The 20 Best Movie Soundtracks
From the terrifying theme tune to Jaws, to the epic tones of Hans Zimmer's music for Gladiator, we look at the best movie scores from the movies.
MAY 20th, 2020
here are many movies throughout the years which have become synonymous for their music scores. From the emotive symphonies of Gladiator to the thrilling crescendos from Star Wars, music is as vital to storytelling in movies than the script or cinematography. We look at the 20 soundtracks which are as iconic as the movies they appear in.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Christopher Nolan thriller. Partnering with Hans Zimmer after their successful collaboration on The Dark Knight series, Zimmer was tasked with bringing a unique sound which matched the dreamlike locations and scale of the cinematography.
Since its release Inception’s soundtrack has become as iconic as the movie. Featured on adverts and documentaries, the most popular composition is Time. Building from a simple piano opening, the score opens to a stunning crescendo which is arguably one of Hans Zimmer’s greatest creations.
TOP TRACK: Time – by Hans Zimmer
“They can take our lives, but they can never take… our FREEDOM!”
It is one of the most famous lines in Hollywood history, and Braveheart swept the awards season in 1996 after being nominated for 10 Academy Awards. One of those nominations was for its highland inspired score by James Horner.
Using bagpipes, the romanticised soundtrack paid homage to the movie’s Scottish plotline. Since its released, the soundtrack has become one of the most successfully commercial scores of all time and received considerable acclaim from film critics and audiences.
TOP TRACK: For the Love of a Princess – by James Horner
There are popular movie soundtracks, and then there are those which eventually define a generation. John Williams’ historic and instantly recognisable score for George Lucas’ sci-fi opera Star Wars is one those soundtracks. So beloved is the score that in 2005 it was named the “most memorable film score of all time”.
From the opening scrolling credits, John Williams instantly sets the tone and pace for the movie. With the iconic theme tune for Darth Vader and the romantic Skywalker ballad, Star Wars has an eclectic collection of musical masterpieces.
TOP TRACK: Star Wars: Main Theme - by John Williams
Tom Cruise’s dystopian thriller was the surprise hit of 2013, and the movie provided a killer soundtrack by M83. Combining the traditional orchestrations expected from a movie score, Oblivion added a unique electronic beat, adding a modern grandeur to the climax of the movie.
To accompany the score, Anthony Gonzalez wrote “Oblivion” featuring Susanne Sandfør which was praised by critics, with many stating the track was the best theme song since ‘Skyfall’ by Adele.
TOP TRACK: Fearful Odds – by M83
Disney are renowned for their iconic music, and in 2015 the movie studio decided to release its first live-action remake – Cinderella. Deciding to steer (mostly) clear of the original songs, Kenneth Branagh’s retelling decided to inject the Disney magic into a lavish score.
Composed by Patrick Doyle, this stunning soundtrack perfectly captures the essence of the iconic fairy-tale, whilst adding something new.
TOP TRACK: Courage and Kindness – by Patrick Doyle
Arguably one of the most underrated movie soundtracks of all time. Dragonheart was released in 1996 and became renowned for its technical feats in CGI, managing to bring Draco, the Sean Connery voiced dragon, to life.
Whilst receiving a nomination for its special effects, Dragonheart never truly received the recognition it deserved for its astounding score. Composed by Randy Edelman, the soundtrack is an emotive, epic and addictive score which soars to the height of near perfection.
TOP TRACK: To the Stars – by Randy Edelman
The Dark Knight
After the announcement from Warner Bros that the movie studio would be updating the iconic Batman movies, many fans were left wondering whether Hans Zimmer would be able to capture the magic of Danny Elfman’s 1989 score for Tim Burton’s Batman movie.
Their initial concerns quickly evaporated as the thundering beats of Zimmer’s astonishing score erupted throughout cinemas. Focusing on percussions, The Dark Knight took the initial music from Batman Begins and injected sharp, chaotic and frenzied tones to match the sequels psychotic villain – The Joker. The result was a phenomenally energetic and claustrophobic soundtrack which has come to define Gotham’s greatest superhero.
TOP TRACK: Introduce a Little Anarchy – by Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard
Mad Max: Fury Road
The long-awaited re-imagining of George Miller’s Mad Max series wowed fans and critics alike, and the brilliant soundtrack received numerous award nominations. Effortlessly transitioning from thundering, epic pieces to more subtle, moving orchestrations provided Fury Road with a complex and enduring score.
Composed by Junkie XL, the grandiose orchestrations perfectly reflect the sprawling desolate landscape of the Citadel and the dystopian imagery Miller strives for throughout the movie. Whilst the entire score is stunningly comprised, it is the final crescendo which truly makes Mad Max: Fury Road’s score one of Hollywood’s best.
TOP TRACK: Let Them Up – by Junkie XL.
Disney’s original movie Tron was a defining moment in CGI technology, and in 2010 Disney revisited the popular movie with their sequel Tron: Legacy. Whilst the visuals stunned fans, it was the electronic score by famed music duo Daft Punk which excited moviegoers.
Combining the traditional tones of a full orchestra with the signature stylings of the electronic maestros, Daft Punk managed to compose a unique, exciting and emotive soundtrack which became as much a star movie as the cast.
TOP TRACK: Flynn Lives – by Daft Punk
28 Days Later
It has a soundtrack that many have heard before, though most are unaware of which film it originates from. Danny Boyle’s British Zombie apocalypse classic, 28 Days Later, provided arguably one of the best modern horror film scores ever. Composed by John Murphy, the slow-building and atmospheric music, combining a kickass guitar undertone, perfectly captures the threatening and impending doom as the infected quickly close in.
The movie has become a cult classic, with many rating it one of Boyle’s greatest film achievements, though the score has also managed to cement itself as a masterpiece in its own right.
