The secret sauce to many great films is the soundtrack. The sounds, either written specifically for the movie or representing a carefully curated collection of recordings, are sewn beautifully into the story, adding drama, intrigue, and all the moods.
Sure, the soundtrack can win an Oscar and even sell lots of vinyl or downloads. But it’s rarely talked about in the same vein as a leading actor’s performance, or even an eye-catching work of a special effects artist. As huge fans of music, we think it should be. In fact, sometimes the soundtrack is so good it practically takes on the role of the main character.
Here are some of the best of all time, from iconic to overlooked:
Released during in 1995 amid what many would argue was the heyday of rap, Friday perfectly acknowledges this context in its soundtrack. From Ice Cube and Mack 10 to Dr. Dre and 2 Live Crew, it’s a cross-section of the vibrant hop-hop and R&B that poured out of the era. It’s the kind of hard-hitting soundtrack that’s great alongside the film but just as good on its own.
The Royal Tenenbaums
Many Wes Anderson films are in the conversation here as the director has become a mastermind of sourcing perfect mix tapes to accompany the action. While Life Aquatic incorporates gorgeous Bowie songs sung in Portuguese and Rushmore dusts off some amazing old rock tracks, The Royal Tenenbaums banks on an eclectic mashup. Noted participants include go-to musician Mark Mothersbaugh, John Lennon, Nico, The Ramones, and an amazing song — and accompanying scene — by Elliott Smith.
Hitchcock may be the master of suspense from a filmmaking standpoint but that title in the realm of scores ought to go to John Williams. Here, the maestro creates pure iconography with the “da-duh, da-duh” motif, a sound that’s not permanently tied to scary sharks and mysterious waters worldwide. It’s so damn engrossing that Spielberg admitted that the film probably would have only fared half as well, at best, without this tension-driven and Academy Award-winning masterpiece.
Rumor has it, the Drive soundtrack was initially supposed to be scored by Johnny Jewel of Glass Candy fame. In fairness, it probably would have been as good or better than the one they went with. Which isn’t to discount the official soundtrack, with its brooding tracks that wonderfully complement the film’s dark, noir-ish side. Tracks like Kavinsky’s Nightcall and the work of Cliff Martinez sonically illustrate the mischievous wonder of a city at night. You can watch this film on our list of the best Netflix movies.
With Toy Story, the soundtrack keys were essentially handed over to the great Randy Newman. In addition to writing standout tracks like You’ve Got a Friend in Me, Newman captured the playfulness of the plot with shimmering piano work, silly lyrics that appeal to the kid and adult alike, and his signature use of satire.
John Williams is a genius and for that reason his work features yet again on this list (which admittedly might not be enough). The Jurassic Park score is brilliant in its lasting melodies, cinematic orchestral rises and falls, and tingle-inducing suspense. You know it’s a great musical foundation when every sequel going forward borrows from the original.
The soundtrack from this 2006 Sofia Coppola film did something unique that still stands out today. It managed to juxtapose a story taking place in the 18th century with modern sounds from the likes of New Wave, The Cure, Gang of Four, Aphex Twin, and more. It’s unbelievably cool and the film recognizes this throughout, functioning more like a long music video than a conventional movie.
Oh Brother Where Art Thou
The Coen Brothers are no strangers to good soundtracks. This one, though, takes the cake and was produced by the legendary T-Bone Burnett. It’s an Americana and bluegrass wonder, with impressive offerings from the likes of Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, and more. Even better, it calls on a made-up band, The Soggy Bottom Boys, to perform some written-for-the-movie material that’s so good that it might as well be on the FM dial.
Black Panther is good on so many levels and one major component is the soundtrack. It goes toe-to-toe with the mesmerizing and quick-moving film, keeping pace and adding an extra burst of energy when needed. It’s a remarkable fusion of traditional African musical elements and modern powerhouses like Kendrick Lamar. The collaborations are many, unexpected, and quite vibrant.
Any fan of 90s culture should treat themselves to the Singles soundtrack, a beacon of all things grunge. It’s a showpiece of the frayed denim and flannel shirts of the time, featuring fuzzy tracks from acts like Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, Alice in Chains, Mother Love Bone, Pearl Jam, and more. It’s very, very Seattle and will have you head-banging like it’s 1992.
One of the best albums of all time is also a score to a sultry music movie. The work of the one and only Prince, Purple Rain is dynamic, sexy, fun, and funky. It can be pinned down by a single genre, just the fluid and always intoxicating sounds of The Purple One and his great band.
An overshadowed Johnny Depp film, Dead Man is an artistic wonder, built around a twisted western tale and a rather spooky, guitar-driven soundtrack. Neil Young wrote it, incorporating low-register and reverb-driven instrumental tracks to convey the darkest corners of the mind.
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