A successful soundtrack can truly take a film to the next level, it can even take on a life of its own, becoming more successful and acclaimed than the film it accompanies.
For this particular list, the soundtracks present mostly include songs with vocals and lyrics and usually feature multiple artists. They encapsulate a specific sound and style and elevate the films that they accompany. Critical acclaim, commercial success and influence was taken into account. This list excludes exclusively instrumental film scores, traditional musicals and animated films, as it feels like they each deserve their own list.
10. Dirty Dancing (1987)
One of the best-selling soundtracks of all-time with 32 million in sales worldwide, the Dirty Dancing soundtrack became the Billboard #1 best-selling soundtrack of 1987. “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” recorded by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, is the timeless GRAMMY and Academy Award winning theme song of the film. The soundtrack is a mix of 80’s originals and 60’s classics. It’s a magically nostalgic combination. It elevated the romantic comedy film to become the hit that it was destined to become.
Essential Track: “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” by Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes
My Favorite: Be My Baby by The Ronettes
9. Do The Right Thing (1989)
Led by the Public Enemy classic hit, “Fight the Power”, the soundtrack for Spike Lee’s classic film demands to be heard. Filled with late 80’s hip-hop and New Jack Swing, featuring Teddy Riley, Take 6, Al Jarreau and more. The soundtrack transports you to the sweaty, hot Brooklyn summer in which the film takes place. Lee’s brilliant film, utilizes music in a masterful fashion, as each song on the soundtrack is integral to specific scenes in the film. Fun tidbits: “Fight the Power” plays 15 times throughout the film. And the film’s jazz score composer was conductor was Spike Lee’s father, Bill.
Essential Track: “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy
My Favorite: Don’t Shoot Me by Take 6
8. A Star is Born (2018)
A Star is Born‘s soundtrack features the most awarded song in history in “Shallow”, which has cemented itself as a modern classic. The Billboard #1 best-selling soundtrack album for Star is Born is an acclaimed Academy Award Winning and GRAMMY award winning soundtrack. The soundtrack has captivated audiences selling 6 million albums worldwide. It’s an impressive feat in the music streaming era, especially considering it came out only two years ago. A Star is Born is an expertly crafted, timeless pop/rock and
country soundtrack that features fantastic performances by the film’s stars, Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Also cool to note that the songs that Cooper and Gaga recorded the songs while filming live. It’s not the typical pre-record and lip-sync during filming, which gives the songs a more authentic live-performance feel.
Essential Track: Shallow by Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper
My Favorite: Always Remember Us This Way by Lady Gaga
7. Waiting to Exhale (1995)
Comprised of an all-female all-star lineup featuring some of the greatest singers of all-time, including Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan, Mary J Blige and more. Need I say more!? It’s a #1 best-selling and critically acclaimed, Grammy Award Winning soundtrack. The RIAA nominated it for 11 GRAMMY Awards, including Album of the Year. Babyface composed and produced the entire 16-track film soundtrack – except for My Funny Valentine – and showcased the absolute best of mid-90’s Pop and R&B. Spawning a handful of hit songs 2 #1’s and 5 top 10’s on the Billboard Hot 100, the soundtrack has sold over 12 million albums worldwide.
Essential Track: “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” by Whitney Houston
My Favorite: “It Hurts Like Hell” by Aretha Franklin
6. The Graduate (1968)
“Hello Darkness, my old friend…” The Graduate soundtrack features timeless tracks by folk legends Simon & Garfunkel and also features instrumental score by Dave Grusin. The #1 best-selling late 60’s soundtrack album won the GRAMMY Award for Best Musical Score. It ended up spending 9 weeks at #1 on the Billboard 200 album charts, which at the time was rare for a film soundtrack that wasn’t a traditional Broadway musical. It was pioneering in terms of soundtrack curation. The Graduate proved to be an incredible success by using already existing pop songs in order to define the identity of a film.
Essential Track: “The Sound of Silence (Electric)” by Simon & Garfunkel
My Favorite: “The Sound of Silence (Electric)” by Simon & Garfunkel
5. Superfly (1972)
Soul musician Curtis Mayfield’s groundbreaking Superfly is the rare film soundtrack that has out-grossed the film. Two hit singles propelled Mayfield’s classic hit soundtrack for the 1972 Blaxploitation film Superfly. Those singles, “Freddie’s Dead” and “Superfly”, helped sell the soundtrack to sell 5 million records. Superfly’s a social commentary, soul-concept album that speaks of drug abuse and poverty of the early 70’s, specifically Black America. The songwriting by Mayfield is top-notch and political, offering a more critical perspective on the topics it speaks of rather than the film it accompanies. The funky album has had a great influence on soul, funk and Hip-Hop before it’s mainstream emergence. Hip Hop and Rap tracks sampled the funky track “Pusherman” over 25 times since its release. In 2019, it was added to the Library of Congress, National Recording Registry.
