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The 30 Best Songs for Movie Trailers

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Artwork by Kristin Frenzel

An excellent movie trailer used to be a rarity. Before Apple started uploading trailers online, previews were simply considered mundane commercials with the same “In a world…” narration, a few banner names, a cliffhanger clip, and a date. Sometimes, you’d catch a random teaser trailer for a highly-anticipated sequel without any notice. (For example, when the T.Rex stamped its foot into the mud and announced 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park, my father had to chase me around the aisles, popcorn in tow.) But really, it wasn’t until the last decade and a half that every trailer attempted to be as eventful as the film itself.

That’s certainly something we discovered when compiling this list. As you’ll notice, most of the previews ahead date post-1999 and that’s largely due to the evolution of the movie trailer itself. They’re sleeker, more self-aware, and snappy in ways that catch our eyes and make us want to rewatch them again and again and again. In some respects, they’re short films — ahem, Zach Braff’s Garden State — and that’s mostly because they have a stellar song championing the visuals. In light of that marriage in marketing, we thought it’d be wise to rope together the 30 best songs in 30 different trailers.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll remember why you paid $12 to see these movies.

30. Harvey Danger – “Flagpole Sitta”

Disturbing Behavior

When I first watched the trailer eons ago, I remember imagining it as an alternative-dimension Dawson’s Creek. Joey Potter had turned naughty, and Harvey Danger supplanted Paula Cole for the show’s theme song. Song remains a classic, the movie…

How’d the film turn out? …not so much. I caught it on TV years ago and remember very little.

–Justin Gerber

29. Jay Z and Kanye West – “No Church in the Wild”

The Great Gatsby

While some were averse to Baz Lurhman’s contemporary soundtrack for Gatsby, Kanye West and Jay Z’s “No Church in the Wild” was a perfect fit for this candy-coated trailer. Gatsby’s depth as a character can be seen in Frank Ocean’s musings: “What’s a king to a God?/ What’s a God to a non-believer, who don’t believe in anything?”

How’d the film turn out? Not nearly as well as the trailer promised, but still–quality entertainment, as Leo can do no wrong.

–Amanda Koellner

28. Spoon – “The Way We Get By”

Stranger Than Fiction

You’re primed to expect something different if Will Ferrell’s dramatic gifts match his comedic talents. This charming, sentimentally uplifting trailer, together with Spoon’s accomplished hooks and serenading piano notes, allow themes of existential anxiety to remain at a comfortable and quirky ambience. Everything is pleasantly jarring with dramatic irony being buoyed by intelligent songwriting.

How’d the film turn out? In reality, the trailer was better than fiction — Will Ferrel proved he’s not just a pretty face when he was nominated for a Golden Globe as Harold Crick.

–Lior Phillips

27. Sneaker Pimps – “6 Feet Underground”

Cruel Intentions

At the time, this trailer was a dirty-minded adrenaline drenched ride perpetuated by the myth that teenagers scheming to deflower virgins and turn girls into tramps was a true betrayal of the New York City privileged crop of prep-schoolers. This standout trip-hop track was as symbolic of an era as the slow-motion Buffy versus Blair scene was to the movie and it fit perfectly.

How’d the film turn out? Fourteen years old thinking the mantra “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” was the definitive answer to everything, the iconic end scene injected with The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” was perfect. (Joshua Jackson’s flamboyant gay trickster character still gives me day-mares, though.)

–Lior Phillips

26. Ivy – “Edge of the Ocean”

Before Sunset

After nine years, seeing the old clips here of Jesse and Celine again sent jolts of electricity through the veins of every hapless romantic who had waited on pins and paper hearts following Before Sunrise. Did they ever reunite? What happened after Vienna? The way Ivy’s sleek hit weaves in and out here, tapered with the sunlight fonts, and the expressions of our two wiser heroes — all delectable as an $87 bar of dark chocolate. In 2004, I cheered alone in Ft. Lauderdale’s art house theater, but I cheered loud.

How’d the film turn out? Similar to the wine these characters adore, Richard Linklater’s brilliant series gets better with each installment. Sunset and last year’s sequel, Midnight, both nabbed Oscar nominations for their screenplays.

–Michael Roffman

25. Van Morrison – “Comfortably Numb”

The Departed

We get older. Good, evil, they become blurry. Are we fighting for something, or against it? To break the law or enforce, you’ve gotta be a little numb. And, as Van Morrison tells it, there’s some kind of comfort in that.

How’d the film turn out? Won the Oscar that Goodfellas deserved.

