The 1980’s saw the release of several films with classic, timeless soundtracks. We rank the 10 best.
The 1980’s was a decade of significant sonic evolution in terms of music both mainstream and lesser-known. As styles moved away from traditional rock, and soul, improving technology allowed the contributions and embracing of electronic instruments. The 80’s saw an explosion of keyboards, synths, pads, and drum machines. That influence of changing instruments, and changing styles was heard clearly in the movie soundtracks of the era. In this article I set out to determine which are the 10 best soundtracks of the 1980’s. (Note: I’m only looking at SOUNDTRACKS, you know, music recorded by artists but not specifically for the film they are featured in. A movie’s SCORE is an entirely different (but related) thing where it is original music composed specifically for, and written around the film. The 80’s had many very memorable scores, but that’s a topic for another day.)
So, in order to narrow down the very wide field I had to make some stipulations. First, there has to be a seminal song on the soundtrack that immediately causes association with the film. If you play the song, most people would be able to identify the movie. Second, the soundtrack had to be from a popular or hit film at the time it was released. I know there are many great 80’s movie soundtracks from smaller films or cult hits, but in my mind a film is a hit because of all the elements working together. If the soundtrack has to be able to stand on its own, so does the movie, and they are even better together. Finally, the soundtrack has to have been popular at the time of release, and still admired to this day. I’m talking about timeless accomplishments that remind you fondly of the 80’s.
But beyond that, the actual ranking is purely subjective. Here’s what I came up with:
10. The Blues Brothers (1980)
An oddity on this list, we have a soundtrack that isn’t comprised of pop music, but a collection of rock, blues, and soul. It is a lot of covers, performed by the band who happen to share the name with the SNL sketch-based film. But, they bring in a number of heavy hitters, and you can’t deny that the movie is a lot of fun and as a musical it owes that fun to….its music.
Standout Song: “Gimme Some Lovin’” by The Blues Brothers
- “She Caught the Katy” – The Blues Brothers
- “Peter Gun Theme” – The Blues Brothers
- “Gimme Some Lovin’” – The Blues Brothers
- “Shake a Tail Feather” – Ray Charles w/ The Blues Brothers
- “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” – The Blues Brothers
- “The Old Landmark” – James Brown and the Rev. James Cleveland Chior
- “Think” – Aretha Franklin & The Blues Brothers
- “Theme From Rawhide” – The Blues Brothers
- “Minnie the Moocher” – Cab Calloway and the Blues Brothers
- “Sweet Home Chicago” – The Blues Brothers
- “Jailhouse Rock” – The Blues Brothers
Popularity: Certified Platinum. “Gimme Some Lovin’” peaked at #18 on the Billboard Top 100
9 – St. Elmo’s Fire (1985)
A rare instance on this list where the soundtrack is more memorable than the film. This film was the birth of the “Rat Pack” and as such, was a big deal at the time. Its soundtrack was full of big names that also represented the time period, but hasn’t exactly aged well. Still, this is the pinnacle of corny 80’s soundtracks, and for that reason easily earns its place among the most memorable audio moments in 80’s cinema.
Standout Song: “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion)” by John Parr
- St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion) – John Parr
- Shake Down – Billy Squier
- Young and Innocent – Elefante
- This Time it Was Really Right – Jon Anderson
- Saved My Life – Fee Waybill
- Love Theme from St. Elmo’s Fire (Instrumental)
- If I Turn You Away – Vikki Moss
- Stressed Out (Close to the Edge) – Airplay
- Gerogetown – David Foster
- Love Theme from St. Elmo’s Fire (For Just a Moment) – David Foster
Popularity: I could not find any information on the sales of this album, but do know it reached at least #10 on the Billboard 200. “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Awards: Grammy nominee for Best Original Score for a Motion Picture.
8. Back to the Future (1985)
A good representation of 80’s soundtracks, Back to the Future has a lot of diversity in its song selections. It has music from the time it was released, and music from the 50’s, and everything in between. Today, it still sounds pretty good!
