Now that Black Panther: The Album has arrived, it's not an exaggeration to call it the best musical offering from Marvel yet. With the entire album curated by Kendrick Lamar, how could it not be anything but a game-changer?
The release of Black Panther: The Album, turns my mind towards the other Marvel soundtracks released throughout the MCU's first ten years. If we're speaking honestly, Marvel tends to play it safe with its soundtracks, which means they are rarely unique. An abundance of focus on Hans Zimmer-esque brass and typical blockbuster cues have created too many soundtracks that are just serviceable to the action instead of iconic scores.
But there are six (6) Marvel soundtracks that come through as both amazing vehicles for Marvel's films and proper pieces of music in their own right. Compared to the level Black Panther: The Album has raised the bar for Marvel music, how do the best Marvel soundtracks rank? Here's my order.
Iron Man 2 (2010), AC/DC
Out of all of the Iron Man soundtracks, the AC/DC Iron Man 2 album stands above the pack. Can you really go wrong with AC/DC? I think not. Even if you're not a big rock fan, you can't deny that this collection of songs, including "Shoot to Thrill," "War Machine," "Back in Black," and "Highway to Hell" got your heart pumping as you watched Tony Stark fight and drink his way through the film.
It should be known that the concept of using popular music for a superhero film isn't new; the idea of a popular artist or group curating a superhero film came from 1989's Batman, which of course had the popular soundtrack written and performed by The Purple One himself, Prince. With Marvel adapting the concept for Iron Man 2, the studio brought their soundtracks to a new level, and it led to a stellar set of mix tapes for the Guardians of the Galaxy series.
However, if any points can be taken off this album, it's that the album is a compilation of established AC/DC hits instead of brand new work. In that sense, the album seems more like a marketing tie-in rather than a soundtrack that actually adds another layer of commentary to Iron Man's characterization.
Compare that to Black Panther: The Album, which is not only brand new music by Lamar and contemporaries like SZA, Jay Rock, and Khalid, but also is able to support the film thematically as well as act like a concept album, with Lamar examining the characters of both T'Challa and Kilmonger. The lyrics of every song relate back to Kilmonger and T'Challa's existential struggle to prove to others that they are worthy, and mentions of the San Francisco Bay and additions of Bay Area rappers like SOBxRBE and Mozzy reference director Ryan Coogler's love for his hometown of Oakland. While the Iron Man 2 soundtrack is awesome, it doesn't really add new depth of character to Iron Man himself.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Alan Silvestri
This is the first orchestral score on this list, and it's only fitting that it'd belong to someone as classic as Captain America. The film's score, composed by Alan Silvestri, is also the first one to stand up as the first Marvel soundtrack written in the vein of a Romantic-style symphonic score.
The Romantic period of the 1800s is one of the biggest influences on today's movie scores, but unfortunately there's been less of a focus on meaningful instrumentation for the sake of imitating the same brass-heavy sounds that have become indicative of blockbusters like Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight series and Inception, both composed by Hans Zimmer. Marvel has also fallen prey to that same tactic; too often, the soundtracks are composed solely to show offset pieces; there's no character building or exploring, which leaves them feeling dull.
But with Captain America: The First Avenger, you hear tones of sadness, triumph, frustration, resignation, and heroic rebirth, particularly in the pieces "Farewell to Bucky," "Hydra Lab," and "Passage of Time." Of course, I can't go without talking about the cheesy majesty that is "Star Spangled Man." That montage of Cap getting his USO razzmatazz on might be one of the favorite sequences to come from a Marvel film, and the song captures that 1940s old Hollywood flavor perfectly
Guardians of the Galaxy Awesome Mix 1 (2014) and Awesome Mix 2 (2017), Various Artists
While Iron Man 2 revolutionized the use of popular music in Marvel films, Guardians of the Galaxy brought the practice to an intergalactic level with Peter Quill's mix tapes. To me, it seems like Guardians of the Galaxy was even more successful at introducing old-school music to the new generation than Iron Man 2; my younger brother, a college freshman, listened to these mix tapes nearly every day during most of 2017. I could also enjoy it too, since I love a lot of the songs curated, like Electric Light Orchestra's "Mr. Blue Sky," Parliament's "Flash Light," and Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home to Me." You could easily play these albums in your car and head out on a fantastic road trip.
How do these soundtracks stack up against Iron Man 2 since they're both compilations? To me, I feel like Peter's mix tapes do provide commentary on him and his life, since the reason he has these tapes is to keep him connected to his earthly childhood and, most importantly, to his mother. For Peter, these tapes are comfort blankets. So while the soundtracks are still just compilations, they do end up saying a lot more about Peter as a character than you might first realize.
