The Absolute Best Movie Soundtrack Moments of 2017

I, Tonya
Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) after landing the triple axel in I, TONYA | courtesy of NEON and 30WEST.jpg
Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) after landing the triple axel in I, TONYA | courtesy of NEON and 30WEST.jpg

Are the best movie scores subservient to the image, acting more as subconscious aural wallpaper? Or are they, as many soundtrack nerds would scream, "the vanguard of instrumental music of our time!!!!"?

It's a tough debate that inevitably means screaming about the ubiquity of Hans Zimmer, and the truth of the matter is most of the music cues in films that drive audiences wild don't come from the score at all. Needle-drops, the well-placed cuts of pre-existing tunes, either popular hits in an unexpected context or an "oh, wow" esoteric choice, can really bring a sequence together. And 2017 was full of them.

You don't have to tell Edgar Wright, whose Baby Driver, featuring a tune buffoon getaway racer, is wall-to-wall needle-drops from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Focus, Golden Earring, Run the Jewels, Dave Brubeck, and more, and that's why (RECORD SCCCCCCRATCH!) we have declared it ineligible for this year's 10 best countdown. Another note: the song needs to have been around. The "spreader bar" sex scene in the unfairly maligned Fifty Shades Darker is brilliantly choreographed to "Pray" by Jry featuring Rooty. It made for one of the more hilarious moments in a theater this year (whether by design or not is irrelevant) but that song was introduced with the soundtrack album and, thus, we'll have to wait until another movie tries to get its swerve on to that track. With that, press play, and hear the best-sourced music tracks from this year's movies

10. "Father and Son" by Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam) from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The biggest twist ending in a superhero movie this year wasn't the appearance of some obscure villain or resurrected hero: it was the unusually melancholy final scene in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

In the movie, our hero Star-Lord is betrayed by his biological father, but comes to realize that the man who raised him (a scoundrel in his own right, but a caring scoundrel) was all the father he ever needed. His Viking-style funeral with interplanetary fireworks is set to Cat Stevens' gorgeous 1970 melody about the generational divide. This series has always worn its heart on its sleeve, opening with a pre-teen watching his mother die of cancer, and introducing us to a muscle man who speaks whatever is on his mind and the most huggable tree this side of a '60s NorCal commune. Now we've seen a computer-generated raccoon cry to a Cat Stevens track. In a perfect example how cinema really can achieve anything, you will too.

9. "Evening Star" by Fripp and Eno from Wonderstruck

Sometimes something that sounds like original instrumental music is, in fact, a finely curated needle-drop! Who would expect anything else from the rarefied tastes of auteur Todd Haynes, especially in a movie about cabinets of curiosity in a museum?

The swirl of magic and nostalgia in this oftentimes wordless film about children on parallel adventures through time is brought home with this lush, deep-in-the-stacks prog/ambient track. Robert Fripp is best known to bearded know-it-alls as the lead guitarist of King Crimson, and Brian Eno didn't just help sculpt Talking Heads and U2's aesthetic: he composed the seminal Music for Airports album as well as the Microsoft start-up sound! The pair has collaborated many times over the years, but perhaps never so beautifully as this.

8. "Crash Into Me" by Dave Matthews Band from Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig's coming-of-age tale is racking up critics awards because it is a finely-observed and universal story. But it is also very much an early-aughts period piece.

One could argue that love for DMB (as the Dave Matthews Band were called in Yahoo! chatrooms) hasn't exactly aged well. Man, there were a lot of bootleg tapes traded, weren't there? But "Crash Into Me" stands the test of time. Its sweet melodic line, rhythmic acoustic guitars and climactic falsetto may remind you of high school nights of endless longing, or of sobbing with your BFF when someone you thought liked you for you did you wrong. Like everything else in Lady Bird there is a sense of self-awareness -- liking this song is a little cheesy (especially for our heroine in 2002, six years after the track debuted) -- but it is also honest, and its placement makes for a perfect moment in a future classic.

7. "John the Revelator" by Blind Willie Johnson from Mudbound

The call-and-response Negro Spiritual "John the Revelator" was introduced to the folk revivalist movement via Harry Smith's 1952 "Anthology of American Folk Music." Blind Willie Johnson's recording from 1930 and the other 83 tracks representing music from the deep south and Appalachian hollows helped critic Greil Marcus coin the term "Old, Weird America."