Standout Song: “The Power of Love” – Huey Lewis & the News or the “Back to the Future Overture” (although that song was featured in the film’s score)
- “The Power of Love” – Huey Lewis and the News (3:58)
- “Time Bomb Town” – Lindsey Buckingham (2:48)
- “Back to the Future” – The Outatime Orchestra (3:20)
- “Heaven Is One Step Away” – Eric Clapton (4:13)
- “Back in Time” – Huey Lewis and the News (4:22)
- “Back to the Future Overture” – The Outatime Orchestra (8:19)
- “The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry)” – Etta James (2:45)
- “Night Train” – Marvin Berry & The Starlighters (2:17)
- “Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)” – Marvin Berry & The Starlighters (3:02)
- “Johnny B. Goode” – Marty McFly with The Starlighters (3:06)
Popularity: Certified Gold, Peaked at #12 on the Billboards Pop Charts. “Power of Love” went on to be #1 on the Hot 100 Billboard charts and stayed in the top 100 for 15 weeks.
Awards: Oscars/Golden Globe Nomination for Best Original Song (“Power of Love”), Grammy Nomination for Best Album of Original Material Written for a Motion Picture
7. Pretty in Pink (1986)
This is an album which I feel has gotten more love as time has gone on. It didn’t see an explosion of popularity at the time of its release, but is now recognized as a fantastic collection of songs that both reflect the time period and the film itself. It is also a representation of John Hughes’ films, which all had a sort of cult following for their soundtracks. This one I think is the most well-rounded of those (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club) and most popular.
Standout Song: “If You Leave” by OMD, although you could argue “Pretty in Pink” by the Psychedelic Furs, although that song was released before the film and served as inspiration for it.
- If You Leave – Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark
- Left of Center – Suzanne Vega w/ Joe Jackson
- Get To Know Ya – Jesse Johnson
- Do Wot You Do – INXS
- Pretty In Pink – The Psychedelic Furs
- Shell-Shock – New Order
- Round, Round – Belouis Some
- Wouldn’t It Be Good – Danny Hutton Hitters
- Bring On The Dancing Horses – Echo & The Bunnymen
- Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want – The Smiths
Popularity: Peaked at #5 on the Billboard Top 200. “If You Leave” peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100.
6. Footloose (1984)
It’s easy to have association with a film when the chorus of a song is the same as the title of the film it is used in. But Kenny Loggins shows up a few times on this list for good reason – striking a chord with 80’s movie audiences. Footloose got a reboot in 2011, and of course they brought him back to record a new version of the title song.
Standout Song: “Footloose” – Kenny Loggins
- Footloose – Kenny Loggins
- Let’s Hear it For the Boy – Deniece Williams
- Almost Paradise (Love Theme from Footloose) – Mike Reno & Ann Wilson
- Holding Out for a Hero – Bonnie Tyler
- Dancing in the Streets – Shalamar
- I’m Free (Heaven Helps the Man) – Kenny Loggins
- Somebody’s Eyes – Karla Bonoff
- The Girl Gets Around – Sammy Hagar
- Never – Moving Pictures
Popularity: Certified 9x platinum, hit the #1 position on the Billboard 200. “Footloose” and “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” both peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Awards: Nominated for the Grammy for Best Original Score. “Footloose” was nominated for the Best Song Oscar and Golden Globe. “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Song.
5. Flashdance (1983)
Of all the “dancing” films on this list, this one is probably the least popular nowadays, but its soundtrack was immensely successful – its the third highest selling album on this list, all three of which are among the top 100 selling albums of ALL TIME. So, this is a case where the music may be better than the movie.
Standout Song: “Maniac” by Michael Sembello or “Flashdance…What A Feeling” by Irene Cara
- Flashdance…What A Feeling – Irene Cara
- He’s a Dream – Shandi
- Love Theme from Flashdance – Helen St. John
- Manhunt – Karen Kamon
- Lady, Lady, Lady – Joe “Bean” Esposito
- Imagination – Laura Branigan
- Romeo – Donna Summer
- Seduce Me Tonight – Cycle V
- I’ll Be Where the Heart Is – Kim Carnes
- Maniac – Michael Sembello
Popularity: Reportedly has sold 20 million+ copies, 6x certified platinum. Peaked at #1 on US Billboards 200. Both “Flashdance…What A Feeling” and “Maniac” peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Awards: Won the Grammy for Best Album of Original Score Material Written for a Motion Picture. “Flashdance…What A Feeling” won the Oscar and the Golden Globe for Best Original Song, and “Maniac” was also nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe. Won Best Original Score Golden Globe.
4. Top Gun (1986)
This is a film where the music and the tone go hand in hand perfectly. Director Tony Scott gained experience directing commercials and music videos, and you can see how that influenced his use of music in this film.
