Summer Soundtrack: 20 Great Songs From the Ultimate '80s Movies

Madonna in New York City circa 1984.
Madonna in New York City circa 1984. / Michael Putland/Getty Images

As familiar—even iconic—as many 1980s movies have become in audiences’ minds, there are always a handful that get overlooked, or thankfully rediscovered, thanks to re-releases and anniversaries.

Home video distributor Vinegar Syndrome recently issued the epic BMX-themed teen movie Rad on DVD and 4K; suffice it to say its most notable cultural footprint might be an early Lori Loughlin role as a biking prodigy, and the contribution of Real Life’s “Send Me An Angel” to playlists in an era where one-hit wonders seemed to dominate the airwaves. But especially during the heyday of teen-oriented movies, there are almost too many great songs to count (or remember) that started their lives onscreen opposite some important moment of romance, redemption, or inspiration—or in a classic '80s montage scene.

As the summer not-so-quietly continues to heat up, it felt like a good time to dig back into that rich library of ‘80s movies—most of them for, or about, teens—to look at the songs we’ve maybe long since forgotten that began their lives on an '80s movie soundtrack, or surged in popularity because of one.

While this is by no means a comprehensive list, it hopefully includes more than a few songs you forgot that you loved, alongside a whole bunch of others that were (and maybe still are) well-established staples of your musical diet.

1. “Cruel Summer” // Bananarama

Before The Karate Kid (1984) franchise became a clearinghouse for Peter Cetera ballads, the original film used Bananarama's perennial hot weather favorite as a centerpiece for young Daniel LaRusso’s (Ralph Macchio) martial arts-oriented life lessons.

2. “Invincible” // Pat Benatar

The Legend Of Billie Jean (1985) is a too-often-forgotten ‘80s teen movie—a thrilling, maddening, and inspiring story of standing up for yourself, and suffering the unfortunate consequences in a world where the deck is stacked against young women. The movie featured this absolute firestarter of a Pat Benatar song as its main theme.

3. “Take My Breath Away” // Berlin

What good is a playlist without a few detours into balladry? In Top Gun (1986) Berlin brought home young Maverick’s (Tom Cruise) fledgling romance with his instructor “Charlie” Blackwood (Kelly McGillis) with this synth-heavy love song.

4. “Somebody’s Baby” // Jackson Browne

Inheriting the bittersweet tone of ‘70s dramas while molding entertainment for (and about) teenage audiences in the early 1980s, Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982) holds up as one of the era’s most enduring and honest portraits of adolescent life, bolstered by a soundtrack full of classic pop tunes such as this Jackson Browne rocker.

5. “Shake It Up” // The Cars

The Last American Virgin (1982) might be the most underrated teen sex comedy of the 1980s, right down to its absolutely devastating ending. Its soundtrack juggles a remarkable breadth of tones, featuring everything from James Ingram’s earnest “Just Once” to The Cars’ bouncy earworm “Shake It Up.”

6. “Rhythm Of The Night” // DeBarge

Martial arts comedy The Last Dragon is memorable for a number of reasons, not the least of which this joyful R&B song by frequent '80s chart-toppers DeBarge. Lead singer El DeBarge would go on to have another soundtrack hit with his first solo tune, "Who's Johnny," which was featured in Short Circuit (1986).

7. “I Can Dream About You” // Dan Hartman

A good friend of mine danced to “Tonight Is What it Means To Be Young” from the Streets Of Fire (1984) soundtrack at his wedding. But for decidedly less formal occasions, Dan Hartman’s blue-eyed soul single remains the standout from this mid-‘80s musical directed by Walter Hill (The Warriors).

8. “Into The Groove” // Madonna

Madonna was only beginning her record-breaking run as a female pop star when she appeared in the Susan Seidelman dramedy Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), but she managed to supply a slinky dance floor classic as one of the film’s lasting legacies.

9. “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” // Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes

As tempted as we were to add Patrick Swayze’s “She’s Like The Wind,” there’s just no substitute for the main theme to Dirty Dancing. It’s guaranteed to set a dance floor—and your heart—on fire.

10. “If You Leave” // Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark

Within two or three movies, Molly Ringwald became either the girl you wanted or the girl you to wanted to be. In Pretty In Pink, she finds love as Andie while her best guy friend Duckie (Jon Cryer) pines not-so-silently by her side, while heartfelt songs like this one nudge both of them toward the partners they’re meant to be with.

11. “Neutron Dance” // Pointer Sisters

Harold Faltermeyer's instrumental "Axel F” became as much of a hit as any of the pop songs on the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack. But this Pointer Sisters hit, which is full of irreverent energy, easily became as synonymous with Eddie Murphy’s wisecracking cop as Faltermeyer’s theme.

12. “Catch Me (I’m Falling)” // Pretty Poison

Jon Cryer played a stock broker on the run from the mob in Hiding Out, a 1987 back-to-high-school comedy that’s mostly unworthy of rediscovery outside of Pretty Poison’s catchy Top 10 pop hit from its soundtrack.

13. “Let’s Go Crazy” // Prince

Featuring not only probably the best soundtrack of the 1980s, but one of the best of all time—not to mention one of the best-sellingPurple Rain, Prince’s film debut, is stacked with both memorable and iconic musical moments. But this opener, played as Prince, Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero), his band, and his competitors reveal their ambitions and real selves, sets the stage for melodrama that feels quintessentially ‘80s and yet endures today with vibrancy and peerless musicality.

14. “Send Me An Angel” // Real Life

If your childhood ambition wasn't already to become a BMX superstar, surely watching the sports movie Rad (1986) led many of you to dream of a choreographed dance where you and your dream girl (or boy) derail a high school dance with some sick freestyle moves. No? Well, either way, this song slaps.

15. “Maniac” // Michael Sembello

It’s no surprise that a movie about a dance features some great music to dance to. But this banger from Flashdance was originally inspired by a slasher movie, until producer Phil Ramone encouraged Michael Sembello to rewrite it for something a bit more upbeat.

16. “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” // Simple Minds

John Hughes movies absolutely dominated, and defined, stories about teenagers in the 1980s. The Breakfast Club virtually set teenage personalities in stone, especially after this Simple Minds song supplied a soundtrack to the most desperate need in their young lives—to be remembered, no matter what.

17. “True” // Spandau Ballet

Two great stories converge in John Hughes’s 1984 comedy Sixteen Candles: young Sam’s (Molly Ringwald) forgotten birthday and Farmer Ted’s (Anthony Michael Hall) realization that he doesn’t need to be an insufferable jerk to connect with girls. They culminate in Sam getting her birthday wish, a kiss from dream guy Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling), all to Spandau Ballet’s enduring, midtempo pop song.

18. “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” // Starship

Mannequin is honestly only a few notches higher than Weekend At Bernies in terms of “high-concept” '80s comedies (starring Andrew McCarthy), but this hit for the ever-evolving Starship delivers a wonderful, feel-good oomph to the adventures of an ambitious artist (McCarthy) and the reanimated department store mannequin (Kim Cattrall) who becomes his muse.

19. “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” // Tears For Fears

Martha Coolidge’s Real Genius is one of those movies everyone loves but often gets forgotten in the conversation about the ‘80s great comedies. Tears For Fears’s worldwide chart-climber perfectly captures the film’s sociopolitical undertones.

20. “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” // Deniece Williams

1980s soundtracks were positively dominated by Kenny Loggins, from Caddyshack to Top Gun to Footloose. But the original drama about small-town kids defying their parents to learn how to dance boasted a high number of hits in addition to Loggins’s title track, such as this exuberant R&B single from Deniece Williams.