1. Stealers Wheel, "Stuck In The Middle With You," Reservoir Dogs (1992)
In liner notes penned for a double-disc edition of the Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction soundtracks, Quentin Tarantino introduced the notion that sometimes songs become so linked to films that the films essentially own them from there on out. So it's only fitting to begin this list with the perfect example: Prior to Tarantino's 1992 debut film, it was a pleasant bit of Beatles-inspired '70s pop. Now it's the sound of bondage and mutilation and there's no going back.
2. Derek And The Dominos, "Layla," Goodfellas (1990)
From as early as Who's That Knocking At My Door? and Mean Streets, director Martin Scorsese has been a great innovator in using pop music in films—sometimes in an ironic context, other times to bring a certain period or emotion to life. The piano coda to Derek And The Dominos' "Layla" comes at a time of reckoning in Goodfellas: The audacious Lufthansa heist, such a boon to the gangsters who pulled it off, has completely unraveled because the people involved have spent their money conspicuously. As a boy heads off to retrieve a stickball, he discovers the first bodies in a pink Cadillac, and the song starts to play as more bodies are discovered in a pile of garbage and a meat truck. It's the morning Joe Pesci becomes a made man, and the mood is ominous.
3. The Mamas And The Papas, "California Dreamin'," Chungking Express (1994)
One of the world's premier pop stylists and an incorrigible romantic, Wong Kar-wai often draws on a single song to set the tone for his movies, like Nat King Cole's "Quizás, Quizás, Quizás" in In The Mood For Love or the semi-ironic title song of Happy Together. In the second half of Wong's Chungking Express, the charming pixie girl Faye Wong plays The Mamas And The Papas staple wherever she goes, whether blasting it at full volume behind the counter at a street-food vendor or sneaking into a flat owned by Tony Leung, the apple of her eye. Wong's whimsical charms are certainly enough to make viewers fall in love with her, but when Leung plays the song back to her later in the film, it's like her feelings are reciprocated.
4. Screamin' Jay Hawkins, "I Put A Spell On You," Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
When Eszter Balint, the raven-haired object of desire in Jim Jarmusch's minimalist comedy, arrives in New York from Hungary, she carries only a few possessions. The most cherished is her tape recorder, which plays only Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You," a song that clings to her like a security blanket and one that seems to connect her most closely to the alien American landscape. Jarmusch's early films are built around characters whose lives are stifled by confinement and repetition, and the looped Hawkins track becomes a key presence in itself—one that defines not only Balint, but Jarmusch's stark aesthetic.
5. Iggy Pop, "Lust For Life," Trainspotting, (1996)
For the first minute or so, the pounding, hypnotically catchy intro to "Lust For Life" has more to offer Trainspotting than the film has to offer the song. It's a simple opening, with two young heroin addicts fleeing the law in time to the song, which sets the pace and dominates the attention. But as Ewan McGregor's nihilistic opening monologue ramps up, and director Danny Boyle meets the song's drive with his own narrative lunge into the story, the characters and setting take over, and the song becomes mere upbeat background music. Somewhere in the middle, around the time McGregor gets to "Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?" the two merge smoothly into one inseparable piece of art.
6. Iron Butterfly, "In A Gadda Da Vida," Manhunter (1986)
Shortly after he slapped Phil Collins' "In The Air Tonight" over a perfunctory Miami Vice driving sequence and created pop/TV magic, director Michael Mann tried a similar trick in Manhunter, his adaptation of Thomas Harris' Red Dragon. As lawman William Petersen and serial killer Tom Noonan zero in on each other, Mann cues up the telltale opening chords of one of the heaviest acid rock songs of all time. It's hard to hear that pounding beat and ominous organ now without thinking of Petersen shattering a glass door and crossing the threshold between good and evil, embracing the seemingly eternal darkness of a heavy-metal drum solo.
7. Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra, "Some Velvet Morning," Morvern Callar (2002)
Lynn Ramsay's Morvern Callar follows Scottish supermarket worker Samantha Morton as she deals with her boyfriend's suicide by taking the money and the mixtape he left her and going on an extended holiday. That mixtape—a compilation of chillout techno and twee '60s pop—drives the movie, filling up Morton's Walkman headphones and keeping the world at bay. The sound of "Some Velvet Morning"—"when I'm straight," Hazlewood sings—is simultaneously dreamy and clear, cueing Morton on what she needs to do now that she's been given the gift of release. Her plan? Look straight into that morning sun and just keep going.
8. Night Ranger, "Sister Christian," and Rick Springfield, "Jesse's Girl," Boogie Nights (1997)
P.T. Anderson used at least half a dozen songs so precisely in his epic of porn-industry decay that hearing them now brings the movie right back. ("God Only Knows," anyone? "Mama Told Me (Not To Come)"?) The most memorable musical moment comes in the middle of the "Rahad's Pad" interlude, where a drug deal gone bad is scored to two sublime artifacts of early-'80s kitsch-pop, both of which ramp up the tension. Maybe it's because they're played a little too loud, or maybe it's because the Night Ranger song cuts off at the end of Rahad's "Awesome Mix Tape" and the cassette player auto-reverses over to Rick Springfield, but everything about the songs and the way they're deployed sums up the seedy remains of the free-love era. It's like returning to the bachelor apartment of your unmarried ne'er-do-well uncle, circa 1984.
