Every year, the Academy Awards honors a musician with the Best Original Song Oscar, and almost every year, the Academy Award embarrasses itself. On the whole, the category, which was created in 1934, rewards compositions that pull at the heartstrings with an overly aggressive, occasionally life-threatening touch. The list of winners provides an incomplete history of the fascinating intersection between the music business and film industry. There's a real need for alternate canons -- especially if they include Kenny Loggins.
With all apologies to Berlin's "Take My Breath Away," that's what we're here do to. The crafting of a cohesive movie soundtrack may be an increasingly lost art, but the original movie song endures, giving you something to hum as you walk to the car from the theater or close the Netflix tab. Sometimes it's a perfect thematic fit with the film's narrative. Sometimes it just sounds good. Sometimes it's "Eye of the Tiger" and you end up getting pulled over on the drive home. These are the 33 movie soundtrack anthems you're still listening to long after the credits roll.
Here are the ground rules: We're only including songs recorded and released for a movie. That means the use of "Layla" in Goodfellas does not make the cut -- neither does your favorite needle drop from Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, or David Lynch. Also, we're not including any movie musicals. (Sorry, Disney fans.) And to make this a somewhat manageable task, we've limited ourselves to English-language films made after 1960.
It had to be on here. Celine Dion's ultra-treacly ballad, which sold 18 million copies worldwide, is everything beautiful and absurd about Hollywood movie music: shamelessly manipulative, impeccably produced, and impossible to get out of your head. Apparently the film's composer James Horner was inspired by Jethro Tull's "Flying Dutchman," but the song will only send maudlin images of Jack and Rose, director James Cameron's doomed lovers, soaring through your mind. Critic Carl Wilson wrote a whole book examining the appeal of the Dion album this song found a home on. It's likely we'll still be puzzling over it until the end of time -- or at least until we steer this planet into a giant iceberg.
Few non-musicals rely on music so heavily as a plot device as Robert Zemeckis' time travel comedy Back to the Future: There's the big amp-blow-out at the beginning, the "Your cousin Marvin Berry" gag, and the emotional "Earth Angel" dance at the Enchantment Under the Sea sock-hop. Zemeckis and his co-writer Bob Gale knew that rock 'n' roll was the connective tissue between the aspiring yuppie teens of the '80s and the scheming greaser teens of the '50s. On their single "The Power of Love," Huey Lewis and the News combined the calculated earnestness of the older era with the slick professionalism of the present. It's synthesis. It's alchemy. It's the power of Huey.
How famous was Will Smith when Men in Black came out in July 1997? He had just finished up a six-season run on a popular NBC sitcom, starred in an enormous sci-fi blockbuster the previous summer, and was gearing up to release his first solo album without the support of his musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff. To put it in modern terms, it'd be like if Taylor Swift was on The Big Bang Theory and in Star Wars -- and then starred in a movie where she did the theme song and also did a goofy dance with it. It's impossible to imagine, right? Honestly, Will Smith is incredible. He's forgiven for "Wild Wild West."
Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia is such an emotionally draining movie that when this beautiful but totally devastating Aimee Mann song drops about two-thirds into the film, and all the characters start lip-syncing along, it feels like a reprieve. Finally, you can breathe. The frogs that rain down from the sky during the finale might be the thing everyone leaves this ensemble drama talking about, but the "Save Me" sequence, which serves as a gonzo mission statement and a cry for help, is the most audacious element in an absurdly audacious movie. Few songs could withstand that level of scrutiny. Mann doesn't need saving.
29. "Regulate" from Above the Rim, Warren G featuring Nate Dogg
"Regulate" is the type of song that envelops you. The lyrics from Warren G and Nate Dogg tell a story of an LA carjacking with the granular detail of the best crime fiction, but the sound of their voices draw you in more than anything else. The two sound nimble, relaxed, and in total control. A Michael McDonald sample hums underneath them. Removed from the context of the Above the Rim soundtrack, which was produced by Suge Knight's famously tumultuous Death Row Records, it stands alone as one of the best songs of the G-funk era.
