The Best Soundtracks of the 1980s

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The 80s are a big turning point for movie soundtracks and this can be attributed to one thing: In 1981 MTV premiered and studios realised that if their movies came with a signature song then MTV would play it in rotation and they would get free advertising. Seemingly every movie released in this decade has a song that comes with it and some are awful (that shitty Karate Kid song) and some are amazing. We’re going to talk about the amazing ones.

Purple Rain

Warner Bros. Records

Warner Bros. Records

“Dearly beloved…” this album begins with one of the best Prince tracks, Let’s Go Crazy, and it is a mission statement. This album is crazy. It veers between funky dance tracks (Let’s Go Crazy, I Would Die 4 You, Computer Blue) and classic ballads (When Doves Cry, Purple Rain) and is, as is always the case with Prince, overflowing with creativity and originality. This is another album that outshines the movie that spawned it and, much like Saturday Night Fever, Superfly, and The Graduate, stands tall in the artist behind it’s discography. There are some duds (Darling Nikki) but even a Prince dud is better than some artists’ hits.

Dirty Dancing

RCA Records

RCA Records

If I didn’t put this on the list there would be an angry mob (led by my own mother) at my door, offended that there’s no mention of the “best 80s movie ever”. I will admit I was cynical going in but this album won me over. In much the same way that the movie is very much an 80s movie that is incidentally set in the 60s, the album is a mix of classic 60s (By my Baby, Stay) and original 80s (Hungry Eyes, She’s Like the Wind).

It’s been nice in this feature every time that I have found a track that instantly puts a movie scene in my mind (i.e. the angry dance in Footloose set to ) and Dirty Dancing has one of the most famous movie scenes set to I Had the Time of my Life by Bill Medley. Also one the songs on this album, She’s Like the Wind, is sung by the Swayz-iest of men, Patrick Swayze himself who, alas, is dirty dancing with the angels now and still the coolest dude in the Catskill Mountains.

Blues Brothers

Atlantic Records

Atlantic Records

Blues Brothers played a huge part in my musical education. This movie is a calvacade of musical genius with cameos by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway, James Brown, John Lee Hooker. The soundtrack was like a gateway drug. I have a taste of Ray Charles with the awesomely funky Shake a Tail Feather and wanted more so tracked down Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and loved it (despite its title). The same went for Aretha’s Think and James Brown’s transcendental performance as Reverend Cleophus James (one of the greatest experiences of my life was seeing Brown live in Hyde Park). John Belushi also manages to stand out as ‘Joliet’ Jake Blues on a majority of tracks with his soul-y rendition of a white bastardisation of the blues.

Top Gun



Jesus Christ, this soundtrack could not be more 80s. But Sean, I hear you cry, what makes an album be so 80s? Glad you asked. Kenny Loggins, synthy love ballads, drum machines, more Kenny Loggins. This album has all that in frigging spades. The love theme, Take my Breath Away, is the standard slice of sex scene accompaniment (for further reading: Show me Heaven from Days of Thunder) with breathy lyrics and a bassline that sounds like the theme from Twin Peaks. But we didn’t come here to talk about love ballads, we came here to talk about Loggins. Kenny Loggins will appear again in this list because he is Mr 80s. If I found out that no record of him existed pre-1980 and post-1989 I would not be surprised. He has two tracks on this album. One is Playing with the Boys, the song that accompanies a scene of shirtless men playing an aggressive game of volleyball that probably gave rise to the idea that this movie is about gay men (not that’s there’s anything wrong with that). His other track is the incomparable Danger Zone. If you want to make your commute to work more exciting, play Danger Zone. Going for a job and want an epic jog, play Danger Zone. Want to make washing the dishes fucking intense as Hell? Danger Zone.

Oh, Loggins, you’re the hero the 80s deserved.




