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(Credit: United Artists)


From 'The Graduate' to 'Submarine': The 10 best single artist soundtracks for films

When it comes to soundtracks, director Quentin Tarantino begins to craft them almost before he moves onto his first page. “One of the things I do when I am starting a movie, when I’m writing a movie, or when I have an idea for a film,” Tarantino writes for the liner notes of his soundtrack compilation, “Is I go through my record collection and just start playing songs, trying to find the personality of the movie, find the spirit of the movie. Then, ‘boom,’ eventually I’ll hit one, two or three songs, or one song in particular, ‘Oh, this will be a great opening credit song.’” 

When onscreen action and the perfect track sync, Tarantino seems understated for once by simply referring to the alchemy as “boom” – the right song at the right moment is almost as good as cinema gets. But the truth is, some movies have such a singular feel that the perfect pop culture track proves elusive simply because it hasn’t been written yet. Enter the single purpose-made for movie solo artist soundtrack—a rare thing indeed, but nearly always magical. 

Perhaps there is something about a visual muse that stirs artists into action or perhaps they simply feel the right form of collaborative pressure and liberation, but more often than not, when a single artist gets behind the wheel of a soundtrack, the songs they offer prove stirring. Below we have collated ten of the greatest to date.

The 10 best single artist soundtracks:

The Virgin Suicides by Air

When Air get mentioned they are often followed by the adjectives dreamy or ethereal, but in truth, there is also a slight visceral realism in the mix, a sort of drift relatable to the inherent somnambulant slide of life sometimes. The same can be said for Sofia Coppola’s dark yet mystical imagining of the classic Jeffrey Eugenides novel. 

At times jazzy and cerebral and floaty ambient by turns, the French duo of Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel craft something that fits the Virgin Suicides like a glass slipper. It is a mark of their artistic craft that the album unfurls as seamlessly scissors gliding through wrapping paper, but if you skip a few tracks then there is a marked difference in the transient sound.

Harold and Maude by Cat Stevens / Yusuf

The cult classic Harold and Maude sees a rich, young and death-obsessed boy strike up an unlikely friendship with a lively septuagenarian after they meet at a funeral. The film itself soars because it is not afraid to recognise its own inherent humour and this is brilliantly embodied by Ruth Gordon’s depiction of Maude as she opts to play an elderly lady as somebody trying to be young rather than the hunched, croaking fallacy that actors often fall victim of. 

The soundtrack succeeds in the exact same way. Cat Stevens / Yusuf is constantly pairing poignancy and playfulness, solemnity and sly lyrics with the two original anthems ‘Don’t Be Shy’ and ‘If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out’. The latter is the highlight of the movie and the rest of the songs sway around it. 

Where the Wild Things Are by Karen O

Perhaps it isn’t all that surprising that Karen O and Spike Jonze were clearly firmly on the same page with Where the Wild Things Are considering they enjoyed a relationship together. Throughout the film, they capture the reverie of childhood in befittingly drifting and fleeting tones. 

Along with the backing band, The Kids, Karen O crafts and exultant adventure that soars on pure celebratory sincerity. The songs themselves are anthemic ditties – from the sweet garden party vibe of ‘All is Love’ to indie waltz of ‘Heads Up’ – but with frolics under azure blue skies to accompany them, they take on a life of their own. 

Ghost Dog by RZA

A Kung-Fu film with a hip-hop soundtrack and noir stylings sounds a disparate triumvirate to pull together and its desperate attempts to do so is just about as ‘nearly there’ as the protagonist, Ghost Dog’s, attempts to be a Samurai. Both are striving for something ambitious and utterly commendable. 

The highlight comes in the form of ‘Samurai Theme’. On a surface level RZA’s ‘Samurai Theme’ works as a great piece of gym music, but it is the repetition of melody that implies endless practice that adds subtle depth to the scene. These considered touches support the narrative throughout. 

