How a Walkman Makes Guardians of the Galaxy an Awesome Psychological Experience

Guardians of the Galaxy poster

Unlike Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, I had no idea who the Guardians of the Galaxy were when Marvel Studios announced the film at Comic Con 2012. When details started to leak, I got pretty excited. Fresh characters set in a wild science fiction universe from a studio known for making consistently fun movies? Count me in!

Now that it's out, people are calling Guardians of the Galaxy the spiritual successor to Star Wars. I wouldn't go that far, but watching the film is an awesome experience. I love its message, nostalgia explosion, and mood-altering music. What's the psychology of Guardians of the Galaxy? It’s all represented by Star-Lord's Walkman.

No spoilers ahead, just analysis. 

More Marvel Fun, Same Marvel Problems

Groot and Rocket

Groot and Rocket

Most of Guardians of the Galaxy works extremely well. The cinematography and special effects are beautiful, particularly all the cosmic IMAX scenes. The ships, worlds, and space stations have that “lived in” feeling of the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s not just the environment that feels real – the film’s wacky cast of characters does as well. From Rocket, the genetically engineered raccoon, to Groot, a walking tree with the same speech problem as Hodor, you don’t have to suspend your disbelief too much to enjoy this film. That’s one of the biggest achievements of Guardians of the Galaxy – it takes some weird science fiction premises and makes them relatable. Seriously, this is a big deal! Lots of other science fiction epics have tried to do this (Dune, Green Lantern) and completely failed. Credits go to science nerd Nicole Pearlman for writing an approachable script and James Gunn for directing a perfectly cast film.  

This is what Marvel Studios does best. Their whole Cinematic Universe is based on making their comic book heroes easy to understand and a lot of fun to watch. However, Marvel can’t seem to create any interesting villains beyond Loki. Every Marvel Studios villain is motivated to destroy a realm/planet/galaxy using whatever magical object happens to be in the film. This keeps Guardians of the Galaxy from succeeding Star Wars. Darth Vader is a memorable villain. Ronan the Accuser is not. Sure, there’s that other guy in this film, but you have to be a big comics nerd to appreciate who that person is and what he could become in future films.

Shared Goals Unite the Guardians of the Galaxy


Even though the film’s villain bored me, I loved watching Peter "Star-Lord" Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot become the Guardians. Underneath all the humor and action are some great messages about teamwork. The Guardians start out as adversaries who realize they have much more to gain if they work together as a team.

It isn't just sentimental – it’s scientifically accurate. In a classic social psychology experiment, Muzafer Sharif put teams of boys in a summer camp and made them compete. The two groups were pretty nasty to each other (think Gryffindor and Slytherin). But when Sharif introduced an obstacle that could only be overcome if both groups worked together (fix the camp’s water supply), the boys overcame their differences, fixed the problem, and eventually became friends.

Similarly, Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot all have different goals they want to achieve, but the only way any of them has a chance of succeeding is by teaming up. It’s just like the “superordinate goals” of Sharif’s study.

X-Men: Days of Future Past did a better job exploring the psychology of teamwork and collaboration, so I’m not going to belabor the point here. I’d much rather talk about that Walkman. 

Nostalgia and the Importance of Stuff

Star-Lord's nostalgia command center. Click to enlarge.

Successful science fiction takes ideas that exist in popular culture and presents them in a stunning new way. Guardians of the Galaxy does this with our nostalgia for 1980s culture. There’re a lot of visual references that evoke Raiders of the Lost Ark, Flight of the Navigator, and The Last Starfighter. But what really impacted me was how much Quill treasures his memories of the 80s. He loves his Walkman and mix tape, named his ship after Alyssa Milano, speaks of John Stamos the legendary outlaw and the great heroism of Footloose. Each of these moments gets a good chuckle from the audience and brings back fond memories of Full House (at least for those of us over the age of 30). But for Quill, these things are “the umbilical cord that connects him to earth and the home and family he lost.”

This is what I love most about Guardians of the Galaxy – it perfectly explains the psychology of nostalgia and why we hold on to stuff. All of our emotions exist to quickly communicate information. Sadness tells us a loss has occurred. Anger notifies us that we’ve been wronged. Anxiety warns of danger. What does nostalgia do? Think about a fond memory from your childhood – those scratch and sniff stickers, watching ALF, making a mix tape, any of them is fine. Take a break from this article and let your memories wander back to the 80s.

