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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The 20 Best 'Star Wars' Tracks

Star Wars is known for many things – lightsaber duels, giant round superweapons, complex parent-child relationships, etc. – but its most enduring achievement has always been its music. The franchise has fluctuated in terms of acting quality and basic format (animated versus live-action) in the past 40 years, but the music has always been strong. 

Legendary composer John Williams can be thanked for this. He scored the Original Trilogy, the Prequel Trilogy, and The Force Awakens, earning him four of his 50 total Oscar nominations. He's turning 85 today and is still hard at work on the soundtrack for The Last Jedi. His music has been defining and redefining Star Wars since 1977. 
In honor of Williams' birthday today, we're ranking the 20 best pieces of music (so far) from the entire Star Wars franchise. These include both tracks by Williams himself and those that clearly took inspiration from his superb work. 

20. "A New Hope and End Credits" (Revenge of the Sith)

Revenge of the Sith was intended (or at least, believed by most) to be the conclusion of the Star Wars saga. The music that plays during the end credits blends together some of John Williams' best work from both the Prequels and the Original Trilogy to create an exceptional finale for one of the greatest film series of all time. 
The first minute or so of the track samples "Princess Leia's Theme" and "Binary Sunset" as the two Skywalker newborns are shown with their new, adoptive parents. The "End Credits" portion starts off with the usual Star Wars theme, then transitions into an extended repeat of "Princess Leia's Theme," followed by "Battle of the Heroes," "The Throne Room" from the end of A New Hope, and other classics.
While containing very little original content, "A New Hope and End Credits" is still an extremely nostalgic and celebratory track made for the few diehard fans who sat in the theater for 10 minutes after Revenge of the Sith ended. During the last few seconds of fanfare, you get the feeling that Williams himself was tearing up a bit, thinking that this was his last contribution to Star Wars. (We're all very glad that it wasn't.)

19. "Hope" (Rogue One

Taking its name from the final word spoken in Rogue One, this track kicks off with an awesome and horrifying rendition of "The Imperial March" as Darth Vader confronts a corridor of unlucky Rebel troops. Using a loud choir backed by strings and brass, it makes Vader's ensuing slaughter even more glorious. 
Composer Michael Giacchino finishes this sequence with a brief sample of the traditional "Imperial March" theme as Vader watches the Tantive IV slip through his grasp. The music quiets down aboard the ship, save for some teasing (and quite appropriate) notes from "Rebel Blockade Runner" in the background. "Binary Sunset" tops it all off as Princess Leia receives the Death Star plans, declaring them a new "hope" for the Rebel Alliance.
"Binary Sunset" isn't an especially creative choice to end the movie; both Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens use it as an easy way to lead into the end credits. The first half of "Hope" is really what makes it so great. Giacchino does what every Star Wars composer should do: he takes a classic Williams theme and puts his own spin on it.

18. "It's Over Now" (Rebels)

"Twilight of the Apprentice," Rebels' Season 2 finale, didn't exactly have a happy ending. By the time the credits rolled, Darth Maul was once again on the loose, Jedi Kanan Jarrus had been rendered permanently blind, padawan Ezra Bridger was slipping to the Dark Side, and Ahsoka Tano's long-awaited reunion with her former master, Darth Vader, had descended into an emotional battle to the death that left her fate unclear.
And yet, Kevin Kiner's track that closes out the episode isn't the soft, somber music that you would expect from such a harrowing 44 minutes. "It's Over Now" is loud, epic, and strangely triumphant. It's a proud victory march paired with a bleak finishing montage that presents nothing but devastating loss and even more trouble down the road for the heroes. 
Perhaps the reason "It's Over Now" works so well is that it's the antidote to an absolutely depressing season finale. The brass, strings, percussion, and background choir fit together seamlessly in a theme that inspires action and hope. It literally ends the episode on a high note.

17. "Luke and Leia" (Return of the Jedi)

This track signals the moment that Luke reveals to Leia that she's his sister – and a member of the Skywalker family – in the Ewok village. It's the final stage of the evolution of Leia's music throughout the Original Trilogy; from "Princess Leia's Theme" to "Han Solo and the Princess," and now "Luke and Leia."
The beautiful, sweeping notes are far less vulnerable than Leia's previous themes. Despite its title, this track is more about Leia's newfound strength and confidence than her relationship with Luke, as she realizes that she has a natural, powerful connection to the Force.
This music has a fairly limited presence after being introduced, since its titular characters don't have many more scenes together in Return of the Jedi. More than any other track on this list, we can hope that the "Luke and Leia" motif will return in The Last Jedi, simply because it would mean the heartwarming reunion of the Skywalker twins. 

