Top 5 1980s Movie Soundtracks (and Yes, You’re Going to Be Mad)

Look, we’re just callin’ ’em like we see ’em, here. Hear us out? So, in the way-way-back times, the 1980s, people would fall in love with a movie and purchase a copy on VHS tape. With a tape copy, super fans could memorize memorable lines and impress friends by recalling those lines on demand. And another pop memento from this era was the movie soundtrack. Nostalgia is wrapped neatly in the sounds of the ’80s with some of the decade’s hits directly related to their blockbuster films. 

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Check out the Top 5 1980s movie soundtracks below. (And one extra note: the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing just barely missed the list; it was worthy, but we just couldn’t risk appearing as though we might be putting Baby in a corner…)

5. Flashdance (1983)

MTV had much to do with the success of Flashdance. In 1983, videos for “Flashdance…What a Feeling” by Irene Cara and “Maniac” by Michael Sembello played around the clock. Irene Cara won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Original Song.

Most films are responsible for the popularity of the soundtrack. But Flashdance reverse-engineered the marketing strategy, using MTV as its primary tool. The movie was a hit because the soundtrack was a hit—selling more than 6 millions copies.

And hey, who can forget the iconic audition scene from Flashdance? The Conservatory board is skeptical, but in the end they are won over. Lead character Alex Owens (Jennifer Beals), in a very non-traditional (and very ’80s) leotard and leggings, combines classical ballet with breakdancing to ultimately earn entry into the Conservatory.    

4. Do the Right Thing (1989)

It’s impossible to think of the Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing without hearing Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” When Chuck D delivers the line, Gotta give us what we want / Gotta give us what we need, he perfectly mirrors the film’s racial tensions.

“Fight the Power” immediately conjures images of the film’s Radio Raheem and his boombox; Do the Right Thing and Public Enemy’s song are forever linked. “My Fantasy” by Teddy Riley and Guy also hit big, following the tradition of certain ’80s artists whose only hit appeared on a hit movie soundtrack.

Raheem’s boombox now lives at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. After filming, Lee wrote the words “Fight the Power” and “Radio Raheem” on the back of the boombox along with his signature. 

3. Pretty in Pink (1986)

No one does coming-of-age films better than the late John Hughes. He directed and wrote classics like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Weird Science. Hughes also wrote (but did not direct) Pretty in Pink.

The film’s title track was recorded years before Molly Ringwald was cast as Andie Walsh. The Psychedelic Furs released the song “Pretty in Pink” in 1981. It tells the tale of a girl who finds empowerment through promiscuity. She thinks it’s making her popular, but her lovers are laughing behind her back. The film is named after the Furs’ song, but the meaning behind the lyrics is very different.

Pretty in Pink is a teen romantic comedy about high school love and social cliques. The Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” and “If You Leave” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark are also standouts on a soundtrack featuring Echo & the Bunnymen, INXS, and New Order. 

2. Top Gun (1986)

Is there anything more ’80s than Top Gun or the biggest hit song from its soundtrack, “Danger Zone?” Tom Cruise and Kenny Loggins?? And remember Maverick’s forbidden love affair with his instructor, Charlie? One cannot hope to listen to “Take My Breathe Away” by Berlin and not reminisce over Cruise and Kelly McGillis’s on-screen chemistry.

[RELATED: Tom Whitlock, Songwriter of ‘Top Gun’ Classics “Danger Zone” and “Take My Breath Away,” Dies at 68]

Berlin won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song for “Take My Breathe Away” (which apparently voters saw as a little more timeless than “Danger Zone”). For its part, the Top Gun soundtrack went No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and sold more than 9 million copies. An expanded edition was released in 1999 and included “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” by the Righteous Brothers and Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” Cheap Trick, Miami Sound Machine, and Loverboy also appear on the original soundtrack.

1. Purple Rain (1984)

It’s hard to separate Purple Rain, the movie, from the album, or the song, or the artist called The Purple One. The film is about a young musician’s path to stardom while overcoming rivals and personal demons. Purple Rain is not just a brilliant soundtrack—it must be considered one of the best pop albums in history, period, soundtrack or no.

Prince’s career was life imitating art. Like a true architect, Prince starred in and scored the project responsible for his career and reputation as a pop genius entering a new layer of the stratosphere. We all know there’s no such thing as perfect, but Prince seemed to be challenging that notion with this album’s unbeatable track list.

Purple Rain opens with the hard-rock guitar of the rambunctiously danceable “Let’s Go Crazy.” The ballad “The Beautiful Ones” may be Prince’s greatest vocal performance. “Darling Nikki” defied the morality police. And then Prince delivered perhaps the greatest pop song of all time, “When Doves Cry.”

For the grand finale, Prince ends the record with a sweaty, at-your-wits’-end live track, “Purple Rain.” The title track is a nine-minute epic of lament and vulnerability. The guitar solo is beyond ambitious and exhibits pure emotion. It’s a weeping and sonically violent crescendo to an unbridled masterpiece. “Purple Rain” is the sound of Prince climbing, unstoppable. And by the end, he’s arrived at the summit of a creative mountain no other pop artist has been able to conquer in quite the same way.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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