The 20 greatest soundtracks of the '80s

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With established greats like John Williams, Ennio Morricone and Vangelis at work, and new talents like Danny Elfman and Alan Silvestri emerging, the '80s was a pretty glorious decade for anyone with ears. Outlandish hair rock was in the ascendancy and gigantic movie anthems were chugging off the Simpson/Bruckheimer production line. Some have aged better than others; some have become classics. Here's 20 of the very best, as picked by team Empire.

Listen to a Spotify playlist of our favourite soundtracks here.

Pretty In Pink

Composer: Various Artists

Though he only wrote the script, John Hughes’ fingerprints are all over Pink, which was actually directed by the oft-forgotten Howard Deutch. Still, the tale of cliques, crushes and careworn heartbreak features a none-more-'80s soundtrack boasting some of the top acts from the time. The movie itself was inspired by The Psychedelic Furs’ title track, and a re-recorded version found its way onto the track listing. Elsewhere, the New Wave hit big with Echo And The Bunnymen, New Order, The Smiths and OMD, who provided If You Leave. Crushingly, the actual album release left off some classic musical moments from the film including Try A Little Tenderness and The Rave-Ups’ Rave Up/Shut Up.

The Blues Brothers

Composer: Various Artists

For a film based on Saturday Night Live sketch characters, the music of The Blues Brothers was a huge sensation. "It was sort of a unique situation where John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd exploited their own celebrity at that moment to focus attention on these great performers and great acts," recalls director John Landis. "And that was very successful." With legendary musicians such as John Lee Hooker, Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and James Brown, the soundtrack was massive, introducing a whole new audience to classic rhythm and blues. Trivia note: The Blues Brothers’ name was suggested by Lord Of The Rings composer Howard Shore, who played in the first sketch to feature Jake and Elwood.

Dirty Dancing

Composer: Various Artists

Like Grease or Reservoir Dogs, this is a largely nostalgic selection of music that somehow came to sum up the decade the film was made. Like The Bodyguard, it spawned a soundtrack so ubiquitous that the music became better known than the film itself. What’s ironic is that some of the best tunes in the film had to wait for the follow-up CD More Dirty Dancing (Otis Redding’s These Arms Of Mine and Solomon Burke’s Cry To Me chief among them) – and yet this still topped the charts and sold 42 million copies. People must really have loved Patrick Swayze’s She’s Like The Wind.

The Untouchables

Composer: Ennio Morricone

For his 1987 tale of gangsters and gun fights, Brian De Palma turned to Ennio Morricone for a fusion of the Western style the composer brought to The Man With No Name trilogy and the dark Chicago jazz demanded by a movie about Eliot Ness and Al Capone. Cue wailing sax and moody piano. Though the music sounds like it belongs in the era, it also has somewhat of an ‘80s feel, giving The Untouchables a timelessness that escapes its period bounds. Also included were tracks by Duke Ellington and one Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci, Capone’s entertainment of choice.

Top Gun

Composer: Various Artists

Top Gun’s soundtrack is one of those none-more-‘80s popbusters, that, if bottled, would probably smell of aviation fuel, testosterone and hairspray. The movie’s producers, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, knew the marketing value of a chart-topping soundtrack and hired German synthster Harold Faltermeyer to deliver one for their actioner. In a mightily OTT blend of synths, piano and guitars, the German delivered. His Top Gun Theme, alongside the power pop of Kenny Loggins, Cheap Trick’s Faltermeyer-penned Mighty Wings and Giorgio Moroder’s Take My Breath Away, helped it to a Billboard Number 1 and nine million copies shifted in the US alone. Even Viper would crack a smile at those numbers.

Back To The Future

Composer: Alan Silvestri

Huey Lewis And The News earned an Oscar nomination for The Power Of Love, and rightly so. Shamefully, Mr. Lewis’ cameo appearance as the Battle Of The Bands judge who turns Marty down – "Sorry, fellas... I'm afraid you're just too darn loud" – was ignored by the Academy, as was composer Alan Silvestri’s score, despite the brilliantly brassy and bombastic Back to the Future Overture. Back To The Future buffs will know that though the poppier soundtrack album, complete with Back In Time, Earth Angel and Johnny B. Goode, is an absolute triumph.


