Ten of the Best Soundtracks: Volume I

Here's volume 1 of our best soundtracks ever. 

Soundtracks are just as important a part as score, direction and acting. Often times, they set the mood, take you back to a certain era, or have the power to totally effect the emotional impact of a scene. In Volume I we count down ten of the best motion picture soundtracks. This is not a definitive list as there are many more that are just as great or greater than these. Enjoy the read and share in the comments what you think are more of the best soundtracks ever.

The Crow
There are several reasons why I don't think that this upcoming remake of The Crow is a terribly good idea, but one of the biggest reasons is that the early-1990s were, in an artistic sense, the absolute perfect time to tell that story. That era's distinctly Gen-X brand of dark, disaffected angst perfectly suits James O'Barr's tale of grief, loss, and revenge, both visually (with its post-Batman and pre-CGI Gothic cityscapes) and in its fantastic soundtrack. A passionately bitter soundscape of goth, industrial, and grunge, there could not be a better musical accompaniment to the late Eric Draven's quest for vengeance and eventual peace. And I don't think it could have come from any other decade.

"Care to dance?"
The Cure, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against The Machine, Pantera, and The Rollins Band all recorded new songs for The Crow's soundtrack, and the film features live performances by My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult and Medicine (whose lead singer, interestingly enough, was eventually replaced by Brandon Lee's sister). Among Trent Reznor's very earliest work on original music for films, Nine Inch Nails' moody and hypnotic cover of Dead Souls by Joy Division is one of the stand-out tracks; perfectly setting the mood as Eric stalks the night for his killers. It is also a welcome homage to O'Barr's comics, which were artistically influenced by Joy Division and prominently quoted some of their lyrics. Both of the live performances within the film were very deliberately chosen to reflect the two main aspects of the narrative: Medicine's Time Baby III reflects the story's more introspective and thoughtful side, with lyrics vaguely evoking Eric's nebulous, half-spirit existence, while My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult's After The Flesh makes an appropriately violent and rage-filled backdrop for the movie's most brutal action sequence. But the true centerpiece of the soundtrack – and the song used in arguably the film's most iconic scene – is The Cure's fantastic original single, Burn. Its haunting, despair-drenched sound – and its lyrics that directly reflect the story's themes – bring a strong emotional punch as Eric dons his costume and makeup for the first time, while painfully flashing back to his life and death. This Burn sequence has got to be one of the coolest musical montages in any film, and it is largely thanks to one of The Cure's best yet most overlooked singles.

When recently discussing the upcoming The Crow remake, James O'Barr mentioned that he will have a good deal of input on the soundtrack, and that it will certainly feature his beloved Joy Division. Which is awesome, but also must make us wonder: if the remake will channel some sort of retro feel with music by bands like Joy Division and The Cure, then why not just stick with the original that is authentically from that time, and features a pretty perfect soundtrack of the era already?

Donnie Darko
When a film is set sometime in the past, there is no tool more effective than a great soundtrack to anchor it in its time zone and make the setting believable; but it has to be done right. Sticking with the most obvious hits of a decade can make the setting seem false, like “I Love The 80s” in movie form, and will call attention to the fact that it is a modern production trying to be retro. A good soundtrack will authentically capture what the characters would actually be listening to in the world of the story; a mix of songs everyone will recognize and gems that may have gone under the mainstream radar. Possibly the perfect example of this is Donnie Darko. Through a series of excellent sequences choreographed to often thematically-related music, the soundtrack perfectly evokes its late-1980s suburban setting.