It's that same half-mythic soil from which the weighty, heartbreaking story Mudbound grows. The two families at the center of the Netflix Original first meet when a mix-up sends the white McAllan to live directly on their new farm, which is sharecropped by mostly black families. As the McAllans drive their truck onto a 1940s version of a plantation, Blind Willie Johnson voice of foreboding hangs over the stark imagery. "What's John writin'? A book of seven seals."

6. "Immigrant Song" by Led Zeppelin from Thor: Ragnarok

OK, the only reason this isn't No. 1 is because Taika Waititi couldn't contain himself and had to use it twice. Less is more, mate! Less is more!

5. "Redbone" by Childish Gambino from Get Out

When comedian and nerd heartthrob Donald Glover presented himself as rapper Childish Gambino, it took a beat to figure out if he was serious. He was/is. His career is a perfect rhyme with Get Out, a film from half of sketch comedy team Key & Peele that sounds, at first pitch, like it could have be a viral video. It wasn't/isn't.

Get Out doesn't just exude craft, blending suspense, drama and, yes, comedy; it has a rich message that, while rooted in fantasy, is easily understood as metaphor for elements in our society that feel they are "above" things like racial discord. Hearing the "stay woke" refrain of "Redbone" as lead actor Daniel Kaluuya preps for his weekend visit of doom takes on new meaning the second time you watch it.

4. "Love My Way" by The Psychedelic Furs from Call Me By Your Name

I was never an American grad student hunk visiting Northern Italy in the 1980s, but if I were, dancing with abandon to "Love My Way" in khaki shorts and Converse sneakers is exactly how I would have done it.

Armie Hammer cuts loose on a makeshift Euro dancefloor to one of the quintessential British new wave bands (we know this from all those John Hughes movies) and is irresistible to women, men, and any piccoli animali del bosco that may be watching. There's a lot that's been said about Call Me By Your Name, a marvelous coming-of-age film, but for all the intellectual jousting and emotional self-exploration, it's important to recognize that so much of it is very fun, and has the energy and openness of youth.

3. "I'm Every Woman" by Chaka Khan from Girls Trip

There's much that's memorable about Girls Trip (I wonder how the Grapefruit Growers of America Guild are reacting to this film...) but so most of it revolves around the new neutron bomb of comedy that is Tiffany Haddish.

The film takes a few moments to gather momentum -- you have to meet the four women, learn their backstories and get everyone to the airport for their New Orleans vacation -- and then the risque hilarity can begin. When the drink cart arrives, Haddish grabs the tray, breaks into song (and kinda breaks the reality of the film?) singing Chaka Khan's feminist anthem and readying everyone on board (even the old white lady!) for hijinks. It only lasts a few seconds, but it's the entire film in micro: surprising, exuberant, and catchy.

2. "Sleeping Bag" by ZZ Top from I, Tonya

Ice skating biopic I, Tonya is a film with many layers. It exalts in its trashy tabloid subject matter, but when you least expect it there are trenchant examinations of class distinction and discrimination. This all comes to a gorgeously executed head when Margot Robbie's Tonya Harding makes her first on-screen competition skate. Her athleticism is unmatched, but her personal aesthetic is a little, well, not quite what the snooty pants judges have in mind.

The camera swoops and glides to an unexpected tune: the cheesy synth-drums and guitar-squeals of ZZ Top's I-just-had-a-sixer-of-Miller-High-Life-and-I'm-feelin'-randy hit "Sleeping Bag." It's such a weird mix-up of sound and image that it has to be based on truth. Cut to the 3:30 mark on the actual video of Tonya Harding's performance to see that it is.

1. "Space Oddity" by David Bowie from Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

David Bowie has been dead for almost two years now, but his connection to pop culture, specifically science fiction, is in no danger of being forgotten. Luc Besson's Valerian isn't a perfect film, but when it works it really works, as in this self-contained prologue suggesting the utopianism of Roddenberry's Star Trek with an even greater flair for design.
We skip through the decades, watching our pale blue dot unify thanks to its space program as it then welcomes visitors from distant worlds. Technology changes as protocol stays the same (a handshake's a handshake, even if the hand is sticky) and with Bowie's retro-future ballad there's a poignant side to even the most flamboyant space creatures. You've heard this song 9,000 times on the radio, but somehow Valerian makes it sound new.

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Jordan Hoffman is a film critic and writer whose work appears in The Guardian, Vanity Fair, and Mashable. Follow him on Twitter @jhoffman.