When you get nostalgic, what happens? You probably feel good for a little bit and then you start thinking about the people in those memories – friends, siblings, or your parents. Maybe you get an urge to reach out to one of those individuals. Or perhaps you want to share your story with someone nearby. That’s why nostalgia is built into our software – it reminds us that social relationships are important and encourages us to connect with the people we love. Objects from our past, and things that remind us of our past, preserve our memories and connect us with our loved ones. By holding tightly to his Walkman, Quill keeps the memory of his family alive. It’s probably Quill’s nostalgia (and how much he wants to connect with others) that makes him so motivated to turn Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot into his friends.

Of course nostalgia is exploited all the time to sell products (like this film), but the way Guardians of the Galaxy tells this story validates a big trend in pop culture. Those of us who grew up in the 80s like to buy stuff that reminds us of our childhood. It’s not that we’re childish or have some kind of psychological problem. We’re just trying to keep the memories of those important experiences alive, just like Star-Lord. That's why I've got a collection of Street Fighter video games and toys at home. They bring back beloved childhood memories of hanging out with my brother before he passed away.  

The Mood-Altering Power of Music


Speaking of nostalgia, I need to talk about Awesome Mix Vol. 1. I CAN’T STOP LISTENING TO IT! Yes, it’s that good. Full of killer music from the 70s, the soundtrack ties into Quill’s story in a meaningful way and has a powerful impact on your emotions while watching Guardians of the Galaxy.

I’ve written before about music’s ability to sync us together, communicate like language, change our feelings, take us back in time, and express our identities. Awesome Mix Vol. 1 does all of those things, at the same time, with every song, in every scene of the film. Again, there might have been a strong commercial incentive here for Marvel Studios (the album is #1 on iTunes right now), but I love that they’ve created something that I can use anytime I need to lift my emotions and feel less like an a-hole. 

Guardians isn’t Star Wars, it’s Back to the Future

Back to the Future

Back to the Future

If you look at the role of nostalgia and music in Guardians of the Galaxy, you see the film has a lot more in common with Back to the Future than it does Star Wars. Like Back to the Future, Guardians of the Galaxy uses nostalgia about a past era to help different generations of audiences connect with each other. I’m sure most kids walk out of the movie asking their parents about Walkmans, mixtapes, and why Star-Lord wasn't using an iPod. Maybe some of those families went on to listen to Awesome Mix Vol. 1 together on the trip home. This is why it's so easy to to forgive Guardians of the Galaxy’s few weaknesses – the film is going to help a ton of people connect with each other and introduce a whole new generation to the wonderful world of 70s music and 80s culture. 

That is awesome.

To learn about the individual psychology of Guardians of the Galaxy, check out Dr. Andrea Letamendi's analysis at Comics Alliance. AV Club captures what's wrong with Marvel Studios 3rd acts in their review. I like Variety's description of Guardians of the Galaxy as the "underachieving freaks and geeks" of the Marvel universe. You can hear me discuss Guardians of the Galaxy on Episode #29 of the Super Fantastic Nerd Hour.

The Best Science Fiction Music From 2013

Before moving forward with 2014, I want to look back one last time at 2013. 

I'm not going to list 2013's scifi winners and losers (Blastr already did that), rank its coolest fandom moments (I agree with Tony "Crazy 4 Comic Con" Kim's list), or the describe the best psychological studies from the past year. 

Since I've already started counting down the best science fiction film and TV scores of all time, I thought it would be fun to recap 2013's coolest scifi music. 

Here we go!

#7: Doctor Who - Series 7, Murray Gold

Doctor Who

2013 was the year I made first contact with Doctor Who. While Doctor Who's 7th season received mixed reviews, Murray Gold's score remained solid and continued to be some of the best music composed for TV. The music blends in some older themes Gold developed for previous seasons and introduces new darker themes which setup the events of the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary and the departure of Math Smith's 11th Doctor. My favorite tracks include "Clara?", "Infinite Potential", "A Secret He Will Take to His Grave", and "Remember Me". I know "Clara?" technically came out during the 2012 Christmas Special, but hey time is all wibbly wobbly, right? If you're a Whovian, check out the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Collection Soundtrack.

