The 100 best needle drops in film and television history
From Britney Spears in Spring Breakers to five seconds of Pharoah Sanders in The Sopranos, these are The FADER’s favorite musical cues.
The 100 best needle drops in film and television history

A needle drop acts as a highlighter. When a song is played at a specific moment in a movie or TV show, it draws big, bold colors around the scene, giving it outsized importance in the production’s broader context. It can serve as a nod to certain themes, act as a bit of world-building, or simply charm us enough to form a deeper connection with the characters. Sometimes, the best needle drops resonate immediately. Other times, it can take decades for their significance to truly settle. Either way, they define modern film and TV and their creators: if you wouldn’t trust them to build the right playlist for the movie, what does it say about their relationship to the movie that they made?

For the past few weeks, The FADER has been building a list of the best needles ever dropped in film and television history, and compiled an even 100. They appear in the most prestigious TV dramas ever made, the schlockiest genre films you’ve never seen, and, in one case, because Raphael insisted, a MrBeast video. Others are just bad enough to germinate into special little curios. Either way, they’re unforgettable.

Our definition of a needle drop in this list is "A piece of diegetic or non-diegetic music that enhances the mood, flavor, and/or narrative of the film/show.” We’ve excluded scenes from musicals and songs written specifically for the soundtrack. That means no Public Enemy for Do The Right Thing, or Taylor Swift singing “Macavity” in Cats. These definitions might be controversial, but it’s our list, and you’re not likely to find one that pays tribute to the noble needle drop better than the one below.


Alice Coltrane, “Jai Ramachandra” (from The Curse)

Asher Siegel’s world has turned upside down by the end of The Curse’s finale, a bewildering hour of television that calls into question the physical properties of the show’s entire universe. But the episode’s closing sequence leaves the viewer with a sense of cosmic calm, even as it spins out into space. This is mainly due to the fact Alice Coltrane’s “Jai Ramachandra” is left to play out almost in its entirety as a man weeps on the ground, another floats frozen in space, a child is born, and the world goes about its business as usual. What better way to end a show about karma? — RH

Akon feat. Snoop Dogg, “I Wanna Love You” (from Jennifer's Body)

In Jennifer’s Body, Megan Fox plays an undead high school cheerleader who must feed on boys after an indie band offers her as a virgin sacrifice to Satan in exchange for mainstream success. Jennifer spends most of the movie eating high school males to gain strength while trying to navigate an underlying desire for her best friend, Needy. Akon’s “I Wanna Love You” plays as Needy loses her virginity to her simpleton boyfriend in an anti-climactic affair, while a few streets down, Jennifer seduces another teenage boy and eats him. The scenes play concurrently; all Needy can think of is Jennifer. — CS

Atari Teenage Riot, “Speed” (from The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift)

The Fast & Furious franchise has mostly been defined by original songs, but a few moments of existing music push the series into overdrive. In 2006’s Tokyo Drift, our fish out of water hero’s first street race in Japan is soundtracked by this digital hardcore thumper, which hits your body almost as hard as he hits the wall. — NS


Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band, “P.I.M.P. (50 Cent cover)” (from Anatomy of a Fall)

Have you ever been so annoyed at someone for playing music so loudly that you push them off the balcony, killing them? In the opening sequence of Anatomy of a Fall, Sandra’s husband plays the steel drum cover of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” on full volume, the music overwhelming her interview with a journalist. In the film, the cover is played repeatedly and gratingly to great effect. It’d be enough to send anyone over the edge. — CS

Backstreet Boys, “I Want It That Way” (from Magic Mike XXL)

At this point, it’s hardly provocative to say that Magic Mike XXL is basically a musical, with Channing Tatum as a bulked-up blue-collar Gene Kelly. The closest anyone comes to breaking out into actual song is Joe Manganiello’s hilarious impromptu performance of the Backstreet Boys, which he uses to flirt with the cashier at a gas station in order to get his mojo back. This motley crew of male strippers may not be in a musical themselves, but they can turn other people’s lives into musicals with a few moves. — NS

Bad Brains, “Pay to Cum” (from After Hours)

At Club Berlin’s mohawk night, our hapless hero Paul Hacket is shepherded through a sea of thrashing punks by a reluctant bouncer. His nightmare only intensifies from there: The punks (with the bouncer’s assistance) attempt to shave a mohawk into his head as he shouts in vain for the attention of the ice queen he came to see. “Pay to Cum,” Bad Brains’s iconic debut single, plays throughout the affair, upping the scene’s chaotic energy by orders of magnitude. — RH


Badfinger, “Baby Blue” (from Breaking Bad)

The final moments of Breaking Bad show Walter White, a ruined man with a fallen empire, paying tribute to his true love: his baby blue meth. White’s ties to his family have been destroyed, and he has been rightfully abandoned by his one true companion, Jesse. As he listens to the sirens of the police cars closing in on him, White finally accepts his fate, understanding that he deserves to die alone, surrounded by nothing but the equipment he used to create his life’s legacy: “Guess I got what I deserved / Kept you waiting there too long, my love.” — CS

The Blue Nile, “Let's Go Out Tonight” (from Aloha)

Yes, Aloha deserved some flack for casting Emma Stone as an Asian woman. But Cameron Crowe’s screwball comedy is quietly one of the most radical and outwardly anti-imperialist American films ever made, a Hawksian romance that’s somehow about the military-industrial complex and probably the closest Hollywood has ever gotten to Thomas Pynchon. Not to mention, the soundtrack contains one of Crowe’s best playlists, with the particularly inspired choice to play this moody art-pop ballad from The Blue Nile as a satellite launches into space. — NS

Bob Dylan, “Hurricane” (from Dazed & Confused)

When it comes to crafting a soundtrack with popular music, Richard Linklater is arguably Scorcese’s most talented disciple. Dazed & Confused, one of his most iconic films, stands out in this respect. After all, more than 30 years after the movie's release, everyone still wants to feel like Wooderson when they walk into a bar. — JD


Bobbie Gentry, “Reunion” (from FX's Fargo)

“Reunion” incorporates an ensemble of voices (mostly Gentry’s own) to build a whacky tableau of a chaotic family gathering. The song drives the kinetic opening sequence of Fargo Season Two's second episode, in which Ed Blumquist butchers meat, his wife Peggy combs her hair, and the mysterious Mike Milligan rides out to visit the vicious Gerhardt family. It’s such a perfect song for quickly introducing a cast of characters that it’s shocking no one thought of it earlier. — RH

Britney Spears, “Everytime” (from Spring Breakers)