28. "Miss Misery" from Good Will Hunting, Elliott Smith
Beloved indie artist Elliott Smith performing at the Oscars in his white suit, with Hollywood luminaries like Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman watching from the audience, remains a surreal image to just sit and think about. How did that happen? Sure, Celine Dion's Titanic ballad won the Best Song award, and there are plenty of Smith tracks better than "Miss Misery," but the slingshotting of a singer like Smith into the national spotlight via some perfect soundtrack cues remains as touching as the more famous Matt Damon and Ben Affleck origin story. The ending might be tragic -- Smith committed suicide in 2003 at the age of 34 -- but we'll always have the white suit. And the song.
For a period in the '80s, songs in movies sounded completely ridiculous. Think of strange cultural products like "Winner Takes It All" from Over the Top or any song featured in the Beverly Hills Cop series. There's a coked-out exuberance on display that's both funny and terrifying; it sounds like money being tossed into an incinerator. Carly Simon's "Let the River Run," the Oscar-winning track from Mike Nichols' romantic comedy Working Girl, has a little of that going on. Today, you'd probably call it extra. (The drums! The lyrics! The guitar solo!) But sometimes you've gotta let the river run.
Most theme songs for movies are ill-advised. (See, again: Wild Wild West.) Especially in the realm of comedy, there's a danger in getting too jokey and distracting viewers from the story you're trying to tell. Ray Parker Jr.'s Ghostbusters theme, which spent three weeks on the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1984, is so effective because Parker plays it straight: The song sounds like it could be a jingle for a commercial you'd hear on late night TV. (Or maybe a Huey Lewis song -- producers on the movie famously asked Parker Jr. to replicate the musician's sound, and he did such a job, Lewis sued him over ripping off "I Want a New Drug"). "Who you gonna call?" the song asks. Parker Jr. doesn't try to capture the smart-ass wit of Bill Murray or the manic charm of Dan Aykroyd. He's got a task and he accomplishes it. You'd dial him again.
"The Harder They Come" was the only original song recorded specifically for the soundtrack of the 1972 crime film of the same name. The album, which included tracks by groups like The Maytals and The Slickers, introduced reggae to new listeners across the globe, providing a roadmap of new interests for curious listeners. With its infectious rhythm and Cliff's rebellious vocals, the title track was an excellent musical ambassador for the country of Jamaica, capturing the musical and political change of the region while still keeping your head nodding.
"See these eyes so green," sings David Bowie at the beginning of "Cat People." "I can stare for a thousand years/Colder than the moon/It's been so long." Immediately, he's got you in his sight and the trap has been set. The Thin White Duke and his co-writer Giorgio Moroder capture the sinister mood of Paul Schrader's eerie Cat People remake while bringing their own mischievous sensibility to bear on the material as well. Though the song was slyly deployed in Quentin Tarantino's World War II epic Inglourious Basterds -- and then rather cheesily used again in last year's spy thriller Atomic Blonde -- it belongs to the freaky realm of the cat people.
John Legend and Common's Oscar-winning inspirational anthem for Ava Duvernay's Selma is not as nuanced and complex as the movie it sprang from. When it plays at the end of the film, it hits you right in the gut, but if you spend any time with the lyrics, particularly Common's occasionally ham-fisted verses, you might end up shaking your head. There's a line that may or may not be about the Justice League. Still, this song deserves a spot on this list for moving Chris Pine to tears. That's a gift.
Are you a "Gonna Fly Now" person or an "Eye of the Tiger" person? Both songs speak to the character of the Rocky films they appeared in. "Gonna Fly Now," which was written by the series' frequent composer Bill Conti for the first Rocky, is a soaring theme that sounds connected to the Philadelphia streets the Italian Stallion runs through. "Eye of the Tiger," which was commissioned by Sylvester Stallone after Queen wouldn't let him use "Another One Bites the Dust" for Rocky III, is a swaggering riff-machine that evokes images of muscle-bound runs on sandy beaches. One has grit; the other has glit. Like Apollo Creed, "Eye of the Tiger" wins by split decision.