Europa Report

I'm a big fan of Bear McCreary! His score for Battlestar Galactica topped my list of the best scifi music from the 2000s and I love what he's done with The Walking Dead. Europa Report's score combines some of the somber tones McCreary developed for Battlestar with the dread of Walking Dead. The film isn't long, so there isn't much variety to its score, but I enjoyed hearing the different ways McCreary played with a singular theme in "Lift Off", "Landing on Europa", "Mausoleum", "Europa Report (For Solo Piano)", and "A World Other Than Our Own".

Pacific Rim

I had a lot of fun watching Pacific Rim and a big part of that was Ramin Djawadi's awesome score. I've really enjoyed what Djawadi's did with the Game of Thrones score and was surprised by the variety of music he created for Pacific Rim. From the rock and roll theme (featuring Tom Morello's killer riffs), to the optimistic "Gipsy Danger", the spacey "Shatterdome", the tragic "Mako" theme, the competitive "Physical Compatibility", and the pure popcorn fun of "Kaiju Groupie", the music of Pacific Rim has something for everyone.


A big part of why Gravity was such an awe-inspiring experience was Steven Prince's score. Since director Alfonso Cuarón remained true to the fact that sound cannot travel in the vacuum of space, the only sounds we heard in Gravity (beyond the actor's voices) were Prince's music. There's a lot of similarity between Gravity and Europa Report's scores, particularly in how synthesized sounds are used to intensify suspense. What's interesting about Gravity is how quickly the music transitions between horror and tranquillity, and then back again. Sometimes the score is a little distressing to hear, but there's something about it that keeps me coming back. Check out "Debris", "Don't Let Go", "I.S.S.", "Parachute", and "Gravity".


Oblivion's score is somewhat of a decedent of Tron: Legacy. Both films were directed by Joseph Kosinski, who tapped electronic bands to write each score (M83 with Joseph Trapanese for Oblivion and Daft Punk for Tron: Legacy). I love the integration of electric and traditional instruments, the variety of music on the score, and just how clean everything sounds. My favorite tracks include "Jack's Dream", "Waking Up", "StarWaves", "Earth 2077", and "I'm Sending You Away". I probably won't watch the film again, but I listen to the score all the time.

Man of Steel

#2: Man of Steel, Hans Zimmer

The most controversial film score of 2013 was Hans Zimmer's music for Man of Steel. It was criticized as being too moody, too light on themes, and too heavy on percussion. A lot of the controversy was the result of Zimmer following John William's original Superman score, which is one of the greatest themes of all time. /Film's David Chen perfectly captured the differences in the scores in his comparison of the original and new Superman themes:

"If Superman: The Movie is about arriving, about this guy coming to Earth, sharing his amazing powers with us, and saving us…[then] Man of Steel is about yearning, longing, the desire to fit in, an unrequited love of a people."

Zimmer's Man of Steel score fits this version of Superman and sets a bold standard for the DC cinematic universe to come (something we've all been yearning for). Listen to samples including "Elegy from Man of Steel trailer" by L'Orchestra Cinematique's and Zimmer's "Look to the stars", "This is Clark Kent", and "What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?". I can't wait to hear how (presumably) Zimmer integrates this score with Batman's for the upcoming movie.

#1: Her, Arcade Fire, William Butler, Owen Pallett

Spike Jonze's Her

Her was my favorite scifi film of 2013. The score, a collaboration between Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett (featuring a song by Karen O) is beautifully simple. It features instrumental variations on many of Arcade Fire's recent songs including "Porno" and “Supersymmetry”. 

The problem is Her's score isn't' available for purchase ANYWHERE! I kept postponing this article until I had the chance to listen to the score again, but for some dumb reason Warner Brothers hasn't released it. Until they do, you'll have to do with the video below which was posted by Arcade Fire this week.

Even though I've only heard it once, the music of Her left a big impression on me, enough for me to rank it the best of 2013.

