Nothing adds emotion and atmosphere to a movie like a good soundtrack. While a bad soundtrack is forgettable a quality soundtrack can seamlessly enhance the drama, fun and emotion on screen without distracting the audience.
Out of all those soundtracks, there are a few that sound amazing even outside of the context of their original movies. They go on to win awards and influence the culture for years to come. These are the most iconic movie soundtracks of all time.
Top Gun (1986)
In 1986, the world took a ride into the danger zone when Tony Scott’s aerial adventure featuring Tom Cruise became an instant success. The music from the motion picture is perhaps more iconic than the film itself.
The album sat on the top of the Billboard charts for five consecutive weeks upon its release. The Kansas City BBQ in downtown San Diego where many many scenes were filmed still struggles to go a day without hearing the Righteous Brothers sing You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling on the jukebox.
The Bodyguard (1992)
The Bodyguard is the best-selling soundtrack album of all time. It sold over 45 million copies worldwide, including one million over one week. The Recording Industry Association of America certified the record Platinum 18 times over in 2017. It’s also the 15th best-selling record of all time in the United States.
Whitney Houston both starred and performed in the drama alongside Kevin Costner, and her cover of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You sat on top of the charts for weeks.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was a relatively obscure title co-written and directed by Edgar Wright. Based on a graphic novel, the film follows a bass guitarist forced to battle his new girlfriend’s deadly ex-boyfriends. It does not disappoint as a video game/comic book movie, and the music follows suit.
The album features The Rolling Stones, Beck, Metric and a couple of fictional bands from the film. The soundtrack peaked at No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard soundtrack charts. James McMahon from The Guardian praised it, saying “…the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack raises the bar for movie music.”
Baby Driver (2017)
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World wasn’t the only Edgar Wright movie to have a great soundtrack. Baby Driver was about a getaway driver who listens to music on the job, and it made the most of the opportunity to place its soundtrack front and center. The movie title is even based on a Simon and Garfunkel song.
The soundtrack itself spans generations, from Queen to Run the Jewels. The album received Best Soundtrack at the 23rd Empire Awards. However, it also caused some controversy. Rolan Feld, son of vocalist Marc Bolan of T. Rex fame, sued and settled with Sony Pictures for using a song without permission.
No younger brother in the world was safe when this record was on. The soundtrack to Grease sold around 22 million copies, which makes it not only one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time, but any kind of album.
You’re the One That I Want featuring the film’s stars, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, topped charts in the United Kingdom and the United States. The title track, written by Barry Gibb and performed by Frankie Vallie, also reached No. 1.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Unlike most films, the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? was conceived before filming. The music is a crucial aspect of the story. And T-Bone Burnett designed the perfect collection of music for the film’s setting in the South during the Great Depression. It features a mix of bluegrass, gospel, country, blues, and folk music.
The soundtrack earned Grammy Awards for Album of the Year, Best Country Collaboration with Vocals, and Best Male Country Vocal Performance in 2002. It is also the first soundtrack to win Album of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards.
Any film about drugs should include a song from Iggy Pop. Fortunately, the Trainspotting soundtrack has two. The film and soundtrack both became instant successes with a rabid cult following. The album was so popular in 1996 that filmmakers released a second edition over a year later. The second album contained songs in the movie as well as tracks that inspired the film.
Vanity Fair ranked the album as the seventh-best movie soundtrack in history, while Entertainment Weekly placed it at No. 18 on its top 100 film soundtrack list. Rolling Stone listed it as No. 13 on a list of the 25 greatest soundtracks of all time.
Black Panther (2018)
Creating the soundtrack for the first black superhero film set in Africa required care and thorough research. Black Panther director Ryan Coogler turned to his long-time collaborator Ludwig Göransson for the score and Kendrick Lamar for original songs. Göransson even traveled to Africa to experience traditional African music for many thematic elements.
He was given accolades for his unique approach to creating music for a Marvel movie. His work paid off, as the score received both a Grammy and an Academy Award. King’s Dead from Kendrick Lamar also earned a Grammy.
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Like many Robin Williams movies, Good Morning, Vietnam was a perfect blend of comedy and tragedy. Set during the Vietnam War, the film follows Adrian Cronauer, played by Williams, after he is assigned to a post as a radio DJ. The song selection for the soundtrack perfectly encompassed the war-ravished 1960s.
Soundtrack featured songs like What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong and Nowhere to Run by Martha and the Vandellas as well as some of the on-air routines by Williams, making it a double-threat. Any fan of Robin Williams or music in general is likely to appreciate this album.
