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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lane

Favorite 100 Film Scores of All-Time (10-6)

Updated: Aug 19, 2022

It's been 30 years since I started actively listening to film scores, not just with the film, but away from the film as well. People often ask me what my favorites are, and I finally decided to make an official list. I'm careful to note that the title of this list is "favorite 100" not "top 100". These are not all critically-acclaimed, nor are they selected primarily for how well they work in the film (although that is a consideration).

The criteria for me is in this order, (1) Instrumental Underscore only, no song soundtracks, (2) musical excellence, (3) Effectiveness in the film. (4) Originality (though not without the excellence. There are plenty of scores that I consider highly original, but not musically excellent.

To prepare for this list, I listened to well over 400 soundtrack albums this year. Most were titles I hadn't gotten to, but some were refreshers. So I feel very confident in my opinions on this list. Also, please know that I think EVERY score here is GREAT! #100 doesn't mean "sucks". #100 is an excellent score! I just happen to like 99 (out of how many hundreds of thousand possibilities?) more. Two things to note: First, there are a lot scores from the 3 J's (John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner), but a lot of total composers represented. Second, there is an obvious lack of diversity. I wish that weren't the case. I tried my best to judge the music only, and did not want to include any composers for reasons other than how I honestly felt about the work itself.



10. The Sixth Sense (James Newton Howard) - In preparing this list, I wanted to check out what fans thought were the best scores of JNH to make sure I checked them out. I must have looked at 8 different threads or articles and, to my amazement, this score was never highly placed. I think that may be largely due to the fact that the movie itself is SO good visually, story-wise, and with the acting...that it's easy to miss just how wonderful this score is. It places itself perfectly inside the narrative, but is wonderful on its own. Intimate orchestration, quiet use of ostinato, great harmonies including a chord progression of i-VII that I must have heard a half-dozen times in ghost movies that followed. And it is scary when it needs to be without ever being cliché. The highlight of the score is the last cue before the end credits. Here's where I tell you to PLEASE watch the movie before getting or streaming the soundtrack. As you might know, this movie is known for having a twist (though it's still one of my favorite movies before that even happens), and the title of Howard's cue blatantly gives away the twist. What were they thinking?! After it's not a spoiler, listen to the music separately. Other great cues include: "De Profundis", "Malcolm's Story/Cole's Secret", and "Hanging Ghosts".

9. Vertigo (Bernard Herrmann) - There was a long time that I held this as my #2 score. The 1958 movie is one of Hitchcock's masterpieces. The story is operatic, as is Herrmann's music. As I listened to more and more Herrmann titles, this score started going down. There are so many distinct sounds in Vertigo such as parallel major 3rds moving chromatically, heavy woodwind texture, and certain chord progressions that I was hearing in score after score of his. That would be no big deal if I was hearing these in 1959 and later scores, but I was hearing it all over the '50's as early as 1951. You could argue that Bernard Herrmann had composed at least half of the Vertigo score for earlier films. But I decided to keep it Top 10 because here's the thing: It's a great score for THIS film, and the penalty for experimenting with these ideas before then shouldn't be that steep. Also there is the Wagner-esque Love Theme, and the spiraling min-maj 7th vertigo ostinato. Highlights include: "Prelude and Rooftop", "Scotty Tails Madeleine", "The Nightmare and Dawn", and of course, "Scene d'amour".

8. Superman (John Williams) - This is nostalgia talking, since this was the first movie where I noticed the music, and where I learned the name John Williams. In 1977 Star Wars won the Oscar for Best Original Score. In 1978, Superman was nominated, but lost to Midnight Express. So here's my opinion, if you switched the release dates of Star Wars and Superman, John Williams still wins in 1977 but loses in 1978. My point? It's not that Star Wars is a better symphonic adventure score, but that it came out first. The Prelude and Main Title March is possibly the best main title sequence ever composed for film. Its brilliant use of double themes and inclusion of the love theme so early make it a truly great overture. Other great cues: the Strauss/2001 homage "The Planet Krypton", the virtuosic "Trip to Earth", the heartbreaking "Death of Jonathan Kent", the mesmerizing "The Fortress of Solitude", and the king of all superhero adventure music cues, "The Big Rescue".

7. A.I. The Artificial Intelligence (John Williams) - I've had a crazy relationship with this score. Until about 3 years ago, I didn't even think of it. I wasn't a fan of the movie, and I strongly associated the music as one of Williams' "cookie cutter" scores. Also, I wasn't as won over by the less bombastic scores at the time. I listened to the soundtrack 3 years ago with little memory of the movie, and immediately called it my 2nd favorite Williams score. It's currently my 3rd favorite Williams score after a re-listen, and that's only because I don't love the whole soundtrack, but what I do...I REALLY love. Williams approaches this with a rhythmic minimalism that is unique to his body of work, and is so good! Stand-out cues include "Rouge City", "Man-Hatten", and the exquisite "Where Dreams Are Born".

6. Psycho (Bernard Herrmann) - If Vertigo was amazing but had a lot of scores paving the way, this one did not! For Hitchcock's last black & white film, Herrmann famously decided to create a "black & white score" using only orchestral strings. He uses every technique you can imagine: arco, pizzicato, muted, col legno, pizzicato tremolo, harmonics, glissandi, etc. This score is basically a masterclass on how to write for strings. The essential cues are "Prelude", "The City", "The Madhouse", the legendary "The Murder" and my personal favorite, "The Stairs". By the way, kudos to Herrmann for writing cue titles which are not spoilers!


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