The Top 10 Greatest Film Scores Of The Modern Age

Someone once said that “music is what feelings sound like”. That is certainly true of film music, where artists put music the imagery in such a way that’s designed to evoke feelings from the audience. Feelings of happiness, sadness, humor or fear – film music is designed to put the audience in the emotional place the director desires, and when it works well, you should barely notice it.


In the hundred or so years since film was invented and turned into a multi-billion dollar industry, plenty of ink has been spilled over lists and articles about just who has been the best – the best director, the best actor, the best musician – like humanity can’t get enough out of figuring out the most superior of our own self-importance. The Hollywood awards season seems to last the entire year, with a multitude of industry-based awards shows dominating the blogosphere and newsprint each and every month, culminating in the very pinnacle of cinematic artistic achievement, The Academy Awards. Each year, golden gongs are handed out to those folks judged by others folks to be the best in their category at what they’ve done that year. Whether those awards are warranted or not isn’t the point of this article; here, we’re going to spotlight the very best of the best – the best Actors and Actresses, the best Directors, the best Films, even the best cinematic advances of the Modern Age. What do I mean by Modern Age, you ask. Simple. Hollywood’s boom times of the 30’s and 40’s, at least prior to the War, are known today as the Golden Age, and the three decades after that could be termed the Bronze Age – with a shift into color film, multi-channel stereo and the re-invention of the Hollywood “blockbuster” away from biblical epics and sweeping melodramatic romance. The 80’s, however, when you look at films produced at that time in a reflective mood, represents a shift both artistically and stylistically in the medium of film to such a degree that I think a new “age” of Hollywood could be coined: the Modern Age. An epoch of cinema between 1980 and 2010, 30 years of both massive successes, and epic fails. The Greatest of the Modern Age series attempts to distill the best of the Modern Age into a series of opinion-based lists, and we hope you enjoy (if not disagree with) our work.

Someone once said that “music is what feelings sound like”. That is certainly true of film music, where artists put music the imagery in such a way that’s designed to evoke feelings from the audience. Feelings of happiness, sadness, humor or fear – film music is designed to put the audience in the emotional place the director desires, and when it works well, you should barely notice it. This list of the ten best scores of the last 30 years encompasses all genres and styles, and while we agree it’ll probably be a little controversial, there’s no denying the impact the following scores have had on cinema through the years.

One of the biggest films of all time must surely have one of the all time great scores, right? James Horner, who had last worked with James Cameron on Aliens, went along for the tragic tale of the greatest maritime disaster outside of Greek waters. While it’s a tad unfortunate that Cameron decided to use one of the world most horrendous pop songs over the closing credits, the bulk of the film is enhanced magnificently by Horner’s evocative, soaring accompaniment to one of the 90’s biggest films. The wonderful moment when the Titanic leaves port, making waves for America, the dolphins bow-riding as the music swells with majesty; the clash-bang of the Titanic tearing itself apart, the soulful rendition of Hymn To The Sea – Horner’s Titanic score is… and I can’t believe I’m gonna say something so cliched right off the bat…. a titanic achievement.

If there’s been a franchise to define the last decade, it’s been the Harry Potter series. Spawned from JK Rowlings books, the film franchise has become one of the highest grossing in history, a phenomenon all on its own. Helping the series be so successful has been the casting, the increasingly darker direction the films took under their various directors, and the elemental themes devised by orchestral wunderkind John Williams. Williams’ Hedwig theme, which has become the musical motif of the entire franchise, as well as the thematic material on which the series developed – the arrival at Hogwarts, the Quidditch match, for example – became musical refrains hummed by teen readers around the world.

Clint Mansell’s  hypnotic score in Requiem For A Dream remains an enduring iconic moment for the 2000’s. His main theme, titled Lux Aeterna, became the go-to sound for many a preview trailer (most notably for the 2002 release of The Two Towers) and remains a dazzling piece of pop-art sound. While the film it appeared in was itself a cataclysm of ferocious imagery, the soundtrack spoke of the dark nightmare the characters were living, the pounding syncopation and desperate string themes enhancing the fractured emotions of those suffering through their drug affected haze. While Pi might have set Mansell on his way, Requiem took him to the top.

 Hans Zimmer revolutionized film scores forever when he mainlined Aussie Lisa Gerrards wah-wah vocals for his score on Ridley Scott’s epic, Gladiator. While the sound has been imitated to the point of insanity since, there’s no denying the shift in musical potential that occurred the first time you heard Zimmers sweeping, synth-and-orchestra arrangements: the traditional action score for the battles in the various coliseums, the echoes of the deceased pervading the emotional beats of the dramatic moments, and the soaring vocals of Gerrard in the “sweeping” vistas of ancient Rome – there’s no denying the Gladiator themes shook the traditional sword-and-sandal scores and took them in a new direction.

