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The 30 Best Songs from Movie Soundtracks

No covers, no scores, no musical numbers -- all originals.

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    Artwork by Kristin Frenzel

    Note: The following feature was originally published in February 2014.

    Film is the closest thing to religion in my life. I’m no Gregg Turkington, but my obsession in the area dates way, way back. I guess it helps that my parents never held back, either, granting me the freedom to watch fluff like Runaway Ralph alongside hard-R comedies starring Eddie Murphy. Because these were my escapes, and so much of my young life revolved around the VCR, my earliest introductions to music were tied to film soundtracks. In fact, the first album I ever received was the Back to the Future soundtrack, which I eventually warped to dust.

    Back in the era of Peaches Records and Sam Goody, soundtracks carried an important role for young listeners. Their curatorial abilities introduced countless minds to acts that would otherwise go unnoticed for many, many years to come. If I loved a particular song in the film, I’d wait until the end of the credits, scribble all the song titles down, and try and see if my parents or friends had any of the records. If they didn’t, I was off to the record store in hopes of finding the soundtrack. (I recall the non-existent Ferris Bueller’s Day Off soundtrack giving me the runaround until Napster.)

    In honor of these oft-forgotten vessels, we’ve assembled a list of the 30 best songs from soundtracks both new and old. However, we’ve refused to include any covers, scores, or musical numbers, while also focusing solely on tracks exclusive to the soundtrack. In this way, we aren’t just listing any random classic song used in any number of movies. No, these are original tracks specifically tailored for the film. So keep that in mind as you’re clicking through the popcorn classics ahead.

    –Michael Roffman
    Editor-in-Chief


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    30. Sex Bob-Omb (Beck) – “We Are Sex Bob-Omb”

    Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

    ScottPilgrim_AlbumCover


    Sex Bob-Omb, the fictional band in Edgar Wright’s 2010 comedy of Canadian proportions, thrash and emote their way through a few rounds of the G-Man-sponsored Battle of the Bands, leading up to a truly epic musical showdown at the film’s climax. But it’s the song they rip through during the film’s opening credits that catches the viewer’s attention right away, counted off by the ferocious Kim Pine (Allison Pill) before smashing her drum kit like a young Teresa Taylor. Known in some circles as “Launchpad McQuack” (mostly Scott’s), “We Are Sex Bob-Omb” helps to set the tone for the rest of the film, and by the end of the rapid-fire two minutes, everyone watching is echoing Knives Chau’s reaction.

    “Film Buff” Fact: All of the Sex Bob-Omb songs in the film were written and composed by Beck, who helped the actors in the fictional band learn to play not only the songs, but the instruments as well. Except Michael Cera, who already knew how to play bass because of course he did.

    –Pat Levy


    29. Bonnie Tyler – “Holding Out for a Hero”

    Footloose

    footloose20original20soundtrack The 30 Best Songs from Movie Soundtracks


    Nowadays, “Holding Out for a Hero” sounds like something Trey Parker whipped up for South Park. (Hear: “Montage” from the show’s “Asspen” episode.) Still, you can’t fault Bonnie Tyler for capitalizing on sounds that were clearly Top 200 material at the time. With Footloose, she danced toe to toe with the ultimate theme master Kenny Loggins and came out on top with a song that races by at speeds that rival The Flash and references to Superman that would make Bruce Wayne foam at the mouth. Dial that ear of yours on the keys, then push further below to hear the spacey arcade scales lasso up and down under Tyler. And ugh, the way her vocals peak three and a half minutes in just makes me want to go save kids in Uganda, or pack a lunch for that Streetwise guy on the corner, or drink fat-free milk. Something.

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    “Film Buff” Fact:  While the song dutifully soundtracks Footloose‘s hilariously suspenseful Shoelace Scene, it would later reappear in the climactic ending of Short Circuit II as modified Johnny Five speeds to the rescue. Why do I remember this junk?

    –Michael Roffman


    28. Lindsey Buckingham – “Holiday Road”

    National Lampoon’s Vacation

    VACATIONSOUNDTRACK


    “Holiday Road” dances over the slideshow opening credits of National Lampoon’s Vacation. This little earworm also hitchhiked its way into National Lampoon’s European Vacation, as well as underrated gem of a sequel Vegas Vacation (“I won the money, the money is mine!”). Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Fleetwood Mac guitarist extraordinaire Lindsey Buckingham crafted this bouncing diddy and certainly got lots of mileage out of it. Don’t expect this silly song to chart again. But give it a listen and think back on the darkly comedic choices of late legendary director Harold Ramis, who no doubt included this happy melody to stand in contrast with the misery that is Clark Griswold’s life.

