A big factor in the success of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy is writer/director James Gunn’s penchant for choosing the most awesome musical tracks to fill out his films’ soundscapes. Across the trilogy he has curated such a list that choosing ten favorite tracks requires more than a little deliberation.
In choosing favorite songs from the trilogy, it’s ultimately not just about a great song. Rather, it’s about how the song is utilized, and how much hearing it later evokes a particular feeling or visual from the Guardians universe.
Fair warning: If you haven’t seen all three movies, here there be spoilers.
10. Jay and the Americans: “Come a Little Bit Closer”
Vol. 2: Yondu, Rocket and Groot Escape the Ravagers
I was in debate with myself for the #10 spot. This could easily have been Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights,” used in the scene where Rocket defends the crashed Milano (not to mention an imprisoned Nebula and a vulnerable Baby Groot) from the Ravagers. The abuse the Ravagers take in that scene is less lethal but more funny than in the scene I’ve chosen.
In addition to Rocket, the “Come a Little Bit Closer” scene also features Yondu and Groot being badass. The party-flavored song — coupled with Groot’s impossible cuteness, Rocket’s glee, and the sweet reveal of Yondu’s new fin — belies the wholesale slaughter going on, but I can’t help but laugh at moments during this scene. Those poor, mutinous Ravagers never stood a chance.
Vol. 3: The Corridor Fight
In the lead-up to the trilogy’s epic climax, James Gunn suddenly drops the heaviest beat in all three soundtracks courtesy of 80s/90s hip-hop legends the Beastie Boys. The result is two and a half minutes of ultra-violent mayhem, captured in one glorious tracking shot as the Guardians face off against a mutated horde in the corridors of the High Evolutionary’s fortress. Gunn has stated that he often has the songs in mind and designs his sequences around them, so it’s no wonder this one hits so hard. As one of the few action sequences in the trilogy that features all of the main Guardians fighting together (and the only one on this list with Nebula in a heroic role), it gives each of our heroes moment to shine and cements itself in the brain with that sick earworm.
Vol. 1: The Team Gears Up for Battle
The Guardians prepare to face Ronan in his impending assault on Xandar. In the background of this magnificent pre-battle montage, Quill puts on “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways, and the song couldn’t be a more wonderful choice. Joan Jett’s sass matches this misfit team perfectly, and when the stereotypical slow-motion team walk features Quill wiping his nose, Gamora unsuccessfully stifling a yawn, and a raccoon adjusting his crotch, I can’t help but crack up.
Vol. 3: Knowhere Celebration
“Happiness hit her like a train on a track…”
These words mark one of the greatest post-battle celebratory finales since Return of the Jedi. (The original version with the Ewok song, not whatever’s going on in the Special Edition; but I digress.) I have a couple of issues with the way some of our heroes do things out of character in this sequence — Drax dancing, or Groot saying anything other than “I am Groot,” a rule already broken in the first movie — just for the sake of some schmaltzy feel-good cheese. But that doesn’t change the fact that this party on Knowhere, the last time this particular team of Guardians will ever be together again, is a joyous celebration and a cathartic release from the emotional wringer we and the characters have just been through.
Vol. 1: Star-Lord Wants His Walkman Back
This song’s biggest claim to fame within the Guardians franchise is its use in the first trailer, which turned “Ooga Chaka” into the first film’s big anthem and, frankly, spiked my enthusiasm for the upcoming movie by several notches:
Its use within the movie is fantastic, too. The captured team arrives at the Kyln, the infamous galactic super-max prison, and Star-Lord is separated from his beloved Walkman. When he sees one of the prison guards with it listening to Blue Swede with impunity, Quill tries to get his music back. This, of course, does not go so well for him.
Vol. 2: Star-Lord Takes the Fight to Ego
I’m not going to lie: this song might have made the list even if Gunn hadn’t used it so perfectly. He scored massive points for featuring one of my favorite bands in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Thematically, “The Chain” ties the whole movie together. It’s used twice. First, when Rocket and Quill are feuding but the team splits up so that Star-Lord can investigate Ego’s parentage claims. Then, in the epic finale as the planet threatens to engulf the entire team, Quill is able to dig within himself to face off against “dear old Dad” in an epic struggle to save not only his team but the galaxy at large. Taking the team apart and building it back up — you’ll never break that chain.
Vol. 2: Opening Credits – Baby Groot’s Dance
If Guardians Vol. 3 ends with some pure, unfettered joy, then Guardians Vol. 2 indisputably leads with it, crafting a title sequence for the ages. Against a backdrop of violence wherein the rest of the Guardians battle a giant space beast known as the Abilisk, the newly-introduced Baby Groot just wants to dance. By keeping the focus squarely on this movie’s biggest scene-stealer, Gunn lets us know that the first movie’s sense of humor is more than intact for the sequel.
Reportedly, “Mr. Blue Sky” was the song that Gunn had the hardest time securing the rights for, and it came close to not happening. Thankfully, it did. I recommend you check out the full sequence, as well as a great behind-the-scenes interview on its creation, over at Art of the Title.
Vol. 3: Opening Credits – Rocket’s Headspace
Volume 3’s credits are the diametric opposite of Volume 2‘s. This film kicks off on a heavy, heavy note, with Rocket brooding on his tragic past as he listens to British alt-rock legends Radiohead (an acoustic version, to boot, just to make things a little heavier.) When his little tour of Knowhere brings us to the reveal that Peter Quill has been drinking himself into oblivion since Gamora’s death in Avengers: Infinity War, things get just that much darker. It’s a stark contrast to the unapologetically fun title sequences of the previous two movies.
Vol. 1: Opening Credits – Star-Lord’s Dance
The cinematic world didn’t truly know what was about to hit it in 2014 until this gem of a title sequence reared its head. It starts like any other grandiose space opera: pull in to a dark and stormy planet where our mysterious hero, bedecked in trench coat and sick mask, suddenly… fires up his Walkman and starts dancing his way through a gloomy cavern. It serves as a perfect introduction to the legendary outlaw Star-Lord (“Who?”), and to the off-kilter world of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
“Come and Get Your Love” firmly establishes itself over “Hooked On a Feeling” as the new theme for this universe. Its reprise in the closing credits of Volume 3 perfectly bookends the trilogy.
Vol. 2: Yondu’s Funeral
Quite simply, the sacrifice of Yondu Udonta is the single most impactful death in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s saying something, since it follows Groot’s untimely end in the previous film. While Tony Stark may have given his life to save half the universe in Avengers: Endgame, Yondu sacrifices himself to save his boy. After spending the entire movie chasing his daddy issues, Quill realizes that the blue man who abducted him as a child and wound up raising him in space was really the father he’d been searching for all his life.
Peter fires up Cat Stevens on his new Zune, takes Baby Groot into his lap, and, I swear, anybody not crying by this point has no soul. This magnificent, heart-tugging finale to this great trilogy’s middle chapter results in Peter and Rocket reaching reconciliation, Gamora finally surrendering to her love for Quill, and Yondu finding redemption as, when his ashes are scattered to the cosmos, his Ravager clan honors him with a proper funeral.