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The Best Classic Film Music Albums of 2019

The year brought expanded classics and re-recordings of scores from greats like Jerry Goldsmith, Ennio Morricone, James Horner, Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Nino Rota and John Williams.

Best classic film music albums of
Marilee Bradford

So you thought compact discs were a dead format? Not to soundtrack collectors. Film music labels continue to thrive, turning from current scores to, increasingly, limited-edition expansions and even new recordings of classic scores from the past.

Many film studios have (as they did in the 1950s and ’60s) formed their own in-house music labels and frequently release digital-only albums of their movie and TV soundtracks. So the traditional soundtrack labels are focusing more on older, classic material, often expanding the old 30-to-40 minute albums to CD length of 75 minutes or more. They’re also tracking down and licensing previously unreleased soundtracks of interest to collectors.

It’s a business model that seems to be working for more than a dozen labels in the U.S. and Europe that are devoted to releasing music from movies and TV. Here then, alphabetically, are our choices for the best classic film music releases of 2019:

“Air Force One” (on the Varèse Sarabande label). Collectors have complained for two decades about the too-short 35-minute album of Jerry Goldsmith’s exciting score for the 1997 Harrison Ford action thriller. Now they can rejoice over this expanded edition, two full hours of music spread over two discs (including the additional music written by Joel McNeely, brought in by Goldsmith when time ran short).

“An American Tail / Apollo 13” (Intrada). Two of the late James Horner’s most renowned, Oscar-nominated efforts, expanded for the first time since their much shorter original soundtrack albums in 1986 and 1995, respectively. “American Tail” won a Grammy for song of the year for “Somewhere Out There,” and “Apollo 13” marked a first for Annie Lennox, lending her voice to a film score.

“Birds Do It, Bees Do It” (Caldera). Only one documentary has ever been Oscar-nominated for its musical score: this 1975 David L. Wolper production on the mating habits of animals, composed by Gerald Fried (who would later win an Emmy for Wolper’s “Roots”). Fried’s early example of a hybrid score — partly electronic, partly orchestral — served the little-seen doc perfectly.

“Bride of Frankenstein” (La-La Land). Franz Waxman’s landmark score for the 1935 Universal classic (which many believe is the best of the Boris Karloff “Frankenstein” films), issued for the first time as part of the studio’s Film Music Heritage Collection series. Not all of the original tracks survive, but this 43-minute album is a vivid reminder of the power of that music against those startling, mad-scientist images.

“A Delerue-Truffaut Triptych” (Music Box). French composer Georges Delerue’s final three scores for director Francois Truffaut — the grand waltzes of “The Last Metro” (1980), the dramatic “The Woman Next Door” (1981) and the suspenseful “Confidentially Yours” (1983) — are collected in this two-disc set from one of international cinema’s most fruitful composer-director collaborations.

“Dial M for Murder” (Intrada). Russian composer Dimitri Tiomkin scored four films for Alfred Hitchcock, including “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Strangers on a Train,” but his last, “Dial M for Murder” (1954), may be the most famous title. William Stromberg conducted the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in this stunning new recording.

“Disaster Movie Soundtrack Collection” (La-La Land). Three classic John Williams disaster-movie scores — Fox’s “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972) and “The Towering Inferno” (1974) and Universal’s “Earthquake” (1974) — are collected together for the first time, with vastly improved sound quality over prior versions and, in each case, featuring both the original film tracks and the more polished soundtrack albums.

“Dracula / Curse of Frankenstein” (Tadlow). James Bernard was the English composer most responsible for the sound of the classic Hammer horror films of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Two of his earliest and best-remembered scores, “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957) and “Dracula” (1958), have been reconstructed for this superb re-recording by conductor Nic Raine and the City of Prague Philharmonic.

Ennio Morricone: Original Soundtracks 1964-2015” (Universal France). Not even 18 CDs could scratch the surface of the prolific Italian composer’s nearly 500-film career, but this “best of” compilation is as close as we may ever get. The attraction for Morricone diehards is previously unreleased music from favorites like “Orca”; improved sound on masterpieces like “1900”; a first-ever collection of old Morricone tracks used in Quentin Tarantino films; and a 40-page book featuring a new interview with the maestro.