The enduring Orwellian cheer of "Everything is Awesome" is a testament to just how sinister The Lego Movie is as a piece of mass entertainment. Is the song supposed to be satirical? A song to hum while being a corporate drone? A sign of our collective imprisonment? At this point, it's hard to suss out the irony level of Tegan and Sara's addictive electro-pop banger, which also features a very funny Lonely Island verse. "Stepped in mud, got new brown shoes," they rap at one point. "It’s awesome to win, and it’s awesome to lose." As far as ideologies go, it's flexible!
The perilous zone referred to in this song can't be found on a map or pointed to in the sky. Presumably, when one arrives in the area of heightened vulnerability, which is perhaps best categorized as a mental state or philosophical realm, the inherent life-threatening qualities of the space become self-evident. Blood rushes to the heart, sweat covers the skin, and adrenaline takes over as the body surrenders to the void. The highway beckons and the engine roars. "Danger Zone" endures.
19. "Jai Ho" from Slumdog Millionaire, A.R. Rahman
"Jai Ho" fucking goes. From its opening notes, A.R. Rahman's elegant mix of synths, guitars, drums, strings, and vocals commands attention and respect. For all the stylistic shifts that occur in the song, it maintains a sense of ever-building momentum throughout its run-time. Where Danny Boyle's Oscar-winning film about a teenager on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? often feels contrived, every part of "Jai Ho" fits together like a puzzle being assembled on a speeding train. What keeps it from flying off the rails? Rahman's total control.
Before there was Empire's Lucious and Cookie Lyon, there was Hustle & Flow's DJay and Shug. And long before you could stream the latest song from FOX's hip-hop drama, you had to check out "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," Three 6 Mafia's hypnotic street-life narrative. The Memphis-based rap group took Hollywood by storm with this track, which Terrence Howard's character performs in the film. But Howard's performance isn't what sold the song. The magic is in DJ Paul and Juicy J's swirling, bombastic production, which they had experimented with and perfected for over a decade before the movie business came calling.
It's a wonder that more songs don't begin with the singer calling out "Hey! Hey! Hey!" This New Wave jam from the Scottish rock group Simple Minds provided the ideal romantic backdrop for John Hughes' suburban tale of adolescent pain, desire, and rebellion. The shiny Brat Pack veneer of The Breakfast Club can dull some of the script's more poignant insights, but this song cuts through the sitcomy bullshit. Like a triumphant fist puncturing the sky, it sends a clear message: Some memories never fade.
The existence of movie soundtrack sequels -- second volumes put together following the runaway success of the first release -- feels like the mark of a decadent era headed for a steep decline. In the '90s, movies like Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused and Danny Boyle's Trainspotting would inspire this type of double-dipping. Perhaps everyone was just looking for the next "Born Slippy .NUXX" to lose their minds over? It's a pounding, daring slice of techno heaven that budded off from an alternate track ("Born Slippy") and catapulted by the movie's climax. Worth buying the soundtrack for the original and the sequel for the remix.
Here's some context: The Dirty Dancing soundtrack sold 11 million copies and stayed at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart for 18 weeks. It was a juggernaut. But according to a recent Rolling Stonefeature about the making of the record, Bill Medley initially didn't even want to be a part of it initially because he thought the movie sounded like "a bad porno" and he had no idea who Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey were. That would quickly change. Soon, the song was everywhere -- and Swayze and Grey became household names. But, in Medley's defense, the title does still kinda sound like a bad porno.
