“Remove [the] score from any scene, and it becomes nearly unrecognizable. Something has instantaneously and fundamentally gone, like the soul of the piece.” JJ Abrams said this about John Williams’ work on Star Wars, but it’s equally applicable to the soundtracks we’ve included here. ‘Silent’ movies were never silent, of course; there would often be a score sent with the reels for a pianist or small ensemble to play along to. If a score wasn’t available, a pianist would improvise to what was shown on screen; from the beginning, there was a symbiotic relationship between image and music.
The soundtrack is often the final piece in the puzzle of filmmaking. The script, the actors, and the design are all in place, and then the cameras roll, often without any input from a composer. The director edits with other pieces of music to indicate the mood, and if you’ve ever had the chance to see a rough cut of a film, you will appreciate what a composer has to compete with. Sometimes, the director keeps a pre-existing piece in because they can’t imagine the scene with other music – in the case of 2001, Stanley Kubrick kept all of his soundtrack choices because he felt the specially written music suffered in comparison.
Suffice it to say, being a composer is often a thankless task unless you have an understanding director who sees the soundtrack as a collaborative work: perhaps the composer will write the key themes beforehand, or in response to the rushes, rather than waiting for an edit. You will notice several examples in our list where directors and composers have worked on multiple projects together: we haven’t always stuck with one example.
Our selection process was as broad as possible – so, for example, a couple of our choices have never been released as actual soundtracks. We didn’t limit our choices to one per composer, either, so there are a few multiple entries – and there’s obviously a lot left out. We could have gone up to a hundred without much trouble, but that might have tested your patience. As always, feel free to let us know who we have missed – but remember it’s a two-part feature, so read both sections before leaping in. We’ve included YouTube clips (and Bandcamp where possible), but please bear in mind that we have no control over their continued presence on the site and any adverts that might crop up.
Before we begin, a couple of honourable mentions for the House of Mouse:
Elton John, Tim Rice, Hans Zimmer ~ The Lion King (Walt Disney Records, 1994). If this existed as just an EP of Hans Zimmer’s cues, it would have been featured. On the official soundtrack album, you get all the songs – sometimes twice – so it didn’t make the cut.
Walt Disney’s Fantasia (Disneyland Records, 1940 / 1957 / 1982 / 1986). As pure cinema – an exercise in animation, and an introduction to classical music, it is hard to top. But as a soundtrack, it’s rather disjointed. Plus, we’d rather hear the full-length works rather than the abridged versions.
So grab some popcorn, find a comfy seat and settle in for our list of the Best Film & TV Soundtracks of All Time!
Angelo Badalamenti ~ Twin Peaks (Warner Bros, 1990)
“She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic.” We’re probably displaying a selective memory, but it feels like there wasn’t anything like Twin Peaks on TV before it arrived in 1990. It set new standards for TV production in cinematography, direction and design (and thus influencing all major shows since). It also allowed the next wave of shows to be eccentric or spooky without alienating the audience – a trope that has run from Northern Exposure to Yellowjackets. The ambience of Twin Peaks was developed with David Lynch giving composer Angelo Badalamenti live direction as he wrote the themes – before any scenes were filmed. They had first collaborated on Blue Velvet, but here the partnership really developed: whatever Lynch needed, from Agent Cooper’s dreams to Audrey Horne’s dance, Badalamenti provided the perfect soundtrack. The presence of Julee Cruise on three tracks on the album only makes it more complete. (Jeremy Bye)
Bebe and Louis Barron ~ Forbidden Planet (1956; soundtrack: Planet Records, 1976)
Sci-fi has always been fertile ground for avant-gardism, and there is perhaps no better example of that particular connection than the Barrons’ Forbidden Planet. Billed as the very first fully electronic soundtrack in Hollywood history, it is distinctively weird, bridging that non-tonal playfulness of experimental music (think Cage or Vàrese, both friends and collaborators of the Barrons) with defined cinematic sequences, resulting in a journey through seemingly alien ways of organizing sound. Through sheer technical expertise and a creative ear, the Barrons innovated tape loops to work on the soundtrack, as well as unique circuit boards that burned out on use and whose sounds are therefore no longer reproducible. Forget everything you know about the relationship between music and moving image: Forbidden Planet will show you how truly new a film can feel. (David Murrieta Flores)
John Barry ~ Walkabout (1971; soundtrack: The Roundtable, 2016)
John Barry is best known as the composer for the James Bond films, but that covers only a fraction of his output, from writing arrangements for jazz big-bands to large-scale concert works – with a sizeable number of soundtracks in between. Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout is probably the best film he ever composed for, though, and it remains somewhat confusing as to how it took over 45 years for the official soundtrack to be released. A shimmering, haunted tone poem of a movie, Walkabout’s screenplay was a mere 14 pages long with a reliance on improvisation from the young actors when it came to scenes and dialogue. Consequently, Barry’s work provides a lot of the unspoken emotional heft, delicately filling in the spaces in a film that is equal parts beautiful and brutal. The whole soundtrack underlines Barry’s versatility as a composer and arranger, although “Back To Nature” is worth the price of admission alone. (Jeremy Bye)
Marco Beltrami ~ A Quiet Place (Milan, 2018)
When composing the score to A Quiet Place, Marco Beltrami faced quite a challenge: the music and sound design would have to carry much of the film. In the movie, the monsters hunt by hearing; as a result, much of the film is quiet. The tension is carried by the contrast between near-silence and sudden sound. This changes in the home listening experience, where silences are restricted to the spaces between tracks. The condensed running time makes the score – pun intended – a different beast. Moments of relative peace are communicated with delicate passages of piano, which turn atonal when danger is near. Lurking drones serve the same purpose as the warning lights around the house: “a rising pulse, like an emergency beacon.” Staccato strings conjure images of running, even without the visuals. The music lets loose during the climactic scenes, in which sound turns from liability to weapon: the composer, the monsters, the protagonists all cutting loose at once. (Richard Allen)
Jon Brion ~ Punch-Drunk Love (Nonesuch / Warners, 2002)
Punch-Drunk Love was, until Uncut Gems, the only Adam Sandler film you could admit to loving. That is, in a 30-plus year career, not a great return. The casting choice was certainly an unexpected move from Paul Thomas Anderson, who had been getting more ambitious in scope in his previous films Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Perhaps the height of his ambition was a smaller-scale movie with a sympathetic Sandler performance. Punch-Drunk Love sounds great, which always helps; there’s a feeling that Jon Brion is channelling older Hollywood scores but using less familiar instruments. The memorable themes are put through a variety of different arrangements varying from a light romantic waltz to more sinister percussive cues. Brion composed the music during filming, so there was a degree of back and forth during its creation, including the pacing of certain scenes. The Brion / Anderson partnership ended with this film, leaving a soundtrack that is simply sumptuous. (Jeremy Bye)
Nicholas Britell ~ Moonlight (Lakeshore Records, 2016)
There are a great many remarkable things about this powerful Oscar Best Picture-winning movie, but the soundtrack is surely one of them. The extraordinarily beautiful themes given to the protagonist, “Little’s Theme”, “Chiron’s Theme” and “Black’s Theme” slowly descend in pitch, mirroring his growth from child to man, and the use of the chopped and screwed technique to transform them is eerily profound. “The Middle Of The World” is so evocative, it is practically guaranteed to induce spine-tingles. Served with a side-helping of 60s R&B from Barbara Lewis and 90s hip hop from Goodie Mob to shake up the pace, this is a very powerful collection of music that contributes enormously to the power of the movie. (Garreth Brooke)
Wendy Carlos ~ Tron (CBS, 1982)
The meeting between cutting-edge technology and traditional means of music-making was something that only someone like Wendy Carlos could pull off. Using an analog Moog and a digital synthesizer of which only ten were made, the artist composed pieces that also integrated a full orchestra, creating an aural environment that demolished temporal barriers. The collision of past, present and future did not imply an avant-garde moment of erasure, but of reconstitution. Film music finally catching up with the times, fulfilling the historical arc of the theremin as an electrification of musical infrastructure, recontextualizing tradition to light it up from the inside. In a classical theme you will find an ambient soundscape, in a synth melody you will find a voice, in a typical turn of piano phrase you will find a synthesized brass display. It is in these moments where Tron casts a long shadow over the 20th century: it is a culmination, a beginning, and and ending all at once. (David Murrieta Flores)
Miles Davis ~ Ascenseur Pour L’Échafaud [Lift To The Scaffold] (Fontana, 1958)
Louis Malle’s debut film is part film noir, part nouvelle vague. It is probably best known for two vital elements which have contributed to its longevity: firstly, it stars Jeanne Moreau in a breakthrough performance. The other is Miles Davis’ score; he saw the film at the start of his European tour and then, three weeks later, went into the studio with his group to record the soundtrack. The quintet improvised to the projected film in one session; look out for the CD edition that includes multiple out-takes to see how the process developed. If Miles’ mournful trumpet didn’t sound cool enough without visuals, it reaches another level when paired with shots of Moreau wandering around late-night Paris. A new cinematic short-hand was created in these images; if you are walking the city streets after dark, it’s difficult not to imagine being accompanied by an understated jazz quintet. (Jeremy Bye)
Marius De Vries ~ CODA (Republic Records, 2022)
This film follows a similar plot to Jenseits der Stille (see Part Two of the list), in that the protagonist is the child of deaf parents who initially struggle to understand her musical interest, although in this case she’s a singer. The film begins with barely any soundtrack but as the protagonist finds her musical feet, the use of musical cues grows. There’s a really fun scene where Emilie Jones’ protagonist joins in a Glee-style singalong of David Bowie’s “Starman” and several wonderful original songs including another tear-jerker of an audition scene when Jones sings the Joni Mitchell song “Both Sides Now” with her gorgeous voice. Both movies serve as wonderful tributes to the power of music. (Garreth Brooke)
Disasterpeace ~ It Follows (Milan, 2015)
The music is propulsive because it has to be. At times imitating a ticking clock, others a brisk walk, Disasterpeace scores the progress of an evil entity that never – stops – coming. Unlike other horror films in which people die after having sex, in “It Follows” the infected can shed the curse by having sex again. But the fear of a malevolent force approaching with unrelenting determination can also be seen as a metaphor for the current age, in which the four horsemen of the apocalypse seem to draw ever nearer. The aural unease is a reflection of post-millennial anxiety and a throwback to the classic horror synth of the 1970s-80s. In the score’s sonic peak, the pounding drum of “Doppel” is followed by a squelch-like drone. Yet the most frightening moments arrive not when the music surges, but when it stops, implying that time has run out. One need not view the film to catch its paranoia; one is still looking over one’s shoulder when the music ends. (Richard Allen)
Simon Fisher Turner ~ The Garden (Mute, 1990)
Derek Jarman worked with many musicians throughout his career, from making music videos for The Smiths and Marianne Faithfull to having Coil and Brian Eno compose soundtracks. We’ve gone for the work of Simon Fisher Turner, who scored four Jarman films, from Caravaggio to Blue; it was a coin-flip between the latter and The Garden as our choice. As the soundtrack of Blue is impossible to separate from the film itself (it consists of solely a blue screen), The Garden gets the nod. Like Mark Jenkin (director of Bait), I also picked the soundtrack up in a bargain bin – perhaps Mute had over-estimated the demand. But their faith in the album was justified; from string quartets, and choirs to solo bass pieces, SFT’s work is nimble and consistently creative. The Garden is a part-dream, part-religious allegory with minimal dialogue but powerful visuals, and the soundtrack includes nearly everything in the film. (Jeremy Bye)
Peter Gabriel ~ Passion [Music for The Last Temptation Of Christ] (Real World, 1989)
Passion epitomizes the idea that a classic film score can stand on its own. By incorporating musicians from around the world, the score served as a propellant for the success of the Real World label and is partially responsible for the popularization of world music in the early 90s. Gabriel also continued to tinker with the music after submitting it to the film, and the LP was originally released as Passion (without the identifying subtitle). The album introduced many listeners to instruments they had never heard of: duduk, tanbur, arghul, kementché. The music was unique to Western ears, otherworldly yet fluid, a distinctive blend of ancient and new. The global threads had always been present in Gabriel’s solo work, but here they came to the fore, as they had for George Harrison a decade earlier. Fittingly, the message of collaboration – different cultures finding common ground – is also the message of the subject. Although no music can ever be sufficient to reflect the divine, Passion comes as close as humanly possible. (Richard Allen)
