The Best Movie Soundtracks of All Time, Ranked
Some people continue to enjoy their favorite movies by rewatching them from time to time. The way I keep those movies alive, by and large, is by re-listening to their soundtracks. Sometimes, I’ll just skip the movie entirely and go straight to the soundtrack. Sure, I’m probably missing out, but damn, some of these soundtracks are bangers.
Good sound design can make or break a film, and the best soundtracks go above the sweeping, generalized orchestral motifs and instead find a tone that’s unique and effective. Oftentimes, they create a decent blend between original scores and licensed music. The ones I’m going to list here are going to have at least a few original scores (or, at the very least, covers) in them, for the sake of fairness.
Not gonna lie, lads, this is a toughie. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments. It’s worth mentioning that I would have liked to put Shrek and Juno‘s soundtracks on this list, but they just didn’t have enough original music in them to justify personal biases. Here are the best movie soundtracks of all time, ranked.
12. Pride and Prejudice (2005)
As far as period piece soundtracks go, Pride and Prejudice is lighthearted, delightful, and perfectly matches the mood of every scene it’s in. But it takes the lowest spot on this list because, just like the movie it accompanies, there is something superficial about its direction.
And that’s fine! The movie itself is a joyful, impactful romp through a beloved story, and it does no more and no less. It’s still a lovely soundtrack, and the movie is still one of the only period pieces I can actually sit through.
11. Jane Eyre (2011)
Cary Fukunaga’s rendition of Jane Eyre managed to do away with the dull standards of period-pieces and bring the book’s inherent sensuality to the forefront. This was in large part due to the score, arranged by Dario Marianelli and featuring Jack Liebeck, which was pensive, moody, and even a little sultry–all features that were essential to a modern retelling of Jane Eyre.
That said, it does merit a lower ranking due to the fact that it reuses its central motif a little too often. The motif is gorgeous, and its re-usage lends a sort of dream-like quality to the film, but as far as soundtracks go, it just isn’t original enough for a higher ranking.
10. Memoirs of a Geisha
I’m still on the fence on how I feel about this story as a whole, both the book and the film, but it can’t be denied that the soundtrack is majestic. It perfectly melds traditional Japanese sounds and John Williams’ orchestral mastery.
In particular, the juxtaposition between “Brush On Silk” and “The Chairman’s Waltz” is the perfect dichotomy of this film’s fraught feelings. These songs are electric, dark, and brilliantly atmospheric, as they should be.
The original score for Beginners is just as beautiful as the film itself. It’s somewhat of a sleeper hit, but it’s the sort of film I’d recommend everyone watch at some point.
The score would be higher if it had more original pieces, but the few original pieces it does have are gorgeous and thematic enough to earn a spot on this list. And it helps that the pieces that were added to the score (most notably Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust”) are apt to a T.
8. Lost In Translation
Sofia Coppola has a talent for soundtracks in general, but Lost in Translation‘s takes a special spot for being such an eclectic blend, yet making it work. The original pieces were done by Kevin Shields, the frontman for the beloved shoegaze band My Bloody Valentine, and they help to accentuate the film’s themes of loneliness and finding meaning in one’s solitude.
Of course, the added pieces do that, too, like The Jesus And Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey,” which the film iconically ends on.
7. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Another filmmaker who has a penchant for good soundtracks is Wes Anderson, whose every film carries a gorgeous soundtrack that you could bring with you everywhere. However, in the spirit of fairness, I’ve tried to limit one soundtrack per director. And this was a tough one.
Ultimately, I chose Fantastic Mr. Fox‘s soundtrack because it has so much cleverness and ingenuity going on. Darjeeling and Tenebaums had great taste, but little originality. French Dispatch, Moonrise Kingdom, and Grand Budapest were orchestrally brilliant, yet lacked substantial variation. Mr Fox is the perfect blend of both sides: its original score is delightfully creative, while its licensed songs help to create and foster the mood that makes this movie so unique. I once listened to it on a camping trip in Boston. It made the whole thing perfect.
6. Norwegian Wood
2011’s Norwegian Wood is such a criminally underrated and under-discussed film, you’re probably wondering if it was another Beatles tribute movie. No, this was the film rendition of the Haruki Murakami novel of the same name–a novel I worshipped in high school, then grew up and realized Murakami was an unrepentant pervert, and the movie was actually better than the novel because it lacked the perverted inner-monologue that Murakami can’t seem to help but slip into every one of his novels.
Which is a shame, since Murakami is a really evocative writer. The movie was able to capture all the disturbed and hysterical feelings of the book, and then intensify them through the soundtrack, gorgeously arranged by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. The soundtrack really lets you know that the things going on are mournful, disturbing, yet in their own way beautiful. Not an easy-listening soundtrack in the slightest, but it does its job masterfully.
5. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
Edgar Wright has phenomenally good taste in music, one of the best in filmmaking in my opinion, and this reflects on the scores in all of his movies. But Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World takes the cake because he used his good taste and recreated entirely new songs that bang supremely, based on a fictional world of music. Hello??? How cool is that?
Added bonus for including, let’s see: a Beck feature, a beachy Sade cover, Plumtree, Metric’s “Black Sheep,” and of course, The Bluetones. I love you, Bluetones.
4. Inside Llewyn Davis
Honestly, based on personal bias alone, I’d rank this soundtrack higher, but in the grand scheme of things this is an apt spot. Most of the songs on this soundtrack are covers of old, tried and true folk songs, so it loses some originality points for that.
But god, what a beautiful film, one that honors such a beautiful movement in music. Extra props to Oscar Isaac, who’s a classically trained musician and actually performed these songs on his own. We love our brothers, sisters, and others in folk.
3. If Beale Street Could Talk
I don’t know what to say. I weep. You weep. We all weep for Beale Street.
Amelie‘s soundtrack narrowly places above Beale Street‘s if only because its instrumentation is more diverse. This soundtrack has so many different sounds going on, and it works beautifully. This is a soundtrack you could listen to on any occasion, as I often have, and it carries through.
Plus, anything with “Comptine D’Un Autre Ete” deserves praise. Yann Tiersen is utterly brilliant.
1. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
It’s fitting that one of the best films of the 2010s has the top spot on this list. In the video game Disco Elysium, you can put points into a skill called “Shivers,” which represents your connection to the city you’re currently in. If I had to describe this soundtrack as anything, it’s a shiver for San Francisco.
Every little part of it, from the gorgeously simple piano pieces, to the soft flutes, to Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” to even the obvious “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)”, is a carefully, lovingly structured ode to a city with millions and millions of histories worth treasuring. I listen to this soundtrack and feel brought back to earth. And I truly can’t think of anything else that could top it.
(featured image: A24)
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