Best of movie soundtrack lists often focus on a relatively narrow range of well-known examples; the Beatles, Tarantino films, Cameron Crowe films, Hollywood musicals and more Beatles. I've tried to go a bit further afield here, not because there's anything wrong with the tried and true, but just because music for moving images includes such a mind-bogglingly large range of material that it seems a shame not to go rambling a bit. To make the task a bit easier for myself I've excluded compilation soundtracks and stuck to ones with original music. And I haven't arranged them in any particular order; if you want to rank them best to worst, you'll have to do it yourself.
R.D. Burman, "Apna Desh," 1972
Given the relative size of its film music industry, it seems right to start with Bollywood. R.D. Burman has composed soundtracks for more than 300 films. Of those I've heard, I think Apna Desh is my favorite. The flirty fuzzed-out psych of Aaja O Mere Raja (sung by Asha Bhosle) is fabulous, and "Kajra Lagake Gajra Sajake" (sung by Kishore Kumar) foreshadows Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in its hooky ability to convince your brain it never wants to listen to anything else ever again. But both of these are nothing compared to the wonder that is "Duniya Mein Logon Ko" (embedded), with Burman himself gruffly scatting as Bhosle provides piercing counterpoint.
A.R. Rahman, "Taal," 1999
"Ishq Bina Kya," the song embedded here, is a ravishing pop confection, making the case for A.R. Rahman as the Bollywood Brian Wilson (or possibly Wilson as the Western A.R. Rahman). Anuradha Sriram's vocals spiral up lazily into the stratosphere, wrapped in harmonic bliss, as the music shimmies from one intricate cotton candy arrangement to another, the commercial sublime only enhanced by the video's shameless Coca-Cola product placement. If you prefer more up-tempo, why-doesn't-someone-sample-that-already fare, check out "Taal Se Taal," "Ni Main Samajh Gayi" or the Bollywood prog of "Rage Dance" (which someone needs to upload to YouTube already).
Pritam, "Dhoom 2," 2006
The soundtrack for "Taal" is widely regarded as a masterpiece. The same cannot be said for the 2006 blockbuster "Dhoom 2." But masterpiece or no, its giant, trashy, discofied ABBA sugar-rush is well nigh irresistible. The jittery flirtatious Vegas duet "Don't Touch Me" with KK and Alisah Chinoy also gets lodged in your hind brain, as does the parodically cutesy "My Name Is Ali" sung with sacks of smarm by Sonu Nigam. No doubt there are hundreds of Bollywood soundtracks much like this one, and all of them are awesome.
Pierro Umiliani, "La Ragazza Dalla Pelle Di Luna," 1972
Umiliani is best known for "Mah Nah Mah Na," a song that went on to be made famous by the Muppets. My favorite of his soundtracks is the marvel of smooth, winking decadence that is "The Girl With Skin Like the Moon." "Laguna Tropicale" juxtaposes a "natural" island rhythm with an organ that it must have been difficult to get out onto the beach, while "Seyga Seyga" breaks out unabashedly raunchy fuzz guitar for frolicking in the sand and surf. Tying it all together is "Tanto Tempo Fe," played now on Hammond and guitar, now on I-know-I'm-plangent trumpet (the version here), now on uber-romantic sax. And inevitably the soundtrack ends with the title theme sung by an ecstatically moaning chorus, ushering you into the bright blue lounge beyond.
Ennio Morricone, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," 1966
Whistling, tormented shrieks, an army on the march and yodeling ducks — Morricone's theme for "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" is a story all in itself, more ostentatiously sweeping, ostentatiously stylized, and ostentatiously cool even than the famous spaghetti western it accompanies. As a bonus, Morricone's "The Ecstasy of Gold" has happily been uploaded from the film, so you can see Eli Wallach walking through the graveyard to the triumphal crescendo of his own towering and misbegotten greed.
