20 Best (and 10 Worst) Movie Theme Songs
When they click (''Over the Rainbow,'' ''Let It Go''), they're timeless; when they clunk (''The World Is Not Enough''), they're also unforgettable -- for the wrong reasons; see what struck a chord or fell flat for us
Idina Menzel, ''Let It Go''
Why it struck a chord: The literally-letting-her-hair-down ballad championed personal empowerment (and was itself powered by Menzel's stellar pipes), inspiring countless covers and an Oscar win for its married composers Bobby and Kristen Anderson Lopez.
BEST: Saturday Night Fever
The Bee Gees, ''Stayin' Alive''
Why it struck a chord: Whether you're a brother or whether you're a mother, there's no doubt you've gotten your strut on to this song at some point. Though the Gibb brothers' ''You Should Be Dancing'' was meant to be Tony Manero's crowning moment, the infectious falsetto hook and hip-shakin' beat of ''Stayin' Alive'' ultimately rocketed Fever's iconic soundtrack to the top of the 1978 Billboard Hot 200. (It's also saved countless lives.)
BEST: The Muppet Movie
Kermit the Frog, ''Rainbow Connection''
Why it struck a chord: A lovable frog, a banjo, and a hummable Paul Williams melody. Whether you're a lover, a dreamer, or just plain old you, what more do you need?
BEST: Do the Right Thing
Public Enemy, ''Fight the Power''
Why it struck a chord: Spike Lee personally commissioned the Long Island hip-hoppers to kick off his breakout joint. With a hard-hitting dance sequence by star Rosie Perez, ''Power'' (which was also blasted throughout the film from the boombox of Bill Nunn's Radio Raheem) introduced audiences to the urban auteur's righteous indignation with a wallop.
Bill Conti, ''Gonna Fly Now''
Why it struck a chord: Imagine the Italian Stallion's run up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Now take away the music, and you've just got a marble-mouthed bohunk in a pair of sweats. Though it's one of the simplest songs on this list lyrically (there are a total of 14 words), its booming trumpet and bolstering bass inspired an Oscar nod and a slew of training montages to come.
BEST: Breakfast at Tiffany's
Audrey Hepburn, ''Moon River''
Why it struck a chord: Hepburn strummed and sang a simple rendition for the 1961 film, but crooner Andy Williams made ''Moon River'' iconic. Whether plucked on a guitar or fully orchestrated, the promise of ''two drifters... off to see the world'' continues to resonate more than 50 years later.
Céline Dion, ''My Heart Will Go On''
Why it struck a chord: Celine's here, there's nothing to fear! Partnered with the film that would become the most expensive, highest-grossing, most Oscar-winning film of all time, Dion's 1997 anthem was appropriately epic in its soaring melody as well as its through-the-roof sales — ''My Heart Will Go On'' is, to date, the eighth-best-selling single of all time. An Irish pennywhistle has never packed so much power.
Isaac Hayes, ''Theme from Shaft''
Why it struck a chord: From the opening strains of wah-wah guitar to Hayes' smooth baritone, we can most certainly dig it. The funky Billboard topper made history when Hayes became the first African-American to win the Best Original Song Oscar. Just like the 1971 blaxploitation flick that inspired it, this theme is bad mother... Shut yo' mouth!
BEST: The Bodyguard
Whitney Houston, ''I Will Always Love You''
Why it struck a chord: With 45 seconds of a cappella and heart-clutching power note, Houston took a cover song and made it the end-all-be-all of movie themes.
BEST: The Wizard of Oz
Judy Garland, ''Over the Rainbow''
Why it struck a chord: Dorothy Gale's wistful ballad from the 1939 classic rocketed Judy Garland to superstardom and became the song that would follow her until her premature death. It's been covered by Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, and what seems like every American Idol contestant since the dawn of Cowell, but few have been able to instill the song with the poignancy of the original.
BEST: Dirty Dancing
Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, ''(I've Had) The Time of My Life''
Why it struck a chord: Warnes also collaborated on another hallmark '80s theme song, An Officer and a Gentleman's ''Up Where We Belong'' with Joe Cocker, but it was the anachronistic glory of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey's resort-storming routine, not to mention a higher degree of difficulty for Baby's triumphant lift, that gives ''Time of My Life'' the edge. Nobody puts this song in a corner.
Bruce Springsteen, ''Streets of Philadelphia''
Why it struck a chord: The Boss's gritty song about desolation was a pitch-perfect accompaniment to the eye-opening 1994 film about one man's battle against HIV-AIDS. Springsteen's heart-wrenching lyrics — ''voices of friends vanished and gone'' — capture the plight of Tom Hanks' character Andrew Beckett as he grapples with his identity and mortality.
BEST: The Way We Were
Barbra Streisand, ''The Way We Were''
Why it struck a chord: We dare you not to cry while listening to this 1973 ode to nostalgia. Streisand's ageless voice and the evocative lyrics tell a story of love lost but not forgotten. ''Scattered pictures'' and ''misty water-colored memories''? Pass the tissues!
Irene Cara, ''Fame''
Why it struck a chord: Sometimes you just want to dance in the street. Though Cara's other famous theme song ''Flashdance... What a Feeling'' had the same souped-up synthesizer trills, the optimism of youth wins out for ''Fame.'' Remember!