–Randall Colburn

24. Nine Inch Nails – “The Day The Whole World Went Away”

Terminator Salvation

For a few minutes, I thought maybe, just maybe, this will be really good. This track from The Fragile brainwashed us into believing so, building an apocalyptic mood as the trailer progressed. Christian Bale as a future John Connor. Cool. McG directing? Maybe I should just re-watch this trailer again.

How’d the film turn out? I can now focus on Sam Worthington when it comes to the question: “Why is this guy a movie star?”, now that Shia LaBeouf is all but finished.

–Justin Gerber

23. Van Halen – “Panama”

Superbad

What better song to showcase Bill Hader drunkenly slurring its lyrics from behind the wheel of a cop car, Michael Cera hopelessly punching a girl in the boob, and a pre-Oscar Jonah Hill booping his co-star BFF on the nose? “Panama” detonates the two-and-a-half-minute glimpse into this high school odyssey for booze and women like only a Van Halen track could.

How’d the film turn out? We are all McLovin’.

–Amanda Koellner

22. James – “Laid”

American Pie

“Laid” is the kind of song that makes you go, “Oh, yeah…this song.” Even if you’ve never heard it before. American Pie has the same effect. It’s influences are so interwoven into mainstream pop culture that it exudes a sort of imperceptible nostalgia. “Laid” is the same, a song you’ve never heard, but have somehow heard a 100 times. It’s no wonder people flocked to the theaters.

How’d the film turn out? American Pie Presents: Band Camp; American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile; American Pie Presents: Beta House, American Pie Presents: The Book of Love.

–Randall Colburn

21. Manfred Mann – “Blinded by the Light”

Blow

In the history of rock and roll, the “Wrapped up like a douche” mondegreen is unequivocally the most colourful of the lot and just like the film and trailer’s churning hyperactivity it becomes the perfect wallpaper for an eye-popping opening montage of tanned bodies parading around in hazy cocaine clouds. The voice over “if you really wanna score, I got the guy” chimes in and it feels inspired setting the tempo to a giddy crescendo.

How’d the film turn out? I care little for the critics who turned their noses up at this sobering story, who could forget Penelope Cruz saying ‘George’/Johnny Depp’s badass bravado/one of the best soundtracks of 2001 – a grossly undervalued film.

–Lior Phillips

20. Third Eye Blind – “Graduate / How’s It Gonna Be”

Can’t Hardly Wait

In the high school cinema realm of 1998, you were either a prom queen, jock, geek, nerd, or metalhead (no amalgamations allowed), and you were likely on a mission to get laid. As the last night of school finds many on their personal deadline for sexual enlightenment, some social interaction, or unrequited love profession, Third Eye Blind’s double header of “Graduate” and “How’s It Gonna Be?” encapsulate the pre-Y2K high school experience as seen through the movies while quite simply asking what most 18-year-olds wonder: “how’s it going to be after we graduate?”

How’d the film turn out? I bought it for $1.99 when the Hollywood Video in Wicker Park closed last summer.

–Amanda Koellner

19. New Order – “Age of Consent”

Marie Antoinette

It was jarring to hear a song so embedded in ’80s culture playing in a trailer for a period piece. Learning later the film itself would feature modern music was just as shocking. Words were not needed in this trailer made great by New Order.

How’d the film turn out? Err, never seen it. Do the two or three scenes on Mr. Skin count?

–Justin Gerber

18. Pixies – “Where is My Mind”

Fight Club

The Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?” is as synonymous with Fight Club as Brad Pitt’s frosted tips. The song works as well in the trailer as it does at the film’s close, as Black Francis sings, seemingly here about The Narrator/Tyler Durden, “Your head will collapse/ If there’s nothing it in/ And you’ll ask yourself/ Where is my mind?”

How’d the film turn out? I am Jack’s unruly cult status.

–Amanda Koellner

17. Electric Light Orchestra – “Mr Blue Sky”

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a heartrending love story slathered in technicolor facepaint. “Mr. Blue Sky” betrays its namesake by exuding every color of the rainbow, melding it mellifluously with Michel Gondry’s warped vision.

How’d the film turn out? It’s so perfect and sad I don’t think I can ever watch it again.

