6 Unforgettable Movie Soundtracks

Making a movie is a massive process with lots of working parts. One of the most important of these is the soundtrack, which sets the tone and guides the story. Many movies have amazing soundtracks, but some of them are so great that they’ve become classics in their own right—sometimes overtaking the success of the film itself. From traditional bluegrass numbers to iconic dance tracks, these six film soundtracks have gone down in movie music history.

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1. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a masterpiece of film, transporting The Odyssey to Mississippi during the Great Depression. The film’s original premise and stellar ensemble cast all but guaranteed its success. But producer T Bone Burnett expertly crafted the soundtrack, which incorporated Appalachian folk music, gospel hymns, and original recordings. Now-iconic songs like “Down to the River to Pray” and “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” have achieved immortality thanks to vocalists like Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, and Norman Blake. The album went on to win three Grammy Awards and a slew of other honors from the Academy, the CMAs, and other organizations.

2. Purple Rain (1984)

The 1984 rock musical Purple Rain was a Prince production through and through. It not only starred the singer, but used his original songs to drive the plot. The soundtrack includes classic Prince mega-hits such as “When Does Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” and of course the sprawling title track, which serves as the movie’s finale. The entire production exudes Prince’s signature style, with the kind of extravagant performances that had already become his hallmark. The soundtrack won a Grammy for Best Original Score.

[RELATED: Behind the Meaning of “Purple Rain” by Prince]

3. Clueless (1995)

The 1995 film Clueless is renowned for its enduring characters, endlessly repeatable dialogue (“As if!”), and for being Paul Rudd’s screen debut. But the soundtrack to the film, which is today regarded as a classic example of mid-1990s music, also won praise. It included songs by artists like Radiohead (“Fake Plastic Trees”), The Muffs (“Kids in America”), and Coolio (“Rollin’ with My Homies”). Even if the soundtrack didn’t dominate within the film, it unquestionably supported it throughout, making it an absolute necessity for any list of top movie soundtracks.

4. The Bodyguard (1992)

“I Will Always Love You” was written and performed by Dolly Parton in 1974, but it wasn’t until it was featured in the 1992 movie The Bodyguard that it became a hit. Whitney Houston’s rendition of the power ballad became a phenomenon, and The Bodyguard soundtrack set records for the most soundtrack albums ever sold. But it wasn’t just “I Will Always Love You” that shined; Houston also performed “I’m Every Woman,” “Run to You,” “I Have Nothing,” and “Queen of the Night,” making the LP a shoo-in for the Album of the Year Grammy.

5. Dirty Dancing (1987)

One of the most popular films of the 1980s was Dirty Dancing. It followed the romance of Frances “Baby” Houseman and dancing instructor Johnny Castle, and not only features some of the greatest music in movie history, but contains one of the most well-known dance scenes ever. Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey’s on-screen romance was enthralling, but it was largely fueled by their chemistry on the dance floor. Numerous well-known 1960s tunes power the film, but the real stars of the show were the new songs. “Hungry Eyes” by Eric Carmen and “She’s Like the Wind,” sung by Patrick Swayze, dominated the airwaves, while “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” performed by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, won a Grammy for best vocal by a duo and an Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Original Song.

6. Top Gun (1986)

The 1986 film Top Gun received mixed reviews for the story and the acting of Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, and other cast members. But what was universally acclaimed was the soundtrack. Between the music and the special effects, the film has come to be considered an iconic ’80s classic. The soundtrack was No. 1 on the charts for five weeks thanks to tracks such as “Danger Zone,” performed by Kenny Loggins, and Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.” The latter won a Golden Globe and an Academy Award, and truly exemplifies the sound of pop music in the 1980s.

Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns

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