Honorable Mentions

James Newton Howard's score for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire almost made my list, but many of the themes were extensions of what he did for the first film. I liked Ryan Amon's Elysium score, but it lacked a a cohesive theme. I've been very critical of Marvel for neglecting to connect themes across their Avengers films, but Brian Tyler created some fun music for both Thor 2 and Iron Man 3.  

Notable Exceptions

Along with Bear McCreary, Michael Giacchino is one of my favorite modern composers. His score for 2009's Star Trek set the right tone for the relaunch of the franchise. But there's something missing from his Star Trek Into Darkness score. It does extend Kirk's theme from the first J. J. Abrams film and I really dig the "London Calling" theme for the villain (along with a fantastic nod to The Original Series in "The San Fran Hustle"), but the heart of 2009's score is gone. Maybe the problem is the frenetic pace of the movie. Like the film, I have a lot of fun with the score but it's doesn't live on in my mind like its predecessor. 

What were some of your favorite scores from 2013? Let me know in the comments below.

The Top 10 Science Fiction Film & TV Scores from the 1990s

A few months ago I wrote about the psychology of music and started a countdown to the best science fiction music from past decades. Today, I'm continuing this series with the top 10 science fiction scores from the 1990s.

#10: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, John Williams

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Episode I was a disappointment, but John Williams's score is pretty good. There’re some great nods to the original trilogy as well as a breathtaking new Jedi/Sith theme which became the anthem of this new trilogy. Why didn't I rank Episode I higher? There just aren't enough new melodies. Listen to a sample of "Anakin's Theme", "He Is The Chosen One", "Duel of the Fates", and "[REDACTED]'s Noble End" below.

#9: Contact, Alan Silvestri

Contact movie

What I like about Contact is its simple sounds of discovery. However, it's a little too simple and it's very reminiscent of Silvestri's music for Forrest Gump (which is a far superior score). Maybe it's my nostalgia for this film, but I do think it's good enough to be in my top 10. Highlights include "Awful Waste of Space", "Really Confused", "Media Event", and "No Words".  

#8: Starship Troopers, Basil Poledouris


The original Starship Troopers novel has been criticized for promoting militarism, fascism, and racism. The movie maintains these themes but rather than glorifying them it makes fun of them. Basil Poledouris's music perfectly accompanies the movie's satire - it's over the top, militaristic, and sounds like it was ripped out of WWII Hollywood. "Fed Net March", "Destruction Of Roger Young", and "They Will Win" are great examples of the propaganda feel of Starship Troopers.

#7: Stargate, David Arnold


David Arnold's Stargate score is very smooth. It has that classic mix of exploration, excitement, and fear that makes science fiction films so great. While at times it sounds like a John Williams score (specifically Raiders of the Lost Ark), Arnold's use of diverse instruments sets Stargate apart. I really like "Stargate Overture", "The Stargate Opens", "Entering the Stargate", and "Going Home".    

#6: The Truman Show, Philip Glass

The Truman Show

This is a very interesting score. It's the theme to a movie about the world's most popular reality TV show. While it sounds like Philip Glass's music is too emotional, the score is consistent with one of the messages of the movie - TV is produced to make you feel a very specific way about the people onscreen. Listen to the range of emotions in this score with "It's a Life", "Anthem, Pt. 2", "Reunion", "Truman Sleeps", and "Father Kolbe's Preaching".

#5: Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Brad Fiedel

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

Brad Fiesdel wrote the score to 1984's The Terminator as well as the 1991 sequel. I like the original, but it sounds like it was made on a small budget. With more money and major advances in computer technology, Terminator 2 became one of the best electronic film scores (up there with Blade Runner and Tron: Legacy). What I love most about this score is how it shifts between thunderous action and frightening dissonance. My favorite tracks include "Main Title (Terminator 2 Theme)", "Escape from the Hospital (And T1000)", "Trust Me", and "I'll Be Back".

#4: The Matrix, Don Davis

The Matrix

Like The Dark Knight trilogy and the recent Man of Steel, The Matrix doesn't really have a traditional score. There are some themes that develop over the course of the film, but there isn't anything specific you can hum after watching the movie. Don Davis primarily uses strings and brass instruments to create a frenetic tension during chase scenes and then dramatically extends notes to create a sense of awe as our hero discovers his powers. This gives The Matrix a unique sound and results in a timeless film score. Standouts include "Main Title / Trinity Infinity", "Welcome to the Real World", "The Hotel Ambush", and "Bullet-Time".

I should also mention that the soundtrack is outstanding. I played it nonstop back in the summer of 1999. I especially love Propellerheads's "Spybreak", Rob D's "Clubbed To Death", and Rage Against The Machine's "Wake Up".

#3: Star Trek: First Contact, Jerry Goldsmith

Star Trek First Contact

Jerry Goldsmith’s First Contact score makes me believe that we can actually achieve Star Trek’s optimistic vision of the future. The music is tender and has an inspiring melody. It also became a fitting theme to the cinematic adventures of The Next Generation. “Main Title/Locutus” integrates Goldsmith’s old and new Star Trek themes while “Welcome Aboard” and “First Contact” setup the most important event in Star Trek's history – the first meeting between humans and aliens.

#2: Gattaca, Michael Nyman


Gattaca is one of the best science fiction films of the 1990s and Michael Nyman's score is deeply moving. "The Morrow" introduces you to the melancholy world of Gattaca. "God's Hands" is a beautiful theme about familial love. The film's message of triumph over adversity is highlighted in "The One Moment". "Becoming Jerome" is surprisingly playful. "The Departure" takes the story into a fitting end. Most film scores transport you to another time or place. Gattaca is one of the few scores that turns your attention inward, creating a state of personal reflection. 

#1: Jurassic Park, John Williams


Jurassic Park holds a special place in my heart. It was the first time I remember watching a movie and completely suspending my disbelief. For those two hours, I felt like I had just visited Jurassic Park. A big part of that was John Williams's score (the other half were the special effects which still hold up to this day). Williams created a score that is very intricate. It seamlessly lifts you up and then slams you down, draws you close for intimate moments and then zooms out for more awesome sights, all while maintaining a cohesive theme that never feels redundant. The whole album is worth the investment but my favorites are "Journey To The Island", "Welcome To Jurassic Park", "Dennis Steals The Embryo", and "High-Wire Stunts".

Honorable Mentions

I liked The Rocketeer and Independence Day, but they didn't have enough variety. Apollo 13 would make my top 3, but it's science fact not science fiction. Batman Return almost made the cut, but it's too dark for my taste.

Notable Exceptions

A TV series! My 2000s list had 2 TV shows, but nothing from the 1990s made the top 10. There were some stellar TV themes from this decade (like seaQuest DSV, The X-Files, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek: Voyager), but the shows themselves didn't have enough consistent good music to get onto my list. 

Next time, I'll look at the best science fiction music from the 1980s - the decade home to many of my favorite movies of all time! 

Star Trek Into Music: The Best Film Scores from the Final Frontier


A while back I wrote about how music changes our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. I also started a list of the best science fiction film scores of all time. Today, I'm taking a look back at the orchestral music that made me fall in love with film scores - the music of Star Trek.

Unlike that other space franchise, Star Trek features a wide variety of composers. Each brings their unique style to the franchise while still integrating elements of Alexander Courage's original Star Trek TV series theme. The result is a diverse collection of music that is linked by a common thread (like the James Bond franchise).

Here's my list of the top 5 Star Trek film scores. I’ve spent hundreds of hours listening to each one and hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

#5: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country , Cliff Eidelman


 Cliff Eidelman isn’t known for scoring scifi epics. His other movie scores include My Girl 2, Free Willy 3, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. But his music for Star Trek VI matches the urgency and mystique of the cold war storyline. Even though traditional Star Trek cues are absent from most of the film, Eidelman gives the original crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise a fantastic send off. The sample below includes “Overture” (a powerful introduction to the film), “Spacedock / Clear All Moorings”, “Spock Wisdom” (love the Vulcan mysticism here), and “Sign Off”.



Michael Giacchino's score is fresh and modern (just like the 2009 movie). While it sounds less like a space opera and more like a superhero score, the music fits this interpretation of Star Trek. Spock's theme is reflective and tragic ("Head To Heart Conversation") while Kirk's is searching for a purpose ("Hella Bar Talk"). The best part is Giacchino's take on the original 1966 Star Trek theme ("End Credits") - it honors the past while boldly moving the franchise forward. 


