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RANKED – Movie Soundtrack Albums

Our man in Vegas – Jason Lent – runs down his nominees for the ten greatest soundtrack albums of all time. RPM editor Jeff Nolan provides the rebuttal. Enjoy…

And the Academy Award for Best Soundtrack goes to….wait, where’s the envelope?! The movie soundtrack as musical artifact has always fascinated me. As a music nerd, it’s rare that I’m not thinking of a song that fits whatever situation I happen to find myself in.

So, when a film you’ve totally lost yourself in for a few hours queues up the perfect song to capture the experience of the characters, there’s always a little flicker of excitement. For example, when Natural Born Killers paired Cowboy Junkies’ “Sweet Jane” with the adventures of Mickey and Mallory, everything felt in tune.

Trying to narrow down the best movie soundtracks to a list of ten proved to be a daunting task and one that demanded certain ground rules. First, none of The Beatles soundtracks were considered for the same reason there’s no point in debating who the most influential rock-n-roll band will always be.

Second, I didn’t listen to any albums consisting of a single artist; as my attraction to the soundtrack has always been the eclectic mix of tracks in a well-curated example. That means no Purple Rain, undoubtedly the most significant soundtrack of my lifetime and exhibit “A” when reviewing the genius of Prince. I also only looked at soundtracks that pulled from popular music because, well, I love rock and pop. Those were my ground rules and these are the ten soundtracks that made this installment of Ranked.

They are:

  1. Garden State (2004)

A soundtrack that helped usher in the alt-indie revival on the early 2000s, The Shins and others evoke a slow falling rain shared by friends who are a little too old to remain college hipsters. Former Men At Work singer Colin Hay might not ring a bell for many fans of Coldplay but the two sit well side by side giving this soundtrack a flow that is hard to maintain when the songs stretch across generations. Iron & Wine steal the album by stripping away the electronics and getting to the heart of Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” but this soundtrack is best appreciated as an entire album.


9. Vision Quest (1985)

The prototypical ’80s soundtrack (a bit of a total mess) but it still makes this list because two of Madonna’s best songs ever were only available on this soundtrack. “Gambler” and “Crazy For You” are better than anything on Like A Virgin. Elsewhere, you get generic AOR cuts from Journey and Sammy Hagar bumping into the R&B of Style Council and a decent metal cut from Dio. None of it works together but that might be the point. These soundtracks were a dime a dozen in the 80’s but leave it to Madonna to make this one something special.


8. 24 Hour Party People (2005)

Tracing the evolution of music in England from punk (The Clash and Buzzcocks) to the Madchester dance scene (Happy Mondays), this soundtrack gets every track just right starting with Sex Pistols “Anarchy In the U.K.” and includes all the obvious, but crucial, Joy Division tracks that make them so influential on today’s musical landscape. For the more casual post-punk fan, the deeper cuts (from Durutti Column and 808 State) help to fill in the rest of the Factory Records story in Manchester. The Moby and New Order collaboration on Joy Division’s “New Dawn Fades” comes up short but the intentions are good even if I’ll never listen to it again. One of the only soundtracks that trace an evolving music scene in such a linear fashion, 24 Hour Party People could have been so much more had Morrissey and The Smiths not pulled their music from the soundtrack.


7. Marie Antoinette (2006)

Sofia Coppola’s flair for directing and taste in music more than makes up for her unforgivable turn in The Godfather Part III. Here, she digs deeper into the post-punk cupboard for bands like Gang Of Four and Bow Wow Wow and then mixes them into a playlist of 18th century baroque pieces. Artists like Adam and the Ants were liberally pulling from the Romantic period for their “New Romantic” aesthetic, so this unusual pairing of post-punk and classical pieces feeds off each other exquisitely. Like John Hughes owned the 1980s, Coppola’s soundtracks are defining the 2000s.