"I'm so emotional."
The film gets off to a flawless start with an opening sequence set to The Killing Moon by Echo and the Bunnymen: as Donnie bikes through his suburban landscape, the song establishes the tone of the movie without a word of dialogue, letting you know exactly when and where we are, and that there is something slightly eerie and off-kilter about the seemingly-perfect picture. The lyrics even foreshadow the film's themes of fate vs will, and inevitabilities that are too late to be stopped. The soundtrack perfectly matches the mood and lyrical themes of a song to the events of the story at least twice more: in the use of Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart in a scene between Donnie and his girlfriend Gretchen, and again in the film's iconic closing montage set to Gary Jules' sorrowful cover of Mad World by Tears For Fears. The soundtrack does make use of some more immediately-recognizable mainstream hits as well, but in very appropriate contexts where they really fit. One great example of this is the long tracking shot throughout Donnie's high school, which creates an excellent sense of the high school experience in the 80s using Tears For Fears' Head Over Heels. Even the thoroughly snarky and ironic use of Duran Duran's Notorious in Sparkle Motion's dance routine fits well, making full use of the song's total kitsch.

Unfortunately, one of the controversial changes made to the film for the director's cut was a decision to replace certain songs in the soundtrack; and the changes were not for the better. Most notably, The Killing Moon was replaced in the opening sequence with Never Tear Us Apart by INXS, which – while still a solid 80s pick – does not fit nearly as well, musically or thematically. Nonetheless, in its original form, Donnie Darko has one of the best soundtracks of any movie set in the '80s but made in more recent years.

"This bag is full of pristine vinyl."
Few soundtracks comprised of a cavalcade of classic rock hits encompass entire decades of the mob way of life as well as effectively convey a familial melancholy to the proceedings quite like the choices for Martin Scorsese’s 1990 masterwork Goodfellas.  With key pieces such as Tony Bennett’s Rags to Riches opening the saga of century defining crimes to the evocative, poignant montage of Eric Clapton’s Layla, Scorsese is able to take an alien way of life and make it instantly relatable to our own personal struggles.  Songs are either designed to impart characterizations, notably when Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) smokes a cigarette to Sunshine of Your Love by Cream when he’s contemplating whacking Morrie or work to suggest the state of mind the film’s morally conflicted protagonist Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) as his mind and heart race through a cocaine addled paranoid haze.  

To give an idea of Scorsese use of music to evoke the drugged tension of Hill’s search for his next fix, the soundtrack races through the energized pace of George Harrison’s What is Life? before abruptly shifting to Muddy Waters’ Mannish Boy the moment Hill manages to snort a line.  Scorsese’s always loaded his soundtrack with more American musical iconography than can fit on the platter, but few are edited together quite as precisely to both comment on and share the experience of his characters.  There’s also an undeniable air of cool felt by the mobsters as they do violence, including an unforgettable assault by Tommy (Joe Pesci) against made mobster Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) with Donovan’s Atlantis chiming in an almost heavenly optimism set against the bloodletting.  As much an encyclopedic listening experience as it is one of the great American film experiences of our time, Goodfellas represents the apex of Scorsese’s musical vocabulary, both historically and inspired use of context!  

"The audio system in this molester
van is just top notch!"
Boogie Nights
While some are quick to dub Paul Thomas Anderson’s first mainstream success as lifting from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, from the editing, camerawork and soundtrack, Boogie Nights has quite the memorably comic collage of classic disco tunes from the late 1970s to the early 1980s synthesized rock scene.  Exploding onscreen alive with light and noise is Best of My Love by The Emoticons, following an unbroken tracking shot inside the disco nightclub hangout for the porn family that will come into contact with Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), soon to be the eponymous porn star Dirk Diggler.  There’s an energy and spark to the opening dance, suggesting an infinitum of possibilities for the close knit band of misfits.  Much like Scorsese, the soundtrack uses music to evoke the characterizations, some of which are as iconic in their use as they are hilarious.  Take for instance the awkward homosexual soundman played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as his eyes meet Dirk Diggler’s for the first time.  The soundtrack jumps to Hot Chocolate’s You Sexy Thing, inviting chuckles of appreciation for the lost but lovable misfit.  