BEST: Toy Story
Randy Newman, ''You've Got a Friend in Me''
Why it struck a chord: The odds that Randy Newman will get nominated for an Oscar are about as dependable as the pals he describes in this ditty from Pixar's breakout film. Even though ''You've Got a Friend in Me'' didn't take home the 1995 statuette, this bouncy tune stands head and shoulders above Newman's others. Like Woody, an ode to friendship, dedication, and trust never gets old.
BEST: 8 Mile
Eminem, ''Lose Yourself''
Why it struck a chord: The Detroit native wrote and rapped from the gut in this hard-hitting 2002 track. The stakes are set in the spoken word opening chorus, and from there Em does exactly what the song demands, losing himself in the flow, going off, and making a rap battle nothing less than life or death.
BEST: The Breakfast Club
Simple Minds, ''Don't You (Forget About Me)''
Why it struck a chord: It was the story of a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, a criminal, and one extraordinary day that would change their lives forever. Asking, ''As you walk on by, will you call my name?'' the Scottish rockers' 1985 track captured the fleeting impressions formed in high school that, 20 years later, were more meaningful than you realized at the time.
Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová, ''Falling Slowly''
Why it struck a chord: No song has better expressed the process of two souls collaborating. Hansard and Irglová fell in love on the set of the 2006 indie, and it showed in ''Falling Slowly.'' The relationship didn't last, but the hopeful message of turning life and love around is eternal.
BEST: The Lion King
Elton John, ''Circle of Life''
Why it struck a chord: Picking the best Disney theme song is a Herculean task (except for, ironically, when it comes to the bland ''Go the Distance'' from 1997's Hercules). For its striking incorporation of African music and its rousing chorus, we're lifting Elton John's 1994 opener to The Lion King a cub's head above the rest.
BEST: Live and Let Die
Paul McCartney & Wings, ''Live and Let Die''
Why it struck a chord: Like Disney, the dozens of themes from James Bond movies could make up their own gallery, but we award the former Beatle's 1973 masterpiece a license to thrill. Oscillating between a gentle piano tinkler and an all-out arena rocker in its explosive, surprisingly short 3 minutes and 12 seconds, it leaves listeners shaken and stirred.
WORST: Men in Black III
Pitbull, ''Back in Time''
Why it fell flat: Yes, some might argue that of all the MIB theme songs, ''Black Suits Comin' (Nod Ya Head)'' was actually the worst. But we're pushing ahead with this because we believe that somewhere between churning out hit after hit in 2011, Miami MC Pitbull took a wrong turn and went back in time just like Will Smith's Agent J in the alien franchise's third installment (which we liked). What came back to 2012 was the ruination of another gem from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack and a serious misuse of the late, great Sylvia Robinson's charming tune.
WORST: The Road to El Dorado
Elton John, ''El Dorado''
Why it fell flat: Sorry Elton. We loved your work in The Lion King, but this repetitive, techno-tinged treacle was a major step in the wrong direction. Like the titular fabled city of gold, getting a solid track out of this forgettable 2000 animated adventure proved to be the stuff of myth.
WORST: Wild Wild West
Will Smith, ''Wild Wild West''
Why it fell flat: Consider the source material. Not even a soulful Stevie Wonder sample could enliven this subpar offering from Smith, whose original Men in Black theme was stellar. ''Wild Wild West'' was a wild, wild mess, and the 1999 Razzies committee agreed.
WORST: The Goonies
Cyndi Lauper, ''The Goonies 'R' Good Enough''
Why it fell flat: There's probably a reason Lauper waited almost 20 years to include this screechy, derivative song on any of her own albums. Goonies never say die, but this song probably should have.
WORST: Spies Like Us
Paul McCartney, ''Spies Like Us''
Why it fell flat: So what's all the fuss? Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd's 1985 stinker unsurprisingly was no wellspring of inspiration for the rock legend. This was one instance when McCartney simply couldn't do it alone — but he sure tried.
WORST: The Addams Family
Hammer, ''Addams Groove''
Why it fell flat: The parachute pants-wearing rapper apparently didn't get the ''Don't mess with a classic'' memo when he signed on to write the theme for the 1991 TV-to-big-screen reboot. Note to Hammer, sometimes you're 2 legit, and sometimes you should quit (while you're ahead).
WORST: The Towering Inferno
Maureen McGovern, ''We May Never Love Like This Again''
Why it fell flat: There must have been something in the water in 1974. That is the only explanation for the fact that this song won that year's Best Original Song Oscar. Whatever was in that water, though, wasn't enough to put out the flaming awfulness of this song's maudlin lyrics and head-scratching inclusion in an action-packed disaster film.
Vanessa Williams, ''Colors of the Wind''
Why it fell flat: Though it beat out ''You've Got a Friend in Me'' for the 1995 Oscar, Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz's Disneyfied attempt to interpret Native American mythology came off as pandering and overly sentimental. Has anyone ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon? Considering how Schwartz ignored authentic folklore and completely made this supposed moon up, we doubt it.
WORST: The World Is Not Enough
Garbage, ''The World Is Not Enough''
Why it fell flat: Madonna's ''Die Another Day'' took a lot of heat for straying too far from Bond tradition, but at least Her Madgesty's theme attempted to mix it up. On the other hand, the alternative rockers' offering was a humdrum, paint-by-numbers non-event.