Sometimes, another way to enjoy a movie has nothing to do with sitting in a theater. Instead, it might have you sitting in traffic, singing along with the radio on full blast. But which songs written for movies are truly the greatest of all time?
Almost as long as there have been movies, music has played a critical role in making a movie feel bigger than any screen could contain. By the pop music revolution of the 1960s, there came a reoccurring synergy between the movie and music industries, with pop artists writing and recording songs inspired by the stories told in movies. In some extreme cases, it’s musicians themselves who appear in the movies too.
Below, we rank the greatest songs made for movies. To be clear on the parameters: We’re excluding songs written independent of the movie and only added to the movie’s soundtrack after their creation. (Believe it or not, Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” wasn’t actually made for Batman Forever!) We’re also excluding songs from movie musicals, because not only do many songs originate for the stage but it’s also kind of cheating when you think about it. With that in mind, these are the songs that made some of our favorite movies so unforgettable.
35. Aaliyah, “Try Again” (Romeo Must Die, 2000)
When the late pop/R&B singer Aaliyah landed her first movie role, opposite kung fu star Jet Li in the romantic action-drama Romeo Must Die, she got to work right away on the soundtrack before even shooting the movie. Originally conceived as an inspirational anthem, “Try Again” was rewritten to be a love song to better suit the film, which tells of star-crossed lovers who hail from warring crime families. Innovative in its blend of hip-hop and R&B with electronic instrumentation, “Try Again” is both far ahead of its time and the encapsulation of Aaliyah’s woefully short career.
34. Queen, “Princes of the Universe” (Highlander, 1986)
In the epic fantasy film Highlander, Christopher Lambert plays an immortal swordsman who battles his rival for centuries, their blood feud climaxing in late 20th century New York City. Queen frontman Freddie Mercury wrote the movie’s theme song “Princes of the Universe” (lifted from its original working title), and though it never charted in any market anywhere, it retains notoriety as one of the few times Queen ever flirted with heavy metal artistry. At the very least, it makes you want to pick up a sword and look into the eyes of your sworn enemy and declare: There can only be one.
33. Lustra, “Scotty Doesn’t Know” (EuroTrip, 2004)
Rollicking as it is embarrassing for anyone named Scotty, “Scotty Doesn’t Know” suits the Mountain Dew-fueled juvenalia of the early 2000s with vulgar lyrics about the exploits of some poor guy’s cheating girlfriend. In the raunchy sex comedy EuroTrip, high school graduate Scotty (Scott Mechlowicz) finds out his girlfriend Fiona (Kristin Kreuk) has been sleeping with the lead singer of a punk band (played by Matt Damon, in a surprise cameo). His heartbreak kicks off a vacation to Europe, with Scotty trying to make amends with his hot German pen pal. While EuroTrip bombed in theaters, the slow-burn popularity of “Scotty Doesn’t Know” helped make the movie a cult classic when it later released on DVD and cable TV.
32. The Wonders, “That Thing You Do!” (That Thing You Do!, 1996)
In the alternate 1960s of Tom Hanks’ directorial debut film That Thing You Do!, The Wonders rise and fall from rock music stardom through the awesome power of their hit single “That Thing You Do.” (In reality, the song was written by the late Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, with singer Mike Viola on lead vocals.) Conceived as an amalgamation of bands like The Beatles and The Beach Boys and their formative role shaping modern pop music, “That Thing You Do!” is like hearing the greatest American rock band that never lived. Fun fact: The movie’s actors, many of whom were not real musicians themselves, practiced their instruments so much that on-set extras believed they were actually playing the song live during filming.
31. Chad Kroeger, “Hero” (Spider-Man, 2002)
When superhero movies first rose to power in the early 21st century, post-grunge was still the rock subgenre du jour. That’s how Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger and Saliva’s Josey Scott teamed up for “Hero,” written and recorded for Sam Raimi’s 2002 superhero smash hit Spider-Man. In defiance to expectations, the song’s lyrics avoid explicit mention of spiders and webs (leave it to emo band Dashboard Confessional to pick up this slack in the sequel) and instead emphasize on more old school heroics, in its military drumming and invocation of flying eagles. Though memorable for being a Spider-Man song, “Hero” is universal as the anthem for anyone who understands what it means to sacrifice for a greater good.
