I love movie soundtracks. One of the first things I notice about a film is the music. Many film scores have impressed me over the years, names like Howard Shore, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, Henry Mancini, Ennio Morricone, Harry Gregson-Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Phillip Glass, and Klaus Badelt. However, the greatest, and I don’t think there’s much debate, is John Williams.
I originally intended on presenting a list of my favorite John Williams’ soundtrack scores after catching a few minutes of the Superman soundtrack which daisy-chained into Jurassic Park and left me renewed in my awe of his breathtaking melodies and distinct and unique themes. Only a few minutes of research changed my plans entirely. You see, Williams’ career started in 1958 and he’s currently slated to score films beyond 2020.
He has 325 IMDb “Soundtrack” credits from which he’s won 117 awards including 5 Oscar wins (41! nominations), 4 Golden Globes (24 noms), 3 Emmys (6 noms), 18 Grammys (EIGHTEEN out of 52 noms), a Guinness World Record (Best Selling Single of Instrumental Music “Star Wars”), and just about every other conceivable film music award ever given out. So to take a career that prestigious and prolific and try to pick the 10 best is simply ludicrous. Instead, I’ll attempt something only slightly less ludicrous, by breaking it up into decades.
Decades and Decades Of Masterpieces
First a top 10 from the 60s and 70s, then a list covering the 80s and 90s, and finally the last two decades. My knowledge of music theory is somewhere between layman and Freshman in college so I’ll avoid any technical reviews. Enough about what I’ll write, here’s some writing:
From 1958-1979 John Williams is credited with 53 soundtracks. He was nominated for awards on 12 of those films. I’m disregarding his adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof and his collaboration with Sherman & Sherman on Tom Sawyer, despite the Oscar wins, due to the themes not necessarily being his and it’s my list so I get to make the rules. I am focusing on the main themes, but not discrediting the fact multiple moods existed in these movies. I recommend pulling them up on YouTube for full effect.
That leaves these:
Valley of the Dolls
A wistful, pretty, emotional, but a little sad, and certainly romantic score. However, I find it ultimately boring.
Very weird but thoughtful melody surrounded by spooky chaos. With really bizarre concussion solos from Stomu Yomash’ta which are frankly hard to describe.
The Poseidon Adventure
A bombastic, explosive, event-driven, disaster score. One simple motif, and some 60s soft rock mixed in for a pretty enjoyable experience.
Jazz Rock – Elton John could’ve written this score.
An early example of thematic tune over the “sounds” of the events, a predecessor to what he will eventually become the master of – epic event tracks, but still decidedly 60s sounding.
The Towering Inferno
Beginning hints of Imperial March and Indiana Jones, with an exciting soaring melody, and a simple upward motif moving from one section and one part of the chord to another; a signature Williams’ element. I didn’t want to stop listening to this one.
Two notes, that’s all he needed to create the mood and a symbol which stands above the film and maybe his own career. Baaaaa-dum…baaaa-dum…baa-dum..baa-dum..ba-da-ba-da-ba-da, if Towering Inferno wasn’t the first real John Williams’ score – Jaws was.
One of the greatest soundtracks (if not THE greatest) ever, with at least 6 independent themes varying from heroic to romantic to villainous to epic to reflective and back. The motif, bum-ba-da-bummm-BUMMMM-bum-bum-bum-BUMMMMM-bum will forever be music saying the words Star Wars
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Turn off the lights, put on your headphones, close your eyes, and let the opening of a seemingly random smattering of sounds play on your mind. If you don’t feel something…fear, smallness, anticipation, curiosity…I pity you. A gentle inclusion of Jiminy Cricket and hints of flying with Hedwig seem to be hiding in there too.
From the bursting chords, the main theme seems to yell SUPERMAN, to the beautiful love song “Can You Read My Mind?”, I find this main title one of the easiest soundtracks to listen to. Almost like a pop song. There’s no hiding that it’s John Williams at this point, the similarities with Star Wars are numerous, with whole bars nearly identical.
And that wraps the 70s
70’s Film Score Rankings
10 – Images
9 – Valley of the Dolls
8 – Cinderella Liberty
7 – Earthquake
6 – The Poseidon Adventure
5 – Jaws
4 – The Towering Inferno
3 – Close Encounters of the Third Kind
2 – Superman
1 – Star Wars
I’m sure there are those who would quibble with that order, and I fully welcome any and all quibbles. Quibble away if you will.
The 80s and 90s will be much tougher because he was nominated for awards on 24 of his 37 credits during those decades – that’s 65% by the way. That’s similar to LeBron winning (or at least placing in the top 5 of) the MVP 13 out of the next 20 seasons.