    “Film Buff” Fact: Buckingham contributed original songs to several films, including “Twisted”, a 1996 duet with former lover and bandmate Stevie Nicks, that appears on the Twister soundtrack. Both the song and film are forgettable. But the Twister ride at Universal Studios Florida was pretty cool.

    –Dan Pfleegor


    27. Bobby Brown – “On Our Own”

    Ghostbusters II

    ghostbusters2 The 30 Best Songs from Movie Soundtracks

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    Sure, Ray Parker, Jr.’s classic Academy Award-nominated (!) theme to Ghostbusters continues to haunt Halloween parties and sports games year after year. But really, it’s not a great song. It works off the sort of repetition and melody that makes it impossible to forget or destroy, like “Happy Birthday” or “Merry Christmas” or “London Bridge Is Falling Down”. The far superior Ghostbusters-related song belongs to Bobby Brown. The New Jack swing of “On Our Own” stinks of the late ’80s, but those orchestral hits combined with the spectral harmonies are too addicting. Brown’s vocals are classy enough to keep this out of the dairy section, and the instrumentation is lush enough to conceivably have been used on Michael Jackson’s highly underrated album, Dangerous. But hey, maybe it’s too hot to handle, too cold to hold.

    “Film Buff” Fact: The singer himself makes a cameo in the film as a doorman. As the late Egon Spengler tells him, “The proton packs are not a toy.”

    –Michael Roffman


    26. Eddie Vedder – “Guaranteed”

    Into the Wild

    into the wild soundtrack cover The 30 Best Songs from Movie Soundtracks


    When Into the Wild director Sean Penn heard “Guaranteed” for the first time, he said he knew it was “the musical voice of Emile’s character,” that being the young nomad Christopher McCandless. Eddie Vedder‘s guitar breathes optimism, plucking at the heart strings of those who know Chris’s fate, while his mournful voice provides a dark to the light of the guitar. The lyrics are all based on the exploits of the journeyman, searching for meaning in a world he’s never known to just give those answers away. The line for McCandless’s sister Carine is particularly stirring and showcases Vedder’s tight grasp on the emotions and regrets of Christopher, as he sings, “Don’t come closer or I’ll have to go, owning me like gravity are places that pull. If ever there was someone to keep me at home, it would be you.”

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    “Film Buff” Fact: The song won Vedder a Golden Globe in 2007 and was nominated for a Grammy the following year.

    –Pat Levy


    25. Carly Simon – “Nobody Does It Better”

    The Spy Who Loved Me

    spywholovedme The 30 Best Songs from Movie Soundtracks


    There are a number of James Bond theme songs that could make this list, but this Carly Simon track takes the bullet. With its soft piano introduction, memories of Roger Moore’s two previous, lesser outings as the famous agent become dust in the wind. Strings sweep in and out before the horns in its outro bring it to its conclusion, as a height-of-her-powers Simon sings compliments to Bond himself. Seek out a bootleg of early Radiohead and you’ll hear Thom Yorke declaring it the “sexiest song that was ever written,” and he may be on to something.

    “Film Buff” Fact: The alternate, Broadway-esque version that plays as the closing credits roll? Not as sexy.

    –Justin Gerber


    24. Kenny Loggins – “Danger Zone”

    Top Gun

    TOP-GUN


    Top Gun wouldn’t be nearly as iconic without the help of Kenny Loggins and Giorgio Moroder on the film’s standout opening track. Only Loggins, the “King of the Movie Soundtrack” and contributor to other classic ‘80s film soundtracks like Caddyshack and Footloose, could give the entire movie a cool factor in just one song. The ‘80s synths, electric guitar chords, and “bow bows” put such a prominent time stamp on the movie that the opening scene with fighter jets emerging from a smoky runway into the sunrise is referenced and remade to this day.

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    “Film Buff” Fact: Producers sought out REO Speedwagon, Bryan Adams, and Toto to lend vocals to the track before choosing Kenny Loggins.

    –Danielle Janota


    23. Warren G. feat. Nate Doggy – “Regulate”

    Above the Rim

    above the rim


    “Regulate” is the perfect case of a soundtrack song completely overshadowing the film it was commissioned for. Featuring Warren G. and the late, great Nate Dogg (“smoke weed every day”), the back-and-forth between the rapping former and the soulful latter remains a staple of the era, a representative of west coast rap’s peak, and a great sample of a Michael McDonald song. Seriously, that sample is put to great use. You couldn’t escape this song 20 years ago, and when it pops up on shuffle, you’ll still let it play through. Remember: the rhythm is the bass and the bass is the treble.