Geinoh Yamashirogumi ~ Akira (Victor, 1988 / Symphonic Suite: Invitation, 1990)
We didn’t get much preparation for Akira: pretty much the only anime we’d experienced up until then was the heavily cut Battle Of The Planets TV series. Written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo (who wrote the original manga), Akira had a larger budget than many anime, and it showed with every frame looking like an artwork. The music was composed by Yamashiro Shoji and performed by Geinoh Yamashirogumi and reflects the Neo-Tokyo setting of Akira (in the futuristic time of 2019). The soundtrack uses voices and electronic percussion to replicate the more traditional sounds of the gamelan and noh theatre; whatever sounds they use on the “Doll’s Polyphony” remain genuinely creepy. Akira gets ever more epic (or unhinged, depending on your viewpoint) the further it goes, but Yamashiro’s compositions will guide you through the mayhem. The soundtrack was released in 1988, but expanded two years later to become the Symphonic Suite that is more widely available. (Jeremy Bye)
Philip Glass ~ Koyaanisqatsi (Island Records, 1983 / Full version: Orange Mountain Music, 2009)
Philip Glass already had Music In Twelve Parts and Einstein On The Beach on his CV when director Geoffrey Reggio approached him to write the music for a non-narrative film he was making. Glass was resistant to the idea but seeing a rough version cut to some of his earlier work was enough to persuade him. Besides, it’s not every day a composer is asked to write eighty minutes of music for a movie without any dialogue getting in the way. Koyaanisqatsi is a perfect balance of visually striking imagery coupled with a score that immediately grabs the attention without overpowering the visuals. From the deep bass voices that open the film to the rapid arpeggios that accompany scenes of contemporary city life, this acted as a perfect introduction to Glass: it propelled his music out of the concert hall and into the wider public consciousness. (Jeremy Bye)
Jonny Greenwood ~ Phantom Thread (Nonesuch, 2018)
There are no credits at the start of Phantom Thread; I had no idea Jonny Greenwood had written the score until the end. Of course, it was likely, given his previous collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson, but this one drops most of the unnerving, slightly atonal strings that Greenwood usually writes, in favour of lighter, more melodic themes on piano. Those strings are there right at the beginning, just so you know things won’t run smoothly; but then it is a lilting, romantic journey through the House of Woodcock. The music continues with only a few breaks throughout the film’s duration, often hushed but subtly elevating the mood. The soundtrack as released is purely Greenwood’s compositions, and it’s a luscious, lovely hour or so. But the film also includes pieces by Oscar Peterson and several classical composers such as Claude Debussy. It’s all credit to Greenwood that the pre-existing pieces sit side by side seamlessly with his own. (Jeremy Bye)
Jonny Greenwood ~ There Will Be Blood (Nonesuch, 2007)
Many soundtracks deserve to be purchased because of one’s high enjoyment of a film, along with recognition of its music’s contributions; fewer demand to be purchased as you’re watching the film, such is its immediate resonance. There Will Be Blood made such demands of me from the film’s opening shot: the chilling strings that crescendoed over such an innocuous shot, weaving their discordance through a trio of mountain peaks. In perfect conversation with the desolate beauty of the Californian landscape, Greenwood’s score uses minimal instrumentation for consistency and authenticity, of which space is a key component. Laboured exchanges between string sections, glacial crescendi from near silences ~ all creating awe and tension. Eschewing motifs and melodies, the score instead jumps from legato to staccato, from extended drone to rapid percussive interlude. It is focused yet unpredictable, mostly quiet yet full of menace, and ~ like both prospector and the land he works ~ capable of erupting at any moment. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
Hildur Guðnadóttir ~ Chernobyl (Deutsche Grammafon, 2019)
