• David Lane

Favorite 100 Film Scores of All-Time (20-11)

Updated: Aug 12, 2020

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.

Previous: 30-21


20. Conan the Barbarian (Basil Poledouris) - There is only one flaw to this score, and that is the original recording itself from Italy with reverb that sounds like it's in a gymnasium at times. I've never listened to re-recordings, but I think they would be an improvement. However, if you can adjust to the sound, it's a first-rate epic score, and easily the best score for an Arnold Schwarzenegger film! The opening titles "The Anvil of Crom" is as iconic to fans of Arnold as any other movie theme of the era, and supposedly calls for 24 French horns! But THE stand-out cue is the "Riders of Doom" which uses Baroque counterpoint featuring great work from the trumpet section, and is just pure energy! Also "The Gift of Fury" and "The Leaving/The Search" are excellent cues!

19. Dragonslayer (Alex North) - While there aren't as many people like this anymore, there are still "serious composers" in the world who frown on film music as being inferior or hack music. I would encourage any of them to listen to this score and hold on to that opinion. The level of harmonic complexity and dissonance, not to mention orchestral virtuosity, is certainly on the level of a 20th century concert orchestra piece. Alex North was probably the most modern composer aside from probably Leonard Rosenman. Every cue here is a gem, but some of the highlights include: "Ulrich's Death and Mourning", "Maiden's Sacrifice", "Galen Jailed/Galen's Escapes", and "The Lair/Landslide".

18. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (Howard Shore) - 2nd favorite LOTR movie, 1st favorite LOTR score. Howard Shore had never composed anything in his first 20 years to my knowledge that would indicate that he had this in him, but he not only made one perfect choice after another for the score, but pulled it off in such a way that every cue sounds like a concert suite. Very few composers (maybe John Barry) ever quite pull that off. The orchestra and chorus are as huge as the story. There are choral sounds for the fellowship, wonderful treble voices for elves, heavy dark brass for the villains, and more identifiable themes and motives for each character than perhaps any movie ever, and I think I include Star Wars in that. It's a rich score that seems to take Carmina Burana as its starting point, but adds some Celtic influences, the language of Tolkien himself, and some mystical cues that almost recall Ravel. This first movie is the most thematically rich, and overall, the one I enjoy playing the most away from the film. Stand-out cues include: "The Prophecy", "The Black Rider", "Flight to the Ford", "Many Meetings", and "The Breaking of the Fellowship".

17. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Bernard Herrmann) - With some of the upcoming Herrmann scores (there are FOUR in the top 15), you can describe them as thrilling or suspenseful, even adventurous. This one is just plain lovely! There is a tenderness in this score that nobody else of his generation could pull off without being sappy. Stand-out cues include "Prelude" and "Forever".

16. Images (John Williams) - This was a fairly recent discovery. Prior to some point last year, I had a lot of gaps in my pre-Jaws familiarity with Williams. Like most prolific composers, he has a lot of tropes that make many of his scores similar to each other. But there are a handful of scores that stand out as one-of-a-kind, and this is definitely one! It's his most abstract and experimental score ever, fitting along with the surreal psychological elements of the film. It's mostly piano, strings, and the arsenal of Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta. It is an absolutely splendid collection of music that sounds nothing like anything else Williams composed! So many great cues, including "In Search of Unicorns", "Dogs, Ponies, and Old Ruins", "Reflections" (which sounds like Anton Webern), "Blood Moon" (a lovely contrapuntal work for strings only), and "The Night Witch Ride".

15. North by Northwest (Bernard Herrmann) - As an unabridged soundtrack album, this isn't quite as enjoyable as its placement in the film, because Herrmann employs an economy of material in this score that gets reused quite a bit. It's still worth checking out as a soundtrack. In the film, however, it's a score that was ahead of its time. These are the types of scores that Danny Elfman would be coming up with for adventures 30+ years later. The standout cue is the wonderful main title fandango, which sounds like it alternates 6/8 and 3/4, but actually composed in continuous 3/8 with shifting accents. Other great cues include: "The Cafeteria/The Shooting", the lovely "Conversation Piece" and the entire Mount Rushmore finale sequence.

14. The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (Bernard Herrmann) - Another recent discovery. This 1961 fantasy is filled with the most diverse and rousing music Herrmann has composed, a feast for the brass players! Stand-out cues include: "Minuetto", "The Lilliputians", "The Clouds", and "A Hatful of Fish".

13. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (John Williams) - From this point through #4, these titles are flexible. In other words, I'm well settled on my top 3. Depending on my mood, however, this could sometimes be #4, other days be #13, so you may want to just take this and the next 9 scores as a giant tie for #4. What more can be said about Spielberg's most heartfelt film? It is still great today, and the equally heartfelt score from Williams! The whole soundtrack is wonderful, but THE highlight cue away from the film, and especially with the film, is the "Escape/Chase/Saying Goodbye" final 15 minutes of the film. Fans know this story well, but this is an intense sequence that uses every theme and has several dozen hit points. Williams couldn't get it to his satisfaction in the recording session, so Spielberg offered something that just doesn't happen. He asked to turn off the projector and have Williams conduct from the heart, and that he would recut the film to suit the music. Wow!

12. Get Out (Michael Abels) - I'm not a fan of current horror films in general, so it took a LOT of critical acclaim and word-of-mouth to get me to finally watch this, and the OMG moments I had during the first 5 minutes of just the MUSIC told me that I would love this! Michael Abels was a concert composer and K-12 teacher that Jordan Peele discovered on YouTube for this first film. The main title ("Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga") is the equal of The Omen or Rosemary's Baby in terms of instantly being iconic! African American voices singing Nigerian with some dissonant harmonies over an acoustic rock/folk accompaniment. Great suspense cues, and very diverse! This is, to date, my favorite score of the 21st century! Other highlight cues include "Meet the Help", "Hypnosis", and "Surgery Prep".

11. Star Trek:The Motion Picture (Jerry Goldsmith) - The most remarkable thing about this score is that the famous main title theme (reused for "The Next Generation") was completely re-written in its current form during the recording sessions. This film was 2 years after Star Wars, and it was not certain how similar or different this score was to seem. After going quite different, Goldsmith was told that he needed something more similar, so he wrote this in between sessions. Besides the main title, the stand-out cues include, "Klingon Battle", "The Cloud", "Vejur Flyover", "The Meld", and the actual best theme of the film, "Ilya's Theme".

Next: 10-6

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