30. Matt Monro, “On Days Like These” (The Italian Job, 1969)
If you ever have the luxury of driving an exotic sports car through the winding roads of the Swiss Alps – as Rossano Brazzi does in the opening of the 1969 comedy caper The Italian Job – “On Days Like These” is just the kind of song you want to hear. Composed by Quincy Jones and sung by renowned crooner Matt Monro, the song’s painterly lyrics of carefree leisure clash with regretful yearning for a long-lost lover. Listen closely for the ethereal backup vocalists, who help give the song a daydream-esque texture.
29. Billie Eilish, “What Was I Made For?” (Barbie, 2023)
After a period of writer’s block, Billie Eilish was invited by Barbie director Greta Gerwig to see a rough cut of her soon-to-be summer blockbuster. With the movie’s probing of existence and worth, Eilish wrote a slow ballad with unexpected autobiographical qualities where she takes on the point-of-view of Barbie and asks what it means to be alive. In doing so, Eilish wrestles with her own status as a modern icon. The song is heard at the end of the film, when Barbie glimpses the totality of the human experience and decides for herself to be part of it. In a Billboard interview, Eilish said: “I was purely inspired by this movie and this character and the way I thought she would feel, and wrote about that. And then, over the next couple days, I was listening and I was like … I'm writing for myself and I don't even know it.”
28. Jackie Chan, “Hero Story” (Police Story, 1985)
It may surprise anyone outside Asia to learn this fact, but Jackie Chan is a celebrated actor and singer in his native Hong Kong who releases music for almost all his movies. Among his most famous songs is still “Hero Story,” a Cantonese-language pop rock tune about fearless heroism against overwhelming odds. It’s an appropriate song for his immortal action blockbuster Police Story, which stars Chan as a death-defying Hong Kong policeman who seeks to arrest a major crime boss. If you ever need to foot chase after gangsters in highway traffic, “Hero Story” is the song you want to queue up.
27. Will Smith, “Men in Black” (Men in Black, 1997)
Before he became a movie star, Will Smith came to fame as a rapper alongside producer DJ Jazzy Jeff. But in 1997, the “Fresh Prince” went solo with his stupid catchy theme song for the sci-fi summer blockbuster Men in Black, which Smith co-starred with Tommy Lee Jones. With buttery-smooth lyrics (sung in character as his Agent J) and inspired riffing over Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots,” Smith makes the job of policing space aliens sound like the coolest gig in the galaxy. “Men in Black” makes you want to put on a black suit and Ray-Bans and walk, and dance, like you own the place.
26. Karen O and Ezra Koenig, “The Moon Song” (Her, 2013)
At the 86th Academy Awards, “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen was just too much of a powerhouse not to award the Oscar for Best Original Song. But in contention was the tender acoustic song “The Moon Song,” for Spike Jonze’s romantic sci-fi Her. Co-written by Jonze and Karen O (the latter singing in duet with Ezra Koenig), “The Moon Song” tells of two lovers whose hearts are together despite being so far apart. It’s a feeling shared by the movie’s characters, played by Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, with Phoenix playing a human man deep in love with a cutting-edge A.I. assistant (voiced by Johassnon).
25. Dolly Parton, “9 to 5” (9 to 5, 1980)
While Dolly Parton was shooting the celebrated workplace comedy 9 to 5 (which also stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin), she found that her long acrylic fingernails could simulate the clacky sounds of a typewriter. She promptly began penning what would become one of her biggest hits of the 1980s: “9 to 5,” an uptempo anthem about taking on the daily grind with a resentful smile. Featuring an unforgettable piano melody and its evergreen lyrics of women being taken for granted in professional spaces, “9 to 5” helped give the movie true cultural staying power, expanding into other mediums including a Broadway stage version in 2008. In 2017, the song was certified platinum by the RIAA.