Essential Track: “Freddie’s Dead (Theme from “Superfly”)” by Curtis Mayfield
My Favorite: “Superfly” by Curtis Mayfield
4. O Brother Where Art Thou (2000)
Creating somewhat of an early 2000’s bluegrass revival, The Billboard #1 best-selling soundtrack for the Coen Brothers’ acclaimed film is one of three soundtracks to win Album of the Year at the GRAMMYS. It also won numerous Country and Bluegrass Music Awards and has sold over 8 million copies. Producer and Musician, T Bone Burnett worked with the Coen Brothers to craft the soundtrack prior to filming and it really shows. Sonically cohesive and integral to the film, this soundtrack successfully brings
traditional American folk songs to the 21st century. It features a mix of traditional recordings and newly recorded versions of the traditional American songs for the project by artists such as Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris and Ralph Stanley.
Essential Track: “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow” by The Soggy Bottom Boys
My Favorite: “I’ll Fly Away” by Gillian Welch & Allison Krauss
3. The Bodyguard (1992)
Driven by the inescapable worldwide Billboard #1 GRAMMY award winning hit, “I Will Always Love You” performed by Whitney Houston and written by Dolly Parton, The Bodyguard is a massively popular soundtrack. In fact, The Bodyguard is the best-selling soundtrack of all-time, with 45 million in sales worldwide. It is also only one of three soundtrack albums to win Album of the Year at the GRAMMYS.
The first half plays like a Whitney Houston solo EP and then features a variety of artists in the second half of the soundtrack including, Lisa Stansfield, Aaron Neville and Joe Cocker. It was co-executively produced by Houston and Clive Davis. As the star of The Bodyguard film, Houston’s tracks have an added resonance. Whitney was also at the top of her musical craft and delivered some of the greatest recorded vocals to ever grace our ears and we will always love her for sharing with us her undeniable gifts.
Essential Track: “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston
My Favourite: “I Have Nothing” by Whitney Houston
2. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Why it is Iconic: D-I-S-C-O! The Billboard #1 soundtrack of the incredibly successful film of the same name, encapsulated the international Disco phenomenon of the mid-to-late 70’s. Heavily featuring the Bee Gees, it also featured other popular disco acts of the time like Kool & the Gang and KC & the Sunshine Band. It is only one of 3 soundtrack albums to win Album of the Year at the Grammys and is the second highest-selling soundtrack of all-time with more than 42 million sold Worldwide. It was also added to the Library of Congress, National Recording Registry. You need to transport yourself to a 70’s disco dance floor a la Saturday Night Fever once in a while. And there is absolutely no better soundtrack to take you there than this one.
Essential Track: “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees
My Favorite: “How Deep is Your Love” by the Bee Gees
1. Purple Rain (1984)
Why it is Iconic: “Dearly beloved we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life…” and so begins the iconic GRAMMY, Academy Award winning, Billboard #1 soundtrack by Prince and the Revolution. It’s an ambitious masterpiece that accompanies the #1 semi-autobiographical film of the same name. The soundtrack became an 80’s pop culture juggernaut, and to date is one of the best-selling soundtracks of all-time with over 25 million in sales. Those behind the soundtrack masterfully crafted their work and critics regard it highly as one of the greatest of all-time. In 2012, it was added to the Library of Congress, National Recording Registry and is part of the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Essential Track: “Purple Rain” by Prince and the Revolution
My Favorite: “When Doves Cry” by Prince and the Revolution
- Rated: PG, PG-13, R
- Genre: Action, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Music, Romance
- Directed by: Albert Magnoli, Joel Coen, John Badham, Mick Jackson
- Starring: George Clooney, John Travolta, Prince, Ron O'Neal, Whitney Houston
- Produced by: Ethan Coen, Kevin Costner, Robert Cavallo, Robert Stigwood
- Written by: (uncredited), Lawrence Kasdan, Norman Wexler, William Blinn
- Studio: Robert Stigwood Organization (RSO), Tig Productions, Warner Bros