Carl Stalling,"Rabbit of Seville," 1950
I'm sure some will prefer "What's Opera Doc," but I think this is my favorite example of Stalling's warped magpie genius. Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" is massaged, chopped and manipulated much like poor Elmer's scalp. The ears-on-pate as percussion; the split second leap to the Mendelssohn Wedding March — even the orchestra warming up at the beginning becomes a kind of atmospheric overture to the vernal landscape, shattered by those rabbit-hunting gunshots. The fusion of image and music has never before or since attained such loony perfection, or perfect looniness.
Duke Ellington, "Symphony in Black," 1935
Ellington composed his first song suite for this film short, which functions effectively as a music video before there was such a thing. The Ellington orchestra has all the matchless elegance you'd expect, and the integration with the film is clever and affecting, from the church bells at the funeral to the single drumbeat as the scorned woman is thrown to the floor. But even with such treasures, it's Billie Holiday who steals the show. She was only 20 years old here; and for those familiar with her later work, the purity of her tone is a shock. After hearing her sing those first two aching lines, you're just waiting through Nanton's ya-ya trombone solo, wishing she'd come back.
Howard Shore and Ornette Coleman, "Naked Lunch," 1992
Hollywood composer Shore and free jazz pioneer Coleman teamed up on this soundtrack for Cronenberg's paranoid art film slime-fest adaptation of Burroughs' novel. The result is as smoothly off-kilter as the film itself, with Coleman's sax rustling through Shore's grandiosely empty soundscapes like a cockroach skittering about in a mausoleum. The Master Musicians of Jajouka add North African chanting to some tracks to complete the sense of mismatched, ominous parts not quite in sync. Maybe the best moments, though, are when Coleman and Shore do mesh, as on "Clark Nova Dies," where the strings and sax lurch into and off of each other, a carefully choreographed cacophony of the damned.
Paul Giovanni., "The Wicker Man," 1973
Mixing traditional British Isles tunes and instrumentation with nursery rhymes and single-entendre singalong, Giovanni's soundtrack perfectly captures "The Wicker Man's" combination of pagan humor and fey dread. "Willow's Song" is the album's most famous track, but I think I prefer "The Maypole Song," (embedded here) with its air of manic jollity, as menacingly innocent children exult in cycles of sex and death. Freak folk took lots of inspiration from this music, but not many neo-hippies exude the feral cheer of the original. When the druids come for you, they'll be chanting "Chop Chop."
Goblin, "Suspiria," 1977
I couldn't find any metal soundtracks I wanted to include here, but in its earnest, towering evilness, Italian band Goblin's "Suspira," created for the Dario Argento film, maybe comes close enough. The title song, embedded above, has whispers and a drum throbbing like a stalker coming closer and closer until the synth teleporter takes him away. "Witch" opens with percussion that sounds like tree branches slapping against a windowpane, followed by morbid howls; "Black Forest" gives you the fair folk dancing eerily in the glade with synthesizers, a saxophone and a bad-ass classic rock guitarist. The ridiculous, larger-than-life melodrama of horror is complemented perfectly by the ridiculous larger-than-life melodrama of prog.
Michael Jackson, "Thriller," 1983
Michael Jackson's video is about how sufficiently transcendent disco-pop can elevate the cheesiest movie clichés to classics, and/or about how even the most transcendent pop can benefit from a cheesy movie horror cliché or two. Though some might not consider it a film soundtrack, it seems to deliberately demand to be placed in that company, with a film-within-a-film where the cinema moonwalks backward into video, and vice versa. Whatever its genre designation, though, one thing's for sure; more zombie flicks should've had MJ doing their choreography.
Various Artists, "Beat Street," 1984
This soundtrack was released as two albums ("Beat Street: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack" and "Beat Street Volume 2"), both of which are jammed full of classic hip-hop track after classic hip-hop track. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five ("Each and every time you touched a spray paint can/ Michelangelo's soul controlled your hands"), Africa Baambata, Jazzy Jay, plus less well known but still great performers like Sharon Green, Lisa Counts & Debbie. The embedded link is "Santa Rap," in which the Treacherous Three foreshadow gangsta profanity, Public Enemy social consciousness, and backpacker goofiness all while wearing Santa Claus hats — plus you get Doug E. Fresh beatboxing, classic breaking, unlikely '80s outfits and a cameo from Kool Herc right at the end.