James Franco’s depiction of Alien, part Riff Raff and part human embodiment of the state of Florida, is purposefully outsized and cartoonish. But he lends real soul to this Spring Breakers scene, singing Britney Spears's piano ballad surrounded by his balaclava-clad girls cradling assault rifles and champagne. The use of Spears's music in this toxic coming-of-age story, where childhood innocence is corrupted by cynical adults, feels all the more pointed a decade down the line. — DR

Can, “Vitamin C” (from Inherent Vice)

Inherent Vice is not the movie to watch if you want an efficiently plotted noir where the detective cracks the case in time for dinner. When Paul Thomas Anderson adapted the Thomas Pynchon novel in 2014 he turned to Can for the title sequence, underlining his most vibes-based movie with the hypnotic standout from the krautrock band’s seminal Ege Bamyasi. It’s a song perfectly suited to the psychedelic ‘70s paranoia and intrigue that follows. — DR

Candlebox, “Far Behind” (from Eastbound and Down)

If you aimlessly wave around a baseball bat, you’ll hit a great musical moment from HBO’s Eastbound and Down. But for some reason, it’s this grunge one-hit wonder that sticks with me the most. In a scene that takes cringe to new levels, Kenny hijacks the funeral for his coke buddy Shane (Jason Sudeikis), to deliver a nonsensical eulogy while he plays Candlebox: a perfect representation of Kenny Powers’ boorish attempts a vulnerability. — NS


Cass Elliott, “Make Your Own Kind of Music” (from Lost)

Almost a decade after the show ended, I’m still not exactly sure what time zone or dimension the characters of Lost existed in. Part of that is how the show used music, eschewing more contemporary needle drops for vintage cuts that evoked an uncanny sense of nostalgia. The first time you hear “Make Your Own Kind Of Music,” it’s blissful; after a thousand times, it starts to become a curse, like having to push a button every few hours for the rest of your life. — NS

Cerrone, “Supernature” (from Climax)

“Joyful” is not a word you can usually ascribe to the nihilistic filmography of Gaspar Noé. That’s why this portion of the French director’s 2018 thriller helps it to rank among his very best works — it’s an ode to movement so kinetic that it makes the claustrophobic confines of the film feel like the grandest ballroom. — JD

Cheryl Lynn, “Got To Be Real” (from Paris is Burning)

“Got To Be Real” plays at various points in Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s seminal documentary following the '80s New York ballroom scene. It is the use of the song over the final credits that hits hardest, though. “You’ve left a mark on the world if you just get through it,” says one of the cabaret acts profiled in the film mournfully as she applies her make-up and discusses the death of a friend — something grimly expected at the time. It’s a brutal reminder of the threat that trans women face simply for following what they know to be true. — DR

Chief Keef, “I Don't Like” (from Nocturama)

Chicago drill isn’t usually the kind of music you expect to hear from a French arthouse film about the ethics of radical direct action. When Chief Keef hits in the middle of Nocturama, as the film’s teenage terrorist protagonists blast it over the soundsystem of a shopping mall, it’s even more explosive than the actual bombs they detonate. — NS

Claude Debussy, “Claire De Lune” (from The Darjeeling Limited)

Wes Anderson's needle drops have helped define him as an auteur, for better and worse. Best known for his use of classic and underground rock, Anderson switches things up on The Darjeeling Limited, a 2007 film that brings his go-to theme of familial strife to rural India. The soundtrack displays a new range for Anderson: you'll hear three songs from The Kinks as well as parts of scores from movies by giants of Indian cinema like Satyajit Ray, one of the film's many respectful gestures to the country it's set in. At the lowest point in the film for the three brothers (played by Adrian Brody, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson) "Claire De Lune" by Claude Debussy is played on an iPod speaker as they do the classic white-people-on-a-spiritual-quest thing: get high, half-heartedly and incorrectly perform a ritual, and reckon with the crisis that sent them spiraling so far from home. The humor is bone-dry but heartfelt in that classic Anderson way. — JD


Christopher Cross, “Sailing” (from Ambulance)

Almost as much as the breathtaking drone shots and nail-biting stunts, the crackling banter between Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is what makes Michael Bay’s Ambulance sing. The adopted brothers have a singular bond that nobody else can understand, which is best exemplified by their impromptu singalong to the smooth crooning of Christopher Cross, a much-needed moment of chill during a nonstop panic attack. — NS

Chuck Berry, “You Never Can Tell” (from Pulp Fiction)

Sometimes, even the most hardened of gangsters and heroin-snorting mob wives need a little break from all the blood, drugs, and violence, including Pulp Fiction’s Mia Wallace and Vincent Vega. For them, it’s doing a flirty version of the twist at a retro diner to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” an ironically wholesome 180 from their lives of seedy crime. But no matter how innocent it may sound, there’s still the underlying threat of Mia’s husband and Vincent’s trigger-happy boss hearing about their little moment while dancing to a song about teenage lovers who run away together. — SS

College feat. Electric Youth, “A Real Hero” (from Drive)

“A Real Hero” was partly inspired by the story of Captain Sully Sullenberger but it is Ryan Gosling’s Hollywood stuntman/getaway driver who embodies the song’s message in Drive. Gosling’s Driver character is practically mute, with director Nicolas Winding Refn using stylish touches like his dragon-emblazoned jacket as a kind of cinematic language. A synth-pop song about being a “real human being” may not be hard to decode, as Driver tries to move away from his life of crime and violence and toward something more orderly, but it captures the movie’s neon-splattered quest perfectly. — DR

Corona, “Rhythm of the Night” (from Beau Travail)

The rhythm of life beats throughout Beau Travail, from the way Claire Denis elegantly guides the camera to the choreography of the homoerotic drills practiced by soldiers in the French Foreign Legion. The movie fittingly ends with a scene where Galoup (Denis Lavant) dances alone to Corona’s 1993 Euro-house classic. The tension in the first 90 minutes has all but disappeared as we watch a man who has trained his whole life to be a tool of the military finally break loose. — DR

The Crystals, “And Then He Kissed Me” (from Goodfellas)

Not only is the tracking shot here technically masterful and thematically apt (transporting us into the lavish world of gangster Henry Hill via the perspective of his new girlfriend Karen), but its soundtrack enhances the feeling of bewitchment. Even though we know the awful truth about Henry's career, by the time we’re in front of the stage, we’re as swept away as Karen is. — JD


Cypress Hill, “How I Could Just Kill A Man” (from Juice)

