I’ve been obsessed with movie soundtracks pretty much as long as I’ve loved movies. According to my most recent Spotify Wrapped, “soundtrack” was the genre I listened to the most in 2020 and three of my top five artists were movie composers. There’s something about the way a score can add emotion, tension, excitement, joy or heartbreak to a movie. Plus, they’re perfect for studying, writing papers, or working.
I grew up in arguably one of the golden ages of movie soundtracks –the early 2000s gave us The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Star Wars prequels. These were all foundational in discovering my love of movie soundtracks. One of my favorite parts about watching new movies is discovering new soundtracks – even “bad” movies can have great soundtracks.
So I’ve picked 10 of my favorite movie soundtracks that I consider “underrated” because they don’t get the same hype as scores from John Williams or Hans Zimmer or they’re not part of big franchises with iconic themes as recognizable as Star Wars or Harry Potter.
1. How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
Score by John Powell
Right off the bat, I can barely count this as an “underrated” score because I have personally raved about it to as many people as I possibly can. I absolutely cannot get enough of this score. It has an epic depth and richness that feels exciting and new every time. So many moments in the score are so remarkable – “Test Drive” is one of the greatest soundtrack moments in movie history, “Romantic Flight” is gorgeous and “Forbidden Friendship” has an unbelievable feel-good quality. The score compliments the world created in the movie and enhances the characters and their relationships – especially Toothless and Hiccup (smarter people than me have detailed about the genius of their themes together). And the scores for the second and third Dragon movies are just as good.
2. First Man (2018)
Score by Justin Hurwitz
Justin Hurwitz is quickly becoming one my new favorite composers. Working with director Damien Chazelle, Hurwitz has also created the scores for Whiplash and La La Land. His score for First Man perfectly balances the intimate personal life of Neil Armstrong with the epic scope of the first moon landing. It’s impossible to hear the bombast of tracks like “Apollo 11 Launch” and “The Landing” and not get chills while tracks like “Karen” really make you feel the heartbreak that underlies much of Neil’s journey. The use of some vintage instruments gives the score a classic feel and the perfect soundscape to one of the most iconic moments in history.
3. 1917 (2019)
Score by Thomas Newman
One of the roles a movie soundtrack can play is heightening the tension of a scene. The score for 1917 does this perfectly throughout the entire movie by slowly cranking up the tension bit by bit until it explodes in its epic finale, as heard in “Sixteen Hundred Men”. The movie was filmed to look like one long continuous shot, a decision that supports the immediacy of the mission and immerses the audience with the characters. The score is crucial in building tension as the main characters cross enemy lines and face constant obstacles as they make their way to their destination. And by the end, you’re right there running alongside, praying for victory.
4. The Goonies (1985)
Score by Dave Grusin
The Goonies score is probably the most truly underrated score on this list. It’ so much fun and a perfect coming-of-age adventure soundtrack. The opening action music in “Fratelli Chase” is such an earworm, there’s a classic 80s sounding motif for the story’s mystery, and the main Goonies theme is surprisingly heartfelt and full of longing. This score has plenty of excitement and a good amount of “Mickey Mousing” (timing musical stings to action happening on the screen) that is popular in media targeted toward younger audiences. There are even nods to classics scores like Psycho, Superman and 1930s Errol Flynn movies.
5. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)
Score by Harry Gregson-Williams
The Narnia series followed in the footsteps of fantasy giants like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings in the early 2000s. While not as well-received or popular as the others, the Narnia series has some gorgeous soundtracks. One of my favorite moments in the soundtrack is “From Western Woods to Beaversdam,” which perfectly blends the curiosity, adventure and magic of this world. It’s amazing the range of moods this soundtrack covers, from a World War II battle sequence, to the evil White Witch, the regality of Aslan, the horror of the Stone Table and the joy of Father Christmas, but it beautifully makes them all feel like part of the same world. By the time you get to the end, you’ll believe that it’s “Only the Beginning of the Adventure.”
6. Princess Mononoke (1997)
Score by Joe Hisaishi
The scores of the Studio Ghibli films are just as iconic as the stories themselves. Joe Hisaishi has composed the scores for most of the Ghibli catalog and every single one is stunning. Hisaishi has found the sweet spot between traditional Japanese music and Western music to create something that is so unique and magical. Princess Mononoke is my favorite Studio Ghibli movie and the score expertly supports the epic and mythical nature of the story from its opening moments. Mononoke is one of the darker Ghibli movies, so the score includes plenty of menacing cues as well that can truly be unsettling. It’s a remarkable soundtrack from beginning to end.
7. Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
Score by Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson
Sometimes there’s nothing better than a classic action movie score. Kingsman was a surprise success in a number of ways, including the soundtrack. The score supports the tone of the film by taking influences from classic spy movies, like James Bond or Mission: Impossible. The main theme is bold and heroic, exactly what the main characters deserve – and it’s on full display multiple times throughout the movie, but especially in the heart pounding action scenes like “Skydiving” and “Calculated Infiltration.” It’s hard to listen to this soundtrack without making whatever you’re doing feel 100 times more epic.
8. Knives Out (2019)
Score by Nathan Johnson
Another crucial role of a movie score is to set the tone or mood of a scene or the entire movie. The score for Knives Out does this from the first note. It immediately sounds like a mystery and reinforces the gothic vibe of the Thromby house. The score relies heavily on strings, which may remind audiences of another classic mystery/thriller that only used strings in its score – Psycho. The Knives Out score maintains its tone while following the reveals and twists throughout the movie, balancing the outlandish characters with the suspense of a true mystery.
9. Little Women (2019)
Score by Alexandre Desplat
The vibes of this soundtrack are immaculate. Much like the movie itself, it feels both classic and modern, a sound that’s on full display in tracks like “Dance on the Porch.” Fittingly, the score mostly relies on strings and piano, giving the sound a more “feminine” character (brass usually sounds more “masculine”), one that enhances the warm, chaotic, and strong familial bond of the sisters. The soundtrack fuels the passion of Jo’s writing, the heartbreak of Beth, the tenderness of Marnie and the love that blossoms among all the characters. It’s certainly a delightful feel-good score.
10. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Score by Alan Silvestri
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has an interesting relationship with its film scores. By now, everyone can recognize the main Avengers theme, but solo franchises have not always kept their musical themes consistent. Having continuity in a franchise’s film score makes the world within the movies feel unified and can be used to heighten emotion in big moments. The music from the first Captain America movie is one of the best from the early MCU, especially the main theme. It’s a pitch perfect sound for the iconic hero. It’s another solid action score, especially in tracks like the “Howling Commando’s Montage.” The emotions hit home by the time you get to the end with “This is My Choice” – and bringing these themes back for Cap’s final moments in Endgame never ceases to absolutely wreck me.
Are you a fan of movie soundtracks? If so, what are some of your favorites? I hope these have inspired you to listen to more!