John Williams was born in New York in 1932 to a Jazz drumming father. He was raised, as he put it, “not inclined to be lazy.” He was drafted into the Air Force in 1952 after studying music at UCLA. He composed for and conducted the Air Force band, and then, after completing his service, attended The Julliard School. After graduating, he worked as a session pianist for Henry Mancini. As we saw in the previous volume in this series, his first Soundtrack credit was in 1958. As we discussed last time, the 60s and 70s were a fairly successful time for Williams. He had 12 extremely successful scores and plenty of other contributions to Hollywood. By the end of the ’79, he had established relationships with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas which would ultimately be extremely lucrative and prodigious for all involved.
If Williams had faded into obscurity before the summer of 1980 he’d be fondly remembered. But what followed over the next 20 years is nothing short of dominance. From 1980-1989 he had 20 major release credits, of which 12 were nominated or won Academy Awards, including 3 Grammys. There were the continuations of franchises which had started in the 70s, Star Wars, and Superman; as well as the original trilogy of Spielberg’s Harrison Ford action-adventure saga, Indiana Jones. There were also several brand new projects, no less iconic, and no less masterful than anything else Williams had done.
Also in 1980 he became the conductor of the Boston Pops and cut some really entertaining records of his own and other’s classic works. He remained their conductor until ’93. Then came the 90s. Another 20 releases, this time with 14 nominations but only two winning major awards. In the 90s he gave us possibly his two best works, Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List, along with Home Alone and the return of Star Wars.
Following the same format as before, here are the award-winning film scores credited to John Williams from 1980-1999 excluding only Yes, Giorgio because Williams is only credited with a single song on the record.
Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back
Same great themes as the original with some new additions including one that has gained a heightened level of pop-culture value. The Imperial March, aka Vader’s Theme, is a symbol of unpopular success. It is the battle cry of the evil empires of the sports world, teams like the Yankees used it throughout the Jeter years. Overall, the soundtrack isn’t better than the original, but without it, we wouldn’t have bum-bum-bum, bum–badum-bum–badum.
Indiana Jones: The Raiders of the Lost Ark
Great incidental music, each scene picturesquely painted on the listener’s mind. However, the real treasure is Indy’s Theme – one part Superhero, one part average Joe. The bouncy, upbeat tune matches Spielberg’s action-comedy mix so well.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
A very thoughtful and gorgeous soundtrack. Shadows of Empire Strikes Back and Close Encounters are woven throughout. The otherworldly theme for the title character will lodge itself into your ear if you let it, and it’ll never let go.
Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi
Leaning heavier on Leia’s Theme and Yoda’s Theme, with the inclusion of the Ewok celebration – this score is a fitting conclusion to the greatest non-fiction trilogy in film history. Unlike Empire, however, it doesn’t provide anything particularly startling in its unique material.
Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom
Again, a brilliant “Spielberg-ian” mix of exciting action hero tunes and some of the goofiest Williams material to date. It is spookier, as befits the locales of the story, but the value in the soundtrack is still primarily in the unforgettable theme introduced in the first film.
A theme with a kind of John Tesh feel, romantic and jazzy. His first non-Lucas or Spielberg film hit a nomination since Superman (I know Lucas didn’t direct V or VI but they were his movies). The sounds of The River are fresh and unique.
The Witches of Eastwick
The Updike novel adaptation has a similar feel to ET musically. I must confess I haven’t seen the film (super weird), but I enjoyed the soundtrack. Also, it has a strong resemblance to a not-yet realized Harry Potter theme lurking in there.
Empire of the Sun
Not sure how I’ve missed this movie, but the soundtrack is typical Williams. Larger than life, with a slight but never corny Asian flavor as would be expected for a film set in Japan. I’ll be looking for a way to see this movie. Again, more tunes/melodies which have strong echoes of the coming Harry Potter themes.
The Accidental Tourist
An introspective soundtrack with a gorgeous, romantic tune seemingly laden with the same guilt, confusion, regret, and sadness as the characters in this movie. Extremely beautiful, and while distinctly Williams, not quite comparable to any of his other award-winning material to date, except perhaps ET.
Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade
The best Indiana Jones film in my opinion is bolstered by a rousing musical reminder of the previous two films. The theme of the grail or perhaps the theme of the quest for the grail is full of longing and discovery. Also, track 3 is called “Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra”…
Born on the Fourth of July
A movie that I really enjoyed and Williams’ soundtrack was no small part. Oliver Stone, Tom Cruise, and a gorgeous Williams soundtrack. Hints of Taps, the National Anthem, and a brand new theme full of memory and honor.