One of the best uses of montage in the film depicting Dirk’s growth in the porn industry makes fluid use of split screen before morphing into a kind of choreographed musical number involving all the characters dancing together in the disco club, all brilliantly set to Machine Gun by The Commodores.  Another particularly memorable sequence late in the film during the downturn for Dirk and those still cast under his coke addled spell involves a botched drug deal within the home of drug lord Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina).  The thick air of anxiety and fear felt by Dirk as he skirts between cocaine high and unbearable tension plays out on his face in an unbroken long take, set ironically to Jessie’s Girl by Rick Springfield.  Anything could happen here and inevitably does, for better or worse, but the music plays on undeterred, providing something of a cruel jet black irony to the proceedings.  A finishing touch to the dysfunctional family of porn actors is a montage layered with God Only Knows by The Beach Boys, lending a life affirming poignancy to the cast of lost souls trying to make it in the world.  Although Anderson’s epic was (and still is) understandably dubbed as a Scorsese wannabe, there’s enough unique choices here making up the colorful soundscape of his meditation on the late 70s porn industry to make you want to put on your boogie shoes and dance!

"What do you mean, you're not a fan of
music? What EXACTLY does that mean?"
While it's common practice when it comes to scoring a film, a movie soundtrack rarely puts all its eggs in one basket.  That's what makes the soundtrack to Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia so special.  Entrusting one voice to speak for the entire film gives the story an intimate depth that is rarely rivaled by various artists’ offerings.  Anderson's choice of Aimee Mann was a perfect fit for his film about intertwined turmoil and hopes.  The opening track One, a cover of the Harry Nilsson classic, is a precursor of the loneliness and despair shared by the characters of the film. 

Anderson's use of Mann's song Wise Up is nothing short of masterful.  The scene is a montage of faulted characters singing along to Mann’s song while suffering the repercussions of their flawed existence.  The result is one of the best uses of a song in a film.  It's the perfect example of the projection of emotions a film can convey when music takes over a scene.  The swan song Save Me reflects the events of the film's final moments as Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) confesses his love and support for his troubled girlfriend Claudia (Melora Walters).  Mann wrote the song specifically for that scene after receiving an advance copy of the script.  Anderson lets the song dominate the ending, leaving John C. Reilly's whispered dialogue nearly muted by Mann's ballad.  The scene ends with Walters smiling and looking right into the camera while the song continues into the end credits.  The brief audience acknowledgement of Walter's gaze, combined with the heart on the sleeve lyrics of Mann's song, creates a memorable and satisfying ending for viewers of Anderson's sophomore film.  Save Me would go on to earn Mann Academy Award, Golden Globe, and Grammy nominations.

Fun Fact - The video for Save Me was shot at the end of filming days.  Mann would come in and sing portions of the song while the cast stayed in character but acted unaware of Mann's presence.

Pulp Fiction
One of cinema’s defining moments of the last century was the introduction of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and no short supply of this landmark’s lasting influence was due to its carefully chosen soundtrack. To this day, moviegoers think of Dick Dale’s Misirlou simply as the “theme to Pulp Fiction” instead of a classic rock instrumental that inspired Tarantino back in his days jockeying a register at a video store. The soundtrack, like the film it enhances, is all over the map. Just as Tarantino’s time-shifting narrative tells fully contained yet interconnected stories with their own unique madness, the songs themselves celebrate his electric storytelling — from fast-paced rock instrumentals to the banjo-driven Counting Flowers on the Wall

"Exactly why we're reading this list!
Everyone dance!"
Interspersed on the album with snippets of Tarantino’s signature dialogue, the irony of certain choices isn’t lost even on those who may have bought the soundtrack before seeing the film. Just as Al Green’s soulful Let’s Stay Together couldn’t strike more of a pitch-black comic note with its placement in the film, the decision to follow Son of a Preacher Man with the soundbite of Bruce Willis saying, “Zed’s dead, baby” brings a knowing smirk to anyone just skimming the liner notes. If you haven’t yet picked up this soundtrack, it’s essential for any soundtrack buff. The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by a six dollar price tag on Amazon for the CD, and I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger if this doesn’t make your playlist as soon as possible.

