Artwork by Cap Blackard

The two best-selling soundtracks of all time celebrate milestones this November, with Saturday Night Fever turning 40 and The Bodyguard turning 25. With that in mind, we decided to take a look at what exactly makes a film soundtrack great, something that seemed much easier on paper than in execution.

We found plenty of soundtracks that excelled by using subtle songs in the periphery of pivotal scenes, and we also came across films that dropped the music right into the story, as part of the plot or even as a character itself. We came across those movies that made hits out of otherwise obscure songs, while also taking into account films that hijacked a popular song and made it indistinguishable from the film itself. More importantly, we looked at the soundtracks that enhanced the film and went hand-in-hand with its tone and story, giving you greater insight into pivotal scenes and character growth.

We avoided musicals, band movies, concert films, and scores in this regard, focusing solely on the best use of popular music in film, combing through movies from the ’60s all the way up to 2017 until we had our picks. As with any list of this size, there are bound to be disagreements as well as some soundtracks that should have made the cut. Let us know what you think we missed, but in the meantime, sit back and take a whirlwind trip through music in cinema with our picks for the 100 Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time.

–Doug Nunnally
Contributing Writer

100. Juno (2007)

juno The 100 Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time

Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s quirky dramedy about a misfit teenager who finds herself two months pregnant and decides to have and adopt out her baby gets a lot of things right. One of those is a soundtrack that almost acts as an interior monologue for the title character. While Juno MacGuff may dig the raw power of Iggy and his Stooges, having indie vet Kimya Dawson’s soft voice and oddball lyrics floating in during transitions or when Juno’s faced with a difficult moment feels like a far better match. So taken by Dawson’s music was Reitman that he had her re-record instrumentals and humming to use for scenes and commissioned Mateo Messina to use her style as the basis for the scored parts of the movie. The final result is a soundtrack of unforgettable moments like Juno and Paulie dueting “Anyone Else but You” and the latter completing his morning routine to The Kinks’ brilliant “A Well Respected Man”. Wizard. –Matt Melis

99. Batman Forever (1995)

batman forever The 100 Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time

The less said about Joel Schumacher’s Batman films, the better, but kudos has to be given to the soundtrack for his first attempt. Though only a few of its songs appear in the film, the soundtrack picks up the ball Schumacher so casually dropped with a deep mélange that helped illustrate Batman’s gritty nature, Robin’s empowered gall, Riddler’s manic depravity, and Two-Face’s fractured distress — all things effectively absent within Schumaker’s obtrusive vision. It doesn’t quite hit the lofty mark of Prince’s interpretation, but thanks to Seal’s powerhouse song and U2’s surprising gem, it definitely comes close. –Doug Nunnally

98. The Karate Kid (1984)

the karate kid The 100 Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time

Look, The Karate Kid is basically Little Rocky. You’ve got director John G. Avildsen behind the camera again and his buddy Bill Conti added yet another triumphant score to make everyone believe that an underdog could rise to the top. But, like any story that’s repackaged for a younger audience, it’s gotta be hip, and that’s essentially what this soundtrack is — at least for the time. Even then, nobody was listening to Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best” without singing along ironically (hell, it was rejected by Rocky Balboa himself), but they were rocking out to Gang of Four (“Desire”) or Broken Edge (“No Shelter”). And while it’s a crime Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” was left off, you get your New Wave fix with Commuter (“Young Hearts”) and Baxter Robertson (“Feel the Night”), two songs that will legitimately dent your soul. Wax on, wax off, people. –Michael Roffman

97. Space Jam (1996)

space jam The 100 Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time

Here’s something that doesn’t get discussed a lot — the soundtrack to Space Jam contained five Top 40 hits, four of them being Top 10 hits that made 1996 and 1997 a time that you couldn’t escape this soundtrack if you tried. But the real charm for this soundtrack lies outside the hits, like great dance/hip-hop songs by Robin S and Salt-N-Pepa, though all you really need to know about this soundtrack’s quality is that it got Busta Rhymes, Coolio, LL Cool J, and Method Man to all collaborate on a song about the villainous Monstars … and it’s absolutely phenomenal. –Doug Nunnally