Kind of the Williams Christmas album. Intertwines the brilliant incidentals with the wonder of Christmas and the mischief of Culkin’s character.
Another Spielberg classic. One of my favorite films. I wouldn’t trust anyone other than Williams to give me a theme for Pan, and he doesn’t disappoint. An action-adventure theme born out of a lullaby. Some hints of Harry Potter and Jurassic Park still sneaking out on occasion. And of course, Hook and the Croc, tick-tock.
Another collaboration with Stone, and a similar feeling theme as Fourth of July. After listening to a bunch of Williams, this is the first I’d say blends in with the rest. I can tell it’s him, but nothing jumps out as a fresh theme or unique element.
Dinosaurs must’ve captured Williams’ imagination because the melody he weaves into this film is breathtaking. In a movie, which is ultimately a tragedy depicting man’s overreach, Williams instead draws attention to the possibilities and the awesomeness of the Park. Without spoiling too much, I have yet to hear a soundtrack which had more effect on me in relation to my appreciation for the film than this one did.
What a year for John Williams (and Steven Spielberg). Terrible events often prepare the ground for some of the most beautiful creations. In each of the agonizing tracks, the music pulls you through the depths of human suffering, but not the idea of human suffering, actual events. And yet, a ray of hope shines through the masterpiece. Brilliant compositions, with elements of the great eastern European classical composers heavily influenced by Jewish cultural sounds, lament their subject’s fate. Another candidate for the greatest soundtrack ever.
A bit of a change-up for this movie. The swirling romantic melody is an effective attempt by Williams to match the allure of Ormond’s character as Ford slowly notices and eventually falls for her. Graceful and enigmatic music along with a return to Williams’ native jazz.
If Richard Nixon was a villain, and a case can certainly be made, Williams gave us the sounds of his villainy. A dark, foreboding collection of songs lacking a signature melody.
A dark and controversial film. Electronic sounds give the score a slightly dated but kinda cool feel. Not much to be excited about in the subject matter, so the mood and melodies are subdued. As a result, the soundtrack is a bit meandering.
Jurassic Park: The Lost World
The ill-fated sequel to the ’93 blockbuster is accompanied by a classic Williams’ score. While perhaps a bit less optimistic than its predecessor in general, the same unforgettable melody rings out.
Seven Years in Tibet
Another war era film set in Asia which has a really nice soundtrack. Brad Pitt and David Thewlis are both really good. It bears a strong resemblance to some themes from Harry Potter, which is at least the 6th or 7th time I’ve felt that.
Another one I’d like to see. Choral tracks and African musical elements alongside very Williams’ sounding incidentals. By the way, all 3 ’97 entries on this list were nominated for Grammys.
Saving Private Ryan
The greatest war movie ever. An appropriately somber yet invigorating score. Similarities to Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, and the yet to be composed Patriot can be heard. If this country ever decides to adopt a new anthem, we need to do it while Williams is still alive so he can write it.
(He was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in ’98 as well)
Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace
The return of Star Wars was a momentous occasion and I, for one, wasn’t too disappointed. One of the highlights of the film is Williams’ score, full of nostalgic reminders of the late 70s and brand new epic themes. The “Duel of the Fates” immediately joined the pantheon of Star Wars sounds and ultimately Williams’ compositions.
A poignant but somewhat aimless film, with a matching soundtrack. Beautiful, with a Grammy-winning theme, I found it a bit boring. Once again some jazz was included in fitting moments.
Wow, that wraps up the two decades (though the Grammy for Angela’s Ashes wasn’t awarded until the 2000 ceremony). If that isn’t unprecedented dominance, I’d be interested to find a comparison. So, without further adieu, my attempt to narrow down and rank his 10 greatest soundtracks from the 80s and 90s.
80’s and 90’s Film Score Rankings
10 – Home Alone
9 – Raiders of the Lost Ark
8 – Return of the Jedi
7 – E.T.
6 – Saving Private Ryan
5 – The Phantom Menace
4 – Schindler’s List
3 – The Last Crusade
2 – Empire Strikes Back
1 – Jurassic Park
Honorable Mention: Born on the Fourth of July, Temple of Doom, JKF
John Williams has somehow managed to write other music other than just film scores. His “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” (1984), “The Olympic Spirit” (1988), “Summon the Heroes” (1996), and “Call of the Champions” (2002) was each used in the opening ceremonies of Summer Olympics held in the states. He also composed opening themes for several TV shows from the NBC News to Lost in Space to the incidental score of the 1st season of Gilligan’s Island (though not the song you’re humming now).
