Full disclosure before we jump into this article: James Horner remains my all-time favorite film composer. For me, his work inspired countless short stories, helped during difficult times, and served as a powerful aid through long nights of endless homework from middle school to college. So much so that I was absolutely devastated when his life came to an early end on June 22, 2015, the loss of which, for me, was akin to losing a close friend.
I think the biggest thing that separated Horner from others such as John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and even Hans Zimmer was his ability to convey the emotion of a film no matter the genre. Even his muscular action cues conveyed a little more poignancy than your typical score, while his lush themes and powerful use of piano and synthesizers quite literally reached out and touched my soul.
I say all this while fully understanding that Horner likely doesn’t crack the Mount Rushmore of Composers list — where the likes of Williams, Bernard Herman, John Barry, Elmer Bernstein and Maurice Jarre reside. His scores were a tad too simplistic and often far too repetitive for their own good, but I still love them.
That said, here are my Top 10 favorite James Horner scores — and 10 more after that just because. No, these probably aren’t his best scores, but they are the James Horner scores that I’ve listened to countless times throughout my life and continue to enjoy today.
James Horner’s work on Glory is nothing short of astonishing; a colossal achievement that somehow remains underappreciated by the world at large. Mixing powerful vocals, courtesy of The Boys Choir of Harlem, heart-swelling strings, snare drums, synthesizer and tolling chimes, Horner infused Edward Zwick’s stirring Civil War drama with an extra dose of magnificence and easily stands as his most accomplished work.
My favorite track on the album, and one of my favorite tracks from Horner’s immeasurable work, remains Preparations for Battle. Quiet strings build to a stirring rendition of the main theme before plummeting to a barrage of chaos as our heroes make their ill-fated assault on Fort Wagner. Truly amazing stuff.
Interestingly, Horner received an Academy-Award nomination for Field of Dreams, but was mostly ignored for his work on Glory. For what it’s worth, other nominees that year were Born on the Fourth of July (John Williams), The Fabulous Baker Boys (Dave Grusin), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (John Williams) and eventual winner The Little Mermaid (Alan Menken). No, really.
I think people confuse Titanic’s score with that Celine Dion song (written by Horner) and forget just how amazing the music to James Cameron’s masterpiece truly is. Using the haunting vocals of Sissel Kyrkjebs, Horner paints a beautiful score filled with hope, love and tragedy, whilst also contributing some of his greatest action music to tell the doomed story of the Titanic. This was the second of three collaborations with James Cameron — after Aliens and before Avatar — and remains the duo’s best overall work.
Horner won two Oscars for Titanic, for Best Musical Score and (ironically enough) Best Song. And while “My Heart Will Go On” will live on in infamy, perhaps unfairly so, Horner’s work here deserves ranking amongst the greatest film scores. It’s a genuine classic, even if it does rip off Enya.
As a side, the original soundtrack CD that broke all the records, presented a rather small sampling of the score. Cues such as “A Building Panic” and “Jack’s Death” weren’t available until additional releases, and even they presented the tracks out of order. I’m all for rearrangements but prefer to hear the music as presented on film, which you’ll have to dig through YouTube to find. What’s interesting about the music as heard in the film is just how much Cameron cut and pasted Horner’s score. Cues written for the opening scene in which Bill Paxton’s character investigates the wrecked Titanic are repurposed to later in the film or dropped altogether. If you purchased the 4-CD 20th Anniversary Limited Edition released by La-La Land Records, Paramount Pictures and Sony Music, you can hear a lot of the unused dramatic underscore Horner wrote for the film and decide if you like it better.
Horner had a well-known tendency to rip himself off by reworking themes established in previous scores into newer films. Interestingly, you can listen to the entirety of his film score collection and hear where themes from later works evolved in earlier ones. The experience is akin to listening to a massive symphony movement spread over the course of 120 projects and spanning nearly four decades.
Enter Aliens, the first of Horner’s collaborations with director James Cameron; and one of many of the composer’s scores to draw upon earlier works as a baseline. In this case, Horner lifts a variety of music from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Brainstorm but coats it with heavy military percussions and enough explosive power to make it sound completely unique. As said, this list may not represent his best works from a critical standpoint, but Aliens remains one of my all-time favorites. Even in its hacked-up form in the film itself. Tracks such as Futile Escape and Resolution and Hyperspace rank among the great action cues, which is all the more impressive when you find out Horner wrote the latter overnight amidst a tumultuous film production.