    “Film Buff” Fact: The 1994 film starred the late Tupac Shakur, who would join Warren G.’s cousin, Dr. Dre, the following year on Death Row Records.

    –Justin Gerber


    22. Green Day – “J.A.R.”

    Angus

    angus The 30 Best Songs from Movie Soundtracks

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    Remember Angus? Just me? It’s the typical story of an outcast who overcomes nerves and James Van Der Beek to get the girl in the end. Most importantly, it had a teriffic power-pop-punk soundtrack attached, with its best song courtesy of then-rising stars Green Day. “J.A.R.” wouldn’t have been out of place on Dookie (and nearly made that album) with its simple, trademarked Green Day chords, and hearing it takes us back to the time of baggy jeans and flannel shirts (well, I guess we’re back to flannels now, so full circle). Dedicated to a childhood friend of bassist/songwriter Mike Dirnt, it seamlessly masks teenage melancholy with its upbeat structure. They don’t make ‘em like they used to, and I am talking about Green Day.

    “Film Buff” Fact: Love Spit Love’s moving, marching band version of “Am I Wrong” is also featured on the soundtrack. George C. Scott is in this movie.

    –Justin Gerber


    21. Paul Westerberg – “Waiting for Somebody”

    Singles

    singlessoundtrack The 30 Best Songs from Movie Soundtracks

    In 1992, Paul Westerberg wasn’t exactly the most likely choice to score Cameron Crowe’s sophomore film, Singles. Having just broken up with The Replacements, few in Minneapolis would have guessed the straggly frontman would have the ear for a hearty romantic comedy set amidst the Seattle grunge scene. But alas, the plan worked out swell, and Westerberg unearthed his first solo material in the form of “Dyslexic Heart” and “Waiting for Somebody”. Together, they’re aural siblings, waxing philosophical about the same topic: confused love. The latter, however, is the more catchy tune and one that speaks to Westerberg’s strength: melody. That slow dive two minutes in? A quick glimpse into the bad boy romantic that penned all the best love songs for loners.

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    “Film Buff” Fact: In a weird marketing ploy, the film’s soundtrack hit stores three months before the film made it to theaters. When was the last time that ever happened? While we’re asking questions, can we please finally get Westerberg’s score on vinyl, please? Who am I talking to again?

    –Michael Roffman


    20. Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes – “I’ve Had the Time of My Life”

    Dirty Dancing

    dirty dancing soundtrack The 30 Best Songs from Movie Soundtracks


    Whether it brings me back to my 10-year-old self attempting the “big lift” move surrounded by cushions in the living room, or to the more recent days spent swooning at Ryan Gosling’s reenactment of the final dance scene with Emma Stone in Crazy Stupid Love, the song brings a smile to my face. The scene owes its timelessness to the sultry vocals of Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes and the closing sax riff that brings the smoldering chemistry of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey to life. A big personal thanks to everyone involved with the romantic scene for providing so many happy memories, and more importantly, for giving us an opportunity to see Ryan Gosling shirtless.

    “Film Buff” Fact: Billy Zane was originally cast to play Johnny Castle but was switched out when he couldn’t bring the heat like Patrick Swayze with Jennifer Grey.

    –Danielle Janota


    19. Nine Inch Nails – “The Perfect Drug”

    Lost Highway

    losthighway The 30 Best Songs from Movie Soundtracks

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    After producing the soundtrack to Natural Born Killers, Trent Reznor worked with a director named David on another film, but not David Fincher. For his follow-up, the NIN frontman collaborated with David Lynch on the Lost Highway soundtrack and even contributed three songs. The strongest of the three is Nine Inch Nails‘ “The Perfect Drug”, which was the perfect audio to couple with Lynch’s nightmarish visuals. Reznor has gone on record expressing his disappointment with the song in recent years, but we’re all good with it over here. The rapid drumbeats and unrelenting guitars/synths were a bridge between The Downward Spiral and The Fragile, and Reznor would go on to greater film success with the other David over a decade later.

    “Film Buff” Fact: David Lynch would return the favor in 2013, directing the music video for Nine Inch Nails’ “Came Back Haunted”.

    Justin Gerber

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