Which Guardians Of The Galaxy Soundtrack Is The Best?

Guardians Of The Galaxy – Quill and Gamora

by Ben Travis |
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The arrival of a new Guardians Of The Galaxy movie isn’t just a cause for celebration because the MCU’s cosmic family are at the heart of some of the franchise’s best adventures. It’s a gift because it also means the arrival of a brand new Awesome Mix – writer-director James Gunn bestowing the world with another hand-crafted mixtape of forgotten bangers and impeccable vibes, perfectly curated to soundtrack the exploits of Peter Quill and pals. The first film’s soundtrack sold over 2.5 million copies; its follow-up soundtrack went Top 5 in the Billboard 200 charts. These mixes have become cultural events in and of themselves.

Now, here comes Awesome Mix Vol. 3, the final playlist for the Guardians’ farewell tour – once again stacked with hits we’ll be spinning for months on end. But, here’s the tough question: which of the three soundtracks comes out on top? Which mix is the most undeniably awesome? Given that it’s an impossible choice, a trio of Empire writers make the case for each compilation…

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 1

Guardians Of The Galaxy – Awesome Mix

“Ooga chacka, ooga-ooga-ooga chacka.” You could commission Bob Dylan, Megan Thee Stallion and the ghost of Cole Porter to knock together some lyrics for your big emotional moment, and you’d not come up with something which means more to Peter Quill than ‘Hooked On A Feeling’.

That first Guardians Of The Galaxy mixtape – aka Awesome Mix Vol. 1 – is easily the best of the three Peter Quill has blasted through the speakers of his starship. It’s not just that the songs themselves are exactly in the sweet spot between underrated gems and half-forgotten classics. It’s the most coherent as an actual mixtape too. Look at the sales: it went double-platinum in the UK and triple-platinum in the US, dusting off treasures of the AM radio era and making them gleam again. I’d go as far as to say that modern favourites like Haim, The 1975 and Blossoms would sound significantly different without what Guardians did for the likes of 10cc and The Five Stairsteps.

The vibe of the first Guardians mixtape is absolutely unimprovable. It is never the wrong time to listen to the first Guardians soundtrack. People coming round? Guardians. Sunday chill? Guardians. I reckon you could stick it on at a wake, and by the time ‘Spirit In The Sky’ kicked in people would be bobbing along, sausage rolls in hand. The one-two punch of ‘I’m Not In Love’ and ‘I Want You Back’ would knock any last grief off the dancefloor. By the time The Runaways’ ‘Cherry Bomb’ detonated, there'd be very little of the pub function room left. Marvin Gaye's first "Listen bayyyyy-by!" in ‘Ain't No Mountain High Enough’ would polish it off. The vibes would simply be too strong for anything short of reinforced concrete.

More than that, this set of songs carries the most weight within the story itself. It’s a mainline into Quill’s adolescence and sense of home, the mix which his mum made especially for her little lord. They’re the songs which root his drifting life. That’s why it stings so much to see a prison guard not appreciating it: “That song belongs to me!” he screams, before getting tasered, covered in mysterious red effluent and chucked in a holding cell. That’s a man who knows mixtapes have peaked. Ooga chacka, Peter. Ooga chacka. Tom Nicholson

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians Of The Galaxy – Awesome Mix

Back in 2017, Empire’s cover feature for Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 carried the headline: ‘The Difficult Second Album’. As hard as making a film sequel can be, the follow-up LP is notorious among musicians and bands: an almost cursed prospect after an incredibly well-received debut disc. It’s impressive, then, that James Gunn managed to repeat the trick not just on screen but at the mixing desk too, once again weaving his songs into film at the script stage, so that they feel totally enmeshed with the story.

