Nothing can push a movie to success better than a great original soundtrack (OST). It is hard to imagine the magic of Steven Spielberg's films without John Williams' symphonic genius providing the atmosphere.
The staccato piano of Jaws or the triumphant horns and snare in Indiana Jones drums were essential to those films' stories. An epic original film soundtrack brings acting and narrative to life. It is an integral part of what makes the world fall in love with cinema.
As we move into the post-Spielberg world of cinema (of course, he isn't done yet but is not as prolific as he once was), it's hard to look any further than Hans Zimmer as today's equivalent of John Williams.
Not a film buff alive hasn't heard a Hans Zimmer score; his partnership with Christopher Nolan is a significant catalyst for the director's films' emotive success.
Movie soundtracks with compilations of contemporary tracks all penned by current bands and singers of the time are, naturally, just as effective.
Quentin Tarantino has a hands-on approach to choosing music for his scenes. As a result, he was rewarded with stratospheric acclaim, blending old and new phenomena to create a unique film sub-genre that garnered critical acclaim.
The synergy of '50s rockabilly, '60s surf-rock, and '70s soul music with eccentric narrative style helped Tarantino claim a renowned type of movie auteurship not seen since. However, there are multitudes of composers who have graced the world with spellbinding, original film scores that are albums in their own right.
Whether played in the background during a study session, enjoyed on a summer road trip, or turned up loud on the AirPods while hiking, original movie soundtracks and scores provide a fantastic experience for anyone. Here is a list of twenty original film soundtracks worth a listen.
1. The Piano (1993), Michael Nyman
Stand Out Track: “The Heart Asks Pleasure First”
For Jane Campion's powerful Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel vehicle in the early '90s — a highlight of independent cinema at the time — Michael Nyman enjoyed a positive response for his piano-led orchestral soundtrack. It catapulted him into contemporary legend as a composer.
The film centers on a mute virtuoso pianist, Ana. She is left abandoned with her mother on the shores of New Zealand. Ana becomes embroiled in a tug-of-war story of forbidden love, seeking solace in the instrument that gives her meaning. “The Heart Asks Pleasure First” is frequently voted in top-ten classical radio music lists worldwide for its transcendent, emotional depth.
2. Koyaanisqatsi (1980), Philip Glass
Stand Out Track: “The Grid”
Godfrey Reggio's vivid documentary masterpiece, Koyaanisqatsi, was part of the Qatsi trilogy and relied heavily on Philip Glass' mind-bending soundtrack. The isolated a capella choirs, arpeggio synthesizers, and midi polyrhythms make the music haunting and empowering.
Interestingly, Godfrey Reggio asked Glass to score the film in linear time before re-editing each track to go over different scenes. It certainly worked, though the real nerds must wonder how the original cut looked and sounded. Philip Glass's influence is omnipresent in commercials and other famous movie scores, including The Truman Show and The Hours. He is an “I heard that before but didn't know it was him” kind of composer.
3. This Is Spinal Tap (1984), Spinal Tap
Stand Out Track: “Stonehenge”
This soundtrack is amusing because it was written and performed by the same band about whom the movie was made: Spinal Tap. Rob Reiner's hilarious breakthrough musical ‘mockumentary' is scored by the real-life yet fictional band. The movie depicts a British heavy metal band fading into obscurity while on an American tour (spawning the famous ‘Turn it up to 11' trope)
Not many comedy set-pieces can top the brilliant “Stonehenge.” “Big Bottom” is another squeamish stand-out. This soundtrack is best enjoyed as an accompaniment to the movie. For anybody who loves classic metal and comedies, This is Spinal Tap is mandatory viewing — and later listening.
4. Blade Runner (1982), Vangelis
Stand Out Track: “Love Theme”
Ridley Scott's Blade Runner has become such an iconic sci-fi movie that it is hard not to think of Vangelis' ethereal masterpiece alongside it. The music made the already breathtaking spectacle of a film even better — not to mention far ahead of its time. Loosely based on Philip K. Dick's novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The themes of existentialism and sentient angst are matched perfectly by Vangelis' fever-dream soundscape.
