The best movie soundtracks do far more than just compliment the images you see on screen. In the hands of a gifted music supervisor, a soundtrack can take on a unique life of its own—popularizing micro-genres, shining a light on previously obscure artists and making new hits out of perfectly timed needle drops.
While there is no shortage of iconic film soundtracks, we’re taking a look at just a few from the last 50 years that have made waves upon their release.
1. ‘Forrest Gump’
If a movie is going to document the ebb and flow of American society over the course of 40 years, the soundtrack has got to be up to par—and Forrest Gump gets it spot on. From the now-standard “Fortunate Son” entrance into the Vietnam war to the subsequent “Turn! Turn! Turn!” peace protest, Forrest Gump consistently pairs the right tunes with the right scenes.
And despite the vast range of emotions, pretty much every song on the soundtrack is a certified banger —save for maybe Joan Beaz’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Go ahead and pop on the Forrest Gump soundtrack at your next get-together and see if anyone complains.
2. ‘Dirty Dancing’
Dirty Dancing‘s soundtrack walks the tightrope of portraying both the era the film is set in and the time it was released—the 1950s and 1980s respectively. You know you’re in for a treat when the very first notes of The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” open up the film behind a black and white dance sequence.
Elsewhere, the golden age is represented with The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night” and Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs’ “Stay” while Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes” and the Patrick Swayze/Wendy Fraser collab “She’s Like the Wind” evoke the soft-rock glory of the ’80s. And can you think of any movie song bigger than “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life?” We know you’ve tried the lift at least once…
3. ‘The Muppet Movie’
Before you roll your eyes—The Muppet Movie has nine original songs on its soundtrack and seven of them are solid 10/10. From the iconic “Rainbow Connection” and the road-trip anthem “Movin’ Right Along” to the barroom piano lament “I Hope That Something Better Comes Along” there’s no shortage of great musical moments in this 1979 classic.
A personal favorite, “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” is a tear-jerker of the highest accord.
4. ‘Moulin Rouge!’
In classic Baz Lurhmann fashion, Moulin Rouge! was at the forefront of a number of cultural waves just as they were cresting—like the jukebox musical and pop music tie-ins for movie soundtracks. When watching this movie it often seems like Lurhmann was given a blank check and took the studio for all they were worth, foraying into glorious excess for two hours. The soundtrack is no different, sparing no expense when it comes to cultural currency.
Not to mention the cover of “Lady Marmalade,” produced by Missy Elliot and sung by four of the top female artists of the time, is a certified jam.
5. ‘Marie Antoinette’
Sofia Coppola’s historical drama about the last queen of France is a stylistic display of both monarchial excess and timeless teen angst.
While the action on screen is centered around 1700s pastel gowns and decadent palaces, the soundtrack finds itself in the middle of a loud punk and indie rock rager. The film opens up with Kirsten Dunst’s Antoinette sticking a finger in cake frosting while Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not in It” blares in the background, setting the pace from the get-go. Elsewhere, The Strokes “What Ever Happened?” plays while she longs for the extramarital affair that just ended and the lush New Order cut “Ceremony” fades in over her 18th birthday party.
6. ‘Black Panther’
Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther: The Album was a cultural movement. The collection of songs, helmed by Lamar alongside a number of fellow current rap icons, stands up tall beside the monumental outing that was the Chadwick Boseman starring film. The album displays the infinite formats of African music and produces a myriad of ear-worm tracks that could exist on their own without the movie to bolster their appeal.
7. ‘Top Gun’
When you think of the Top Gun soundtrack, two songs likely come to mind—Kenny Loggin’s “Danger Zone” and Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.” Both of which are used in the film three or more times. While there are many other great musical moments in the film (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” by Maverick and His Wingmen for example), the two main songs express the equal parts high-wired action and romance that defined Top Gun. Despite their repetitive use in the movie, it’s welcome every time either one cue up for another play.
8. ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’
Upon its release, Guardians of the Galaxy broke up the (verging on monotonous) superhero flick run Marvel had been rolling out. The movie excelled in three areas—its charming offbeat-ness, its clever quips and its eclectic mix of ’70s hits.
The soundtrack itself seemed destined to be a favorite months before the film even hit theatres. The first trailer for the film treated fans to a snippet of “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede. Elsewhere Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” and The Runaways “Cherry Bomb” are as memorable as they ever have been on screen.
9. ‘Almost Famous’
Cameron Crowe had the monumental task of creating both a believable hit for his fictional band Stillwater while also assembling an album that aptly worships that ’70s rock n’ roll Almost Famous pays homage to.
For the former, Crowe tapped his then-wife, and ex-Heart guitarist, Nancy Wilson. The track “Fever Dog,” with howling lead vocals from Aerosmith producer Marti Frederiksen and guitar from both Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready and Wilson herself, easily makes Stillwater’s breakthrough single believable.
For the latter, Crowe mixed in deep cuts with high-flying rock classics to create a love letter to the era. From a bootleg David Bowie cover of “I’m Waiting for the Man” to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” this album is a magnum opus for rock fans.
10. ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’
Though winning three-grammy awards and landing at No. 1 on the Billboard charts doesn’t automatically mean a soundtrack is great, it surely doesn’t hurt.
O Brother, Where Art Thou forayed out over the southern cultural landscape present in the movie, bringing banjos and class three-part harmonies to turn-of-the-century Hollywood. Across the 19 tracks, they routinely turned folk standards into modern hits. “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” found a comfortable home on the charts thanks to the Soggy Bottom Boys while Bluegrass icon Alison Krauss’ influence made “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” into a literal siren song.
Lady Marmalade Music Video / Kevin Mazur