25 Greatest Soundtracks: Purple Rain, Hard Days Night, Easy Rider - Rolling Stone
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The 25 Greatest Soundtracks of All Time

From ‘Easy Rider’ to ‘A Hard Day’s Night’

Pulp Fiction

Courtesy MCA

From Elvis gyrating in prison stripes in Jailhouse Rock to Prince putting Apollonia on the back of his bike in Purple Rain, rock & roll and movies have been inseparable for going on 60 years. In making this list, we included soundtrack albums built around original songs (hey, Superfly) as well as expertly curated compilations (we see you, Quentin), but we generally favored fresh tunes over killer mixtapes. And while great movies and great soundtracks can go hand in hand (A Hard Day’s Night), sometimes a so-so film is full of historic tunes, as in our number one pick.


‘Head’ (1968)

The Monkees' psychedelic fantasy bombed at the box office, and nobody on earth has ever figured out the plot. Yet it remains a trippy cult classic, with cameos from Frank Zappa and co-writer Jack Nicholson. The music soars from Mike Nesmith's hard-riffing "Circle Sky" to "As We Go Along," one of Carole King's loveliest ballads. Head begins and ends with the grandiose melancholy of "Porpoise Song," the kind of music that can make even Don Draper want to curl up on a couch and cry.

Rock and Roll High School

‘Rock and Roll High School’ (1979)

This set from the Ramones' star turn strips the punk irony from a clutch of their best songs and reframes them as pure anthems of suburban-teen disaffection. And the title track will forever carry the image of P.J. Soles blowing up her alma-mater as the band plays on. Chuck Berry's "School Days," Alice Cooper's "School's Out" and Brownsville Station's "Smokin' in the Boys Room" carry the theme, while period jams by Nick Lowe and Brian Eno mix things up. Still the best hooky-playing mixtape ever.


‘Juice’ (1992)

Juice starred Tupac Shakur and featured Samuel L. Jackson, and its soundtrack (produced by the Bomb Squad's Hank Shocklee) was loaded with real hip-hop at a time when movies of its kind were still going with safer R&B. East Coast legends such as EPMD, Big Daddy Kane and Eric B & Rakim appear alongside West Coast gangstas including Too Short and a just-out-of-the-box Cypress Hill; there's also a New Jack party jam from Teddy Riley and Tammy Lucas and jazz-flavored R&B from Brand New Heavies and N'Dea Davenport, making this a wide-ranging, body-moving document of the hip-hop scene's wide-open early Nineties.

Lost In Translation

‘Lost in Translation’ (2003)

Director Sofia Coppola has a thing for the French – see Air's lovely soundtrack to The Virgin Suicides, as well as her post-punk Marie Antoinette. But despite atmospheric tracks from Phoenix, Sebastien Tellier and Air, the signature music for this lonely love story comes from the haunted guitars of Irishman Kevin Shields, who at the time was still in pre-My Bloody Valentine-reunion limbo. It's the sound of souls adrift in the glow of hi-tech urbanity, all capped by the Jesus & Mary Chain's "Just Like Honey." Their Beach Boys noir never sounded sweeter.

24 Hour Party People

’24 Hour Party People’ (2002)

As you'd expect from a film about the birth of Factory Records and the 1970s-1980s Manchester scene, this soundtrack draws an arc from punk rock (the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K.," the Clash's "Janie Jones," the Buzzcocks' "Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't Have)") to the early MDMA-powered days of acid house and its initial rave mutations (Marshall Jefferson's "Move Your Body," Happy Mondays' "Loose Fit"). The pivot point, and the set's soul, is the music of Joy Division and New Order, which sounds more warm-blooded in this context than on any of their LPs.


‘Singles’ (1992)

Cameron Crowe's 1992 dispatch from grunge-era Seattle came with a soundtrack that's almost good enough to eclipse of the memory of Matt Dillon's rocker mane/goatee combo in the movie. The album features most of the moment's major bands (minus Nirvana), as well as forebears like Paul Westerberg and Jimi Hendrix and alterna-fellow travelers Smashing Pumpkins, with highlights including two righteous Pearl Jam songs, a rabid Soundgarden screamer ("Birth Ritual"), a cavernous banger from Alice In Chains ("Would?") and a barnburning rocker from local vets Screaming Trees ("Nearly Lost You").

Magical Mystery Tour

‘Magical Mystery Tour’ (1967)

The movie was a flop, a swirl of utopian whimsy without much direction. But the soundtrack is unimpeachable, full of historic singles ("Strawberry Fields," "Penny Lane," "Hello Goodbye") and psychedelic nuggets (the title track, which rocks harder than you remember). The U.K. version was a double EP, but Capitol Records, the Beatles' American label, tacked on some previously released singles for the now-familiar LP version. 