It melds guttural synths with brutalist industrial refrains to create an almost seedy vibe. Vangelis is, of course, famous for his film scores. So, Chariots of Fire deserves mention, though it didn't propel Adrian Lyne's film to quite the same levels of cult worship as Ridley Scott's.
5. Predator (1988), Alan Silvestri
Stand Out Track: “Main Theme”
Motion picture sound juggernaut Alan Silvestri has a discography to make even the most extraordinary composers green. Hit movie after hit movie has seen its original score helmed by the great man, including smash-hits such as Forrest Gump, Back to the Future, and The Abyss.
It is, however, the lesser-known Predator original soundtrack that gets the nod here. For Predator, Alan Silvestri had to mix elements of horror, the Latin American jungle, and heartfelt military camaraderie into a score that is up there with his best works.
While the title track “Main Theme” is famous, “Goodbye” – the ode to the passing of character Blain – serves as a rare moment of tenderness amid the strings and timpani drum terror, making it worth a listen.
6. Planet of the Apes (1968), Jerry Goldsmith
Stand Out Track: “The Hunt”
Jerry Goldsmith was another modern composing Goliath with credits to his name for the excellent Chinatown, Gremlins, and Alien, among other hit movies.
His soundtrack for the original Planet of the Apes (not the dazzling prequel trilogy released forty years later) was met with critical acclaim, earning him a Grammy nomination.
Curiously, his work was part of a landmark moment in soundtrack history when the International Tape Cartridge Corporation bought the album's rights for worldwide distribution. This marked the first time a record company had purchased the record and tape cartridge rights for a film soundtrack. Even more curious is the rumor that Goldsmith wore an ape mask when conducting the final recordings!
7. You Were Never Really Here (2017), Johnny Greenwood
Stand Out Track: “Tree Synthesizers”
The fact that Lynne Ramsay's corrosive movie is an experiment in the intersection of narrative and sound-editing should be enough reason to watch it. Add to that the visionary musical mind of Radiohead guitarist-turned-avant-garde film composer Johnny Greenwood and you get the genius original soundtrack for You Were Never Really Here.
A must-watch-with-headphones experience, the movie follows the trials of an ex-military, missing-child rescuer. It is about violent redemption and male brutality.
Yet, Greenwood somehow manages to transpose these themes into a futuristic and primeval sound, using a scaled-down repertoire of instruments and forging a cold atmosphere that matches the film's dark premise.
8. There Will Be Blood (2007), Johnny Greenwood
Stand Out Track: “Prospectors Arrive”
Johnny Greenwood makes the cut for a second time with his string quartet-laden magnum opus, and yes: another score written for Paul Thomas Anderson, this time featuring Daniel Day-Lewis on his manic journey to becoming a Californian oil baron.
The haunting desert landscape provides the backdrop to Greenwood's illustrious attack of violin, cello, and the ondes Martenot — an early electronic instrument with a sound reminiscent of a theremin. There Will be Blood was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Soundtrack.
However, this was soon rescinded because the album contained tracks not composed directly for the film. Nevertheless, it is still one of the mesmerizing soundtracks of the 21st century.
9. Amélie (2001), Jann Tiersen
Stand Out Track: “La Valse D'Amélie”
Few didn't enjoy 2001's feel-good movie of the year, Amélie, starring Audrey Tatou in her break-out role as the whimsical sweetheart intent on bringing love to all those around her. Her jolliness is matched by the highly talented Jann Tiersen, famous for other successful independent movie soundtracks, such as Goodbye Lenin! and a long list of French feature films.
The festive sounds of the Amélie soundtrack are best sampled in the famous “La Valse d'Amélie Poulain,” a joyous ensemble of uplifting accordion, strings, tuba, and all the sounds associated with a French summer carnival. Parfait.