6. Clueless (1995)

Much like the film, the soundtrack has more depth than expected. Always a sucker for a good cover (I bought the Barb Wire soundtrack just to hear this Cameo cover), this album hooked me instantly with The Muffs cheesing up Kim Wilde’s “Kids In America” and World Party adding some ’90s apathy to Bowie’s “All The Young Dudes”. Radiohead’s acoustic version of “Fake Plastic Trees” remains one of my favorite recordings they have done. Velocity Girls add some shoe-gazing goodness, Coolio gets the party bumping, and Jill Sobule takes you back to a decade when female songwriters ruled the world. Unlike Singles, this sprawling soundtrack covers all the alternative bases for the ’90s. Pair this with the television soundtrack (remember that craze?) for Melrose Place (inexplicably solid with Aimee Mann, Letters To Cleo, Urge Overkill and James contributing gems) and you have a good overview of alternative music as a moment in popular culture.


5. Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Growing up in the 1980s, disco was viewed with a little suspicion. The craze had died off before MTV and we were told it was incredibly lame, but Frankie Goes To Hollywood sounded and acted a bit like a Friday night at Studio 54. So when my parents went out dancing, I would put on “A Fifth of Beethoven” and shake my groove thing. The Bee Gees dominate this soundtrack and deservedly so. From disco burners to heartfelt ballads, the band reaches their artistic zenith on this soundtrack. These days, disco has finally received the respect it deserves as bedroom wannabes with Garageband churn out electronic dance songs that attempt to recreate the excitement of the era. However, no amount of loops can match K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s live power. Leave it to Coldplay to make disco hip again with their Glastonbury performance beside Barry Gibb. While most soundtracks capture a taste of a certain period, this soundtrack defines it.


4. FM (1978)

One of the best AOR compilations ever assembled with hits from Queen, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, Boston, and the Eagles. However, the soundtrack’s best moments are nestled between those radio staples. Linda Ronstadt’s live version of “Tumbling Dice” does justice to the Jagger/Richards classic and “Livingston Saturday Night” by Jimmy Buffett captures him just before he traded in bar room gigs for palm trees and margaritas. This soundtrack belongs in the cassette deck of a 1979 Camaro blasting through some blown speakers. Even then, it would still rock hard.


3. Until The End Of the World (1991)

Musically, I might have this ranked too low after further listening. When bands contribute non-album tracks to a soundtrack, there is usually an obvious reason why it didn’t quite make their own record. Here, Depeche Mode and R.E.M. both add stunning songs that fit the mood of this seemingly forgotten but fascinating Wim Wenders film. Talking Heads cut “Sax And Violins” might have marked the end of the road for the band but they go out in style here. “The Adversary” by Crime & the City Solution sounds like Leonard Cohen fronting the Bad Seeds. Shortly after that, Nick Cave arrives on the scene with the Bad Seeds sounding like an anguished preacher for lost souls (doesn’t he always?). Slow burning “Calling All Angels” by Jane Siberry pulls at the heart in a way that Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” could never manage.


2. Lost In Translation (2003)

The dreamlike state of this all-too-perfect film owes much to the music on the soundtrack. Kevin Shields is at the helm for several tracks that paint the mood of the delicate film with brushstrokes of distortion which wrap themselves around the listener like tendrils of fog. Two of the masterworks of the shoe-gaze genre (“Sometimes” by Shields’ My Bloody Valentine and “Just Like Honey” from Jesus & Mary Chain) anchor the soundtrack but they are in good company. The slow burning “Girls” by Death In Vegas and the Asian tint of “Alone In Kyoto” by Air recall some of the most memorable scenes in the film where the music replaces dialogue. Simply beautiful.


1. Pretty In Pink (1986)

My wife calls me a 14 year old girl every time I lose myself in the hopeless romantic quest of Duckie. John Hughes proved himself a master of not only the ’80s teen angst genre, but also a tasteful curator of music. On this album, he delivers the perfect mix tape; starting with OMD’s melancholic anthem “If You Leave” before working its way through the pantheon of New Wave giants. Suzanne Vega’s “Left Of Center” captures the outsider status of the lead characters, while INXS and New Order contribute worthy tracks. Echo & the Bunnymen add one of their most memorable songs (“Bring On the Dancing Horses”), while the Psychedelic Furs shiny up the title song with a radio-friendly version that still sounds as raw as a teenage heart two weeks before prom. This flawless soundtrack ends, appropriately, with the gentle pleading of The Smiths as Morrissey gives voice to Duckie’s emotions. Like the film, the soundtrack still evokes the hopeful uncertainty of an entire decade using the bands that meant everything to us at the time.



Jason, I applaud your well-written and heavily-researched list. It tells me a lot about you. You, sir, are a sensitive and thoughtful man who apparently loves sensitive and thoughtful music. Well done.

I on the other hand prefer stuff that rocks, so here’s a ranking of the ACTUAL best soundtracks of all time using your same criteria. I’m starting with number one because why screw around, dig? They are:


1. Dead Presidents (1995)

This is a simply stunning compilation of some of the greatest oldschool funk, soul and R&B ever recorded. Listening to the Dead Presidents soundtrack is like digging through Grandmaster Flash’s record collection in the late ‘70s. James Brown, Sly Stone, The O’Jays… it’s a badass record from top to bottom. The song that anchors the film is “Get Up and Get Down” by the Dramatics. Tell me this isn’t evocative as hell:


2. Trainspotting (1996)

A genre-defining soundtrack for a genre-defining film. Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Blur, New Order… forget it. I probably should have made this one #1. There are so many great songs on this album, but the two jams most identified with the soundtrack are “Born Slippy” by Underworld and, of course, “Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop. It’s worth a million in prizes…


3. Wild Style (1983)

Nothing on the screen captures the feel and the excitement of the early hip hop scene better than Wild Style. It’s a low-budget masterpiece and window into a time when a brand-new art form was being created and perfected. Emcees are rockin’ the party and celebrating the DJ. This is a time before crack cast a shadow over the entirety of the city scene – the hip hop of Wild Style is still full of promise and positivity. It’s freakin’ awesome.


4. Easy Rider (1969)

This film perfectly captures the darkness that crept into the hippie scene as the Summer of Love was giving way to the paranoid ‘70s. It’s easy to forget how truly dark this movie is – and the soundtrack personifies its manic energy. The Band, The Byrds, Hendrix… The Easy Rider soundtrack is like a mixtape made for you by your blacksheep uncle (the one who sells you weed). Of course, the definitive musical moment in this film is Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild”:


5. American Graffiti (1973)

If you take out all the treacle from the Happy Days TV show and replace it with a bit more sex and realism, you’ve got George Lucas’s first major motion picture – American Graffiti. This film singlehandedly kickstarted the ‘50s nostalgia craze of the 1970s and its soundtrack is like an encyclopedia of early rock ‘n’ roll. Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Bill Haley are all featured, but it’s the lesser-known groups like The Diamonds, The Silhouettes and the Del Vikings that really give American Graffiti its retro mojo. The music in the film is delivered in-context through the characters’ car radios; which makes it even more awesome. It’s George Lucas’s best movie – even better than those Star Trek movies he made.


6. Heavy Metal (1983)

This bizarro animated fantasy film is like a 14-year-old’s fever dream – lots of boobs, lots of swords… you get the idea. It does, however, have an absolutely KICKASS soundtrack. Cheap Trick, Hagar, Blue Öyster Cult, Journey and Devo all make appearances, but it’s the mighty Black Sabbath (with the equally mighty Ronnie James Dio up front) who dominate with an alternate version of “Mob Rules”. It’s classic midnight movie stuff.


7. Dazed and Confused  (1993)

Jason mentioned that the FM soundtrack is the perfect match for riding around in a 1979 Camaro with blown speakers. Nope. The Dazed and Confused soundtrack is, in fact, the one you’re looking for in that extremely specific set of circumstances. Alright, alright, alright…


8. Pulp Fiction (1994)

It’s got “Misirlou”, “Let’s Stay Together” and “Jungle Boogie” on the same album. It makes the cut for sure.


9. Tank Girl  (1995)

Terrible movie, great soundtrack. Devo, Portishead, Scott Weiland and the very first release of Björk’s “Army of Me”. It even features Paul Westerberg and Joan Jett duetting on a Cole Porter classic. This is a great example of a kickass album being wasted on a lame film. Whoever wrote that “Mockingbird Girl” song with Weiland is clearly a handsome genius.


10. Singles (1992)

It blew the doors open for the grunge takeover of the early ‘90s. Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees… they’re all here.

