Okay, so we’re in the final stretch of the best film soundtracks of all time. Assuming, you’ve read the 1st 2 entries (which you recap here and here), then off we go. And remember any click on image will take you to Amazon if you’re looking to add one to your collection.
These to me are the 10 definitive film soundtracks of all time (replete with cool links for this expanded edition). Read on:
“Spinal Tap” is the greatest film about heavy metal. It doesn’t matter if it’s a fictional band, as any real band will testify that they’ve been lost trying to find the stage, had to cancel a gig when they’re career plateaued or had internal fighting due to a significant other that created disharmony amongst the band. What makes the film even more remarkable, is that it’s entirely played and performed by the actors themselves. Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest so nailed the beautiful ludicrousness of rock clichés that they’re now just part of the lexicon (“This goes up to 11”, “There’s such a fine line between stupid and clever”. The songs hit the late 70’s rock stride of pompous, overly macho bands like Saxon and Rainbow, and their lyrics perfectly parody their silliness. My vote for best song? “Big Bottom” all the way baby.
When I heard they were doing a new Batman film, I was a tad trepidatious but hoped that after the Tim Burton and Joel Schumaker misfires, they finally would get it right with my favorite character in all of pop culture. I was not only relieved, but my expectations were exceeded. And to top it off, Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard outdid the one thing that the early Batman films had going for them, which was Danny Elfman’s score. Combining strings with electronics (in particular I love the huge swatting background sounds which perfectly evokes the sound of a bat’s leathery flapping wings) they made it their own. “The Dark Knight’s” score is even richer than it’s prequel, “Batman Begins”. From the disturbing, ascending Joker’s theme (partly accomplished by playing a guitar with a razor blade) to the epic majestic strings of the title theme, it never ceases to give me the chills.
*Just barely missing inclusion due to my 1 composer per entry rule. was Zimmer’s amazing score for “Inception”. Newton Howard also did a nice score for Peter Jackson’s “King Kong”.
David Lynch’s films always have excellent music. And a key component of that is his recurring composer Angelo Badalementi. Well steeped in the grandiose, orchestral style of old Hollywood with the ability to interject unnerving, unexpected moments of atonality, he’s able to hit all of the unsettling emotional buttons the director enjoys pushing. Blue Velvet has one of the best main title scores ever, and “Mysteries Of Love” (featuring Lynch muse Julee Cruise) has a transcendent hypnotic quality that still holds it spell. Added to the mix are a bunch of golden oldies, given ominous new intent due to the disturbing images they accompany, none more so than how Lynch utilized Roy Orbison’s stirring nocturnal classic “In Dreams”.
It was a challenge choosing just one score from the warhorse that was Jerry Goldsmith. Do I go with “Planet Of The Apes” with its bizarre mix of traditional orchestral instrumentation along found percussion such as mixing bowls? Or for his eerie score to one of the most unsung films of all time “Seconds” (hunt for it, its amazing)?. His reworking of film noir for “L.A. Confidential”? Or the other hundreds of films that immediately went up a star just by his association He did “Chinatown” for God’s sake!
I had to go with “Alien”, even though Goldmith was irritated that Ridley Scott only used portions of the score he had written and that he re-used some of his score from a different film altogether ( “Freud”). But it’s such a nightmarish, taught disturbing work of genius. The seasick strings and rattling percussion making an already terrifying film fall right off the edge. Jerry was one of the best, period, and “Alien” remains his masterwork. Luckily it’s been released with everything Goldsmith created, so it can be even more fully appreciated.
5. “Star Wars”
You knew this had to show up somewhere on this list right? George Lucas has polluted his legacy over the years with inferior prequels, but the one dude who still comes out smelling like a rose is John Williams. Music snobs have accused him of pilfering from the Operas of Wagner and other classical composers, but like any great rock riff, someone’s borrowed a little here, and a little there. It’s what you do with it that counts.
Picking one John William’s score proved difficult, but lets face it “Star Wars” is his finest (just edging out “Jaws”, another brilliant score). For many of us, his music is the soundtrack to our childhood. It brought melodrama and a curiosity for the future that had been absent in the malaise of post Vietnam and Watergate. It sold way more than pretty much any classically based soundtrack ever, and it was the template for the golden age of sci-fi films of the late 70’s and early 80’s.
