From 2001: A Space Odyssey to pretty much every Edgar Wright film, some of the best films of all time have effectively used needle drops to take their films to the next level. This list runs through the best movie songs of all time, and as you go through the scenes, you will find they all have one thing in common. They all enhance what’s happening in the scene.
The Best Movie Songs of All Time
What makes for a great song moment?
The songs on this list all range in genre and style. Some are classical pieces while others were modern pop songs at the time of the movie’s release.
It is important to recognize that a memorable song moment is more than just plopping some music over a scene. It requires the filmmaker to understand both the song and the scene and know how he or she wants the audience to feel in that moment.
Some of the best movie songs provide catharsis and allow the audience a moment to breathe while the protagonist is bolting a hit song. Other needle drops are present simply to let the audience know what time period they are in.
Let’s look at the definition of a needle drop to understand it inside and out.
needle drop DEFINITION
What is a needle drop?
A “needle drop” is slang used in the film industry to describe when a pre-existing song is used in a movie. In the best cases, the audio and video become intertwined to the point where people can’t disassociate the song from the film.
The best movie songs of all time are on this list. Some come from famous scenes while others are a bit underrated. This list contains 60 of the best needle drops in film history based on our belief that the song and scene worked incredibly well together.
Here’s our list of the best needle drops of all time.
Simon and Garfunkel
1. “The Sound of Silence,” The Graduate
“The Sound of Silence” is a moody, atmospheric song that perfectly summarizes the ending of The Graduate. It appears as though Ben has won as he runs off with Mrs. Robinson, but the song choice emphasizes that neither one knows where this relationship will go.
2. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” 2001: A Space Odyssey
Classical compositions are used throughout Stanley Kubrick’s seminal work. Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” highlights the grand scope of the film, and the song has been used countless times since when filmmakers want to emphasize the grandiosity of a scenario. When you get parodied this much, it’s easy to see why it’s one of the best movie songs ever.
3. “Born to Be Wild,” Easy Rider
Sometimes, it just takes the right movie to turn a song into an anthem. “Born to Be Wild” is one of the best songs in movies because it is forever ingrained into the hippie era as it kicked off Easy Rider and its ode to the counterculture.
4. “Trouble” Harold and Maude
Harold and Maude is an odd story about a young man obsessed with death who falls in love with an elderly woman. Despite his best efforts, the love of his life passes away, and we feel what Harold feels through the use of Cat Stevens’ “Trouble,” one of the most famous movie songs that lets the audience into the character’s psyche.
5. “The End,” Apocalypse Now
The Doors’ “The End” was originally meant as a break-up song, but it has gone on to define an era and become one of the most iconic movie songs of all time. The hypnotic grooves and devastating images showcase the horrors of war more than dialogue ever could.
6. “Blue Moon,” An American Werewolf in London
Not many movies can get away with such an upbeat song playing after a downer ending. But “Blue Moon” by Sam Cooke does precisely that. The song sums up all of the mischief and winking humor of the film that you can’t help but leave the theater in a good mood.
7. “Imagine,” The Killing Fields
John Lennon’s ballad “Imagine” was made for a film like The Killing Fields. The drama follows a journalist and his Cambodian translator as they witness the horrors of war first-hand. The song choice is a good one to inspire hope and to show humanity we can do better.
8. “Tequila,” Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure
What do you do after you knock over a bunch of bikers’ motorcycles? Well, if you’re Pee-Wee Herman, you dance your way out of it to the tune of The Champs’ “Tequila.” We suppose there are worse ways to get out of a beat-down.
9. “Johnny B. Goode,” Back to the Future
Marty McFly’s interpretation of “Johnny B. Goode” is about as iconic a movie scene you can get. It’s a fun way to end Marty’s time in the 50s as long as you don’t think too hard about the ramifications of Chuck Berry being a plagiarist. From the moment Marty starts strumming the opening riff, it instantly became one of the best movie songs ever.
10. “In Dreams,” Blue Velvet
David Lynch knows how to create a surreal experience. With Ben singing along to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” set to Dennis Hopper bugging out, Lynch creates a nightmare needle drop the audience isn’t sure if they want to leave or not.
11. “Lollipop,” Stand by Me
This scene in Stand by Me featuring “Lollipop” by The Chordettes showcases the two sides of adolescence. On the one hand, you have the goofy, fun-loving side. On the other, you have boys having serious conversations you wouldn’t expect them to have until years later.
12. “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” Beetlejuice
Most demonic possessions are terrifying. Tim Burton flips an otherwise scary scene on its head with Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” The uptight dinner becomes the liveliest affair in any realm with a musical number only Lydia could enjoy.
13. “Fight the Power,” Do the Right Thing
Cinematic intros are powerful. They should bring the audience directly into the world the filmmaker wants them to live in for the next two hours. Before we get any taste of what’s to come, Spike Lee opens Do the Right Thing with Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” one of the most iconic movie songs paired with Rose Perez’s aggressive dancing. It shows us what the revolution will look like.
14. “In Your Eyes,” Say Anything
The scene that had every girl wishing the boy of her dreams would stand outside her bedroom window blasting Peter Gabriel on a boombox. It’s the perfect, offbeat song choice that has gone on to be parodied a thousand times.
15. “Layla,” Goodfellas
Goodfellas is one of the most influential films of the 90s, and it could hold that distinction for this one montage alone. One by one, we see whacked comrades each meeting their demise set over Eric Clapton’s “Layla.” It’s one of the most famous movie songs from a bygone era, and we know our protagonists are about to become “bygone” too.
16. “Goodbye Horses,” Silence of the Lambs
If you want to unnerve an audience, then just have a serial killer dance half-naked to one of the best movie songs ever. Buffalo Bill doesn’t listen to dark, violent music. Instead, he prefers something lighter as his victim lays trapped in a hole.
17. “Stuck in the Middle With You,” Reservoir Dogs
All you need to do to make movie history is combine a happy-go-lucky folk song with some good, old-fashioned ear cutting. “Stuck in the Middle With You” is rightfully one of the best songs in movies because it turns torture into downright fun when added to Michael Madsen’s delightfully entertaining portrayal of Mr. Blonde.
18. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Wayne’s World
Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” received a second life in Wayne’s World. It’s the perfect rock song Wayne and Garth would love while being a hilarious sequence in its own right. Plus, it introduced a new generation to Queen’s magnum opus.
The best song to headbang to
Sonny and Cher
19. “I Got You, Babe,” Groundhog Day
If you had to listen to Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You, Babe” every day for eternity, you’d destroy your alarm clock, too. Among all of the most famous movie songs, none other would be quite as maddening. Plus, after a while, you can’t help but laugh.
We’d destroy an alarm clock, too
20. “My Sharona,” Reality Bites
Reality Bites summed up Generation X better than most films of the decade. We see everyone’s personality on display as the trio sings along while Ethan Hawke’s character can only cringe.
We prefer “My Bologna”
21. “You Never Can Tell,” Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino films are not short of pop culture appreciation. John Travolta and Uma Thurman show they have the moves, offering a moment of levity among all the violence. “You Never Can Tell” is one of the most iconic movie songs thanks to the commitment of the actors.
The scene that’s every film student’s desktop wallpaper
22. “Superstar,” Tommy Boy
David Spade and Chris Farley singing “Superstar” by The Carpenters is more than just a hilarious moment. It bonds the two characters as they both try to convince the other they don’t really like the song.
No one really likes The Carpenters *wink wink*
23. “Free Fallin’,” Jerry Maguire
There’s something so freeing to watching Tom Cruise belt out “Free Fallin” by Tom Petty. He tries to sing along to other songs first, but when this one comes on, it provides some much-needed catharsis for Jerry and the audience. Some of the best move songs of all time exist solely to give the audience a chance to breathe before going back into the action.
Show me the money!
24. “Perfect Day,” Trainspotting
It’s still up in the air whether Lou Reeds’ song “Perfect Day” is about heroin, but since its inclusion in Trainspotting, the connection is stronger than ever. As a junkie’s nightmare unfolds, the happy lyrics only add to the disturbing absurdity.
Just a perfect day
25. “Somebody to Love,” The Cable Guy
The Cable Guy has gained a cult following since its release, no doubt in part due to iconic scenes like Jim Carrey belting out, “Somebody to Love.” It’s an over-the-top spectacle, and it’s all in the service of masking his true pain.
Jim Carrey at his finest
26. “Jessie’s Girl,” Boogie Nights
A drug deal gone awry starts with Alfred Molina jamming out to “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield. Dirk Diggler can only stare on in horror as the situation spirals out of control, all set to a catchy pop song.
The expression that launched a thousand memes
27. “Across 110th Street,” Jackie Brown
“Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack comes up twice in Jackie Brown. At the beginning of the film, we see Jackie move money past airport security, harkening to the themes of the song. In the end, she mouths along to the song as she adopts its message into her own life and what it has become.
You can find it all in the street
28. “White Rabbit,” Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Creating a psychedelic experience is a lot easier when Jefferson Airplane is on the soundtrack. “White Rabbit” heightens an already tense scene, enhancing the moment for the audience.
Talk about a bad time for a bath
29. “Making Time,” Rushmore
We’re introduced to Max Fischer to the tune of The Creation’s “Making Time” and a montage of all of his extracurricular activities. Max hasn’t said anything yet, and we already know his entire personality.
Wes Anderson knows his way around a needle drop
30. “Where Is My Mind?,” Fight Club
Edward Norton’s unnamed character insists “Everyone’s gonna be fine” even as buildings explode around him. The explosion intertwines with the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” in a cacophony of sound. The future is unknown, but they’ll figure it out together while one of the best movie songs of all time plays to lead us into the credits.
Where’s his mind? Probably on the ceiling
Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons
31. “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” 10 Things I Hate About You
Needle drops were common in 90s teen movies. None were as iconic as Heath Ledger singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” complete with marching band accompaniment. It set an incredibly high bar for high school seniors everywhere that year.
The Joker sure does know how to swoon the ladies
32. “Wise Up,” Magnolia
The reason Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” works so well where it does in Magnolia is due to where in the film it falls. Every character is at their lowest point, yet they’re all connected as one-by-one, they sing along with Mann.
One of the most powerful scenes in film
33. “Bittersweet Symphony,” Cruel Intentions
Throughout Cruel Intentions, you want to see Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character go down. When she does, it’s in the most dramatic fashion possible accompanied by one of the most famous movie songs ever: the highly appropriate “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by The Verve.
34. “Tiny Dancer,” Almost Famous
The famous “Tiny Dancer” scene comes at a stressful point in Almost Famous. Our characters, and the audience, need a moment to catch their breath, and there’s no better way to do it than with everyone belting to “Tiny Dancer.” With each line of the past, everyone moves past their differences to propel them to another great show.
Everything will be all right
Huey Lewis and the News
35. “Hip to be Square,” American Psycho
Do you like Huey Lewis and the News? If so, then you’ll love the surreal scene in American Psycho where Patrick Bateman murders Paul Allen to the catchy tune. Right before he murders Paul, he describes how there’s more to the song than people realize, just like there’s more to this slasher/psychological thriller than most people notice on first watch.
Murder has never been so catchy
36. “Cosmic Dancer,” Billy Elliot
“Cosmic Dancer” by T-Rex is the first song we hear in Billy Elliot, and it’s a great one to kick off a beloved film. The giant smile on his face and the way he tries to run in the air makes you love him right off the bat.
A unique “save the cat” moment
37. “Mad World,” Donnie Darko
In 2001, there was no better song to end Donnie Darko than “Mad World” by Gary Jules. It’s a song that says, “Nothing matters. We all die.” The tragedy isn’t in Donnie’s death but in the fact Gretchen doesn’t remember him at all.
Every film student’s favorite movie moment
38. “These Days,” The Royal Tenanbaums
“These Days” by Nico plays over the reunion between Margot and Richie. With just one song, we know exactly how they feel about each other even when Richie is short on words. Among the best songs in movies, it perhaps does the best job of conveying emotion without dialogue.
The scene puts butterflies in your stomach
The Jesus and Mary Chain
39. “Just Like Honey,” Lost in Translation
Lost in Translation has one of the best film endings of all time, so if you’re going to put a song over it, it better land. Fortunately, Sofia Coppola nailed the landing by incorporating The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey” to punctuate the ending. It’s a heartbreaking, surreal scene, and the song emphasizes the theme of the whole film.
What did Bill Murray say?
40. “Don’t Stop Me Now,” Shaun of the Dead
No one turns a fight scene into a choreographed dance quite like Edgar Wright. Shaun and his pals beat a zombie to the tune of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” It brilliantly contrasts the upbeat song to the utter terror the group finds themselves in, resulting in one of the most iconic movie songs ever.
Go down for a pint
Starland Vocal Band
41. “Afternoon Delight,” Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Ron is super excited he just had sex with Veronica. The only way he knows to celebrate is to sing a little “Afternoon Delight” with his friends. How else are you supposed to explain love than with a comedic interlude?
Surprising how they’re all such great singers, right?
42. “Whole Wide World,” Stranger Than Fiction
Will Ferrell plays a rather nuanced character in Stranger Than Fiction. When he finally starts playing “Whole Wide World,” it’s a sign he’s ready to let his guard down, and he earns the affection of his love interest. It shows not all famous movie songs need a big, bombastic moment when you can just do something simple but meaningful.
That’s some good guitar playing
43. “Goody Two Shoes,” Hot Fuzz
Hot Fuzz starts off with a montage of Nick Angel’s impressive feats of a police officer set to the tune of Adam Ant’s “Goody Two Shoes.” The song is a perfect choice because it highlights how Nick himself is a “goody two shoes” who needs to learn to relax.
Little hand says it’s time to rock ‘n’ roll
44. “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” Zodiac
The scene begins innocently enough as two young lovers enjoy one another’s company. However, another car pulls up. We, as the audience, know it’s the Zodiac killer, and the song takes on a far more sinister tone as we await what happens next.
Look out behind you!
45. “Paper Planes,” Slumdog Millionaire
“Paper Planes” by M.I.A. was used by a lot of movies in 2008, but Slumdog Millionaire managed to use it to the greatest effect. The song is set over two kid brothers hustling on a train just to make a little money. The song’s an appropriate choice, and it nicely captures the contrast between the gorgeous Indian countryside and the reality many people have living there.
Pineapple Express was a close runner-up for this song
46. “Just Like Heaven,” Adventureland
The year is 1987, and James and Em are falling for each other. There’s no better way to show that romance while sticking true to the time period than by playing “Just Like Heaven” by The Cure as they ride bumper cars. It’s not just one of the best movie songs, it’s one of the best songs period.
You’re just like a dream
47. “Life’s a B*tch,” Fish Tank
Mia is about to leave her mother, who’s high as a kite. Their relationship isn’t the kind where they can just talk to another, so instead, they dance to Nas’ “Life’s a B*tch.” Songs in movies can do a lot, and in this case, it shows just how out of it Mia’s mother is and how completely unaware of the drama unfolding in front of her.
...And then you die
48. “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” Watchmen
Say what you will about Watchmen, the opening title sequence is a beautifully-shot montage going alongside one of the best movie songs ever, which gives us all of the exposition we need about superheroes’ roles in the world. It shows the history of superheroes from World War II to the Vietnam era and how public perception changed along the way. Bob Dylan’s mesmerizing song is just the icing on the cake.
Justice for Rorschach
College & Electric Youth
49. “A Real Hero,” Drive
“A Real Hero” carries all of the emotions and complexities as the protagonist. It emphasizes the soft vulnerability he feels toward Carey Mulligan’s character. The chemistry between Mulligan and Ryan Gosling throughout the film allows the story to earn this song choice and quietly end the film perfectly.
A real hero, indeed
50. “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away),” The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo took a page out of Reservoir Dog’s playbook with this scene. “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” by Enya is an unconventional song choice for a torture scene, but it fits with Stellan Skarsgård’s character wonderfully.
Psychopaths love creating detached irony
51. “Backstreet’s Back (All Right),” This is the End
There’s no better way to be introduced to heaven than with Backstreet Boys singing “Backstreet’s Back (All Right).” This is the End may end with everyone technically dead, but this moment makes you leave the film with a smile on your face. It’s a much-needed reprieve after all those demons.
No f*cking way
52. “I’m Free,” The World’s End
There are plenty of classic rock songs thrown in The World’s End. The Soup Dragons’ cover of “I’m Free” plays as the gang is about to embark on an epic pub crawl, and it emphasizes that Gary, much like the music, is stuck in the past.
2013 movies were kind of obsessed with the apocalypse
Family of the Year
53. “Hero,” Boyhood
Boyhood is quite a feat of filmmaking chronicling a young boy’s life. As Mason embarks on the next chapter of his life, the emotional “Hero” by Family of the Year plays over his transition, signaling a change in our hero. Seeing a young man grow up in front of our eyes makes this one of the most iconic movie songs of all time simply due to how emotional it makes the scene.
And you thought Toy Story 3 was sad
54. “Come and Get Your Love,” Guardians of the Galaxy
How do you make an audience connect with a space bandit? Just have him dance along to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.” Guardians of the Galaxy was a gamble for Marvel Studios, but the fun soundtrack made the movie an instant classic for superhero fans.
So… he’s an idiot?
55. “Wonderwall,” Mommy
Mommy is a rare film with a perfect scene. The film focuses on the relationship between a mother and her son, and when the son just needs to break away, he pulls back the aspect ratio while “Wonderwall” by Oasis plays. There’s nothing else quite like it, and it’s the kind of cinematic moment that takes your breath away.
Take note, filmmakers
56. “I Want It That Way,” Magic Mike XXL
If you’re going to have someone strip in a gas station, at least make it funny. Magic Mike XXL knew this when they had Joe Manganiello dance to Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.” It’s hilarious, and you can’t help cheering him on like the other strippers outside.
How did she keep a straight face?
57. “Shoop,” Deadpool
How do you introduce audiences to a character like Deadpool? Having him color on a bridge while singing along to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Shoop” is one fun way to accomplish that. It transitions flawlessly from fourth-wall-breaking humor to an exciting action sequence, and it all began with a little song.
Places to be and bad guys to kill
58. “Immigrant Song,” Thor: Ragnarok
Thor: Ragnarok was a dramatic departure from the rest of the Thor series. Audiences loved the more comedic tone as well as the use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” used twice in the film to highlight Thor’s power as a warrior.
He’s a friend from work
59. “Father and Son,” Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
A Cat Stevens song in a comic book movie would be unheard of 20 years ago, but it works beautifully in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The sequel doubled down on the needle drop moments with Peter Quill mourning the loss of his father, or should we say his true father, in Yondu. The song makes it clear that family is who you choose it to be.
We’re not crying, you’re crying
60. “Redbone,” Get Out
Get Out technically begins with rhythmic chanting, but it suddenly switches to the modern day with Childish Gambino’s “Redbone.” The whole movie is a critique for people who feel they are above racial politics, making the song’s refrain of “Stay woke” all the more pertinent.
Would’ve voted for Obama for a third term
70 Hilarious Dark Comedy Movies
It takes more than just a great song to make an impression on the audience. You also have to fully understand the genre you’re working in. Check out our comprehensive list of some of the best dark comedies in film and TV of all time.