Welcome back to Part Deux of our list of the Best Film & TV Soundtracks of All Time! We hope you liked the first half; it’s worth a look over there to start if this is your first visit.
One element of this feature is the broad range of Films and TV that have inspired the soundtracks on this list: from documentaries to drama, from romance to robots. We’ve covered the decades, from the 1930s to just a year ago; you may have seen some of these, but there may be several you are unfamiliar with. It’s certainly increased our ‘to watch’ lists, yet one thing we have noticed is that very few great soundtracks are attached to poor films. Either the music lifts the overall quality of the cinematic experience, or we forget the whole thing. Possibly, the composer is so underwhelmed by the film they have been asked to write for and holds back the best material for another project.
It is possible to love the music without having seen the film at all, of course. There’s more music than films available to stream, and fewer services to sign up to, so your hunt should be easier for the audio side. Streaming services for TV and film carry a lot of content, but it’s expensive to keep up multiple subscriptions for any length of time; inevitably, the movie you are looking for was removed last week. Hopefully, we have given you enough choices that you have plenty to hunt down.
Before we begin, two more honourable mentions. These are compilations that fell by the wayside in our round-up.
John Carpenter ~ Anthology: Movie Themes 1974 – 1998 (Sacred Bones, 2018). There was some debate about whether or not there is a single stand-out Carpenter soundtrack; in the end, we decided there wasn’t one to merit inclusion. But he has a phenomenal strike rate with memorable themes. Helpfully he made fresh recordings of the ‘hits’ for his Anthology, which followed two volumes of Lost Themes. All are worth seeking out.
Ennio Morricone ~ Crime And Dissonance (Ipecac, 2005). Compiled by Alan Bishop, with liner notes by John Zorn, this compilation delves into the less familiar, more experimental side of Morricone. A contrast to the work we’ve praised below, this is the maestro moving out of the mainstream and heading for the ditch.
Now read on for the second part of our Best Film & TV Soundtracks of All Time!
Kenji Kawai ~ Ghost In The Shell (RCA, 1995)
Kawai’s Ghost in the Shell is wonderfully bold and unique ~ dominated by organic sounds against one of the most seminal science-fiction backdrops; either full of melody or entirely bereft; sedate like the film yet utterly captivating; and ultimately to these ears so intrinsically Japanese yet owing great debt to Bulgaria. Its bulk sways between ambient minimalism and new-age, as funereal percussion from plangent drums through mallet-based ostinatos to shimmering chimes charts the journey of the augmented human Matoko Kusanagi, interrupted by short, plucked guitar passages cascading through the spaces. Occasional string or vocal sections provide emotional warmth to briefly thaw the glacial rhythms, but this is predominantly a cleansing meditation for the existential questions in the original text. At either end, a melodic motif is delivered by a choir singing classical Japanese in a melody inspired by Bulgarian folk music. Underpinned by a stately percussive beat, the harmonies and vibrato imbue the chanting with beauty and eerieness equally ~ so exquisitely precise and pure as to sound almost non-human. Then a single dominating voice surges up, heartfelt and pleading, and the skin crawls in response to this most primordial expression of the soul. (Just remember to press stop before the bonus pop track starts.) (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
Mica Levi ~ Jackie (Milan, 2016)
Levi took the film score world by storm with Under the Skin, but Jackie showed us how deep her talent is. The tranquil mourning of a person-become-image, a haze of sweet melancholy becoming the very substance of the world, which hinges entirely on the prospect of renunciation, condensed in barely 40 minutes. Its characteristic glissandos depict staying as letting go, being present as the self is emptied; the swaying rhythms of the orchestra guide us through a fog of illusions, of an entire life dematerializing before our eyes. The fog is brimming with beauty, a warm embrace that promises not death but something like life, every melody a vast sadness hidden in the crevices of a simple smile. The camera is, after all, always watching. (David Murrieta Flores)