Various Artists,"Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" 1998
A nearly forgotten Frankie Lymon biopic, this soundtrack has not a single Lymon performance on it. Instead, Missy Elliot and Timbaland masterminded an unlikely anthology of '90s R&B. Pre-mega-stardom Destiny's Child tells some guy to kiss off over Timbaland's staggering beats on "Get on the Bus," Lil' Mo has her debut on the swaggering retro-disco "Five Minutes" (embedded here). Melanie B, of all people, weds an ABBA-worthy hook to a (Missy-provided) Prince-worthy beat on "I Want You Back," complete with chuckling girl-power spoken-word outro. Mint Condition does harmonizing so perfectly on "Love Is for Fools" you'd think even Lymon himself would be pleased. Plus contributions from Coco, En Vogue, Nicole Wray and a final blowout by Little Richard. Proof that Timbaland's reputation for genius is deserved, and that Missy remains criminally underrated.
Elvis Presley, "Jailhouse Rock," 1957
Elvis only sings a handful of songs in his most famous film, but that just means you've got time to watch them all twice. The songwriting team of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller were responsible for most of the tunes, including the massive hit title number, which gets some amazing behind-bars choreography (the truncheon-to-the-beat is an especially nice touch). The performance of "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care" has to be one of Presley's finest post-Sun vocals; the drop to the lower register on the chorus makes being uncool sound like the sexiest thing in the world.
Willie Nelson and Family, "Honeysuckle Rose," 1980
The soundtrack for the forgettable 1980 romantic drama features some nice tracks by Emmylous Harris, Johnny Gimble and a couple of others. But for the most part it's Willie all the way, live and in concert, rolling through one easy hook after the other, his voice laid back behind, or over near, the beat as always. "On the Road Again" is the most recognizable performance, but I may prefer the ragged-but-right "Whiskey River" (embedded above), with the harmonica and guitar dueling to see which can be more abrasive.
Antônio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá, "Black Orpheus," 1959
Jobim's song "A Felicidade" opens this classic Brazilian film with a slow theme in the strings, suddenly erupting into feverish drumming. That's a neat encapsulation of the whole; lyrical romance and carnival hip-shaking rhythm switching and samba-ing around each other. The entire soundtrack could be seen as a bossa nova standard, but Bonfá's "Samba de Orfeu" is especially well known.
Various Artists, "Stormy Weather," 1943
African-American performers rarely had a chance to appear in Hollywood musicals, so the few productions with black casts had an embarrassment of riches. "Stormy Weather" included Ada Brown and Fats Waller's earthily flirtatious "That Ain't Right," Waller's duet with his own eyebrows on "Ain't Misbehavin'," a marvelous washboard band called the Musical Madcaps performing (and leaping) with legendary tap dancer Bill Robinson, and Lena Horne singing "Stormy Weather." To top it off there's Cab Calloway's "Jumpin' Jive," with the jaw-dropping, crotch-shocking Nicolas Brothers (clip embedded above). There isn't a good, easily available soundtrack of the film, as far as I could tell, so you've got no option but to watch the whole thing.
Outkast, "Idlewild," 2006
Half soundtrack, half concept album, all bubbling funky stew, "Idlewild's" ambitions are not unlike "Stormy Weather's" — it aims to encapsulate and synthesize the history of African-American music in 70 odd minutes. Andre and Big Boi turn everything into hip-hop and hip-hop into everything; marching band music; novelty vaudeville jazz; gangsta rap (with Snoop and Lil' Wayne); soul testifying (via an amazing vocal by Janelle Monae, embedded above); George Clinton guitar freakout; soul gospel; it's all enthusiastically donned and doffed, not as roots exploration, but as a kind of retro fantasy in which the past is accessed, sans nostalgia, for whacked-out inspiration. The mélange of styles and the unashamed flirtation with corn alienated just about everyone, but that just underlines how badass they were to try it. Seven years on it sounds more and more like the duo's masterpiece.