Boogie Nights

‘Boogie Nights’ (1997)

Boogie Nights weaved great songs from the disco and soft-rock Seventies and the MTV early Eighties into a mixtape that flowed just as seamlessly as the film's sumptuous tracking shots. Tracks like Walter Egan's "Magnet and Steel" and the Commodores' "Machine Gun" perfectly punched the nostalgia buttons of late Nineties twentysomethings with vague memories of hearing them in the back of their parents' station wagons. Boogie Nights used some of these songs so well they're now inextricably linked to the movie. Whenever Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" comes on at happy hour, you can almost smell freebase sweat and firecracker smoke.

American Graffiti

‘American Graffiti’ (1973)

George Lucas tapped his memories of growing up in early Sixties California for one of the greatest teen coming-of-age movies of all time, exploring America's Fifties hangover – the time just before the Beatles and the Kennedy assassination shattered its allusions. The 41-song soundtrack culled classic rock and roll (Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly) and doo-wop ("I Only Have Eyes For You," "Come Go With Me"), tied together with radio show-style segues from wildman DJ Wolfman Jack – a pretty post-modern idea in 1973.

The Graduate

‘The Graduate’ (1968)

Director  Mike Nichols' brilliant use of several Simon and Garfunkel songs in his chronicle of post-collegiate alienation gave contemporary Sixties pop unprecedented placement in a serious Hollywood blockbuster. Longtime Miles Davis producer Teo Macero helmed the soundtrack, which was split between S&G songs from the film like "Mrs. Robinson" and "April Come She Will" and music by composer Dave Grusin (some of which, like the easy listening jazz-pop dollop "Sunporch Cha-Cha-Cha," is a kitschy good time). One song on the soundtrack but not the movie, "The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine," is a loopy throwaway in which Simon's lyrics satirize a psychedelic advertising pitch, and the closing acoustic rendition of "Sound of Silence" is one of folk-pop's most beautiful moments.


‘Goodfellas’ (1990)

Nobody can top Martin Scorcese at using music to tell a story. He basically invented the rock soundtrack as we know it, in gritty films like Mean Streets and Who’s That Knocking at My Door? But his 1990 classic Goodfellas is arguably the peak of his musical curating. The crime saga of Henry Hill plays out to one song after another: "Layla" as an elegy for dead gangsters, "Then He Kissed Me" as a romantic Copacabana stroll, Ray Liotta reaching a coked-out paranoid fever to a mastermix that jumps from Harry Nilsson to Muddy Waters.

Easy Rider

‘Easy Rider’ (1969)

Dennis Hopper selected songs for Easy Rider based on stuff he was hearing on the radio in 1968. He came up with a groundbreaking album that included biker-rock from Steppenwolf, pastorale country-rock from the Byrds and the Jimi Hendrix freak-power anthem "If 6 Was 9." When the low-budget hippie road epic became a surprise blockbuster, the freewheeling flow of the music in the film became a huge part of its success and myth. Wisely, the songs on the soundtrack were sequenced the same way they appear in the film. That Dennis – what a DJ. 


‘Trainspotting’ (1996)

The indie flick became a smash in 1996, summing up an all-time high for both U.K. pop and Ewan McGregor's ass. It's a sad story about doomed junkies in a haze of druggy rock and techno, ranging from Pulp's hilarious "Mile End" to the ominous strobe-beats of Underworld's "Born Slippy." But the movie flips old favorites into something new – Lou Reed’s "Perfect Day" becomes a funeral dirge, while New Order's "Temptation" becomes a love song where one moment of eye contact on the dance floor can open up a new world.

Wild Style

‘Wild Style’ (1983)

Wild Style was a breakthrough back in the day, when there were barely any actual hip-hop albums, let alone soundtracks. The 1983 film, about an ambitious young graffiti writer, was an early look at B-boy culture, showing DJs and MCs at work – Grand Wizard Theodore, Busy Bee Starski, Rammellzee and more. In the big scene, the Cold Crush Brothers have a rap battle with the Fantastic Freaks on the basketball court. None of the songs were hits, but it's an essential old-school document.

Pretty In Pink

‘Pretty in Pink’ (1986)

Countless girls around the world have shed tears at the closing credits, humming along with O.M.D.'s "If You Leave" and sobbing "Why, Molly? Why?" Most 1980s teen flicks had soundtracks full of corporate-rock filler, but John Hughes curated this one into one of the finest new wave anthologies. It's all lavish sadness, with tunes from Echo and the Bunnymen, New Order and the Smiths – the kind of music Duckie needs to hear when he's sitting alone in his room.

Brother, Where Art Thou?

‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ (2000)

Credit for this proto-Mumford & Sons old-time-music revival salvo goes not just to the soundtrack-savvy Coen brothers (see also The Big Lebowski and Inside Llewyn Davis), but also T Bone Burnett: it’s one of his greatest moments as an album producer. With lean accompaniment, Alison Krauss makes her most high-profile bid for title of Country Music's Sweetest Voice, alongside fellow contenders Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch. But the show-stealer is bluegrass pater familias Ralph Stanley, whose a cappella rendition of the spiritual "O Death" is downright bone-chilling.

