Great movie soundtracks act like an additional actor in the movie. More than setting, more than costume, more than clever editing in the studio, music is the final dimension that conveys emotion, place and character, sometimes without even having to say a single word.
These compilation albums are the best of their kind, and their accompanying movies would have been lost without them. So grab your headphones, sit back and enjoy the tunes—they’re some of the greatest of all time.
Garden State (2004)
Zach Braff’s directorial debut has influenced an entire generation of movies, and it’s in a large part thanks to its one-of-a-kind soundtrack. With songs from Nick Drake, The Shins, Coldplay, Simon & Garfunkel, Iron & Wine, and Bonnie Somerville, it’s the perfect foil to the antagonist Andrew Largeman’s preoccupation with doubting mood-changing drugs.
While Garden State isn’t everyone’s idea of a good movie, its soundtrack escapes the bad reviews by delivering a fully realized opus on the popularity of good emo rock of the time. The music influenced a whole generation of listeners and movies—Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, anyone? Besides, who didn’t feel Largeman’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” moment?
O Brother Where Art Thou (2000)
This Coen brothers’ film starring George Clooney, John Goodman, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson is one of the best made films of all time, and its soundtrack is equally epic, framing the life and times of escaped convicts in Depression-era Mississippi.
Produced by T-Bone Burnett, the movie is illustrated beautifully through its music by including tunes of Americana and bluegrass and the unique, folksy voices of Diana Krauss, Emmy Lou Harris and Gillian Welch. While it seemed unlikely the American public would fall so hard for the soulful country style of the movie, it became an instant hit after release and rightly deserves its place in soundtrack fame, even if you judge it on this scene alone.
The Lord of the Rings (1999)
No sweeping fantasy epic is complete without a score to match its fanciful world, and no trilogy did a better job at capturing the imagination than The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson’s award-winning trilogy dominated the industry at every level—set design, makeup, costume, acting—which is exactly why the music was so strong as well.
Howard Shore’s film score includes over 10 hours of music and has become the most popular of the composer’s works and certainly defined his career. With influences from English folk to New Zealand Moira sounds, the strong woodwinds and percussion outlined the tone of each of the three movies. The inclusion of nonorchestral instruments such as fiddles and Celtic harps gave it that much-loved individuality. If you haven’t started humming notes from the score after reading this paragraph, I suggest it’s time for another watch. The movie is currently streaming on American Netflix.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s remake of the “Carnival of Animals” theme for Beauty and the Beast not only earned unanimous praise for songwriting and scoring, but the movie landed a coveted place in the Academy Award for Best Picture category, making it the first animation motion picture ever to receive a nomination.
Music from the film went on to win multiple Grammys, Golden Globes, BAFTAs and also two Academy Awards for best original song and best original soundtrack. More than just being critically acclaimed, the music found a place in our hearts, which is probably why the Broadway rendition went on to be such a hit. The live-action reboot starring Emma Watson and Ewan McGregor will be in theaters in 2017.
Marie Antoinette (2006)
How do you make a notoriously spoiled queen real to her audience? You add Converses, endless confectionary colors, and eighties pop punk. Sofia Coppola’s visual orgasm of a movie may not have been well received by critics or the most historically accurate, but to deny that New Order’s “Ceremony” didn’t breathe beautiful life into a character that has long been vilified by the world is just a flat-out lie.
With bands like Bow Wow Wow, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Gang of Four, Marie Antoinette stole the zeitgeist of culture-defining pop punk, bringing Coppola’s heroine into the 21st century. The cleverly mixed, period-perfect odes from Dustin O’Halloran make it a soundtrack masterpiece. Not a believer? Check it out here.
The Graduate (1967)
No movie was ever better defined by one sound than The Graduate and the talented duo Simon and Garfunkel. Without the crucial editing process, it would’ve been a pair that was never to be.
While on the chopping block floor, director Mike Nichols and editor Sam O’Steen couldn’t get the folksy tunes of Sound of Silence out of their heads. After they decided it was crucial to the tone of the tale, S&G got on board to complete the rest of the album, which is how “Mrs. Robinson” and the movie that defined a generation came to be. Evoking the lost generation’s lack of complicity with the confines of social life during the 1970s, it is perhaps one of the most iconic film and sound pairings of all time.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
A classic movie is so much more enjoyable when it’s got a perfectly matched score, and when it comes to Tarantino, he leaves no detail left unnoticed. From Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” to Kool & the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” the music selection is top-of-the-line and perfectly balanced in the Tarantino world.
With classics spanning genres from surf to rock and roll, the movie’s dark humor and regular violence are at times smoothed by the pristine music selection and always perfectly paired. I mean, could you imagine the movie without the almost forgotten classic “Misirlou” by Dick Dale & His Del-Tones before the Black Eyed Peas covered it? Yeah, me neither.
