The 10 best film soundtracks and scores of all time
A film score is so much more than mere background noise. The best dictate mood, dynamic and pace in movies as much as any element of the filmmaking process, and can be as memorable as the films themselves.
Some act as textures and atmospheric tones, supporting the main narrative. Others take on a life of their own, becoming a separate entity as acclaimed as the movies they originate from.
The approach directors take with soundtracks is always an interesting one. For crowd-pleasing blockbusters, directors often turn to heavyweights like John Williams and Hans Zimmer for bombastic themes, while quirkier movies might opt for more esoteric themes from the likes of Danny Elfman or Randy Newman. Some filmmakers, like Tarantino, even look to recycle scores from old movies, giving new meaning to pre-existing pieces of music.
We’ve put together our picks for the best movie soundtracks of all time, opting for a mix of films – some of which consist of instrumental scores and some which are composed of popular songs.
We’ve chosen movies with coherent soundtracks that work consistently throughout the length of an entire movie, rather than films known for just one particular theme. We've left out musicals like West Side Story, Wizard of Oz and Singin’ in the Rain, and there's no space for biopics like Ray or Straight Outta Compton, either, as both deserve their own recognition.
Blade Runner has one of the most evocative worlds ever put to screen, with a cityscape as futuristic and slick as it is sludgy and depraved. The mood was perfectly captured with the striking, mysterious score from Greek electro icon Vangelis.
Blade Runner was released in 1982, just a year after Vangelis’s triumphant score had been featured on Chariots of Fire – yet the two could hardly be more different in tone. The movie is packed with strange synthetic textures, and while it’s undoubtedly 80s, there’s also a transcendent and timeless quality to it, which is one of the reasons the film still stacks up decades later. Evocative romantic scenes are peppered with tasteful saxophone and fretless bass in a way that avoids cliche, while the main themes are a strange mixture of stark and emotive – the perfect pairing for one of the most haunting sci-fi movies ever made.
One of the most culturally significant movies of recent years, with a soundtrack to match. The tracklisting to the 2018 smash – which was the first major black superhero movie, and a landmark moment for Marvel and Hollywood as a whole – is packed with some of the biggest and most expressive voices in hip hop, including Kendrick Lamar, SZA and Travis Scott. Involving Lamar proved a masterstroke, speaking eloquently on social themes like black power and loyalty like he has throughout his entire career, which fit perfectly with the film’s storyline. He leads the way on a selection of fantastic songs, not least the soaring All the Stars, that brought a contemporary edge to the movie and stands alone as a fantastic collection.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Even 55 years after the franchise first arrived, the Bond music is still as big a deal as the films themselves. None of the series’ soundtracks are quite as timeless as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service though, which brings together the best, bombastic sides of Bond composition, with some of the most tender orchestrations. There are the mandatory variations on the classic John Barry Bond score – some of the finest film score writing ever – before the arrival of Louis Armstrong’s We Have All the Time in the World, which plays over the gut-punch ending of the film and lends real emotional heft.
The Toy Story score is everything you’d hope for from a kids film: playful, charming and full of joy. Randy Newman’s score gives the movie real verve, as animated as Woody and Buzz themselves, with songs like You Got a Friend in Me leaving an indelible mark on millions of children and adults alike. The emotive ballads, though, are where Newan’s songwriting prowess really comes to the fore. There is an ineffable pathos at the heart of the classic film series, with decay and the passing of time playing key roles. It’s part of what makes them so relatable and unforgettable, and Newman perfectly expresses it on moving tracks like I Will Go Sailing No More and When She Loved Me, which he wrote for Sara McLachlan to sing on Toy Story 2.
It couldn’t be a best soundtracks list without John Williams, one of the true heavyweights of film composition. We could have focused on any number of Williams’ movies – Jaws is one of the most instantly recognisable themes in film, Jurassic Park is deeply cinematic, and his work on Indiana Jones is full of adventurous spirit – but Williams’s finest work came on Star Wars. Everything about the opening theme is as bombastic, expansive and immediate as the movies, with the kind of thunderous strings and striding march that puts a sense of anticipation and excitement right into the listener's chest. The ability to match the film’s scale with vast, sweeping compositions, capturing the intensity of battles in deepest space with pieces like Duel of the Fates, is a staggering achievement.
Despite the violence and bare-knuckle action, Drive is actually rather understated. There’s minimal dialogue – Ryan Gosling’s driver says just 891 words in the entire movie – and it’s the soundtrack that does most of the heavy lifting, with the music revealing how the characters are feeling, rather than having them tell us. There are tasteful splashes of synthwave and 80s nostalgia, with the crepuscular synthesisers and thudding drums of Kavinsky’s Nightcall pulling us in and setting the tone over the opening credits perfectly. The use of A Real Hero by College and Electric Youth during a sun-drenched drive along the reservoir is beautifully done too, expressing the inner happiness of the movie’s protagonists even when they aren't able to.
Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful use of tension was, of course, at the heart of all of his greatest achievements, and it’s the score in Psycho as much as anything that gives it such heart-thumping suspense. He enlisted Bernard Herrmann for the score, who had previously worked on Citizen Kane and the Hitchcock movies The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man and North By Northwest. The film's angular, visceral soundtrack is one of the most recognisable in cinema, with the infamous shower scene one of the most brutally memorable in film. It was, in fact, born out of necessity and could have been so different. The production's modest budget meant that Herrmann wrote the score to be performed by just the strings, rather than a full orchestra. The rest was so striking, uncluttered and direct that it led Hitchcock to claim that "33 per cent of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.” Praise indeed.
2001: A Space Odyssey
For a movie contemplating the entire span of human existence, the implications of artificial intelligence and other weighty themes, only music as towering and grandiose as Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra will do. 2001 is an example of a movie transporting music from elsewhere into new settings and situations – in this case, some of the finest classical compositions from history into the depths of outer space. Director Stanley Kubrick’s selection of classical pieces are expertly chosen, with Ligeti’s Requiem II Kyrie ramping up the tension and claustrophobic atmosphere. The Blue Danube Waltz, meanwhile, adds a touch of the surreal to the thought-provoking sci-fi masterpiece.
Guardians of the Galaxy
If there’s one thing the often earnest, overblown DC universe can learn from Marvel, it’s how to have fun with its soundtracks. Guardians of the Galaxy’s inventive use of 70s rock and pop music helped to create an atmosphere entirely of its own, injecting a loveable goofiness to the character of Chris Pratt’s Starlord and spark of humour that can easily go amiss in big budget blockbusters. Blue Swede’s Hooked on a Feeling became the film’s anthem, while soundtrack staples like ELO’s Mr Blue Sky took on new life in this fresh intergalactic setting. As fresh as they come.
A Fistful of Dollars
No other soundtracks transport viewers to a specific time or place quite like Ennio Moriccone's scores. The Italian composer’s work is synonymous with the sound of spaghetti western pioneer Sergio Leone’s films, whether it be The Good, The Bad or the Ugly, or his masterwork A Fistful of Dollars. The latter's main titles are wonderfully evocative, with the shuffling drums like horses racing across the land, the melody of the idle whistle of a cowboy riding into town and the bell strikes announcing his arrival. It’s packed with the kind of mischief and adventure that makes these films such exciting and compelling viewing.
Moriccone branched out into more mainstream hits like The Thing, The Untouchables, and later The Hateful Eight at the behest of his champion and fan Quentin Tarantino. However, it’ll always be his work on A Fistful of Dollars and other Leone westerns that made the biggest impact.