When collating a list of the best movie scores to test your system, we have made sure to distinguish between those bodies of music written specifically to accompany a film, and soundtracks – compilations of songs and instrumental works often already in existence.
That’s because we know that these deserved their own, separate list. Like the lovingly crafted mix tape that defines a burgeoning relationship, these soundtracks are as integral to their cinematic partner as any original score.
We’ve picked another raft of our favourites here, many of the pieces from which set their associated film scenes playing in our heads as soon as we hear a few bars. A great soundtrack is one that not only complements the tone and feel of the action on screen, but one that stands up in its own right as a carefully-curated list of songs which can be enjoyed away from the movie itself.
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 (dir. James Gunn, 2023)
The soundtrack for the original Guardians Of The Galaxy (AKA Awesome Mix Vol.1) might have been a little on the nose, but it served as a great primer for younger audience members looking to get immersed in the world of, let’s say rather snobbishly, “proper music”.
Fast forward to the third instalment in the Guardians saga, and the cuts are a lot deeper and, dare we say it, a lot more musically interesting from a neutral perspective. Gone are Blue Swede, The Jackson 5 and David Bowie, replaced by the like of Spacehog, Faith No More and The Mowglis. There are some more mainstream classics such as Radiohead’s Creep and No Sleep Till Brooklyn from the Beastie Boys, too, but Awesome Mix Vol. 3 sees a more mature score reflecting an equally grown-up final adventure.
A Star Is Born (dir. Bradley Cooper, 2018)
It almost feels like a cheat to include 2018’s A Star Is Born on this list, especially when you consider that a) it’s something of a ‘musical’ film anyway and b) most of the tracks come delivered straight from its lead duo of Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga rather than being plucked from a variety of existing sources.
Even so, there’s lots else to enjoy besides the excellent original work of the movie’s main stars, including a great version of Édith Piaf’s La Vie En Rose performed by Gaga herself. Still, it’s the original tracks that really made Cooper’s directorial debut such a hit, characterised by big, emotive and often absolutely gut-punchingly heartrending ballads including Shallow, Always Remember Us This Way and I’ll Never Love Again.
The Great Gatsby (dir. Baz Luhrmann, 2013)
Considering how contemporary and alive Jay-Z’s scoring for Baz Luhrmann’s interpretation of The Great Gatsby feels, it can be jarring to discover that it’s now more than ten years old.
It’s aged superbly, though, a rocking, raucous collection that boldly blends classic '20s jazz and swing influences with contemporary hip-hop, R’n’B and alternative rock. With Jay-Z at the helm and a plethora of talent at his disposal, it should never have been in doubt that things would coalesce, with standout tracks including Beyoncé and André 3000’s rendition of Back To Black, Lana Del Rey’s ever-melancholic ballad Young And Beautiful, not to mention Jack White’s anguished, anthemic version of U2’s Love Is Blindness.
Almost Famous (dir. Cameron Crowe, 2000)
Cameron Crowe’s comedy-drama about a young journalist touring with a fictional rock band across America was one of the finest movies produced at the turn of the Millennium, and boy did it have the soundtrack to match.
Excluding songs from the fictional band themselves or the myriad of additional music plastered across the film’s hedonistic canvas, the official catalogue of 17 tracks is exquisitely selected, ranging from recognisable classics like Elton John’s Tiny Dancer to deeper cuts including Cat Steven’s The Wind and Clarence Carter’s Slip Away.
Want people to think you have a really cool taste in music? Anything from Almost Famous will do nicely.
2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
“It’s not a message I ever intended to convey in words,” said director Stanley Kubrick of his science fiction epic in 1968. “2001 is a nonverbal experience.” Music plays a hugely significant role, with around half of it heard before the first and after the last line of the film’s limited dialogue.
It wasn’t until he saw the film, however, that composer Alex North – who Kubrick commissioned to score 2001 having worked together on Spartacus and Dr. Strangelove – found none of his pieces had been used. In its place were works by Richard Strauss, Gyorgy Ligeti, Aram Khachaturian and Johan Strauss II, which the director had originally been using as guide tracks, and that adopted new significance once tethered to this cinematic masterpiece.
Trainspotting (dir. Danny Boyle, 1996)
Though Irvine Welsh’s novel was set in the bleak surroundings of Thatcher-era Leith, in Edinburgh, Danny Boyle’s somehow rather optimistic film adaptation of Trainspotting provides a polished window into mid-’90s Britain – largely thanks to a soundtrack that has become as iconic as the book and the film.
Alongside music from artists to whom Welsh refers in his original novel, such as Lou Reed and Iggy Pop (Renton’s ‘choose life’ monologue over the latter’s Lust For Life makes for one of the finest opening scenes in the history of British cinema), Boyle compiled almost the ultimate mix tape of Britpop (Pulp, Sleeper, Blur) and dance (Bedrock, Leftfield and, of course, Underworld).
Boyle was turned down by Oasis, though, with the Gallagher brothers not wanting their music to be associated with a film about trainspotting.
Lost In Translation (dir. Sofia Coppola, 2003)
“They were just songs I liked and had been listening to,” writer and director Sofia Coppola said of Lost In Translation’s soundtrack, “and Brian Reitzell would help me out and make me Tokyo dream-pop mixes.”