As good as these soundtracks are in the movies, I have to make the case that they stand alone for listen-only sessions as well, which makes them not just great soundtracks but great musical playlists in their own right. Don’t agree that these are the best there is? Leave your favorites in the comments below.
About the author
Caroline Black is a music and movie aficionado, always happy to talk about her favorite scenes and favorite tunes. She’s a fan of Netflix bingeing and is always on the lookout for the next greatest film and musical hit.
25 thoughts on “The Best Movie Soundtracks of All Time”
I wasn’t a fan of Garden State, but I can’t deny the soundtrack was great. Marie Antoinette and The Graduate would not be what they are without their lovely soundtracks, as well as Pulp Fiction, though I am not really familiar with Tarantino’s music taste.
I agree, Garden State itself it’s for everyone but the soundtrack is brilliant!
I think that my favourite would have to be Donnie Darko; incredible songs and hauntingly beautiful original music.
Also love Frank, Under the Skin and of course, O Brother Where Art Thou?!
Donnie Darko is a great pick. I could have made this list go on forever, there are a lot to choose from.
This is a fantastic list. The Pulp Fiction Soundtrack is definitely the best on this list! I really like the score from Gladiator. And Ennio Morricone’s score in Cinema Paradiso!
Glad you liked it 🙂 The Pulp Fiction never gets old, I have lost count of how many times I’ve seen it.
I agree with Pulp Fiction, Marie Antoinette, and Garden State are great soundtracks because you can picture the movie while listening to the songs. Lord of The Rings is good but I know Howard Shore from his works he does with David Cronenberg (The Fly, Videodrome) and the Tim Burton picture Ed Wood
I haven’t seen Ed Wood. I’ll be sure to check that out!
“Great movie soundtracks act like an additional actor in the movie.” You got that right! That’s why I’m so excited to interview a composer of a film I’ve been obsessing about. I LOVE Beauty & The Beast and LOTR, great picks!
Great suggestions all. There are basically two choices for soundtracks – original or previously recorded music that fits the picture. With originals, Shore’s score for Lord of the Rings is an excellent choice. I’ll agree with filmsCine: Morricone’s score for Cinema Paridiso is heavenly, and I’d also suggest his score for The Mission. Tarantino is wonderful at pulling songs as well as themes from other movies and reusing them – think of Darryl Hannah whistling Bernard Hermann’s theme for “Twisted Nerve” in Kill Bill Vol 1. If only for its evocation of the decades it covers, I’d suggest the songs chosen for Forest Gump as an evocative use of pre-recorded music.
Beauty and the Beast is wonderful… a nice change of pace when you consider the disco hits of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Love the use of Mrs Robinson in The Graduate.
When I saw the gif of Mia strumming her air guitar I instantly hummed the melody “bwam bwam bwam bwam” with her! Its simply too iconic. Great list too
I hated Garden State but the soundtrack was amazing. It was the best part of the movie. I love that you went with Pulp Fiction and Return of the King too.
I think Juno, Thirteen, and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist both wonderful soundtracks as well. Great post!
Garden State is so hipster and pretentious, but that soundtrack was on repeat for me in high school!
Hahaha, yeah it definitely had shades of hipster about it!
Interesting post. Somehow I still haven’t seen O Brother, it is my only Coen blindspot. Interesting you put that movie and not Inside Llewlyn Davis, have you seen that? The folk soundtrack is incredible, apprently they printed it on vinyl.
I also thought the Grand Budapest Hotel soundtrack by Desplat was great, as was Whiplash, and -especially- Under The Skin
Undoubtedly yes to Lord of the Rings and Beauty and the Beast! Love those especially. As far as original scores, I did my own list of favorites a while back, but I adore the music to Pirates of the Caribbean, Castle in the Sky, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, The Piano, Treasure Planet, and How to Train Your Dragon.
For soundtracks of non-original songs, I love the choice of tracks in Forrest Gump and Elizabethtown and of course Almost Famous (as you referenced above). Marvelous musical post!
I have seen Elizabethtown but I don’t really remember it. It’s going on my list to check it out again this weekend…
It’s one of my favorite films. Hope you enjoy it!
Great post with wonderful music! My absolute favourite soundtrack is from The Last of the Mohicans. It is just stunning.
Strange, I didn’t see Purple Rain on this list. I must have missed it.
Anything by Tarantino is usually pretty amazing. And Lord of the Rings has some of the most exceptional music ever.
This is a great list. A couple of favorites of mine would be: Drive and High Fidelity. Tarantino’s Death Proof also has a pretty cool soundtrack.
Intriguing list! My most recent favorite soundtrack/score is easily Sicario. What’s yours?
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