24. Aimee Man, “Save Me” (Magnolia, 1999)
In the making of his 1999 ensemble drama Magnolia, which tells of various lost souls living in California’s San Fernando Valley, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson was inspired by the music of his close friend, musician Aimee Man. So it was more than fitting that Aimee Man wrote songs just for the movie including the Oscar-nominated “Save Me.” With the film’s predominant themes of regret and loneliness, Man’s wistful song about dependency invites audiences to meditate over their own crushing disappointments as the movie’s credits crawl upwards.
23. Huey Lewis & The News, “The Power of Love” (Back to the Future, 1985)
When Huey Lewis was approached by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg to write a song for their movie Back to the Future, Lewis passed, believing he didn’t have it in him to write one. But when Zemeckis invited Lewis to sing about anything he wanted, he agreed by submitting whatever song came out of him next. That next song was “The Power of Love,” an energetic mid-’80s pop rock song about the allure of love – and nothing about time-traveling DeLoreans. Through the buoyant power of Zemeckis’ sci-fi adventure, “The Power of Love” enjoys ongoing relevance as a Gen-X staple, even if the movie and the song have little to do with each other.
22. Coolio feat. LV, “Gangsta’s Paradise” (Dangerous Minds, 1995)
In an instance of a movie’s song eclipsing the movie itself, Coolio and LV’s collab track “Gangsta’s Paradise” is anything but a pleasant escape. In the song, Coolio laments life in rough urban neighborhoods, being “the kind of G that little homies wanna be like” despite the reality that he maybe won’t live to see 25. (Coolio actually died in 2022, at age 59.) As for the movie, it stars Michelle Pfeiffer playing LouAnne Johnson, a real-life U.S. Navy veteran who worked as an inner-city high school teacher and used her military background to straighten up her students. The song’s ghostly vocals and overall brutality has afforded it lasting life in the mainstream consciousness, while Dangerous Minds has faded from memory as a footnote in Pfeiffer’s filmography.
21. Bee Gees, “Stayin’ Alive” (Saturday Night Fever, 1977)
Easily the Bee Gees’ most popular song and one of the greatest disco anthems of all time, “Stayin’ Alive” was written and recorded for the John Travolta vehicle Saturday Night Fever. Despite its ubiquitous presence in wedding party playlists, the song is not actually about celebration but survival in crime-ridden New York City. (Funny enough, the Bee Gees were far away in a Parisian village when they wrote it.) Still, nothing about its grim contents have stopped “Staying Alive’” from summoning everyone in earshot to boogie down on the dance floor, its upbeat tempo and groovy guitar funk inviting all to do their best Travolta impersonations.
20. Barbara Streisand, “The Way We Were” (The Way We Were, 1973)
Good love songs don’t have to be happy. Sometimes the best ones are about love that’s lost forever. Barbara Streisand’s Oscar-winner “The Way We Were,” made for the 1973 Sydney Pollack movie is about such love – a love that didn’t last despite everyone’s best efforts. Sung from the perspective of her character Katie Morosky, a political activist in a strained marriage with a writer (Robert Redford), “The Way We Were” turned around Streisand’s career and later defined it, being one of her most successful songs in her entire career.
19. Elvis Presley, “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (Blue Hawaii, 1961)
At the apex of his career, actor/rock star Elvis Presley made music for his own movies with the most famous being “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Written and recorded for the 1961 romantic-comedy Blue Hawaii, where Presley stars as an ex-soldier eager to start a chill life surfing all day, Presley belts out this immortal tribute to love and its irresistible grasp over the narrator. With angelic backup vocalists, lyrics that paint Hawaii’s stunning natural scenery, and an easygoing sound that feels like a dream, “Can’t Help Falling in Love” shows how much true love can feel like paradise.