Responsible in part for a mid-noughties rebirth of shoegaze, the film featured five original songs by Kevin Shields, including the single City Girl, as well as giving new prominence to tracks by The Jesus And Mary Chain and Shields’ band My Bloody Valentine.
More than an accompaniment, though, music plays a starring role in both the setting and indeed narrative of the film. In fact, central to the relationship between the film’s two central characters, played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, is a scene in a karaoke bar where they sing the Pretenders’ Brass In Pocket, (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding and Roxy Music’s More Than This.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2003)
We remain in Tokyo for Quentin Tarantino’s martial arts revenge flick Kill Bill Vol. 1. It’s no easy task selecting only one of the director’s works for this list – such is the brilliance and significance of his soundtracks for Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown et al – but here is where his sprawling eclecticism seems to peak.
More than that, though, it never feels disjointed. And that’s no mean feat when stirring together music from Nancy Sinatra, Isaac Hayes, James Last, Quincy Jones, Ennio Morricone, Tomoyasu Hotei and RZA.
This Is England (dir. Shane Meadows, 2006)
Shane Meadows’s semi-autobiographical and era-defining This Is England, a stark rites-of-passage story about growing up in a skinhead gang in the Midlands in the 1980s, thrives on its realism. That stems from brutally candid storytelling, some stunning improvisation and a soundtrack deeply entrenched in the subculture.
That means plenty of West Indies influence in the form of ska, rocksteady, reggae and soul music, with Toots & The Maytals featuring prominently alongside UK Subs, The Specials and Percy Sledge. It was also an introduction for many to the minimalist modern classical piano of Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi, whose pieces such as Dietro Casa and Fuori Dal Mondo provide a blunt and sobering backdrop to the wreckage of the story’s consequences.
Super Fly (dir. Gordon Parks Jr., 1972)
Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack to 1972 Blaxploitation crime drama Super Fly is not only equal to its film in terms of legacy: it surpasses it. Inspired by the script, Mayfield wrote one of the most socially aware and politically charged funk and soul albums of the decade, spending four weeks at the top of the Pop Albums chart upon its release.
“Somewhere between New York and Chicago, late 1971 – sitting on an airplane, the Super Fly script in his lap – Dad couldn’t stop the music from coming,” recalls Mayfield’s son Todd. “Curtis said, ‘I didn’t put [main character Youngblood] Priest down. He was just trying to get out. His deeds weren’t noble ones, but he was making money and he had intelligence. And he did survive. I mean all this was reality.’”
Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coogler, 2018)
There are two sides to the soundtrack for Ryan Coogler’s 2018 Marvel movie: an original score by Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson and a number of tracks written by Grammy Award-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar.
Göransson, certainly, could not be accused of shirking his research responsibilities. Travelling to Africa to learn about traditional music, and joining Senegalese musician Baaba Maal on tour, he melded orchestral arrangements with performances by Maal and other African musicians, and recorded with a choir singing in Xhosa.
The result is a soundtrack – or two, Göransson’s and Lamar’s works were released separately apart from the film – that feels at once familiar and refreshingly diverse without coming across as contrived.
High Fidelity (dir. Stephen Frears, 2000)
“I never expected it to be so faithful,” said Nick Hornby of Stephen Frear’s film adaptation of his novel set in a record shop. “At times it appears to be a film in which John Cusack reads my book.”
Despite the main character now being an American living in Chicago, rather than an Englishman in London, the level of musical snobbery displayed by Rob and his friends has by no means been reduced. “The film has 70 song cues, and we probably listened to 2000 songs to get those 70 cues,” said Cusack upon the film’s release 20 years ago. “We used our Rob and Dick and Barry dispositions a lot.”
Likely mirroring many What Hi-Fi? readers’ own collections, there’s plenty for fans of The Velvet Underground, The Kinks, Bob Dylan and the likes.
Goodfellas (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1990)
Music was at the forefront of Martin Scorsese’s creative process when making Goodfellas. Songs were only used if they commented on characters or the scene, and some scenes were even filmed to the tracks that would eventually accompany them.
The director was also strict about using tracks that were historically befitting, so every tune is as old or older than the time portrayed on screen. So we get Giuseppe Di Stefano’s Parlami d’Amore Mariu when a young Henry Hill gets reprimanded for selling cigarettes, and Layla (Piano Exit) by Derek and The Dominos as Tommy is executed.
This is arguably Scorsese’s pairing of music and moving image at its finest.
24 Hour Party People (dir. Michael Winterbottom, 2002)
You’d really struggle to mess this one up. Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 Factory Records biopic, featuring Steve Coogan’s masterful turn as founder Tony Wilson, had one of British music’s finest catalogues to delve into.
Beginning with the Sex Pistols’ famous gig at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall – attended by Wilson and just about everybody else who started a band in the North West in the 1970s – and charting the subsequent rise of the scene it helped create, we inevitably take in music from Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays, The Durutti Column, A Certain Ratio, Buzzcocks and 808 State, among others.
The skill is in how Winterbottom crafts his film around the wealth of music he is afforded, making it one of the most comically entertaining music films ever released.