Zeltia Montes ~ Vilamor [Lovetown] (Quartet, 2012)
Vilamor is sentimental, pretty, and warm. Its melodies are terse and sweet, its pace measured, its approach classical in style. But it is also fierce, its sweetness gripped by an expressive vein of folk music. As the score for a film about a town in post-fascism Galicia, Spain, it presents us with the hopeful struggle of being reborn, of starting anew after a long period of terror. Using instruments native to the region, Montes’ composition leads us through motifs that are variously reinterpreted throughout the album, becoming different every time, drawing a path through cycles in which the life of the region slowly finds itself once again. Listen closely: what may sound conventional, even clichéd, is in reality a sign of vitality returned, of a life in common finally restored. (David Murrieta Flores)
Ennio Morricone ~ The Mission (Virgin, 1986)
Ennio Morricone may be known for his westerns (see below), but one of his finest film scores dramatizes religious struggle in South America. At first, the struggle is between tribe and Jesuit missionary, which shifts to priest against priest and warrior against soldier as the colonialists decide to decimate the settlement. One priest chooses the power of the cross, the other the power of the gun. The choirs are a perennial presence, tugging the thoughts skyward and providing the film with a moral compass. The 13-note main theme is so heartbreaking that it retained its power even when placed in multiple 12″ trance records in the 90s. Morricone captures the hubris, the pathos and the nobility in a score that wrings every ounce of feeling from the orchestra, as if each individual player were infused with empathy. At the end, listener and viewer alike are worn out, yet inspired, highlighting the awful power of martyrdom. (Richard Allen)
Ennio Morricone ~ Once Upon A Time In The West (RCA, 1969)
There are several instances of a continuing director/composer collaboration over multiple movies on this list, but few are as close as the bond between Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone. They were classmates together – and when Leone was making A Fistful Of Dollars, he asked Morricone to provide the innovative score. For Once Upon A Time In The West, Morricone wrote the score before filming, and it was played back on set to help the actors get into the rhythm and mood of the characters. When you see Jason Robards walking as Cheyenne, he’s emulating the music and not vice versa, as is usually the case. Morricone composed over 400 soundtracks, but it is arguably the six scores for Leone that contain his most innovative and memorable work. Wherever you listen, there’s dust on your boots, sweat on your brow and a man trying to gun you down. (Jeremy Bye)
Michael Nyman ~ Drowning By Numbers (Virgin Venture, 1988)
The run of movies directed by Peter Greenaway in the 1980s and 90s are not to everybody’s taste. If you like one of them, you should find the rest equally engaging and watchable. It’s probably best to start with The Draughtman’s Contract, but in terms of just the soundtrack we’re going with Drowning By Numbers – which could be subtitled ‘Variations on a Theme by Mozart’. Greenaway asked Michael Nyman to write the music based on the slow movement of the Sinfonia Concertante in E flat; previously, he’d based his soundtracks on works by Purcell and Biber. As befits a film that is full of puzzles, conspiracies, water, games and death, Nyman’s work travels from the jaunty to the mournful. By utilising just a few bars as a building block, there is a clear thematic connection between each piece. Greenaway’s work would become increasingly formal and studio-based; Nyman would find a broader audience a few years later with The Piano soundtrack. But this is the finest example of their work together. (Jeremy Bye)
Karen O And The Kids & Carter Burwell ~ Where The Wild Things Are (Interscope, 2009 / DGC, 2009)
The score of Where the Wild Things Are appears in two separate forms: Carter Burwell’s instrumental music, with sparse vocals, and Karen O and the Kids’ vocal score, with a few instrumentals. Together they form a magical tapestry, a fairyland of sound. The latter is more ebullient (after all, there are kids on it!), but the instrumental score yields moments of carefree exuberance as well. This is what many hoped Where the Wild Things Are would sound like, and these albums evoke fond memories of a book that is in turns lonesome, enchanting and wild. Not so the film, which despite its ambitious visuals was criticized as being too depressing and mature. The high moments include Burwell’s “Dirt Clod Fight” and Karen O and the Kids’ “Rumpus,” which correspond to the sequences in which the film recalls what it is like to be a child. We applaud the composers for succeeding where the producers did not. (Richard Allen)