“How I Could Just Kill A Man” plays in the leadup to Juice’s climax, as Q (Omar Epps) chases his nemesis Bishop (Tupac) through a lively Harlem house party. The track perfectly fits the moment; its lively instrumental provides an ideal dance-floor groove, while the Reyes brothers’ feverish delivery gives the scene a delirious tenor, and their murderous lyrics encapsulate Bishop’s crazed state of mind. — RH

Daniel Johnston, “Casper the Friendly Ghost” (from KIDS)

It doesn’t get much more Harmony Korine-coded than the sight of teenage skateboarders beating the shit out of someone to the tune of a lo-fi pop song about a cartoon ghost. — JD

David Bowie, “Modern Love” (from Mauvais Sang)

Made some 13 years before Beau Travail, French director Leos Carax’s 1986 movie Mauvais Sang is the second movie featuring a lone Denis Lavant scene to make this list. This time he is playing the youthful Alex who, bursting with positivity over his partner, skips down a street in Paris in time to Bowie’s rousing soul hit. It’s a scene in a film that nods to cinema history while going on to influence its future, most notably in 2012 when Noah Baumbach recreated it with Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha. — DR

The Delfonics, “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” (from Jackie Brown)

Tarantino’s films are full of needle drops that, for better or worse, have turned generations of film bros into amateur funk, soul, and surf rock enthusiasts. Jackie Brown, his masterwork in more than one regard, is packed full of such easter eggs: Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” soundtracks the iconic opening and closing sequences, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Ordell puts on The Brothers Johnson’s lush “Strawberry Letter 23” before murdering a man in cold blood. But it’s "Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)" that comes to stand for the tender, budding romance between Pam Grier’s eponymous character and bail bondsman Max Cherry, the relationship that gives the flick more heart than any other Tarantino has released. — RH

Des’ree, “You Gotta Be” (from PEN15)

The climactic scene in the first season of one of the best televised comedies of all time captures everything that made it such an authentic and bold depiction of adolescence. Our protagonists, the 13-year-old Anna and Maya (played brilliantly by the 30-something actors Anna Konkle and Maya Erskin) reconcile on the dancefloor to the 1994 R&B pop hit “You Gotta Be” by performing their choreographed routine. From characterization to sheer humor, it captures so much about what made the show great. — JD

Dinah Washington, “This Bitter Earth” (from Killer of Sheep)

The crackling warmth of old soul records informs the rough-hewn neorealism of this pioneering independent film from Charles Burnett. In one of the most sensitive moments ever captured on screen, a distressed couple who have grown apart share a rare moment of tenderness during a silhouetted slow dance to this haunting torch song. — NS

The Doors, “This Is The End” (from Apocalypse Now)

Two sprawling, messy epics come together to form one of the most memorable musical themes in cinema history. If I’m ever on a boat ride into hell, I’ll expect to hear Jim Morrison wailing somewhere in the background. — JD

Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, “Still D.R.E.” (from Training Day)

Nobody but Denzel Washington at his peak could have pulled this off. The unmistakable first bars of “Still D.R.E.” signal Training Day’s journey into a different L.A., one that looks like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s, and it sets up the dynamic between its two very different protagonists more powerfully than any lengthy dialogue could. But it’s also just really cool to have Denzel Washington say “you in the office, baby” and then hit the switches on his Chevrolet Monte Carlo before riding off into the city. — ARR

Eddy Arnold, “Cattle Call” (from My Own Private Idaho)

Appearing for a few seconds just before and during the opening credits, “Cattle Call” helps to establish the dreamlike power of Gus Van Sant’s tragic love story. The writer/director transforms “Cattle Call” into the soundtrack to the narcoleptic reverie of River Phoenix’s character Mike, making it a lullaby within a dream, with Arnold’s loping coos seeming to guide Mike as he drifts unwillingly into a different state of consciousness. — JD

Elliott Smith, “Between The Bars” (from Good Will Hunting)

“Between The Bars” is about toxic relationships and the troubling and endearing understandings they can give us about another person's heart. From the moment they meet, Will Hunting (Matt Damon) and Skylar (Minnie Driver) seem made for each other, but Will's past threatens to strangle their love before it fully blooms. As a viewer, we get all that terrible baggage and wonderful promise in this scene, where Skylar and Will have found that unbeatable rhythm of a love that's both new and deep: full of jokes and a deep hunger for each other. — JD

Elton John, “Tiny Dancer” (from Almost Famous)

Director Cameron Crowe wrote just two lines in the script that would become arguably his most memorable scene: “They listen to ‘Tiny Dancer’ on the bus and sing along as Russell realizes the warmth of the community of his band and crew.” The sing-along on Stillwater’s tour bus is a rousing and unforgettable moment in a movie that looks back at the days of classic rock with rose-tinted sunglasses. Elton John, a fan of that kind of attire, approved and even reintroduced the song to his live sets owing to the movie’s popularity. — DR

Frankie Goes To Hollywood, “Relax” (from Body Double)

Brian de Palma gave his long-running Hitchcock obsession the setting it needed in Body Double, a murder mystery set in the porno industry. The film has an uninhibited referentiality and explores how our voyeuristic tendencies paint our reality, facets that are reflected in the use of “Relax” — the song’s lyrics could be narration for the skin film it’s soundtracking. The scene where it appears disrupts the viewer’s footing in the world of the film by appearing like the opening seconds of a music video (in a very meta twist, the band ended up using footage from the film for one of the song's several videos). — JD

Frankie Knuckles, “The Whistle Song” (from Eden)

There are any number of deep house classics you could pick from Mia Hansen-Love’s dancefloor drama: Joe Smooth’s “Promised Land,” Aly-Us’ “Follow Me,” Kings of Tomorrow’s “Finally.” But it’s an early needle drop of Knuckles’s fluttering and euphoric instrumental that sticks with me the most, an instant dose of euphoria that embodies the main character’s love affair with house music. — NS

Geri Halliwell, “It's Raining Men” (from Bridget Jones's Diary)

When you think of great fight scenes, you think of Mad Dog in The Raid, Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury… and Hugh Grant versus Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’s Diary, under the pouring rain and set to Geri Halliwell’s boy-crazy hymn “It’s Raining Men.” Two very posh British men valiantly fight for the heart of our heroine, Bridget, except neither of them is very good at fighting, or punching; their dramatic “fight” involves lots of ows and feeble kicks. Oh, but they do crash into a Greek restaurant and have their brawl momentarily interrupted by a “Happy Birthday” sing-along. — CS

Geto Boys, “Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta” (from Office Space)