These mix tapes are also what opened Marvel up to the idea that the Marvel Universe can broaden its stylistic scope. Guardians of the Galaxy was the first Marvel film to lean into the late '70s-early '80s aesthetic, and the decision changed the game for Marvel films going forward, with Thor: Ragnarok — a spiritual sequel to the Guardians of the Galaxy films — embracing Jack Kirby's psychedelic visuals, Spider-Man: Homecoming paying homage to John Hughes coming-of-age films, and Black Panther veering headfirst into Afrofuturism and hip hop.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), Michael Giacchino
Michael Giacchino brings his flair to the Marvel Universe with his score for Spider-Man: Homecoming. The composer has given Disney some highly memorable soundtracks, and it's fun to hear how he musically interprets the story of Peter Parker. His bombastic rendition of the classic Spider-Man theme is enough to properly hype you for the film's stylistic shift away from the usual Marvel Studios movie beats; the punchy instrumentation drives home the fact that this is a young boy's coming of age story.
The end of the soundtrack, "Spider-Man: Homecoming Suite," beautifully melds together the upbeat tones from the first few tracks and the dead seriousness the soundtrack gathers as things get more and more adult for Peter. The most dangerous-sounding piece is "Lift Off," which starts out with shrieking violins and heavy drums and cymbals before smoothing out into a swelling crescendo. In fact, the darker-sounding pieces are where Giacchino's penchant for drama truly shine.
Granted, the score for Spider-Man: Homecoming is meant to be light and airy to reflect the youth of our main character, but compared to other Giacchino soundtracks of 2017, like War for the Planet of the Apes and Coco, Giacchino purists might find something lacking in this score. Even with Giacchino's talents, it feels like a little bit of the heart was missing, especially since the emotions in Apes and Coco's soundtracks are literally bleeding out of the notes.
But on the flip side, Spider-Man: Homecoming shows Giacchino's range and versatility. That versatility is indicative in "Stark Raving Mad," which begins on a somber note, and then as the piece progresses, it changes into a mellow, guitar and violin-led melody.
Doctor Strange (2016), Michael Giacchino
Michael Giacchino once again brings some much-needed interest into the Marvel Universe soundtrack franchise, and for Doctor Strange, Giacchino flexed his zanier sensibilities and brought us a score that melds together the bombast of a classic Marvel score with 1960s psychedelic rock and trippy strangeness, such as "A Long Strange Trip," which includes warped vocals and instrumentation, heavy drum beats, chanting, hints of electric guitar and sitar, and an unpredictable melody that makes the mind-bending song feel much longer than its runtime of 2 minutes and 28 seconds.
But there are quieter moments too, such as "The Hands Dealt," which opens with a Giacchino go-to, a solemn piano. In this case, the piano is playing the film's main theme, which is sinuous and evocative and, in my opinion, sells the movie better than the film itself.
However, the overriding force on this album is its '60s homages, and the influence of psychedelia, including utilizing instruments like the aforementioned sitar and electric guitar as well as the harpsichord, weave in and out of the soundtrack. It shows up unexpectedly in pieces like "The True Purpose of the Sorcerer," "Sanctimonious Sanctum Sacking," "Strange Days Ahead," and "Go For Baroque," the latter two being pieces that beautifully showcase the magic that can be accomplished when a composer successfully marries musical peanut butter and jelly. But for me, the true pièce de résistance is "The Master of the Mystic End Credits," which is a full-on assault of orchestral trippiness.
As a huge fan of '60s psychedelic rock and its various influences, such as classical Indian music and 1700s Baroque music, Doctor Strange ranks highly for me. In full disclosure, I didn't love the movie. But what's funny is that, sometimes, a so-so movie can have a banging soundtrack. This happens to be one of those times.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Mark Mothersbaugh
Thor Ragnarok's score by Mark Mothersbaugh can be seen as the first true synthesis of Marvel's '70s and '80s pop-rock aesthetic in Guardians of the Galaxy and a traditional blockbuster score, coming together to create something new, mysterious and otherworldly-sounding.
But the unique sound from the soundtrack makes more sense when you remember Mothersbaugh was a member of '80s band Devo; the use of synthesizers harkens back to Mothersbaugh's pop-rock days as well as color the soundtrack with enough sprinkles of new wave and psychedelic rock to make you turn on, tune in, and drop out into a brand new world of superheroism.
These themes are in full force with "Thor: Ragnarok," "Weird Things Happen," "Where Am I" and "Grandmaster's Chambers," the latter two being full-blown synthesizer pieces. "Planet Sakaar" and "Grandmaster Jam Session" sound like they could have been a song from one of Devo's albums, and their pop sound, and in the case of "Grandmaster Jam Session," the goofy vocalizations, are smile-inducing.
The album also evokes old-world mysticism with "Twilight of the Gods" before melding into more action-friendly tones. This track finally grounds legendary characters like Thor and Hela as eternal, ancient beings, something that hasn't truly happened since Patrick Doyle's work on Thor, and even then, the effort came off as uncharacteristically boring for Doyle. With so many twists and turns as well as a nod to Thor's ancient godliness, Thor: Ragnarok has the most inventive soundtracks from the Marvel Universe.
This is my ranking of Marvel's musical best, but you don't have to take my word for it… how would you rank Marvel's soundtracks? Share your thoughts in the comments below!