Prince and the Revolution, "Parade," 1986
Prince's "Purple Rain" soundtrack is a universally acknowledged classic, but I think I may like this lesser-known effort even better. The purple one ramps up the psychedelia, adding tinkly flourishes to the sweaty funk of "New Position" and starry-eyed squonking to "Girls & Boys." "She had the cutest ass he'd ever seen/and he did too, they were meant to be" — only Prince could sell callipygian divination. "Do U Lie?" is a hysterical version of music-hall-by-way-of-McCartney; "Under the Cherry Moon" is throbbing love-man emoting in the moonlight. The big hit was "Kiss," played over the trailer above — all building, boiling tension and the sexiest pause (sprinkled with smooching noises) in the history of pop music. Prince has been remarkably successful in keeping his music off the Internet, but if you've missed this item in his catalog, you owe it to yourself to track it down.
Pink Floyd, "Soundtrack for the Film More," 1969
Sometimes bands are better before they figure out what they're doing. This soundtrack Pink Floyd did for an obscure European film about drug addiction certainly makes that case. Since the post-Syd Barrett lineup hadn't yet realized that bloated concept album song suites were the path to the big bucks, Floyd was free to fool around, trying out gentle melodic folk ("Crying Song," "Cymbaline"), quasi-Eastern fusion freakouts ("Up the Khyber"), ambient experiments ("Quicksilver") and David Gilmour whispering lascivious come-ons like a demented Latin lover ("A Spanish Piece"). "The Nile Song," embedded here, is a gigantic slab of pre-Sabbath metal, with gloriously empty-headed lyrics. "I was standing by the Nile/ when I saw my lady smile." They'd never create such a perfect mess again.
Manfred Hubler and Siegfried Schwab, "Vampyros Lesbos," 1995
A rerelease of soundtrack music from three Jess Franco exploitation vehicles, "Vampyros Lesbos" has become infamous as an apotheosis of uber-lounge cheese, complete with wah-wah upon wah-wah, groovy grooves and promiscuous sitar —the ultimate album for kids who like to … you know what I mean? Yeah, you know what I mean. Tarantino nicked "The Lions and the Cucumber" (embedded above) for "Jackie Brown," figuring that a growling cabaret monster with yipping yap dogs made sense in any context. The shameless "Satisfaction" rip-off/sendup is a winkingly egregious art-school appropriation of the Stones' art-school appropriation of the blues. "Ballad of a Fair Singer" even samples applause as a rhythmic element, as if to let the listeners know that they too shall be seduced and rise again as Muzak.
Curtis Mayfield, "Super Fly," 1972
The greatest blaxploitation soundtrack, and proof that anti-drug preaching can be cool as shit, at least if you're Curtis Mayfield. The singer's light, almost strained vocals hover above the incredibly funky percussion, adding a vulnerable desperation to the rhythmic drive. The title tune (embedded here) is justly famous, but tracks like Pusherman," "Freddie's Dead" and "No Thing on Me" are also much-sampled classics.
Willie Hutch, "Foxy Brown" 1974
This isn't one of the most celebrated blaxploitation soundtracks — but that's an oversight. The album is one uber-funky, hard-edged soul groove after another. "Foxy Lady," embedded here, stutters and struts, the jazzy sax spitting out an acidic, disconnected juxtaposition, as if that foxy lady (star Pam Grier) is so hot she tears through the fabric of the song. On "You Sure Know How to Love Your Man" Hutch wails, growls and chuckles with a blistering authority that would make better known luminaries, from Stevie Wonder to Al Green, jump back and kiss themselves.
Miles Davis, "A Tribute to Jack Johnson," 1971
Fusion's usually thought of as misguided affectation, but "Jack Johnson" is raw and beautifully ugly, a series of churning funk grooves shot through with jagged slashes of jazz. Solos by Davis and an all-star fusion lineup (John McLaughlin, Sonny Sharrock, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea) spit out over the rhythm section like brutal, unexpected jabs and uppercuts. Recorded as a score for a documentary on boxer Jack Johnson, "A Tribute" almost never makes it onto best of soundtrack lists ... and having rectified that bizarre oversight, this seems like a good place to end.