The 80s saw a boom in soundtrack sales, which started with Flashdance. But you’ll have to go back a little further to find the first true soundtrack that defined a movie. That would be 1978’s Saturday Night Fever, the biggest-selling soundtrack of all time. It spawned six singles, four of which hit No. 1.
But Flashdance ushered in a new phase of soundtracks. The success of the movie was solely based on the success of the album — a first for a film. It was followed by such movies as Footloose, Dirty Dancing and Top Gun — all movies in which marketers plugged the album as much as the movie — and much of the movies’ successes came from the soundtracks.
Here are 10 of the best soundtracks of the 80s, based not on success but on the sheer volume of talent that appears on them. It is, of course, my opinion, and no, Dirty Dancing is not one of them.
10. She’s Having a Baby (1988)
One of four John Hughes soundtracks on this list, She’s Having a Baby was one of his later movies, but he still had a knack for finding the right songs. Bryan Ferry, Everything But the Girl, and Love & Rockets all have strong songs on here, but it’s Kate Bush’s haunting vocals on the piano ballad “This Woman’s Work” that makes it memorable. It, like most John Hughes soundtracks, dominates the movie.
9. Amadeus (1984)
This is cheating — Taking the best music from the greatest composer of all time and sticking it on a CD doesn’t seem fair. Yet the music from the biopic about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart fits the film perfectly. Each song on the soundtrack fits with a pivotal moment in the movie — from Antonio Salieri’s description of “Serenade for Winds” to the deathbed scene where Mozart directs the transcription of “Confutatis.” A powerful soundtrack.
8. Chariots of Fire (1981)
The Vangelis theme song has been overplayed, and the choice of a new-age musician to write songs for a movie about 1924 Olympians seems odd. But the soundtrack is eerie in places, and “100 Metres” is chilling to listen to when watching Harold Abrahams suffer defeat in the race. At times it sounds more like a full orchestra is playing, which is more fitting for such a grandiose movie.
7. Pretty in Pink (1986)
The second John Hughes soundtrack, this is typical 80s material here, headlined by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “If You Leave.” Some of the soundtrack features unknown artists — a trick we’ll see Hughes perform very well later — but here they seem to fall flat. It’s the classics — Suzanne Vega’s “Left of Center,” Echo & the Bunnymen’s “Bring on the Dancing Horses,” and the Smiths’ “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” — that make this album worth listening to.
6. The Man From Snowy River (1982)
Another classical soundtrack, Bruce Rowland’s upbeat, horn-led vignettes capture the hoofbeats of horses, as they did in the movie “Phar Lap.” The standout track is “Jessica’s Theme (Breaking in the Colt),” a modern classical piece that is as beautiful and peaceful and graces one of the most serene scenes in the movie.
5. Vision Quest (1985)
A movie that seemed to be an offshoot of a soundtrack, the album is much better than the movie, which features a wrestler who falls in love with an older woman. Okay. The soundtrack is full of gems, from Journey’s “Only the Young” to Madonna’s “Crazy for You.” Sandwiched in between those two are hard rock classics such as Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded” and Red Ryder’s “Lunatic Fringe.” The Style Council’s “Shout to the Top” is excellent but almost feels out of place here.
4, Footloose (1984)
What 80s list would be complete without the soundtrack of all soundtracks? Footloose was an instant classic. The theme song rocketed to No. 1. It’s a shock that other great songs on here didn’t fare better. Shalamar’s “Dancing in the Sheets” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” failed to reach the Top 10. Unfortunately, Mike Reno and Ann Wilson’s sappy ballad “Almost Paradise” did. It’s the only dud on here.
3. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
We had to wait 30 years for this soundtrack. John Hughes never released an official version of this soundtrack when the movie was released, so fans made their own unofficial soundtracks for a long time. The “official” release in 2016 had only nine songs and a few favorites such as “Twist and Shout” absent, but the classics — “Oh Yeah” by Yello, and the two lovely songs by the Dream Academy — “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” makes another appearance in my list. You can enjoy this soundtrack if you can find it, or make your own.
2. Purple Rain (1984)
This album, which is actually “Music from the Motion Picture,” contains many of Prince’s signature themes — “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” and the title cut. Other cuts are precious to Prince fans, and the only things missing are the songs by the Time and Dez Dickerson. It’s a Prince album first and foremost.
1. Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)
One of the only perfect albums I own. John Hughes goes far and wide to find the most obscure artists around — Blue Room, Furniture, Lick the Tins, and the March Violets and makes a soundtrack without a bad song on it. Each track stands on its own, and when coupled with the movie makes a powerful statement. It’s a must-have.