This isn’t even the most famous Geto Boys needle drop in Office Space — the scene in which Peter and his coworkers beat the shit out of a malfunctioning printer while “Still” plays over the top has been parodied over and over again — but it is the best. “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” is the perfect soundtrack to our hero’s minor acts of professional rebellion, his confidence, and his enviable zen. — ARR

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, “East Hastings” from 28 Days Later

Godspeed’s anarcho-heavy orchestral music has always had an apocalyptic feel so they made perfect sense to accompany Danny Boyle’s 2002 viral outbreak movie. Jim (Cillian Murphy)’s realization that an empty London is no longer the same is one of creeping dread. — DR

Hall & Oates, “You Make My Dreams” (from 500 Days of Summer)

When Tom finally has sex with the girl of his dreams in 500 Days of Summer, he spends the morning after dancing to Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams.” For precisely three minutes and ten seconds, Tom’s life is perfect: pedestrians greet him with smiles and waves, Han Solo returns his wink, cartoon birds flock to him, and strangers join him in a spontaneous, jubilant dance number. For just one, fleeting, glorious moment, Tom’s life exudes the sunshine and joyousness of an ’80s yacht rock song. — CS


Happy Mondays’ “Kuff Damn” into A Guy Called Gerald’s “Voodoo Ray” (from 24 Hour Party People)

What better way to indicate an industrial city’s transition into becoming the center of the rave universe than with a DJ effect? 24 Hour Party People is a film based on the rise and fall of Factory Records in Manchester, a record label that also founded the ill-fated but still influential superclub, the Hacienda. In this scene, label co-founder Tony Wilson (played by Steve Coogan) delivers some of the film’s endlessly charming meta-exposition as he describes the changing city of Manchester. To drive this point home, a song by Happy Mondays, one of Factory’s first signed bands, fades out, with the Mancunian acid house classic “Voodoo Ray” coming in over scenes of the Hacienda’s dancefloor. With one simple mix, a new chapter in the film — and music history — begins. — JD

Harry Nilsson, “Everybody’s Talkin’” (from Midnight Cowboy)

Few other American films before or since the release of Midnight Cowboy have created such a complex and layered portrayal of loneliness and the redemptive power of friendship. Part of that is thanks to the film’s theme, a song written by Fred Neil in 1966 and covered by Nilsson a year later. Full of melancholic guitars played at a skipping stone’s pace, “Everybody’s Talkin’” offers a bit of key insight into Joe Buck, a simple-minded male escort played by Jon Voight: “Everybody’s talking at me / Can’t hear a word they’re sayin’ / Only the echoes of my mind.” — JD

The Hillside Singers, “I'd Like To Buy The World A Coke” (from Mad Men)

Don Draper’s journey — a doomed, relentless chase of a soul — may have ended, but the conclusion of Mad Men underlines one of its central concerns: that people like Draper told us that we had his same void, and the only way to heal was to buy our way out of it. Is it the most sinister depiction of meditation of all time? — Jordan Darville

Huey Lewis and the News, “Hip To Be Square” (from American Psycho)

If he hadn’t become a Wall Street bro, Patrick Bateman could’ve been a QVC icon, because “call now to receive your limited-edition American Psycho™ raincoat and a copy of Huey Lewis and the News’ Hip to Be Square LP” is a killer sales pitch. I mean, if he can convince people that he’s not an axe murderer with a fabulous skincare routine, then he’d obviously be good at selling a clueless yuppie on a song that’s making fun of them. Between his little dancey-dance and “Hip to Be Square’s” deceptively catchy piano melody, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise when you get hurt. — SS

Imogen Heap, “Hide and Seek” (from The O.C.)

Often parodied but never duplicated, the usage of Imogen Heap’s breakout hit in The O.C. was maybe the most immediately infamous music moment in a show largely defined by its musical taste. But the song's glitchy layered vocals are a far cry from the sensitive Seth Cohen core of Death Cab or Modest Mouse, embodying the fractured mental state of the ever-tragic Marissa Cooper. — NS

Janet Kay, “Silly Games” (from Small Axe: Lovers Rock)

Set in a Jamaican house party in ‘80s London, Lovers Rock contains perhaps the most spiritually enriching depiction of a house party put to film. When the DJ drops the music and everyone on the dancefloor sings along to Kayit’s track acapella, it’s a tearjerking moment of intergenerational unity. — JD

Jason Derulo, “Whatcha Say” (from Gossip Girl)

Of course, you can’t talk about The O.C. without also talking about Gossip Girl, which relocated showrunner Josh Schwartz’s teen comedy of manners to the East Coast. In its character relationships and themes, Gossip Girl could often play like a remix of The O.C., which is slyly acknowledged in the use of Jason Derulo’s Imogen Heap-sampling “Whatcha Say” in the iconic Thanksgiving episode. — NS

Jay-Z feat. Kanye West, “Lucifer” (from Entourage)

Entourage is another show whose success was owed in large part thanks to a constantly shuffling iPod-like playlist, from “Eminence Front” to “Fake Plastic Trees.” But hip-hop captured the hustle mentality of Vinny Chase and company better than anything else — I’m still waiting on Saigon’s debut album. This closing needle drop from the show’s pilot set the tone, casting the cut-throat waters of Hollywood cast as another kind of murder capital where they murder for capital. — NS

Jay-Z and Linkin Park, “Numb/Encore” (from Miami Vice)

The theatrical cut of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice cold opens in a busy nightclub and with the first notes of the mashup of all mashups, Jay-Z and Linkin Park's “Numb/Encore.” The camera follows detectives James “Sonny” Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) as they saunter through the space, setting up a sting on a pimp named Neptune. The track’s front-and-center placement is one of the many brashly goofy aesthetic choices that have spurred the initially panned film’s renaissance as a sleeper cult hit. — RH


The Jesus & Mary Chain, “Just Like Honey” (from Lost in Translation)

What did Bob Harris (Bill Murray) say to Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) at the end of Lost In Translation? Who cares? Maybe we as movie viewers should learn to a) embrace the terror in not knowing that's inherent to being alive, and b) just listen to the song that plays as the two share their goodbyes. What's contained in their looks and this song as it played over it is perfectly potent, and feels more real than most cinematic declarations of love. — JD

Jidenna and DJ Molasses, “Classic Man” (Screwed & Chopped) (from Moonlight)

