10 Best Soundtracks of All Time
As most “top ten” lists are purely subjective, so is everyone’s taste in music, and how well music is utilized and incorporated into film stories also evokes a very personal reaction and experience. Far be it for me to force my opinions down your throat, but since I’ve done it so often in the past, why stop now?
These are my “personal” choices for the best soundtracks, when taking into account how well they impact the film, help tell a story as well as how well their overtures can affect us, even when heard separately from their intended film.
There are only two films in this list that use acquired music, which I believe deserve a “tip of the hat,” as a whole other list could be made of soundtracks that include songs as opposed to a composed orchestrations, the top of which would be American Graffiti, etc. Also missing here are musicals, which deserve their own category. In no particular order then:
Out of Africa
I’m a sucker for John Barry, and this is his best score. While he’s most known for Bond films (see below) and his haunting theme from Somewhere in Time (used ad infinitum for the dreaded annual Academy Awards In Memorium segment) this is his most emotional, well-rounded and poignant score. How else can you soar over the African plains without the sweeping sounds of this Oscar winning score?
Yes there’s only one John Williams score on my list, and it’s tough to pick the best, but the themes from this most iconic of fairytales, with its Storm Trooper fanfare, Leia’s Theme and Opening Fanfare, you probably can’t find a better one. (Plus, Williams has pirated this score for a dozen other movies).
Everybody knows, and whistles As Time Goes By, but how often have you sat and listened to the entire Max Steiner score? (If you’re me, then dozens)His use of La Marseillaise, as well as Das Lied der Deutschen weave effortlessly in and out of the background, pitting the French and German anthems against each other, both aurally and literally, as well as the most iconic of themes, which hearkens to Rick and Ilsa’s past romance in Paris. Able to use these themes throughout both menacingly and sentimentally, Casablanca’s score is almost as iconic as that shot of Rick getting drunk, as Sam plays and Ilsa returns.
Listen to the Casablanca Suite:
Everybody knows the James Bond theme (the jury is out whether John Barry or Monty Norman wrote it) and Barry’s Goldfinger score may seem more iconic and recognizable, but this, his fourth Bond score, introduced several themes, Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Search for Vulcan that were so big at the time, they became Top 40 Radio hits along with the famous Bond theme, and ended up re-appearing in many Bond iterations throughout the decades. Even the latest, Skyfall, a retro-homage to the early days of Bond, re-incorporated some of these most iconic Barry themes. Thunderball may be the weakest of all the Sean Connery Bonds, but its score is arguably the richest.
Composer Bernard Herrman was almost as synonymous with Hitchcock as Williams is with Spielberg today. It would seem no other musician could peer into the darkest reaches of the Master’s mind and be able to put a sound and a voice to the obsessions and yearnings within his psyche. Vertigo, Hitchcock’s most personal film, has a score that taps into the paranoia, the mystery, the passion and the neuroses of its haunted protagonist. And it’s also one of the most fully realized scores every written.
To Kill a Mockingbird
It begins with a child humming to herself, then slowly gives way to an ocean of strings that can elicit tears just from its opening strains. What better music can connect, not only to our collective experiences of childhood, but embellish those memories with such nostalgia, doing what Paul Simon’s song Kodachrome tried to capture about the nice, bright colors and greens of summer, that only memory can do? As innocent and misunderstood as Boo Radley hiding behind a door, and as tragic as the death of Tom Robinson, Elmer Bernstein’s Golden Globe winning score is as timeless as it is beautiful.
Listen to the To Kill a Mockingbird Suite:
No one else can recreate early American music like Randy Newman. This baseball fable that has built a much larger cult following than when it was originally released has a soundtrack that is as adept at telling its story as its script and director Barry Levinson. But what will remain as immortal as baseball, is that breast-swelling theme which captures the smell of grass, the crack of the bat and the thrill of rounding third and heading for home.
O Brother Where Art Thou?
The Coen Brothers are known for their period pieces, and their love and specific renderings of 20th century stories. Many of their soundtracks offer up deep cuts not generally associated with a period, but their exhaustive research into American music (thanks mostly to musician/curator T-Bone Burnett) was never better illustrated than with the soundtrack that accompanies this depression era re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey. Digging deep into the roots of country music, a la Gospel, Folk and Blues, O Brother also unearthed a modern audience’s unknown love of that “old timey music’ most evidenced by the charting tune I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow, and a national tour of Americana artists, bringing an “everything old is new again” interest to an almost lost music.
Only the genius of Charlie Chaplin could create a score as rich as his little tramp and as beautiful as a ballet. Chaplin worked so painstakingly long on City Lights that the sound revolution that was at first a novelty had completely transformed the movie industry by the time he was finished. And still, audiences who found the silent films of only 3 years earlier passé, flocked to see the last silent film by the king of comedy. And not only that, but it was the first time the writer/producer/director and actor added composer to his illustrious pedigree. Modeled after Gershwin, but becoming something wholly its own, Chaplin’s City Lights soundtrack told the story of an itinerant every man who wins and saves a blind flower girl. Has anything ever been recorded that equaled the soundtrack’s multifaceted and varied layers of euphoria, love and pain more fully?
Listen to the City Lights Suite:
Period-wise, The Sting’s soundtrack is completely wrong. But director George Roy Hill knew what he wanted, and he tasked orchestrator Marvin Hamlisch with marrying 1890s ragtime music with a depression era story, and in so doing, re-wrote the book on modern film scoring. Almost 70 years after Scott Joplin’s rags were played in every parlour, social club and bandstand, Hamlisch made him a household name again, going as far as winning an Academy Award for his arrangement of Joplin’s The Entertainer. But he did more than that, he took several of Joplin’s best known rags, from Solace to The Cascades and Ragtime Dance and melded them with characters and story to tell the tale of a gang of grifters giving the bad guys their comeuppance. He may have confused a nation who didn’t understand that Bing Crosby and Benny Goodman were more appropriate than turn of the century cakewalks and ragtime, but in doing so, he paved the way for anachronistic composing and arranging that is still felt, for better or worse, in soundtracks today.