The Lion King (1994)
Disney couldn’t go wrong when they tapped Elton John and Tim Rice to write original music for The Lion King. Disney brought in veteran composer Hans Zimmer to create the musical score, and performers from Cheech Marin to Jeremy Irons contributed to this beautiful masterpiece of a soundtrack album.
Overall, the Lion King soundtrack album is the best-selling soundtrack to an animated feature. It’s certified Diamond by the RIAA, with 10,000,000 copies sold in the United States and won two Academy Awards and six Grammy Awards.
8 Mile (2002)
A movie loosely based on the life of Eminem that also stars Marshall Mathers is sure to have an impressive soundtrack, and 8 Mile didn’t disappoint. Over 700,000 copies of the soundtrack moved off of the shelves during its first week, with nearly 510,000 copies going home to satisfied customers in its second
What was the fifth best-selling U.S. album in 2002 also became a certified quadruple platinum record. The Academy Award for Lose Yourself as Best Original Song was just icing on the cake.
Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s approach to Joker was unique. Director Todd Phillips asked Guðnadóttir to write compositions based on her feelings about the main character, Arthur Fleck, after reading the script. She ended up designing the entire score around her perception of the Joker’s psyche.
Phillips played the music for Joaquin Phoenix, who used it as inspiration for his awkward and melancholy dance moves in the film. Guðnadóttir received a well-deserved Oscar for Best Original Score.
Dirty Dancing (1987)
Not only is the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing one of the best of all time, but it’s also one of the best-selling albums of all time. The record spent nearly 18 weeks on top of the Billboard 200 album chart before becoming a certified 11x Platinum record in the United States. Its commercial success soon extended across the globe.
The enormous popularity of the record led to a follow-up entitled More Dirty Dancing in 1988. Eventually, RCA Records saw dollar signs and released Ultimate Dirty Dancing in 2003, which includes every song in the movie as it appears.
The 1992 Disney musical Newsies, based on the Newsboys’ Strike of 1899, was a box office flop, making it an unusual choice for this list. It took a home video release for the film to develop a cult following, but even that wouldn’t be enough to earn it a spot as one of the most iconic soundtracks of all time.
What changed was that the movie was adapted into a Broadway musical with many of the same songs. It was nominated for eight Tony Awards and won two, including one for Best Original Score that went to Alan Menken, who wrote 12 of the original songs for the movie.
Before Kenny Loggins was writing classics for Top Gun, he was responsible for one of the most memorable tracks in movie soundtrack history. It’s the perfect soundtrack for when you have to cut loose.
In addition to Loggins’ title track and I’m Free (Heaven Helps the Man), the album also included Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out for a Hero. Break some rules and dance the night away while listening to an album certified Platinum nine times over by the RIAA.
Across the Universe (2007)
Across the Universe reimagined a collection of Beatles classic songs into a visually-stunning motion picture. With renditions of Let It Be and Hey Jude, the soundtrack features a range of moving covers by the film’s performers. It’s an ideal addition to the music collection of any Beatle-maniac.
In addition to the film’s cast, guest appearances by Joe Cocker, Bono and Eddie Izzard round out the soundtrack. The film itself features a plethora of Beatles references, but the pure genius of the soundtrack is the lyrical connection to the storyline.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick produced a masterpiece with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not only are his shots pure, cinematic magic, but the music perfectly encapsulates what being in space might feel like. Much of the film is nonverbal, so Kubrick relied on the soundtrack at times to build his narrative.
The movie helped 1866’s Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss found new audiences, while Alex North’s version of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra was reimagined for a younger crowd. The song cannot get played without a mention of the film.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
One of the best parts of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is the occasional interruption of fictitious radio show “K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies Weekend.” The decision to include clips from the DJ and the film’s actors on the album only further immerse listeners, with monotone comedian Steven Wright’s deadpan delivery making the soundtrack humorous as well as good listening.
The Reservoir Dogs soundtrack was certified Gold in Canada while going Platinum in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. The filmmaker’s first feature film set the standard for future Tarantino movies — and soundtracks.
Saturday Night Fever (1977)
John Travolta was part of another best-selling soundtrack one year earlier with Saturday Night Fever. The disco drama is the second-best-selling soundtrack of all time, as well as one of the best-selling albums in history. With 40 million two-disc copies sold worldwide, it’s also been certified 16x Platinum in the United States.
Saturday Night Fever demonstrated its staying power by remaining on top of the charts for 24 straight weeks in 1978. Despite popular belief, the Bee Gees did not get involved with the film until post-production.
Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
The soundtrack to the Rocky Horror Picture Show, along with the movie itself, was not successful upon its initial release. The album was removed from shelves across the world until renewed interest in the film in 1976 created new demand for it.
