A Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep in 1980 and woke up in 2014 might’ve been surprised to find that America’s 14-year-olds were still somehow digging super hits of the Seventies like “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” and “Come and Get Your Love.” That summer, Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 became the first soundtrack album of previously released songs to make it to the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart, thanks to the movie’s at times funny, at times poignant, always lovingly revenant use of pop, rock, and soul classics from the glory days of AM radio gold. The Awesome Mixtape went from the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” to David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The second Guardians soundtrack, from 2017, was just as good, highlighted by Fleetwood Mac, Glen Campbell, Looking Glass, and one of soul great Sam Cooke’s finest ballads.
In the third Guardians movie, our hero Star-Lord comes upon a Microsoft Zune player, an artifact from the early 21st century that allows for a more historically diverse soundtrack. As Guardians director James Gunn recently told Rolling Stone, describing the new film, “It doesn’t start with ‘Come and Get Your Love.’ It starts with Radiohead’s acoustic version of ‘Creep.’ And that’s just a much different tone from the beginning than the other two films.”
To celebrate all the great music in these movies, we’ve come up with our definitive ranking of every song on the three Guardians of the Galaxy soundtracks. The criteria was simple: If the song is insanely awesome, it goes high on the list; if it’s only very awesome, it goes a little lower, with the bottom of the list filled out by songs of moderate to low-level awesomeness. As the ever-wise Drax once said, “There are two types of beings in the universe: those who dance, and those who do not.”
Hear this playlist on Spotify.
The Sneepers feat. David Hasselhoff
As a kid growing up in the 1970s, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn loved the disco version of the Star Wars theme that topped the charts in 1977. He and Guardians composer Tyler Bates tapped that vibe with their disco version of the Guardians theme, and they got Knight Rider and Baywatch legend David Hasselhoff to appear in the campy video they made for it. —J.D.
One of the more recent tracks to appear on any Guardians soundtrack, the 2012 Mowgli’s single “San Francisco” is a jangly, shoutalong barnburner, so infectious in its energy that it doesn’t need more than a bunch of “doo doo doos” for a hook. The band, which at points counted nine members, wrote the song in one night in a motel room. Lucky neighbors. —C.P.
While this song by J-pop composer EHAMIC (real name: Mikito Ehara) dates from 2018, its vintage-sounding components fit right in with the retro vibe of Guardians. The percussion, guitar riff, and zippy vocals sound like something straight out of a soundtrack to a zany Sixties monster movie; the bass line has a disco throb; and there’s an electronic buildup that could be a Muzak version of Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines.” —J.G.
Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah
The Chicago rock trio Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah have always claimed that “Lake Shore Drive” is inspired only by the grandeur of their hometown’s famed north-south throughway and not its nudge-nudge wink-wink acronym. The lyrics sheet actually backs this up, as does the open-road bounce of the music. No wonder Star-Lord popped it into the tape deck for for the first takeoff scene in Guardians Vol. 2. —C.P.
Faith No More
The breakthrough single from Bay Area hybridists Faith No More is a spittle-flecked sneer at the self-serving grandiosity of Eighties pop-star charity benefits like Live Aid and “We Are the World.” While “Care” vocalist Chuck Mosley departed the band in 1988, the cut’s prominent bass and uneasiness-inducing synths — as well as its eye-rolling attitude toward squeaky-clean mass culture — remain hallmarks of the Faith No More aesthetic. “It’s totally a different band in a lot of ways — totally different singer, it’s played by a bunch of 21-year-old kids who are very naive, and you can hear the naiveté in the music,” bassist Bill Gould said in a 2016 interview. “It’s very primitive in some ways, but at the same time, it’s interesting for people who know Faith No More now.” —M.J.
A vaudeville standard first published in 1917, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” hit big for Charles W. Harrison in 1918, charted in 1946 for Perry Como, received faithful interpretations by Julie Andrews and Judy Garland, among many others, and was finally shredded to smithereens by a leering Alice Cooper on his sophomore solo, LP Alice Cooper Goes to Hell. It’s still a maudlin singalong, same as ever, but Cooper’s version spotlights what an absolute downer the lyrics are. —C.P.
