The 25 Best Soundtracks & Scores

Here's one take on the best of screen music. Feel free to disagree.


Back when people used to listen to vinyl albums, not CDs, movie music was a minor cul-de-sac off the popular music superhighway. Sometimes a movie "theme" would become a schmaltzy Top 40 hit (Love Story, Doctor Zhivago), but soundtracks, typically, were the dusty, cheesy LPs you'd find at the back of your parents' wood-paneled "hi-fi": Fiddler on the Roof, Blue Hawaii, Ray Conniff's Hollywood in Rhythm. Not stuff you were inclined to scratch.

Today, almost every movie has an accompanying music release. Record stores and pop charts are bursting with hundreds of new soundtracks and scores every year, ranging from must-have music to cynical studio efforts to cash in on blockbusters. The greatest movie music can be critically acclaimed and commercially successful, as the platinum-selling. Grammy-winning soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? proves. And with an entire generation of directors and composers raised on rock (and rockers inspired by movies), there's a new breed of sophisticated compilation soundtracks and rock-, rap- and techno-inspired scores that can transcend the films they're created for. At the same time, the best of Golden Age film music is being remastered and re-released to growing legions of aficionados.

What qualifies as essential film music? First, it should be an integral part of the film itself, reminding fans why they loved their favorite movies in the first place. But most important, the music should stand alone as vital and evocative, worth hearing outside of the theater and able to serve as your own personal soundtrack--to fit the mood of your current scene or help you cut to the next one. Here are the 25 classics I'd be most willing to live to.


Almost Famous (2000)

Cameron Crowe's film and its soundtrack both capture the joys of being a young rock fan in the first half of the '70s and prove why the best music of that era qualifies as truly "classic rock." This disc features less than half of the film's songs, but it's a well-chosen selection, including familiar tracks from The Who, Yes, Rod Stewart and Elton John, and lesser-known songs from Led Zeppelin, the Beach Boys, David Bowie and Todd Rundgren. Crowe is a fan's fan, and this soundtrack reflects his passion, knowledge and great taste.


American Graffiti (1973)

At first glance, this may look like a K-Tel-caliber roundup of oldies rock 'n' roll, but it's actually one of the most comprehensive and intelligent collections of the '50s and '60s jukebox tunes ever--not a history lesson, but an emotionally effective companion to George Lucas's 1973 film, which looked longingly back to the last summer night of 1962 in a small California town. It's an evening full of passion, soul, fast cars, teen angst, and rock and roll energy, and the songs capture that, ranging from danceable, familiar hits ("Rock Around the Clock") to aching romantic ballads, to a whole lotta vintage doo-wop (The Skyliners, The Spaniels, The Crests, etc.). This one's for driving with the top down--or when you just want to feel that way.


Blade Runner (1982)

Greek synthesizer god Vangelis won the Oscar for his Chariots of Fire score, but for sheer ambient mood music nothing beats this all-electronic symphonic work. It is by turns lush, sweeping, jazzy, edgy and dark, as is director Ridley Scott's sci-fi thriller. Some find Vangelis way over the top, or a tad New Agey, but really, few things play better late at night than this rich and velvet-smooth futuristic noir music. The complete score release includes snippets of dialogue from the film that only add to the atmosphere.


Chinatown (1974)

Composer Jerry Goldsmith evokes the haunting darkness of the best films noir with this brilliant score to director Roman Polanski's neo-noir thriller. This is regal yet spare jazz (the signature solo trumpet theme is unforgettable) with a remarkably authentic '30s sound that can bring forth shadows and mystery in the brightest of rooms. But its main essence is more romance than gloom, and the lush atmosphere is enhanced by period tunes ("The Way You Look Tonight") that blend in smoothly.


A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Composer/synthesizer pioneer Wendy (nee Walter) Carlos blew the rassodocks off many a droog with this revolutionary electronic score for director Stanley Kubrick's ultraviolent film. The analog synth sounds created by Carlos (and long-time collaborator Rachel Elkind) are technically primitive by today's standards, but the antiquated electronica adds a creepily effective veneer to the music. It stands up to the most progressive digitized/computerized sounds out now. Much of it is Carlos-ified versions of classical music (Beethoven, Purcell, Rossini) and the rest is original compositions by a modernist master.


Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

The prolific John Williams won the Oscar for his Star Wars score, beating out his score for this film, arguably the more enduring, ambitious work. Not as heroically uplifting as Star Wars or Superman, it's instead terrifically atmospheric and varied. Williams composed much of this before director Steven Spielberg shot the film, which explains why it meshes so smoothly with the images on-screen--the director took his cues from the composer, instead of the traditional other-way-around. The music ranges from lyrically sublime to spookily atonal, dark and engrossing.