Three years after its release, the record reached No. 49 on the Billboard 200 in 1978. Following the airing of the Glee episode “Rocky Horror Glee Show,” it returned to the charts at No. 55. Midnight showings of the movie continue to be an honored tradition in many major cities.
Almost Famous (2000)
Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous is a semi-autobiographical film about a music journalist who follows an up-and-coming band on tour. As a writer for Rolling Stone, he covers the likes of the Allman Brothers Band, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The soundtrack provides just as much entertainment as the film itself.
The album won a 2001 Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media. Elton John’s song Tiny Dancer was never released as an individual single, yet it was certified Platinum for a third time in 2019 thanks to the movie.
Garden State (2004)
Zach Braff made his writing and directorial debut with the 2004 film Garden State. He also took responsibility for compiling the soundtrack. In an interview with IGN, Braff explained, “Essentially, I made a mix CD with all of the music that I felt was scoring my life at the time I was writing the screenplay.”
However, the indie film operated on a limited budget, which made it difficult to pay for all the songs Braff wanted. To get them, he submitted a copy of the script with each request. Braff earned a Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack for his efforts.
The easiest way to feel like a wise guy in the Gambino crime family is to purchase and listen to the Goodfellas soundtrack. This film that sits on the AFI Top 100 Films list also has an outstanding soundtrack.
The record is a mesmerizing mix of music from Tony Bennett, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Darin, Cream and more. Some songs are integrated into the script of the movies itself, while others were added in post-production. However, all of them capture the mood of the movie even as they stand well on their own.
Purple Rain (1984)
The soundtrack to the film Purple Rain was also the sixth studio album by Prince and the first in which his band was dubbed “The Revolution.” The use of synthesizers makes it the most pop-heavy album of the artist’s career.
It was Prince’s first album to reach the Billboard 200, and it stayed on the list for 122 weeks. Purple Rain was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and added to the Library of Congress.
The Big Chill (1983)
The Big Chill includes a dream cast, including Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum and Kevin Kline. The comedy drama centered around a group of baby boomers who reunited following the death of their friend Alex. Filmmakers geared the soundtrack towards boomers, with a line-up featuring Creedence Clearwater Revival, Aretha Franklin, The Temptations and The Rolling Stones.
The soundtrack charted on the Billboard 200 in 1983, and its popularity even led to the release of a second album. By 1999, the original was certified 6x Platinum by the RIAA.
Star Wars (1977-Present)
No top soundtrack list would be complete without work from the great John Williams. The composer is responsible for the music in some of the most critically-acclaimed movies in film history. Over his career, he has won 25 Grammys, five Academy Awards, four Golden Globes and five Oscars
For perspective, he’s behind the music of eight of the top 25 highest-grossing films of all time. However, the movie soundtrack that stands out the most in his career is undeniably the Star Wars series. In 2005, the American Film Institute chose the music from Star Wars as the greatest movie score of all time.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Few songs set the stage for a movie better than Dick Dale’s Misirlou during the opening credits of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Tarantino chose mostly surf rock tracks because “it just seems like rock ‘n’ roll Ennio Morricone music, rock ‘n’ roll spaghetti Western music.” He didn’t use a traditional film score in the entire film.
The album reached No. 21 on the Billboard 200. The cover of Neil Diamon’s Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon even reached No. 59 on the Billboard Hot 100 list. The iconic soundtrack is certified 3x Platinum in the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe.
Forrest Gump (1994)
Forrest Gump is not only the tale of a simple-minded boy from Alabama, but also the story of American rock music, and its soundtrack reflects that. The two-disc collection covers hits from the 1950s through the 1980s in chronological order. It perfectly encapsulates how rock ‘n’ roll evolved with the times.
The soundtrack wound up in the No. 2 spot on the Billboard 200 in 1994 and was certified 12x Platinum by the RIAA. While John Lennon appeared with Forrest in the movie and his song Imagine was mentioned, none of his music appears in the film.
American Graffiti (1973)
41 Original Hits from the Soundtrack of American Graffiti is the official title of this George Lucas film’s soundtrack. With so much music packed into the film, not all of the songs could appear on the album. Every song is placed in order as it appears in the film.
American Graffiti features some of the most memorable doo-wop and rock songs from the 1950s and 1960s. Its popularity moved it to No. 10 in the Billboard 200 album chart, and it’s certified 3x Platinum.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)
While this movie trilogy would no doubt me epic even without composer Howard Shore’s famous score, his work — and that of the other musicians who worked with him — truly took the movie to the next level. From the harrowing theme of the Ringwraiths to the cheerful music of the Shire, this soundtrack is truly iconic.
Together, the three Lord of the Rings films won three Academy Awards, two Golden Globes, four Grammy Awards, and a slew of other awards and nominations. It’s also made regular appearances in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame.