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 are modern pop songs from 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 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 the time period they are in.
Let’s look at the definition of a needle drop before we jump into our list of the greats.
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.
Some of the most famous movie moments of all time are on this list. 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.
60. “Redbone,” Get Out
59. “Father and Son,” Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
58. “Immigrant Song,” Thor: Ragnarok
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.
56. “I Want It That Way,” Magic Mike XXL
55. “Wonderwall,” Mommy
54. “Come and Get Your Love,” Guardians of the Galaxy
FAMILY OF THE YEAR
53. “Hero,” Boyhood
52. “I’m Free,” The World’s End
51. “Backstreet’s Back (All Right),” This is the End
50. “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away),” The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
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.
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.
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.
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 more than just one of the best movie songs of the 2010s, it’s one of the best songs period.
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.
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.
43. “Goody Two Shoes,” Hot Fuzz
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.
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 and musical interlude?
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.
THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN
39. “Just Like Honey,” Lost in Translation
38. “These Days,” The Royal Tenenbaums
“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 used in movies, it does the best job of conveying emotion without dialogue.
37. “Mad World,” Donnie Darko
36. “Cosmic Dancer,” Billy Elliot
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.
34. “Tiny Dancer,” Almost Famous
33. “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” Cruel Intentions
32. “Wise Up,” Magnolia
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.
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 leads us into the credits.
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.
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.
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.
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.
25. “Somebody to Love,” The Cable Guy
24. “Perfect Day,” Trainspotting
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.
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.
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.
20. “My Sharona,” Reality Bites
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 theme songs, none other would be quite as maddening. Plus, after a while, you can’t help but laugh.
18. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Wayne’s World
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.
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.
DEREK & THE DOMINOS
15. “Layla (Piano Exit),” 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 Derek & The Dominos’ “Layla (Piano Exit).”
It’s one of the most famous movie songs from a bygone era, and we know our protagonists are about to become “bygone” too.
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.
13. “Fight the Power,” Do the Right Thing
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.
11. “Lollipop,” Stand by Me
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.
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.
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.
7. “Imagine,” The Killing Fields
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.
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.
4. “Trouble,” Harold and Maude
3. “Born to Be Wild,” Easy Rider
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.
SIMON AND GARFUNKEL
1. “The Sound of Silence,” The Graduate
84 Best Song Oscar winners ranked
We've covered some of the best movie songs ever — but they're not all winners in the eyes of the Academy. We've ranked EVERY single Oscar winner for Best Song going all the way back to 1934. That's a grand total of 84 songs that took home the gold. Some are clear winners but there are quite a few "what were they thinking?" selections as well.