James Horner (Top 10 Soundtracks of All-time)

Revered film composer, James Horner tragically passed away in a plane crash on 22 June, 2015. He wrote for dozens of films and won two Oscars in his career, working on a variety of films from Hollywood blockbusters to small-time indie films. Without further ado, here’s a look at a top ten list of his works.

“My job … is to make sure at every turn of the film it’s something the audience can feel with their heart.” James Horner, 2009.

House of Sand and Fog (2003)

The Waves of the Caspian Sea

Behrani’s Thoughts-Long Ago: not available on YouTube but on Spotify!

This soundtrack has an air of tragedy about it, making it both a haunting and restrained work. These two tracks in particular caught my ear: ‘Behrani’s Thoughts-Long Ago’ feels like the audio equivalent of a shimmering waterfall of colour and light. The use of digitally altered vocals, ethereal keyboard effects and in this case domback drums rather than standard Western percussion instruments makes for a dreamlike piece of nostalgia. Perhaps it was a taste of what came with Horner’s Avatar score with the unconventional use of the gamelan drum. The Waves of the Caspian Sea is reminiscent of the sonorous string works of Khachaturian and Samuel Barber, where we hear a grander piece that neither fades nor blossoms- like a battle of loss against a pervading sense of hope. This is one of Horner’s most beautiful works that gets lost in the noise of explosive Zimmer-ness- read the book, watch the film and calm your mind in this rich sound bath.

Aliens (1986)

Building on the original Alien score by Jerry Goldsmith, here is a score that builds on my mentioning of Horner’s clear penchant for Aram Khachaturian, particularly his Gayaneh’s Adagio, which was used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey. It’s one of the loneliest pieces you’ll ever hear: in 2001 it emphasises the sheer expanse of space versus the human expedition. Horner clearly felt its applicability for Ripley’s character, which has her own lonely theme through the use of a pensive oboe solo. Whilst also incorporating the old Goldsmith themes, where a cold dread permeates the score with creeping intensity. Aliens saw Horner land his first Oscar nomination for Best Score.

Apollo 13 (1995)

(5:21 for the grand lift-off and 49:50- 51:14 for the slow motion sequence)

This always felt like the most ‘American’ of all his works, which makes sense since it is about the catastrophe and eventual triumph of NASA’s ill-fated mission to the moon, which nearly claimed the lives of three American astronauts.

I say American because it sounds a lot like Aaron Copland, ‘the dean of American composers’, with triumphant horns and soaring strings. It’s relatively conservative in terms of composition and bit sensational, but it’s appropriate for the film that is after all, about a rocket ship that falls to pieces. A standout moment is the final scene when the pod lands into the sea, and the voiceover of Tom Hanks tells us the futures of his fellow astronauts as the slow motion backdrop of joyful reunion plays out to a close. Using ‘The Last Post’ trumpet theme as a basis, it is a touching and patriotic tribute to the near-disaster that fuels both the action and the emotion of the NASA crew, the astronauts and their families.

Titanic (1997)

Minus the dizzying fame factor in this film, the score when not repeated a thousand times with the mentions of Celine Dion, is fantastic- as with all great scores, it made the film. It won Horner both his Oscars, for Best Score and Best Original Song, and Titanic’s soundtrack became one of the best-selling albums of all time, and the best-selling primarily orchestral soundtrack.

That being said: it’s somewhat repetitive. He found a great theme, that being a gorgeous Celtic-inspired melody, but (IMHO) relied on it a little too much. For example, ‘Hymn to the Sea’ and ‘Never an absolution’ are identical, with the latter just being shifted down to a different key. Again it’s fine because the film doesn’t need a rich soundtrack full of diverse sounds, but on a purely musical basis, the hype of the main theme which is without a doubt a great achievement, can feel a little hackneyed by the time you’re one hour into the film (with two to go).

The Land Before Time (1988)

This has probably got to be one of the greatest soundtracks ever made for a children’s film. Perfectly capturing the world of dinosaurs, specifically a young orphaned dinosaur’s journey to safety through dangerous lands, it is full of wonder and fear, loss and friendship.

