A movie soundtrack can be so much. Just think about a particular scene and the importance of the music in it. Think about Mozart’s “Duettino – Sull’aria” from the opera scene in Shawshank Redemption or Patrick Bateman chopping down poor Paul with an axe in American Psycho as Huey Lewis & the News’ “Hip to Be Square” blasts from a hi-fi stereo. I’m sure it gives you chills. Even more impressively, the style of the music and how well it fits into the context can really give the entire movie a soul of its own and not just a scene. There are even cases where you would feel that any other soundtrack would ruin the movie’s character. For this list, we’re picking ten movie-defining soundtracks – and sometimes even genre-defining!
#10. The Sound of Music (1965) – Music by: Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II
Set in Salzburg, Austria 1938, just before the war that would destroy large parts of Europe began, this musical definitely had to live up to its name. Fortunately, it does. Telling the story about a rebellion nun Maria, charmingly portrayed by Julie Andrews, this is a stunning picture of how music can overcome fear, grief, and heartbreak. But if this has been made several times before, few have done it as gracefully and melodic as Rodgers & Hammerstein, and the fact that Ariana Grande sampled “My Favourite Things” for her “7 Rings” shows that the relevance is still there.
Best moment: The opening scene, where Julie Andrews is skipping the Austrian alps while singing the theme song: “The hills are alive // with the sound of music.”
#9. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) – Music by: Ennio Morricone
Ask anyone to hum a signature from the Wild West, and I would be surprised if they would come up with anything but Sergio Leone’s most successful western movie’s characteristic theme song. Set during the American Civil War, we’re following three more or less terrible lawless men in their hunt for a hidden treasure, as Ennio Morricone’s dusty, sweaty, tense, unleashed mix of tingling bells, orchestral classical music, and piercing electric guitars without question makes this the best western movie of all time.
Best moment: The Mexican standoff towards the end.
#8. The Jungle Book (1967) – Music by: George Bruns
Yes, I know that this magazine is supposed to be for adults. But how could I not include a soundtrack where an orangutang shows that you obviously don’t have to be a human to like jazz, where a fruit-eating bear represents the hippie movement with a lovely feel-good tune, and where a couple of vultures turn into folk rockers? The Walt Disney-produced The Jungle Book certainly shows that kids deserve good music too.
Best moment: Louis Prima’s – or should I say King Louis’ – irresistible “I Wanna Be Like You.”
#7. Easy Rider (1969) – Music by: Steppenwolf, the Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, etc.
Dennis Hopper’s cult classic Easy Rider combined the earliest forms of heavy metal (Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild”) and the druggiest forms of psychedelic rock (Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9”) with country leanings (the Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born to Follow”) and folk (Roger McGuinn’s criminally underrated cover of Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleedin’),” giving us a soundtrack that was truly a musical commentary of its era.
Best moment: Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on their two choppers cruising the Californian desert with Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” in the background is iconic.
#6. The Blues Brothers (1980) – Music by: The Blues Brothers, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles
Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s search for their old band members is as stupid as it’s entertaining, but with a setlist like that, it couldn’t go wrong. James Brown is so powerful as a priest that he turns Belushi into a believer, and Aretha Franklin’s performance of “Think” is in many ways more of a feminist statement than “Respect” ever was – even though it doesn’t turn out according to plan.
Best moment: Aretha Franklin as an upset cook.
#5. Pulp Fiction (1994) – Music by: Dick Dale, Al Green, Dusty Springfield, Urge Overkill, etc.
Quentin Tarantino’s commercial breakthrough is so much more than just a gangster flick, and the music is a big part of that. Following four interconnecting stories through different timelines, the advanced storytelling of this Academy Award winner is completed with a soundtrack that involves big names like Al Green, Chuck Berry, and Dusty Springfield in their prime. Still, the dominating genre is surf rock. From the moment Dick Dale & His Del-Tones’ “Misirlou” runs over the title sequence, you know something special is in the making. When the Revels’ “Comanche” is playing over a horrific scene where Bruce Willis is searching for a fitting assassination weapon as his former boss gets raped in a basement, you’re already in shock. And when the ending subtitles Lively Ones’ “Surf Rider,” plays as Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta puts their guns in their pants and leave the diner after the most badass movie ending of all time, you’re convinced that surf rock is also the most badass music genre of all time.
Best moment: The dance scene to “You Never Can Tell” is probably John Travolta’s finest and most unexpected, but as soon you’re hearing surf rock, you’re in for a thrill.
#4. Trainspotting (1996) – Music by: Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, New Order, etc.
This frightening story about a couple of young Scottish lads trying to get rid of their heroin addiction with various successes has the ultimate indie rock soundtrack. Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” is the perfect theme song, encapsulating the movie’s overall message as the main character Renton runs from the cops near the beginning of the movie. Otherwise, we’ve got Brian Eno, Primal Scream, Sleeper (doing a cover of Blondie’s “Atomic”), New Order, Blur, Leftfield, Pulp, and Lou Reed making this a brilliant soundtrack for one of the most important movies of the ‘90s.
Best moment: Renton overdosing while Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” plays.
#3. The Big Lebowski (1998) – Music by: Bob Dylan, Kenny Rogers, the Eagles, etc.
The Coen Brothers wonderful story about a Los Angeles junkie calling himself “the dude” offers a varied but excellent playlist, where his own cassette player offers the kind of stuff a retired hippie and an LSD addict would listen to, paired with the kind of stuff you would imagine being played inside a bowling hall.
Best moment: The Dude being thrown out of a taxi after asking the driver not the play the Eagles.
#2. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) – Music by: Paul Revere & the Raiders, Vanilla Fudge, Neil Diamond, Deep Purple, the Rolling Stones, etc.
It’s impossible to only include one Tarantino soundtrack on a list like this, and his latest movie – about a B-list actor in Hollywood and his stuntman – can almost match Pulp Fiction in terms of coolness. If you have ever played a Grand Theft Auto game, you know what I’m talking about. The radio is constantly playing red-hot pop rock from the mid-‘60s, too forgotten to be considered classics, yet retro as f*ck. Play it loud, especially Mitch Ryder’s “Jenny Take a Ride.”
Best moment: The final shootout as Vanilla Fudge’s heavy-psych cover of the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is playing in the background.
#1. The French Dispatch (2021) – Music by: Alexandre Desplat, Ennio Morricone, Jarvis Cocker, Charles Aznavour, etc.
Wes Anderson’s latest movie – a love letter to journalism – incorporates state-of-art classicism with Ennio Morricone’s intense, ominous choirs, and French ‘60s pop music at its very best. French pop singer Chantal Goya’s mid-‘60s classic “Tu M’as Trop Menti” works perfect to trigger a youth movement, and ex-Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker’s cover of Christophe’s classic “Aline” is passionate and delicious, fitting extraordinary to a movie that could be described with the exact same words.