Standout Song: “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins, or “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin
- Danger Zone – Kenny Loggins
- Mighty Wings – Cheap Trick
- Playing With The Boys – Kenny Loggins
- Lead Me On – Teena Marie
- Take My Breath Away (Love Theme From ‘Top Gun’) – Berlin
- Hot Summer Nights – Miami Sound Machine
- Heaven In Your Eyes – Loverboy
- Through The Fire – Larry Greene
- Destination Unknown – Marietta
- Top Gun Anthem – Harold Faltermeyer and Steve Stevens
Popularity: Reached #1 on the US Billboard Top 200, certified 9x platinum. “Danger Zone” peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and “Take My Breath Away” peaked at #1.
Awards: “Take My Breath Away” won both the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Song, “Top Gun Anthem” won the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental.
3. Beverly Hills Cop (1987)
There is no way to listed to “Axel F” and not get it stuck in your head. When it is stuck in there, you can’t help but picture Eddie Murphy and this memorable film. Some call this the quintessential 80’s movie soundtrack. I don’t disagree.
Standout Song: “Axel F” by Harold Faltermeyer
- “New Attitude” by Patti LaBelle
- “Don’t Get Stopped in Beverly Hills” by Shalamar
- “Do You Really (Want My Love?)” by Junior Giscombe
- “Emergency” by Rockie Robbins
- “Neutron Dance” by The Pointer Sisters
- “The Heat Is On” by Glenn Frey
- “Gratitude” by Danny Elfman
- “Stir It Up” by Patti LaBelle
- “Rock ‘N Roll Me Again” by The System
- “Axel F” by Harold Faltermeyer
Popularity: #1 on US Billboard Top 200. “Axel F” went as high as #3 on the Billboard Hot 100, and stayed in the top 100 for 15 weeks.
Awards: Won the Grammy for Best Album of Original Score Written for a Motion Picture.
2. Dirty Dancing (1987)
To have a film become a pop-culture blockbuster is impressive enough. But to also have the soundtrack become one of the 25 best selling albums of all time….is a really big deal. This sound track has held up well, not just for nostalgia reasons. When vinyl became popular again 5 years ago or so, this album saw a resurgence in sales that continues to this day. It’s a timeless masterpiece.
Standout Song: “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes
- “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” – Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes
- “Be My Baby” – The Ronettes
- “She’s Like the Wind” – Patrick Swayze
- “Hungry Eyes” – Eric Carmen
- “Stay” – Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs
- “Yes” – Merry Clayton
- “You Don’t Own Me” – Blow Monkeys
- “Hey! Baby”- Bruce Channel
- “Overload” – Alfie Zappacosta
- “Love Is Strange” – Mickey & Sylvia
- “Where Are You Tonight?” – Tom Johnston
- “In the Still of the Night”- The Five Satins
Popularity: The highest-selling album on this list, and the 18th highest selling album of all time. Certified 11 times platinum, sold over 32 million copies. Peaked at #1 on the Billboard Top 200. “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Awards: “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” won the Oscar for Best Original Song for a Motion Picture. Also nominated for Best Song at the Golden Globes and Grammys.
1. Purple Rain (1984)
What can I say about this one to do it any justice? The greatest 80’s soundtrack also happens to be one of the greatest albums ever made. It is also one of the highest selling. It made Price a superstar, helped make the film into a hit, and we still have not stopped listening to it. Price deserves a lot of credit for bringing pop, rock, soul, and psychedelic music together into an unforgettable, ceaselessly enjoyable album.
Standout Song: “Let’s Go Crazy”, “When Doves Cry”, or “Purple Rain”
- Let’s Go Crazy
- Take Me With U
- The Beautiful Ones
- Computer Blue
- Darling Nikki
- When Doves Cry
- I Would Die 4 U
- Baby I’m a Star
- Purple Rain
Popularity: The 5th best selling soundtrack of all time, certified 15x platinum, has sold over 25 million copies. It spent 24 weeks as the #1 album on the Billboard 200, and stayed in the top 200 for more than 2 years! “Let’s Go Crazy”, and “When Doves Cry” peaked at #1, “Purple Rain” peaked at #2, and “I Would Die 4 U” peaked at #4 on the Billboard Top 100.
Awards: Won the Academy Award for Best Original Score. Won the Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group, and the Grammy for Best Score. “When Doves Cry” was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Song.