Movie music comes in various forms: indulgent orchestral scores, showtunes, and ingenious needle drops of great existing songs, just when you need them, perfectly timed and conveying more feeling than any actors, dialogue or scenery ever could. I’ve listed my 25 favourites from the past 20 years. Let me know what you think….
Watch on Youtube Greta Gerwig’s instant coming-of-age classic finds its magic in capturing the specificity of early 2000s teen ‘cool’; primarily through use of music like Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in my Pocket”, Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” and — in its most moving scene — the corn fest of “Crash Into Me” soundtracks Lady Bird and her best friends’ imperfect prom night; a smack in the face to cool and the hipsters who make Lady Bird feel bad about her cultural taste.
Watch on YouTube The cult black comedy opens with a statement of intent as the opening credits are cut to this classic Bollywood song and Thora Birch’s Enid rocks out in her bedroom. Like Lady Bird, Terry Zwigoff’s highlights atypical displays of coolness and Enid’s unusual music taste leads to a beautiful friendship with a middle-aged record collector (Steve Buscemi). “Jaan Pehechan Ho” absolutely slaps, and Hollywood should utilise staples of Bollywood (respectfully) more often.
Watch on YouTube The Coen Brothers’ best film establishes its bleak 1960s Minnesota setting with a series of Jefferson Airplane tracks stored on the walkman of would-be Bar-mitzvah boy Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff). Its bizarre folk tale cold open transitions to the 60s to the tune of “Somebody to Love” and we know we’re in for a wild time. Later in the film, two equally brilliant scenes feature some of the band’s more melancholy tracks, “Today” and ‘Comin Back To Me”.
Watch on YouTube The standout episode of Lena Dunham’s HBO comedy sees feisty protagonist Hannah confront, be fooled by, and ultimately unmask an abusive author (Matthew Rhys) before his young daughter shows up and performs Rihanna’s Desperado on the flute. The performance fades into the original recording as Hannah gets up and walks out. A terrific song that, almost undefinably, speaks volumes about the subtle verbal violence we’ve just witnessed.
Watch on YouTube For we kids at the elder end of Gen Z, there are a number of key needle drops in the Shrek series, but none as profoundly thrilling as the climax of Shrek 2 where an impromptu performance of “…Hero” by the Fairy Godmother turns into one of the all-time great battle scenes and the song ramps up about 100 gears. You haven’t felt excitement until you’ve seen a giant gingerbread man storm a castle while this song plays.
Watch on YouTube This one’s a weird but personal favourite. I discovered The War on Drugs, who are probably my favourite band in the whole world, in this third-to-last episode of NBC’s brilliant family drama Parenthood; in an extremely moving scene where one of the show’s best couples reunite after a season-long separation. The whole show has an incredible soundtrack, much of it themed around the music of Bob Dylan, so I’d recommend it highly to anyone with an interest in good music supervision for television. I discovered so much great stuff through it.
Watch on YouTube A major influence on the music tastes of my generation, Twilight’s soundtracks were a staple of late 2000s rock culture, and their relentless commitment to showcasing British glam-rock futurists Muse was admirably nuts. Catherine Hardwicke’s great first film throws the kitchen sink at the wall with a hyperactive, now semi-iconic vampire baseball match that uses “Supermassive Black Hole” as its energetic crutch.
Watch on YouTube Andrea Arnold builds to the climax of the mother-daughter conflict in her stunning 2010 drama as they finally find a way to connect through spontaneous dancing in their apartment. “Life’s A Bitch” sums up the one thing they have in common: fury and frustration at the circumstances of poverty they’ve found themselves in; circumstances that nothing, especially a man, can really change.
Aziz Ansari’s Dev has spent an amazing day with the Italian woman he’s in love with. As she’s getting out of their taxi, they figure out it’s the last time she will see him before returning home (with her boyfriend). He sits in silence the whole ride home, immersed in his own envy and disappointment. Absolute 10/10 needle drop ensues, Marc Almond’s croak conveying the sheer blistering unfairness of Dev’s romantic predicament.
Watch on YouTube From “Hey Jude” to “Needle in the Hay”, Wes Anderson’s first masterpiece (the second, in my book, being Moonrise Kingdom — another great soundtrack!) is ripe with startlingly strong music cues. Nico’s haunting cover of Jackson Browne’s “These Days”, when Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow’s characters are reunited after a long time apart, gives an otherwise acerbic film a moment of romantic clarity.