Composer: Danny Elfman

If John Williams’ Superman was near-as-dammit the most iconic superhero movie theme prior to 1989, Tim Burton had a rather different vision for Batman. Employing Danny Elfman – who had already provided berserk scores for Pee Wee and Beetlejuice – gave him both the sonorous gothic symphonics to complement his dark cinematography, and the zip that goes with Burton’s skew-whiff vision in general. Principal props go to the glorious main theme, but the Joker’s Waltz To The Death is also sure to put some bats in your belfry. (Oh, and Prince wrote some songs.) Batdance is interesting for kind of still having one foot in the Adam West era. BATMAAAAN!

Chariots Of Fire

Composer: Vangelis

How pervasive is the music Greek composer Vangelis created for Chariots Of Fire? You’d have to go a long way to find someone who doesn’t recognise it, even when hummed badly. So lasting has it proved that Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean playing (and running) along to it became a standout moment in the London Olympics opening ceremony, an event not lacking for memorable music or emotion. Hugh Hudson’s film was Vangelis’ driving force. "My main inspiration was the story itself," he remembered. "The rest I did instinctively, without thinking about anything else, other than to express my feelings with the technological means available to me at the time."

Blade Runner

Composer: Vangelis

If you wanted a copy of Vangelis’ dark, soaring score to Blade Runner in the ‘80s, you’d have to make do with an inferior cover version by The New American Orchestra or track down a highly sought-after bootleg cassette. This was the result of a legal wrangle between the composer and studio, just typical of the fraught production, with Vangelis withholding his own performance until its final release in 1994 (and again, containing further missing cues, in 2007). Yet it only added to the soundtrack’s mystique, mirroring the movie’s own box-office failure and subsequent cult elevation. It remains Vangelis’ greatest accomplishment, the definitive dystopian soundscape.

Read Ridley Scott's Blade Runner retrospective here

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

Composer: John Williams

It’s a sign of the times that back in 1982, Flying – The Theme From E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, charted at Number 17 in the UK Top 40. If it’s hard to imagine a piece of orchestral film music charting these days – "Straight in at Number 5, it’s Howard Shore with Radagast The Brown…" – its spot speaks volumes for the theme’s ability to stand in for the whole E.T. experience: magical, exhilarating, uplifting. Yet, this main theme does not dominate the score but dovetails into a beautifully realised, heartfelt work. It’s easy to forget because it made a gazillion dollars but E.T. is one intimate blockbuster. Nowhere is that more evident than in the delicate lyricism of John Williams’ music, perhaps his best score for Steven Spielberg.


Composer: James Horner

For a score that James Horner bashed out unhappily in six weeks, the music for James Cameron’s Aliens is a revelation. From the banshee wail of the Main Title, the soundtrack takes us on a journey of thundering timpani, martial percussion and plaintive horn sections, encapsulating the eerie, alien menace of H.R. Giger’s creation. It marches to the military motifs of the platoon movie Aliens ultimately becomes. For all Horner’s agonies, he bagged his first Oscar nomination and laid out one of cinema’s stalwart reference soundtracks. The Aliens score – and the Bishop’s Countdown track in particular – has become the go-to cue to teeing up tension, gracing the trailers for no less than 24 different movies, from Minority Report to Misery and even The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

Raiders Of The Lost Ark

Composer: John Williams

John Williams, as the story goes, had two ideas for a hero theme for whip-packing crypt-looter Indiana Jones. He played both to Steven Spielberg, who exclaimed, "Let’s use both!" And so The Raiders March was born, a piece of music so rousing and triumphant that it makes anyone who hears it feel they could right the world’s wrongs. Even without that central motif, the soundtrack is a stone-cold classic, with flamboyant tussles in the brass section whenever Indy locks horns with the Third Reich, and unearthly, exotic sounds for his forays into unplundered catacombs. We defy you to listen to The Map Room and remain ungoosebumped.

The Mission

Composer: Ennio Morricone

Like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and arguably O Brother, Where Art Thou?’s bluegrass, Ennio Morricone’s score for The Mission has long outlived the film it accompanies. Not that Roland Joffé’s colonial melodrama is bad, only that Morricone’s music is so good it deserved to live alongside a true classic – and Joffé’s film certainly isn’t that, either. The composer bottled the essence of Robert Bolt’s story in an emotive swirl of chorales, Spanish guitars, tribal drumming and panpipes. It isn’t always easy listening, but it still packs the power to transport us into the thick tangle of the South American jungle and leave us there, broken-hearted.