96. Angus (1995)

angus The 100 Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time

If we’re talking about soundtracks being emblematic of the mid-’90s high school experience, few are as tried and true as Angus. At the time, the whole grunge scene had given way to a more alternative sound with Green Day and Weezer leading the charge. Wouldn’t you know, they both headline this collection, what with Green Day’s memorial song “J.A.R. (Jason Andrew Relva)” tipping off the LP and Weezer’s “You Gave Your Love to Me Softly” sitting right in the middle between Ash, Smoking Popes, and The Muffs. Fun fact: That latter song wasn’t intended for the soundtrack, as frontman Rivers Cuomo originally penned a song for the film titled “Wanda (You’re My Only Love)”, which was rejected for being “too much of a strict interpretation of the movie.” It’s okay, like Angus, they won out in the end, releasing Pinkerton the following year. –Michael Roffman

95. Elizabethtown (2005)

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Cameron Crowe’s much-maligned 2005 treatise on kindness, forgiveness, love, and Manic Pixie Dream Girls might have become a punchline in its own time, but one of its more lasting impressions is its soundtrack, crafted specifically to bring Orlando Bloom’s suicidal ex-shoe designer (yep) back from the brink. Through a mixture of Kirsten Dunst’s love and a sprawling playlist including Tom Petty, Ryan Adams, My Morning Jacket, Lindsey Buckingham, Elton John, U2, and a host of other familiar and minor names alike, Crowe serves as the benevolent god of his film’s loving world. Bloom might be trapped in a fiasco, but the soundtrack looks straight ahead to clearer skies. —Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

94. Times Square (1980)

times square The 100 Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time

You’ve probably never seen Times Square. Don’t worry. Not many have. Even now, despite its cult acclaim, Allan Moyle’s punk rock coming-of-age movie is an under-the-radar gem. Those who have seen it, probably remember its groundbreaking double-album soundtrack that features a who’s who of punk and new wave titans circa 1980, from Talking Heads to The Cure, Gary Numan to Patti Smith. As Wet Hot American Summer composer Craig Wedren told us years ago, “Times Square totally cracked [the underground] open. It was an introduction to our music, our generation’s music: the early MTV hard rock top 40 and the new wave that was happening between 1979 and 1981.” In other words, a totally essentially time capsule. –Michael Roffman

93. Stealing Beauty (1996)

stealing beauty The 100 Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time

Italian writer-director Bernardo Bertolucci has struck serious highs in terms of epic drama (The Last Emperor) and provocative, controversial sensuality (Last Tango in Paris). The 1996 Liv Tyler-starring Stealing Beauty may not have the cultural cache or critical seal of approval of his most beloved films, but the atmospheric, blue moodiness of the soundtrack alone fills the film with smoky appeal that transcends its ‘90s bonds. The film finds the melancholy in the Cocteau Twins as well as Mozart, Mazzy Star, and Nina Simone. The film is haunted by poetry (Liv Tyler’s Lucy deals with the death of her poet mother), and the soundtrack is similarly obsessed with the beauty of quiet moments and subtle, swaying emotion. But when the mood breaks, as it must inevitably, you’d be hard-pressed to find better explosions than Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”. –Lior Phillips

92. 500 Days Of Summer (2009)

500 days The 100 Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time

500 Days Of Summer’s soundtrack works as a cohesive gel, piecing together the disjointed narrative so you can absorb the nonlinear scenes with better clarity and context. Though we know how it ends, The Temper Trap’s “Sweet Disposition” allows us to experience the wide-eyed wonderment of love, while Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams Come True” helps illustrate its fantasies. The best case for music bridging the gap is the expectation vs. reality scene, deftly scored by Regina Spektor’s “Hero”. Your eyes dart between the two unfolding scenes, but it’s the song’s disappointed tone that you can’t avoid, hammering home the scene’s, and the soundtrack’s, true impact. –Doug Nunnally