Frantic (1957)

What you get here is Miles Davis in his prime, riffing on his horn, improvising jazz to the images from Louis Malle's noir-drenched French thriller (also known as Lift to the Scaffold) about a "perfect murder" gone awry, it is hardly a traditional Miles album, as it features mostly impressionistic, atmospheric snatches of music--but that is what makes it unique and worthwhile for fans and non-fans alike. The spare yet warm and even romantic playing ebbs and flows around you in unpredictable rhythms, like a night spent trolling the jazz clubs of Paris.


The Harder They Come (1973)

This gritty little Jamaican indie film, which stars reggae man Jimmy Cliff as a gangster-cum-musician, introduced a generation of Americans to reggae, and it remains a fine compilation of Jamaican sounds. Cliff contributes a few songs (including the title track), and the rest is reggae legends doing classics (like The Maytals' "Pressure Drop," Desmond Dekker's "Shanty Town" and The Melodians' "Rivers of Babylon"). Not at all a whitewash of roots-reggae for Middle America, this is an essential, effervescent collection that even hard-core reggae fans hold in high esteem.


High Fidelity (2000)

The movie's about a record store owner/music snob who obsessively assembles compilation tapes of rock songs for the dangerous women in his life. The soundtrack lives up to that premise with style. Songs range from old-school cult faves (13th Floor Elevators, Love) to eye-opening new music (Sheila Nicholls, The Beta Band) to lesser-known gems from familiar names (The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello). It's been called the ultimate mix tape for neurotic, overeducated, lovelorn thirty-ish white males. And hey, we need a little once in a while, too. The Stevie Wonder closing track is for everyone.


Jackie Brown (1997)

The Pulp Fiction soundtrack is better known, but this shows what director Quentin Tarantino can really do with the music he loves. Jackie Brown, a darkly comic story of lowlifes and losers, is set in the '90s but powered by '70s funk, soul and R&B, and the soundtrack is a great sampler of that era. As usual, Tarantino doesn't choose the obvious, opting for pearls like Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street" and Minnie Ripperton's "Inside My Love," along with mellow yet powerful grooves by Bill Withers, the Delfonics and others.


Jesus' Son (1999)

This indie film about an early '70s down-and-out junkie managed to defy its subject by being hilarious and ultimately moving. The soundtrack follows suit with an offbeat collection of old and new tunes, artfully linking together a number of genres (soul, gospel, rock, bubblegum, country). Eclectic musician Joe Henry coproduced the soundtrack, which includes his own songs, plus Joe Tex, Floyd Cramer, Barbara Mason and current alt-country heroes Wilco, whose "Airline To Heaven" might be worth the price of the CD all on its own.


The Last Days of Disco (1998)

The 1977 soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever helped fuel the disco revolution, but many of its tracks aged badly. The Last Days of Disco, from director Whit Stillman's arch look back at that era, was compiled in 1998, and its carefully culled, nostalgic song selection tops Fever. Each cut is a winner, including "Let's All Chant" (Michael Zager Band), "I'm Coming Out" (Diana Ross) and the O'Jays' ever-vital "Love Train." Just add mirror ball and bell-bottoms, and you'll groove on why the best disco deserves to boogie on.


The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

This is a triple-threat: a great Peter Gabriel album, a crucial example of "world music" and a gripping movie score. Gabriel's music for Martin Scorsese's powerful, controversial film about the life of Christ is amazingly cinematic: you can stare at a wall with this playing and you're bound to see something. Hypnotic Middle Eastern and North African rhythms, traditional instruments, Gabriel's masterly electronic ambience, and vocalists like Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn and Youssou N'Dour blend together seamlessly. It is timeless trance music.


Local Hero (1983)

Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits fame helped prove that rockers had the subtlety and sophistication to create great film music when he scored Bill Forsyth's utterly whimsical Scottish comedy. Like the film, Knopfler's music has a dedicated cult following. It is everything an atmospheric score should be. The emphasis is on the sea, and the gentle Gaelic mood of the tiny Scottish coastal town in which the film is set. Definitely not a Straits album, but Knopfler staked his claim as a master of guitar-based instrumental finesse with this timeless music.


Miller's Crossing (1990)

This is composer Carter Burwell's best work for the Coen brothers, with whom he's collaborated frequently. Miller's Crossing is the Coens' darkest, most serious film, about 1920s Irish-American gangsters, and Burwell rose to the occasion with a haunting score that fits the mood perfectly. From the soulful, elegiac main theme, flavored richly with an Irish lilt, to the hard-hitting, hard-boiled set pieces, this is music you can listen to obsessively. A couple of period jazz numbers ("Runnin' Wild," "King Porter Stomp") perk up the proceedings nicely, and a splendid version of "Danny Boy" (everyone should have one) is the ice in the tumbler of Bushmills.


The Mission (1986)

Ennio Morricone penned many classic film scores, but none can top this one for sweeping musical beauty. It's a long way from his groundbreaking spaghetti western scores, but so is the film--a drama about 18th-century Spanish missionaries in Brazil colliding with worldly troubles. But where the film plods somberly, the score is lyrical, even mystical. Morricone expertly commingles religious music, native instruments and Spanish-flavored themes in a fine example of an atmospheric score that thrives outside of its film.