Popol Vuh ~ Aguirre, Wrath Of God (1972; soundtrack: PDU, 1975)
Although he’s better known nowadays for his documentaries and that voice, Werner Herzog has a rich catalogue of movies to (re-)discover. Top of the list should be Aguirre, Wrath Of God – and see it in a cinema if you can because the opening shot is one of the most breath-taking shots imaginable. Setting out to tell the tale of conquistadors looking for El Dorado, and the subsequent descent in the madness that occurs, Herzog took a group of actors and a small crew and had them journey across mountains, through the jungle and on rivers – no green screen, no stunt team and no health and safety supervision. The visuals are matched by Popul Vuh’s beautiful score, which essentially has two themes: the choral sounds of a mellotron for the more epic moments and an understated steel guitar for the more reflective passages. It’s an object lesson in restraint and is the perfect embellishment for some bold film-making. (Jeremy Bye)
Sergei Rachmaninoff ~ Brief Encounter (1945)
One of the greatest films of all time, this romantic drama uses Rachmaninoff’s turbulent Second Piano Concerto as a recurring theme throughout the movie. The female protagonist Laura is in a dull but affectionate marriage, and the concerto first appears in the background as her husband listens to a recording on vinyl: one senses he is aware of its beauty but unable to be moved by it, a metaphor for their marriage. By contrast, when Laura meets Alec at the local train station, they fall passionately in love, but over the course of the film they realise they must sacrifice their love for their duty to their families. Rachmaninoff was not involved in the movie, it was written decades previously and he died a couple of years before the movie was released, but screenwriter Noël Coward insisted on its use. Rightly so: the music is so filled with emotion, so breathtakingly sad and so beautiful, it provides the perfect soundtrack. (Garreth Brooke)
Niki Reiser ~ Jenseits der Stille [Beyond Silence] (Buena Vista International / Virgin, 1996)
This film is one of two in this list where music plays a particularly important role for the young protagonist (the other is Coda; see Part One). Lara is the young daughter of two parents who cannot hear. When her clarinettist aunt buys her a clarinet one Christmas, Lara falls in love with it, but it is a passion that her parents cannot understand. When her mother dies and Lara leaves home to live with her aunt in Berlin her father feels abandoned. There’s a scene later on in the movie where her father watches her play in an audition which is a real tear-jerker. The soundtrack naturally features the gorgeous tones of the clarinet very prominently and works well as a complete album. (Garreth Brooke)
Silvestre Revueltas ~ Redes (1936)
Redes is a score for a film by photographer Paul Strand about the conditions of fishing workers in the port of Veracruz and their struggles for equality. Although La noche de los mayas (1939) would become the better-known film piece by Revueltas, Redes is less extreme about its “Mexicanness”. It develops as a symphonic suite in which the challenges of workers have transcendental implications: the modernist, dissonant sea waves of strings (distant cousins of the Jaws theme) and the dawning brass calls of difficult days are corresponded by individualized melodies that slowly build up into a collective, harmonic force. The tragic dimension of their fight takes up an impressionistic quality, their union a strongly defined folk arrangement that, even at its most chaotic, overcomes its own fractures in the path to victory. Redes is one of those works that open up the history of soundtracks beyond the global north, demanding us to listen further: somewhere, far away, a folk arrangement beckons. (David Murrieta Flores)
Alfred Schnittke ~ Agony [aka Rasputin] (1981)
