Lights, Camera, Cello: The Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time (According to Our Editors)

Movies aren’t like books, those fading relics of the pre-digital era. Books I could lose myself in anywhere. In most any conditions. They didn’t need dark rooms and quiet and all that sensory deprivation to concentrate on. I could be hanging on to a lurching tram with one hand and a book with the other, squeezed amidst oversharing, bad-smelling strangers, and still be utterly engrossed in the story.

But movies are weak. 

With their silly plots and the rampant overacting that goes on — take a moment some time to compare how real people appear and react and to the routinely exaggerated facial expressions in movies and TV — cinema needs every bit of help it can get to suspend disbelief.

And unless it’s just a popcorn flick or such dross that the filmmakers compensate for their abject failure to make art themselves by blasting us with “Sweet Home Alabama” or Beethoven’s much-abused “Piano Sonata No. 14” for the umpteenth time, music often just makes things worse.

Anyway, this isn’t about all that. This is a celebration of soundtracks.

So with no further ado, I’ll dim the lights and roll what SPIN’s editors have selected as the greatest soundtracks of all time. Enjoy. – Matt Thompson

American Pie (1999)

If there was a movie equivalent to the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater soundtracks, it was American Pie. Goldfinger, Blink-182, Dishwalla, a less terrible Third Eye Blind song, Tonic, Sugar Ray, and more made it pretty much a who’s who of the immature alternative scene of the late ‘90s — although some of those names have aged much better than others a couple of decades later. Hell, they even kept the relative-to-the-era heat coming in the sequel with Green Day, Sum 41, Blink-182 (again), American Hi-Fi, Alien Ant Farm, Uncle Kracker, and 3 Doors Down (where some aged much better than others). Not sure if Blink’s pet monkey made it onto either soundtrack, though. – Josh Chesler

Lost in Translation (2003)

The Brian Reitzell-supervised soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s classic sophomore film would be notable on its own simply due to its four new Kevin Shields songs, which represented the first batch of work from the reclusive My Bloody Valentine leader in the decade-plus since the release of Loveless. Shields’ gauzy soundscapes are the perfect backdrop for Lost in Translation’s deeply felt tale of unconventional human connection between Scarlett Johansson’s young newlywed Charlotte and Bill Murray’s washed-up actor Bob, who find themselves suddenly drawn together in Tokyo as their lives are coming undone. Just as a satisfying resolution to this budding friendship feels tantalizingly out of reach, the rest of the soundtrack amplifies that sense of longing. From Air’s gorgeous, resigned “Alone in Kyoto” to the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey” (“Walking back to you / is the hardest thing that I can do”). Sit through eight minutes of silence after the latter cut to hear Murray’s lovably off-key rendition of Roxy Music’s “More Than This,” another key Charlotte/Bob bonding moment from the movie. An even more lasting outcome of the soundtrack: My Bloody Valentine reunited in 2007 and became more popular than ever, while the Jesus and Mary Chain crowned its own rebirth that same year by performing “Just Like Honey” with none other than Johansson at Coachella. – Jonathan Cohen

Singles (1992)

By the time Singles hit theaters, the Seattle scene had taken over the music world. The members of the fictional Citizen Dick were household names among the MTV crowd, and the flower delivery guy just so happened to be the frontman of a band called Soundgarden. The film’s soundtrack might as well have been called Alternative Music for Dummies. From Alice in Chains’ brooding “Would?” to the previously unreleased (and subsequently beloved) Pearl Jam songs “Breath” and “State of Love and Trust,” Soundgarden’s “Birth Ritual,” Screaming Trees’ “Nearly Lost You,” and Paul Westerberg’s bookend themes “Dyslexic Heart” and “Waiting for Somebody,” Singles is a snapshot into a period where almost anything was possible, the outsiders were winning, and the small-town sound changed the world. Even with the inclusion of non-Seattle natives like the aforementioned Westerberg and the Smashing Pumpkins, the soundtrack is a snapshot into a different era, time and city, all filled with hope and promise. – Daniel Kohn 

Orlando (1992)

At the end of Sally Potter’s Orlando, the eponymous (sorry for the big word; maybe just switch to TikTok) centuries-old gender-shifting protagonist played by Tilda Swinton sits beneath a tree while her little daughter frolics in a field before her. A dance beat pulses, trills gather, and the wordless falsetto of Jimi Somerville, who floats above in angelic form, lifts off.

Not only a film director, Potter is a dancer, choreographer, and composer, who was quoted saying her aim for the Orlando soundtrack was for it to be in a “musical dialogue” with the narrative.

At film’s end, as the dance beat pulses inside Somerville’s high song of liberation, when Swinton’s face ceases movement, eyes on us, ecstatic lyrics of “I am dying” sounding diamond clear, Potter transfers the protagonist’s spirit to us.

Shamanic. – Matt Thompson