The playlist here is again eclectic, yet somehow cohesive, stuffed to the galactic brim with a perfectly calibrated mix of the familiar eight-track-era bangers and deep-cut curios: a bit more rock, a bit more glam, a bit more twinkly-eyed. There’s some heavy, sparkly guitars in the form of ‘Fox On The Run’, a previously little-known 1974 track from British glamsters Sweet; some sweet and heartfelt soul from Sam Cooke in ‘Bring It On Home To Me’; and in a film primarily about dads, a pleasing amount of dad rock, too, from Cheap Tricks’ anthemic ‘Surrender’ to the country stylings of Glen Campbell’s ‘Southern Nights’.

It’s the way Gunn utilises his music in the film for maximum effect, though, that really cements this soundtrack as the real captain of the franchise’s ship. ELO’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’ — a perennial favourite of music supervisors in Hollywood (see also: Eternal Sunshine, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, erm, Paul Blart: Mall Cop) — is given proper centre stage in the film’s audacious opening titles ‘oner’, with Groot dancing joyfully yet respectfully. The hippyish, Indian-tinged spaciness of George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ lines up perfectly with the utopian beauty of Ego’s planet. The rich, unfeigned emotion of Cat Stevens’ ‘Father And Son’ practically makes dry eyes illegal at the film’s bittersweet finale, as Star-Lord is left to mourn both his father and his “daddy”.

And we must thank Gunn for being one of the few filmmakers to capitalise on the genius of Fleetwood Mac. ‘The Chain’ is not just a bastardised Formula One theme tune — it’s a goddamn jewel in the crown of a perfect album, and here it’s used for some glorious cool-guy superhero slow-motion walking, Lindsay Buckingham’s vocals with the refrain: “And if you don’t love me now, you will never love me again.” If you don’t love this soundtrack, how can you ever love music again? John Nugent

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3

Guardians Of The Galaxy – Awesome Mix

Let’s get the obvious bit out of the way first: the Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 soundtrack doesn’t have quite the same nostalgic pang as the first two. That’s partly because, being a compilation of songs from Peter Quill’s freshly-acquired Zune (and not a mixtape curated by his late mother), it isn’t as defined by a single time-period as Awesome Mix 1 and 2. In fact, if you want to be pedantic, it’s probably a stretch to call it an Awesome Mix at all.

But, counterpoint: what it does have is some of the most emotionally-potent songs of all time. The desperate, wounded acoustic version of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ that opens the film doesn’t exactly have the instant feel-good factor of, say, Vol. 2’s ‘Mr. Blue Sky’. But it is heartbreakingly raw, and perfectly tees up the big, wounded heart at the centre of Gunn’s trilogy-capper. The psychedelic hymnal that is The Flaming Lips’ ‘Do You Realize??’ remains one of the most devastatingly beautiful songs ever written. The cathartic finale of Florence + The Machine’s ethereal indie banger ‘Dog Days Are Over’ is the perfect note – quite literally – for our heroes to go out on.

And yet, for all the emotional punch, the Guardians 3 soundtrack still finds plenty of time to go hard before bringing our heroes home. Between the Beastie Boys’ ‘No Sleep Till Brooklyn’ and Faith No More’s ‘We Care A Lot’, it’s rowdy as hell; classic rock staples like ‘Since You Been Gone’ and ‘Crazy On You’ bring the retro riffage; there’s a mellow warmth to Spacehog’s ‘In The Meantime’, and The Replacements’ ‘I Will Dare’; plus – and I can’t stress this enough – it has Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Badlands’. Bruce Springsteen! You can’t argue with the Boss.

It’s an eclectic mix – but the wild, heart-squeezing ride that is Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 is reflected here, both the massive highs and crushing lows. And while Awesome Mix 1 and 2 hit hard because of the relationship between Peter Quill and his mum, this one has its own resonance: picked from 300-odd songs on the Zune, these are the songs by which the Guardians define themselves. They’re badass; they’re broken; they’re brothers in arms; they’re billions of atoms who happened to find each other in the vast reaches of space. They, themselves, are the ultimate awesome mix. Ben Travis

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 is out now in UK cinemas

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