There is, perhaps, no better place to look for Schnittke’s synthetic style than his film music. The Agony suite adapts two dances that were once peasant traditions but were slowly appropriated by the upper classes until they became signs of “high culture”: a waltz and a tango. The film’s protagonist, Rasputin, charts a parallel, uncanny course as a peasant mystic that lands in the highest positions of power. Musically, the two sections of the suite are embedded in an expressionist theme whose main melody fascinates — it is vertiginous, difficult to turn away from, and it highlights the negative aspects of both waltz and tango. As a result, the waltz veers on excess, a festiveness that borders on ridicule, while the tango becomes dense and sad. It is a structure that pushes its own elements to an unstable, emotional extreme, ending with an unresolved brass blast. After all, the structure itself is rotten to the core. (David Murrieta Flores)
Howard Shore ~ The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy (Reprise Records, 2001 – 2003)
The multiple-Oscar-winning score to Tolkien’s epic is a triumph of both scale and intimacy. The nine hours of music available in ‘the complete recordings’ cover vast swathes of the globe, as Shore used diverse instrumentation and scales to give voice to the many races and cultures of Middle Earth ~ Norwegian instrumentation in the Rohan theme, an Arabic scale in Elvish themes to denote sheer depth of history, and so on. The somewhat hackneyed nature of several such origin stories ~ the Celtic-infused Shire motif most overtly so ~ is counterbalanced with the almost academic detail of the work, from the use of a libretto incorporating Old English and Tolkien’s invented languages, to the Fellowship theme formed of nine notes (for nine companions). Shore stitched a tapestry of formidable leitmotifs that interweave and evolve with the characters’ emotional progression, over which strong use of choral accompaniment heightens drama, emotional resonance and, ultimately, the sense of Middle Earth’s antiquity. The adjective ‘cinematic’ is another cliche, and in this case less precise than ‘operatic’. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
Dmitri Shostakovich ~ The Gadfly [Ovod] (1955; soundtrack: Līgo/Aprelevskii Zavod, 1961)
Sure enough, the famed composer might have better pieces than this soundtrack composed over barely 30 days. But this is the heroic film music of its day, with Wagnerian leitmotifs appearing across the entire work, representing the clash between freedom and oppression, ideals of liberty and sacrifice, all of it rooted in the movie’s setting of early 19th century revolutionary Italy. The album is packed with memorable themes that make allusions to historical Italian and Austrian composing styles, moulding them to the necessities of mid-20th-century cinematography, leading listeners through an exciting, eclectic, and dramatic work of art. It is a powerful precedent of later OSTs for action and fantasy films, which seek to move and thrill moviegoers everywhere. (David Murrieta Flores)
Valgeir Sigurðsson ~ Draumalandið (Bedroom Community, 2009)
At first, everything seems fine on the surface, as the album begins with a soothing lullaby called “Grýlukvæði.” Upon further investigation, the Icelandic folk song is about an old woman who eats selfish children; Sigurðsson’s score reframes it as an overture addressed to those who are selling Iceland’s environmental future for short-term gain. In like fashion, one may watch scenes from the film and be overwhelmed by the beauty of the nation’s vast landscapes, until one digs deeper and discovers the rapacious appetites of industry. The music is dramatic, symphonic and occasionally abrasive, a reminder that everything is not okay. The entire label roster contributes to the score, a collaborative effort signifying the need for a unified effort to effect change. Separated from the film, the music may be even more powerful, as long as one remembers, it’s more than just the music. (Richard Allen)
Tamar-kali ~ Mudbound (Milan, 2017)
The debut longform soundtrack by punk and classical musician Tamar-kali is a contemplative-yet-intense exercise in the romantic quality that tends to characterize the music of historical films. However, what makes Mudbound stand out is its proximity to the movements toward renovation that have emerged from chamber ensembles and composers of the past couple of decades: an adventurous reformulation of romantic melodies through maximalist means, an unassuming adoption of droning dissonances, an integration of effects from minimalism and, of course, OSTs into the fabric of compositions. In other words, there is a renewed concern for emotion, keeping sentimentalism at a distance in order to focus on the inner turmoil at the background of cinematography; the chamber music on display here is much closer to Rachel’s than John Williams in that regard, drawing out the tight, lean, power of the categories of the simple, quiet, and subtle. And it works wonderfully. (David Murrieta Flores)
