The movie soundtrack is something of a lost art these days. Thanks mostly to streaming media, which prioritizes hit singles over whole records, there’s less of an emphasis on creating an album’s worth of music. Luckily, the soundtracks from the 80s, 90s, and 00s still hold up! These are some of the best soundtracks ever created—how many do you own?
The Crow is the ultimate Goth movie. Featuring the final performance by Brandon Lee, who was accidentally shot and killed during filming, The Crow is steeped in tragedy. But, as the writer of the original comic, James O’Barr, knows, there’s often beauty in pain. That’s the driving force behind this soundtrack, which features The Cure, Stone Temple Pilots, Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, and the Jesus and Mary Chain.
The soundtrack to Clueless throws together a ton of different genres and yet manages to feel like a perfectly curated whole. Kicking off with The Muffs’ cover of “Kids in America,” the soundtrack bounces from Counting Crows to Coolio, Smoking Popes to Beastie Boys, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones to Radiohead. If you grew up in the 90s, then this soundtrack will feel like home. The only bummer is that David Bowie’s “Fashion,” which appears in the film, didn’t make it onto the official soundtrack.
Zach Braff’s Garden State single-handedly launched The Shins into pop culture dominance. For at least a year after the movie premiered, you couldn’t go more than a day without hearing “New Slang.” The soundtrack also features Nick Drake, Thievery Corporation, Coldplay, and Iron and Wine’s cover of “Such Great Heights.” The movie didn’t age that well, but the soundtrack is still pretty great.
The Forrest Gump soundtrack is a musical journey through multiple decades, beginning with Elvis’s “Hound Dog” and ending with “Against the Wind” by Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band. Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” is a standout, but Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” is perfectly chosen for the Vietnam section of the film.
Guardians of the Galaxy
In many ways, Guardians of the Galaxy is a throwback to an earlier era of filmmaking—including the killer soundtrack that’s tailor-made to sell albums. Awesome Mix Vol. 1 kicks off with Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” before zooming through Jackson 5, The Runaways, and David Bowie. Vol. 2 adds Electric Light Orchestra, Fleetwood Mac, Sam Cooke, and George Harrison to the mix.
Romeo + Juliet
Baz Luhrmann knows his way around a soundtrack! Moulin Rouge! is a fever dream of pop culture mashups, from that brief moment in time where squashing two songs together was the coolest thing you could do. But for my money, Romeo + Juliet is both the better film and the better soundtrack. Garbage, The Cardigans, Butthole Surfers, The Wannadies… such a great slice of the mid-90s. The only bummer is that Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)” ended up on OK Computer instead of the official soundtrack.
The Royal Tenenbaums
Although it didn’t sell as many copies as the Garden State soundtrack, Wes Anderson and Mark Mothersbaugh’s music choices for The Royal Tenenbaums has the same vibe—only better. Combining original compositions by Mothersbaugh (Devo) with classic tracks from the 60s through the 90s, it’s a pleasure to listen from start to finish. Standout tracks include “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” by Paul Simon, “Look at Me” by John Lennon, and “Needle in the Hay” by Elliott Smith. The soundtrack also brought German singer Nico, who famously collaborated with The Velvet Underground, to the attention of a whole new generation.
The soundtrack for Batman Forever is so much better than it has any right to be. While not as egregious as Joel Schumacher’s follow-up, Batman and Robin, this is not a great film. However, the soundtrack features Mazzy Star, Nick Cave, The Flaming Lips, Massive Attack, PJ Harvey, Brandy, U2, and—most notably—Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose.”
The Commitments is an Irish film based on a novel by Roddy Doyle about a group of working-class Dubliners who form a band to perform soul music. The result was a triple-platinum soundtrack and multiple BAFTA awards. All of the music is classic soul and Motown performed by the actors in the film. I’m usually not a huge fan of cover bands, but this one is absolutely worth the price of admission.
I was never into Grease, but when I was in middle school, the movie had a devoted following of theater kids who would perform the entire thing in the hallways. The soundtrack sold more copies than any other album in 1978—except for John Travolta’s other movie, Saturday Night Fever. Travolta and Olivia Newton-John were perfectly paired as duet partners, and the chart-topping “You’re the One That I Want” is still as catchy today as it was 30-odd years ago.
The soundtrack for Velvet Goldmine happened almost by accident. Originally, writer-director Todd Haynes had intended to make a magical-realist biopic of David Bowie. There was just one problem: Bowie said no. Without permission to use any of his music on the soundtrack, Haynes assembled a stellar collection of glam rock originals and covers, as well as original songs by The Venus in Furs, a fictional band fronted by Thom York, and The Wylde Ratttz featuring Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. It’s a magical soundtrack, and one that can’t be streamed in its entirety—you’ve gotta stick with physical media, folks.
Good Will Hunting
The late Elliott Smith is the star of the Good Will Hunting soundtrack and even received an Oscar nomination for “Miss Misery.” It’s a melancholy soundtrack featuring many of Smith’s greatest hits, along with tracks by The Dandy Warhols, Al Green, The Waterboys, and Luscious Jackson. Even though Danny Elfman composed the score for the film, only two of his tracks made the cut here.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Speaking of Danny Elfman, I couldn’t leave him off this list of movie soundtracks. His long-term partnership with Tim Burton has led to some of the most magical soundtracks ever created, but my favorite of the bunch isn’t technically directed by Burton at all. That’s right, it’s your annual reminder that Henry Selick (Coraline) directed The Nightmare Before Christmas!
This soundtrack features Elfman as the singing voice of Jack Skellington and Catherine O’Hara (Schitt’s Creek) as Sally. I strongly prefer the original film soundtrack to the 2006 re-release with covers by the likes of Fall Out Boy and Marilyn Manson, as well as the 2008 Nightmare Revisited with Korn, Plain White Ts, All-American Rejects, and other artists whose music has, frankly, not aged well.
Alan Silvestri might have composed the score for The Bodyguard, but this is Whitney’s album. Houston performed her incredible cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” for this film, along with “I’m Every Woman” and “Queen of the Night.” The latter still slaps, if you’re curious. The rest of the soundtrack is fine, if uninspiring, thanks to the presence of Kenny G and Jo Cocker. You have permission to skip those tracks.
The soundtrack for The Matrix was nearly as groundbreaking and influential as the movie itself. Featuring Deftones, Rammstein, Marilyn Manson, and Rob Zombie, it was a hard-hitting collection of tracks, ideal for enjoying while you wear head-to-toe black pleather. The best track on the album is Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up.”
Pulp Fiction didn’t just reinvigorate John Travolta’s career, which was essentially over in the early 90s, and introduced mainstream audiences to Samuel L. Jackson. It also made surf rock guitarist Dick Dale more popular than he’d been since the 60s. “Misirlou” is such an electric track, kicking off an eclectic soundtrack pulled directly from Quentin Tarantino’s own record collection and the recommendations of his friends.
While Tarantino’s best use of music is probably “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Steeler’s Wheel during the infamous torture scene in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction is the stronger overall soundtrack.
The Lion King
Raise your hand if you can still sing every song from The Lion King! This film marks the transition between Disney’s Broadway-style soundtracks and the later emphasis on pop music. Elton John, Tim Rice, and Hans Zimmer hit the sweet spot between film soundtrack, movie musical, and pop album with The Lion King.
There are actually two official soundtracks for Trainspotting since there was so much great music that it wouldn’t all fit on one CD. The standout track is undoubtedly Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life,” but there’s also Primal Scream, New Order, Lou Reed, Pulp, Joy Division, and David Bowie. The movie might be tough to watch at times, but the soundtrack is pure gold.