The final third of Moonlight is essentially a music montage: Goodie Mobb’s “Cell Therapy” plays when an adult Chiron wakes up after a period of incarceration; Caetano Veloso’s “Cucurucucú Paloma” cover (seen elsewhere on this list) enters elegantly after a mother-and-son reunion; and DJ Molasses’s chopped and screwed remix of Jidenna’s “Classic Man” pumps through Chiron’s car speakers as he pulls up to the diner where Kevin, the only man who’s ever touched him, now cooks. It returns, several needle drops later as the two men ride back to Kevin’s Miami home. When Kevin asks why he’s really come to visit, Chiron turns up the volume, a final attempt at hiding his feelings behind a veneer of toughness. — RH

John Cale, "You Know More Than I Know” (from Past Lives)

In Past Lives, love is a product of coincidences that preclude other coincidences and therefore other love. John Cale’s “You Know More Than I Know” begins in the ruins of a relationship where both parties have resigned themselves to lives of silent regret, ruminating on lost coincidences and connections but recognizing that “there’s no more to be said.” Ironically, the song arrives at a moment when characters at opposite ends of a potentially eternal love triangle attempt to break this cycle of missed moments, making awkward but genuine efforts to express compassion for each other’s situations. In a film that overplays its hand at times, it’s a refreshingly nuanced flourish. — RH

Joyce and Milton Nascimento, “Tema Para Jobim” (from The Player)

Brazilian music is too often used in film as a reductive representation of tropical bliss. The Player does this with “Tema Para Jobim,” Joyce Moreno’s nostalgic bossa duet with Milton Nascimento. Like everything about The Player, though, it’s executed so exquisitely that it’s hard to argue with Robert Altman’s master plan. The song plays as Griffin flirts and dances with June at a near-empty resort where he’s spirited her away to avoid the probing eyes of law enforcement and the machinations of a dangerous stalker. It provides a moment of calm, but ominous undertones creep in the moment the song fades out, followed by a disturbing sex scene featuring an attempted murder confession. — RH

Katrina & The Waves, “I'm Walking On Sunshine” (from High Fidelity)

Let’s be real here: Jack Black is just playing himself in High Fidelity. He’s got one of the most memorable film introductions of all time: he barges into the record store he works at that’s run by his depressed and miserable boss (John Cusack), loudly declaring that the Belle & Sebastian record they are playing “sucks ass”; he immediately puts on “Walking on Sunshine” at full volume on the PA and dances the fuck out, much to the chagrin of his colleagues. Reject sad bastard music; embrace Katrina & the Waves and party it all out with Jack Black. — CS

Kid Rock, “Bawitdaba” (from The Shield)

It’s generally considered bad form for screenplay writers to include a specific song in their script’s directions, as Shawn Ryan did with the pilot of his crooked cop drama series The Shield. In this case, though, once you see the song work its dumb magic in the episode’s shocking final moments, it’s tough to imagine anything else working as well. — JD

L7, “Shit List” (From Natural Born Killers)

"Shit List" drips with disdain and righteous feminist rage, and stands as a beacon of '90s alt-rock. It's a keen addition to the opening of Oliver Stone's misunderstood masterpiece, placing us on the side of the two anti-heroes as they dispatch with two sex pests (and yes, some innocent civilians, too). The film's amphetamine pace and deeply ironic sense of morality is condensed into a few brilliant short minutes that hit as hard as Julianne Moore's left hook. — Jordan Darville

Led Zeppelin, “Immigrant Song” (from School of Rock)

Jack Black’s Dewey Finn’s impassioned sing-along to “Immigrant Song” in School of Rock marks the start of the alliance between him and his students. The group drives off triumphantly in Dewey’s run-down van after booking their spot in that year’s Battle of the Bands after the kids begin to understand the true meaning of punk, a.k.a. “Sticking it to the Man,” a.k.a. faking a rare disease called “Stickitothemanitus” to emotionally manipulate the snobby sourpuss in charge of the auditions. You’re not hardcore until you live hardcore. — CS

Leonard Cohen, “Winter Lady” (from McCabe & Mrs. Miller)

Robert Altman’s shattering neo-western concludes with Cohen’s ballad of a doomed romance and the deep longing that undergirds it. Without ruining the ending, I’ll just say this: Damn.JD


Luniz, “I Got 5 On It” (from Us)

On its own, “I Got 5 On It” is a silly song about assembling enough cash for some weed with an instrumental that’s as menacing as it is groovy. In a genius move, Jordan Peele enlisted composer Michael Abels to transform the song’s beat into the crushing orchestral theme for his 2018 film. But at the movie’s beginning, the song is just another tune on the radio for the family to discuss as they drive blissfully unaware into a horrifying new world. — JD

Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Free Bird” (from The Devil's Rejects)

Sure, “Free Bird” might be beyond cliche, but in both his music and his filmmaking, Rob Zombie takes cliches of American culture and opens them up until the guts hang out. As one of the first horror films saddled with the label of “torture porn,” The Devil’s Rejects was as violently shocking to the 2000s as Bonnie and Clyde was to the ‘60s, and employed pop music similarly: instead of the outlaw antiheroes of a bluegrass murder ballad, the treacherous Firefly Gang see themselves as movie stars gunned down in a slo-mo blaze of glory. — NS

The Mamas & the Papas, “California Dreaming” (from Chungking Express)

“California Dreaming” acts more like a recurring character in Chungking Express than a simple needle drop. It’s a song that is played over and over as Faye (Faye Wang) falls for police officer Tony Leung’s Cop 663. Separately she longs for a new reality, lost in escapist visions of America as she rubs up against the edges of life in Hong Kong. She eventually makes her way to the sunkissed vision of L.A. the Mamas & the Papas wrote about, only to return to her police officer. The repetition of the song by director Wong Kar-wai underlines just how much he means to her. — DR

Maustetytöt, “Syntynyt suruun ja puettu pettymyksin” (from Fallen Leaves)

Translated from Finnish, “Maustetytöt” means “Spice Girls,” but the duo’s appearance in 2023’s Fallen Leaves evokes the opposite of mass-consumable empowerment. “Syntynyt suruun ja puettu pettymyksin” (in English: "Born in Sorrow and Clothed in Disappointment") is a stark bedroom pop song about being flattened by the hydraulic press of modern life. The band perform the song in a desolate bar, and their lyrics resonate so deeply with the film’s protagonist that there’s a moment when we question whether or not they’re manifestations of his depression. — JD

Milton Nascimento and Lo Borges “O Trem Azul” (from Station 11)

“O Trem Azul” fades in as Station 11’s main characters, Jeevan and Kirsten, barge into Jeevan’s brother’s apartment with news that the world is ending. As Jeevan and Frank argue this fact and Kirsten walks to the window, Lo Borges’s gentle voice and lush guitar arrangement flood the mix, only punctuated when a passenger jet just misses the building, crash landing in the cityscape below. The silence that falls after the rich, expansive song cuts off mid-verse magnifies the event’s significance tenfold. — RH