About a Boy by Badly Drawn Boy

Certain songs and films are like a stroll down memory lane; with ‘Something to Talk About’, in particular, Badly Drawn Boy managed to craft a slither of nostalgic beauty that has you almost gladdened by the bittersweet potholes as you rumble down that old reverie road. 

If it can be said that a movie has its own inherent melody, then Badly Drawn Boy coaxes that beautifully into its sonic counterpart. It is never overproduced or polished to a sheen and that careworn treatment imbues it with a naturalistic feel that helps to coat the narrative of the film with a flourish of realism.  

Super Fly by Curtis Mayfield

Super Fly stands out as a culminating moment in Mayfield’s career. The drip-feed of funk into his soul suddenly meddled head-on, his political involvement sprung to the fore in a much more notable way, but all of his musical craft and coasting honeyed vocals remained. 

Typified by the anti-drug anthem of ‘Pusherman’, the soundtrack captures street life in amber and presents it with class, style and one the funkiest basslines to ever rumble onto a record. The critical and commercial highpoint of Mayfield’s career was a melee of everything that went before and rather than sounding hectic it sounds like the golden hour of the party embalmed with a hue of cognizance and musical excellence. 

One From the Heart by Tom Waits

It might not seem that way on the surface, but a soundtrack can often offer an artist a greater artistic license than a conventional album. When Tom Waits was handed the keys to the soundtrack of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1982 film One From the Heart, he drove the thing into off-road terrain, so much so that his then-record label, Elektra-Asylum, deemed his change in style disastrous and dropped him.

Unperturbed, Waits found creative reinvention in his wild wander into the evergreen fields of avant-garde freedom and he has not yet returned from that variegated wilderness, choosing instead to explore the bottomless depths of demimonde’s majesty which proved very fitting of Coppola’s cinematic splurge of the colours to be found in a fractured relationship under the microscope of twisted realism. 

Submarine by Alex Turner

“It’s like you’re tryin’ to get to Heaven in a hurry,” Turner croons in ‘It’s Hard to Get Around the Wind’, “And the queue was shorter than you thought it would be, And the queue was shorter than you thought it would be.” This wistful gem could mean many things, but the feeling of a dream presenting itself before you were ready, or else coming to fruition in a mutated form, is something we can all relate to and lend it a meaning of our own.

This is the beauty of all the best coming-of-age films—they do not pander towards tropes but rather tell a tale wrapped in the miasma of sepia-toned youthfulness and prove to impart a message of universality all the same. Submarine achieves that feat with aplomb and that is thanks, in part, to some of the finest songs in Alex Turner’s entire career, with the sort of songwriting that qualifies him as one of, if not the very best of his generation.

Purple Rain by Prince and the Revolution

Purple Rain was the moment that Prince became a superstar, and it happened in such a way that made him seem ready-made to begin with. After Purple Rain, Prince went one a bestrode the decade like a little colossus—and he was allowed to do so because everything he touched was daring: making a film without any acting experience for example. 

With bravura, performative brilliance and unwavering artistic intent, Prince was able to read the palm of the future zeitgeist and coax into his cutting-edge songs. The tracks on the record might not be for everyone, but they opened up a new bohemian world that we can all be thankful for, nevertheless. 

The Graduate by Simon & Garfunkel

A measure of the success of this record can be found in the following sentence that has been uttered in various wordings over the years when directors hook up with artists: ‘I’m looking for a soundtrack kind of like what Simon & Garfunkel did for The Graduate’. Albeit Dave Grusin fills the space with some contrasting orchestral jazz, the only songs in the traditional sense come from the little folk troubadours and, in the process, they reinvented the wheel of soundtracks forevermore. 

The songs almost play out as characters in the film, weaving themselves seamlessly into the fabric of the narrative of the feel of diegesis. This would be no mean feat in itself, but the fact that they are also some of the most iconic tracks of the era transfigures them towards a seismic moment in pop culture that renders the film with a museum quality appeal. Anthemic ditties have never flowed more fluidly while still causing enough of a fleeting spark to inject impetus as they roll along.