While the chorus of this 1983 track by British post-punkers The The is defined by get-up-and-go gumption, its verses detail the sort of paralyzing depression that could only result from a life defined by dashed expectations. The weepy accordion and twinkling synths, paired with vocalist Matt Johnson’s lacerating delivery on the verses, make “This Is the Day” an ideal reference point for “modern rock,” the brainy hybrid of post-punk, synthpop, and musical oddities that ruled America’s left-of-the-dial playlists until the early Nineties. —M.J.
Blending the dramatic strings and juicy guitars of golden-era country-pop with a punchy chorus straight out of a record shop’s glam section, this 1976 cut was the lone Billboard Hot 100 hit for the Los Angeles band Silver. (It had the Midas touch of Clive Davis, who co-produced the track as head of Silver’s label, Arista.) The comic-book-action-scene-ready chorus made “Wham Bam” an inspired choice to soundtrack part of Guardians of the Galaxy 2’s climactic fight sequence, adding a bit of levity before the serious action kicked in. —M.J.
With the third Guardians soundtrack, James Gunn has included several tunes offering definitive proof that he went to college during the 1980s. Here’s one of them: X were one of the coolest bands on the early-Eighties L.A. punk scene, with John Doe and Exene Cervenka sharing a white-hot chemistry over Billy Zoom’s rockabilly guitar. “Poor Girl” is a tender moment off their 1983 album, More Fun in the New World, probably a better pick for a superhero movie than other X classics like “Sex and Dying in High Society” or “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline.” —J.D.
Jay and the Americans
The 1964 earworm “Come a Little Bit Closer” is one of the older tunes in the Guardians canon. Written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, it’s a vaguely Latin-sounding ditty about a fellow in a Mexican cantina who decides against his better judgment to dance with a gal he just met, only for her boyfriend José to show up, displeased with the situation. In Vol. 2, it soundtracks a jailbreak during which the space pirate Yondu murders dozens upon dozens of enemies, one by one, with an arrow he controls with his voice and a big red fin on his head. The pairing of a fun, disposable old pop tune with grizzly violence feels more Tarantino than summer blockbuster. —J.G.
The Flaming Lips
It makes sense that Marvel’s trippiest franchise would eventually find its way toward the standard-bearers of post-millennial pop-psychedelia. Still the Flaming Lips’ most moving individual song, “Do You Realize??” finds something human and temporal amidst sprawling sci-fi wonder, with Wayne Coyne coyly reminding all of us that even when our feet are on the ground, we’re all floating in space. —C.P.
Allen Toussaint’s catalog as producer (the Meters’ “Cissy Strut,” Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time,” Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade”) and performer alike just about defines New Orleans R&B. But while “Southern Nights,” the title track to Toussaint’s 1975 album, remains a hazy beauty, that’s not the enduring version. That belonged to Glen Campbell, who in 1977 took out the murk, pranced up the tempo, laid on some slide guitar, and took it to Number One country and pop, and winning Toussaint a Country Music Association award for Song of the Year. —M.M.
Written by Mark James (whose credits include Elvis Presley’s last Number One, “Suspicious Minds”) and originally a hit for B.J. Thomas in 1968-69, “Hooked on a Feeling” was made famous again by Blue Swede, a Scandinavian rock act who were themselves covering a 1971 reggae version of the tune by a Jamaican group called Twinkle Brothers. It was used in the trailer for the first Guardians, a bit of scoring that let audiences know this was a Marvel movie that wouldn’t sound like any one before it. —J.G.
There’s a tendency to think of “Creep” as the juvenilia of the Radiohead catalog — before The Bends, before the “real stuff.” But the inverse is actually true: “Creep” is an early glimpse at the band’s full potential, a mess of heartache and self-loathing with guitars that sound like a glacier melting. The famous acoustic rendition cuts the track down to its spine, spotlighting Thom Yorke’s vocals to devastating effect. (You can hear it deconstructed even further with Yorke’s apocalyptic nine-minute remix from 2021.) —C.P.
