10 of the best film soundtracks composed by popular musicians

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10 of the best film soundtracks composed by popular musicians

10-film-soundtracks by-popular-musicians
Words by Will Brewster
Edits by Mixdown staff

With the 2023 Oscars quickly approaching, we're exploring some of the best film soundtracks composed by popular musicians.

Ahead of the 2023 Oscars – a ceremony which will acknowledge experimental indie band Son Lux for their work on Everything Everywhere All At Once with a Best Original Score nomination, it’s clear that increasingly, film makers are actively seeking out contemporary recording artists to sountrack their films. Let’s be real here: to soundtrack a film for the big screen is the secret dream of every musician. All of us have walked out of the cinemas at some stage in our lives blown away by the sounds that have seeped out of the great big Dolby speakers, and more than a few of us have dabbled in composing for screen in some vague attempt to become the next Hans Zimmer.

Read more gear features, artist interviews and how-to columns here.

To create a truly brilliant film score, it seems, is a task that few are equipped to do, and there’s no shortage of sub-par soundtracks out there from popular artists who probably should’ve known better.

However, a number of notable musicians have successfully managed to shape their musical talents to suit the screen, and it’s these instances that we’re turning our eyes and ears to todayJoin us in checking out ten great movie soundtracks from contemporary artists.

Jonny Greenwood – There Will Be Blood

Everyone in the music world was already familiar with Jonny Greenwood’s obsession with  discordant compositions – you only needed to listen to his haunting ending for OK Computer’s ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ to figure that out.

Nevertheless, his score for There Will Be Blood proved to be a game-changer among music and film fans alike, with the mop-top Radiohead guitarist channelling his love for Penderecki to create one of the most sinister film soundtracks of all time for Paul Thomas Anderson’s acclaimed film. Described by Rolling Stone critic Pete Travers as a “sonic explosion that reinvented what film music could be”, you’d be hard pressed to find a film score more suspenseful and engrossing than Greenwood’s work on There Will Be Blood.

Greenwood’s composition work for film has been widely lauded over the past decade – although he isn’t a 2023 Oscars nominee in the Best Score category, the musician has been nominated twice for his soundtracks for 2017’s Phantom Thread and 2021’s The Power of the Dog.

Air – The Virgin Suicides

Sofia Coppola tends to have her finger on the pulse when it comes to curating soundtracks for her films – Kevin Shields’ work on Lost In Translation’s soundtrack is a prime example, and her history with Phoenix also speaks volumes.

However, one of the finest soundtracks to adorn her work onscreen was supplied by none other than Moon Safari masterminds Air, whose spacey sounds worked alongside The Virgin Suicides to create quite a memorable multi-sensory delight. Built around a palate of muted grooves, atmospheric synth pads and hushed acoustic guitars, Air’s Virgin Suicides soundtrack almost sounded akin to that of Pink Floyd during their early ‘70s heyday, and still holds up as a riveting listen 20 years after its release.

Daniel Lopatin – Uncut Gems 

From its casting through to the cinematography and, of course, Adam Sandler’s lead performance as Howie Bling, A24’s Uncut Gems might be one of the most stressful films released in recent memory, and it could very well go down as being a modern classic in years to come.

Perhaps one of the most captivating aspects of the film, however, is the soundtrack, recorded by Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin. Based around the sounds of the mighty Moog One, Lopatin’s synth-heavy effort isn’t too dissimilar to that of Vangelis’ own pioneering score for Blade Runner, with his droning oscillators and warbling filter sweeps providing a new undercurrent of suspense to soundtrack Howie’s escapades.

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – The Proposition 

Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds bandmate Warren Ellis have turned out more than a few great film scores: the duo’s work on the soundtracks for The Road and The Assassination Of Jesse James translated wonderfully for the big screen, and made for a treat when they were performed in full with the MSO late last year.

The duo’s work on The Proposition – a gritty, violent bushranger flick that was also written by Cave – is certainly among the pair’s finest work, with Ellis’s lonely violin and Cave’s downtrodden piano creating a stark soundscape that makes for a perfect fit for the film’s desolate, bloody tones.