This is Spinal Tap

‘This is Spinal Tap’ (1984)

Everybody sing along now: "Stonehenge, where a man is a man/And the children dance to the pipes of Pan." No movie ever captured the absurdity of the rock life like this one. And it couldn't have been done without getting the musical details right. But Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer turn the Tap into a real band, from brain-dead Seventies boogie like "Big Bottom" to epic art-metal like "Stonehenge." Tonight they're gonna rock you tonight!


‘Rushmore’ (1999)

Wes Anderson originally conceived this soundtrack as being made up entirely of songs by the Kinks. But with due respect, it wouldn't be nearly as good if it was. Alongside that band's delicious "Nothin' in the World Can Stop Me Worryin' 'Bout That Girl" is the Creation’s lesser-known British-invasion nugget "Making Time," along with moody jazz (Zoot Sims' "Blinuet"), high-fructose period pop (Cat Stevens' "Here Comes My Baby") and some of Mark Mothersbaugh's tastiest post-Devo instrumentals.  

Pulp Fiction

‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994)

No one can draw out the veiled menace, camp absurdity and sweat-bead sexuality of a pop song like Quentin Tarantino, and no one reframes oldies so indelibly. Here, surf classics like Dick Dale's "Misirlou" and the Lively Ones' "Surf Rider" become miles deeper than beach jams. In a nod to Saturday Night Fever, Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell" becomes a freaky courtship ritual. And "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" will never again be heard without an image of Uma Thurman singing along, snorting heroin and dropping dead (albeit just for a moment).


‘Superfly’ (1972)

Sure, the title track – all slithering groove and Curtis Mayfield's sublime, psychologically-incisive vocals – is a stone classic, as is the famous blaxploitation soundtrack's other hit, the wah-wah-laced "Freddie's Dead." But "Pusherman" (sampled by rappers from Ice-T to Eminem) is a masterpiece of first-person narrative funk-fiction. And the big-band-noir instrumentals showed Mayfield, long revered as one of R&B's greatest singer-songwriters, to be one of its most gifted composers and arrangers as well.

Saturday Night Fever

‘Saturday Night Fever’ (1977)

Few soundtracks have defined a genre; this one did, and more. Released in '77, just as disco reached its populist brilliance/commercial bogus-ness tipping point, it matched proven club hits (the Trammps' "Disco Inferno," Kool and the Gang’s "Open Sesame") with a clutch of Bee Gees songs intended for their own forthcoming album. From "Stayin' Alive" and "More Than a Woman" to KC and the Sunshine Band's "Boogie Shoes," the peaks on this double album can still turn any wedding dancefloor into a seething caldron of joy and embarrassment. The double LP moved over 15 million copies, making it the best-selling soundtrack in history until The Bodyguard stole the title.

A Hard Day's Night

‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (1964)

Right from that thunderous opening chord, A Hard Day's Night jumps into a typical day in the madcap life of the Beatles – getting chased down the street by screaming girls, strumming their guitars backstage, sharing the cocky grin of four Liverpool lads who realize how good they are and can't wait to show the world. John Lennon and Paul McCartney hit new highs with tunes like "If I Fell" – the soundtrack was the first Beatles album on which they wrote all the songs themselves.

The Harder They Come

‘The Harder They Come’ (1972)

The reggae equivalent to Saturday Night Fever defined the music globally at a time when, to audiences beyond the Caribbean and émigré towns, Bob Marley and the Wailers might as well have been an Italian doo-wop group. Jimmy Cliff was star of both film and LP, which included his newly-cut title track as well as earlier gems like "Many Rivers to Cross." With the Maytals' "Pressure Drop," the Melodians' "Rivers of Babylon" and Desmond Dekker's "007 (Shanty Town)," it remains the single greatest reggae mixtape ever made.

Purple Rain

‘Purple Rain’ (1984)

When it comes to rock & roll myth-making at the movies, you can't get any purpler than this. The plot is your standard melodrama about a struggling musician with girl troubles, except this guy happens to be Prince, right at the moment when he's on a historic creative streak. And to tell this story, he's writing songs like "When Doves Cry" and "The Beautiful Ones" and oh, yes, "Purple Rain." It's an epic celebration of everything rock & roll, which means sex and religion and eyeliner and motorcycles and guitars and Lake Minnetonka.


‘Help!’ (1965)

The Beatles' second movie was a light Swinging London goof, but the real action is on the soundtrack. It was a fond farewell to mop-top sweetness, paving the way for the groundbreaking experimentation of Rubber Soul. The album peaks higher than A Hard Day's Night, too, with some of the Beatles' most mind-bogglingly great songs – including the title track, "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," "Yesterday" and "Ticket To Ride" – surrounded by Paul McCartney's R&B burner "The Night Before" and cute, lovely tunes like "I've Just Seen a Face," a still-underrated track that sounds something like Simon and Garfunkel attempting bluegrass. The truncated American version's second side was taken up by the film's orchestral score, so Yanks had to wait until the Eighties CD reissues to hear what they'd been missing.

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