Jerry Goldsmith’s First Contact score makes me believe that we can actually achieve Star Trek’s optimistic vision of the future. The music is tender and has an inspiring melody. It also becomes a fitting theme to the cinematic adventures of The Next Generation. “Main Title/Locutus” integrates Goldsmith’s old and new Star Trek themes while “Welcome Aboard” and “First Contact” setup the most important event in Star Trek's history – the first meeting between humans and aliens.


Yes, it’s blasphemous for me to list Goldsmith’s original Motion Picture theme as the 2nd best Star Trek score. Don’t get me wrong, I love each of the iconic tracks sampled below (“Main Theme”, “Klingon Battle”, “The Enterprise”, “Leaving Drydock”). The issue is the rest of the score doesn’t really do much (besides put me to sleep). The Motion Picture has little tension, conflict, or stakes and the score suffers from the same issues. It's still awesome enough to be my #2. 


Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a wonderfully complete movie that seamlessly transitions between intimate moments and epic battles. James Horner’s score does not miss a beat. From the explosive “Main Title”, to the mysterious “Spock”, the menacing “Surprise Attack”, and the solemn “Amazing Grace”, the score is a perfect companion to the film’s message of life, death, and rebirth. This is easily the best film score in the Star Trek universe.


Honorable Mentions

  • Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: Horner does a nice job, but it sounds a lot like the score to Star Trek II.
  • Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: Too whimsical for me, but it fits the comedic nature of the movie. 

That's my list. What's your favorite Star Trek film score?

The Top 10 Science Fiction Film & TV Scores from the 2000s

Just a couple of psychologists celebrating science fiction and music at the  Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum .

Just a couple of psychologists celebrating science fiction and music at the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum.

A few days ago I wrote about how music changes the way we act, think, and feel. What I didn't mention is how much I'm obsessed with film and TV scores - they suck me in, focus my mind, and make the rest of the world disappear.

While some write off Hollywood composers as "sell outs", the genre is essentially the same as the romantic era of music (you know, the time period that gave us Beethoven's "Symphony No. 9", Strauss's "Blue Danube", and Holst's "Mars") - both use music to tell a story that produces very specific feelings.

Science fiction is home to some of the best film and TV scores. To celebrate the musical contributions of science fiction, I'm starting a series highlighting the 10 best scifi scores of each decade, beginning with the 2000s (2001 - 2010). Check back for updates or save this link to view the whole series.

Here we go...

#10: Wall-E, Thomas Newman


Since Wall-E rarely speaks, the film relies on Thomas Newman's score to communicate how the robot is thinking and feeling. This is done effortlessly. I also love how fun the score is. While things start seriously with "2815 A.D.", there's goofiness to "Wall-E", a sense of wonder to "Bubble Wrap", and playfulness to "First Date". Listen to samples of these tracks below.

If you like this score, check out Newman's scores to Skyfall, Finding Nemo, and American Beauty.

#9: District 9, Clinton Shorter

District 9.jpg

It was great to see a science fiction film that doesn't revolve around the United States. That's also what I enjoyed about Clinton Shorter's score to District 9 - South African vocals are integrated throughout resulting in a unique sound. Highlights include “District 9”, “Exosuit”, and “Heading Home”.

I listen to District 9 during my morning subway commute. It gets me fired up to take on the hoards of New York City pedestrians.

#8: Moon, Clint Mansell


Moon is one of the best science fiction films that no one has seen. The score is clean and delicate. It makes you feel the loneliness of being stuck on the moon. Just listen to "Welcome to Lunar Industries", "Memories (Someone We'll Never Know)", and "The Nursery" to get an idea of what I mean.

To hear more from Mansell, try his scores to Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, and Black Swan.

#7: Tron: Legacy, Daft Punk


Tron: Legacy was a letdown, but the score exceeded all of my expectations. Daft Punk created a true synthesis of electronic and orchestral music that has yet to be replicated. Standouts include "The Game Has Changed", “Fall”, and “TRON Legacy (End Titles)”.

I listen to this album anytime I need an extra boost of motivation - at the gym, during chores, and when I'm behind on paperwork. Tron: Legacy just makes me want to get things done.