Music by Ry Cooder (1995)

Any one of Ry Cooder's film scores is a good bet, including Paris, Texas, The Long Riders, The Border and Southern Comfort, but it is hard to pass up this double-CD anthology that collects much of his best work for the screen. For more than 20 years, Cooder has created amazing sonic textures for films, carving out his own niche, with his soulful slide guitar, as the master of Southwestern American music. Director Walter Hill (his frequent collaborator) puts it best "He is ... a great and uniquely American artist--the work displaying recurring patterns, moods and attitudes that are distinctly his own."


O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

This platinum-selling, Grammy-winning soundtrack started a bit of a revolution, which is amazing considering it is full of Depression-era American tunes (bluegrass, country, gospel and blues). Musician T Bone Burnett supervised the album and did a great job mixing originals (like Harry McClintock's "Big Rock Candy Mountain") with heartfelt re-creations by current masters like Alison Krauss and Ralph Stanley. It is easy to be affected by the pure and simple beauty of the venerable songs, and by the commitment of the players to the music of their roots.


The Piano (1993)

Avant-garde composer Michael Nyman's score for director Jane Campion's film is perhaps his most melodic, accessible work. Heavy on the piano, this lyrical neoclassical music is great for rainy spring afternoons. Like the best scores, it provides the heart of the film (and even its voice, as the lead character is mute), but is amazingly evocative on its own. Unlike much of Nyman's previous film music (for Peter Greenaway and others), this features an extra texture of sentimentality (the dreamy, good kind) and is better for it. Truly sublime.


Round Midnight (1986)

The title captures the mood of the music perfectly. One of the best films about jazz, with one of the best jazz soundtracks, compiled by Herbie Hancock, who won an Oscar for it. Tenor-sax man Dexter Gordon starred in the film as an American jazz cat roaming Paris in the 1950s, and he stars on the soundtrack, in a band featuring John McLaughlin and Billy Higgins. The songs are a choice mix of Hancock originals and classics (by Bud Powell, Jimmy Rowles and others). The sounds range from rhythmic to romantic to melancholy, and there's enough here to appeal to jazz aficionados and neophytes alike.


Rushmore (1998)

Filmmaker Wes Anderson managed to make his 1998 high-school romantic comedy an improbable, unique cross between Ferris Bueller's Day Off and if... and the soundtrack follows suit--it's a surprising, original mix of songs. Most likely the best rock soundtrack of the 1990s, it combines rockers and ballads from the 1960s and '70s, featuring both little-known but worthy bands (Creation, Unit 4+2), as well as major names playing unfamiliar yet exceptional songs, such as Cat Stevens's "The Wind" and John Lennon's "Oh Yoko." Snippets from the percolating, dynamic film score, by ex-Devo Mark Mothersbaugh, are expertly woven between the tracks. Brilliant.


Superfly (1972)

A centerpiece of the "blaxploitation" genre, this film about a badass Harlem drug dealer hasn't aged well, but Curtis Mayfield's cycle of songs for the film remains a definitive R&B/soul album--and a great soundtrack. The songs (including the hits "Superfly" and "Freddie's Dead") follow the plot, but you're better off skipping the film and getting this. Mayfield explores inner-city chaos, from drugs and crime to troubled families and love affairs, and the music--funk, soul, blues and proto-rap--shows what a great artist he was.


Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

Woody Allen deserves a medal for his dedicated use of early jazz in so many of his films. Some of his best soundtracks (Hannah and Her Sisters) aren't available on CD, but Lowdown is and it will do just fine. The film is about a 1930s jazz guitarist, and it features impeccable, yet totally fresh, versions of classics as performed by the Dick Hyman Group--"Sweet Georgia Brown," "Just a Gigolo," "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," etc. It's a great introduction to some of the swingin'-est music of the Deco era, and guitarist Howard Alden, effortlessly re-creating diverse musical stylings, is the soundtrack's star.


Vertigo (1958)

Not a great first-date soundtrack: it is mysterious, even frightening music--it was created for an Alfred Hitchcock film, after all--but Bernard Herrmann's orchestral score is still a genuine classic. Like the movie itself, nothing about this powerful music is obvious. It is psychologically deep stuff. The film shifts between romance, obsession and horror, and Herrmann deftly follows. At times the score may seem slow, almost asleep, and then suddenly roar awake. Vertigo is perhaps Hitchcock's most complex film, and the music plays a major role in it because it so successfully creates an eerie, unreal, dangerous and yet beautiful environment.


The Virgin Suicides (2000)

Air is a French electronica duo with a devoted following, including Sofia Coppola, who asked them to score her debut as a director. Best known for lighter-than-air ambient pop, Air went darker for this score, and the results are pretty wonderful. Some of it sounds like early Pink Floyd (in keeping with the film's 1970s setting) and all of it is mesmerizing. This music has a seriously psychedelic tint.