He has also graced us with at least 15 other concertos, a musical, scores of fanfares, marches, preludes, and hymns as well as a single Symphony. If each film score can be considered a single Opus, the best count I can come up with from various lists is 174, however, IMDb credits him with 326 “Soundtrack” credits, 143 “Composer” credits and 193 “Music Department” credits (and 3 “Actor” credits) each overlapping in several ways so a conclusive number may only reside in the mind of the man himself.
More Franchises and More Awards
In the aughts, the renewal of the Star Wars saga and the launch of the Harry Potter films gave Williams a couple of new franchises to beautify. In the 20 years, he has scored 22 films gaining another 16 major award nominations which is about his career average, talk about consistent excellence.
The films that didn’t get major award recognition show how polished Williams has become. Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones was, and still is, the most disappointing offering of the franchise and flopped at the awards. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets received a Grammy nom but was adapted by William Ross for the film. Minority Report was a bit of an under-the-radar success with a really cool soundtrack but no award recognition.
The Terminal was a clever little Spielberg-Hanks RomCom which had little impact (I bought it, Hanks is hilarious). Indiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was like Attack of the Clones, a pathetic attempt at a continuation of greatness, and was largely ridiculed; though a single song from the record still did receive a Grammy nom. For Rogue One: A Star Wars story, Michael Giaccino, a rising star in the biz, did the original work while Williams is credited for the use of his themes. The Post received a nomination for a Golden Globe and several lesser awards but not an Oscar. Finally, for The BFG, Williams received a nomination for a Satellite award but little else.
Those recognizable and largely successful scores were Williams’ failures since 2000. Because, at this point, when Williams writes a score it’s just assumed it’ll be Oscar material. Each of his other contributions was just that, Oscar material:
A masterpiece. A bombastic, patriotic, and yet haunting series of songs which call to mind Jurassic Park, Superman, Saving Private Ryan, and ET. A fresh, but distinctly Williams’, the theme is every bit as epic as the signature Mel Gibson performance. I had forgotten how awesome this music was.
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
No one was more qualified to address the sounds of this chilling film. A “dance of emptiness” was how one critic described the opening theme. The miracle of birth, but with a hint of the unnatural essence of the machine. You can also hear some elements of similarity to Jurassic Park, to Home Alone, and to Witches of Eastwick.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The opening chimes, delicate, mysterious, and most importantly magical establish a motif as memorable and essential to the film as the principal motifs in Star Wars and Jaws. Like Star Wars, he introduces more than just one gorgeous theme, with Superman and Jurassic Park as definite influences. The primary Hogwarts theme has a wonderful versatility allowing for both uplifting and exciting sounds alongside the foreboding and awe-inducing spectacle of the castle. While several of Williams’ compositions have set out to describe flying, none do better than Hedwig’s Flight. As I’ve listened to Williams’ music up to this point, I’ve heard these melodies in many of his compositions. Interestingly, IMBd lists Williams as the composer of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and other films, suggesting it’s his greatest (or at least most recognizable) work.
Catch Me If You Can
A Hanks-DiCaprio-Spielberg tale with embellished-but-true globe-trotting thrills. A very jazzy, incidental score. Not as memorable, but no less beautiful. I’m not sure Williams could write an ugly piece of music if it meant his life.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
After William Ross adapted and conducted Chamber of Secrets, Williams was back at the podium for the 3rd installment. Not quite resting entirely on the masterful melodies of the original, this composition includes the hectic incidentals of the Knight Bus, the soaring Buckbeak theme, the horrifying chill of the Dementors, and the brilliance of the Patronus (BRASS SECTION). I hear these sounds when I read the books now.
Star Wars III: The Revenge of the Sith
A small amount of redemption for the prequels, and a double Grammy nom for Williams’ composition. A sad but romantic theme wraps around Padme and Anakin’s ill-fated love story. The epic duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin musically pits Anakin’s theme against the familiar strains of the Imperial March, an apt symbolism. The theme he wrote 28 years prior to the original film, now lilts out of disaster as truly the “New Hope.”
War of the Worlds
The natural successor in the Close Encounters-ET-AI lineage. A more exciting score, but also containing more horror, and more disaster than its predecessors. Of all his compositions, this the most comparable to recent works by Hans Zimmer in its ambiance and suddenness. The sounds of the struggle to survive alien attack call to mind the same feelings as running from the Dinosaurs 12 years earlier. I’ve always really loved this film, the immensity of the global scale events contrasted with the individual’s infinitesimal impact is enhanced by the vast sounds of the score.