Moby, “God Moving Over The Face of The Water” (from Heat)

Say what you will about Moby, but the guy had a knack for cinematic bangers almost ready-made for soundtrack placement. You can hear his tracks in everything from Southland Tales to The Bourne Supremacy, but maybe nobody has used Moby’s emotive mood pieces better than Michael Mann. The pensive symphony of “God Moving Over The Face Of The Water” plays in the final scene of Heat, as Al Pacino cradles the dying body of Robert De Niro, the meditatively circular piano loops articulating the emotions he can’t voice himself. — NS

Muse, “Supermassive Black Hole” (from Twilight)

In Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, vampires are only allowed to play baseball when the weather is thundering. That’s because the noise they make when they hit the balls with their bats is so loud that they need additional noise cover from the weather. They’re just that strong and powerful. A metal sports hobby requires a metal soundtrack, and that’s where Muse’s “Supermassive Black Hole” comes in. It’s the perfect kind of ridiculous dance-punk flamboyance needed for a montage where vampires in the Pacific Northwest hit home runs, slide-tackle across plates, and practice a strict humanitarian diet (no feeding on people, just animals). — CS

New Order, “Confusion (Pump Panel Reconstruction)” (from Blade)

Witnessing the slow-motion death of the Marvel Comics Universe is satisfying enough to outweigh the sting of getting fewer baffling MCU-adjacent clunkers like Madame Web. It feels even more like the universe is making the right decision when you look back on superhero movies that weren't designed to look like a game of Fortnite. 1998's Blade (based on the Marvel character and played with stoic cool by Wesley Snipes) blended gore and techno futurism to timeless effect. It opens with an iconic scene that's come to be known as the "Blood Rave," where the setting's real-life hedonism is taken to grotesque extremes — extremes that it's the job of a certain day-walking vampire to take care of. — JD

NSYNC, “Bye Bye Bye” (from Red Rocket)

It’s tough to write about this one without spoiling the ending of Sean Baker’s underseen follow-up to The Florida Project. The movie’s tragicomic balance dips hard into hilarity when this song is played, just as our slimy antihero (an ex-porn star named Mikey, a role that seems made for ex-MTV VJ Simon Rex) gets his comeuppance. — JD

Oliver Cheatham, “Get Down Saturday Night” (from Ex Machina)

Ex Machina is an austere and philosophical sci-fi movie with big thoughts on artificial intelligence and man’s reliance on technology. It is in a dance scene where it feels the most human, though. The scene acts as a reveal with Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) learning that the tech CEO he’s living with is a little more unusual than he had hoped. Never trust an engineer who tells you he’s going to “tear up the fucking dance floor,” especially if he’s doing it with his submissive cyborg maid. — DR

Oneohtrix Point Never and Iggy Pop's “The Pure and the Damned” from Mr. Beast's “Face Your Biggest Fear To Win $800,000”

Original songs made specifically for movies are barred from this list. Luckily, an auteur not surnamed Safdie thought to use Oneohtrix Point Never and Iggy Pop’s morose masterwork “The Pure and Damned” in a film not named Good Time: YouTube overlord MrBeast drops the needle on the track’s intro at the end of his recent video “Face Your Biggest Fear To Win $800,000.” The track greatly enhances the morose mood when Beast’s friend Mac loses out on the titular sum in a cookie-cutting challenge. — RH

Pet Shop Boys, “Go West” (from Mountains May Depart)

This epic drama from master filmmaker Jia Zhangke follows the evolution of a family — and Chinese society itself — across the broad sweep of decades and generations. Music plays a significant role in the cultural shifts we see in the film, as traditional Chinese instrumentation gives way to glistening Western pop. The Pet Shop Boys’ ironically militaristic rendition of the Village People’s “Go West” functions as a recurring motif, symbolizing the deceptive allure of capitalist gain. — NS


Peter Gabriel, “In Your Eyes” (from Say Anything)

We all know that the fast lane to heartbreak is having unrealistic expectations of what people will do for your relationship, like expecting them to stand beneath your bedroom window with a boombox playing a romantic Peter Gabriel song. Admit it, we’ve all had the Say Anything fantasy at some point, hoping that they’ll finally realize you’re soulmates and fight for your love so hard that they’ll stoop to using a corny “grand gesture” — ideally using “In Your Eyes.” — SS

Pharoah Sanders, “Prince of Peace” (from The Sopranos)

The shortest needle drop on our list is a roughly five-second clip that plays as Janice parks her car in the driveway of her mother’s house in an early-season-two episode of The Sopranos. Leon Thomas’s yodel-adjacent vocals are played for laughs here, symbolizing Janice’s faux spiritualism. But I’m inclined to agree with redditor u/birdistheworm, who, despite incorrectly identifying the song in a r/Jazz post, makes the excellent point that “Janice Soprano had her faults, but classic jazz wasn't one of them.” — RH

Pharoahe Monch, “Simon Says” (from Charlie's Angels)

On paper, a movie villain that’s shimmying around his diabolical lair while drinking soda with a straw and pretending his cigarette is a gun sounds like the funniest thing in the world. Yet somehow, Eric Knox — the devilishly suave double agent from Charlie’s Angels — dancing to Pharoahe Monch’s playfully fiendish “Simon Says” works almost a little too well. Probably because its cartoonish menace fits right in with the cheesiness of a spy comedy blockbuster, making it the perfect song for a villain’s (short-lived) victory dance. — SS

Pixies, “Where Is My Mind” (from Fight Club)

Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” playing at the very end of Fight Club, after Tyler Durden has been vanquished and the unnamed narrator holds hands with Marla Singer as the world falls apart around them, is the ultimate platonic ideal of a needle drop. “You met me at a very strange time in my life,” Edward Norton’s character mutters to Marla as the drums burst into the build-up, buildings collapse in front of them, and Kim Deal’s haunting “oooh’s” mark both the end of a chaotic, psychotic ordeal, and then maybe, hopefully, the beginning of something new. — CS

The Psychedelic Furs, “Love My Way” from Call Me By Your Name

The Psychedelic Furs is period-appropriate for this 1980s-set tale of forbidden love, but it also feels emotionally appropriate. More than Timothee Chalamet sobbing to Sufjan Stevens, there’s something almost eerie about “Love My Way” that more succinctly captures the tortured feeling of repressed love. — NS