"What's it gonna be?" The question is right there in the first line of this penetrating R&B song: Who are you loyal to? For a song off the soundtrack to a crime film about four female friends who plan and execute a daring bank robbery in Los Angeles, it's a telling opening gambit. The women of En Vogue also hailed from California -- Oakland, specifically -- and this song shows off their camaraderie and versatility. Even when they're singing about potential heartbreak over that syrupy Organized Noize production, they sound like they're casing the place.
During the 1970s, soul legend Curtis Mayfield became the go-to composer of simultaneously gritty and lush soundtracks for films like Claudine, Let's Do It Again, and Sparkle. But his work on Super Fly stands above them all, creating a template of style, breadth, and virtuosity that musicians are still chasing. A go-to sample for hip-hop producers, "Pusherman" also recently provided the theme music for the title sequence of HBO's Times Square period piece The Deuce. Even 40 years later, he's still pushing.
There was only room for one Bond theme on this list, so we're going with the gold standard: Shirley Bassey's luscious, brassy paean to "the man with the Midas Touch." In less than 3 minutes, she evokes a whole world of dangerous possibility, tantalizing the listener with sly hints of what's to come. Even the best Bond movies are often too much -- the gadgets too crazy, the one-liners too cheesy, the plot too nonsensical -- but "Goldfinger" is just bold enough. When Bassey hits that final note, it's like watching Bond leap from an exploding building. Knowing he'll survive doesn't make it any less thrilling.
The easy-going charm of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stands in sharp contrast to many of the bleaker, bloodier revisionist Westerns that emerged in the 1960s. So, it's fitting that the movie's unofficial theme music "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head," which was written by the ace songwriting duo of Hal David and Burt Bacharach, was a lighthearted diddy that didn't attempt to make any grand statements about life or death. (Leave that to Bob Dylan's "Knockin on Heaven's Door" from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which would certainly be on an expanded version of this list.) Instead, it's content with its own gem-like shape, a pleasing dollop of a pop song.
Of all the songs on this list, "9 to 5" is the most provocative critique of capitalism. Look at the lyrics: "It's all taking/And no giving/They just use your mind/And they never give you credit/It's enough to drive you/Crazy if you let it." If Marx was a country singer, would he have put it any differently? The hit song from the 1980 office comedy starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Parton herself works as ear candy. Each line is clever, Parton's vocals brim with sass, and the typewriter sound effect gives the song a vivid, tactile quality. It's like the demands are being written up as the song goes.
As you'll see towards the end of this list, the "no musicals" rule isn't exactly a hard and fast one. There's a type of music industry film where the performances all take place in a realistic, unheightened context -- like at a coffee shop, a nightclub, or a recording studio -- and Robert Altman's sprawling comedic ensemble piece Nashville might be the best of the bunch. During Keith Carradine's rendition of his ballad "I'm Easy," Altman's roving camera notices the ways different women who have fallen into the singer's web of narcissism react to him. A small tragedy of glances and sighs plays out between artists and audience. As a delicate act of songwriting and filmmaking, it's anything but easy.
The work of filmmaker Jonathan Demme, the director of madcap comedies like Something Wild and chilling thrillers like The Silence of the Lambs, is brimming with the unchecked enthusiasm of a fan. When Demme liked something, he'd put in a movie. Philadelphia, his legal drama about an AIDS patient suing his company for discrimination, makes room for not just a song called "Philadelphia" by Neil Young, but also an even better, more striking song called "Streets of Philadelphia" by Bruce Springsteen. Neither of these artists are from Philly. (Young is from Canada; you know where Springsteen is from.) In Demme's world, these distinctions collapse: If the song works, it goes in the movie. It's a policy that served him well over a long career.
In his four-star review of The Graduate, film critic Roger Ebert declared Mike Nichols "a major new director" but also famously dinged the movie for including too many "limp, wordy Simon and Garfunkel songs." History hasn't exactly been kind to his assessment -- The Graduate's use of music had an immeasurable influence on New Hollywood directors -- but he has a point: Even the best song, "Mrs. Robinson," isn't exactly bursting with kinetic energy. Like many of the characters in the film, these songs were mild-mannered and self-conscious. Decades later, the Boston rock band The Lemonheads would give "Mrs. Robinson" a kick in the ass. It's the type of brilliant cover that sends you back to the original text, which might hold more secrets (and more of an edge) than you first expect. Limpness is in the eye of the beholder.