Watch on YouTube This largely forgotten Shawn Levy comedy was poking fun at the crassness of Weinstein-style Hollywood producers back in 2002; Frankie Muniz and Amanda Bynes play two teens out to bring down Paul Giamatti. In one out-of-nowhere great action scene, they stage a helicopter crash and force Giamatti to jump out of the chopper. “Right Here Right Now” blasts. You’ll feel the blood rush through your veins.
Watch on YouTube The soundtrack of Luca Guadagnino’s Italian summer love story is largely defined by Sufjan Stevens’ original songs, but in terms of needle drops none is better than “Love My Way”, which plays at a party and forces lovestruck Elio (Timothée Chalamet) out of his chair and onto the dance floor with Oliver (Armie Hammer).
Watch on YouTube Barry Jenkins’ films operate on an incredibly delicate plane of sensuality, and while Nicholas Britell’s scores are largely responsible for how well this works, there are equally crucial music choices in his work: primarily, the classic song that plays when Chiron visits his old flame in the diner in the final moments of Moonlight.
Watch on YouTube Many people likely don’t even remember this glimmer of diagetic music in the penultimate Potter; a series otherwise known for its bombastic fantasy scoring. But in one sensitive standout moment, and a major improvement on JK Rowling’s book, two of our protagonists Harry and Hermione dance to this Nick Cave track on a fuzzy FM radio and it’s… ridiculously affecting for a Harry Potter movie. Not a cool inclusion, but a worthy one.
Damon Lindelof’s HBO drama is full of wacky song choices, but some of the best are S&G songs; Justin Theroux’s Kevin performs “Homeward Bound” at karaoke in purgatory (I figured it wasn’t technically a needle drop because he sings it) and two episodes later, strips down and ties a plastic bag around his head for totally non-sexual reasons while “The 59th Street Bridge Song” plays.
Watch on YouTube Much of the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People fails to really capture the excitement of first love, with some exceptions, like the brilliant choice of London Grammar’s terrific “Hey Now” for a nightclub scene. The weird specificity of West of Ireland nightlife and dancefloor lust summed up in one 30 second scene.
Pretty comparable to №16 is this really touching moment in John Green adaptation Looking for Alaska’s standout episode, when our young would-be lovers visit a friend’s family for Thanksgiving and get swept away dancing to Bill Withers on the radio. Incredibly, simply intimate.
Watch on DailyMotion President Bartlet has MS, and he needs to tell the world whether it’s going to stop him from re-running or not. The final scene of the show’s best ever episode, Two Cathedrals, follows Bartlet from the Oval Office where he’s just met a ghost, to a press conference where he must decide whether to announce his decision. There’s a storm brewing outside and within. Shakespearean and marvellous.
Watch on YouTube Gatsby works because of its soundtrack, full of Lana Del Rey and Will.I.Am infusion. But the best song in it is undoubtedly this epic collaboration which Baz Luhrmann throws over our introductory scene to the New York of the roaring 20s. Tobey Maguire’s Nick narrates.
Watch on YouTube Pride’s brilliance comes from its split focus on the UK gay rights movement and miners strike, and never is it more effective than when “There is Power in the Union” starts to play over footage of the Pride March. A song that should be used in far more mainstream films than it has been.
The Morning Show is really weird, but it’s good. Case in point: an extended montage in the fifth episode where Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) leaves work and has alleyway sex with a bartender while Steve Carell ponders his imminent cancellation and Elbow’s “Grounds for Divorce” plays. Impossible to describe, you’ll have to watch for yourself.
“Drops of Jupiter” is a fantastic piece of pop music, and it provides a central emotional arc to this excellent Jesse Plemons/Molly Shannon cancer drama. It just keeps playing within the film, driving the characters nuts, until it begins to resonate. Much like in many of our lives.
Watch on YouTube We must give credit to JJ Abrams’ first Star Trek reboot (2009) for the choice of song, but it’s Justin Lin’s third instalment which brings it back in a big way, the force of the music blaring from the Enterprise being intense enough to destroy an enemy fleet. The power of the Beastie Boys!
Watch on YouTube There’s an argument to be made that Kingsman’s infamous ‘Church Scene’ glorifies gun violence in a major way, but set that aside for a moment to acknowledge how terrific a piece of action filmmaking Matthew Vaughn’s film, and especially that sequence is, as Colin Firth — in one unbroken take — takes out an entire room of literally rabid evangelicals as “Free Bird” escalates to its climax.
Watch on YouTube A song choice so iconic they did an entire Simpsons gag about it. The Departed strikes an interesting balance between Irish Bostonian parochialism and traditional Scorsese gang warfare; nothing sums up the sweet spot this film hits like the opening titles song: Dropkick Murphies’ furious trad-rock anthem.