Natural Born Killers
Oliver Stone’s pop satire of violent entertainment as all-encompassing Americana, Natural Born Killers, is as kaleidoscopic and psychedelic in its collage of sensory overload sonically as it is visually.  As Stone’s frenzied, hyperkinetic editing between countless film formats, techniques, color to black-and-white shift gears to dizzying effect, so too does the film’s richly layered soundtrack consisting of everything from 1950s rock ballads to 1990s gangsta rap, classical to metal, and even ambient to industrial electronica.  Everything but the kitchen sink is thrown into the blender and more often than not, the ingredients are played off of one another for incongruent irony or all the lights are turned on at the same time until we can’t decipher anything anymore.  Everyone from Leonard Cohen (three of his songs, notably The Future, are used here), Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Dr. Dre, Peter Gabriel, Patsy Cline, Barry Adamson, and three original contributions by Nine Inch Nails (including the original track Burn) are poured into the amorphous and ever changing journey that is Oliver’s social commentary.  

"But honey, Trent just isn't as
angry anymore."
What’s more, much like the film’s editing, which never seems to stop or slow down its bodily transformation, the soundtrack consisting entirely of preexisting pieces leaps from song to song, genre to genre, always in such a manner to echo, if not amplify, the mayhem playing out onscreen.  More than soundtrack producer Trent Reznor, however, the real voice of reason here is Leonard Cohen.  Opening the film on a bleak western note in a remote coffee shop on Cohen’s Waiting for the Miracle, a quiet precursor to the bloodshed about to ensue, the crusty and forlorn Cohen professes an almost wise sense of hopelessness over the opening images.  Later still during a prison riot, Cohen’s Anthem laments with cool distance over the chaotic sight of Warden Dwight McClusky being torn limb from limb as he’s overrun by bloodthirsty inmates.  Lastly and leaving the viewer with much to contemplate over the closing images playing out over the end credits is Cohen’s The Future, giving viewers an overwhelming impression that Stone sees his crime satire as emblematic of social decline and a return to days not unlike that of Pagan Rome.  While Stone’s film has a number of morally constructive messages to be heard about the amorality of entertainment and pop culture, few can sing it quite like Leonard Cohen can.

Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s seminal novel Trainspotting represents sonically an eclectic mixture of early 80s British punk rock before making the transition to late 90s English electronica/ambient.  Less a plot driven piece than a tragicomic tonal journey depicting a group of heroin addicted friends living in Edinburgh, Scotland remains as distinctly borne of the United Kingdom as it is emblematic of street rats living on the fringes of a constantly transforming England.  An ensemble piece primarily narrated by the desperate and driven addict Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), the soundtrack is notable for its explosive and exciting use of Iggy Pop, both in the film’s opening “Choose Life” montage with The Passenger to a crime and dealing passage backlit by Nightclubbing.  

"Heroin makes this album so much better."
One of the most effective songs in the film involves a brush with death for Renton as he briefly overdoses on heroin before being resuscitated.  On his journey from the dealer’s loft to the hospital, Lou Reed’s Perfect Day provides a bleak irony to the soundtrack, uplifting sonically but downbeat contextually as Renton’s life hangs on the balance.  As the film gradually shifts from punk rock to electronica, Ice MC’s Eurodance hit Think About the Way plays over a series of documentary style edits of modern England of the future, depicting social change moving on past the dated punk lives of Renton’s posse.  There are a number of times Renton’s old cronies’ appearance yanks the soundtrack back into 80s punk as when Begbie (Robert Carlyle) happens upon Renton’s briefly tranquil and reformed way of life, with Pulp’s Mile End giving viewers and Renton a sinking feeling of getting dragged down all over again.  Ironic and hip, aged and present, Danny Boyle’s musical vocabulary speaks to that of a modern punk rocker influenced by British dance techno as filtered through the ears of Sid Vicious or Joe Strummer.  Of all the kaleidoscopic sonic journeys through a constantly shifting British rock star of a filmmaker, Trainspotting is the most iconic and finely tuned soundtracks of the great director’s oeuvre.   