In some ways, "Lose Yourself" is hip-hop's answer to "Eye of the Tiger": a super-charged jock jam that can pump up a stadium, get hearts pounding, and rally a team to victory. The guitar riff that powers the song is anthemic. At the same time, the Oscar-winning track off the 8 Mile soundtrack also has an intimacy and specificity that makes it more than a rapped version of Michael Buffer's "Let's get ready to rumble!" The opening details have been parodied to death -- "palms are sweaty," "vomit on his sweater," and "Mom's spaghetti" are forever lodged in the collective unconscious -- but the second and third verses, which dial into Rabbit's anxieties about providing for his family and his desire for fame, feel almost underrated at this point. They make the song's giant chorus hit even harder.
Two years before he released the era-defining soundtrack for Shaft, Isaac Hayes dropped the equally essential Hot Buttered Soul, a work of smoldering ambition. He carried over the string-drenched, orchestral heft of that album to his music for Shaft, which stretches the conventions of soul, R&B, and jazz to new limits. Records like Curtis Mayfield's Super Fly would follow in the path it created. When his velvety, deep vocals arrive late in the song, it feels like they're introducing a character we already know from the wailing guitars and blaring horns. He's already a mythic figure. He arrives fully formed. He's Shaft.
Let's forget that the unspeakably silly Saturday Night Fever sequel, Staying Alive, even exists. It's unfortunate the sweat-drenched follow-up, which was directed by Sylvester Stallone and features multiple songs by his brother Frank Stallone, sullied the name of one of The Bee Gees' best songs. Instead, let's remember the groove, the strings, and, of course, the piercing falsetto of Barry Gibb, who turns this night on the town into an evening of interdimensional travel. Perhaps more than Travolta's white suit, slicked-back hair, or his dance moves, Gibb's high-pitched vocals are this disco document's enduring legacy. Attempt to imitate at your own peril.
When director Spike Lee recruited Long Island hip-hop innovators Public Enemy to write a song for his new film about a neighborhood in Brooklyn, he was looking for a track that would match the radical urgency driving the project. If Do the Right Thing is a powder keg of a film, then "Fight the Power" is a lit fuse. Updating the Isley Brothers' 1975 song of the same name for the post-Reagan national mood of 1989, Chuck D delivers a message of political defiance, resilience, and pride. "Elvis was a hero to most/But he never meant shit to me," he declares in the song's third verse, throwing down some music criticism of his own. It's the sound of history being written.
The skeletal rhythm of "When Doves Cry," which was created by a drum machine and features no bass line, was an aberration in pop music. Though the title track might be the ultimate throw-your-candle-in-the-air rock encore, the blunt texture of "Doves" is the better song because it shows how visionary Prince could be. He didn't chase trends; he bent the will of radio to his will -- and he did it with style, wit, and playfulness than his contemporaries. As a movie Purple Rain is frequently transfixing, but as an album it was all consuming. This is another case where we might be cheating by including this: Purple Rain is essentially a musical, right? Prince didn't care about those categories and distinctions. Why should you?
It's appropriate that the greatest movie soundtrack song of all time would feel untethered from its source. This wrenching torch song was on the soundtrack for the Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner melodrama The Bodyguard, and before that it was written and performed by Dolly Parton, but Houston's version has the power to obliterate those details from your memory. Frankly, it's a colossus. A study in the craft of melisma, the track begins in total silence, Houston's voice emerging with startling clarity. Each production choice, from the string arrangement to the mournful sax solo, serves to accentuate her delivery. When she takes flight towards the end, hitting those "I's" and "you's" with surgical precision, you almost levitate, too. That's what greatness can do.
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