18. Ray Parker Jr., “Ghostbusters” (Ghostbusters, 1984)
A Halloween staple, Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters” is as goofy as it is catchy, and more impressive when you consider the constraints Parker Jr. had to make it. When Parker Jr. was approached by the producers to write a song for the movie, he had only a few days to deliver a final version. (That’s on top of other major factors to consider, like a potential title change to “Ghostbreakers.”) Still, Parker Jr. found inspiration late one night watching television infomercials, and the Ghostbusters’ existence as a small business serving as an ideal starting point. “Ghostbusters” has since become Parker Jr.’s biggest hit and the theme song for the whole franchise. Who you gonna call? We know who, thanks to this song.
17. Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth, “See You Again” (Furious 7, 2015)
The Fast & Furious is known for fist-pumping soundtracks featuring raggaeton and phonk, but the sentimental pop-rap song “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth defies tradition to bid farewell to Paul Walker, who died during filming Furious 7. (The song is heard at the end of the movie, when Walker’s Brian drives off into the sunset forever.) “See You Again” has a tearful yet hopeful tone, with a tinge of triumph commemorating the roads traveled together and assured belief that all roads eventually lead back home.
16. The Goo Goo Dolls, “Iris” (City of Angels, 1998)
Imagine being so in love with someone that you’re willing to give up everything about yourself. That’s the idea that drove Goo Goo Dolls frontman John Rzeznik after he saw an early cut of City of Angels, a romantic-fantasy where Nicholas Cage plays an angel who falls in love with a mortal woman (played by Meg Ryan). In a 2013 interview with Songfacts, Rzeznik reflected: “This guy is completely willing to give up his own immortality, just to be able to feel something very human.” “Iris” wound up one of the most famous songs by The Goo Goo Dolls, celebrated for its hazy and airy songwriting about love and its spellbinding powers.
15. Bruce Springsteen, “Streets of Philadelphia” (Philadelphia, 1993)
Leave it to New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen to compose one of the greatest tributes to the Pennsylvania city. Underscored by the devastation of the AIDS crisis, “Streets of Philadelphia” is a somber yet sentimental portrait of the good people whose footsteps echo on the pavement. The song was custom-made for Jonathan Demme’s legal drama Philadelphia, in which Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington co-star as a gay man stricken with AIDS (Hanks) who hires a bigoted lawyer (Washington) to take on his anti-discrimination case. With lyrics like “Saw my reflection in a window and I didn’t know my own face” and “Oh brother, are you gonna leave me wastin’ away,” Springsteen stirs deep-rooted empathy for the most vulnerable among us to test how much we honor what it means to be from a city of brotherly love.
14. B.J. Thompson, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969)
While audiences of a certain age may know it best from Spider-Man 2, B.J. Thompson’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” actually comes from the iconic 1969 Western epic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. With its vaudeville-style instrumentation, many people – including movie co-star Robert Redford – thought the song was the wrong choice for a gritty gunslinger picture. But director George Roy Hill clearly saw something in the juxtaposition, and he was right. Playing during a break in the film, the song is heard when Paul Newman’s Butch takes the beautiful Etta (Katharine Ross) on an afternoon bicycle ride, creating one of the most romantic scenes of all time – and a point of tragedy when the outlaw lifestyle inevitably catches up with him.
13. Simple Minds, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” (The Breakfast Club, 1985)
Originally, Simple Minds passed on the chance to record “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” The band were even invited to watch the revolutionary teen movie from John Hughes before anyone else, and still felt the job wasn’t for them. It took further convincing by the label and The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde (then the wife of Jim Kerr, Simple Minds’ lead singer) to agree, with Kerr adding the now-iconic “Hey, hey, hey” that kicks off the song. For such a small, intimate movie about a fateful Saturday in high school detention, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” is outsized in its stadium rock scope. But its placement at the beginning and end of this beautiful movie inspires all of us to find friendship, or something more, in the unlikeliest of places.
12. Liza Minelli/Frank Sinatra, “New York, New York” (New York, New York, 1977)
It just makes all sense in the world that a Martin Scorsese movie would give New York City its own theme song. Written and recorded for Scorsese’s romantic drama of the same name with Robert De Niro and Liza Minelli, “New York, New York” was first performed by Minelli whose version is heard in the movie. Two years later, Frank Sinatra covered it for his 55th album Trilogy, subsequently becoming a prominent song played in celebration of the “city that never sleeps.” From Yankees games to New Year’s Eve in Times Square, “New York, New York” is musical short-hand for the five boroughs.