Yet, my favorite track from Aliens is Going After Newt, an intense bit of adrenaline pumping music that perfectly underscores the severity of the situation.
The Rocketeer offers a fun, energetic, bombastic score full of Horner’s customary trademarks and one of the great hero themes. Simple, yet effective, at turns romantic and heroic, Horner’s work on Joe Johnston’s vastly underappreciated action gem is nothing short of astounding.
The Flying Circus is one of Horner’s very best action cues!
Mel Gibson and Horner collaborated on Gibson’s directorial debut, 1993’s The Man Without a Face, to middling results. Thankfully, the duo re-teamed for the historically inept but rollicking action epic Braveheart and crafted one of the most influential and popular film scores ever produced.
The original soundtrack album presented a heavy dose of the film’s score, but lacked one of the film’s single best cues, titled A Romantic Alliance. Thankfully, La La Land’s limited edition 2-CD set (released in 2015) presented a more complete version of this masterful score for nerds like me to geek out over.
Also, Braveheart’s end credit suite ranks among my favorite Horner tracks. I love the quiet rendition of the main theme and the use of choir that closes the album on an inspiring, though somber note.
Here’s where I begin contradicting myself. Horner produced his score for Iris well after Titanic, during an era where his music took a slight dip in quality. You could tell he had grown tired of the big action epics that came by the droves after his remarkable success with Titanic — which is probably why his scores for films like Enemy at the Gates, The Perfect Storm, Deep Impact, Mighty Joe Young and Windtalkers varied in quality.
However, his ventures into smaller, more character-oriented films — A Beautiful Mind, The New World, The Four Feathers, Black Gold, for example — resulted in some of his best work. Iris is no exception. Though featuring ideas previously explored in scores for Jumanji, To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, The Spitfire Grill, and even Braveheart, Iris remains a lovely, infectious score full of quiet cues dominated by violin (performed by Joshua Bell) and horns.
While certainly not his best work, Iris remains one of my most oft listened to Horner scores mainly due to my love for its quiet simplicity.
I’ll probably get pulverized for this pick, but, again, this is my list of favorite Horner scores. Or, the ones I most often turned to. Released a few years after Titanic, Bicentennial Man feels like an assembly of Horner’s greatest hits merged into one breathtaking score, which is probably why I love it so much (even though I’ve never actually seen the Chris Columbus film). There are bits lifted from Searching for Bobby Fisher, Braveheart, The Spitfire Grill and many others … film score purists may turn up their noses at the redundant nature of the soundtrack, but I just can’t help myself. In fact, Bicentennial Man is probably the soundtrack I’ve listened to more than any other. And no, I can’t explain why. Maybe because it brings back memories of home, family and youth … of sitting in my room writing stores or watching movies with my parents; or hanging out with my brother and sister. For whatever reason, this score just feels me with so many indescribable emotions. I think it’s brilliant.
One thing I haven’t touched on yet was Horner’s ability to write incredibly sad, emotional music. Remember the heart-wrenching music that played in the scene where Littlefoot’s mom died in The Land Before Time? Yeah … me too. As a young 6-year old, that bit hit me hard when I saw the film in theaters the first time. Horner employs the same tactic with his sensational score for Ron Howard’s Cocoon, which is both robust, and deeply personal. The big band swing music tracks are a huge bonus as well.
Legends of the Fall
Horner’s second collaboration with director Edward Zwick produced similar results to Glory, except via a more traditional, romantic sound that presents the composer at his most melodramatic. Horner crafts a number of sweeping themes that truly capture the breathtaking scope of Zwick’s overtly sappy epic.
I had a hard time choosing my final entry on this list but went with Apollo 13 mainly due to its final two cues, which I’ve blasted over my various stereo systems at least a million times since the soundtrack’s release way back in 1995.
Apollo 13 represents Horner’s more militaristic sound, echoed in his scores for Clear and Present Danger, Sneakers, Ransom, Commando, and The Pelican Brief — except to a degree that can only be described as perfection.