Instantly recognizable, the Raiders score is one of John William’s most iconic, if not among his very best. While the theme to Jaws might have more chilling evocations, and the Superman Theme might get the blood pumping, the Raiders Theme is one hell of a toe-tapping good time. It’s pulp cinema at its finest, and for the very reason that it’s an Indiana Jones film, comes in at number 6. Anybody not smiling after listening to this has no soul.

James Horner produced this score in about a tenth the time he actually needed to do it: and the result of his high-pressure effort is indeed one of Hollywood’s most iconic, memorable scores. The eerie alien landscape and the plinky-plinky violin motif sent shivers up audiences collective spines (and still do), while arguably one of the greatest trailer-worthy cues ever written accompanies both Ripley’s escape from LV426 and the final battle with the Alien Queen. While scores for sci-fi films don’t often reap rewards, or even get much of a look-in come awards season, Horner’s first Oscar nomination came with his efforts on this film.

An amazing film, and amazing score from John Williams. Spielberg’s most personal film gave Williams the impetus to create a moving, evocative score; it’s music that defines an era by association, I believe, in that whenever I see old footage from the time, quite often it’s with the Schindler’s score in my mind’s eye. From the aching tones of that violin solo performed by Itzhak Perlman, to the incredibly sad orchestral score accompanying some of the inhumanity Spielberg shows us on-screen, Williams magnificent score is both apropos respectful to the narrative, and captures the heartbreaking rending of innocence from the world.

I can hear you groaning already. Cutthroat Island may be a decidedly unpopular film, at least among the many cinephiles across the Blogosphere, but it’s hard to argue against the merits of John Denbey’s rousing, pitch-perfect score. The thunderous opening credits, with the soaring brass and percussion, or the exciting carriage escape from Port Royal where the blasting string and brass sections scamper through the soundfield like a dervish, or even the main theme for main character Morgan, Debney managed to capture the spirit of high-seas piracy with every note of his epic masterpiece. No matter your thoughts on the film itself, one cannot help but be swept along by the music.

Alan Silvestri’s iconic, immediately recognizable score for Robert Zemeckis’ sci-fi trilogy remains perhaps his most popular. Those opening 13 notes, signifying the onset of Marty, Doc and the DeLorean kicking off another high energy adventure though time, are as iconic as the films themselves: if there’s a score that defines at least the 80’s, then the BTTF themes are it.

One of the great trilogies of the Modern Age, Peter Jackson’s film series, based on the books by JRR Tolkien, would have been nothing if not for the haunting, magnificent score by Howard Shore. The thematic material is gorgeous, melodic and thrilling, as sweeping as the films themselves, and it’s a testament to Shore’s ability that he’s been recalled to work his magic on the soon-to-be-released film versions of The Hobbit.

Disagree with what we think? Let us know in the comments section below!!


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9 thoughts on “The Top 10 Greatest Film Scores Of The Modern Age

  1. Love this list! But I have an argument for the Star Wars prequels; Duel of Fates. Still so happy to see Raiders, LOTR, Gladiator and even Titanic.  

    1.  @TerribleClaw Thanks, Terribleclaw. You're right, a case could be made for Duel Of The Fates, but then, that's only one piece of music within the larger context of Star Wars and I felt there were other films that stood taller as more overall accomplished works. Of course, it's one man's opinion, but I do agree Duel Of The Fates is about the only good thing to come out of those horrible prequels.

  2. Phew, I got worried for a minute there. I was scrolling down and down and there was still no LOTR! 😛
    I think you've got the list pretty spot on, bearing in mind that it is only for films 1980-2010.

    1.  @C_Packer Thanks Claire!! Good to have you along for the ride! Yeah, it was pretty much a given that LOTR was gonna top this list, because the score has become perhaps the most influential of the last decade or so…. at least.

  3. Great list! For me the lack of DRIVE is shame…. But I am a little in love with that film and the way it seamlessly intertwines with the 80s electro pop music. But what do I know?

    1.  @FrontRoomCinema You'll really like our list on the Greatest Film Soundtracks of the Modern Age then Scott, which lists films where the major musical feature is songs, instead of orchestral scores…..  That's coming up later in the year, though. Patience my friend!
      PS: I love Drive too, and it might just feature in said upcoming list…. 😉

  4. Out of this list I agree with numbers 1,5,7,8. I'm not saying the others are not iconic, it's just that those meant the most to me. I can't imagine a list like this without Star Wars either.

    1.  @Impsndcnma The only reason I didn't include Star Wars is because Williams' themes were written prior to our time period – which begins here in 1980. Otherwise, I'd have included SW too! Thanks for stopping by, my friend!

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