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The 10 greatest movie soundtracks of all time

There is nothing in the world quite as immediately emotionally transformative as music. That is a statement as close to fact as you will find in an article as subjective as this. Music mimics our vocal and physical expressions of emotion in order to convey the intended mood, for instance when a person gets excitable or fearful their expressions will likely be loud, fast and frantic. An excitable genre like trance echoes these adjectives. This direct transposing of emotion into sound means that from an incredibly early age we can intrinsically interpret musical triggers like major or minor keys into feeling. This is a short cut to the human soul that the big screen of cinema has implemented and transmuted to devastating, wondrous and magical effect.

From the vehemence of the soaring ‘Adagio for Strings’ cut above Willem Defoe’s iconic death scene in Platoon, the tumbling destruction of a sepia-toned cityscape as ‘Where is my Mind’ kicks in on Fight Club, to the rather more gentle but equally cataclysmic purring of Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been a Contender” accompanied by the soft melancholy sounds of Leonard Bernstein for On The Waterfront; music has always catapulted cinema to heights of emotional deliverance. Without it – no matter how dramatic the scene, terrific the acting, and captivating the cinematography – the big moments of movie magic would no doubt fail to stir up that deep pot of sensation we reticently pop a lid on outside of a darkened theatre or curtain-closed dimly lit lounge, owing to the divide from reality that a projector or TV screen alone is unable bridge. Music, whether it matches the scene stride for stride, forms a contrast or juxtaposition, or simply creates an atmosphere, always imbues these recorded moments of wonder with an essential touch of ‘humanity’.

The soundtrack is an essential element of film and on some occasions can be even more essential than what’s going on on-screen. There have been good scores on bad movies, vice versa and everything in between. These ten beauties represent moments in cinema when ‘it‘ was done just right. That all-important ‘it‘ is what makes these soundtracks sing, sometimes the ‘it‘ is creating a world, a sort of soundscape realm for the story, other times it’s just the perfect rock song for a punch-up, all will become clear below…

The top 10 movie soundtracks:

10. Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Jon Voight steps out from a motel room into the sun-baked street of some southern town, sporting cowboy boots, a tasselled brown leather jacket, a suede cow skin suitcase and a smile as wide as the shot, as Harry Nilsson begins his iconic plucking of Fred Neil’s original song ‘Everybody’s Talkin” and you know even before he starts singing that you’re in for a good movie.

From the John Barry work that follows, gently adding a layer of daydreaming equanimity to the inevitable, unheeded, decline; to psychedelic disorientation achieved by playing ‘Old Man Willow’ by Elephants Memory over the loft party scene (during which many of Andy Warhol’s art friends playing extras were genuinely out of their minds on drugs), the soundtrack never misses a beat. It is by turns comforting and concerning, but always perfectly concocted and truly iconic.

9. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Whereby most indie movies have to beg, steal, or borrow songs for their soundtrack Beasts of the Southern Wild was at an advantage owing to the fact that the director Benh Zeitlin was musically competent enough to be able co-compose the soundtrack alongside Dan Romer. Having a director so involved and focussed on the production of the music means that the soundtrack is not only the perfect accompaniment to the screen but the two are inexorably interwoven, to spellbinding results.

The movie itself is a bold and necessary tackling of the forthcoming climate crisis and its impact on the poorest people who will take the brunt. Told through the lens of a young girl equally as brave and bold as the director’s ambition, the movie is a lesser-known triumph and the soundtrack likewise is one of the most effectual, life-affirming and hope-giving scores not just of modern times but any era. In ‘Once There Was a Hushpuppy’ the duo created a masterpiece.

8. Drive (2011)

Lynchian, Hitchcockian, these are all invented terms, coined out of necessity to describe the unique styles and techniques crafted and created by their namesakes. The synth and drum machine sounds of Drive might not be to everyone’s liking and it’s certainly not the atypical instrumentation that you think of when you hear ‘soundtrack’, but there’s no arguing that it is iconic to the degree that you could say a Drive-like soundtrack and most people who’ve seen the movie would get what you mean.

The soundscape created by Cliff Martinez and the curated tracks by the likes of Kavinsky and College & Electric Youth, transformed the standard thriller styling of the novel that the story is based on, into a Uber-neon, ineffably Refn, Neo-noir flick. As Gosling remarked early on in the project, “I think this should be a film about a guy who drives around in his car listening to pop music.”

It is hard to imagine that the likes of You Were Never Really Here or shows like Stranger Things would sound the way they do without Drive paving the glossy-pop way before them. All that said the crowning moment may well be when the all aforementioned synth glam is sequestered in favour of the soaring operatic ‘Oh My Love’.

7. Badlands (1973)

Badlands takes a unique approach to handling aesthetics in so many ways. On the surface, it is a movie about a raging murderous rampage, and considering the James Dean wannabe portrayed by Martin Sheen is ten years older than Sissy Spacek’s 15-year-old Holly, its about paedophilia too. However, it never comes close to materialising as that on-screen, without trivialising either of those atrocious elements, the movie simply unspools in a dangerously drifting tranquillity, like the long midwestern roads ahead of the disillusioned duo.

The music is as elemental as Terrence Malick’s glowing golden-hour landscapes in achieving this entrancing disassociation of action and aesthetic, which considering that Malick is regarded amongst cinema’s most seminal directors is saying something.

