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The 20 Best Songs Written for Movies

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The release of The Hunger Games film and its accompanying soundtrack, including original tracks from artists as diverse as The Arcade Fire and Taylor Swift, had us thinking about the long history of pop music written specifically for movies. While Easy Rider and Scorpio Rising popularized the use of found music, some directors have desired to work with the artists they love without all of the context and baggage that found music carries with it.

20. I’ve Seen It All – Thom Yorke and Bjork
Dancer in the Dark
While we’ve mostly left musicals off this list, we’d be remiss if we failed to mention this excellent track from Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. Just be sure to listen to the version with Thom Yorke singing, rather than the version actually featured in the film.

19. Danger Zone – Kenny Loggins
Top Gun
No list of movie songs is complete without mentioning Kenny Loggins’ so-bad-its-good work for Top Gun. You might not like it, but now that we’ve mentioned it you almost certainly can’t get it out of your head.

18. You Can Never Hold Back Spring – Tom Waits
The Tiger and the Snow
Roberto Benigni’s 2005 feature was barely released in America. But it features Tom Waits as himself, so it should be no surprise that Waits wrote a song for the film, which probably would’ve gone completely unnoticed if it hadn’t been for Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards’ release the following year.

17. Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head – B.J. Thomas
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
One of those songs that feels like it’s been around forever, “Raindrops” fit strangely into Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but helped set the picture’s goofy, buddy heist-flick tone.

16. Porpoise Song – The Monkees
Head
While much of Head’s music was actually written by The Monkees for the first time in their career, like the movie they wrote it for, the soundtrack flopped (although not quite as badly). That isn’t to say it’s bad, though, and this track written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin captures a more psychedellic sound for the group than their more popular singles and functions as the main theme in the film.

15. Moon River – Audrey Hepburn
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Moon River remains an oddity in that it was written particularly for a movie, with Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini making sure it worked with Hepburn’s vocal range, but it’s been so overshadowed by Andy Williams’ cover that the original version is often forgotten. Strangely enough, Hepburn’s version wasn’t even included on the film’s soundtrack.

14. Lose Yourself – Eminem
8 Mile
Written largely from the point of view of Eminem’s character in the loosely semi-autobiographical 8 Mile, “Lose Yourself” was the first rap song to win an Academy Award. It also stayed at Billboard’s #1 spot for 16 weeks, making it the most successful single of his career.

13. Theme from Shaft – Isaac Hayes
Shaft
Perhaps the most famous title song for any movie, it was written on condition that Hayes receive an audition for the title role, which never happened. It was still released as a single, though, and it’s one of the few songs written for a picture to head to the top of Billboard’s charts.

12. Cat People (Putting Out Fire) – David Bowie
Cat People
Paul Schrader’s Cat People remake was largely overlooked, but its title song went on to be a huge success, not to mention living a second life in film when it was featured in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.

11. Exit Music (For a Film) – Radiohead
Romeo + Juliet
While written for Romeo + Juliet and referring to this status in the title, Thom Yorke specifically asked that the song be left off the film’s soundtrack. Instead Radiohead brought it in as another classic track on OK Computer.

The release of The Hunger Games film and its accompanying soundtrack, including original tracks from artists as diverse as The Arcade Fire and Taylor Swift, had us thinking about the long history of pop music written specifically for movies. While Easy Rider and Scorpio Rising popularized the use of found music, some directors have desired to work with the artists they love without all of the context and baggage that found music carries with it.

10. Fight the Power – Public Enemy
Do the Right Thing
Even after its release on Fear of a Black Planet, “Fight the Power” has remained indelibly linked with the movie that spawned it. Spike Lee not only commissioned the song, he directed its music video—in two different versions.

9. We Are Sex Bob-Omb – Beck
Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World
While it’s not uncommon for songwriters to have actors perform their works in movies, that’s usually left to musicals. But Edgar Wright hired Beck and Nigel Godrich to score his entire picture, including songs played by the band Sex Bob-Omb. Beck also released the fantastic Odelay outtake “Deadweight” on the feature A Life Less Ordinary, though it wasn’t written for the picture.

8. Can’t Help Falling in Love – Elvis Presley
Blue Hawaii
Elvis Presley  played numerous songs for his various pictures, most of which were far better than the movies they were featured in. While nearly all of the films are for Elvis diehards only, the songs have had much longer lifespans, and many of his classics, such as “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” only came about because of them.

7. If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out – Cat Stevens
Harold and Maude
Although Harold and Maude is filled with Cat Stevens tracks, only a handful were written specifically for the film. Unfortunately, Harold and Maude’s lack of box office success meant that this classic was long unavailable since no soundtrack was released—until a limited edition vinyl a few years ago. In some ways that’s fitting, though, since the song feels inseparable from Maude.

6. I’m Easy – Keith Carradine
Nashville
Robert Altman was extremely concerned with authenticity when he filmed Nashville, so he asked his actors and actresses to write the songs they would be performing in the film. Keith Carradine was the only cast member, though, who managed to ride his song into the Top 40 and a record contract.

5. Save Me – Aimee Mann
Magnolia
Magnolia’s soundtrack was almost entirely written and performed by Aimee Mann, and “Save Me” was written just for the feature. Paul Thomas Anderson also directed its video, although it’s not one of his better works and pales in comparison to Lee’s.

4. Miss Misery – Elliott Smith
Good Will Hunting
While the rest of Good Will Hunting hasn’t aged well, its legacy of launching a then-unknown Elliott Smith’s career still makes it a worthwhile film. The song is everything the film isn’t: subtle, intelligent and honest.

3. Don’t You (Forget About Me) – Simple Minds
  The Breakfast Club
Conversely, the success of “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” seems impossible to imagine without its placement in John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club.

2. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door – Bob Dylan
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
The always tumultuous relationship between Sam Peckinpah and his producers led to Pat Garrett getting re-edited and then buried at the box office, and as a result Dylan’s contribution to the soundtrack was the most successful part of the picture. Dylan actually wrote every song for the film, and Peckinpah liked his score so much that he offered the musician a role in the picture.

1. Simon & Garfunkel – Mrs. Robinson
The Graduate
This may be the first song that comes to mind when people think about pop songs in films. It was famously altered at the behest of director Mike Nichols to be about Mrs. Robinson rather than Mrs. Roosevelt so as to fit better with the movie, a small change that completely transforms its meaning.

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