Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Top Ten – Favorite Film Scores of the 1980s

It is safe to say that my enjoyment of film scores started in the 1980s, when I picked up cassette tapes (remember those?) of the scores to Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. So it really shouldn’t be a surprise that a large part of my score collection contains music from this decade. I had a few readers ask me for top ten lists involving scores, and I was always at a lose on how to proceed. A top ten list of favorite scores vs. a top ten list of historically important scores vs top ten list of best scores by a composer… you see the problem.

For this one I just stuck with personal favorites of mine from films made in the 1980s. These are not my favorite films of the decade. But they are the top ten most listened to film scores. I did rank them, but this ranking is due to change at any moment, because – dammit they are all so good.

And yes, I love adventures scores, so you may notice a bias toward those types of albums. Fans of romantic comedies, sports films and dramas may be disappointed.

10. Kiki’s Delivery Service composed by Joe Hisaishi
So I start off the one score that isn’t an adventure score. But this happens to be one of my favorite animated films by the Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki. Because of that, this score is one I can listen to at almost any time. It is light, bubbly and filled with a kind of European flair that you don’t hear in much of Hisaishi’s work. It has lots of fun little moments that are captured musically. It also features music symbolizing the joy of flying (a soaring waltz-like style that Hisaishi would use in the later film Howl’s Moving Castle), as well as moments of quiet contemplation. It’s just a well-rounded CD presentation, and perfect listening for a lazy Sunday or just to take you back to the world of the film.

9. Tron composed by Wendy Carlos
From sweet and soothing to harsh and electronic. The score to Tron fits the film like a glowing power glove, and is certainly not something that everyone will enjoy. Carlos took actual arcade style music fused it with dissonant orchestral techniques and created something very new and unique for the film. It has themes and motifs, and some of them are excellent. The early 80s digital synth effects just create a whole new audio world, one rooted in Atari and arcades. Whenever I mention this is one of my favorite scores of the decade, I get odd looks, but I stick by it. Nothing like Tron has been created since, and it is still a lot of fun to listen to.

8. Batman composed by Danny Elfman
These days people think superhero music, and they think Hans Zimmer thanks to his work on the Dark Knight trilogy and Man of Steel. But before that, people thought of Danny Elfman. His score for Batman is one of the most iconic superheroes scores around, and one that influenced countless imitators. Gothic, powerful and a little quirky, the score captures the nature of the caped crusader and Tim Burton’s vision of that hero in every detail. Batman’s theme swoops, dives and enshrouds the listener. The action music can be frantic, but crates an elegant chaos that is always overwhelmed by Batman’s theme. I still think this work tops Zimmers in nearly every way (from a stand along listen), and every time I return to it, I’m surprised by how dynamic it is.

7. Transformers the Movie composed by Vince DiCola
Oh man, am I gonna get grief for this one. But I can’t help it, I grew up with the Transformers, and this score is part of my childhood. It also the embodiment of the rockin’ 80s soundtracks. You know the stuff: full of synths and wailing electric guitars. Dicola takes those elements and actually creates a score with themes that battle each other, moments of dread and even a touching electronic piece for the death of Optimus Prime. His action set pieces are great stand-alone cues that could come off an electronic artists CD. But he even manages to work in ideas from the supporting songs on the soundtrack like Weird Al’s Dare to Be Stupid and Stan Bush’s Dare. It’s either genius or a marketing tool, but it is all awesome in a purely 80s sense.

6. Young Sherlock Holmes composed by Bruce Broughton
One of the huge influences on the decade in film music was John Williams. Bruce Broughton’s score for Young Sherlock Holmes takes the Williams template for adventure and fantasy scoring and simply nails it. Broughton keeps a lot of his own stylistic touch in the score, specifically the action queues which are very busy and frantic.  This score has everything you want in a top-notch adventure score. It’s got a great two-part theme for the heroes, a wonderful love theme, a sinister choral chant for the evil cult and a myriad of supporting themes. The action music is energetic, the horror moments are suspenseful and the end credits suite is one of my favorite from this decade.

5. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan composed by James Horner
It was tough to pick just one score from Mr. Horner from the 1980s. He created so many wonderful albums in that decade. It ended up being between this score and his work on Krull. But I think as a complete listen, his score for Wrath of Khan is the best. He creates a wonderful nautical theme for the Enterprise and her crew. For a lot of folks, that theme is one of the best of the entire franchise. Horner also wrote a unique sound for Spock, one that inspired future composers Eidelman and Giacchino for their takes on Vulcan themes. Then there is Khan’s motif that brazenly explodes whenever the villain unleashes. Like all of Horner’s scores, it is filled with powerful emotions and big sound. The final tracks are some of the best of the entire franchise.

4. Explorers composed by Jerry Goldsmith
It was very difficult to pick a favorite Goldsmith score too. He created so many scores in all kinds of films, that picking just one was nearly impossible. But it all boiled down to the score that I listened to the most. That has to be his work on Dante’s family adventure film Explorers. There are about six different themes at work in this score, but the best is “the construction” theme, which serves as the heroic adventure theme for most of the score. I love how hints of the theme appear early in the work as the boys start thinking about the possibilities of space travel. Then you get a fully developed version as they build the machine, and then a wonderful exploration version of the theme (and the supporting “dreamer” theme) as they take it for a first flight. That is just one theme! The rest are all treated and manipulated in various ways, telling the story musically and with a lot of energy and warmth. It just makes me smile each time I listen to it, and it captures that feeling of adventure so well. A perfect fit for a score titled Explorers.

3. Conan the Barbarian composed by Basil Poledouris
This wonderful juggernaut of a score is one that I can always listen to from font to back and never once consider skipping a track. It is that good. Poledouris combines medieval rhythms and melodies to create a primeval feel to the score. Most films took a more classical or romantic approach and this allows the Conan score to stand alone, and yet sound so perfect for it’s film. The wonderful use of choir in tracks like Riders of Doom adds amazing power to those scenes. The love theme is sweeping and adds another layer to the propulsive music. It is one of the rare scores, like Tron, that creates a sonic representation of the visual world of the film. You hear this score and you are taken back to the age of Conan.

2. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom composed by John Williams
This one was nearly impossible, but I had to pick just one score from the Indiana Jones series, and in the end Temple of Doom won. I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, but when it comes down to it, Temple of Doom is just a hair more fun to listen to. Williams takes the style and themes he created in the first film and builds on them. But he adds whole new thematic colors to the score and they are doozies. A new gal in Indy’s life gets a new love theme. The sidekick gets a theme. But the supporting themes are too many to count. You get some slick action music erupting in key tracks like Slave Children’s’ Crusade and The Mine Car Chase (which had to have killed some of the orchestra with the speed of those notes). The Temple of Doom chant is the dark blood red cherry on top, adding a huge dose of horror to the whole thing. It is a blast from start to finish, with the Raiders March wrapping the whole thing up. Only one score could possibly top it.

1. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back composed by John Williams
It was the 1980s and John Williams was king of the film score world. But this is certainly one of his masterpieces. His approach to the first Star Wars sequel is similar to his approach on the first Indiana Jones sequel: take the familiar themes and build on them. He ended up creating two amazing themes for this film: the Imperial March and Yoda’s Theme. Both of these themes are driving forces pushing the score into new story directions. The Imperial March is nearly omnipresent, opening and closing scenes, battering the rebels at each turn, and overwhelming Luke’s theme several times. Yoda’s theme works wonderfully during the scenes on Dagobah, often subtly guiding the film. Other times the theme steps forward and takes over: such as in the scene where Yoda raises the X-wing from the swamp. It is even turned into an amazing battle theme as Luke uses Yoda’s teachings to battle Vader. Han and Leia get a sweet love theme that is turned into a dirge when Han is frozen and then into a hopeful beacon as the film swoops into an amazing tour de force end credits suite. All that and again, Williams creates a myriad of lesser themes and motifs that drive the action, with one of his best chase pieces The Asteroid Field taking the cake. It is an amazing score, one of the few that actually tops its predecessor. If you had any doubt that John Williams was a Maestro of film scores, one listen to the complete version of The Empire Strikes Back should convince you to call him Master.