But I’d be remiss to forget his chill inducing scores to “Superman” and “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” and pretty much every Spielberg movie.
Composer Ennio Morricone is most famous for his work on Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns (who doesn’t recognize this theme?). He’s had a long, storied career, (other soundtracks of note include “The Untouchables” and “The Mission”). But I had pick one, from one of my all time favorite films, John Carpenter’s masterwork “The Thing”. Normally Carpenter scores his own films (don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten him), but his choice of Morricone was an inspired one. From the ominous monotonic main theme, to occasional frenetic string freak outs, it perfectly sets the mood for the dire situation faced by Arctic researchers when they unloose a monster in their midst.
Vangeli’s score for “Blade Runner” is very unique. Whereas most composers who use synthesizers tend to go for a minimalist approach, highlighting the synthetic nature of their instrument, he applies an orchestral, lush approach, not afraid to go for multiple layers of sounds. His work on this films sounds like a fusion of contemporary (as in 1982 ) touches mixed with the melodramatic scores from the golden age of cinema. You can hear him trying to nail home the films film noir touches in the “Love Theme”, “One More Kiss Dear” and the moody “Blade Runner Blues.” “Memories of Green” is the standout though, its twinkling synths and bell-like bleeps drawing you further into Ridley Scott’s brilliant adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electic Sheep”.
Ah, “Halloween”. Perfect example that sometimes simplicity is best.
Fewer composers have said so much with so little. Carpenter’s eerie title theme with its repetitive 5/4 piano motif is instantly catchy and ominous. What makes Carpenter’s score so memorable and iconic, is that they aren’t overly busy with tempo changes and ornamentation. It’s a minimal, constant repetitive attack that lodges in your brain and never leaves. In addition, another part of the score that deserves mention is the music used in the finale : The Shape Lurks” / “The Shape Stalks”. It’s even more minimalist, a 3 note piano pattern layered with ascending synth stabs to ratchet up the intensity.
Other works of note include his scores on “Escape From New York”, “The Fog” and the ominous theme from “Assault on Precinct 13”. Carpenter’s style was also influential to many musicians not at all associated with film, being sampled by various hip hop and electronic acts in the 90’s and being proclaimed as a major influence on Portishead’s most recent album “Third”.
Bernard Herrmann is the Beatles of film composers. He made the rules so he could break them later, and everyone else followed his lead. His body of work is so impressive that I could’ve done a Top 30 strictly on his catalogue alone. His scores for “Citizen Kane”, “Cape Fear”, “Vertigo”, “Taxi Driver” and “North by Northwest” are all landmarks. And he’s directly responsible for appropriating the theremin for sci-fi films when he did the score for “The Day The Earth Stood Still”.
But alas, I can only choose one, and that’s “Psycho”. Herrmann would often give himself purposeful limitations to help drive his creativity. In this case he only allowed cello & violins, excluding all other instrumentation.
Pretty much everyone is familiar with the shower scene which is one of the most recognized piece of music in film history. The strident bowing of the strings driving home the sensory assault of Janet Leigh’s stabbing. Since Hitchcock couldn’t show it in graphic detail given the censorship issues of the time, he lets Herrmann’s genius fill in the gaps.
But the entire score is amazing. The jittery opening title theme sets the film off perfectly, and the sinister thematic cue used repeatedly (called “Temptation”), is darkly hypnotic.
“Psycho” was influential in every respect, be it directorial, thematically and Herrmann’s score is no exception.
So that’s it for my favorite soundtracks of all time.
Honorable mentions (besides the earlier side notes): Brian Eno’s excellent soundtrack for “Apollo”, Gene Scott’s eerie organ score for “Carnival Of Souls”, the classic “Willie Wonka and The Chocolate Factory” and the weirdest score ever for a movie, the original 1970’s version of “The Wicker Man”, amongst many. As Sinatra once sang “Regrets, I have a few”, and those are the ones that got away.
Also, one major exception to a film that had no need of any music whatsoever to make its impact “No Country For Old Men”. Not a note. Interesting.
So that’s my TOP 30. Agree? Disagree? Have your own you care to share? Feel free to comment below.