Cat Stevens’ generational-angst ballad soundtracks the moving final scene in the second Guardians movie, hitting a nostalgic sweet spot for older movie-night parent chaperones who grew up listening to their parents’ copies of Tea for the Tillerman. Stevens wrote it for a never-finished musical called Revolussia about the Russian Revolution that he started working on in the late Sixties; he later said it reflected his relationship with his father. —J.D.
When ex-Argent guitarist Russ Ballard recorded “Since You Been Gone” for 1976’s Winning, it had all the hallmarks of a mid-Seventies AOR gem: a sha-la-la-ready chorus, longing lyrics for a lost love, a gently spaced-out keyboard line buried in the mix. Three years later, the Ritchie Blackmore-led Rainbow were adding some gloss to their proto-power-metal sound after the departure of founding wailer Ronnie James Dio, and their harder-edged take on “Gone” showed how easily pop blended into their alloy, with new vocalist Graham Bonnet showcasing his formidable pipes and Blackmore reeling off a sweetly virtuosic solo. —M.J.
Spacehog’s “In the Meantime” features one of the premiere openings of Nineties alt-rock radio: an instantly recognizable guitar twinkle, a phasing guitar-and-drums buildup, and then a caterwauling, wordless hook. The band is as one-hit-wonder as they come, but in a very casually arty Brit-pop way; “In the Meantime” features a classy sample of the 1981 song “Telephone & Rubber Band” by English avant-pop minimalists Penguin Cafe Orchestra. —C.P.
Earth, Wind and Fire
Though the late Maurice White was the instigator, leader, and main producer of the sprawling classic funk band Earth, Wind & Fire, some of their most resonant songs came from longtime arranger and co-producer Charles Stepney, who died in 1976. “You can’t talk about ‘Reasons,’ ‘That’s the Way [of the World],’ and many other songs without saying Charles Stepney,” Philip Bailey said in 1986. “Because many of those melodies and chord changes came straight out of his basement, on a four-track. … Charles was just a musical genius, he really was.” Stepney had composed the elastic melody of “Reasons” on a Mini-Moog synthesizer. But it was Bailey’s all-stops-pulled-out performance in his gleaming falsetto that made the song — whose lyrics are, ironically, about a one-night stand — into a wedding and prom standard. —M.M.
George Harrison scored the first chart-topper by a former Beatle when this divinely inspired cut from his masterpiece All Things Must Pass hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in late 1970. Harrison began writing the track while touring with the blues-folk duo Delaney and Bonnie in 1969, taking the concept behind its yearning verses from a book by the Indian monk Swami Vivekananda. “He said, ‘If there’s a God we must see him. If there’s a soul we must perceive it,” Harrison told Billboard’s Timothy White in 1992. “Otherwise, it’s better not to believe. It’s better to be an outspoken atheist than a hypocrite.’ … I thought, ‘Right on, that’s the one for me!’ If there’s a God, I want to see him.” —M.J.
“Spirit in the Sky” started its ascent as a folky demo by songwriter Norman Greenbaum but grew wings in the studio when producer Erik Jacobson built it up with percussion, backing vocals, and Greenbaum’s singular Telecaster sound, provided by a built-in fuzz unit, creating an instantly recognizable opening riff. The result was mildly psychedelic gospel-rock song written by a Jewish guy, inspired by his love of Westerns. According to a 2020 Rolling Stone interview, Greenbaum noted that he knew of several funeral homes that used it in advertisements.–J.G.
A disarming power-pop confection, the Raspberries’ 1972 hit “Go All the Way” buries a keening, surprisingly consent-focused chorus beneath a crunchy outer shell of righteous proto-garage riffs. The Cleveland-based band earned ire for playing British Invasion-style rock in lily-white tuxedos, but the group’s songs were the best kind of pastiche, packing myriad influences into something imminently consumable. —C.P.