Speaking of Loggins, Footloose. In much the same way that Danger Zone can turn any situation into an adrenaline fuelled thrill ride, Footloose makes everything a dance party. Loggins is so good at capturing the spirit of a movie and transferring it to music, and with Footloose he takes the movie’s rebellious, dance-related plot and makes it into a four minute floor filler.

Other than Loggins this album shows it’s 80s cred with some Shalamar, Sammy Hagar, and the wonderful Bonnie Tyler singing Holding out for a Hero, a quintessential slab of gothic, Jim Steinman 80s rock that inexplicably works in a movie about a small town in which John Lithgow has outlawed dancing. Finally, some more Loggins. (I’m Free) Heaven Helps the Man is so good and less remembered than Footloose, but is still a piece of fried Loggins gold.




Flashdance, the movie, feels a big fat cigar chomping studio exec assembled his lackies and said, ‘Y’know what the kids like today? The MTV. So let’s make a movie outta that.’ Flashdance is like a string of music videos strung together like pearls with the plot of a steel worker who wants to be a dancer acting as the string. A big part of this movie’s success was that these music video scenes could be shown in their entirety on MTV, enhancing the movie’s popularity by giving viewers a glimpse of the full thing and leaving them wanting more.

There are two big stand out tracks on this album. Flashdance (What a Feeling) plays over the final big dance audition and is a huge mix of strings, 80s synth, drums, and victory. The other track, Maniac, is one I have a soft spot for (as evidenced here). It has that beautiful 80s literalism in its lyrics (“Just a steel town girl on a Saturday night”) that would make this song really silly if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s intensely awesome. I have an especially soft spot for it because when I pick my baby niece up in the air she likes the kick her legs like she’s running, and if I sing this song to her at the same time she laughs her ass off.

Lost Boys



There are innumerable vampire movies and about ten good ones. The Lost Boys is one of the ten. The soundtrack is made up of moody, goth-y ballads that seem fitting for a movie in which a peroxide blond haired Kiefer Sutherland fucks people up while the Coreys (Haim and Feldman) provide comic relief.

My recollection of this album was based around the song Cry Little Sister, the theme of the movie that I remembered being awesome. I listened to it on the train to work and discovered that, no, no it is not awesome. It is awful. Melodramatic, laughably moody and stupid lyrics sung in long, drawn out croaky notes.

However, the rest of the soundtrack brings the heat. Echo and Bunnymen’s (I got lots of love for a band from Liverpool) version of The Doors’ People are Strange is the right amount of creepy Gothic while Inxs and Jimmy Barnes’ Good Times starts rough but then Michael Hutchence’s sexy, sexy voice comes on and elevates it into something very good.

Finally, Thomas Newman’s wonderfully titled instrumental To the Surprise of Miss Louise is a lovely piece of creepy, discordant circus music that manages to be more spooky in two minutes that all of Cry Little Sister.

And yet, in an effort to share my dislike with others I found this video of Cry Little Sister and realised that, in the context of the movie, this song is as awesome as I remember from my teen years. More so than any other genre, context is key to enjoying some soundtrack songs, so with this song if I was fighting vampires it would rock, but if I’m sitting on the train jonesing for a coffee, it sucks.


As talked about, the 80s were the decade of the movie song. Pick a song from that time and chances are it comes from a movie and chances are the song has outlived the movie it came from, such as Against All Odds by Phil Collins. This song was number one in South Africa the day I was born (in South Africa), this is a song that everyone knows even if they are unaware of the Rachel Ward, Jeff Bridges, and James Woods love triangle classic (classic?) it comes from. A fantastic song for broken-hearted people, fans of Phil Collins and especially broken-hearted Phil Collins fans.

Another popular soundtrack song was the movie theme like Ghostbusters by Ray Parker, St Elmos Fire by John Parr, or The Never-Ending Story by Limahl (Watch the video for this and see how it takes before you say “God damn it the 80s, have a bit of dignity!”

There are a lot of awesome (and awful) movie songs from this period (too many for this little feature and too many for my synth addled brain) and you can thank MTV for that.




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