Pulp, “Like A Friend” (from The Venture Bros)

Despite being created and written by obsessive music fans and packed with allusions to niche records, Adult Swim cult classic The Venture Bros. only had a couple of proper needle drops. Still, they made them count, and this one’s my favorite. By its fourth season, the show was beginning to explore its outer emotional reaches, more an exploration of human failure than a straight-up vintage cartoon parody, and “Like a Friend,” the melancholy highpoint of Pulp’s This Is Hardcore, fit the season finale perfectly, tying together the barrel-chested Brock Sampson’s lovelorn frustration with the show’s inimitably joyful, graphic, extroverted weirdness. — ARR

Queen and David Bowie, “Under Pressure (Oliver Coates remix)” (from Aftersun)

Aftersun is a film that looks at how emotional repression leads to devastating consequences that can still be felt decades later. The movie’s heavy emotional themes marry together in the closing scene as Calum (Paul Mescal) dances with Sophie (Frankie Corio) and the action flickers between past and present. There is an overflow of love and anger present underneath the lights as David Bowie and Freddie Mercury sing about “the terror of knowing what this world is about.” It’s a devastating climax to a movie that ripples with sorrow throughout. — DR

Radiohead, “Talk Show Host” (from Romeo + Juliet)

What’s the best way to tell a mid-'90s audience, without dialogue, that your impossibly handsome lead is also enigmatic and melancholy? Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet had a stellar soundtrack — Garbage, Des’ree, The Cardigans — but the scene introducing Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo, with Radiohead swirling in the beach air around him, is so stylish it pretty much invented a cliche. — ARR

Rammstein, “Heirate Mich” / “Rammstein” (from Lost Highway)

Rammstein’s entrance into Lynch’s Lost Highway is the moment the film flies fully off the rails. As the Neue Deutsche Härte band’s solemn “Heirate Mich” starts to play, confused mechanic Andy is confronted with a pornographic film of his girlfriend Alice projected on a giant screen. Minutes later, after botching a robbery and killing his target, he stumbles down the hall to a bathroom where he again hallucinates Alice having sex with yet another man, to the tune of “Rammstein.” It’s an absurd sequence whose camp is heightened to the nth degree by the two songs, both of which contain instances of Till Lindemann growling his own band’s name. — RH

Rascal Flatts, “Life Is A Highway” (from Cars)

Rascal Flatts’ breezy Americana cover of Tom Cochrane’s “Life Is a Highway” is perfect road trip music. This is exactly how the song is used in Cars, the drums kicking into gear as Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) sets off for the west coast to compete in the race he believes will make him the greatest race car of all time. It’s the story John Steinbeck wishes he had written. And the cover’s enduring power is unquestioned: Alex G uses it as his live show outro music, and MJ Lenderman namedrops McQueen in “Rudolph”: “Deleted scene of Lightning McQueen / blacked out at full-speed.” Ka-chow. — CS

Ray Noble’s Mayfair Dance Orchestra, “Midnight, the Stars & You” (from The Shining)

Such is the otherworldy power of The Shining that once you’ve heard this song in the ballroom scene, it gives the entire genre of foxtrot an air of indescribable evil. — JD

Rick Springfield, “Jessie's Girl” from Boogie Nights

Few scenes act as a better anti-drugs PSA than Alfred Molina, coked out of his mind, dancing to “Jessie’s Girl” in Boogie Nights. Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler, hair stuck to his head with sweat, is eyeing the exit while a child named Cosmo drops firecrackers on the floor, just to add to the lively atmosphere. “Jessie’s Girl” might be a song about coveting a friend’s girl but after Boogie Nights it will always act as a warning sign to realize when the night is about to take an ugly turn. — DR

Rihanna, “Diamonds” (from Girlhood)

The group of young Black Parisian girls whom director Celine Sciamma shoots beautifully in Girlhood smoke, drink, steal, and generally cause trouble in the suburbs of Paris. The film is less focused on their petty crimes, though, than their bond and the confidence with which 16-year-old Marieme (Karidja Touré) gains through her newfound circle of besties. The scene in containing “Diamonds” is pure escapism as the gang, in their best-shoplifted clothes, sing and dance to Rihanna’s monster hit. The message is clear; shine bright like a diamond, however you acquired it. — DR

Rob Zombie, “Dragula” (from The Watcher)

Look, Keanu Reeves might’ve received a Razzie Award for his performance in The Watcher (starring James Spader as a retired FBI agent who is stalked by Keanu, a psychopathic serial killer), and it might have been critically panned as a film, but it’s worth it alone for the sequence of Keanu dancing and shaking and shimmying along to Rob Zombie’s “Dragula.” — CS

The Rolling Stones, “Moonlight Mile” (from The Sopranos)

The “finale” of The Sopranos season six, part one starts and ends with “Moonlight Mile,” taken from The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. As with most Sopranos episodes, a million things happen between the opening and closing credits: Tony’s crew blows up Phil Leotardo’s wire room. Tony lusts after Chris’s girlfriend. Chris relapses. AJ falls for a woman 10 years his senior. Christmas dinner is served. Taken on their own, these scenes make for a strong episode of television, but Mick Jagger’s deliberately strummed acoustic guitar and wistful vocals — “When the wind blows and the rain is cold, with a head full of snow” — lend them a sense of epic tragedy. — RH

Roy Orbison, “In Dreams” (from Blue Velvet)

Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” takes on many different lives in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet; the song is an obsession of the sociopathic Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who listens to it repeatedly (and calls it “Candy-Colored Clown”); one of his henchmen lip-syncs to the track using a lamp as a microphone. Later in the film, the song plays as Booth violently beats Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan); its usage is classic Lynch, as violence and dream-like beauty become one and the same. — CS

Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come” (from Malcolm X)

Here, Lee conveys Malcolm X’s growing awareness that he will die and his acceptance of the end. The song choice merges two tragic destinies — Cooke was shot to death by a hotel manager in 1964 — with a literalism that never feels cloying. It’s an awe-inspiring moment in Lee’s masterpiece and a reminder of cinema’s power to create wordless narratives. — JD


Scarlet Pleasure, “What A Life” (from Another Round)

Another Round's final scene is its most widely adored, and for good reason. The sight of Mads Mikkelsen's character Martin getting blitzed and dancing with Old Hollywood-level skill to a desperately corny pop-rap song is one of the decade's most joyful sequences. You could argue that the scene stands out too much — since the film's release, youthful Danes have ignored the rest of the film's gripping observations on alcoholism in favor of getting plastered to the tune of "What A Life" in the hopes of recreating the final scene's transcendence. But perhaps I'm overthinking things? God, I could use a drink. — JD