Florence + The Machine
Florence + the Machine’s 2009 breakthrough single, which appears on the soundtrack to Vol. 3, is a forceful anthem that captures the terrifying thrill that crashes into the mind when a dream comes true —and its exultant shout-along refrain came from Florence Welch tooling around London, finding inspiration in the details of her travels. “’Dog Days Are Over’ was directly inspired by an art installation by the artist Ugo Rondinone,” Welch told ArtistDirect in 2010. “He’s got an art installation on the side of this gallery in New York that just says, ‘Hell, Yes!’ Ugo had an installation on the side of another building that said, ‘Dog Days Are Over.’ That would inspire me every time I rode my bike over Waterloo Bridge, and it essentially sparked the whole song.” —M.J.
Looking Glass cut their teeth on the same Jersey Shore club scene as Bruce Springsteen. After signing the band to Epic Records, label head Clive Davis sent them down to Memphis to record with Stax/Volt legend Steve Cropper. When that session didn’t work out, they returned to New York to finish “Brandy.” “I liked the idea of trying to tell a whole story in two minutes and 59 seconds,” recalled Looking Glass singer-guitarist Elliot Lurie. He did a fine job, giving generations of beachside barflies a seafaring classic to drunkenly sing as the emotions get sticky around closing time. —J.D.
A hard-rocking highlight from the Beasties’ early, obnoxious years — from a time, it’s worth remembering, when many saw Brooklyn as just this side of a backwater, unlike the rarefied hip of Manhattan. Instead, the rappers celebrated themselves — “Never, ever false metal!” they shout (even as the video parodied Poison and Whitesnake clips) before Slayer’s Kerry King shreds a climactic solo — even if their overstated personae would lead Mike D to admit at the time, “I think if I wasn’t in the Beastie Boys, I’d definitely hate some of this.” —M.M.
“The melody is pleasant,” Gamora informs Star-Lord, when he plays her “Fooled Around and Fell in Love.” Indeed it is. Elvin Bishop was a veteran blues-rocker whose career went back to the mid-Sixties when he played in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Knowing he had something special with the sublime “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” he handed off lead vocals to singer Mickey Thomas, fearing his own rugged voice might not be the right fit for such a smooth song. —J.D.
Just as the third Replacements album, Hootenanny, was being mastered, the band’s singer and songwriter, Paul Westerberg, called manager Peter Jesperson and told him, “I’ve just finished the best song I’ve ever written. We need to record it now.” It was too late to add to the finished album, so it was the linchpin of the next one, 1984’s masterful Let It Be. When Jesperson heard “I Will Dare” for the first time, his reaction — “It was so instantly catchy,” he told Replacements biographer Bob Mehr — would soon echo throughout the college-radio underground, before winding its way into the larger Galaxy. —M.M.
The half-Mexican, half-Native American brothers Pat and Lolly Vegas had fascinating musical backgrounds long before they started the band Redbone, playing everything from jazz to surf music to Sixties rock & roll session work. They made only one lasting hit as a group, but it stands as tall as their namesake tree: an instantly appealing classic of call-and-response woo-pitching. (Two decades later, the Eurodance unit Real McCoy hit with an equally cute synth-house remake.) When Redbone performed the song on TV’s Midnight Special, they preceded the song with nearly a minute of Native American dancing, while the Vegas brothers performed in full regalia. —M.M .
All-female L.A. band the Runaways’ debut single, “Cherry Bomb,” tossed a claret grenade into the world of Seventies power pop and glam, following the Ramones’ landmark song “Blitzkrieg Bop” by about a month and prefiguring punk’s explosion in popularity by nearly a year. Written by Joan Jett, one of the coolest rock stars ever, and Runaways manager Kim Fowley, one of the least cool people in music history, “Cherry Bomb” was actually playing on set as the Guardians geared up for their final battle with Ronan the Accuser. —J.G.