Here is a set of other scores that made into consideration. I could write more about each of them, but this post is long enough. Here they are in alphabetical order. Expect to hear more about them in future blogs.
  • Amadeus
  • Back to the Future
  • Bladerunner
  • Castle in the Sky
  • The Dark Crystal
  • E.T.
  • The Final Conflict: The Omen III
  • Flash Gordon
  • Ghostbusters
  • Glory
  • Gremlins
  • Heavy Metal
  • Hellbound: Hellraiser II
  • Hellraiser
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  • Karate Kid II
  • Krull
  • The Living Daylights
  • Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
  • Poltergeist
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Silverado
  • Star Trek III
  • Star Trek V
  • Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
  • Willow


  1. All fun picks. Young Sherlock Holmes is an interesting one: strong but without overpowering the subject matter.

    I was going to remark that at least Meco didn't do a disco version of The Empire Strikes Back like their one for Star Wars, but a quick look on youtube reveals that they did. I had suppressed the memory.

    1. Yeah "Young Sherlock Holmes" is one of those scores that I had forgotten about. But my pal Jon over at Movie Music UK mentioned it and after giving it a spin, I was shocked by how good it was. It really works great in the film and makes for a wonderful stand alone listen. The complete score does have a few tracks of underscore that don't do too much. But the highlights are some of the best film music of the era.

      Meco was a busy busy man. I'll admit I get a kick out of his stuff. So cheesy and disco, I can't help but smile. But after about one track, I'm done for a year or ten. ;)

  2. Grizzly bears! Why didn’t you tell me you were doing a best of the 80s scores?! I don’t know; use mind messages or something, like you just now did. Anyways...

    10. Flash Gordon – Queen

    Track 8. 'The Kiss' begins with trippy Mercury vocals but then, about halfway through, blossoms into full-blown dreamy cosmic wonder that’s so sincere, one longs to be transported onto the cover illustration of some late 70s/early 80s sci-fi fantasy novel or magazine. And tracks 5 through 8 are just balls-out awesome. King of the Impossible!

    9. Dune – Brian Eno / Toto

    Track 9. 'The Prophecy Theme' (from the original release) truly does take you out there, to the very mystical edges of time, the universe and the mind; I can see the midday, or starry night, horizon of Arrakis stretching on infinitely. Track 18. 'Paul Meets Chani' is just plain beautiful and hopeful.

    8. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – James Horner

    What you said.

    7. Extreme Prejudice – Jerry Goldsmith

    Lesser known, perhaps (along with the film itself), but I for one consider this the best straight-up action score of the decade. The main titles suite, alone, says it all: intense, hardboiled, ultra-masculine. And the score as a whole (best summarized in the end credits) also dips exotically into south-of-the-border intrigue.

    6. Big Trouble in Little China – John Carpenter / Alan Howarth

    Oh, baby. An orgasm of rad, dirty-work keyboard beats and rock riffs that perfectly embody the fast paced world of kung fu action, weird Chinese sorcery and Burton swagger. It’s a total meatball score that’s bursting with energy and attitude. Listen to 'The Final Escape' track ...you’ll be catching boot knives in no time.

    5. Legend – Jerry Goldsmith

    One of the best fantasy scores ever; fantasy in the most whimsical, classical sense, but also a perfect alchemy of orchestrals and synthesizer elements. Track 7 'The Unicorns' brings glittery, magical forests to life while around 2 ½ minutes into track 8. 'Bumps and Hollows' is practically live-action, Golden Age Disney.

