One thing to get straight right away: This list is not fully an endorsement of these movies. Some, like 2019’s Booksmart and 2017’s Lady Bird, are bonafide classics that truly and beautifully capture teenage-hood, and if you haven’t yet seen them for some reason, I’ll kindly ask you to come out from underneath the rock you call home. Others, like the second movie in the Twilight series and 2012’s aca-amazing(!) Pitch Perfect film, haven’t aged as well. If you haven’t already seen them, don’t waste your time. But here’s the thing about all the movies on this list—they, at least at one time or another, meant something to the teens who loved them. If you read the entire Twilight series over the course of one week, braided your hair like Katniss Everdeen, have ever been strangely attracted to Michael Cera, or found yourself googling The Hectic Glow after sobbing over The Fault in Our Stars, you can probably relate. Thankfully, the music supervisors for teen movies generally have better taste than the teens who watch them, and these soundtracks have had a shelf life as good as Robert Pattinson The Actor. Booksmart may have been snubbed at this year’s Oscar nominations, but what does it matter when this film’s greatest musical satisfaction comes in the form of a Perfume Genius swimming pool scene? If any Academy voters are reading this, please, for the love of all that is good, consider recognizing female directors. And if you’re a current or former teen, enjoy this compilation of soundtracks that doubled as tastemakers. They may have had more of an influence on your record collections (read: playlists—you’re millennial, after all!) than you think. Movies are listed by alphabetical order.
We’ll start with 2019’s token Oscar-snubbed teen comedy Booksmart, Olivia Wilde’s charming and topical directorial debut. The soundtrack is a 2010s indie fan’s wet dream—there’s Perfume Genius (used in one of the coming-of-age film’s most visceral scenes, in the swimming pool), Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros and, most notably, LCD Soundsystem. Another 2019 flick with great music, Someone Great, was actually named after the LCD Soundsystem song of the same name, yet frontman James Murphy denied director Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s request to use their music, as she told Rolling Stone. If Murphy is picky with which films use his music, he made the right choice between these two: The use of “oh baby” is perfectly timed and fits wonderfully with the mood of Booksmart. There’s also Lizzo, Alanis Morrissette and one of the year’s most memorable entrances courtesy of Billie Lourd and Leikeli47’s “Money.” Legends on all sides.
Mere months after her feature on Iggy Azalea’s blockbuster song-of-the-summer “Fancy,” a mostly-unknown artist named Charli XCX released a hit of her own. You’ll remember it because it played in retail stores across the country for what felt like two years straight: “Boom Clap” may not be the pop star’s first solo music, but it was certainly the song that put Charli XCX on the map. It was written for and appeared on The Fault in Our Stars soundtrack, which also featured lovely tunes by Grouplove, Jake Bugg, Birdy, STRFKR, The Radio Dept., Kodaline and M83. Grouplove, Ed Sheeran and Lykke Li all released specific versions of their songs especially for the movie, which captured the broken hearts of a generation of teens experiencing a Twilight hangover. Be it cancer or vampires, we were obsessed with the overwrought Shakespearean tragedy of these love stories. Thank goodness our suffering at least primed us for Pop 2.
Say what you will about this trilogy that sparked young adult fiction’s dystopian age, but it may just have the best soundtrack of any movie on this list: Arcade Fire, Neko Case, The Civil Wars (on a pretty good Taylor Swift song, no less!), Kid Cudi, The Low Anthem, The Decemberists, Glen Hansard, the Pistol Annies and Birdy (who also appeared on The Fault in Our Stars—good for her!) are all here! It’s like someone stuffed a piñata with the decade’s best indie-folk artists and took a bat (or Katniss’ bow and arrow) to it. The soundtrack also famously features The Carolina Chocolate Drops, a beloved old-time band who formed in North Carolina, where much of the film was shot. The soundtrack does a great job of paying homage to the region’s bluegrass, blue-collar and Appalachian roots throughout—it also features a coal miner’s ballad courtesy of the Pistol Annies and a sweeping, harmony-packed string jam by none other than the Punch Brothers. Also, does anyone know what happened to Josh Hutcherson? We hope he’s doing well. Team Peeta for life.
In the wake of quirky, early 2000s dark comedies with great soundtracks like Garden State and High Fidelity, a new heartwarming teen story threatened to dethrone both. Juno, the story of a misfit teen who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, is as quirky and smart as these kind of movies come, and it has a wordly indie soundtrack to match. There’s a lot of Belle & Sebastian (two years before 500 Days of Summer would call out the band by name), as well as The Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth and Cat Power. And lest we forget Ellen Page’s and Michael Cera’s own moment singing The Moldy Peaches’ “Anyone Else But You” on a stoop at the end of the film. Be still my adolescent beating heart.