91. The Lost Boys (1987)

lost boys The 100 Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time

The worst thing about The Lost Boys soundtrack is that you have to imagine Tim Capello shirtless when you listen to “I Still Believe”. It’s a ludicrous song that works much better on-screen, where we can actually see his hunky, muscle-y abs reflecting the beach flames of Santa Carla, California. Nonetheless, there are plenty other goodies to sink your teeth into on this album, which may be the most bizarre hodgepodge of musicians assembled for what’s ostensibly an alty ’80s film. Like, why is Echo and the Bunnymen covering The Doors’ “People are Strange”? Or why is Roger Daltrey wedged between two songs by INXS? Whatever, it all works, and don’t tell me you’ve never screamed with Gerard McMann on “Cry Little Sister”. –Michael Roffman

90. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010)

scottpilgrim albumcover The 100 Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time

If you’re going to write a movie with a battle of the bands at its core, you better be ready to have a great soundtrack and some top-tier songwriters on board to ensure you can actually build some drama into that climactic battle. For Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, Edgar Wright amassed a super-team to make sure that both the songs chosen and composed for the soundtrack would rock hard enough to literally battle competitors. The songs for Scott’s band, Sex Bob-Omb, were written by Beck, while Broken Social Scene write and perform as Crash and the Boys. But let’s not forget to credit the actors: Michael Cera, Mark Webber, Alison Pill, Johnny Simmons, and Erik Knudsen all actually played instruments and sang for the soundtrack, while Sloan’s Chris Murphy coached guitar. Add to that mix a swathe of stomping classic rock (T. Rex, The Rolling Stones) and a score featuring Radiohead contributor Nigel Godrich, Beck, Dan the Automator, Cornelius, and more, and Scott Pilgrim has the brash pedigree to pull off its musical conceit. –Lior Phillips

89. Ghostbusters II (1989)

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Hot take: Bobby Brown’s greatest song is “On Our Own”. That’s not irony. That’s not hyperbole. That’s a cold, hard fact. The de facto theme song of Ghostbusters II thrives from a shivering glaze of New Jack swing, the likes of which wouldn’t sound this polished and this lush until Michael Jackson would go all-in on the genre a couple years later on 1991’s Dangerous. It’s a total improvement over Ray Parker Jr.’s original theme, which also gets a facelift on this soundtrack with a remix by the one and only Run-DMC. (Not surprisingly, their version is better.) Elsewhere, you get slimed by a little hip-hop (Doug E. Fresh), some veteran rock (Elton John, Glenn Frey), and a whole lotta soul (Howard Huntsberry), all of which screams 1989. –Michael Roffman

88. American Pie (1999)

american pie The 100 Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time

What you have to keep telling yourself whenever you watch American Pie is that, yes, this is a film from another time. Otherwise, you’re going to have an aneurysm from all the rampant homophobia and the fact that its most iconic scene is straight-up sexual predation. Still, even though the film hardly holds up, the soundtrack does, oozing with all kinds of late ’90s alt-rock that will probably be great source of nostalgia in a couple of years if it isn’t already. Those who were also in high school during that era will probably stare off in the distance to Bic Runga’s “Sway” just as they’ll bop their heads to Blink-182’s Enema of the State gem “Mutt”. What sucks most about this soundtrack, however, are all the songs that were left off, from Duke Daniels’ “Following a Star” to Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta”, to the film’s ostensible theme, James’ “Laid”. Oh well. –Michael Roffman

87. Love and Basketball (2000)

love and basketball The 100 Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time

All good love stories develop their own soundtrack, and the sweet, smoky, long-gestating romance between Sanaa Lathan’s Monica and Omar Epps’ Quincy in Love & Basketball is no exception. The characters develop an attraction over decades, and all while training and competing. By reaching back to Zapp and Chaka Khan and going all the way through to contemporary R&B jams like Bilal’s “Soul Sista”, the soundtrack reflects changes in intensity and era without losing the thread of frustrated romance. And when they finally find that their chemistry works off the court and get down to business, Maxwell’s “This Woman’s Work” provides the sweet and sultry background. –Adam Kivel