–Randall Colburn

16. Beck – “Golden Age”

Friday Night Lights

Maybe I’m bias — after all, I have a “clear eyes, full hearts” tattoo on my wrist — but Friday Night Lights has to be one of the greatest sports films of all time. The way it’s ruthless about the harsh realities ahead of every high school football player, and uncompromising with the consequences. “Put your hands on the wheel/ Let the golden age begin,” Beck sings in the second half of the trailer, summarizing the thoughts of too many tackled souls of Odessa, TX. “You wanna get out of this town?” Sure, but I want to see this movie first, thought a 21-year-old Michael Roffman.

How’d the film turn out? Superb, but quickly surpassed by the five-season drama of the same name.

–Michael Roffman

15. The Strokes – “I’ll Try Anything Once”

Somewhere

It’s certainly worth mentioning that after the chaotic pop-laced soundtrack for Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere featured two remarkably poignant tracks that had more emotional effect in 1:52 than the entire movie. The underrated and cinematic auditory gem “Love Like A Sunset” by Phoenix coupled with the stripped down demo version of Julian Casablanca’s ‘You Only Live Once’ fit the underwater tea cup scene superbly and reconfirmed the Coppola’s affinity toward The Strokes.

How’d the film turn out? …I’ll try anything once but how utterly lacking and utterly bland.

–Lior Phillips

14. Blind Melon – “No Rain”

Sideways

“I’m not Jack,” my friends and I would say to one another every time “No Rain” would bleed through the radio, PA, backyard BBQ, etc. At the time, you couldn’t see a film in the fall of 2004 without hearing Paul Giamatti plead his case to Virgina Madsen. Given the film’s sunny visuals and stormy disposition, Blind Melon’s timeless hit worked wonders in selling the moody Alexander Payne picture to holiday-hungry eyes that year. I was one of them.

How’d the film turn out? Possibly Payne’s best to date and certainly Giamatti’s.

13. The Postal Service – “Such Great Heights”

Garden State

While Sam Beam’s fragile take on this now-iconic song is the version featured in the film (as Natalie Portman’s Sam collects Zach Braff’s Andrew’s tears in a Dixie Cup before the two share an intimate night), it’s the shimmering synths of The Postal Service’s original that first intrigued us as Portman begs questions like “Didn’t you Play the retarded quarterback?”

How’d the film turn out? The full-size film poster that hung on my dorm room wall has since been disposed, but that’s not to say the film doesn’t still tug at certain heartstrings.

–Amanda Koellner

12. Moby – “Porcelain”

The Beach

Michael Mann deserves all the credit in matching Moby to film with heart-wrenching precision for his use of “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” at the conclusion of 1995’s Heat. Like any plunderous discovery, it’s a well worth revisiting, and so did Danny Boyle for his oft-forgotten paradise thriller, The Beach. For its trailer, the keys, the synths, pretty every second of “Porcelain” proves the existence of synesthesia as we watch Leonardo DiCaprio marvel at Tilda Swinton’s island of fuck.

How’d the film turn out? Hey, if it’s on Cinemax, I’m watching.

–Michael Roffman

11. Eric Clapton – “Layla”

Goodfellas

The first 75% of the Goodfellas trailer is about the good times. And then, when things start going to hell, that’s when the sultry, totally badass riffs of “Layla” enter the picture. That this tale of unattainable love underscores the action of men with everything at their fingertips is both perverse and wonderful. Sometimes, unattainable is best.

How’d the film turn out? Just try turning this off when it comes on cable. I dare you.

–Randall Colburn

10. Paul Simon – “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” / The Ramones – “Judy Is a Punk”

The Royal Tenenbaums

A lot was riding on Wes Anderson’s third film. The combination of “Me and Julio…”, which settles us into the trailer with Alec Baldwin’s baritone, and “Judy…” for its cast intros, was inspired to say the least. It’s Anderson in a nutshell: twee-punk ©.

How’d the film turn out? My second favorite Anderson film, just behind mount Rushmore.

–Justin Gerber

09. Bob Dylan – “Knockin on Heaven’s Door”

Black Hawk Down

Despite the incessant action, Black Hawk Down never felt like an action movie. The gravitas, the aura of injustice permeating the film, it was just too high. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is no “Fortunate Son”, but it’s able to summon the spirit of ’60s activism while maintaining a suitably elegiac vibe.

How’d the film turn out? Ron Eldard killed it.

–Randall Colburn

08. The Who – “Baba O’Riley”

American Beauty

The spastic, 8-bit keyboards that underscore The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” sound like a robot itchin’ to cast of the shackles of its programming and discover who it really is, which makes it the perfect accompaniment to American Beauty, a stupid movie about some guy who discovers he’s happiest when smoking pot and being a shitty father.

