Theme songs have been a major part of moviemaking since films started featuring sound. These pieces represent an idea that is central to the story or the characters within, all while being works of art on their own. Over the years, theme songs became an even bigger part of movies until some became better remembered than the stories they represented. While it seems as though great theme songs are few and far between these days, the great ones will always be remembered.
In this list, I look my favorite 30 theme songs, which I believe are both great on their own and make their films better.
A couple of rules for these 30 songs: All songs were recorded for the film, are considered to be the main song of the movie, and feature singing in some capacity. So this eliminates orchestral themes (that’ll be in a later list) and songs written or published before it was put in the movie (so no “As Time Goes By”).
30. You’re the Best – Joe Esposito (Karate Kid)
Man, this song is cheesy. And the lyrics just keep repeating! You’d think that after all that, I’d know who this song is about. I guess Daniel-san? I don’t know. But you can’t really separate The Karate Kid from “You’re the Best.” It still inspires visions of crane kicks and leg sweeps today. This is definitely not the last ‘80s song you’ll see on this list.
29. Le Festin – Camille (Ratatouille)
It’s beautiful, it’s artistic, and it’s French. So it’s perfect for Ratatouille. The soft yet upbeat tone of its lyrics fit well with a film that is about fulfilling your potential through cooking. The lyrics feature food metaphors and ideas of growing, but it’s beautiful enough to need no translation.
28. Across 110thStreet – Bobby Womack (Across 110th Street)
You’d be hard pressed to find many people that have actually seen Across 110th Street. It’s a rather forgettable 1970s crime thriller, but its title track is fantastic! Bobby Womack’s soulful vocals and downbeat lyrics make this song both cool and dark. You may have heard this briefly in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, another movie with subject matter fitting for a song about poverty and the ghetto.
27. Princes of the Universe – Queen (Highlander)
Possibly the most ’80s of all ’80s theme songs, “Princes of the Universe” is sublimely cheesy and over the top, just like its movie. The lyrics don’t really make any sense, both by themselves and in the context of Highlander, and it actually makes a corny movie even cornier. But it is powered into awesomeness by Freddie Mercury’s typically amazing vocals, along with blazing guitars and driving drums from his band members in Queen.
26. Ghostbusters – Ray Parker Jr. (Ghostbusters)
This combination of song and movie are what theme songs are all about. You can’t really think about one without the others. Ghostbusters the movie is timeless. “Ghostbusters” the song is deeply entrenched in the ’80s and would seem pretty silly without memories of the film. Together, they are a potent and fun duo.
25. Jai Ho – A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire)
Slumdog Millionaire is a dark movie punctuated by moments of lightness, but it ends in triumph. What better way to celebrate with the protagonists than with a Bollywood song? Without “Jai Ho,” viewers would not leave on such a high note, wanting to dance along with the characters on screen.
24. Skyfall – Adele (Skyfall)
The second-newest song on this list, “Skyfall,” also sounds like it could be the oldest. Adele’s smooth but powerful vocals propel lyrics that are purposefully mysterious, since the film itself hides the meaning of Skyfall for most of its runtime. It’s also a great fit for a film that embraces both the past and future of James Bond on screen and is genuinely enjoyable on its own.
23. Don’t You (Forget About Me) – Simple Minds (The Breakfast Club)
I’ve always wanted to walk out of a place for the last time while “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” plays, raising my fist in the air as I walk out of sight. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll be frozen in time for a brief moment in the eyes of everyone watching me. Yeah, it’s not going to happen, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking about it every time I hear this song.
22. Falling Slowly – The Swell Season (Once)
While “Falling Slowly” quickly took on a life of its own outside of Once, it’s an intrinsic part of the film. Once is a well-done movie, but it is elevated to a far greater level because of “Falling Slowly.” It’s a rare thing when a song can be both hopelessly in love and devastatingly lonely at the same time, but that’s what makes it both wholly original and a perfect fit with the movie’s ideas.
21. The Rainbow Connection – Kermit the Frog (The Muppet Movie)
A strangely melancholic song for opening a movie about a bunch of puppets going on a crazy journey to Hollywood, “The Rainbow Connection” continues to define The Muppets decades later. Kermit the Frog is far sweeter and gentler than most lead characters, so the song is a perfect view into his heart. It’s also deeply relatable for anybody, even those not made out of green felt.