The members of 10cc first got together as session musicians in Manchester, England, during the early Seventies. “I’m Not in Love” is about as soft as soft rock ever got, gliding along on not much more than a little Fender piano, a bass drum played on a Moog synthesizer, and the group’s breathy, almost ghostly, voices. They used tape loops to give their subtle ahhs into a dazzling layered, choir-like feel, arriving at an artfully light sound that presaged the refined ambient textures of bands like Stereolab, Broadcast, and Air by about two decades. —J.D.
Even by 1970s-oddness standards, the Sweet were a strange band with a confusing discography and lots of U.S. and U.K. albums with the same name and different songs. Many of their early hits were written by power-pop savant producers Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, and were aimed at glam fandom. Other singles were written by the band itself, but often still produced by Chinn and Chapman in a heavier bent. Sometimes the band hedged its bets: The 1974 album version of this monster is much heavier than the better-known 1975 rerecording, which drops in an inspiredly cheesy synth opening, a bubble-gummier sound and less guitar soloing. Both are great: Sweet drummer Mick Tucker always created cool parts, and the lyrics are extremely about a groupie. —J.G.
Louche on the surface yet goopily romantic at its core, the incessantly catchy reggae-pop cut “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” condenses the cusp of the Seventies and Eighties into four laid-back minutes —close your eyes and you can see the Tiffany lamps and ferns decorating O’Malley’s, the bar where Rupert Holmes and his personal-ad-sourced correspondent schedule their first tryst. The letter writer actually meets up with his wife, making for a shaggy-dog story that would be the hit of any key party. Holmes’ abashed delivery and the pile-carpet-thick electric guitar, as well as its jubilant chorus, turn “Escape” into a source of kitschy comfort, ideal for Star-Lord to use as a decompression soundtrack while cherishing the return of his Walkman in Guardians’ first installment. —M.J.
David Bowie was a comic book guy, in every sense: He liked them, wrote one, and has had several written about him. And what is Ziggy Stardust if not a living comic book hero? “Moonage Daydream” is Bowie’s best space-cadet song in a career that had more than a few. He cut two versions of this classic. The first is a comparatively stiff workout with a band called Arnold Corns. The latter, better-known version cut with the Spiders From Mars has it all: an epic opening riff, pianos and acoustic guitars and strings piled up, lyrics about electric eyes and ray guns, and a Mick Ronson solo that’s pure solar flare. It is also the perfect song for soundtrack Guardians heroes flying into a mining colony built around the enormous skull of a space god. —J.G.
The Five Stairsteps
As a way of psyching oneself up while distracting one’s opponent before a showdown, you can’t do much better than launching into the Chicago family band Five Stairsteps’ 1970 soul-pop smash “O-o-h Child” —and Star-Lord does just that when faced with Ronan the Accuser in the first Guardians installment. He’s even got moves to go along with the resolute lyrics, which inspire him to call for a dance-off that leads to his “big turd blossom” of a foe having his attention sufficiently diverted. —M.J.
A rock-radio staple for most of the past six decades, “Crazy on You” moves from acoustic foreplay to thunderous electric lust, a rousing ode to having lots of sex before going off to Vietnam or as a teen safety valve against the chaos of 1970s social upheaval. Before its use in Vol. 3, “Crazy” served as movie and TV soundtrack go-to since the early 1980s, signifying unstoppable feminine desire everywhere from the 1981 cult film American Pop to Sofia Coppola’s stunning The Virgin Suicides, and, of course, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. —J.G.
”This is Sam Cooke … one of the greatest Earth singers of all time,” Peter Quill tells Gamora as he pulls her close while introducing her to the concept of dancing in the first Guardians flick. While some might quibble with Quill’s qualification — surely Cooke is up there on the list of the galaxy’s best, if not the universe’s? — there’s no denying that the gospel-tinged “Bring It on Home to Me,” which was released a mere two weeks after Cooke recorded it in front of an 18-piece backing band in the spring of 1962, remains one of pop’s most sublime descriptions of longing. —M.J.