9. The Faces, "Ooh La La," Rushmore (1998)
All three movies in Wes Anderson's loose "juvenile lit meets The New Yorker" trilogy end the same way, with all the characters—friends, enemies, and family—moving together in regular- and slow-motion while an old rock song plays. It's energizing in The Life Aquatic, where the cast walks by the water to David Bowie's sassy "Queen Bitch," and it's moving in The Royal Tenenbaums, where they leave the cemetery to Van Morrison's hopeful "Everyone." But the gimmick was most effective in Rushmore, where young and old dance together to The Faces' "Ooh La La" and its valedictory chorus: "I wish that I knew what I know now / When I was younger." In a movie where music plays a major part in defining the mood and the characters—from the way The Creation's jumpy "Making Time" revives schoolboy mod cool to the way The Who's handcrafted mini-opera "A Quick One While He's Away" scores a montage of makeshift revenge—"Ooh La La" sends everybody out the door with a richer understanding of how in some ways, we're at our best when we're teenagers, even though we don't realize it until it's too late.
10. The Hollies, "King Midas In Reverse," The Limey (1999)
Steven Soderbergh introduces corrupt record-industry mogul Peter Fonda with a moody montage highlighting his wealth and elevated media profile, all set to a catchy, trippy song that UK's lite-pop-minded The Hollies wrote and recorded at the urging of Graham Nash, who wanted to drag his mates into the psychedelic era. Lyrically, "King Midas In Reverse" is a little on-the-nose for The Limey, pegging Fonda as a blinkered rich man who ruins whomever he gets involved with. But musically and historically, a minor Hollies hit fits a movie in which Fonda, Terrence Stamp, and Barry Newman play almost-forgotten—but still vital—'60s relics.
11. Pixies, "Where Is My Mind," Fight Club (1999)
In the waning moments of Fight Club, after Edward Norton has become "Jack's Massive Head Wound," but just before his raging id (a.k.a. "Tyler Durden," a.k.a. Brad Pitt) has blown America's oppressive credit history into dust and fire, a ghostly voice appears on the film's soundtrack, cooing "wooo-oo-oo" over rhythmic acoustic guitar. Then a slow, druggy beat and molten electric comes in, followed by the words, "With your feet on the air / And your head in the ground." And audience members of a certain age nod along, deliriously. "Where Is My Mind" is a provocative song choice by director David Fincher—perhaps the final pinprick in a film full of sometimes deflating, sometimes energizing switcheroos. What is that song in this place supposed to signify? Has Norton's floating consciousness shifted again? Did the whole movie take place in his head? Or maybe Fincher is just using the Pixies as cultural shorthand, since they're known for marrying punk anger, giddy pop, visceral shock, and grad-school indifference. Really, the whole of Fight Club is one big Pixies song, allowing grown-up ex-punks to vicariously live out the logical end to their long-abandoned high-school nihilism.
12. The Doors, "The End," Apocalypse Now, (1979)
Director Francis Ford Coppola only used a segment of The Doors' echoey, psychedelic elegy "The End" to open Apocalypse Now, perhaps because as the lyrics head off into imagery about ancient galleries of faces and seven-mile-long snakes, they become less open-ended and less applicable to his Vietnam War nightmare. But his indelible opening shots—a green field of palm trees disintegrating into flames under a rush of napalm, while Martin Sheen lies in his overheated hotel room, staring blankly at the ceiling—blend inextricably with Jim Morrison's hazy crooning about "a desperate land" where "all the children are insane." That's Vietnam as Coppola sees it, all right. And Morrison winds it all into a perfect package, forming a vocal link between the destruction and Martin's delirious detachment via gently delivered lyrics that summon up the titular apocalypse: "This is the end… / Of our elaborate plans, the end / Of everything that stands, the end." The song resurfaces in part at the film's climax as a linking motif, but what really sticks is Morrison's somberness and those initial images of a silent green world coming apart in flames.
13. Aerosmith, "Sweet Emotion," Dazed & Confused (1993)
The opening chords, punctuated by a rattle and swirling vocoder, tremble under the Gramercy logo and carry through the white-on-black top-of-the-line credits. Then the drums kick in, and boom, there's the first image of Richard Linklater's bittersweet nostalgia piece: An orange GTO convertible rounding a high-school parking lot in slow motion as Steven Tyler's voice stretches out "Sweet Emotion" along with it. A few joints are passed, friends and lovers congregate, and the stage is set for the last day of high school in small-town Texas, 1976. Linklater evokes that summer with perfect song selection throughout, but Aerosmith frames the film, which leads to nothing more or less ambitious than its characters driving off for concert tickets.
14. Foreigner, "I Want To Know What Love Is," Show Me Love (1998)
The original title of Lucas Moodysson's beautiful lesbian coming-of-age story was Fucking Åmål, which more plainly describes the stifling boredom of a young girl's life in the small Swedish town of Åmål. But when the heroine falls for another girl, suddenly her drab existence brightens with transcendent passion. When the two are left alone in the back of a car, the opening verses of Foreigner's hit "I Want To Know What Love Is" play softly in the background, only to explode into the chorus as the girls share a stolen kiss. It's a bracing moment for anyone who remembers the thrill—in this case, the illicit thrill—of first love.
15. Elton John, "Tiny Dancer," Almost Famous (2000)
Director Cameron Crowe cut his teeth as a precocious teenage music journalist, and his use of pop music to underscore crucial scenes has always been impeccable, from the iconic "In Your Eyes" serenade in Say Anything… to the eerie opening dream sequence of Vanilla Sky, cued to Radiohead's "Everything In Its Right Place." In the most memorable scene in Crowe's semi-autobiographical Almost Famous, Crowe's young surrogate has been on the road with a touring rock band for a long time, and everyone's tired of one another and hung over from some debauchery the evening before. Then Elton John's "Tiny Dancer"—a Top 40 hit that bands like this one would normally snort at—comes on the radio, and the entire bus slowly springs to life, singing in joyous unison when the song reaches its chorus. "I have to go home," says young Crowe. Abracadabra, "You are home."