What defines a great soundtrack? For you, it might have to make you weep, like M. Butterfly, or shake your tail feather, like Saturday Night Fever. For me, it has to transport me somewhere—the back of a meat truck, where a coupla goodfellas hang frozen and soulless; a dirty Hollywood punk club in the early 80s; a freaked-out laboratory helmed by a transvestite mad scientist. These ten soundtracks take me outside of whatever run-of-the-mill place I’m in when listening and drop me smack-dab into the middle of a whole new experience.
1. Various Artists: Valley Girl: Music From the Soundtrack. Rhino.
Directed by Martha Coolidge, the underrated Valley Girl was too low budget for an official soundtrack, but Rhino released this unofficial one that nailed all the early-80s power pop deliciousness with performances by Modern English, the Plimsouls, the Psychedelic Furs, and others.
2. Various Artists: Dead Presidents Vols. 1 and 2. Capitol.
Even some stinker movies can produce top-notch soundtracks (witness the Porky’s Revenge! album produced by Dave Edmunds). Directed by Allen and Albert Hughes, Dead Presidents isn’t a complete bomb, and its two-volume soundtrack positively explodes with unforgettable 60s and 70s soul, funk, and R&B from Sly and the Family Stone, the Impressions, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, Barry White, Isaac Hayes, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Sam & Dave, Al Green, and the O’Jays.
3. Various Artists: Singles. Epic Soundtrax.
Cameron Crowe’s exploration of twentysomethings looking for love produced this love song for the music of his city of Seattle. With the exception of Nirvana, all the then-emerging hard rockers of Seattle make an appearance in this 1992 film, including Alice in Chains with the brooding “Would?,” Soundgarden with the frenzied “Birth Ritual,” Mother Love Bone with the melodic “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns,” and Pearl Jam with “Breath” and “State of Love and Trust.” Local hero Jimi Hendrix is represented with “May This Be Love,” and Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson pay fitting tribute to their beloved Led Zeppelin with a cover of “Battle of Evermore.” They all do their city proud.
4. Various Artists: Rocky Horror Picture Show. Ode.
The soundtrack to this cult classic is every bit as weird, wild, and oddly touching as one would expect. From rollicking sing-alongs—“The Time Warp,” of course, along with “Dammit Janet” and “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me”—to tenderly sentimental tunes like “Over at the Frankenstein Place” and “I’m Going Home,” the album transports listeners to a freaky, fun new world.
5. Various Artists: Gas Food Lodging. Mute.
Directed by Allison Anders, 1992’s Gas Food Lodging is a fairly forgettable throwaway, but the moody and lilting soundtrack is one I never really forget. Dinosaur Jr. frontman J. Mascis delivers ten tracks with a delicate and atmospheric pull that hooks the listener immediately, and Barry Adamson makes a showing with seven songs, plus the two pair up for the soaring “Flying Clouds.” Other tracks include the dark “Lament” by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and “Love” by the reliably loopy and hard-to-categorize Victoria Williams.
6. Jack Johnson and Friends: Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies for the Film Curious George.
Universal Brushfire. This album is every bit as “let’s-chill-in-the-hammock” as you’d expect from Johnson, with enough quirky mischievousness to feel right for the notorious namesake monkey George.
7. Various Artists: Goodfellas. Atlantic.
The soundtrack to my favorite movie on this list opens with Tony Bennett doing “Rags to Riches” and showcases such great songs as “Beyond the Sea” by Bobby Darin, “Mannish Boy” by Muddy Waters, and “Baby, I Love You” by Aretha Franklin. I can never hear Derek & the Dominoes’ “Layla (Piano Exit)” again without seeing wiseguy after wiseguy turning up dead in the film’s most haunting scene.
8. Various Artists: Dazed and Confused. Giant.
On the last day of high school in 1976, the characters of this Richard Linklater movie smoke weed, shoot pool, flirt, cruise, and bust each other’s chops. All the “Hell yeah!” exuberance is captured with song after song of 70s badassery—Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold,” The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb,” Kiss’ “Rock and Roll All Nite,” Foghat’s “Slow Ride,” and Sweet’s “Fox on the Run.” You’ll want to jump in your car, roll down the windows, and crank the dial to 11.
9. Various Artists: The Royal Tenenbaums. Hollywood.
Any soundtrack to a Wes Anderson movie is sure to deliver plenty of quirkiness and awe-inspiring variety. The Rushmore soundtrack is beloved by many, rightfully so, but Tenenbaums just does it a little bit more for me, with eight songs from the incomparable Mark Mothersbaugh plus a whopping 15 other choice tunes, including “Police & Thieves” by The Clash, “Fly” by Nick Drake, “Stephanie Says” by the Velvet Underground, and a cover of “Hey Jude” by The Mutato Muzika Orchestra.
10. Prince & the Revolution: Purple Rain. Warner Bros.
The term “iconic” gets tossed around a little too easily, but, come on, it’s freaking Purple Rain, one of the standard bearers for all soundtracks for more than 30 years. The album rips wide open from the get-go with “Let’s Go Crazy” and barrels through song after song, inciting the urge to flail, fight, fall in love, and, er, get frisky.
UP NEXT: Read Soundtracks Series, Vol. 3: Greg Cahill's Top 10.