86. The Breakfast Club (1985)

breakfast club The 100 Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time

Few, if any, modern filmmakers take the mundanity of adolescence as seriously as writer-filmmaker John Hughes once did. How committed was Hughes? In The Breakfast Club, he sells us on the idea that a Saturday detention can change how a group of young people view the world. We see these five different students – most of whom would never speak to each other if not locked up in a library together – running through the halls to Wang Chung and dancing together to a Karla DeVito record. It’s all silly and unbelievable, and yet by film’s end the five have managed to learn something life-altering about themselves. When Judd Nelson crosses the football field and iconically pumps his fist to Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”, he’s not just celebrating another detention done and over with or even his new girlfriend; it’s a gesture that reminds even the most skeptical among us that real life takes place sometimes where and when we least expect. It’s something John Hughes knew all too well. –Matt Melis

85. American Beauty (2000)

american beauty The 100 Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time

Very few midlife crises sound this exceptional. For Lester Burnham, the sardonic protagonist of Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, this suburban daddy’s jarring left turn from normalcy is at all times beautiful, compelling, and riveting. There’s Bill Withers bringing the soul on “Use Me”, Elliott Smith matching the tranquility of composer Thomas Newman with “Because”, and the FM jams of The Who (“The Seeker”) and Free (“All Right Now”). The generational gaps between all the acts — umm, it oscillates from Bobby Darin and Peggy Lee to Gomez and the Eeels — seems almost implicit, seeing how this is a movie about an old man trying to have sex with a young woman — scratch that, a young teenager. No wonder Kevin Spacey won the Oscar! –Michael Roffman

84. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

darjeeling The 100 Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time

Three Kinks songs slip in between Bollywood tracks in Wes Anderson’s fifth film to showcase three American brothers’ train-riding vision quest through the Indian countryside. Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrien Brody are mourning the loss of their father and trapped in cycles of familial struggle, but find a new peace together. The trio move from wondering about where they’ll be “This Time Tomorrow”, to discovering that though they’re “Strangers” they are one on this new road, to coming to grips with the fight against the “Powerman” figure always enforcing the status quo that had kept them apart. And as the film goes on, the Indian music becomes less strange and more essential to their relationship. –Adam Kivel

83. Shaun Of The Dead (2004)

shaun of the dead The 100 Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time

While Baby Driver solidified Edgar Wright’s unmatched ability to make music an essential character and piece of the narrative, fans of his earlier films — and shout-out to Spaced too — will eagerly explain that that’s always been the case. The first film of the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, Shaun of the Dead utilizes both diegetic music and clever scoring to comedic and dramatic affect. Pete Woodhead and Daniel Mudford created the score in honor of classic zombie and horror soundtracks, from John Carpenter vibes to Goblin intensity. Meanwhile, the high-wire choreography of Baby Driver is predated by (among other scenes in Wright’s filmography) a brilliant scene in which Shaun, Ed, Liz, and co. fight off zombies in the Winchester who had been drawn in by a malfunctioning jukebox that wouldn’t stop playing Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”. –Adam Kivel

82. Midnight Cowboy (1969)

everybodys talkin The 100 Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time

Like the movie itself, the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy is an ambitious affair with a collection of songs that joins together country folk instrumentals and an array of rock styles, from the radio friendly rock sound (including a cover of a great early Warren Zevon song) to more expansive psych explorations, all of which helps explore the complicated psyche of its story. The blend also helps the score pieces resonate, and sets the stage for the iconic “Everybody’s Talkin’”, leading to the first Grammys for both Harry Nilsson and legendary composer John Barry. –Doug Nunnally