11. R.E.M., “The Great Beyond” (Man on the Moon, 1999)
Made for the Andy Kaufman biopic starring Jim Carrey, R.E.M.'s alt-rock tune “The Great Beyond” is all about untouchable genius and the alienation it fosters in a person’s life. With loose references to Kaufman’s comedy career mixed with impossible and even cosmic imagery (“There’s a new planet in the solar system/There is nothing up my sleeve”), “The Great Beyond” is a song that strives to imagine what it takes to reach for the stars – even if it comes at the cost of human understanding.
10. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, “Shallow” (A Star is Born, 2018)
There have been many film versions of A Star is Born, but there is only one “Shallow.” A unique blend of rock, country, and folk, the acclaimed song contains the thoughts and feelings of the movie’s main characters – Jack (Bradley Cooper), a major musician, and his wife Ally (Lady Gaga), an aspiring singer – who interrogate if they’re actually happy and if they’re prepared to go somewhere deeper. A monster hit that collected trophies from both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, “Shallow” showed the combined artistry of Cooper as a filmmaker and Gaga as a musician were anything but.
9. Adele, “Skyfall” (Skyfall, 2012)
The James Bond franchise boasts its own library of original songs, but few are worthy of singular recognition as “Skyfall.” Written and performed by Adele for the 23rd James Bond film and the fourth starring Daniel Craig, “Skyfall” is a maximalist dramatic ballad characterized by a gloomy tone, which speaks to Bond’s fear in confronting his own past. Rather ironically, its timeless quality to sound like it could have been made for any other Bond film, from Connery to Brosnan, makes it one of the more unique songs in the whole 007 series. “Skyfall” just sounds like Bond, an astonishing feat when some 20 other artists have tried to do the same before.
8. Kendrick Lamar and SZA, “All the Stars” (Black Panther, 2018)
When Marvel Studios was in production of its monumental superhero epic Black Panther, director Ryan Coogler worked with Grammy-winner Kendrick Lamar to produce a unique soundtrack experience. In an album jam-packed with incredible bangers, one stands tall: “All the Stars,” which plays at the movie’s end credits. Lamar, along with SZA, draw upon the cosmic origins of Wakanda’s rich blessings to stargaze, to question their place in the multiverse as they ask the ancestors for guidance. Though the song contains autobiographical allusions to Lamar’s career in the music industry, the lines blur to also tell of T’Challa, the king of Wakanda and the Black Panther, whose noble duty to represent his people can overwhelm even the mightiest avenger. Heavy is the head that wears the vibranium crown.
7. Survivor, “Eye of the Tiger” (Rocky III, 1982)
We have Queen to thank for Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” As the story goes, Sylvester Stallone hoped to use Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” for Rocky III. But after they denied his request, Stallone turned to another band, Survivor, to make something gritty and pulsating for Rocky’s vengeful bout against Clubber Lang (Mr. T). After receiving an early copy of the movie’s training montages, Survivor guitarist Frankie Sullivan and keyboardist Jim Peterik sourced their lyrics from the movie’s dialogue and delivered an all-time banger that has inspired countless people to get out of bed and hit the gym.
6. Simon & Garfunkel, “Mrs. Robinson” (The Graduate, 1967)
While director Mike Nichols was making his landmark comedy-drama The Graduate, he was obsessed with the music of Simon & Garfunkel and personally asked them to make songs for the movie. After he passed on “Punky’s Dilemma” and “Overs,” the band offered a work-in-progress song tentatively titled “Mrs. Roosevelt.” When they started calling it “Mrs. Robinson,” based on Anne Bancroft’s character (who sleeps with the movie’s protagonist, played by Dustin Hoffman), Nichols was immediately interested. When he heard it, he was floored. The song was finished and fine-tuned, and included in a movie that has come to totally define youthful malaise.
