9 Outstanding Movie Soundtracks

It's hard to say whether my interest in music and audio started with my first experiences with multichannel sound in the movie theater or whether my interest in movies in theaters, and later in home theater, started with my interest in music. But the fact remains that the film score, mainly of the orchestral variety but sometimes of other sorts (looking at you, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol.1 and Vol.2), remains one of my favorite forms of music.

Film music doesn't have an enviable reputation among classical music connoisseurs. But I see no reason to disparage it because it was written for a more popular type of entertainment. I love both forms, but would guess that more listeners are exposed to orchestral music on film in a single year than attend classical concerts in a decade. If only 0.01% of them are driven to a love of orchestral music by seeing films, that's a win-win for both genres.

Many film lovers either let a film score simply wash over them and enhance the emotions of the experience, or complain that it's too distracting. But I rarely find film music intrusive unless it's truly awful. Whether the music is compelling or simply annoying, I can't ignore it. Music has long been a part of the film experience, even in the silent-film era where the picture was accompanied by a live piano, organ, or even by (in the best first run theaters in big cities) a full symphony orchestra.

Filmmakers learned early on that music, even with dialogue, could greatly enhance the movie experience. In fact, films might even be viewed as a natural evolution of opera in a more approachable form, with dialogue instead of singing (unless it's a musical). If Wagner or Puccini were alive today, might they be writing for films rather than the opera stage? A good film score enhances the film experience rather than detracting from it. Just view a dialogue free, emotional or exciting film scene and turn off the sound. Still find it interesting?

Recent film composers, such as John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, Danny Elfman, Howard Shore, Ennio Morricone and too many others to name, have built on the work of those who worked in earlier eras such as Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Wolfgang Korngold, Alfred Newman, Bernard Hermann, and others. They've enriched hundreds of films. A great score can't save a bad film, but it can turn an average film into a good one and a good film into a great one. Some of these composers have never won an Oscar for their work, which might well be from voters who award the music trophy to films they prefer for other reasons, reasons having nothing to do with its music.

Some film composers started directly in film work, others in either first composing for the traditional symphonic orchestra (Korngold) or even for rock (Zimmer and Elfman). Many have often freely adapted classical works available in the public domain. Referencing older classics for film scores is a tradition that goes back decades; the miracle is that the adaptations often turn out to be unique, and if not better than the original as least as interesting. For an excellent documentary on the creation of film music, check out the documentary Score, available on Blu-ray.

It's often disappointed me that film scores don't always fare as well sonically on CD as they do in the film itself. Perhaps the multichannel original is poorly mixed down to 2 channels. Or perhaps they can survive a less than pristine recording in the film and still be effective. Sometimes, however, the music-only recording does work better because it's not quashed by the dialogue, as it often is in a film.

But there are superbly recorded examples of recent soundtracks in my CD collection. To name just a few: *Glory, *Sneakers, *Casper, *Peter Pan (live action) , *Titanic, Casanova, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. If there's a weakness to film scores on CD, it's that they sometimes include tracks shorter than two minutes, barely enough to get one's juices flowing. But of those listed, the scores composed by James Horner (*) often have longer cuts.

It's also notable that the late James Horner's scores shown above and below were all recorded by engineer Shawn Murphy, who did his best work at the old Todd AO scoring stage in Los Angeles (tragically, it was closed in 2007). It's no coincidence that Murphy and Horner are linked here, most of Horner's best sounding scores were recorded by Murphy at the Todd AO stage.

Murphy is still active, with 407 film credits as the recording engineer and/or scoring mixer. I remain bewildered as to why he was never tapped to do any conventional classical recordings. I can think of no one who better captures the sound of a full symphony orchestra, with minimal use of multi-miking. Rumor has it that at one time he even monitored sessions with his own Wilson Watt-Puppies rather than using the studio's resident pro monitors.

Here are a few more of the Blu-rays in my collection, in addition to those above, with exceptional scores to complement exceptional soundtracks. I make no claim that these fairly recent films are all necessarily timeless classics. Many older scores (too many to mention) could be included on any such list, but they're often of dicey sound quality, with peaky treble and little low bass.

The Lord of the Rings... Howard Shore's score for Peter Jackson's three film masterpiece is easily a candidate for the best film score ever written, both in itself and in its priceless contribution to the story's emotional wallop.

Apollo 13... Heard on a good system, I dare you not to be overwhelmed by the launch scene accompanied by James Horner's stirring score.

Braveheart... Poor history, but perhaps history as we'd like to remember it rather than as it actually was. Irresistible. James Horner.

Oblivion... The only entry here that makes heavy use of electronic music (by M83), but it's both listenable in its own way and dramatically enhances the film.

The Greatest Showman... Again, bad history, but a strong, musical, crowd-pleaser. John Debney, Joseph Trapaneze.

How to Train Your Dragon... Who says animation is for kids, particularly with music as gorgeously appropriate as this? John Powell.

The Dark Knight... Possibly the most evocative (though not exactly hummable) of Hans Zimmer's scores. Surprisingly sparse much of the time, but crucial where it matters.

Jurassic Park... Has it been 26 years since this classic came out, substantially elevated then as now by John Williams' iconic score? A bit bright-sounding even for a 1993 film, but after five minutes you don't mind.

Baraka...A documentary with a wide range of interesting and superbly recorded music, on a rare (for Blu-ray) 24-bit/96kHz soundtrack.

mwelters's picture

The Oblivion score really helped give that movie its identity.

A.R. Rahman's score to Warriors of Heaven and Earth is outstanding (before he did Slumdog Millionaire). Makes the movie way better than it otherwise seems. I rarely buy movie soundtracks (more often key themes only), but I immediately bought that one (pre-streaming). And I love Trevor Jones' (with some from Randy Edelman) score for Last of the Mohicans.

