So Adam would stop spamming my inbox, I finally broke down to his many, many requests and decided to rank the greatest movie soundtracks of all-time. Now, this is a fuzzy topic, which is why I've avoided it. First off, we're talking soundtracks, not scores. So there will be no slot for Star Wars and its Imperial March.*
*Besides, I'm more of a Superman guy.
Also, a good portion of great movie soundtracks are from films that barely have an excuse to exist other than its soundtrack. So we're excluding all of the extended music video movies, despite some killer soundtracks, like half of the Beatles discography, Purple Rain, The Last Waltz, and my personal favorite, The Decline of Western Civilization. Additionally, soundtracks which feature just one or two artists are excluded, as that's just an album with good marketing. Sorry The Graduate (Simon and Garfunkel) and Superfly (Curtis Mayfield).
It goes without saying we're not ranking musicals either. Though I can rock out to "Summer Nights" with the best of them. Special consideration does, however, go to the music's usage in the film. It's not just having a great collection of songs, but having great deployment of those songs. That's a giant bag of caveats, but it helped narrow the field to more manageable levels. And since Adam pestered me about it, I gave him a vote. I even counted it equal to mine.
So, first, some honorable mentions. These are soundtracks that one of the two of us voted for, but it didn't garner enough support from the other to make the final list. I'll keep those votes anonymous to spread the blame around evenly
Honorable Mentions: Judgment Night, (500) Days of Summer, 24 Hour Party People, Garden State, Easy Rider, and Breakfast Club.
N/A: Bob Roberts
Bob Roberts lacks an official soundtrack, and it is all one artist, albeit a fictional one. I wanted to at least give it a shoutout for brilliantly deploying the satire. The movie wouldn't work unless the songs were good, and it plays like the negative copy of Bob Dylan. Not eligible under our completely arbitrary rules, and you can't buy it, but you should see the movie of a right-wing folk singer who runs for the Senate.
10. Guardians of the Galaxy
Let me first say that there's no way Peter Quill's mom was into both Blue Suede AND the Runaways. Still, what I love about this soundtrack is that it feels like something an actual person would put together, if they had some really eclectic tastes. It throws in some jokey tracks like "The Pina Colada Song," which you would totally do if making a mix tape. Didn't just fit the tone of the film, it set the tone.
One of the defining albums of 1990's grunge was this soundtrack, and the film's release party was a notorious, drunken, coming out party for Pearl Jam and the like. There's some great nods to classic artists, like Seattle native Jimi Hendrix (of course, a deep cut), some heavy hitters ("Would?" By Alice in Chains), some what-could-have-beens (Mother Love Bone), and finally, Mudhoney making fun of the whole thing, turning its snark on the scene itself ("Overblown").
8. Repo Man
The introduction to punk rock for a whole bunch of kids in the 1980s. There were three film totems of punk (Decline of Western Civilization, Suburbia, and Repo Man), but Repo Man was the most quotable ("Let's get some sushi and not pay"). The Circle Jerks randomly showed up as nightclub band, blistered through "When the Shit Hits the Fan" and boy, was I hooked.
A great use of 50s/60s doo wop slowly morphing into rock n roll in the second half of the film. The "Layla" sequence is the single best montage in film history. As a general rule, montages are a terrible mistake, but the song helps sell it. Besides, any soundtrack with "Mannish Boy" is automatically at least a B-.
6. Scott Pilgrim v. the World
Neither of us voted for the other's #1 soundtrack, so this is Adam's call. The soundtrack was carefully designed to capture the free-wheeling comic book, and it's actually at its best when Sex Bob-Omb shows up to rip through some half-assed number. Honestly, the soundtrack only slows down when it's the artists you've likely heard of: Broken Social Scene's contributions are not their best efforts and the Rolling Stones are a bit out of place, even with a great song. However, super bonus points for its expert deployment of Metric.
My #1 soundtrack, and this is why I don't like working with other people. It's a dynamic group of songs, spanning from 70s punk to at-the-time modern electronica. It just fits the characters at each of their moments in the movie, particularly the use of "Perfect Day" by Lou Reed for the overdose sequence. It was already a great song, but now I can't not think of Renton's OD whenever I hear that song. Completely taking ownership of an already famous song is a hard trick, and this movie did it twice, as it also took ownership of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life." Heck, Danny Boyle is partly responsible for the second half of Iggy's career.
4. Blues Brothers
OK, an admitted cheat, but we both love the soundtrack so much. Blues Brothers is pretty close to a musical, so we're slicing the bread pretty thin, but come on... there's a scene in which John Lee Hooker is sitting on a street corner singing "Boom Boom" for no particular reason (which actually isn't on the official soundtrack because producers are stupid). There's always the risk of cultural appropriation when a bunch of white guys are signing blues songs, but you can feel this was a labor of love for the stars and while their band gets some numbers, they wisely move to the side to let heavy hitters like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown have their moment. Shake your tail feathers.
3. Pulp Fiction
The movie practically rose surf rock from the dead. And honestly, more Del-Tones is never a bad thing. However, Tarantino made the surf rock pill go down so much smoother with a great mix of soul and pop. It's the kind of movie that used an obscure Chuck Berry song ("You Never Can Tell") for its twist contest, causing the song to explode in popularity. And as much as Urge Overkill usually annoys me, their cover of "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" is just perfect.
2. Saturday Night Fever
Some time around 1979, gremlins snuck into the household of every American citizen who owned a record player and placed a copy of this album in their record collection. Seriously, this record was in every person's living room, it was that inescapable. This became the defining record of disco, helping launch that cultural moment which isn't nearly as bad as some people try to make it out to be. The Bee Gees were at the center of the album, but come on, it also has "Boogie Shoes" by KC and the Sunshine Band. This album was just a ton of fun, which has caused every person to forget that the movie itself is actually depressing as hell.
1. O Brother Where Art Thou
The Coen brothers somehow got the entire country into old-timey folk music for a brief period. T-Bone Burnett has had a pretty great second career as a producer of soundtracks mainly due to this one, but he really shows off his ear here. He picks the perfect vintage recordings ("Hard Rock Candy Mountain" is from 1928) to mix with modern folk musicians like Alison Kraus and Emmylou Harris. I was familiar with "O Death" as a Camper von Beethoven song, but this soundtrack takes it back to its roots in a haunting version. And the film's biggest coup is that you never get sick of the Soggy Bottom Boys' "Man of Constant Sorrow" despite approximately one thousand replays during the movie. Just a great, great record from a phenomenal film. It's bona fide.