There is no patronising cushy-wushyness about it. It is raw and intense in the full spectrum of feeling it conveys, back in a time where demented modern children shows did not run amok on the television, and showing kids the reality of death before it became taboo to upset ‘mummy’s darlings’. This is one of those films that makes you grow up slightly when you watch it, and unlike film scores that are more of a backdrop to the scenes (perhaps like House of Sand Fog) this film truly accompanies it. From the comforting maternal vocals backing wistful horn solos, to the percussive raging of the more frightening scenes, this score packs an emotional punch, using all parts of the orchestral mammal to its full potential.

Avatar (2009)

This film saw Horner particularly involved with an unexpected element of production: the language of the Na’vi race on Pandora. He worked on creating the language used by the alien creatures since he was writing choral material along with the orchestral music.

Just as in ‘A House of Sand and Fog’, the use of a gamelan drum, Balinese in origin, gives the film “a sort of magical glow to everything” Horner remarked.

Horner put his all into this film, being demanded by director Cameron to remain solely focussed on the duration of the project, often working 16-hour days in the film’s final stages. A notable track ‘The Bioluminescence of the Night’ contains a clever yet subtle nod to the famous whistle from ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’, which was meant to be the howl of a coyote. The spiritualistic wildness of Pandora seems befitting for such a nod, yet it is subtly entwined within layers of soft strings, Celtic pipes, similar to that of Titanic, and percussive instruments Horner himself invented for the film. Dedication embodied.

Apocalypto (2006)

Arguably the clear predecessor to ‘Avatar’ (the opening theme is pretty much identical to the previously mentioned Avatar track), this soundtrack is full of power and primal fear: better put, it’s atmospheric. However, it feels limited in its use of orchestration- one issue being synthetic instruments were used over an orchestra, as well as primarily using woodwind-esque sounds and, put bluntly, some seriously weird vocals. On the Tapir Hunt track, I genuinely thought someone was doing a post-curry belch/summoning the dead outside my kitchen window. As mentioned with Titanic, Horner seems to repeat his own themes, which in their own right are energetic and knife-edge in intensity, but it wouldn’t survive without the film.

Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan (1982)

(8:18 onwards)

A small budget and the then-unknown reputation of Horner led to a small gamble being taken by director Nicholas Meyer, particularly with the added pressure of the failed Star Trek: the motion picture. Jerry Goldsmith and Horner crossed paths again when the former’s more luscious compositions were replaced with snappy, bordering-on-trite themes, which retains the lightness of Star Trek whilst somewhat labelling the point when it comes to moments of tension and the ‘there’s-someone-lurking-behind-the-door’ moments. The astonishingly atonal soundtrack however proved to be a hit, with four more TV shows and 10 further movies being made in Khan’s wake, launching Horner to musical stardom.

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Here is another film soundtrack of Horner that evokes the otherworldly themes, this time regarding the wonders of a beautiful mind rather than beautiful worlds. This film score used the talents of a young Charlotte Church to create a sense of awe and mystery, with this particular track reflecting the intricacies of John Forbes Nash Jr.’s mind like a well-oiled machine, where you can practically see the cogs turning. Church’s floaty vocals perfectly accompany a minimalist orchestral backing that brings excitement balanced with apprehension. Another of Horner’s more conventional works, it is slightly repetitive but wonderfully subtle that brings out goose bumps more often than not.

Jumanji (1995)

Often missed off on the usual top 10 reels, another children’s film soundtrack of Horner’s makes its way onto the list. There is a lack of thematic presence in the film, rather a collection of loosely connected musical ideas that don’t always develop to their fullest potential, however for the film itself- it works. I’ve seen reviews that complain ‘It makes no sense without the film!’ but this seems a bit unfair- it’s about a board game where the characters come to life- far from everyday applicable reality. The track featured here is really rather beautiful, perfect again for children growing up in difficult homes with or without parents. That being said, the music for scenes where rhinoceros run wild on the street may not be listenable outside the film, but I think that’s rather mean-spirited. Overall, considering the film doesn’t exactly encourage musical subtlety, Horner worked with what he had and produced a fitting, fun soundtrack.