A great soundtrack or score can turn a good film or television show into a truly immersive experience. Epic battles, romantic moments and iconic characters wouldn’t have nearly the same impact without the right musical themes and cues.
This is the music that’s stayed with us long after we’ve left the theater or turned off the TV. Whether it’s an original score or a classic track by a popular artist, these songs perfectly complement the action onscreen.
Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave — “Intro and Main Title” (from Phantasm)
This has been and will always remain my favorite horror movie soundtrack. The best horror scores pick a simple melodic theme that surfaces throughout the movie in subtly different forms, building suspense and dread and terror. You can probably hum the theme from Halloween, and maybe even the one from Friday the 13th, but there has never been one better than the haunting, creepy, minor-key melody from Myrow and Seagrave’s Phantasm score. Every time that melody returns, your pulse races, your hair stands on end and you prepare yourself for whatever lurks around the next corner.
Rick Springfield — “Theme from Mission Magic” (from Mission Magic!)
In the early 1970s, The Brady Bunch morphed into The Brady Kids cartoon. The show’s animators gave a similar cartoon called Mission Magic to a young Rick Springfield, who recorded a song for each episode. Kitsch value aside, this killer collection of bubblegum and power pop songs from the series totally rules, especially if you happen to dig early Dwight Twilley, the Bay City Rollers, Big Star, Badfinger or the Raspberries.
Thomas Newman — “Brooks Was Here” (from The Shawshank Redemption)
Newman’s score is the perfect example of understated music bringing the emotions of a scene to the fore. Rather than insert large orchestral themes to indicate sadness or melancholy, he has a single, somber piano wander around a pedal tone. This mimics both the actions and internal transformation of the character onscreen, allowing us to feel Brooks’s dreamlike wonder and, later, his fading hope.
Delia Derbyshire and Ron Grainer — “Doctor Who” (from Doctor Who)
Realized by Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, this 1963 recording is an early example of electronic music in a TV show. Using musique concrète techniques, Derbyshire created each note individually by cutting, splicing, speeding up and slowing down segments of analogue tape containing recordings of a single plucked string, white noise and the simple harmonic waveforms of test-tone oscillators (originally used for calibrating equipment and rooms, not music). In a word: badass.
Popol Vuh — “Hüter der Schwelle” (from Herz aus Glas)
Where to start? Florian Fricke is among my favorite composers and bandleaders ever, and his project Popol Vuh is what I usually call “my favorite artist.” I also love Werner Herzog’s films and their dreamlike atmosphere. Though most people arrive at Popol Vuh through Herzog’s movies, I did the opposite, discovering the films via their amazing soundtracks. Popol Vuh scored at least half a dozen films for Herzog, and it’s a perfect artistic marriage in which music inspires image and image inspires music. There is an indelible atmosphere of cosmic proportions in Herzog’s work, and Fricke’s synthesis of classical composition, avant-garde experimentation and rock instrumentation is truly heavenly music to my ears.
Darondo — “Didn’t I” (from Breaking Bad)
A perfect pairing thanks to the emotional and lyrical content of the song and the plot of the AMC series. I love it when television and movies introduce an audience to an artist or song they might not have otherwise heard.
Pixies — “Wave of Mutilation” (from Pump Up the Volume)
Moody, sexy, suburban teen angst perfection.
The Slickers — “Johnny Too Bad” (from The Harder They Come)
The success of both this 1973 film and its soundtrack launched Jimmy Cliff into superstar territory and gave reggae a foothold in the American music market. The soundtrack introduced me to some of the best ska, rocksteady and reggae artists and producers ever to hail from Jamaica. Most impactful was “Johnny Too Bad,” recorded by the Slickers and produced by Byron Lee in 1970. The song — a dark, but not vulgar, depiction of the lives of a rude boy and a serious warning to those who would romanticize the lifestyle — encapsulated the movie’s plot and, after watching the film for the first time in the early 2000s, guided reggae music into this little rock ‘n’ roller’s CD collection.
Ernst Reijseger — “A Una Rosa” (from The White Diamond and The Wild Blue Yonder)
Dutch cellist/composer Ernst Reijseger has composed music for a number of Werner Herzog films. This track is from the album Requiem for a Dying Planet, which features music composed for two Hertzog films, The White Diamond and The Wild Blue Yonder. The album also features Senegalese vocalist Mola Sylla and a Sardinian vocal choir.
Julee Cruise — “The World Spins” (from Twin Peaks)
I was turned onto Twin Peaks in college, and after binge watching the DVD box set, it became one of my favorite TV shows (save for some of the episodes with Billy Zane). On its own, “The World Spins” is a soft, gentle drone of tune, but hearing it on the show was completely soul-crushing. Played during the emotional climax of the entire series, this song has stuck with me after getting teary the first time I heard it. Recommended if you like being scared and heartbroken at the same time. “It is happening again…”