James Horner was a totemic titan of Hollywood musical composition, one of the absolute greats. If you needed unparalleled orchestral grandeur, primally elemental accents to landscape and nature, rousing battle cry pieces of flowing, melodic passages he was your guy and crafted some of the most prolific, memorable scores in cinema. He left us far too soon in a tragic 2015 plane crash but his work lives on eternal, and these are my top ten personal favourite original scores from this wonderful artist!
10. Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs
He goes gritty, smoky and jazzy for this classic buddy cop flick, keeping the excitement somehow both light and dangerous in his work. Favourite track: the exuberant main titles with faint, pleasant steel drums that suit the breezy San Francisco vibe.
9. Mel Gibson’s Braveheart
Beautiful bagpipes pull at the heartstrings and sweeping strings roll over the Scottish highlands in this classic historical epic. Favourite track: Can’t beat that main title.
8. James Cameron’s Aliens
His composition is eerie, badass and mirrors the darkly lit corridors of creepy space stations here, getting appropriately intense once the creatures make themselves known. Favourite track: ‘Bishop’s Countdown’, a master class in impossibly suspenseful tension and epic, cathartic release.
7. Ron Howard’s Willow
Swashbuckling high fantasy is the musical tone in this beloved, refreshingly dark and slightly underrated children’s adventure film. Favourite track: ‘Escape from the Tavern’, a playful, jaunty piece that accompanies Val Kilmer in drag and Warwick Davis as they sled down a snowy mountain on a shield at full throttle.
6. Edward Zwick’s Legends Of The Fall
Another historical epic sees James compose some of his most achingly beautiful and richly melodramatic music yet, compositions that sweep over the rugged Montana terrain that is home to an early 1900’s family and many struggles they encounter. Favourite track: the main theme, utilizing brass and pan flutes to evoke a strong emotional connection to the material, setting and characters.
5. Joe Johnston’s Jumanji
Those drums man, they still haunt me. This is a playful, sweet natured score that dips into appropriately scary and primal places. Favourite track: ‘A New World’, a lovely piece that has a sympathy for the protagonist’s tough arc and a great sense of small town character.
4. James Cameron’s Titanic
This is just so iconic, and probably the most recognized collaboration between Horner and Cameron who maintained a strong working relationship over several films. Deeply romantic, wistful and reverent, this score has it all and is pretty much time capsule worthy. Favourite track: tough pick but ‘Rose instrumental’ just always gets me in the feels.
3. James Cameron’s Avatar
Here he ducks a typical SciFi sounding score for something far more down to earth and elemental, with tons of affecting vocals and a breathtaking auditory scope. Favourite track: ‘Jake’s First Flight’ … just try listening to that without getting goosebumps and little spikes of actual adrenaline. Pure magic.
2. Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy
He absolutely nails the Greek tragedy aesthetic in this very underrated, beautiful and heartbreaking epic. Using vocals and battle drum percussion theres a real sense of approaching threat as war literally looms on the horizon and a sense of deep romantic regret from both factions. Favourite track: ‘3200 Years Ago’ sets the mood like no other.
1. Ron Howard’s The Missing
This may look like a weird first choice but it’s an underrated, gorgeous horror western and James’s music is stark, eerie, gruesome and suits the haunting mood just perfectly. Favourite track: ‘New Mexico, 1885’ ushers in the spooky atmosphere nicely.