A good movie soundtrack should not only make you think about the scenes in the movie when you hear the songs after the fact, but the movie soundtrack should also create an artistic canvas that can live on its own, independent of the film. These picks represent the best movie soundtracks of all-time, whether it’s focused primarily on a singular artist like Eminem, Whitney Houston, Kendrick Lamar and Prince, or whether it’s comprised of a collection of songs that captured a moment in time or a period in a genres history. Whether it’s the ’80s, gangsta rap, Britpop, disco, indie, the ’70s, or grunge, they’re featured here on our list of the best movie soundtracks of all-time.
20. 8 Mile (2002)
For all the shine that Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” got as the movie’s most iconic number (and one of the biggest rap singles of all time), the 8 Mile soundtrack was also a stellar showcase for Shady Records, the sound of Detroit rap as a whole, and the legends that helped shape Em’s world-sweeping sound. You can’t talk about the Shady Records’ beginnings without mentioning 50 Cent, and “Wanksta” was the second single off of the soundtrack that helped propel 50’s illustrious career. Gang Starr, Jay-Z, Xzibit (“Spitshine” is perennially slept on and vintage X), Rakim, and Detroit’s Obie Trice all feature prominently alongside Eminem and D12.
19. Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010)
Scott Pilgrim’s indie band Sex Bob-Omb performed throughout the flick and these were much more than just scene-filling songs. Co-written by Beck, their tunes totally rock, and Michael Cera and company shred through the slacker swing of “Garbage Truck” and the technicolor rock-a-billy explosiveness of “We Are Sex Bomb-Omb.” Metric’s “Black Sheep” as performed by Brie Larson’s Envy Adams is a bonafide banger that now appears on 2021’s Expanded version of the soundtrack, “We Hate You Please Die” is another bop from one of the film’s fictional bands (Crash And The Boys) and there’s even a little Broken Social Scene on the album for good measure. As if you needed another stamp of approval, the whole soundtrack was executive produced by Nigel Godrich.
18. Trainspotting (1996)
The soundtrack to Danny Boyle’s ’90s cult-classic film cemented Britpop standards from Blur, Elastica, and Pulp, alongside UK club hits from Underworld and Iggy Pop’s timeless proto-punk. From the moment that Trainspotting begins with Ewan McGregor’s Renton running from the cops to the tune of Pop’s “Lust For Life,” the music is inextricably tied to every scene of the film. Heck, that song is forever synonymous with the flick. Underworld’s “Born Slippy” heightens the emotion’s in the movie’s closing moments as McGregor delivers his memorable soliloquy, illustrating how Boyle and company harnessed the power of these songs to make a great movie even better.
17. The Wedding Singer (1998)
It’s like The Wedding Singer took everything that was great about unforgettable ’80s movies soundtracks (Pretty In Pink, The Breakfast Club, etc..) and supercharged it. I suppose it’s easier for a movie that came out in 1998 to look back on an entire decade’s worth of music and totally nail where to drop it all into a movie about peak ’80s nostalgia. There are ’80s staples by New Order, The Smiths, and even “Pass The Dutchie” by Musical Youth. And in a highlight moment, Drew Barrymore and Christine Taylor sing Billy Idol’s “China Girl” in a scene, before Idol emerges as a major character in the movie’s big ending. Ultimately, The Wedding Singer is an ode to the decade’s fun musical history that takes full advantage of its hindsight.
16. Juno (2007)
Yes, another entry from a movie with Michael Cera (we clearly stan). Apparently, director Jason Reitman asked Elliott Page what they thought the movie’s title character listened to, and Kimya Dawson and her bands The Moldy Peaches and Antsy Pants came up. The very twee selections makes for perfect accompaniments to a quaint and sweet film about teenage pregnancy. Belle and Sebastian and Cat Power (“Sea Of Love”!) round out the classic indie collection, with Juno’s crowning moment of Page and twee king Cera singing The Moldy Peaches’ “Anyone Else” in the heartwarming finale.
15. Friday (1995)
If you’re gonna make a movie about a dog day afternoon in South Central LA, it better be set to gangsta rap and g-funk joints through and through. Surprisingly, there is only one Ice Cube cut, in the album-opening title-track slap. But it is surrounded by unshakeable tracks like Dr. Dre’s “Keep Their Heads Ringin’,” 2 Live Crew’s “Hoochie Mama,” and Mack 10’s stoner anthem “Take A Hit.” Speaking of weed, Rick James’ “Mary Jane” soundtracks the classic scene of Cube’s Craig and Chris Tucker’s Smokey getting high on the porch, setting the stage for more moments like this in the Friday franchise.