Chernobyl was a bravura piece of TV making. A five-part show that wasn’t going to end well for any of the characters and has no chance of a second season, it must have had the HBO executives crossing their fingers that it would win big at the Emmys – and it did. One of those Emmys was for best music, a relatively rare moment when ACL’s taste overlaps with the major award shows rather than being overlooked for more mainstream fare. Hildur Guðnadóttir recorded the music in the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, where the majority of filming took place, capturing the atmosphere and ambience of the building with help from Chris Watson’s sound recordings. It’s grimy, noisy and oppressive and at times, terrifying – exactly the soundtrack you need for such a subject. The inclusion of a piece by the Homin Lviv Municipal Choir acts as a release from the industrial sounds but now has a resonance beyond the TV show. (Jeremy Bye)
Joe Hisaishi ~ Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind (Animage, 1984)
Although this isn’t technically a Studio Ghibli film, it marks the first time Joe Hisaishi worked with director Hayao Miyazaki, and it has all the hallmarks of the wonderful music that he continues to produce for their collaboration: the sweeping themes, the supremely skilful orchestration, the beautiful piano melodies above jazzy chords, references to other composers (e.g. a lovely nod to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in “The Polluted Sea”), plus that wonderful bit of synth at the opening. There are moments of genuine darkness, which only make the triumphant moments even more beautiful. This is essential Hisaishi. (Garreth Brooke)
Joe Hisaishi ~ Spirited Away (Studio Ghibli / Milan, 2001)
Hisaishi strides hand in hand with Hayao Miyazaki as having defined the unique character of Studio Ghibli for almost four decades. We could have picked a handful of works from his outstanding oeuvre, but his most famous remains my personal favourite ~ the composer having fully embraced his evocative orchestral mode of composition while still retaining some of the more textual electronics from his earlier works. Spirited Away’s most known and memorable piece “One Summer Day” acts as an emotional overture for the film, from lonely to jaunty via melancholy, and leaves a wistful cloud that drifts across the rest of the score. Yet, there is also such vibrancy and joy on offer, from rambunctious Russian crescendi of brass and percussion to strident, English pomp and many other styles in between. Like his stage name, Hisaishi fuses East with West, juxtaposing Western classical influences with Japanese folk sensibilities as well as using motifs to cleave to emotions and moments moreso than characters ~ the first crossing into the bathhouse, the panic of Yubasa, the journey towards Chihiro’s final confrontation, and so on. This creates a very strong stand-alone listening experience as the work feels more through-composed but still self-referential. And as we return to the opening theme right at the close, the wistfulness that had lingered distantly is now matured into full nostalgia ~ for an adventure we never had. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
Eiko Ishibashi ~ Drive My Car (Newhere Music / Space Shower Music, 2021)
As recent as this soundtrack is at the time of writing, it’s possible to include it in a list such as this for its capacity to reflect an entire set of sensibilities that slowly draw the 2010s to a close. It ties together sounds and memory in short sequences of almost minimalist interactions between conventional and unconventional musical forms, pleasing and interesting, straightforward and elaborate. It follows a cyclical, repetitive structure that nonetheless feels narratively progressive. And it presents listeners with a cinematic relationship in which pieces move along towards variously defined emotional places and yet often also feel like soundscapes, like vague and great sentimental states. Either/or becomes both/and; Ishibashi’s music condenses that grand gesture of openness into an album that, like everyone who’s lived through the past decade, tries again and again to make something out of remembering better and worse times, failing every attempt. We only get to move on. (David Murrieta Flores)
Chu Ishikawa ~ Tetsuo (1989; soundtrack: Adisc, 1992)
If there exists a “total industrial work of art”, it’s Tetsuo. Throbbing Gristle had made a soundtrack in the early 80s, but it was more of an ambient affair; tied to Shinya Tsukamoto’s manic style, Ishikawa’s work screeches and pounds listeners’ ears like a pneumatic hammer drill. It uses all the resources of late 80s industrial music, including its various ways of integrating rock, in order to produce a relentless series of pieces that are, nonetheless, unafraid to swerve into meditative sections. But make no mistake — its tranquil moments are still a mechanistic ground for terror, where the clock admits no defeat, oppressing life’s rhythms with military precision. Noisy, ugly and electrifying, Tetsuo feels like the culmination of a style for which inner experience is a technological wasteland, where dreams are nothing but fetishes of steel and copper wires. (David Murrieta Flores)