Memoirs of a Geisha
Despite being in the midst of one of his busiest and most successful years in an almost 50-year career to date, he actually approached the filmmakers to compose this score, the first and only time doing so. Only comparable to Empire of the Sun in its base sense, both being set in the Far East, the theme resembles a blend of Witches of Eastwick and Sabrina. Hints of Schindler’s List can be found in the haunting violin solo of “The Chairman’s Waltz.”
A total of 7 Grammy noms, 2 wins, and 2 Oscar noms made 2005 the only year so far he produced 4 award-winning scores. The dark historical biopic of the assassins sent to avenge the terrorist attack at the Munich Olympics is a tour de force of nationalism, determination, paranoia, and ultimately regret. A near-eastern twist on a typically beautiful Williams theme accompanies ferocious, dark incidental tracks.
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
After a 5 year hiatus, the Spielberg-Williams pairing struck again. This was his first animated score (only other since is The BFG). Jazzy and adventurous, the opening theme has elements of Home Alone and the Star Wars cantina tune. Then he transitions into a Harry Potter-esque score of fantastical incidentals. I only half-watched this one, need to go back and give it another go.
The latest of his War film contributions, this soundtrack has a delightfully rural feel. As I am not an animal person, per se, I found the movie a bit on the odd side. However, the highlight for me was Williams’ brilliant hymn-like theme. In a similar category as Patriot, Saving Private Ryan, and Born on the Fourth of July, but for me, it lacks some of the others’ distinction.
It’s hard to hear the music over Daniel-Day Lewis’ deafening perfection, however, Williams crafted a melody both simple yet magnificent for the wonderful historical drama. Battle Hymn of the Republic, Taps, and Hail to the Chief serve as a base for the musical celebration of Lincoln’s genius.
The Book Thief
I have yet to view this film, though it’s been on the list. How many tunes live in Williams’ head? A strikingly unique melody glides through this score with elements of apprehension and sorrow.
Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens
When the chords of the opening credit crawl burst onto the screen in the theater as Star Wars experienced its 2nd rebirth, I may have cried a little. Ok, I also screamed. JJ Abrams had never worked with anyone other than Michael Giacchino before this, if he had dared to make this film without Williams we’d have revolted. He chose wisely. Rey’s theme is a fresh entry to go along with Leia’s, Luke’s, and Anakin’s. Trumpets blasting triplets in the “Scherzo for X-Wing” ties the Resistance to the Rebellion in the way only music can.
Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi
A film with as polarizing an effect on a fanbase as perhaps any ever. One thing I think we can all agree on is John Williams is a neverending well of ear-joy. The Resistance themes get more development both in the opening battle sequence and later during the Battle of Crait. And Kylo’s Theme is also reinforced, echoing but not copying Vader’s theme, giving the new force of evil a unique sound to go with his ferocious identity. A beautiful soundtrack which has been lost in the whirlwind of wild controversy around the film.
Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker
Regardless of what you think of this film – love or hate, perfect or trash – it may have been the last time Williams will lend his talents to the Star Wars universe. Of course, he doesn’t disappoint. A new “Anthem of Evil,” the most complete realization of the Resistance Theme as they assaulted Exegol, and the final strains of Rey’s theme. Cohesion is one of the most claimed problems with the “sequel trilogy” and it deserves the knock – but Williams’ music serves as a thematic and experiential connection that the plot elements struggle to maintain.
Top 10 Film Scores From 2000-Current
9- The Force Awakens
8- Memoirs of a Geisha
7- War of the Worlds
6- Revenge of the Sith
5- The Adventures of TinTin
3- The Prisoner of Azkaban
2- The Patriot
1- The Sorcerer’s Stone
Honorable mention: War Horse, AI
Before we launch into the moment we’ve all been waiting for, one more anecdote which I have run into in nearly every source of information on Williams I’ve read. He is often asked how he writes music, what his method is.
His reply is that he sits at a piano, with a piece of paper and a pen, and begins writing. The famous quote is his follow-up to that. He says “Over the decades there has been so much amazing technological change in the music business, but I’ve been so busy I’ve never retooled.” I don’t know about you, but I think that maybe the best thing about Williams’ music. It’s extremely real. I’m all about the more electronic forms of music; but Williams is a reminder of the awesome power in the old school, organic style.
10. Superman (1978)
9. Saving Private Ryan (1999)
8. Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace (1998)
7. Schindler’s List (1993)
6. The Patriot (2000)
5. Star Wars IV: A New Hope (1977)
4. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
3. Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
2. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
1. Jurassic Park (1993)
Honorable Mention: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Munich
Thanks for reading.