10. Tron: Legacy (2010), Daft Punk
Stand Out Track: “Adagio for Tron”
When rumblings came in 2005 that '80s cult blockbuster Tron was getting a sequel, it was no surprise that Daft Punk claimed the soundtrack to be theirs. Even their android alter-ego disguises fit the look of the film perfectly.
In essence, Tron: Legacy‘s soundtrack is Daft Punk through-and-though. However, this is Daft Punk at their most grown-up and arguably at their career-best. The album builds its sound around a motif present throughout the album. While every track plays its part, each song has the strength of a stand-alone single.
The mix of their familiar break-beat-driven Moog synth is in a perfect marriage with a full orchestra to make their trademark sound much more epic. Tracks such as “Derezzed” and “Adagio for Tron” are among dozens of other pieces of modern-day electro-classical catharsis.
11. Interstellar (2014), Hans Zimmer
Stand Out Track: “Stay”
Naturally, Hans Zimmer makes it into most best-of lists, though this time, it could be a controversial inclusion. The composer who gave the world the music for Gladiator, Dunkirk, and No Time to Die is not quite as celebrated for this movie as he should be. The track “Dust” is the signature theme, but the tension and release of “Stay” make this soundtrack worth the inclusion here.
The song transports the listener along for a rocket launch. Even the countdown staccato of the violins in the build-up to the eventual, sudden, full-string orchestral lift-off is nothing short of genius — an underrated film with an even more underrated original soundtrack.
12. Once (2007), Glen Hansard
Stand Out Track: “When Your Mind's Made Up”
Once is an excellent film for people who love music but are not fans of musicals! This album follows the tribulations of a heartbroken, struggling musician and vacuum-cleaner repairman, a love letter to the music itself.
He is played by the real-life singer/songwriter Glen Hansard. Then, he meets a local Czech girl — played by real-life singer/songwriter Markéta Irglová — who transforms his musical fortune. Almost every track is played in its entirety throughout the movie. Still, the pick of the bunch is the well-known “Falling Slowly” and uplifting “When Your Mind's Made up.”
13. Frank (2008), Stephen Rennick and the Soronprfbs
Stand Out Track: “I Love You All”
Winner of the British Independent Film Award in 2008 for Best Technical Achievement, Frank is a soundtrack much like This is Spinal Tap. It follows a fictional avant-garde post-punk band with such borderline personalities that gigs often end in tantrums or destruction.
The music is performed by the real-life actors in the band, The Soronprfbs, led by an agoraphobic frontman who sings from under a paper-maché head mask. The songs can only be described as weird, but good weird — kind of The Brian Jonestown Massacre meets Sonic Youth.
The powerful end scene's track “I Love you all” matches the melancholic intensity of its singer, played by Michael Fassbender, channeling Jim Morrison. It is a shame the band is not a real band at all.
14. Assault on Precinct 13 (1978) John Carpenter
Stand Out Track: “Main Title Theme”
John Carpenter is a renowned filmmaker. Still, it is not widely known that he also composed and performs his musical scores. Nevertheless, his movies have garnered much critical acclaim, with a hoard of John Carpenter fans following his every move. His posters adorn film-nerd walls in college dorms nationwide.
Although he is more famous for his Halloween soundtrack, the spartan sonic landscape of the original Assault on Precinct 13 illustrates his effective less-is-more ethos. With dark, fuzzy analog synths stepping in sinister line with reverbed electro drum samples, it gives an already tense movie an intense, horror-like atmosphere.
15. Superfly (1972), Curtis Mayfield
Stand Out Track: “Freddie's Dead”
In a rare event, Superfly is a movie whose music superseded the film. Sadly, Superfly director Gordon Parks Jr. never got to finish a career that spawned three more films in the '70s before his death in 1979.
