What would movies be without music? As far back as the silent era, accompanying musicians (often organists) or small orchestras were fundamental to the moviegoing experience. Today, major films produce a legion of best-selling soundtracks — and often memorable songs that remain popular long after the films themselves have been forgotten. (Here’s the most popular movie soundtrack every year since 1964).
To assemble a list of the 50 greatest songs from American movies, 24/7 Tempo reviewed a ranking by the American Film Institute entitled “100 Years…100 Songs.”
AFI members nominated some 400 memorable songs, from throughout movie history, for consideration, then a panel of jurors ranked them according to these criteria: Songs had to come from English-language feature films; they had to “set a tone or mood, define character, advance plot, and/or express the film’s themes in a manner that elevates the moving image art form;” and they had to have had cultural impact, becoming part of our collective memory of the film itself and resonating across the decades.
From Julie Andrews and Diсk Van Dyke singing “Supercalifragilisticeexpialidocious” to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” each song on our list enhances the enduring iconography of the film it comes from. Of course, don’t take that to mean they’re employed toward similar ends. Movies run the full gamut of ideas and emotions and so too do the songs they feature. (These are the 50 absolute best songs in history.)
Take the aforementioned example of “Supercalifragilisticeexpialidocious,” which delivers pure escapist fantasy. By contrast, “Fight the Power” is a call to action with overt socio-political messaging. A song like “Wind Beneath My Wings” invokes sadness while “Rock Around the Clock” instantly transports us to a bygone era. These songs and others like them help movies evoke emotional experiences. Movies wouldn’t be the same without them.