Out Of Africa

Composer: John Barry

"It gave the picture more size than it really had," director Sydney Pollack once raved of John Barry’s Oscar-winning Out Of Africa score in 2000. "It gave the picture some kind of real romantic resonance." Barry’s Out Of Africa Suite, an ageless piece of film music, is testament to that, but the lesser cues are also a perfect complement to Pollack’s love story. With pieces like Karen Builds A School and Karen’s Journey, John Barry’s 30-odd-minute score parlays the mundane nature of Karen Blixen’s strivings with all the romance of the sun-drenched Kenyan plains and Robert Redford’s handsome mug. We’re saying 'Karen Gets Worn Out By Her Complicated Love Life And Goes Home For A Cup Of Tea And A Lie-Down' was left on the drawing board.

Purple Rain

Composer: Prince

Along with such musical icons as Michael Jackson and Madonna, Prince fell into the category of OTT performers who were able to regularly mutate their style and showmanship without sacrificing success or popular appeal. In 1984, with Purple Rain, the diminutive man-diva boasted the top film, single and album in the US all at once. The title song also scored him the Best Original Song Oscar at the 1985 Academy Awards. Though the film itself didn’t score across-the-board approval, this remains one of the most memorable movie-soundtrack combos out there and a fitting film epitath for the great man.

Local Hero

Composer: Mark Knopfler

If you’re looking for just one album to listen to as you stand ankle-deep in seawater on a rural Scottish beach, suit trousers hoisted up and briefcase in hand, it’s this one. As wistful as the magnificent comedy-drama that inspired it, the largely instrumental Local Hero came as proof that Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler wasn’t just another jumped-up millionaire playing guitar on MTV. Its sax-filled title track, Going Home (Theme of the Local Hero) is the earworm-friendly pièce de résistance, regularly cropping up as an encore for the band’s live shows and somehow invoking the beauty of Scotland without resorting to the bagpipes – high praise indeed.


Composer: Danny Elfman

Along with Johnny Depp, Danny Elfman remains one of Tim Burton’s most constant collaborators. Elfman’s kooky, spooky work for Beetlejuice introduced the former Oingo Boingo frontman to a much wider audience and remains a favourite, blending in well with the Harry Belafonte songs that occasionally pop up in the narrative. For some, despite the stirring Batman themes and The Nightmare Before Christmas, this is still the definitive Elfman/Burton match-up. And the composer learned an important lesson working on the movie – he began writing the score before a frame had been shot, based on the script, and junked the lot when he began to see finished scenes.

Paris, Texas

Composer: Ry Cooder

Wim Wenders called on musical polymath Ry Cooder to score his eerie rumination on American life, sparking a lifelong friendship along the way. Blues, roots, gospel... Cooder could do the lot, but it was sparse, steel-guitared Americana that the German director wanted evoked – a tumbleweed twang to lend atmospherics to drifter Harry Dean Stanton’s roamings – and, to do it, Cooder channelled Blind Willie Johnson’s gospel song Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground into one of cinema’s most recognisable tunes. "[Paris, Texas] was a mood piece, the interior of someone’s head," remembered the musician. "It’s the kind of film that if you push it the wrong way, you blow it out of the water." Wenders, who termed their partnership "a brotherly corporation", wasn’t disappointed.

Beverly Hills Cop

Composer: Various Artists

Blasting out of the stereo of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson’s ‘80s movie-making juggernaut were the synthy sounds of a talented young Bavarian called Harold Faltermeyer. "Simpson was a crazy guy, every second a new idea," he told Empire of his heady intro to the Hollywood maelstrom. "Then there was Bruckheimer, the businessman. They were kind of yin and yang, always pushing you to the limit." Faltermeyer, for his part, wasn’t afraid to push back. Bruckheimer wanted his signature track to be called ‘Axel Foley’s Theme’ but the German stuck to his guns, insisting on the pithier title for his iconic ‘80s synthphony. Alas, it spawned evil beyond Victor Maitland’s wildest imaginings. Yes you, Crazy Frog.

Click here for our Harold Faltermeyer interview

Escape From New York

Composer: John Carpenter

The journey from Dark Star to Escape From New York charts John Carpenter’s increasing confidence and ambition not just as a filmmaker, but as a musician. While Halloween and Precinct 13, good as they are, are repetitive variations around single central themes, Escape roams further, reflecting a broadening of locations from a police station or street to a prison spanning a whole island. The main theme is still a whopper, though. It hasn’t dated badly either, despite the synths and the drum machines, but if you like the idea of a beefed-up cock-rock version, Carpenter reworked it with Shirley Walker in just that fashion for Escape From LA.