The Best Classic Film Music Albums of 2020

Jon Burlingame
·7-min read

The pandemic may have cancelled live performances and moviegoing for most of 2020, but for film-music buffs, that just meant more time at home listening to their favorite music, including many releases of music never before heard outside their original cinematic contexts.

“There is still an unquenchable thirst for classic scores, both previously unreleased and reissues of scores that are expanded, re-mastered, or both,” says Matt Verboys, co-owner of L.A. label La-La Land Records. “As technology keeps advancing, many previous releases can now get a sonic upgrade that makes the music well worth a revisit.”

More from Variety

The business challenges remain unchanged, however, he says: “Who holds the rights to a given score and can those rights be obtained? Do the music elements even exist and if so, can they be rounded up? Once obtained, is the audio good enough to release, or does massive restoration work need to be done?”

Perennial favorite composers Bernard Herrmann, John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith — always assured to generate strong sales — were again represented this year on several different labels.

Here, alphabetically, are our choices for the best classic film music releases of 2020:

Agatha (on the Dragon’s Domain label). English composer Howard Blake’s original score for the 1979 movie about Agatha Christie’s 1926 disappearance was thrown out at the behest of star Vanessa Redgrave. This first release shows it to be a richly romantic and dramatic work that deserved better.

Endless Night (Quartet). The music for this 1972 mystery starring Hayley Mills was one of the legendary Bernard Herrmann’s last scores before his untimely 1975 death. The original tapes are believed lost; the enterprising Quartet label commissioned Fernando Velázquez to conduct the Basque National Orchestra in a complete and welcome re-recording based on Herrmann’s original manuscripts.

Far and Away (La-La Land). This is one we’ve waited for: John Williams’ complete score for Ron Howard’s 1992 American West epic starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, inexplicably ignored for awards and yet one of the maestro’s most colorful and thrilling works.

The Gerald Fried Collection (Dragon’s Domain). This first in a series showcases two late-’70s scores by the now 92-year-composer, perhaps best known for his music for “Roots” and the original “Star Trek.” For “Cruise Into Terror” (1978), he took the ancient plainsong chant “Dies Irae” to demonic heights; for Survive! (1976), he used a classical ensemble for the tragic story of a plane crash in the Andes.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Quartet). Ennio Morricone’s 1966 spaghetti-western masterpiece, third of his seven films with Sergio Leone, has never received such lavish treatment. This three-disc set includes the entire 85-minute film score, the 34-minute soundtrack album, and another 54 minutes of carefully restored additional material from the original recording sessions.

Hoffa (La-La Land). David Newman composed a potent dramatic score for Danny De Vito’s 1992 biopic of the controversial labor leader (played by Jack Nicholson), one that ranks on the AFI’s list of all-time greatest scores. This expanded edition adds another 35 minutes to the previously available 42 minutes, and in this case more is better.

How to Train Your Dragon (Varèse Sarabande). Composer John Powell’s winning, Oscar-nominated score for the 2010 animated feature is justifiably his most popular (and his sequel scores are equally touching), making this two-disc expansion not only welcome but a must-have.

A John Addison Trilogy (Quartet). The Spain-based label surprised us with no fewer than three 1970s scores by the underrated English composer: “The Seven Per-Cent Solution” (the fanciful Sherlock Holmes-meets-Sigmund Freud adventure from 1976), “Swashbuckler” (the Robert Shaw pirate movie, also 1976) and an expanded edition of his superb “A Bridge Too Far” (Richard Attenborough’s all-star World War II epic from 1977).

John Williams in Vienna (Deutsche Grammophon). The now 88-year-old dean of American film composers conducted a baker’s dozen of his greatest hits, from “Star Wars” to “E.T.” and “Jurassic Park, with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and the musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic. It’s the best-selling orchestral album of 2020, with more than 150 million streams, and there’s a companion Blu-Ray of the live concert.

King of Kings (Tadlow). Miklós Rózsa’s epic music for Nicholas Ray’s 1961 life of Jesus, starring Jeffrey Hunter, has long been acknowledged as one of the composer’s greatest works. Nic Raine conducted the Prague Philharmonic in this 140-minute re-recording of the entire score.

The Last Castle (Intrada). One of composer Jerry Goldsmith’s last projects, this 2001 military-prison drama with Robert Redford features an elegiac score that became the source for his moving tribute to the fallen of September 11, 2001. His brass writing is stellar and the music has outlived the movie it was written for.

Legends of the Fall (Intrada). James Horner’s music for Edward Zwick’s 1994 historical drama (with Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins) has become one of his most beloved scores. This expanded edition, the entirety of Horner’s emotional score, will delight fans of the movie.

Midnight Cowboy (Quartet). The songs and underscore for 1969’s Best Picture Oscar winner, starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, are a landmark moment for music supervision. It was all handled brilliantly by composer John Barry, as heard in this expanded edition including, for the first time, the New York score recordings. (Full disclosure: I wrote the essay for the booklet, which contains rare photos from the sessions.)

The River (Intrada). Director Mark Rydell worked with composer John Williams on four occasions, always in search of an Americana sound to complement his visions of historical, Western or rural America. Three of the four were Oscar-nominated for Original Score, including this 1984 film starring Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek as Tennessee farmers.

seaQuest DSV (Varèse Sarabande). Steven Spielberg’s expensive sci-fi series with Roy Scheider may not be well remembered, but its Emmy-winning music by John Debney remains a high-water mark of 1990s television scoring. This two-CD set contains music from the pilot and six other first-season episodes.

The Swarm (La-La Land). Disaster-movie kingpin Irwin Allen engaged Jerry Goldsmith to write the music for his 1978 killer-bee epic with Michael Caine and Katharine Ross. The film is terrible but Goldsmith’s score is consistently fun and musically inventive.

Two Mules for Sister Sara (La-La Land). Ennio Morricone’s original score for Clint Eastwood’s 1970 teaming with Shirley MacLaine is among his most colorful and evocative (and that’s saying a lot), with boys’ choir intoning liturgical phrases and orchestra mimicking braying animals. This long-overdue album is its first complete release.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (La-La Land). Following on successful releases of “Lost in Space” and “Land of the Giants,” this 4-disc set of music from producer Irwin Allen’s earlier series (starring Richard Basehart and David Hedison) offers more sci-fi music from Jerry Goldsmith, Paul Sawtell, Leith Stevens and other ’60s composers.

Wild Wild West (Varèse Sarabande). Elmer Bernstein had been writing film music for nearly 50 years when he scored the hip Will Smith-Kevin Kline adventure in 1999. While the movie is something of a joke, Bernstein’s music is anything but — variously robust, charming, even amusing as demanded.

The Young Lions (Intrada). The brilliant Hugo Friedhofer, Oscar winner for “The Best Years of Our Lives,” earned his ninth and final nomination for this powerful symphonic score for the 1958 World War II classic starring Marlon Brando as a Nazi officer. This two-disc set marks its first complete release.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.