A great film score should never overpower the narrative, but it should feel like an essential element that would be sorely missed if absent. Sometimes the score is so superior that it outclasses the movie, but it’s rare that a great film has lousy music. With all these factors in mind I was inspired to make a list of the top 30 film soundtracks that I hold high above all others. In order to keep the list from being cluttered by repeated entries from the same composer, I’ve decided to only choose what I feel is their landmark work (no easy task), and will list their other achievements within that entry. I did make exceptions for soundtracks that are song collections which might happen to contain different songs by the same artists. This collection runs the gamut, from rock compilations, orchestral scores and electronic instrumentals (or a combination of any or all of the above).
This 90’s film definitely falls into the category of lame and forgettable (the plot isn’t even worthy to mention) , but it’s an impressive soundtrack. The combination of rock and hip hop isn’t an anomaly anymore. It’s been there, done that. But even falling fast on the heels of Faith No More and Anthrax/Public Enemy it was still fairly novel in the early 90’s. The album’s producers decided to combine a different rock and rap act on each track. Standouts include the aforementioned Faith No More with Boo Yaa-Tribe on “Another Body Murdered”, Helmet & House of Pain with “Just Another Victim”, and Living Colour and Run DMC on “2 Turntables and a Microphone”. Worth checking out.
“Less Than Zero” is a fairly forgettable 80’s flick about the darker path towards drugs and addiction. The fact that Robert Downey played the lead certainly gives it a sad slice of irony. The soundtrack while being a mixed bag (Poison? Oran Juice Jones? Yuck.) has enough good songs worthy of inclusion. Compiled by legendary producer Rick Rubin, you have LL Cool J’s finest moment (before he became a tedious lip licking has-been on a bad forensics show) with the horn driven “Going Back To Cali”. Add in Slayer’s skull bashing rendition of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and Glenn Danzig channeling his inner Righteous brother on “You and Me (Less Than Zero)” plus some Roy Orbison and Public Enemy (and even a begrudgingly decent Bangles track) and overall you have a very solid collection of songs.
Louis and Bebe Barron did perhaps the 1st experimental soundtrack when they scored Forbidden Planet in the 50’s. Using primitive electronic circuits effected with reverb and delay, the music could just as well be considered sound design vs an actual score as there’s nothing you can hum along with. It’s just an ethereal grab bag of noises that’s quite effective into making you feel like you’re on another planet. I can only imagine it’s impact during the 50’s when electronic scores were an anomaly.
When I 1st heard the Chemical Brothers were doing a score I wanted to see the film, figuring they’d nail it. And they did. A mixture of electro driven middle eastern beats, and wistful passages with eerie childlike vocals, their score perfectly accentuates this excellent taut globe-spanning spy thriller.
Danny Elfman has proven himself to be one of the great composers of the late 20th and early 21st century. From his classic “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” theme, to his great 40’s style film score of Tim Burton’s “Batman” (never liked Burton’s approach to source material, but the score is solid) he’s racked up an impressive list of films. But the former Oingo Boingo frontman was at his greatest peak here. Clever lyrics ( Protagonist, Jack Kellington’s vocals were sung by Elfman himself) and a tongue in cheek take of monster movie musical cues make this a timeless classic,
Before “Silence of The Lambs” and the tepid remake “Red Dragon” there was “Manhunter”, which featured the first filmed appearance of Hannibal Lecter (played here by Brian Cox instead of Anthony Hopkins). Directed by Michael Mann (“Heat”, “The Insider”), it’s a 80’s neon, rain soaked take on Thomas Harris’s classic novel. Featuring moody, atmospheric songs by semi obscure 80’s acts like The Prime Movers, Shriekback & Red 7, it perfectly fits the cat and mouse thriller. And Iron Butterflies “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (wow 2 “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” references? Weird!) is used to excellent effect in the climactic show down.
I rarely get nightmares from seeing a film, but I woke up in a cold sweat thanks to this disturbathon of the crippling fatal consequences of drug addiction and all the self-made hell it brings with it. Clint Mansell’s score manages to sound elegant and gorgeous while it augments the worst aspects humanity has to offer. The main theme “Lux Aeterna” has been heard in countless other movie trailers due to its haunting funereal quality. He also did a unique take on the sci-fi soundtrack with his memorable score for “Moon”.
Long before Mel Gibson’s polarizing “Passion Of The Christ” we had Scorscese’s equally controversial “Last Temptaion Of Christ”. Ironically Peter Gabriel used the “Passion” title for the soundtrack. Featuring a great mesh of electronics with middle eastern instruments, it has a great, moody exotic quality.
Lalo Schrifin brought an inspired mix of jazz and rock for his distinctive score for “Bullitt”. Staccato guitar lines, snare drums and taught horns do a perfect job of making you feel like you’re on the case in 1960’s era San Francisco with badass detective Steve McQueen. He did an equally great, ominous score for “Dirty Harry”.
Something about vintage analogue synths make me slightly nauseous at times. I can’t specify why, except to wonder if seeing this film didn’t contribute. Wendy Carlos’s soundtrack was both inspired by and adapted from classical music (Beethoven was a driving influence on the score and story). Something about combining such refined music with debauched, disturbing behavior didn’t settle right, and I’m sure that was just what Stanley Kubrick had in mind.
Whereas “Requiem for A Dream” proved oppressive in both theme and score in it’s portrait of addiction , “Trainspotting” goes for dark humor and the soundtrack fits it perfectly, and also is a perfect microcosm of the Britpop era of the mid 90’s. You have songs by the biggest british bands at the time (Blur, Pulp), classic post punk that helped inspire the same groups (Iggy Pop, New Order), great techno by Leftfield &Underworld, plus seminal songs by Brian Eno and Lou Reed.
Like “Trainspotting”, “Velvet Goldmine” also defines a period in british life, but this time it’s the early 70’s Glam Rock movement. You have original songs from the era by T.Rex, cover versions (Placebo, also doing T.Rex with their take on the glam rock staple “20th century boy, plus supergroups comprised of everyone from Radiohead and Suede, to Sonic Youth and The Minutemen doing various songs from the era., Add in some great original songs recorded for the film by artists such as Pulp and Shudder To Think and you have one of the most solid collections of songs ever assembled for a film. In the end it proved almost too good for a film that was bit too all over the place for it’s own good.
So that’s the 1st installment of the TOP 30 best soundtracks of all time. Check out part 2 here.