    4. Blade Runner – Vangelis

    This one is pretty definitive for not just the 80s, but all of science fiction cinema. It is the score you play late at night to get lost in. Everything is vast, distant, lonely, erotic. 'Main Titles', 'Tales of the Future', 'Blade Runner Blues', 'Love Theme', 'End Titles' ....all superb tracks that represent the film at its best moments. Yet, my favorite is the unused 'Rachel’s Song', which is maybe the single greatest piece ever composed by Vangelis.

    3. Conan the Barbarian – Basil Poledouris

    What you said.

    2. Return of the Jedi – John Williams

    I know Empire is the big heavy, but I actually prefer the warmer and more adventurous score for Jedi. The 'Sail Barge Assault' is Star Wars music in pure swashbuckling form, 'Parade of the Ewoks' is wonderfully lighthearted and nimble and curious, 'Luke and Leia' is, in my opinion, the great unsung theme of the saga and 'The Dark Side Beckons' is just monumentally epic.

    1. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – John Williams

    What you said.


    The Black Stallion Returns
    Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome
    (Tangerine Dream)
    The Land Before Time
    The NeverEnding Story
    The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

    All other Williams scores.
    All other Goldsmith scores.

    1. Whoo Hoo, another Goldsmith fan! Great to see that. I really resisted the temptation to just put "all of Goldsmith's scores from the 80s", and just end the list. :) His filmography is so vast I haven't gotten close to listening to everything he's done, so "Extreme Prejudice" has not had a spin yet, but I will rectify that.

      His score for "Legend" is tough, because I really appreciate it more than love it. I think it may be his most thematic score, and the way he weaves and integrates all those themes is really amazing. But the first few times I listened to it, the whole thing sounded messy and unfocused. It actually took me a while to warm up to it, and then really hear all the elements he was working with. It is actually the opposite of unfocused, but really damned focused. Not an easy listen in some ways (and I've run into folks that hate some of the 80s synth sounds he uses in that score for the Goblins), but it really is an impressive work.

      Ah, "Jedi". This was really tough for me, because if I'm judging the scores by complexity and execution, "Jedi" beats "Empire" hands down. It's got so much going on in it (kinda like "Legend" that way), and the mix of styles Williams uses is so impressive. The dark moody music for Jabba's scenes, the quieter plaintive moments for Luke and Leia, and the wonderful sadness of the Imperial March when Anakin dies. Great stuff. I even dig the Ewok music (which drives some folks batty). I was never completely sold on Luke and Leia's theme, but I'm in the minority. As awesome a score as this is, I find myself listening to Empire more frequently. Even though the movie is darker, the score is more fun to listen to. Not sure how that worked out.

      I'm going to add "Ghostbusters" to my runner up list too. That score is perfect for the film and a lot of fun to listen to. I'm also going to add the score to "Heavy Metal" (by the same composer), because that is one hell of a fantasy adventure score.

      "Akira" is a real amazing score, but not one I revisit too often. I love some of the tracks more than others. It does a great job of creating an audio version of that world. And it is so unique, certainly up there with "Tron" and "Conan". But not as enjoyable a listen to me.

      "Flash Gordon" is pure awesome. So wonderfully cheesy and fun. Certainly going on my runner up list.

      Thanks for posting, fellow Goldsmith fan!

  3. The 80's was a good time for soundtracks. You picked some good ones, Roman, though I haven't heard them all nor seen all the movies either. Amadeus is a good movie and soundtrack. Bladerunner is indeed a good score, but for the longest time, as you may know, there was never an official release to it until many years later. Although I have an album with a similar sound & style under the title, Opera Sauvage. I may not be correct on that info, but that's how I remember it.

    Although I never cared for the movie, the Stephen King movie, Firestarter, had a good soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. Another film album I enjoyed from the 80's is by Mark Isham titled, Film Music. It had scores on it from Mrs. Soffel, The Times of Harvey Milk (from the PBS television biography, if memory serves, and Never Cry Wolf.

    Country was a soundtrack from the film of the same title and had some Windham Hill artist on it, and I was really into the Windham Hill label during that era. The film starred Jessica Lang & Sam Shepard.

    Phillip Glass has scored many films as well, and I picked up the album called Mishima, and it's pretty good. Pretty good movie too, but it's been a while since I've seen it.

    Round Midnight too was a pretty good movie, and a pretty good album with different jazz artist on it like Herbie Hancock, Chet Baker, John McLaughlin, and many others.

    I enjoy the Glory soundtracks and actually those Hellraiser soundtracks are fun to listen to as well. The Dune soundtrack is a good call too. Remembering some of these films made me realize they made a lot of great films from that decade.

    1. Yeah, the 80s and 90s were a great time for film scores. Lots of really exciting and colorful music.

      Amadeus is one of my favorite films. I need to get a review of that up on this blog. The music is a huge part of the film (obviously) and the score itself is a real treat.

      "Bladerunner" is really an amazing work by Vangelis. He completely nailed the look and feel of the film. I find I have to be in just the right mood to listen to it though. If you are still interested in getting the score, there was an amazingly faithful re-recording of the score that was released a couple years ago. It was a limited pressing, so it might be hard to find. It is the complete score, as heard in the film - which is something none of the Vangelis releases have ever managed. Most of his official releases were all alternate versions of what you hear in the film. The rerecording was painstakingly written from the audio tracks in the film, and recreated using synths that sound period accurate. It is as close to a complete version of the score as you'll get. It's really interesting to listen to and has a lot of music from the end sequence, that is very dark and angry. Worth picking up if you can still find it. I believe it is the "30th Anniversary Rerecording" and the artist is Edgar Rothermich.

      "Dune" is another one of those scores that fits its movie so well. The album listen is a bit messy at times, and it is another one where the version on the album isn't quite what you hear in the movie. But all in all, it really is a fun score.

      I also dig the Tangerine Dream version of "Legend". It is the version of the score I grew up with. I didn't hear the Goldsmith version until much later. It is certainly a wonderful bit of electronic soundtrack. I haven't checked out much more by Tangerine Dream, but I should. I think I'd like their stuff.

      You and Cannon both seem to appreciate 80s electronic soundtracks, so I feel good recommending the following. It is the score for a video game, but don't let that scare you off. There have been some amazing scores for video games in recent years (but that is a whole other topic). Anyway, it is for the game "Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon". It is done in the style of 80's synth scores, and it is a ton of fun. It's got all the mannerisms you expect from John Carpenter, Vangelis, and even some DiCola and Moriodor in there. It's set in a cyberpunk 80s version of the future, so that is why they went that direction with the score. Parts of it sound like "Bladerunner", "Terminator", "Escape from New York" and more. It's all done with the style, none of the themes from those films are used, but they are all combined so well, it's just a lot of fun. It easily fits into that genre of film music. Check it out here and see if it grabs you:

      And yes someone going by the name Powerglove composed this. He is so bad!

  4. Oh, I'm well familiar with the Far Cry 3 score. Been a fan of Power Glove for some time now. Good shout-out all the same, though. If you haven't already, also try out others like Lazerhawk, Dynatron and Rain Sword, to name just a few.

    Or, hell, just jump on over to Paul Leonard-Morgan's score for Dredd.

    One more thing about the list... I chose to stick to original scores instead of including source or classical compositions, including Amadeus. Otherwise, The Right Stuff would definitely made my Top 10.

    1. Oh man, "The Right Stuff" is a great one too. I managed to get a special edition of the score as Conti originally wanted released back on album and cassette. It contains variations of his material with less of the Holst influence. It is really a treat to hear. His material used in "Yeager's Triumph" is one of the most triumphant pieces of film music written. Great stuff. The liner notes talk all about the trouble production and Conti's situation with the music. Was very enlightening to say the least.

      Thanks for the recommendations I'll check those folks out. Blood Dragon is so much fun!