A song about desperation and hardship so unstoppably heart-hungry it becomes an anthem of ragged determination and against-the-odds hope, “Badlands” opens Bruce Springsteen’s fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, with what the E Street Band’s Stevie Van Zandt called “a warrior sort of heroism.” “Badlands” is where Springsteen shifted his focus away from stories about Jersey kids with New York dreams and out into the American heartland — from whence warrior heroes are allegedly sometimes born. —J.D.
Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell
Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell sound ready to conquer the world on this song, and it’s not just the lyric — the eagerness in their voices is irresistible and convincing, pushed along by one of Motown’s most urgent arrangements. Husband and wife writers Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson were experts at musical melodrama — the heady blend of filmic stings and gospel phrasing, for one — but the track’s real push comes from bassist James Jamerson. He takes command from the first measure and never lets up, tirelessly ready to push you over the mountain all by itself. —M.M
Electric Light Orchestra
It was impossible for Vol. 2 to have an opening scene as surprising and joyful as Star-Lord’s dancing around an ancient planet to the strains of Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” in the first Guardians flick, but using ELO’s gloriously sunny “Mr. Blue Sky” to kick off Vol. 2 was pretty great. The ‘77 tune has always had a space-cadet vibe: Jeff Lynne’s jaunty lyrics about nothing, that choppy cello part, and a vocoder that sounds beamed in from Mars.Thirteen-year-olds who wouldn’t know Jeff Lynne from Jeff Bezos turned into ELO fans overnight, as our heroes fought giant monsters and an oblivious Baby Groot grooved his way through laser blasts and flying tentacles. —J.G.
The premise of loading a Marvel movie with classic tracks could’ve lead to an endless string of “I recognize that!” needle drops. Instead, they save the big hits for when they really need it — like the first movie’s closing stinger of baby Groot gradually getting coaxed into grooving along to the Jackson 5’s immortal “I Want You Back.” The track, from that opening cascade on, remains undeniable, buoyed by the best walking bass line in the galaxy. —C.P
The powerhouse centerpiece of Fleetwood Mac’s masterwork, Rumours, took shape very gradually. “[It] started out as one song in Sausalito,” guitarist-singer Lindsey Buckingham told Rolling Stone’s Cameron Crowe in 1977. “We decided it needed a bridge, so we cut a bridge and edited it into the rest of the song. We didn’t get a vocal and left it for a long time in a bunch of pieces. It almost went off the album. Then we listened back and decided we liked the bridge, but didn’t like the rest of the song. … The ending was the only thing left from the original track. We ended up calling it ‘The Chain’ because it was a bunch of pieces.” But it perfectly reflected a band that had nearly gone to pieces itself in making the album — and held on as an anthem of romantic resilience. —M.M
An anthemic ode to the strange chaos of the 1970s, “Surrender” is a rallying cry, a statement of purpose for every Gen X kid (and their folks) who just seemed a little bit weird. Nothing about the slightly martial drums northe opening guitar clang and synth shimmer prepares you for Robin Zander’s sly braying about how his mom is instructing him on avoiding STDs. The chorus swells into some all-time great life advice: “Surrender/But don’t give yourself away.” It’s not just Cheap Trick’s finest single but possibly the best power-pop song of all time. —J.G.
“We need hits and craziness,” George Clinton explained in 1978 of the P-Funk empire that he oversaw. “The craziness gives more staying power. We have to play them both against each other and win and stay in front of the pack.” And the craziest P-Funk groove ever remains “Flash Light,” the bass monster that concluded Parliament’s 1977 classic, Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome, and, Clinton said, P-Funk’s “first serious, conscious effort to cut a hit single.” It certainly succeeded — “Flash Light” was Number one on Billboard’s soul chart for six weeks in 1978, thanks to a stacked, molten bass line, played by keyboardist Bernie Worrell on his Moog synth. —M.M.