks, my tastes as a younger man were influenced by Quentin Tarantino soundtracks, and I continue to enjoy Quentin Tarantino soundtracks to this day. For the sake of variety, I didn’t put Reservoir Dogs or either Kill Bill album on this list, though I do love them. (I even like the soundtrack for Death Proof.) But I am including Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood because it is the most immersive. While the mix of late ’60s pop-rock gems is delectable — yes, I did have a Los Bravos phase after this album came out — what really puts the album over is the selection of vintage commercials. Putting this soundtrack on is the next best thing to flying down Sunset Boulevard while riding shotgun with Cliff Booth in 1969.
13. Jackie Brown (1997)
Because this is the album that introduced Bloodstone’s “Natural High” into my life — as well as Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” and The Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter 23” — the least I can do is put it at No. 13.
12. Parade (1986)
After he made Purple Rain and before he made Batman, Prince made another soundtrack for his film Under The Cherry Moon, which he called Parade. Perhaps he sensed that directly associating the album with the film, which was a bomb, was probably not going to make it more commercially viable. The album does include a song called “Under The Cherry Moon” as well as two tracks that reference Christopher Tracy, the character Prince plays in the movie. Other than that, Parade truly is a standalone work that functions as one of his strangest and most experimental records. It’s the peak of his post-superstar “psychedelic cipher” era. It also has “Kiss,” the sparse, demo-like funk-rock masterpiece in which Prince declares that you don’t have to watch Dynasty to have an attitude. Thankfully the song (and the album) have long outlived the utility of that pop culture reference.
11. The Rutles (1978)
The greatest musical parody album of all time, and it came out six years before This Is Spinal Tap. The soundtrack to All You Need Is Cash, a TV movie written and co-directed by Monty Python’s Eric Idle, The Rutles features 20 pitch-perfect homages to the various eras of The Beatles written by Neil Innes of the pranksterish British rock group Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Innes nails the early Beatles (“Hold My Hand”), the mid-period Beatles (“I Must Be In Love”), and the late-period Beatles (“Cheese And Onions,” which was later covered by Galaxie 500) with equal skill. Sometimes he veers into quasi-plagiarism — Lennon and McCartney were later added as co-writers of some songs — but mostly Innes is a master of compiling Beatlesque attributes into shockingly good new songs, like a human A.I.
10. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
How good is this album? It’s even better than The Rutles.
9. Trainspotting (1996)
A high point for Britpop, Iggy Pop, and heroin, though not necessarily in that order. For mid-’90s Anglophiles, this was one-stop shopping for cool music from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, a crash course in Lou Reed, New Order , and Primal Scream. Purchasing the Trainspotting soundtrack was the first step in fooling people into thinking that you knew about this music all along.
8. Dazed And Confused (1993)
The danger of the Trainspotting soundtrack in the late ’90s is that hearing it at an afterparty might be a red flag that hard drugs were about to be foisted upon you. In this “drug soundtrack album” dichotomy, the Dazed And Confused soundtrack was the less menacing alternative. It was merely an invitation to ingest weed and beer. I think that explains why the album went double-platinum at a time when alt-rock was ascendent and supposedly anti-boomer. In reality, a record that compiles hits by Aerosmith, ZZ Top, Alice Cooper, Kiss, and Black Sabbath was timeless during a period when the biggest bands in the world were shamelessly nicking from ’70s rock. Like the movie, the Dazed And Confused soundtrack is a testament to how aimless, drugged-out youth always feels a bit like 1976 no matter what year it is.
7. American Graffiti (1973)
The Dazed And Confused of the ’70s. Or is it the Dazed And Confused of the early ’60s? Either way this album pioneered the art of collecting a bunch of old songs and presenting them as a nostalgic portrait for an aging audience a decade removed from their teen years. To put it in modern terms: the American Graffiti soundtrack achieved in retrospect what the American Pie movie soundtracks achieved in real time, only it was with Beach Boys songs instead of Blink-182 tunes.