So what have we learned here? I think it’s worth noting that of the 20 soundtrack albums Jason and I chose, a full 40% were released in the ’90s. That surprised me. Like Jason, I tend to equate the soundtrack album with the 1980s, but apparently the ’90s were a sort of soundtrack golden age. Who woulda thunk it?


  1. Earl Douglas says:


    How can you have a soundtrack list and not have the following:

    Shaft – Issac Hayes’ Academy Award winning song and score turned Gordon Parks’ city superhero tale THE definitive theme song.

    Superfly – Curtis Mayfield thought this 1972 blaxploitation flick was a ‘cocaine commercial ‘ so he composed an album long suite that showed the other other – and its many casualties – in the drug game.

    Purple Rain – From the opening line to ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ (Dearly beloved…we are gathered here together to get through this thing called life) to its anthemic title track, Prince didn’t just put together the perfect soundtrack, he comes close to making the perfect album.

    Judgement Night – Ok, this movie came and went literally in a week, but the soundtrack – which pairs up hip hop acts with grunge/alternative bands was seismic. The Slayer/Ice-T, RUN DMC/Living Colour and Cypress Hill jamming with Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam are worth seeking this out all by itself.

    Claudine – Gladys Knight & The Pips sings the songs of Curtis Mayfield – all of whom are at their peak of their creative powers. ‘On & On’ still shakes up the dance floor and ‘Hold On’ will reduce you to mist.

    Love Jones – This 1997 soundtrack wonderfully captures the resurgence of spoken word and soul music (foolishlessly in my opinion, dubbed ‘neo soul’. Features at the height of their powers songs by Lauryn Hill (‘The Sweetest Thing’) and Dionne Farris (‘Hopeless’) and a killer collaboration between Marcus Miler and Meshell Ndegeocello (‘Rush Over’).

    Car Wash – The 1976 soundtrack put Rose Royce on the map and cemented Norman Whitfield’s status as a legendary producer. ‘I Wanna Get Next To You’, ‘I’m Going Down’ and the title track are just as iconic.

    The Blues Brothers – The soundtrack to the wild 1980 John Landis film is a musical love letter to the blues and R&B. In addition to The Blues Brothers band muscling their way through songs by Taj Mahal, Solomon Burke, Elvis and even the theme to ‘Rawhide’, there’s also killer appearances by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Cab Calloway. If there were on a mission from God, then it was mission accomplished.

    Tougher Than Leather – OK, the film came and went, but the music on its accompanying soundtrack featured some of the group’s best work. The one-two punch of ‘Run’s House’ and ‘Mary, Mary’ alone makes it memorable. Jam Master Jay’s turntable skills are on fire with ‘Beats To The Rhyme’. A worthy follow up to the group’s monster hit album, Raising Hell

    Come Back Charleston Blue – For the sequel to the successful film Cotton Comes To Harlem, producers were hoping to land Quincy Jones to do the soundtrack. Jones’ production plate was already loaded, but he suggested that Donny Hathaway, who had a couple of critically acclaimed solo albums under his belt, do it instead. Hathaway, who was in his creative peak, more than delivers, composing, producing, performing and for the more complex pieces, conducting all of the music. Its a touchstone work by an underrated genius.

    1. Guillaume Lafon says:

      Booom, Judgment Night !

  2. joe lester says:

    Agree with Earl and Jeff. Need to shoehorn Repo Man in there somewhere. Shitty music for shitty people.

  3. Guillaume Lafon says:

    Love this article !

    But sorry y’all, you forgot the best one… What about The Lost Boys (1987) ?
    The incredible Jimmy Barnes/Michael Hutchence duet on “Good Times”, Lou Gramm making “Lost In The Shadows” the first (and only?) true rock n’ roll horror anthem, Echo & The Bunnymen vampirising “People Are Strange” and of course, Tim Cappello with “I Still Believe”, just because of the sax solo… On that note, I’m gonna watch it again ! 😉

  4. Dave H. Isemoto says:

    Agreed with a few from Jason, Jeff and Earl …my additions would be . …Over The Edge, Natural Born Killers, Lost Highway, Grosse Point Blank 2 and Heat!! Thank you for a great lil conversation piece of an article!

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