16. "Ahsoka Leaves" (The Clone Wars)

This strings-heavy track by Kiner accompanies The Clone Wars' most heartbreaking scene: Ahsoka's dramatic walk out of the Jedi Temple as she chooses to leave the Order – despite the pleas of her beloved master, Anakin – in the Season 5 finale, "The Wrong Jedi."
A beautiful, tragic rendition of "Binary Sunset" plays during the first 20 seconds, but it's not until 1:19 that the emotion really starts pouring in. The ascending string notes finish Season 5 (and the last episode of the series to be aired on television) with a tone that could only be described as bittersweet. It was the end of an era, but not the end of The Clone Wars, nor Ahsoka herself.
The haunting woodwind notes at the end of the track, paired with the episode's end credits, are actually a much softer version of the principal theme from "It's Over Now." It's as if Kiner was already planning his score for the next major Anakin/Ahsoka episode. 

15. "The Emperor Arrives" (Return of the Jedi)

Unlike Darth Vader, the Emperor doesn't have a single ounce of good within him. He's the most diabolical and wretched character in all of Star Wars, so it's fitting that his personal theme, which starts at 1:05 in this track, is somehow even more sinister than Vader's. It features an all-male choir (the first choir ever used in Star Wars music, in fact) and lots of low, low notes that ooze with the Dark Side. 
This motif reappears several times in the Prequels and serves as the inspiration for Supreme Leader Snoke's theme, but perhaps its most ominous use is at the end of The Phantom Menace. The parade music on Naboo sung by a chorus of innocent children is actually a variation of the Emperor's theme in major key, hinting at his insidious plot that loomed over the celebration. 


14. "Princess Leia's Theme" (A New Hope)

As the title would suggest, this iconic track is synonymous with Leia Organa. Its soft and beautiful notes are used as a musical cue throughout the Original Trilogy and The Force Awakens, popping up whenever she does. 
The major flaw with this track is that it portrays Leia as gentle and subdued – a "typical princess," if you will. In reality, we all know that she's a strong leader, a capable warrior, and a pretty rude and outspoken woman in general. "Princess Leia's Theme" isn't bad music, but it fails to actually capture the essence of the character it's named after.


13. "The Asteroid Field" (The Empire Strikes Back)

The Millennium Falcon's frantic chase from persistent TIE fighters is paired with a track that just doesn't slow down. "The Asteroid Field" is a roller coaster the whole way through. From the sinister "Imperial March" samples at the beginning to the quick "Han Solo and the Princess" notes at 3:25, it brings you to the edge of your seat. 
The best part of "The Asteroid Field" is unquestionably the brass explosion at 2:17. No other chase music from Star Wars – including the fantastic "Zam the Assassin and the Chase Through Coruscant" from Attack of the Clones and "The Falcon" from The Force Awakens – manages to capture the same thrill of those notes, and it's a shame that they haven't reappeared since. 

12. "The Jedi Steps and Finale" (The Force Awakens)

The cliffhanger at the end of The Force Awakens is unlike the ending of any Star Wars film before it, and the music that plays during it is equally unique, combining Rey and Luke Skywalker's respective theme as the two Force users come face to face. 
As Rey ascends the titular stone steps on the island on the planet Ahch-To, these mysterious and intriguing notes play, reaching a wondrous crescendo when she finally lays eyes upon a hooded Luke. Rey pulls out Luke's old lightsaber, offers it to him, and the music swells with "Binary Sunset," which leads right into the usual end-credits theme.
The "Finale" part of this track isn't recognized nearly as much (because everyone was leaving the theater while it played), but it does a great job of representing each of the film's characters, transitioning from "Rey's Theme" to Kylo Ren, Finn, and Poe Dameron's unofficial themes as well.