Maybe the Lady Bird soundtrack doesn’t have the same indie cred as others on this list, but you have to give it up to director Greta Gerwig for her commitment to finding the right music for placing her audience in the middle of a specific place and time: Sacramento, Calif., 2002. Gerwig famously wrote personal letters to Justin Timberlake, Alanis Morissette and Dave Matthews to request usage of their songs “Cry Me a River,” “Hand in My Pocket” and “Crash Into Me,” respectively. In the process, she unintentionally rehabilitated the cringey-yet-heartbreaking soft-rock jam, thanks to its touching placement in the film. Even if you consider “Crash Into Me” to be a joyless, artistically bankrupt song about nothing more than one man’s desperate sexual desire, it’s tough to watch its appearance in Lady Bird and not feel a little something else—a sharp pang of pain in regards to the fleeting nature of youth, maybe? Gerwig perfectly captures all the conflicting, magical, upsetting feelings that come along with learning to love your home and then leaving it, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the perfect early-2000s soundtrack.
Vampire Weekend has popped up in a number of movies and TV shows over the years, but how many movies can say they featured a Vampire Weekend song in 2008? When Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, a truly outrageous teen flick based on Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s novel of the same name, was in production, Vampire Weekend’s first album wasn’t even out yet. Their song “Ottoman” joins others by Devendra Banhart and We Are Scientists for a too-cool-for-school soundtrack that’s honestly too-good-for-this-movie. Nonchalant music nerd Norah (Kat Dennings) asks serial mixtape-maker Nick (Michael Cera) to be her boyfriend for five minutes at a party, before the pair take after their peers and join the all-night race through NYC to find the secret show for their favorite band, Where’s Fluffy. The two geek out on music (The Shins, Band of Horses), masquerade as cab drivers while Seth Meyers makes out with a faceless woman in the back of the car and chase down a drunk friend before eventually knocking knees at the one and only Electric Lady Studios to the tune of Paul Tiernan’s “How to Say Goodbye.” The Rolling Stones are quaking.
Music plays a huge role in many of the best scenes in 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, adapted and directed by Stephen Chbosky from his coming-of-age classic novel of the same name. The book actually mentions specific songs, including The Smiths’ “Asleep” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” The latter, however, is replaced with David Bowie’s “Heroes” in the movie, which arguably works better for the adrenaline-coursing car scene. The magic of Perks is in its ability to relate. Chances are you were once like Sam (Emma Watson). Your school dances played famously terrible music, and you just longed to go home and blast The Smiths. During the homecoming scene, she greets the first few bars of Dexys Midnight Runners’ “Come On Eileen” with “Oh my God, they’re playing good music!” as Charlie (Logan Lerman) looks on nervously from—where else—the wall. The movie does a pretty good job of navigating Charlie’s trauma and growth and generally knows when the time is right to insert an ’80s hit.
There are some pretty horrendous music moments throughout the three Pitch Perfect movies, but there are also some delightful ones. The first film in the franchise arrived in 2012, and it was actually a really creative collection of pop songs performed by up-and-coming stars, thusly quenching our Glee-era thirst for endless music theatre-core. Anna Kendrick inspired us all to learn the “Cups” song, Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” got an a capella makeover and Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A” never sounded better. The actual soundtrack features a few high moments, too, including a Yeasayer mix and High Highs’ “Open Season.” Don’t misunderstand me—Pitch Perfect movies would only get more intolerable from here, but 2012’s original was then a groundbreaking event in teen film.
Before A24 was making Swedish horror films, coming-of-age classics and Adam Sandler-starring swindles, they released a warm little love story called The Spectacular Now in 2013. The soundtrack is an absolute stunner, featuring four certified indie gems: Washed Out, Ariel Pink, Kurt Vile and Phosphorescent. The film may be romantic, but it’s not always light. The use of “Song For Zula” is especially beautiful, but all the songs fit really well with the movie’s score by Rob Simonsen.
I have no statistics to prove this, but the Twilight soundtracks likely had a huge influence on the taste of an entire sector of moody, vampire-loving millennials. Even the first one was stacked: Paramore (whose song “Decode” was nominated for a Grammy), Muse, Linkin Park and, of course, Iron & Wine, whose twinkling folk-rock ballad “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” plays during a certain gazebo scene in the first Twilight. But if you think that sounds good, just look at the film adaption for the series’ second book: The New Moon soundtrack featured Death Cab for Cutie, Lykke Li, The Killers, Muse (again), Grizzly Bear, Thom Yorke and, last but certainly not least, Bon Iver featuring St. Vincent. It is difficult to describe to someone who wasn’t tapped into Twilight culture and/or indie music in 2009, but this was a huge deal. Not to mention, the celebrated composer Alexandre Desplat (who just copped another Oscar nomination for his delightful Little Women score) scored the movie. The film itself is nearly unwatchable now, but its music—and, fittingly, its actors (now full-fledged leaders in their craft, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart)—has aged like fine wine. If only the same could be said for Baby Reneesme.