The main theme, Carl Orff’s ‘Gassenhauer’, has featured in modernised guises on films like True Romance and even made it onto The Simpsons. If imitation is the highest form of flattery then down-right copying must be the highest compliment of all, for that alone it deserves a place amidst the very best.

6. Trainspotting (1996)

As a handy exercise in justifying Transporting’s presence on this list, picture Ewan McGregor’s ‘Renton’ pelting it along Edinburgh streets in the films opening scene… The fact of the matter is that you can’t even picture that scene in the theatre of your own imagination without Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’ blasting in the background. Likewise, you can’t picture Renton swimming through the worst toilet in Scotland – not that you’d ever want to – without Brian Eno’s ‘Deep Blue Day’, and if ‘Born Slippy (Nuxx)’ ever comes on in a nightclub then the chances are your mind will race to Spud and the boys.

It is a compilation of music that not only captures the intent of the film perfectly but doubles up as a soundtrack to an era, although not all the songs were cut in the ’90s ‘Nightclubbing’ and ‘Perfect Day’ sound so contemporary and unique that they could have come from any era at all.

5. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Tom Hanks told Desert Island Discs that 2001: A Space Odyssey was the movie that changed his life, but much more so than the movie as a whole Hanks focusses on one simply stupefying moment in cinema history: “The main title came up that was playing over the conjunction of the moon and the earth and the sun, I had never heard this piece of music before, and I had never seen that image which was like a God’s eye view of the solar system […] and when this happened I realised that cinema was nothing more than a collection of colour and sound and the end result is an emotional wallop that you might not be able to understand. This was the wow moment […] that led me to being a kid yearning to an artist.” Now that’s the perfect description of the impactful effect of the perfect marriage of music and movies, and essentially what I spent to entire intro waffling on trying to explain.

With this soundtrack, Kubrick and co. achieved what science fiction can be when you break up its constituent parts and pull them back together again, the joyous amalgamation of science and art. The weird and wonderful soundtrack is the perfect complement to the awe-inspiring visuals and it could all have been so very different…

4. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Quentin Tarantino has created such an auditorium of sound across the course of his movies that sometimes you’ll hear a track and feel compelled to somehow send it over to him. His soundtracks are simultaneously singular but always very apt. He has captured an unmistakable sound as identifiable as has dialogue and predilection for gore.

The collection of tracks he curated for his most seminal movie, work as both a simply epic compilation album and also the perfect score. Each track was clearly chosen very deliberately. There are a million choices that Tarantino could have championed for the iconic twisting dance scene, but there’s no doubt in retrospect that he somehow happened upon the only irreplaceable one.

For being the worlds foremost film nerd, he doesn’t half bear a similarity to your local record store guy who knows all the best deep cuts. There is not a song collection left untouched by a track that Pulp Fiction introduced you to and the reason for that is because he also placed them perfectly to make the grooves glow.

3. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Fantasy is a much-maligned genre outside of its ever-growing core of fans, but the Lord of the Rings franchise not only broke into the mainstream but frankly toppled it off its perch. A world of orcs and dragons is laughable to some because quite frankly it often is, but for others it offers escapism. The reason that Lord of the Rings conquered the wider public was because it was a world so perfectly realised that none of the details seems frivolous or kitsch.

That all sounds like an incredibly difficult movie to soundtrack, after all, you can’t quite play Kool & The Gang over an army of marauding orcs. However, Howard Shore, created a soundscape so fitting and dramatically transfiguring that every moment the music soars over is gilded in Oscar-winning gold. It may be beautiful and poignant in terms of melody and instrumentation but the fact that it has proliferated such widespread appeal to spawn a drinking game is why it makes the list.

2. Inception (2010)

To say that Hans Zimmer has been one of the leading film composers of his generation would be understating it. He has crafted a heavy handful of some of the most iconic movie sounds ever.

With Inception, Zimmer produced one of the quintessential examples of where music can elevate a movie and summon up depths of emotion. It’s just an action movie at its very core, that is not to put Christopher Nolan’s work down, it’s far from your bog-standard shoot ’em up, but there is a swelling of emotional depth from the picture, not usually associated with the genre, that is heavily rooted in the scintillating score.

‘Time’, in particular, is a piece of music that conjures up all the edge-of-your-seat sweaty-palm cliches that movies were made for. The belting harmonics of the piece not only transform the movie but ensure that the story does what all stories are meant to do – take you out of yourself. It’s impossible to see Leonardo DiCaprio sliding down snowbanks with the full force of a symphony pelting behind him and still carry the hang-ups of everyday dull drudgery.

1. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Soundtracks are unified bodies, pieces of work that run the course of a showing and then even into the credits, but the fact of that matter is, that just like the movies that they play over, they ultimately come down to single moments. It is in these moments that the essential and energise worth of art form is revealed.

One such moment is the blistering finale to a near-four-hour epic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It is the culmination of the story of an entire genre and it all comes down to this – Ennio Morricone’s centrepiece. The pièce de résistance of spaghetti westerns is not some magical piece of cinematography or some ‘everybody-would-want-to-be-him’ performance by Clint Eastwood, although they are there in abundance, none can compete with the incomparable overtones of Ennio. The billowing masterpiece just ever-so perfectly place results in the most rock and roll moment in cinema history and remains so to this day.

Put down the pop-corn crank the volume up till the rafters shake and just sit there in blood-pumping mouth-open awe.

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