The 30 Best Songs from Movie Soundtracks

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


    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


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

    Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World


    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”


    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.


    “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


    “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


    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.”


    “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 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.


    “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 The 30 Best Songs from Movie Soundtracks


    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”


    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.


    “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


    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

    15. David Bowie – “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”

    Cat People

    cat people The 30 Best Songs from Movie Soundtracks

    But let’s jump from 1982 all the way to 2009.

    If ever there was a need to put out a fire, David Bowie is not your man. His arguably delicate fingers are likely to fight it with gasoline. Now if ever there was a need to spark a 20-minute scene for Mélanie Laurent’s character Shosanna to avenge the death of her entire family by Nazis, then this song is a fire starter. Tarantino ignites the climactic fifth chapter of Inglorious Basterds with a sudden disjointed surge of pop music. It felt wrong. It shouldn’t have worked! But it did. The gradual build of Bowie’s baritone introduces the incongruity usurping that pivotal moment, and it really takes Tarantino’s innate genius to realize those darker tinders lurking beneath the tempo of a near forgotten classic. It made the rage roar louder into an insurmountable end.

    “Film Buff” Fact: Bowie originally recorded it with Giorgio Moroder for the 1982 erotic horror Cat People about a family who have a penchant for turning into panthers. Delicious! Like me, you’re forgiven if you ever thought Tina Turner was the culprit – to date, over 10 different artists have covered it, so I suppose you can use either story – considering they both involve erotic felines.

    –Lior Phillips

    14. Julee Cruise – “Mysteries of Love”

    Blue Velvet

    bluevelvet The 30 Best Songs from Movie Soundtracks

    David Lynch is often credited as being really fucking weird, and I completely understand that. However, what gets lost in chopped-off ears, homeless demons, and lipstick-smearing Diane Ladds is the beauty. “Mysteries of Love” plays as Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) and Sandy (Laura Dern) dance and confess to each other that they’re in love, in a way that befits awkward teen romance. It’s a perfect moment in a movie full of them, and the horror that awaits them just one scene later works as a masterful juxtaposition.


    “Film Buff” Facts: Julee Cruise would re-team with Lynch for both the Twin Peaks series and its prequel/sequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.

    –Justin Gerber

    13. Huey Lewis and the News – “Power of Love”

    Back to the Future

    bttf The 30 Best Songs from Movie Soundtracks

    Lyrically, “The Power of Love” is a subtle theme for Back to the Future. If my calculations are correct, Huey Lewis‘ insistence on how love “might just save your life” could be alluding to Marty McFly’s girlfriend, Jennifer, who turns a seemingly useless flyer into his only hope to escape 1955. Or, the lyric refers to the mandatory puppy love between George McFly and Lorraine Baines in order for Dave, Linda, and Marty to exist. Or it could just be an amazing coincidence. Whatever the case, it makes for one hell of a skateboarding anthem, and this writer never rolls around the neighborhood without hearing it at least once. I guarantee it.

    “Film Buff” Fact: The song makes several quirky appearances in the trilogy. Marty’s band, The Pinheads, auditions with a heavy metal version of the track, only to be denied by an uptight judge played by Huey himself. A 2015 McFly plays a shitty version on the guitar (in addition to “Say It Ain’t So”, no lie) after being fired. And finally, it’s blaring out of Needles’ truck when he challenges McFly to a deadly race in the final chapter. Pretty heavy, huh?

    Michael Roffman


    12. Burt Bacharach – “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”

    Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid



    Is Burt Bacharach‘s Oscar-winning tune out of place in the film? I’d argue no. Though the interplay between Paul Newman and Robert Redford (Butch and the Kid, respectively) drives the film, the “Raindrops” montage featuring Newman and the impossibly gorgeous Katherine Ross fooling around on a bike has become just as iconic as the outlaws’ cliff-jump, or even that final freeze-frame. It’s a moment of breezy fun with the more serious of the two title characters, although we’re soon to discover that trouble is not far behind, as it nips at their heels, leading them towards their fate.

    “Film Buff” Fact: The season two premiere of Grey’s Anatomy shares its title with this very song. I swear to God I only know that because of the Internet.

    –Justin Gerber

    11. Bob Dylan – “Things Have Changed”

    Wonder Boys

    wonderboys The 30 Best Songs from Movie Soundtracks

    Not every veteran singer-songwriter ages with such courage, but then again, Bob Dylan is one-of-a-kind. For Curtis Hanson’s horrifically underrated adaptation of Michael Chabon’s novel, Wonder Boys, Dylan penned a parallel story with “Things Have Changed.” It’s sobering (“This place ain’t doing me any good”), borderline-geriatric (“People are crazy and times are strange”), sexy (“There’s a woman on my lap and she’s drinking champagne”), and unequivocally hip (“Don’t get up gentlemen, I’m only passing through”), and in a way, the only soundtrack inclusion I can think of where a singer assumes the identity of a film’s protagonist without being so obtuse and transparent. A year later, the song rightfully nabbed both an Oscar and a Golden Globe, proving for once that Best Original Song does mean something.