Simon & Garfunkel, “The Sound of Silence” (from The Graduate)

Nothing screams “daytime soap opera” quite like having the bride’s love interest, who was also sleeping with the love interest's mom, crash the wedding before using a giant cross to fight off an angry suburbanite mob fueled by gin martinis and repressed rage. The difference between an episode of General Hospital and what’s considered one of the greatest films ever made is that the final scene of The Graduate goes the existentialist route, with Simon & Garfunkel’s somber and contemplative “The Sound of Silence” making Dustin Hoffman’s dead-eyed stare a hundred times more depressing than it already was. — SS

Sigur Rós, “Varúð” (from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia)

Having spent years establishing that all four of its protagonists were unsalvageable, craven degenerates, Sunny took a serious risk in its thirteenth season finale, exchanging its dick jokes for a sincere and stunning interpretive dance piece that signals Mac coming out to his dad. It paid off. Rob McElhenney and ballerina Kylie Shea’s elegant set piece is the reason this works so well, but Sigur Rós’ "Varúð,” rising and falling in fits and starts, leads them through it. Sigur Rós’ music is so often used as a shortcut to emotional resonance, but this felt careful and intentional. — ARR

Smash Mouth, “All Star” (from Shrek)

“All Star”’s status as the official underdog anthem started at the swamp. At the beginning of Shrek, we find the ogre down in his (literal) dumps, disillusioned and cynical, a grump and a loner, stubbornly content to spend life in solitude. “All Star” is an ode to the dark horse, but by the end of the movie, Shrek leaves his swampy comfort zone, rescues (and gets) the girl, and acquires some new companions. Not too shabby for someone who’s not the “sharpest tool in the shed.” — CS

Soul II Soul, "Back II Life" (from Belly)

The lone feature film from rap video pioneer Hype Williams doesn’t look like anything else, but it doesn’t sound like anything else either. In an immediately entrancing opening scene, Nas and DMX prepare to make a hit on a rival’s club, as bold blue lights turn them into the otherworldly protagonists of a video game. The bleary and blunted night vision distorts your vision, but the chilling acapella of “Back II Life” unsettles you even more, magnifying the frenzy by completely muting it. — NS

Tears for Fears, “Head Over Heels” (from Donnie Darko)

There are multiple iconic needle drops in Donnie Darko; the film opens with Echo & the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon,” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” soundtracks the first time Donnie and his girlfriend have sex. But Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels” drops as a montage unfolds of Donnie attending high school; there’s an understanding of both nostalgia and grief carried within the fleeting nature of youth as we see schoolkids in matching uniforms walk the hallways, carry their books, attend class. It’s sentimental and exudes innocence while foreshadowing something sinister to come. — CS


Tommy James & the Shondells, “Crystal Blue Persuasion” (from Breaking Bad)

The scale of Walter White’s international drug empire is revealed midway through Breaking Bad’s fifth season. There is a certain irony to using this most laid-back of songs to illustrate the vast network that running a criminal empire takes but this 1969 song is 100% pure. — DR

Tomás Mendez and Caetano Veloso, “Cucurucucú Paloma” (from Hable Con Ella)

Hable Con Ella is a film that warps the conscience, coaxing the viewer to find beauty in the despicable. It also contains one of the most beautiful and inexplicable scenes in Pedro Almodóvar’s catalog — a scene that breaks the fourth wall, a dozen-odd cinematic customs, and the rules of this list. The camera pans over a party at a vast country villa where Caetano Veloso, playing himself, performs a gorgeous cover of the Tomás Mendez-penned huapango hit “Cucurucucú Paloma.” Veloso’s rapt audience includes one of the film’s protagonists, Marco, as well as his comatose paramour Lydia, and several characters from the director’s previous film. It’s the type of grand, surrealist gesture only Almodóvar could pull off. — RH

Tom Waits, “Somewhere” (from Afterglow)

Alan Rudolph’s Afterglow is one of the most underrated romantic gems of the 1990s, a tenderly tragic and slightly surreal story about the fading love of an aging couple played by Nick Nolte and Julie Christie. The film is mostly soundtracked by a lightly jazzy score, so when Tom Waits’s throaty drawl starts belting West Side Story in the film’s final moments, it completely catches you off guard, like the unexpected spark of a heart grown cold. — NS

Underworld, “Born Slippy” (from Trainspotting)

Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” might soundtrack the opening scene of Danny Boyle’s 1996 smack-addled nightmare but it’s the twisted hedonism of “Born Slippy” that underlines what makes Trainspotting great. The church-meets-club track wraps beauty around despair as the self-loathing chant of “Lager lager lager” is repeated over and over. Boyle has said that while Trainspotting is about heroin it is more aligned with ecstasy in its rhythm. In “Born Slippy” the movie has the perfect soundtrack for snatching salvation from the jaws of any addiction. — DR

The Velvet Underground and Nico, “These Days” (from The Royal Tenenbaums)

The Royal Tenenbaums is Wes Anderson’s take on intergenerational trauma and unrealized potential, both of which feel like they may have something to do with Richie Tenebaum’s secret feelings for his adopted sister, Margot. Cue The Velvet Underground and Nico’s “These Days,” itself a melancholic meditation on what could’ve been, which starts to play as Margot emerges from a bus in slow-motion to pick up Richie. It's the perfect soundtrack for the reunion of two prodigies who both peaked too early, much to their regret. — SS

The Walker Brothers, “The Electrician” (from Bronson)

Bronson is a film that revels in its own ridiculousness. Exhibit A is the use of The Walker Brothers’ (read: Scott Walker’s) “The Electrician” — a truly nightmarish track about torture under the Pinochet regime in Chile — in an opening sequence where Tom Hardy does naked calisthenics and fights a platoon of prison guards. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. — RH

Yazoo, “Only You” (from The Office)

It might be hard to recall but before he was a hack transphobe, Ricky Gervais made uniquely observed and humane comedy. The finale to the original The Office is a masterclass in blending big laughs with heart. Gervais’s David Brent stands up to the bully Chris Finch and the ultimate will-they-won’t-they couple Tim and Dawn kiss for the first time. Yazoo’s “Only You” plays in the background for three minutes that encapsulate a lifetime. It’s the kind of song that has played at a million office parties; a chintzy ‘80s throwback to drink wine at your desk to. The Office finds romance in the mundanity, though, using Alison Moyet’s words to capture a moment where ordinary people feel briefly heroic. — DR


The 100 best needle drops in film and television history