Tan Dun ~ Hero (Sony Classical, 2002)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was Tan Dun’s moment of film music brightness, a perfectly beautiful album of graceful drama. Hero, which came barely two years later, was his moment of darkness. It is the more adventurous soundtrack, with a wider selection of folk Chinese instruments and a sharper tendency to lean on classical Chinese motifs. The sweetly melodic core of Crouching Tiger is transformed in Hero not directly in renewed melodic composition, but by indirectly disrupting how it is perceived through a renovated context in which percussion, voice, and sweeping moments of contrast prevail. Like the film’s highly personalized duels, the music interestingly pits its elements against each other in a way that does not privilege conflict, but harmony; the adversarial relation between them reveals their tense-yet-complementary character. In other words, Tan Dun showed the world what martial arts music should be like, and his work hasn’t been surpassed since. (David Murrieta Flores)
Yann Tiersen ~ Amelie [Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain] (Labels / Virgin, 2001)
A soundtrack that spawned a thousand imitations, if you’re a pianist this is practically unavoidable but really, it’s so good, why would you want to avoid it? Whimsical, full of energy, occasionally beautiful and at times pretty damn weird, Yann Tiersen’s music seems to fit so perfectly to Amélie’s adventures through a colour-drenched Paris that it’s hard to believe that they weren’t composed with the film in mind, but in fact the soundtrack is a mix of new pieces and selections from the musician’s first three albums and director Jean-Pierre Jeanet initially envisioned Michael Nyman as the film’s composer. Among the many highlights, “Comptine d’un autre été: L’Après-Midi” is supremely melancholy, “La Noyée” is delightfully hectic, and “La Dispute” is decidedly sinister. (Garreth Brooke)
Vangelis ~ Blade Runner (1982; soundtrack: EastWest / Atlantic, 1994)
Today, this is what many people believe science fiction sounds like, but 40 years ago, Vangelis’ score sounded incredibly futuristic. Ambient synth meets dialogue sample in a score that works like a radio play. Large swaths of sound are balanced by delicate arpeggios. In the film, the line between human and replicant is paper-thin; in the score, a similar line exists between the organic and the synthetic. Tracks such as “Rachel’s Song” and “Tears in Rain” have been salvaged, quoted and reintegrated into other pieces in subsequent years, like metal found on scrapheaps. As such, the score continues to influence listeners as a whole and in parts; due to appropriation, some may not even know they are listening to Vangelis. As for the movie, which relies more on philosophy than on action until the finale, mood is key, and the marriage of mesmerizing visuals and pitch-perfect music helped to elevate it to classic status. (Richard Allen)
Various ~ 2001: A Space Odyssey (MGM, 1968)
The soundtrack composer is usually one of the final pieces of the film-making jigsaw. Directors often assemble a rough edit to previously existing music as a starting point, and then the composer will take over. This isn’t always a smooth process; for example, Alex North was commissioned to write the score for 2001, but Stanley Kubrick rejected his work in favour of existing classical works. Kubrick’s argument was that he already had the perfect soundtrack for his film, so why replace them with freshly written pieces? It’s impossible to listen to Also Sprach Zarathustra or the Blue Danube without conjuring up images from the film; which is why they still get used as a cinematic shorthand even today. Of greater significance from an ACL viewpoint, 2001: A Space Odyssey brought the micropolyphony work of György Ligeti to our young ears, a sound unlike anything we’d experienced before – it would be a while before we knew how to respond, but it was a vital introduction to experimental choral music. (Jeremy Bye)
Shirley Walker ~ Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm (Reprise, 1993)