6. Boogie Nights (1997)
This was Dazed And Confused for my college years. As a compilation of disco bangers, this is probably more consistent than Saturday Night Fever, if not quite as historically significant. But the star of the show — aside from Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian,” which Boogie Nights transformed from an AOR also-ran into an ironic cocaine anthem — has to be “Feel The Heat” by Mark Wahlberg and John C. Reilly, the greatest bad song on a great soundtrack ever.
5. Super Fly (1972)
The fifth-best soundtrack album, the second-best soundtrack album created by a single artist, and the No. 1 soundtrack to a blaxploitation film. This is also the best example of a soundtrack album that expresses the ideas of the film better than the film. The emptiness of the American Dream, and the corrosive self-destruction that capitalism encourages, is fully interrogated by Curtis Mayfield on Super Fly, which otherwise sounds so funky and sexy that it doesn’t hit like an intellectual exercise but rather as street-level reportage.
4. Singles (1992)
A soundtrack album that captures a moment in time while simultaneously creating a moment in time. Released in the summer of 1992, Singles arrived just as alternative rock was blowing up. The soundtrack’s stars, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, had just started playing together on the summer’s traveling Lollapalooza tour. Anyone who did not already own Ten or Badmotorfinger (and that was still a lot of people at the time) now had a handy sampler to introduce them to the scene. The album was even ahead of the curve in some respects — the excellent album opener “Would?” arrived three months before Alice In Chains’ harrowing second LP, Dirt. Another highlight, “Drown,” spotlighted Smashing Pumpkins, who were still relatively obscure about a year out from the release of Siamese Dream. As a movie, Singles pretty much came and went but the soundtrack became an immediate touchstone that in retrospect functions as a definitive document of a musical movement unfolding in real time.
3. Pulp Fiction (1994)
As I previously stated, Quentin Tarantino is the single most influential compiler of soundtrack albums in the past 30 years. And this is his single most influential soundtrack. Anyone who uses an old song to create an ironic counterpoint to on-screen violence, anyone who digs up a musical obscurity in order to give their film the imprimatur of discerning quality, anyone who mashes up surf rock with funk and country gospel to convey a chaotic but nevertheless coherent aesthetic — they are all in some way nodding in the direction of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. It is their shepherd through the musical valley of darkness.
2. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
There’s a strong musicologist argument against this album, which is that a scene invented by queer, Black, and Latin artists ought not to be represented by a double LP headlined by three white male Australians. It’s such a strong argument that I wouldn’t dream of disputing it. I wouldn’t dream of it because I am a weak man. I am a weak man because I also can’t resist (affects the guitar sound from “Stayin’ Alive”) bwa bwa bwa ba da da bwa bwa ba da da da da. Even though (like you) I have heard it 1.6 billion times. Because Saturday Night Fever is indestructible. We know this because many people (even the Bee Gees) have tried to kill it and they have never succeeded. This album is so iconic and popular that it has endured endless success-to-laughingstock-and-back-to-success cycles. You can enjoy it as pop music, as a joke, as a dated cultural reference, and/or as a deathless classic. Just don’t expect it to ever go away.
1. Purple Rain (1984)
The only possible strike against putting this at No. 1 is that it’s (sort of) a concert soundtrack. Three of the songs (“I Would Die 4 U,” “Baby I’m A Star,” and the title song) were recorded live at Minneapolis’ First Avenue in August 1983. But those tracks were also overdubbed to the max. Also, it’s unclear if Prince performed those songs as himself or as his Purple Rain character, The Kid. But really, why in the world would I disqualify Purple Rain from its proper place on a technicality? Dearly beloved, we are gathered today to get through this thing called “soundtrack albums.” There were 50 entries and that’s a mighty long list. But I’m here to tell you there’s something else … the afterworld. In terms of the best soundtracks of all time, Purple Rain is the afterworld.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.