A consequence is that more people think of Curtis Mayfield when considering this iconic gangster film. They can be forgiven, however, because this is one of the excellent movie concept albums. With its familiar funk and soul awash with harp and strings, Mayfield's soundtrack makes it an epic celebration of blaxploitation cinema and black music. “Freddie's Dead” and the title track “Superfly” are two pieces of '70s canon not to be missed.
16. The Man With a Movie Camera (2002), Jason Swincoe and the Cinematic Orchestra.
Stand Out Track: “The Man With a Movie Camera”
This 1929 Soviet-era silent docufilm has been the subject of numerous musical interpretations, including one by Michael Nyman of The Piano fame. Much like its later offspring Koyaanisqatsi, the documentary shows everyday people struggling through life in Soviet cities Moscow, Kyiv, and Odesa.
Nu-jazz London collective The Cinematic Orchestra, captained by principal composer Jason Swincoe, provides a jagged yet sumptuous live jazzed-up drum-and-bass audio part to a film with no other sound.
The Cinematic Orchestra somehow meld the drama of classical music with futuristic live dance music, adding pathos to the stark beauty in director Dziga Vertov's camera work.
17. Flight of the Conchords (2007), Jermaine Clement and Bret McKenzie
Stand Out Track: Too Many To Count!
Yes, technically, this is not a movie soundtrack. Still, it is included because of how priceless a piece of musical art is. Misfit Kiwi mates Jermaine Clement and Bret McKenzie's riotous two-season comedy show about a clueless experimental pop band struggling in New York is unparalleled.
The talented duo's hopeless characters are a perfect foil not only for each other on the show but for the music too. “We're Both In Love With A Sexy Lady” in the style of '90s swing or the absurd French geek-pop of “Foux Da Fa Fa” provide a good starting point for those not yet acquainted with New Zealand's funniest musical export. It is, in fact, hard to complete a listen to the song without a belly laugh.
18. Local Hero (1983), Mark Knopfler
Stand Out Track: “Going Home”
The '80s threw everything it could at us in terms of movie ideas. But, Schwarzenegger's screen muscle aside, the decade brought us a handful of introspective, existentialist films that turned many of the current views on their head. Local Hero is one of them. Set on the west coast of Scotland, the fish-out-of-water tale of a Texan real-estate minion having a crisis of conscience needed a delicate hand.
Mark Knopfler didn't disappoint. His wistfully romantic, high-brow blues pop was a perfect partner for such a moralizing story. Knopfler is from Newcastle, England. The ever-optimistic Newcastle soccer fans pump the main theme song, “Going Home,” out before every home match.
19. E.T. (1982), John Williams
Stand Out Track: “The Beginning of a Friendship”
Of course, the most famous one of them all has had a few hits in his career: Jaws, Star Wars, the Indiana Jones trilogy, and even E.T. itself. However, the underrated “The Beginning of a Friendship” is often overlooked as a feature song. It takes Williams's bluster and pomp and turns down the volume.
The harp and gentle lullaby of strings work so well when protagonist Elliot bonds with his new friend; it is hard to keep a dry eye listening to it. E.T. is a masterpiece of modern cinematic music, winning Williams one of his five Academy Awards for Best Score — among the dozens of other nominations.
It will be a sad day when the great man finally puts down his baton and retires, which he says may happen after his next film: Indiana Jones‘ fifth installment.
20. Into the Wild (2007), Eddie Vedder
Stand Out Track: “Society”
Eddie Vedder has had some success both as a solo artist and film score composer, but it is this album that sits on top of the pile. The movie, about the imagined real-life final months of free-bird wildman Chris McCandless, found pure chemistry in Eddie Vedder. Vedder, who said it took him a while to stop channeling McCandless' memory, brings a bittersweet blend of Americana and heritage rock.
It is the music of the great outdoors: of vast, blue skies, pine forests, and mountain peaks in the sunset. No track embraces Into the Wild‘s theme of escape more than the desperate goodbye letter “Society.” In contrast, “Rise” and “Setting Forth” can get the blood pumping on any trek through big country. This is hiking music 101.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.