    “Film Buff” Fact: Curtis Hanson directed the song’s music video, which places the icon amidst the film’s various locations. Personally, I’d love to see a version of Wonder Boys with Dylan digitally added into all of Douglas’ scenes. But, I guess this is as close as we’ll get.

    –Michael Roffman

    10. The Cure – “Burn”

    The Crow

    the crow soundtrack The 30 Best Songs from Movie Soundtracks

    James O’Barr’s cult graphic novel is a depressing read, its tears drawn from sad truths. The broken artist was inspired to pen the gothic revenge tale when his girlfriend died at the hands of a drunk driver. Its 1993 film adaptation is awash in similar tones, haunted by the unlikely death of actor Brandon Lee, who was fatally shot on-set by a prop gun while filming. On the soundtrack’s opening track, “Burn”, The Cure frontman Robert Smith emotionally emphasizes this grief with his signature pained wails that glide over the song’s chugging industrial rhythms. “Just paint your face the shadows smile/ Slipping me away from you,” the dolled up singer cries, linking him to the story’s lead hero, Eric Draven. Never has an artist matched the subject matter with such precision. Never has a theme song been this vital.

    “Film Buff” Fact: Almost 20 years later, the song made its live debut when The Cure headlined New Orleans’ Voodoo Experience last November. Twenty. Years.

    –Michael Roffman


    09. The Bee Gees – “Night Fever”

    Saturday Night Fever

    saturdaynightfever The 30 Best Songs from Movie Soundtracks

    If ever a song defined an era, it was this dance smash courtesy of the brothers Gibb. Along with a number of other Bee Gees tracks from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, “Night Fever” became infinitely entwined with the late ‘70s, kept discos open at all hours, and launched John Travolta from TV heartthrob into film megastar. Despite the award nominations heaped upon the film itself, it would never have received such high praise had the producers not seen fit to add The Bee Gees to the fray. With one hand on one hip and the other pointing towards the heavens, the band etched their legacy in a cultural disco ball.


    “Film Buff” Fact: Another Bee Gees song from the film that was just as popular, “Staying Alive”, would be used as the title for its sequel. However, the bulk of the music would come not from The Bee Gees, but from, you guessed it, Frank Stallone.

    –Justin Gerber

    08. Aimee Mann – “Save Me”


    magnolia The 30 Best Songs from Movie Soundtracks

    Blame the philosophical mind-whatthefuckery of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, as it consistently awakens even the coldest cesspools of sensitivity. Which isn’t a bad thing considering the characters were given real words that real people use? The audience can jump right in then, get grounded within them and relate – a Venn diagram of “temptation” and “pain” with “fate” sitting in the middle of the overlap. Anderson adapted the song writings from Aimee Mann, and it’s her sense of confidence that really sells it; on paper the lyrics “come on and save me” might read like coffee-shop fodder, but the brutal force with which she plucks every count lends a tension to the scene that transcends, as fate would, above it all. Oh, and that smile? Reduced me into a slobbery mess – as though the tears were unleashed from the same sky as the film’s frenzy of frogs.

    “Film Buff” Fact: In 1999, Mann lost out on the Academy Award to Phil Collins (Tarzan), so now she dedicates the song to him before she plays it. Even weirder – “Tourniquet” from the first verse is quite a common lyric, found in songs by Pink Floyd, Dave Matthews Band, and titles from The Mars Volta and Marilyn Manson. How times have changed! “whassah ternikett?”

    –Lior Phillips

    07. Eminem – “Lose Yourself”

    8 Mile

    8mile The 30 Best Songs from Movie Soundtracks


    Few songs can get me as energized and ready to take on the world as the aggressive guitar chords at the beginning of “Lose Yourself”. The powerful lyrics, brooding background instrumentation, and Eminem’s deranged, yet controlled flow fully encapsulate the anger and emotion of the movie. Because the song, like 8 Mile, was inspired by true events of his life, when Em spits a vicious line, we know he means it, thus making the track even more hard-hitting. Amidst countless singles within his 10-album career, the moody pump-up anthem is still considered one of Eminem’s best.

    “Film Buff” Fact: “Lose Yourself” was the first rap song to win the Oscar for Best Original Song.

    –Danielle Janota

    06. Elliott Smith – “Miss Misery”

    Good Will Hunting

    goodwillhunting The 30 Best Songs from Movie Soundtracks

    It’s weird to think that Elliott Smith once soundtracked the story of history’s brightest Masshole, but Troubled Boy Geniuses always seem to glom onto each other. Besides, who could texture Harvard Yard better? Smith’s all brick and foliage on the surface, all rage and angst underneath. One of the more up-tempo picks from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, “Miss Misery” paints the tangle that happens when two people who are both a little left of stable try to find comfort in each other. While the movie doesn’t sugarcoat the process of trying to grow out of your own isolation, I feel like Smith always understood that struggle better than Matt Damon or Ben Affleck ever did. All his songs carry it.


    “Film Buff” Fact:  “Miss Misery” lost the Oscar for Best Original Song to “My Heart Will Go On”, which, like, okay.

    –Sasha Geffen

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