11. "Yoda's Theme" (The Empire Strikes Back)

This track is pure tranquility and positivity. Its gradually-rising, sweeping notes are a reflection of Yoda's own mellow demeanor at this point in his life. It totally embodies the Light Side of the Force; there's not a hint of conflict or evil to be found. 
You can hear this piece during the last moments of The Clone Wars' series finale (or at least, the last completed episode), "Sacrifice," paving the way for the resurgence of the Light Side – and a calmer, less troubled Yoda – in the distant future. 

10. "The Battle Of Endor II - Medley" (Return of the Jedi)

Williams' phenomenal score from the showdown in the Emperor's throne room is found in this 10-minute medley. When Vader threatens to turn Leia to the Dark Side, Luke lunges at him with a rage that can truly be felt in the sorrowful music that starts at 5:00 in the track below. 
Independently known as "A Jedi's Fury," this part of the track is a more layered version of the Emperor's theme. It's much more poignant than the typical exciting, inspiring Star Wars music you would expect in a scene where the hero is winning, because there's nothing inspiring about watching a son give in to his anger and furiously attack his weakened father to the point of cutting off his hand. 
At 8:19, the Emperor's theme comes in louder than ever before (or since) as the old man mercilessly tortures Luke with his Force lightning. Adding in a creepy, rising choir, it's at its most terrifying when Palpatine is moments away from electrocuting Luke to death...until "Binary Sunset" bursts in at 9:08, signaling Vader's redemption and return to the Light Side as he throws his master down the Death Star's reactor shaft.

9. "Your Father Would Be Proud" (Rogue One)

Named after the final words that Cassian speaks to Jyn as they prepare to be vaporized by the Death Star on the Scarif beach, "Your Father Would Be Proud" tackles the bittersweet conclusion of Rogue One. It manages to find an excellent balance between mourning the loss of the central Rebel team and celebrating their accomplishment.This is where Giacchino really sets himself apart from Williams and brings his own sound to the Star Wars saga. The first few minutes of the track have the same calmness of "Yoda's Theme" with some strong, tragic undertones. It's also reminiscent of the composer's previous work on Lost, which makes sense given that the show also took place on a tropical, paradisal beach terrain that held nefarious secrets.
The latter portion of the track, starting at 2:48, is a fitting tribute to Jyn in the form of her personal theme. Like Jyn herself, it's sad yet forceful, emotional yet powerful. It's the perfect way of acknowledging this heroine who doesn't get a whiff of recognition from the Rebellion that she died for. 


8. "Battle of the Heroes" (Revenge of the Sith)

This awesome, tragic track is more than worthy of accompanying the climax of the Prequel Trilogy: Anakin and Obi-Wan's duel on Mustafar. Between its choir and punctuating brass notes, you can tell that Williams sat down and really tried his hardest to make the most epic music possible for one of the franchise's most memorable moments.
"Battle of the Heroes" would be higher on this list if it wasn't so heavily inspired by "Duel of the Fates" from The Phantom Menace. "Battle of the Heroes" is more polished in some ways and certainly accompanies a more important moment in the Star Wars chronology, but it loses a few points from a lack of creativity. 
7. "Rey's Theme" (The Force Awakens)

It's appropriate that The Force Awakens' breakout character also receives the film's best piece of music. Rey's personal theme perfectly encapsulates all of her great qualities: her optimism, innocence, independence, sense of adventure, and the mystery surrounding her. Much like "Binary Sunset" and "Princess Leia's Theme," we can assume that "Rey's Theme" will recur throughout the Sequel Trilogy, albeit in evolved forms to accommodate Rey's own evolution. A remixed version has also been adopted as the unofficial theme for "The Star Wars Show," used in the intro sequence in each episode.
6. "Across the Stars" (Attack of the Clones)

Anakin and Padmé's romance is both the heart of Attack of the Clones and one of the worst parts of it, thanks to the famously wooden acting displayed in their scenes together. But "Across the Stars" is the opposite; it's bursting with (almost) enough emotion and angst to compensate for the clunky dialogue.
It's simply a great love theme for this pair of melodramatic twentysomethings. Unlike the more rational Han and Leia, every moment spent apart is agony for Anakin and Padmé. Their forbidden, "star-crossed" love is doomed from the start, and the sweeping intensity of "Across the Stars" really evokes this tone.
5. "Han Solo and the Princess" (The Empire Strikes Back)