While everyone’s ears were on Danny Elfman’s takes on the Caped Crusader, Shirley Walker made one of the best contributions to the character’s musical universe: it captured the art deco aesthetic by evoking early film scores in a retro-futuristic style, at some sections even imitating the sounds of the theremin. The noir world of animated Batman, which made subtle parallels to the post-1929 Depression, is musically portrayed by Walker as Gothicized Aaron Copland: the epics of the people have been cast into the shadows, the light of the city a symbol of repressed tragedy, everything slightly fallen out of grace. The various “Appalachian” moments of Mask are always underlined by dissonance, by a presence that is out of place; when the hero’s theme comes in, it is severe, grave, and turned into a threat, a violent outburst that – tragically – resolves the tension. Afterwards, less than order, what remains is hope. (David Murrieta Flores)
Edward Williams ~ Life On Earth (1979; soundtrack: Trunk, 2009)
It seems baffling that the soundtrack to Life On Earth – a ground-breaking natural history series with a vast audience – was never properly released at the time. Edward Williams pressed up 100 copies for himself and the musicians but the BBC, who actually had an in-house record label, clearly didn’t see it as an album worth worrying about. Fortunately, Jonny Trunk licensed a proper edition in 2009 – once he had discovered that the original pressing existed. Rather than go down the Radiophonic Workshop route, which would have been more typical for a BBC programme in the 1970s, Williams was commissioned to write chamber pieces with his own ‘electronic modifications and transformations.’ The brief cues are brilliant exercises in scene-setting; combining melody and mood in a matter of moments. As a listening experience, the album is like floating in a hazy dream – but it’s worth seeking out Life On Earth on the BBC iPlayer to give it context. (Jeremy Bye)
John Williams ~ Star Wars Trilogy (20th Century Records, 1977; RSO,1980; RSO, 1983)
The best soundtracks are supremely evocative, and right from that epic opening fanfare John Williams absolutely nails it. Not only is this full of memorable tunes but it’s far more complex than its popularity would suggest and as such has become the subject of many a university music dissertation, analysing amongst other things the references to 19th-century composers like Gustav Holst, Igor Stravinsky and most significantly Richard Wagner’s use of leitmotifs. (Garreth Brooke)
Karin Zielinski ~ El Limpiador [The Cleaner] (2012)
The Peruvian capital of Lima has been wiped out by a virus. A lost man adopts a lost child. El Limpiador is The Last of Us without zombies, focusing on the everyday traces of unbound tragedy and uncertain hope. Zielinski works the setting into an ambient album of sepia-toned vignettes, a moment-to-moment style of soundtracking that connects the overall melancholy of a dying world with the banality of passing time. Hers is an effective ambient — compositions are tightly knit, glimpses into oceans of feelings that linger, like carrying the weight of a city’s ghosts. The introduction of a choral piece is no disruption: it gives us a hint of the music’s structure as both accompaniment and complement, as a harmonic theme starts to emerge from the initial haze and seems to solidify at the very end. This is great film music precisely because it can stand on its own but it also knows itself useful. (David Murrieta Flores)
Hans Zimmer & Lisa Gerrard ~ Gladiator (Decca, 2000)
The intuitive pairing of dramatic film composer Hans Zimmer with multi-octave wonder Lisa Gerrard (Dead Can Dance) sets the mood early, signifying that Gladiator is more than just a sword and sandals picture. Before this, much of Zimmer’s work had been (purposely) overblown, while much of Gerrard’s had escaped mainstream attention. Gerrard’s high points include “The Wheat” (despite lasting only a minute) and “Elysium,” while Zimmer peaks in the pulse-pounding “The Battle.” The music adds dignity to the struggle, dipping often into a state of reflection to up the ante. The heartbreaking conclusion, “Now We Are Free,” is tinged with sadness, as freedom has been won at a cost; its regal nature signifies that the sacrifice was not in vain. (Richard Allen)
Great idea, nice selection. Some soundtracks to discover… thanks! Love your blog.
Although in my humble opinion I miss Ryūichi Sakamoto (The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Heaven, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence…). Waiting for part III 😉