TOP TRACK: In the House – In a Heartbeat – by John Murphy.
The Lion King
With the echoing tones of Lebo M, the opening theme tune from The Lion King is easily one of the most recognisable in movie history. Perfectly accompanying the songs written by Elton John and Tim Rice, The Lion King has cemented itself as a Disney classic.
Though aside from the wonderful songs, Hans Zimmer’s accompanying score is one of his best. Perfectly incorporating a traditional African sound, Zimmer creates a lively and in places emotional soundtrack which leaves your heart racing.
TOP TRACK: King of Pride Rock – by Hans Zimmer
Has there ever been a movie soundtrack which has captured the world’s attention more than Gladiator? Written in partnership with Lisa Gerrard, Hans Zimmer is perhaps best known for his emotive and encapsulating score for the Ridley Scott epic.
The quiet undertones of the guitar and strings form a perfect foundation for Gerrard’s calming vocals. And yet Zimmer manages to successfully compose a fanfare fit for any Roman empire too. The complexity of Gladiator’s score is its greatest triumph, managing to enhance the story and plot. Though it is in the final moments, as Maximus’ life ebbs away, that the music comes into its own, forging a powerful and sensitive tone which brings a tear to any moviegoer’s eye.
TOP TRACK: Now We Are Free – by Hans Zimmer & Lisa Gerrard
In 1997, no one saw the popularity of James Cameron’s epic masterpiece Titanic coming. Movie critics were writing the romantic juggernaut off, long before audiences had seen a single second of footage. Yet, Titanic stormed the box office, quickly becoming the most successful movie of all time – a title it held until 2008, with the release of Cameron’s other blockbuster, Avatar. Winning eleven Academy Awards, one was deservedly for James Horner’s iconic soundtrack.
Whilst the world knows Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On, the rest of Horner’s score is just a beautiful. With the inclusion of hornpipes and a simple piano backing, Titanic’s music is a poignant and fitting accompaniment to James Cameron’s grand vision. James Horner’s score is, without doubt, one of Hollywood’s best.
TOP TRACK: Unable to Stay, Unwilling to Leave – by James Horner
Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 space thriller Gravity was described as one of Hollywood’s greatest sci-fi movies ever. British composer, Steven Price was assigned the enviable task of scoring the epic and decided to utilise unique sounds to simulate the feeling of space.
Winning an Oscar for his work, Price’s score has become a benchmark for music composers, especially when writing for sci-fi movies. Gravity’s soundtrack perfectly matches the thrilling and perilous journey the plot navigates, and effortlessly strikes the right tone in helping sell the story.
TOP TRACK: Shenzou – by Steven Price
Pirates of the Caribbean
Pirates of the Caribbean is one of Disney’s biggest and most lucrative franchises, making billions at the box office. And whilst the world is consistently dazzled by the spectacular battles and swordfights, the music of Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer has just as easily caught moviegoer’s attentions.
Impeccably capturing the tone of the iconic theme park ride on which the film is based, the score merges the comical performance by Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, and the romantic love story between Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley’s characters, Will and Elizabeth.
With five movies, each score creates their own texture. From the grandeur of the original trilogy, to the Spanish undertones of On Stranger Tides, Disney’s popular franchise has an unrivalled soundtrack.
TOP TRACK: He’s a Pirate – by Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer
It is a rare occurrence when a soundtrack becomes as recognisable as the movie it accompanies. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is a prime example of this. The iconic two-beat score, which slowly builds in pace as the Shark approaches its victim, is a perfect example of how a soundtrack can add, or even make, the atmosphere of a movie.
Composed by John Williams, Jaws’ theme tune has been copied since the 70s and has long been seen as one of the greatest scores of all time.
TOP TRACK: Jaws: Main Theme - by John Williams
The DaVinci Code
Dan Brown’s hugely popular and controversial book The DaVinci Code was the first of Brown’s novels to be transferred onto the big screen. Hans Zimmer was brought onto the project to score the movie and strived to create a feeling of being in a Cathedral.
In typical Zimmer form, the score slowly builds to a crescendo and by doing so adds a majestic and ethereal tone to the movie. It is arguably one of Hans’ best compositions and in some cases, more popular than the movie itself.
TOP TRACK: Chevaliers de Sangreal – by Hans Zimmer
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
J.K. Rowling’s fantastical story is adored throughout the world, and the movies based on the Harry Potter books are just as adored. Though one aspect that has helped solidify the franchises success is the iconic score by John Williams.
Throughout the years however, other composers have added their own personal and creative twists the original, and one such composer was Patrick Doyle, who took over the reigns from Williams to write Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Utilising a more orchestral and mature sound, Doyle injected new life into the iconic theme and also formed a stunning soundtrack which is just as recognisable than John Williams.
TOP TRACK: Foreign Visitors Arrive - Patrick Doyle
Mary, Queen of Scots
Scoring a movie based on the subject of royalty can be a tricky task, and for Max Richter he managed to successfully compose a stunning and regal soundtrack for Mary, Queen of Scots. Combining an anthem quality to the tone of the music allowed the grandeur of the plot and characters, Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, to bring them alive on screen.
The score received universal praise from critics, with many stating that Richter was a master in writing for the genre.
TOP TRACK: Finale – by Max Richter
The Lord of the Rings
When Peter Jackson looked to bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings to the big screen, fans wondered whether the director would be able to do the fantasy tale justice. In response, Jackson managed to create one of Hollywood’s most enduring and celebrated trilogies in movie history.
A part of the celebration was with the iconic score by Howard Shore. Winning an academy award for his exquisite work, fans and critics praised the Shore’s grasp of the source material for the story and his ability to stay true to J.R.R. Tolkien’s original vision.
TOP TRACK: The Ring Goes South – by Howard Shore
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