Lost Highway
David Lynch’s fastidious penchant for control over every aspect of his sound design adorning his surreal masterworks extends to all iotas pertaining to the music heard on the films’ soundtracks.  Aiming for a sonic tightrope walk between ethereal ambience and industrial abrasion, his 1997 neo-noir classic Lost Highway is best remembered as the soundtrack that brought together Lynch and the dark lord of mainstream industrial Trent Reznor together in collaboration.  Between contributing pieces of his own and editing the soundtrack itself under the total supervision of David Lynch, the Nine Inch Nails frontman and regular Lynch composer Angelo Badalamenti have produced a gothic soundscape of everything from hard electronica to disconcerting jazz, soft white noise before building up to a shriek.  

"Everybody shut up. I'm trying to film
this music video before I kill my wife."
Setting the mood almost immediately in the opening and closing credits is I’m Deranged by David Bowie with his voice disembodied and broken beset by Brian Eno electronic percussion and blanket tones before pianos and saxophones enter the song.  You get the feeling you’re in for an aural ride of Lynch design of the highest order just from the credits as the camera barrels over a familiar motif of a black highway with yellow stripes coming at the viewer like the Stargate concluding Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Soon the soundtrack skirts between the goth scene including Nine Inch Nails’ The Perfect Drug (heard briefly in the actual film) as well as numerous Rammstein and Marilyn Manson tracks before pulling back to Lynch’s surreal Badalamenti mixture of dreamy, foreboding jazz.  A bowling alley montage even depicts Balthazar Getty and Natasha Gregson Wagner dancing to Smashing Pumpkins’ Eye to maintain the soundscape’s alternative push.  

Second to Badalamenti’s expectedly peculiar compositions are a series of oddball pseudo-light jazz pieces by Barry Adamson, some of which got even more airtime in the companion making-of documentary Pretty as a Picture: The Art of David Lynch.  They sound calming but there’s just one note that’s off key enough to make us fold our arms in nervousness.  While Lynch has always been one for eclectic musical selections, Lost Highway represents the first time an accompanying soundtrack album managed to overshadow and outsell the movie it was promoting.  I know it piqued my interest in who would eventually become one of my top 5 favorite filmmakers of all time!

Forrest Gump
"Dr. Pepper and CCR. Life DOES NOT get
much better than this."
Another great film from 1994, when Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks were both at the top of their game, Forrest Gump got both of them Oscars (for Best Director and Actor, respectively), and gave us a time capsule of musical bliss. As Zemeckis took us on this heartfelt journey with such careful attention to detail, he paid special tribute to the music that would define decades and encapsulate an era. From Elvis Presley to Creedence Clearwater Revival, from The Beatles to Three Dog Night, there are so many cultural landmark songs in the film that not all of them made it to the two-disc soundtrack. 

If you are looking for a way to introduce a younger generation to samples of the best music from no less than three decades, turn off that stupid Top 40 nonsense that’s playing on your radio, and put on Forrest Gump. These are singers who actually play their own instruments and everything. Even Kanye could respect the artistry, you would hope. Listening to the music alone is enough to transport you on Forrest’s journey, and maybe send you on a nostalgia trip of your own… that hopefully skips the whole Vietnam and bullet in the ass thing. This is one box of chocolates that has its heart on its sleeve, and you know exactly what you’re gonna get. So load up a player of your choice on whatever you kids today are listening to music on, and take a trip through time with some of the best music ever selected to accompany a masterpiece.

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-Lee Lind
-Blake O. Kleiner
-Andrew Kotwicki
-Chris Jordan