5. Eminem, “Lose Yourself” (8 Mile, 2002)
Just for a second, forget all those “mom’s spaghetti” memes. With its aggressive instrumentation and Eminem’s palpable fury heard in every bar, “Lose Yourself” – the first hip-hop song to ever win the Oscar for Best Original Song – is both a sublime summary of Eminem himself and the movie it was written for: 8 Mile, itself loosely based on the rapper’s life growing up in Detroit. An inspirational track sans cartoonish mawkishness, “Lose Yourself” is a song deserving of ear-bleeding decibels to fire up the fighting spirit and awaken the B-Rabbit in all of us.
4. Kenny Loggins, “Danger Zone” (Top Gun, 1986)
A song for daredevils everywhere, Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” perfectly captures the thrill of flirting with death and surviving through 90 percent skill and 10 percent luck. Conceived out of necessity when the producers of Top Gun failed to find the right music for its opening sequence, “Danger Zone” was first composed by electronic music legend Giorgio Moroder; Columbia Records then asked Moroder to hire any artist under contract to record vocals. Toto and Jefferson Starship were among the first to be asked before the gig went to Kenny Loggins, who had already experienced some movie-related fame from Footloose. While Loggins had nothing to do with its creation, it’s his passionate vocals that are a sort of finishing touch, allowing the song to hit mach speed levels of intensity.
3. Bob Dylan, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, 1973)
Folk music titan Bob Dylan has rarely involved himself with the movie business, not including a few Martin Scorsese documentaries of which he’s the focus. But once in 1973, Dylan acted in Sam Peckinpah’s Western movie Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, and even recorded its soundtrack. The album includes his mournful ballad “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” which even in a robust catalog as Bob Dylan’s still comes out as one of his best songs of all time. Remarkably simple in its compositions, the song underscores a specific scene where a dying lawman (played by Slim Pickens) is comforted by his wife by a riverbed. While shootouts happen all the time in Western movies, few end with the delicate touch of sadness that Dylan imbues with his songwriting.
2. Aerosmith, “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” (Armageddon, 1998)
Aerosmith recorded several songs for the Michael Bay-directed hit Armageddon. But none of them sweep you off your feet like “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing,” its epic romanticism taking off like a rocket and hitting like a meteor. Written by award-winning songwriter Diane Warren, the song was inspired by a TV interview with actor James Brolin where he admitted that he missed his wife Barbara Streisand when they fell asleep; she wrote down the words “I don’t wanna miss a thing” on paper. Though Warren expected someone like Celine Dion to sing it, it eventually went to Aerosmith – frontman Steven Tyler’s daughter Liv Tyler stars in the movie – who gave the piece rock star stank, creating a high-voltage ballad that is still unstoppable after all these years.
1. Céline Dion, "My Heart Will Go On" (Titanic, 1997)
In a way, Céline Dion’s tender hit “My Heart Will Go On” was made for the most cynical of reasons. For Titanic writer/director James Cameron, he resisted ending his movie (which tells a fictional love story set against the real-world tragedy of the Titanic disaster) with a pop song, believing it to be inappropriate. He only agreed when he realized it would calm down anxious studio executives who wanted more guarantees that his expensive movie could be a hit. For singer Celine Dion, she was weary at doing yet another movie song (after Beauty and the Beast and Falling Into You) until her husband convinced her to do it anyway.
Despite these misgivings, there was clearly something in its rich, nostalgic lyricism (by Will Jennings) and James Horner-inspired melodies that led everyone to get on board. They’re probably glad they did, as the song wound up being a hit worthy of crushing icebergs. “My Heart Will Go On” is now one of Dion’s most recognizable and successful songs in her storied career, and the thing that made James Cameron’s 1997 film one of the most unsinkable films of the 20th century. Even if the song hasn’t retained all of its allure in the intervening years – outlets like Rolling Stone and The Atlantic wrote about it negatively in retrospective pieces – there’s no denying the irresistible appeal the song once had, and still might.