#6: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jon Brion


Like Moon, Eternal Sunshine's score is razor sharp. Here, the focus is on a man desperately trying to hold on to fading memories and the music highlights the fuzziness of that process. Favorites include "Peer Pressure", "Row", and "Elephant parade".

I use this score for short bursts of contemplation, usually when I'm planning something new.

#5. The Dark Knight, Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard


Both Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard did the right thing when Christopher Nolan rebooted Batman - instead of competing with Danny Elfman's heroic original theme, they created a murkier score. While elements of Batman’s theme were teased in Batman Begins, they weren't fully fleshed out until The Dark Knight. For a sample, listen to “A Watchful Guardian” (Batman), “Why So Serious” (Joker), and “Harvey Two-Face” (Harvey Dent). 

While The Dark Knight Rises's score has some nice moments (I love the chaos in "Gotham's Reckoning"), it lacks the subtly of the first two movies (probably because Howard wasn't involved). The Dark Knight remains the best film and score of the trilogy.

#4: Children of Men, John Tavener


Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men has been compared to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The score is more similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey, both in style and gravitas. Unlike 2001, John Tavener composed original music for the film in addition to using existing orchestral music. "Fragments of a Prayer, "Eternity's Sunrise", and "Mother of God, Here I Stand (For String Orchestra)" are all powerful examples of the film’s style.


Like the movie, the score feels fresh and modern. Spock's theme is reflective and tragic ("Head To Heart Conversation") while Kirk's is searching for a purpose ("Hella Bar Talk"). The best part is Giacchino's take on the original 1966 Star Trek theme ("End Credits") - it honors the past while boldly moving the franchise forward.

When JJ Abrams picks a composer for Star Wars Episode VII, I hope he selects Giacchino – I’d love to see what he can do with that universe.

#2: LOST, Michael Giacchino


This decade witnessed the rise of Giacchino. Along with Star Trek, he composed Alias, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Mission: Impossible 3, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Super 8, and Up (for which he won an Oscar). He also did the music for Disneyland’s revamped Space Mountain and Star Tours rides and a bunch of video games. His most creative work remains the score to TV’s LOST. Throughout the series, Giacchino expresses complex emotion with a few simple notes and uses silence as a way of building or releasing tension. He even used pieces of an airplane fuselage to create some of the show’s strange sounds. Below are some of the best moments from LOST's six seasons including "Oceanic 815", "Hurley's Handouts", "Claire-A Culpa", "The Constant", "Sawyer Jones and the Temple of Boom", "The Tangled Web", and "Closure".


To keep Battlestar Galactica from sounding like just another space opera, McCreary used non-traditional orchestral instruments like the duduk, taiko drums, an erhu, sitars, gamelans, and bagpipes. Their synthesis results in a score that transcends all genres and is just really beautiful music.

I could go on and on about McCreary's score, but I'll just touch on some of my favorite themes of the series. The Adama theme ("Wander My Friends") highlights the role of family in the show. "Roslin and Adama" is rich and soothing while "The Sense of Six" is cold and unnerving. "Prelude to War" combines strings and percussion to create a dramatic standoff. "Heeding The Call" sets up the biggest reveal of the show and "Diaspora Oratorio" takes the series into its final act.

If you haven't heard of Battlestar Galactica, go to Netflix right now and watch the pilot. It’s that good. You won't be disappointed. 

Honorable Mentions

Inception, X2, The Island, Firefly, and Halo (yes, the video game) came close to making the list, but beyond the signature themes the scores weren't that memorable.

Notable Exceptions

Nothing from the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" (Iron Man 1 & 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers) came close to reaching the top 10. None of the music from these movies is memorable.

We didn't get anything fresh from John Williams. I liked his Minority Report theme, but the Star Wars prequels, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Artificial Intelligence scores sounded A LOT like his previous work. Similarly, James Horner's score to Avatar reminded me of James Horner's score to Titanic

The 2000s saw the passing of Jerry Goldsmith, one of the greatest science fiction composers (Planet of the Apes, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien). I really miss hearing his music.

That's it for now. Let me know what you think. What did I get right or wrong? What would you put on your list? And don't forget to come back for my list of the top scifi scores from the 1990s.