81. Top Gun (1986)

top gun The 100 Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time

As far as ’80s movie soundtracks go, Top Gun may not be the best of the decade, but it’s absolutely among the most memorable. As the above album art suggests, it’s at the very least “up there with the best of the best.” Tony Scott’s film is draped in loud, near-constant pop music, but it’s the two classics from the film’s soundtrack that have come to define the film even more than all of the well-shot, frequently homoerotic action on hand ever could have. Kenny Loggins offered a new path for America, on the highway to the Danger Zone, where Tom Cruise’s ace pilot lives and exists in all of his pursuits. And not only did Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” underscore each of the film’s many illustrations of the totally hetero passion involving Cruise and Kelly McGillis’ program instructor, but it became one of the biggest power ballads of the decade that defined the form. You, reading this now? There’s like a 40% chance you were made to the tune of “Take My Breath Away”. Congratulations. —Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

80. Mo’ Better Blues (1990)

 The 100 Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time

As a film, Mo’ Better Blues may not be one of Spike Lee’s more outstanding works, but it indisputably features one of his best soundtracks. The Branford Marsalis Quartet’s work here plays a crucial (you could even say instrumental) role in Lee’s film, chronicling the rise and fall of Denzel Washington’s Bleek with lively, improvisational-feeling jazz riffs of every kind. Plus, how often do you get to hear Washington, Gang Starr, and Wesley Snipes perform over jazz music? It accomplishes what most soundtracks only aspire to do: it truly adds something more to the film beyond it. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

79. Marie Antoinette (2006)

marie antoinette The 100 Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time

Sofia Coppola’s misunderstood, anachronistic 2006 take on the last queen of pre-Revolution France speaks the language of decadence as only a Coppola film could. Yet its soundtrack, which initially grated on some listeners, is one of the greats of the aughts, an exercise in melancholic pop sounds that manages to comment on one hedonistic era using the sounds of another. New Order, Bow Wow Wow, The Radio Dept., and a host of other artists add to the lushly ornate settings, glorifying in an era of excess even as it verges on its sudden, violent, and inevitable end. It’s a pop soundtrack for the end of the world as many knew it. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

78. Where The Wild Things Are (2009)

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Eight years later, we’re still periodically baffled that Warner Bros. gave Spike Jonze $100 million of studio money to make what may well be one of the saddest films ever aimed at children. Yet Where the Wild Things Are is worth every cent, a sincerely magical bit of painful fantasy, and one of the better illustrations of childhood fear and anxiety ever put to movie screens. The soundtrack, by Karen O and the Kids, heightens the magical realism of Jonze’s feature, dealing in simple and resonant melodies that transcend the singsong by O’s vocals, which lend the same agonized lilt to the film’s sparse, simple balladry that she often did to even some of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ most biting work. It’s a perfect marriage of artist and art, a soundscape that supplements and adds onto the already wonderful film to which it’s connected. —Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

77. Boomerang (1990)

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A perfect snapshot into early ’90s R&B, Boomerang’s soundtrack captured the changing of the musical guard, proudly showing the wonders of New Jack swing while previewing the expansive hip hop soul that was to come. Both the film and soundtrack had lasting effect on the industry, essentially launching the careers of Halle Berry and Toni Braxton, while also giving ample exposure to a laundry list of artists who would go on to fill the screen and airwaves of the ‘90s: Martin Lawrence, Boyz II Men, Tisha Campbell, TLC, Chris Rock, A Tribe Called Quest. –Doug Nunnally

76. Pretty In Pink (1986)

pretty in pink The 100 Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time

Pretty in Pink may not always be at the top of anybody’s John Hughes power ranking, but it’s always a consistent top five, a wild tale of young love that stands as one of his outright funnier movies. But perhaps most memorable, at least to some, is the film’s new wave soundtrack, one that made OMD’s “If You Leave” a chart-topping hit and introduced quite a few young Americans to New Order and Echo and the Bunnymen. That’s all to say nothing of the titular Psychedelic Furs track, the kind of song that captures the ’80s in all its poppy excess in the span of just a few short minutes. Also, Duckie had a lot more to offer than Blaine in the long term. No, we haven’t let this go yet. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

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