14. Good Will Hunting (1997)
It’s funny how Good Will Hunting seems to be remembered for lines like “How do you like dem apples?” delivered in a silly Boston accent, more so than for breaking out a then-emerging Portland singer-songwriter named Elliott Smith. Director Gus Van Sant, who also lived in Portland at the time, tabbed Smith’s music to be stitched throughout the film, and then Smith offered an original, “Miss Misery,” which went on to receive an Oscar nomination. There’s something so humble, sublime, and painful about Smith, a tortured soul who would commit suicide (allegedly) six years after the film’s release in 2003, soundtracking the story about another brilliant mind with a troubled past. Smith’s genius is immortal on this one.
13. Dazed & Confused (1993)
Dazed & Confused is beloved as one of the greatest coming of age movies set in the ’70s, paired with the best rock and roll from the era. Every song fits its purpose masterfully. Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” is a vibey beginning credits choice, setting the mood for the laid-back Austin summer. Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” plays on the last day of school, War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends” soundtracks incoming freshman girls getting hazed by the seniors, and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone” is the backdrop for an epic kegger coming to a close. Then, as Randall “Pink” Floyd, Wooderson, Slater, and Simone get on the highway to go buy Aerosmith tickets in Houston (“top priority of the summer!”), “Slow Ride” by Foghat takes viewers into the sun.
12. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
The 2002 Grammy Album Of The Year is about much more than just George Clooney’s Everett and the Soggy Bottom Boys singing “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow.” The T Bone Burnett-produced album is a portrait of Southern Americana styles that harken back to the film’s Depression-era setting and have held strong to the present day. It shined a light on amazing talents like Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss on “I’ll Fly Away” and “Go To Sleep You Little Baby” (the latter of which also features the great Emmylou Harris.) But the soundtrack also tipped a cap to early folk numbers like Harry McClintock’s Mississippi scene-setting “Big Rock Candy Mountains.”
11. Singles (1992)
Great grunge rock soundtrack, or greatest grunge soundtrack? We’ll take the Pepsi challenge on Singles being the end-all-be-all soundtrack for ’90s grunge, especially considering Cameron Crowe’s film centers on Seattle coffee shop culture and the city’s famed grunge scene. And it really checks all of the boxes in the process: Pearl Jam contribute two songs to the soundtrack, (“Breath” and “State Of Love And Trust”) and members of Pearl Jam even appear in the movie as Matt Dillon’s bandmates. Chris Cornell is included, Screaming Trees’ “Nearly Lost You” is featured, Paul Westerberg’s “Dyslexic Heart” is the film’s punchy theme song of sorts, and Alice In Chains’ “Would?” actually debuted as the soundtrack’s lone single before it appeared on their seminal album, Dirt.
10. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Before O Brother, Where Art Thou and The Bodyguard took home Grammys for Album Of The Year, Saturday Night Fever was the first soundtrack that could lay stake to the claim. The Bee Gees-heavy tracklist includes a veritable checklist of disco-era anthems. “Stayin’ Alive,” “More Than A Woman,” and “Night Fever”? Check. Even the balladry of “How Deep Is Your Love?” is not only featured on the album, but was also written specifically for the movie.
9. Hackers (1995)
You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced Angelina Jolie, Jonny Lee Miller, Matthew Lillard, and friends hacking the planet while blasting The Prodigy’s “Voodoo People.” The hilariously bad, but quite frankly also awesome visual depictions of what the internet “looks like” felt like a trippy Winamp visualizer for ’90s electronic thumps like Orbital’s “Halcyon & On & On,” The Prodigy’s “One Love,” and Underworld’s “Cowgirl.” This was the early cyberspace culture phenomena at its finest and even features a David Gilmour easter egg track at the end that was only released 25 years later.
8. Save The Last Dance (2000)
The quintessential soundtrack for the marriage of hip-hop and R&B. Yes, Save The Last Dance often gets pigeonholed as a campy dance-centric romcom, but its accompanying music was undeniable. For starters, it has the version of “Only You” by 112 that features Mase and The Notorious B.I.G. Both K-Ci & Jojo’s “Crazy” and “You” by Lucy Pearl, Snoop Dogg, and Q-Tip were original singles to the film. Montell Jordan’s “Get It On Tonight” and Q-Tip’s classic “Breathe & Stop” add to this legit hip-hop dance club collection, while Fredro Starr and Jill Scott’s “Shining Through” shows that in the end, even the toughest rappers have a sensitive side.
7. Batman Forever (1995)
I could tell you that Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose” topped the US Billboard Hot 100 chart as part of the Batman Forever soundtrack and call it a day. But this incredible movie soundtrack album is about so much more than just your drunken friend’s favorite karaoke jam. U2’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me,” is one of the group’s most underrated songs (that never appeared on a U2 album, just this soundtrack.) The album also features multiple other singles, like Method Man’s thematic “The Riddler” and The Offspring’s raucous cover of The Damned’s “Smash It Up.” But it’s the superfan cuts like The Flaming Lips’ “Bad Days,” playing in the film as Jim Carrey’s downtrodden Edward Nygma becomes The Riddler, and Nick Cave’s sinister “There Is A Light,” that round this out as one of the best, and most diverse, soundtracks of all time.
6. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Like with Dazed & Confused, the Pulp Fiction soundtrack is one that found the perfect song for every scene, but Quentin Tarantino’s approach was far less literal. Dusty Springfield’s “Son Of A Preacher Man” plays as John Travolta’s Vincent Vega awaits his boss’s wife, Mia Wallace played by Uma Thurman, before a very awkward non-date. Then, as Mia overdoses at the end of the night, it’s to Urge Overkill’s Neil Diamond cover, “Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon.” The Pulp Fiction soundtrack also found a uniquely artistic way to re-introduce surf rock into mainstream consciousness, with Dick Dale & His Del-Tones’ “Misirlou” as the movie’s ubiquitous opening song, and then somehow making shooting up heroin look more glamorous than disgusting, through The Centurians’ “Bullwinkle Pt II.”
5. Forrest Gump (1994)
How do you tell the story of the major events in modern American history through the eyes of a peculiar protagonist without including the music that was literally playing when it all happened? Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” plays as Forrest gets to the Vietnam War and meets Lieutenant Dan, Jenny sings “Blowin’ In The Wind” on stage at a seedy bar, and a young Forrest is forever changed when he sees Elvis performing “Hound Dog” on a TV behind a department store window. There are so many hits from the late ’50s to the late ’70s on the double-disc soundtrack, that it’s scary to think of how many checks must have been written to license all the music. It was worth it.
4. Garden State (2004)
The Garden State soundtrack marked the beginning of indie music’s ascent into the new millennium and indie fans still hold the collection dear as if it was made by a cult-ish band. The Shins had not one, but two songs featured on the album that led to a considerable spike in their notoriety. I mean, you try to resist the thought of Natalie Portman putting headphones over your ears saying, “You gotta hear this one song, it’ll change your life I swear.” Elsewhere, Coldplay’s “Don’t Panic” reminds listeners of a time before Coldplay went pop, Thievery Corporation’s “Lebanese Blonde” blew up from its inclusion, and many were introduced to Zero 7’s stunning “In The Waiting Line” that plays while Zach Braff trips on ecstasy. But it wasn’t just new music that made the Garden State soundtrack stand out, as it also revived Nick Drake’s “One Of These Things First” and saw the film’s stars shouting into a rainy endless abyss as Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy In New York” plays.
3. Black Panther (2018)
It can’t be understated how monumental of a release Black Panther: The Album was. With Kendrick Lamar coordinating the project as the executive producer, he rounded up what felt like every of-the-moment name in hip-hop to create all original music for the first Marvel movie centered around a Black superhero. And these weren’t just great songs, these were straight-up world-beaters. On the strength of hits like Kendrick and SZA’s “All The Stars,” The Weeknd and Kendrick’s “Pray For Me,” and Jay Rock, Kendrick, Future, and James Blake’s “King’s Dead,” the album immediately topped the Billboard 200 chart upon its release. And when Kendrick was peaking on the heels of DAMN., Black Panther was just icing on the creative crest of his career.
2. Purple Rain (1984)
It’s wild to think that Prince’s sixth album, among the best in his deep catalog (if not the best) was the soundtrack to the titular film that he starred in as well. Say what you will about the movie’s merits, Purple Rain the soundtrack ushered Prince into a new era of super stardom, where he revolutionized the intersection between pop and rock with his unabashed flamboyance and unapologetic style. “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Purple Rain,” “I Would Die 4 U,” and “When Doves Cry” were all written for the film and are all vying for spots on any Top 10 Prince songs list worth a damn. The way the crowd in the movie is jaw-droppingly stunned at the performance of the title track, is pretty much how every new and existing Prince fan felt when this album came out. A masterpiece in every way.
1. The Bodyguard (1992)
Much like Purple Rain is far more memorable for the soundtrack than the film, The Bodyguard achieves the same effect in spades. Where Prince pushed the envelope of his sound, Whitney Houston is absolutely breathtaking across The Bodyguard soundtrack. You’re gripped the moment she begins to sing “I Will Always Love You” a capella. “I Have Nothing” is the definition of a tour de force, ditto to the elegant “Run To You.” Whitney shows her range on the anthemic “I’m Every Woman” and the early-’90s dance class revue on “Queen Of The Night.” Kenny G and Aaron Neville deliver a glorious adult contemporary jam with “Even If My Heart Would Break” and there are forgettable songs by Joe Cocker and Lisa Stansfield that are a brilliant contrast to how impeccable Whitney is on the album’s first half. This was the most incredible she had sounded since her 1987 debut and when we look back on the legacy of Whitney Houston, it’s The Bodyguard soundtrack that we’ll turn to forever as her finest work.
Some of the artists mentioned here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.