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The 10 greatest film soundtracks of the 1980s

“That starts it off from me. I find the personality of the piece through the music that is going to be in it.” — Quentin Tarantino

The 1980s was a hotbed of iconic film soundtracks. It saw composers such as John Williams and Ennio Morricone produce much of their most enduring work and, in terms of quality, is second only to the classic scores of the golden age of Hollywood.

The 1980s was also a period in which the music in films moved beyond the traditional orchestral film score and began absorbing new technologies and methods. For this reason, many ‘80s film soundtracks are instantly recognisable and their influence is still being heard today.

So much so that film soundtracks are now essential pieces of any new release. To ensure that the music befits the narrative provides the perfect backdrop for it to unfurl and, in most cases, even adds to the cinematic experience, soundtracks are now as endlessly pawed over as any other piece of the film’s construction.

Below, we count down the best soundtracks of the 1980s and examine what it is that makes them so iconic.

10 best film soundtrack of the 1980s:

10. The Lost Boys

Kicking off the list, we’ve got the iconic soundtrack to John Schumacher’s 1987 teen horror flick. The surreal occult aesthetics of the film are accompanied by a selection of weird and wonderful musical oddities from the world of pop.

It opens with a killer rendition of ‘People Are Strange’ by Echo And The Bunnymen, perfectly capturing the alternative culture which pervades Schumacher’s vampire-riddled beachside town. It’s just too cool to resist.

9. Purple Rain

1984 was a bloody good year for Prince. His work on Albert Magnoli’s rock drama won him an academy award. It cemented the singer as a bonafide icon, confirming that he could transcend genre, style, and, now, medium.

The film and the accompanying single hit also hit number one in the US. Despite its mixed reviews, the film’s score is a fitting tribute to one of rock’s most charismatic figures, and it contains one of Prince’s most underrated gems, ‘I Would Die 4 U’, add that song to the titular anthem, and you have yourself a very potent cocktail.

8. Local Hero

Dire Straits aren’t the first band we think of when we dream of that elusive title of ‘cool’, but somehow this soundtrack takes the best of the band and elevates it.  

Mark Knopfler’s soundtrack to the comedy-drama film Local Hero makes me want to take off my trousers, paint my face blue, and wade into the nearest Loch. It is a powerful fusion of lyrical guitar work, synths, and of course, bagpipes. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, well, then I have nothing else to say to you. 

Just take my word for it: Knopfler’s soundtrack for this gem of a film is some of the most uplifting music you’ll ever hear.

7. Raiders Of The Lost Ark

No list of ‘80s film soundtracks would be complete without a score from John Williams, and this is one of his absolute best. Williams method of spending days and days perfecting his melodies has allowed him to write some of the most recognisable themes in film history.

Williams’ ‘The Raiders March’ is so effective at conjuring up the spirit of adventure that it’s almost impossible to listen to it without contorting one’s face into a dramatic frown and staring into the middle distance.

6. Back To The Future – parts 1-3

I couldn’t decide on one instalment of Back to the Future so I lumped for all three. The soundtrack to Robert Zemeckis’ science fiction trilogy blends Alan Silvestri’s rousing orchestral score with several fantastic pop tunes.

In combination with Silvestri’s central theme, evocative tracks such as ‘Mr Sandman’, ‘The Power Of Love’ and ‘Johnny B Goode, allow the audience to travel back and forth in time at the drop of a hat. It’s not only a great selection of songs but the kind of play-through playlist that can be dropped at any party, function or general gathering.

Take that, Flux Capacitor.

5. Return of The Jedi

Next up, another John Williams score. In his soundtracks to George Lucas’ pioneering science fiction films, Williams harnassed the traditional orchestral arrangements of classic westerns and applied them to the world asteroid belts, spacecraft and gigantic slugs.

Despite being accused of stealing practically all of his thematic material from either Stravinsky or Holst, Williams’ score for Return of The Jedi remains an iconic piece of soundtracking. I defy anybody to listen to ‘Luke and Leia’ and not get goosebumps.

4. Top Gun

Say what you like about Kenny Loggins, but that scene when ‘Danger Zone’ plays over Tom Cruise riding a hog is absolute filmic gold. The selection of high octane rock songs that make up the Top Gun soundtrack has made the film a quintessential cultural artefact of the 1980s.

It conjures up images of a simpler time, a time when guitar riffs were never too fat, and when rock stars looked not like attractive men but like beautiful women. For that kind of weeping nostalgia, one need only turn their attention to Top Gun.

3. Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence

Nagisa Ōshima’s 1983 film stars David Bowie as a prisoner of war in Japan. It is the perfect example of how a good score can come to define a movie’s legacy.

The composer, Ryuichi Sakamoto was a founding member of Yellow Magic Orchestra and a pioneering electronic musician in his own right. His score for Oshima’s powerful film is a bonafide masterpiece and a masterclass in orchestration.

His Debussian compositions allowed the film to take on cult status, and his piece ‘Bibo No Aazora’ is undoubtedly one of the most heart-wrenching cues in all of film.

2. Cinema Paradiso

Ennio Morricone: the Italian composer who made his name writing for Westerns. However, for this film, Morricone returned to his roots. His score for Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 drama contains some of the most moving pieces Morricone wrote and still stands up as a masterpiece of classic film scoring.

The scene in which Toto, who is now an old man, wanders around the dilapidated Cinema Paradiso ripples with emotion and pushes the scene towards the sublime. iI is fitting that Morricone decided to write this particular score with his son. After all, the film is, above all else, about family. For that wonderfully poetic reason, Ennio Morricone bags the number two spot.

1. Chariots Of Fire

Greek composer Vangelis’ score for Chariots of Fire is legendary. The question of how he managed to so perfectly capture the spirit of a 1920s Olympic running team using synthesisers remains a mystery to this day. What is certain is that, in doing so, Vangelis created one of the most evocative soundtracks of all time.

Vangelis’ almost entirely electronic score also introduced a new style in film scoring. He showed the world that a film composer didn’t need a 100-piece orchestra at his disposal and that he could conjure up just as much emotion using minimal equipment. Without Vangelis, the modern film composer simply wouldn’t exist.

For that, Vangelis take the number one spot.

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