Music enhances so many movies. Certain musical events in Casablanca help make it what it is.

That music documentary you mention is streaming on Amazon Prime.

utopianemo's picture

Another great thing about Oblivion is that you can watch the Blu-Ray and set it to only play the soundtrack. The movie plays through without dialogue and sound effects, so you can hear the music play in its natural context unencumbered.

KINGTED's picture

I missed that, I will have to go back to the disc. Thanks!

utopianemo's picture

Mr. Norton, a very important topic; I'm glad you covered it.

The Dark Knight's score has never been on my "best of" list, in spite of it being constantly used as AV store demo material(or perhaps because of it?). My favorite work of Zimmer's, by far, is Interstellar. It has all the normal Zimmeresque elements that he uses to evoke tension and excitement, but also a lot of quiet, nuanced passages that really take their time to breathe and seep into the consciousness. But my favorite element of the score is the massive pipe organ he used liberally throughout the film. On a decent enough system, ideally one with large subwoofer(s) and Dolby Surround upmixing, you're treated to an awesome sense of scale and grandeur that goes beyond what an orchestra can accomplish.

I grew up in Portland, which had a fantastic pizza restaurant called the Organ Grinder. It housed a massive, three-story theater pipe organ, on which showtunes and classic ballads were played nightly. Words cannot describe the experience of listening to the organists play Sprach Zarathustra, literally pulling out all the stops, and having the entire building vibrate under the massive power. Those experiences fueled my love of home theater. Capturing some small aspect of that sensation was what drove me to build my own dual 18" subs.

On a slightly different note, you should check out "The Score". It's a local classical radio show that also happens to air nationwide. The host, Edmund Stone, specifically plays selections of movie soundtracks, usually selected around a given theme, and periodically interviews the composers themselves. https://www.thescore.org/

utopianemo's picture

My personal favorite composers are probably Thomas Newman and Johann Johannsson, although there are really so many other fantastically talented composers out there. Both Newman and Johannsson excel at creating evocative textures. They both use a lot of unconventional methods, but I feel that their "think outside the box" mentalities enable them to hit emotional notes that more traditional composers can't touch.

Newman is a master of sussing complex emotions out of understated passages, as he does so well in Unstrung Heroes and Wall-E. Johannsson uses strange textures and unconventional chords to create a sense of alienation or dread, like in Arrival and Sicario. His unexpected death was a great loss to the film industry.

David Vaughn's picture
Great article and topic Tom! John Williams has always been my favorite composer, but I've really enjoyed Giacchino's work, especially the soundtrack from "Lost" and the "Star Trek" reboots.
snorene's picture

I concur, Lost and new Strek Trek - especially the first - are great soundtracks.

Olaf the Snowman's picture

One more ...... James Bond films soundtracks ......... Several famous artists sang the title songs in those films :-) .......

Olaf the Snowman's picture

How can we forget the theme tracks of James Bond, Psycho, Jaws etc? :-) ........

Biffstar's picture

Quite possibly the greatest film soundtrack of all time, as far as I'm concerned. Yo-yo Ma on the cello is something else.

Gladiator's soundtrack is up there too.

Olaf the Snowman's picture

Few other famous Hans Zimmer composed soundtracks include Pirates of the Caribbean, Davinci Code, Angels & Demons :-) ........

snorene's picture

1. James Horner's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

2.Gladiator - The Lyndhurst Orchestra, Gavin Greenaway, Hans Zimmer, Lisa Gerrard are both excellent on Tidal.

3. The Master and Commander soundtrack on iTunes is also an excellent soundtrack.

Olaf the Snowman's picture

Few more ....... Fifty Shades of Grey, 3 movie soundtracks ....... Endless Love ........ The Fault in our Stars ...... Grease ...... The Great Gatsby ...... Moulin Rouge ...... Lion King ....... Guardians of the Galaxy Mix tape vol. 1 & 2 ........ Hunger Games ....... Twilight Saga movies ....... Top Gun ....... Pink Panther ...... :-) .....

jnemesh's picture

Hard to believe that you neglect to include "Tron Legacy" from Daft Punk! That is an INCREDIBLE soundtrack, and certainly worthy of inclusion for both the music itself and the recording quality! Also, I would HIGHLY recommend the music of Joe Hisaishi. He is the composer for Studio Ghibli's classics. I recently bought an imported blu-ray of his concert in Budokan, and it is simply amazing, with over 1100 performers between the (multiple) choirs and the symphony! (do a search for Joe Hisaishi Live in Budokan, and you will find the disc...be aware, it's COMPLETELY in Japanese, including the menus, and no subtitles! No worries about region compatibility, though, Japan is in the same region as the US)

KINGTED's picture

Pretty much the only orchestral music I listen to is from movie scores. Additionally, I really like the electronic scores or orchestral-electronic-hybird ones like previously mentioned Daft Punk's Tron and M83's Oblivion. I really like the works of:

Clint Mansell - Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, Black Swan...
Tom Holkenborg- Mad Max: Fury Road, 300: Rise of an Empire...
Max Richter - Never Look Away, Ad Astra (currently on repeat)...
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network, Gone Girl, Mid90s...
Bear McCreary - Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, Outlander...
Tchaikovsky - The Nutcracker (a score before movies)

All of these are movies or series that I really like and I wonder if these composers are drawn to similar works or if their compositions make them that much better, likely both.

Reznor and Ross are also know as Nine Inch Nails, one of my all time favorite bands and Holkenborg was formerly known as Junkie XL one of my favorite electronic artists his first album, Saturday Teenage Kick, is my favorite album of all time.