How’d the film turn out? Plastic bags swishing in the wind captured America’s attention, taught us all what it was to be insufferable.

–Randall Colburn

07. The Creation – “Making Time”

Rushmore

As the curtain brushed open to reveal Max Fischer standing next to the iconic Rushmore sign, you could hear the roar of Rickenbackers thundering across every college kid’s garage. This track hooked in the hidden anger rolling beneath the film’s halcyon exterior and was one of Wes Anderson’s first and best attempts to transcend time by incorporating sounds from an era into a fresh new context. It single-handedly revived the almost forgotten ‘British Invasion’ psychedelic band, amplified the strength of the movie and launched Jason Schwartzman’s career.

How’d the film turn out? Murray for best supporting Oscar and Anderson closing the curtain at the end, as if it were a play that he directed was positively poetic. As far as cultural influencer goes, Wes Anderson is about as zeitgeist as it gets.

–Lior Phillips

06. M.I.A. – “Paper Planes”

Pineapple Express

Despite the track being MIA from the movie, that gunshot-firing-and-cash-register-chinging hook raised expectations for Pineapple Express higher than James Franco and Seth Rogan at precisely 4:20 p.m.. It hit the target with a double barrel boost for both the movie and her career. A brilliantly dopey delivery of a bassline backed by The Clash’s “Straight to Hell” sample became a How To for marketing movie trailers.

How’d the film turn out? Watching this without having a joint first is like listening to a song with the volume turned down to a whisper – In the words of Danny McBride it’s [Cocks shotgun] ”Thug Life”!

–Lior Phillips

05. Scala & Kolacny Brothers – Radiohead’s “Creep”

The Social Network

One of the scariest movies of this decade (seriously, I’ll argue that ’til my final days) was made even, ahem, creepier with this choral rendition of Radiohead’s breakthrough track. “Creep” was also extremely appropriate in association with the film’s main antago/protagonist.

How’d the film turn out? The best movie of that year, though Oscar went with The King’s Speech.

–Justin Gerber

04. Kanye West – “Jesus Walks”

Jarhead

Sam Mendes, or whoever stitches together his trailers, couldn’t have found a better song for his underrated anti-war non-epic. How Kanye preaches over the thunderous beat… actually, how the beat starts altogether, has always felt militaristic in nature and when paired with the breathtaking cinematography of Roger Deakins… we’re talking strawberries and whipped cream, baby.

How’d the film turn out? Ask the baker’s dozen of critics who caught it in passing. Me? Two words: Peter Sarsgaard.

03. Smashing Pumpkins – “The Beginning is the End is the Beginning”

Watchmen

Slow motion in a Zack Snyder movie sucks, but the slow motion in this trailer looked great matched up with this — a B-side on a Pumpkins’ single for another WB comic property (the great Batman and Robin). The hype surrounding this film was indebted to this recording. Also Jackie Earle Haley.

How’d the film turn out? Like all Zack Snyder films: underwhelming.

–Justin Gerber

02. Iggy Pop – “Lust for Life”

Trainspotting

“You can’t stay in here all day dreaming about heroin and Ziggy Pop.” It’s Iggy Pop, Diane. Nearly 20 years later, I still can’t hear “Lust for Life” without seeing Ewan McGregor’s shaved head squeezing out of a toilet. (I also can’t stop thinking of Jet and how everyone loved that song at the time of release, but that’s another argument for another day.) Simply put, the jangly jumble and stumble of Pop’s heroic tune sold millions on the most rudimentary mantra there is: “Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”

How’d the film turn out? Ahem, just one of them finest UK imports of, like, I don’t know, ever?

–Michael Roffman

01. Arcade Fire – “Wake Up”

Where the Wild Things Are

“I didn’t want to wake you up, but I really want to show you something,” says the late James Gandolfini to a snoozing Max, whom the Soprano-turned-Wild Thing has slung over his shoulder. It’s the only dialogue in the film’s entire trailer, as Arcade Fire’s biggest hit houses a montage of Max’s life both with and away from the Wild Things: watching his mother kiss a man who isn’t his father, partaking in the wild rumpus from beneath his crown, staring out the window in class, and howling at the sunrise with his furry kindred spirits. The magic of the song coupled with the dichotomies of childhood divulged through Max made the trailer arguably more memorable than the actual film.

How’d the film turn out? Sendak was largely on board (so why shouldn’t we be?), and though the film had some issues, Karen O’s dreamy soundtrack achieved the same emotional depth as Butler & Co. through the trailer.

–Amanda Koellner

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