Nothing beats the original Star Wars romance. Han and Leia's love was more developed and realistic than any other found in the franchise. "Han Solo and the Princess" is their iconic theme, representing both the tenderness of their feelings and the strength that they gave each other. Its gentleness in comparison to "Across the Stars" is precisely why it's so superior.
Much like Han and Leia's love, this track has weathered the years. A nostalgia-inducing sample of it was heard in the The Force Awakenstrailer, as well as in the film's own track commemorating the couple, "Han and Leia."
Half of this beloved duo died in The Force Awakens, but that doesn't mean that this track can't reappear. The Last Jedi will surely include a scene of Leia reflecting on her lost love, making a great opportunity for "Han Solo and the Princess" to briefly return. 

4. "Duel of the Fates" (The Phantom Menace)

Regarded by many as the single best piece of music from the Prequels, "Duel of the Fates" plays during Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan's climactic duel against Darth Maul in the Theed Royal Palace on Naboo. A relentless choir punctuates the epic and adrenaline-pumping notes as three warriors face off in a battle that only one of them will survive.
Part of what makes this track is good is that it's different from anything that the Original Trilogy offered. As the inspiration for "Battle of the Heroes," it marks an era of elaborate and tightly-choreographed lightsaber duels in the Star Wars saga, duels that need rapid-fire tracks to accompany them.
3. "The Imperial March" (The Empire Strikes Back)

Darth Vader's theme is nearly as famous as the Sith Lord himself. It's incredibly simple in comparison to some of Williams' other work, with a rhythm made for an authoritarian regime like the Galactic Empire. It's not nearly as dark as the Emperor's theme, but it still makes it clear that Vader isn't someone to be messed with. "The Imperial March" follows Vader's evolution. It's heard subtly during Anakin's darker moments in the Prequels. The theme is loudest and scariest in "Hope" in Rogue One, when Vader is at the height of his strength and brutality. During his death scene in Return of the Jedi, it's played on a quiet harp, indicating the end of his story. And of course, a few notes are heard when Kylo Ren confers with Vader's damaged helmet in The Force Awakens.
Vader and "The Imperial March" go hand in hand. Never has there been such an iconic and popular villain, and never has a villain had such a recognizable theme.

2. "Main Title" (A New Hope)

It doesn't get more Star Wars than this. This is the theme that starts and ends every single movie in the saga, erupting with the opening crawl and cueing in the end credits. Even The Clone Wars and Rebels use original (but recognizable) variations of "Main Title" in their intros. The only exception is Rogue One, which had an unconventional, crawl-less opening but still used this theme in its end credits.
For a Star Wars fan, there's no better sound than the first few notes of "Main Title." Whether you're hearing it in the movie theater on opening night or at the beginning of an in-home marathon, it means that you're about to watch something spectacular. 

1. "Binary Sunset" (A New Hope)

First heard during the iconic scene of Luke staring out at the binary sunset over Tatooine, this track isn't as recognizable as "Main Title," but its sad-yet-hopeful tone is more true to the core of Star Wars. It's appeared many times in every Star Wars movie and cartoon, representing both Luke and the Force itself. (It's alternatively known as "The Force Theme.")
"Binary Sunset" is the common thread that links all of the greatest Force-related moments. Aside from its first appearance, it can be heard when Leia senses a desperate Luke at the end of The Empire Strikes Back; when Obi-Wan grabs his master's lightsaber to slay Darth Maul at the climax of The Phantom Menace; and when Rey summons Luke's lightsaber in The Force Awakens, as well as later in the duel, when she remembers her newfound power and uses it to turn the tables on Kylo Ren.
Above all, "Binary Sunset" is an inherently nostalgic piece of music. That's precisely why most of the trailers for The Force Awakens and Rogue One used it in some form or another; the first few notes instantly tell the audience that this is Star Wars, even before they see the blasters and spaceships and stormtroopers.

To be clear, there are very few "bad" Star Wars tracks; almost every single one elevates the thrill and/or emotion of the accompanying footage to some extent. It's only when they experiment with diegetic music (heard by the characters in the film) that the results can be disastrous, like the infamous "Jedi Rocks" and "Yub Nub" from Return of the Jedi.

What's your favorite Star Wars track? What hopes do you have for the future of Star Wars music? Tell me in the comments or tweet to @SithObserver, and may the Force be with you all.

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