Curtis Mayfield – Super Fly 

After releasing two incredibly promising solo efforts (and an amazing live album) in the years that preceded it, Curtis Mayfield well and truly established himself as a force to be reckoned with on his famous soundtrack to 1972’s Super Fly: a classic example of the Blaxplotation film genre.

Mayfield’s lyricism expanded on the themes of poverty, drug abuse and crime that he’d explored on his prior solo albums, pairing his socially conscious messages with irresistible wah-wah guitar and slinky soul grooves to make for one of the funkiest film soundtracks of all time. From the frenetic funk of ‘Freddie’s Dead’ through to the iconic ode to drug dealers ‘Pusherman’, few soundtracks encapsulate the essence of what’s happening onscreen quite like this one does.

Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – The Social Network 

When it was announced that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross would be scoring a film about Mark Zuckerberg rise to ubiquity, the music world collectively raised an eyebrow: how could the sound of Nine Inch Nails ever hope to pair with the tale of Facebook? As it happened, Reznor and Ross were just what The Social Network needed.

The duo’s score – a mish-mash of trailing ambient pads, dark modular synths, driving guitars and twinkling arpeggios – proved to play a vital role in the film’s success, and subsequently kicked down the door for Reznor and Ross to pursue other scoring endeavours for blockbusters like Gone Girl, Bird Box and Jonah Hill’s directorial debut Mid 90s. 

Queen – Flash Gordon 

Who else would be better suited to soundtrack one of the most bombastic, camp films of the ‘80s than Queen? With its overtly silly script, cinematography and downright painful performances, Flash Gordon is one of the most beloved cult flicks of all time, and Queen’s soundtrack provided an equally cheesy sonic counterpart to elevate the film to a whole new level.

However, the Flash Gordon soundtrack does showcase the British band’s more unique and ambitious compositional elements, particularly given that Freddie’s vocals only show up on two songs, and certainly makes for an interesting inclusion into their discography.

Daft Punk – Tron: Legacy

Similar to Queen being the perfect fit for Flash Gordon, you’d be hard-pressed to find a group more suitable to score a reboot of Tron than France’s robotic favourites Daft Punk. Instead of just turning in a record full of French house pumpers and calling it a day, however, Daft Punk went out of their way to create a soundtrack that’d stand the test of time, pairing their typical electronic elements with contributions from a massive 85 piece orchestra.

Although the film itself received mixed reviews, Daft Punk’s score was widely considered one of the best aspects of Tron: Legacy, and is now upheld as a cornerstone example in the world of synthwave soundtracks.

Arcade Fire – Her

Directed by Spike Jonze and featuring sensational performances from Scarlett Johannson and Joaquin Phoenix, Her is regarded as one of the best films of the 2010s, and absolutely swept up during the 2013 awards season.

There’s few flaws to be found in this flick – unless you’re grossed out by the all-too-real concept of an AI love story – but one of the most criminally underrated aspects of Her has got to be the mesmerising soundtrack, credited to Canadian indie outfit Arcade Fire and mainly composed by keyboardist Will Butler and violinist Owen Pallett.

Combining atmospheric synthesisers, soaring strings and muted electric pianos, the duo’s work perfectly taps into the melancholy of the film, and you could probably even argue it’s the best post-Suburbs Arcade Fire album – I wouldn’t risk it though.

Peter Gabriel – The Last Temptation Of Christ 

This Scorsese-helmed religious drama was one of the most controversial films of all time due to its blasphemous portrayal of Jesus Christ, and bombed at the box office as a result. However, The Last Temptation Of Christ did feature one saving grace (no pun intended) in the form of an immersive soundtrack from former Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel, which he’d later revamp for his 1989 solo album Passion.

A glorious combination of ambient soundscapes and aspects of traditional African and Middle Eastern styles, Passion is viewed as a landmark record in the global music, and even netted Gabriel a Grammy for Best New Age album in 1990.

Whether or not you’ll be rooting for Son Lux’s EEAAO score in this year’s 2023 Oscars race, it’s undeniable that when the pairing of audio and visual is just right, popular musicians can make remarkable composers for film and television.

Check out the full list of nominees for the 2023 Oscars, including Best Original Score, here.