“Ghost Story” (Quartet). French composer Philippe Sarde (“Tess”) composed one of his most intense and effective scores for this 1981 American horror film starring Fred Astaire and John Houseman. The 35-minute LP, long considered Sarde’s “horror symphony,” was fine, but this expanded album maintains the concept while adding another 20 minutes of orchestral fright.

“Henry King at Fox” (Kritzerland). Veteran 20th Century-Fox director Henry King was lucky enough to have composer Alfred Newman score two dozen of his films. Five classics are collected in this five-disc set, including “The Black Swan” (1942), the Oscar-nominated “Captain From Castile” (1947), “Prince of Foxes” (1949), “The Gunfighter” (1950) and the Oscar-winning “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” (1955).

“King Rat / Howard the Duck” (Intrada). English composer John Barry wrote these scores 20 years apart — a melancholy accompaniment for an acclaimed prisoner-of-war drama, one of six films he did for director Bryan Forbes in the ’60s; and an outrageous Marvel Comics sci-fi sendup that was a box-office disaster in the mid-’80s. Both are vastly expanded from their original LPs (“Howard” is now a 3-CD set) and a gift for Barry aficionados.

“Nevada Smith: The Paramount Westerns Collection” (La-La Land). This four-disc set collects the wide-open-spaces scores for 11 Westerns made by Paramount over a 20-year period starting in 1949, many never before released. Especially welcome are Franz Waxman’s “The Furies” (1950), Alfred Newman’s “Nevada Smith” (1966), Nelson Riddle’s “El Dorado” (1967) and David Raksin’s “Will Penny” (1968).

Planet of the Apes: Original Film Series Soundtrack Collection” (La-La Land). A meticulous five-disc restoration of groundbreaking avant-garde scores for the cult-favorite movies: Jerry Goldsmith’s “Planet of the Apes” (Oscar-nominated in 1968) and “Escape From the Planet of the Apes” (1971); Leonard Rosenman’s “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (1970) and “Battle for…” (1973); and Tom Scott’s “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1972).

“Romeo & Juliet / The Taming of the Shrew” (Quartet). Italian composer Nino Rota’s delightful scores for the Shakespeare adaptations by filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli: a two-disc expansion of the music for the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton “Shrew” (1967) and a welcome remastering of the long out-of-print album for the Olivia Hussey-Leonard Whiting “Romeo” (1968) which, thanks to numerous vocal versions of his love theme, became Rota’s biggest worldwide hit.

“Rough Cut” (Quartet). The year’s most unexpected arrival was Nelson Riddle’s hip, jazzy score for Don Siegel’s 1980 caper film starring Burt Reynolds and Lesley-Anne Down. Riddle, perhaps the greatest arranger of the 20th century, adapted several Duke Ellington tunes and augmented them with his own stylish originals, all played by some of the West Coast’s finest jazz musicians.

“Saddles, Sagebrush and Steiner: Western Scores of Max Steiner” (Brigham Young University Film Music Archive). The prolific, Austrian-born film-music pioneer scored some 30 Westerns during his 35-year career in Hollywood, and this three-disc set debuts eight of his Warner Bros. films, including such classics as “Virginia City” (1940) and “Santa Fe Trail” (1940).

“The Thin Red Line” (La-La Land). In the “never thought we’d ever hear it” category is Hans Zimmer’s two and a half hours of original music for Terrence Malick’s 1998 World War II epic. Zimmer’s score (more than half of it unused in the film) is ultimately a meditation on the madness of war, and its calm reflection offers a spectacular contrast with his music for such other war films as “Black Hawk Down” and “Dunkirk.”

“Unchained Melodies: The Film Themes of Alex North” (Kritzerland). The respected American composer recorded a best-of album for RCA in 1958 (including his “Unchained Melody,” and themes for “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “The Rose Tattoo,” “The Bad Seed” and more). Those 12 tracks, sounding surprisingly fresh on CD, are accompanied by a rarely heard classical work, “Holiday Set” from 1954.

“Young Sherlock Holmes” (Intrada). This Grammy-nominated 1985 score stands among composer Bruce Broughton’s finest work. Alternately charming and intense, it’s been on CD before but never quite this complete (the 37-minute original soundtrack album is included in the three-CD set, along with the full 90-minute film score) or sounding quite this good.