Jóhann Jóhannsson ~ and in the endless pause there came the sound of bees [Music for the Film Varmints] (NTOV / Type / 12 Tónar, 2009)
Jóhann Jóhannsson composed over a dozen film scores in his all-too-brief career; two of his first are listed here. Many of these, such as this score for the animated movie “Varmints,” never poked into the mainstream. and in the endless pause there came the sound of bees (capitalized in later editions) was first only available at North American tour dates, which is where I had the privilege of meeting the composer. One always hopes that an artist is as gracious in person as their music is glorious, and fortunately this was the case here; Jóhannsson was kind, humble, even self-effacing, obviously in love with music and connected to his muse. and in the endless pause there came the sound of bees is an unusual score in that it is nearly twice the length of the film; “Varmints” packs a punch in only 24 minutes. A parable of an industrial-led environmental demise, it lies in the same field as better-known productions such as “The Lorax” and “Wall-E,”highlighting the worth a single plant. Jóhannsson matches the striking visuals with an equally evocative score, making great use of the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir. Moments of rapt beauty are offset by segments of foreboding, akin to the dark cloud that breaks the reverie of the formerly-innocent protagonist. The score wrings feeling from every note, yielding a dispiriting feeling. Is this the chaos we face? Are we already in a time of elegy? (Richard Allen)
Jóhann Jóhannsson ~ The Miners’ Hymns (130701 / 12 Tónar, 2011)
The 2011 documentary “The Miners’ Hymns” is a literal deep dive into the mining industry of the Durham coalfield. The film concentrates on industry hardships while gracing the miners with dignity and grace. Miners labo and die. They organize, insist on better safety procedures and eventually battle with Thatcher’s police. Soon the industry lies dormant, although one can draw parallels to modern work environments. Jóhannsson’s score is brass-dominant, emphasizing trial and triumph, akin at times to warfare. The early parts are almost unbearable somber, like the depths of the earth, exiled from natural light. There’s no coincidence that these are called hymns. Yet at the same time, the film and album honor the local tradition of colliery brass bands, who marched through the streets in festive galas, offering the release of pent-up emotion. The distance between these timbres illustrates the progress made, and determines the arc of the score. In the end, “The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World.” (Richard Allen)
Yoko Kanno ~ Terror In Resonance (Aniplex, 2014)
Kanno’s long trajectory of adventurous forays into many a musical style culminates with Terror in Resonance, a positively chaotic and daring reimagination of Icelandic post-rock and nu-chamber music. In the same way she creatively adapted hard bop and the blues for Cowboy Bebop, the artist bends the slow development and instrumental dynamism of the above-mentioned genres towards cinematic thrill; after all, they are characterized already by a dramatic, yet sweet flair, and the composer flexes her skills by tying it all back to the progressive rock in which they find their long, historical roots. Complex structures are whittled down and reconstructed within the same track, conventional anime J-pop songs are filtered through a post-rock lens, typically classical anime bombast is reformulated as minimal piano and chamber pieces… Every track moves in different directions, and yet seems to come back to the same quietly dense core, making the experience utterly heterogeneous, exciting, and powerful, like listening to a master of their craft laying out compositions for us in real-time. (David Murrieta Flores)
Eleni Karaindro ~ Music For Films (ECM, 1991)
A regular collaborator of filmmaker Theo Angelopolous, Karaindrou built a musical universe for which contemplation is the key word. Using jazz and classical players across her works, she developed an interplay between performing styles, granting her compositions a profoundly expressive character that is nonetheless formally strict. This is music that is meant to collapse outer and inner landscapes, to make subtle jumps between the objectivity of what is being seen and heard and the subjectivity of what is being felt. Greek motifs – for obvious reasons – recur across the album, a compilation of works from three films, a minimal recurrence that successfully integrates classical cinematic composition with traditional forms of drama. While these are Greek visions of the world (an entire imaginary captured in the contemplative, often melancholic, often slow-burning pieces), it is easy to get lost in the sad, tender blurring of the lines between self and landscape, wherever you’re from. (David Murrieta Flores)