James Horner's 10 Best Movie Scores, Ranked

james horner Braveheart 1995
Phil Dent/Redferns

Composer James Horner working on the score to "Braveheart" at Abbey Road Studios in 1995.

When a plane crash near Santa Barbara claimed the life of James Horner on Monday, June 22, the world lost one of its greatest cinematic composers. From his career jump-starting work in the Star Trek films to his frequent collaborations with directors Ron Howard, Mel Gibson, Michael Apted and James Cameron (which produced the blockbuster Titanic soundtrack and netted him two Oscars), Horner could be relied on to create music that was undeniably human, even when set within the most distant galaxy.

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From Braveheart to Apollo 13 to Aliens, here are James Horner's 10 greatest movie scores, ranked.

10. An American Tail

Yes, it seems odd to put the score for a children's film on this list, but Horner's score for Don Bluth's story of a Russian-Jewish immigrant mouse references everything from Stars and Stripes Forever to Gilbert & Sullivan. Obviously, the centerpiece of the film, "Somewhere Out There," goes a long way toward solidifying the film's place on this list. It's the rare ballad that succeeds not in spite of but because of its over-the-top emotion.

9. Avatar

Using jungle percussion and Old West flourishes to make the world of Avatar seem at once exotic and familiar, James Horner grounded a CGI-heavy movie starring blue aliens with a startlingly human score. 

8. Field of Dreams

While Horner's sci-fi scores are surprisingly earthy, his music for a movie about baseball set in a cornfield (how American is that?) has moments that are unexpectedly space-y and ambient. Of course, gently triumphant strings and horns keep things from getting too out-there -- but there's just enough to establish the film's supernatural element.

7. A Beautiful Mind

Although it contains elements of his 1999 score to Bicentennial Man (which some critics held against it), this is the superior score. The haunting, careening "A Kaleidoscope of Mathematics" is one of his finest moments

6. Apollo 13

Horner's score hits all the right notes in Ron Howard's historical dramatization, emphasizing the vast loneliness of space, the creeping danger of the Apollo 13 mission and the warmth of familial love. 

5. Aliens

The rare Horner sci-fi score that doesn't comfort the listener, his work in Aliens proved he can create music to evoke dread, suspicion and greed as well as more heart-warming, sentimental fare.

4. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

His first true triumph, the soundtrack to the second (and still greatest) Star Trek film features some of his very best work. He captures the against-all-odds optimism of Captain Kirk, the single-minded, brutal bloodlust of Khan and the quite, selfless dignity of Spock's death. Best of all is his music for the climatic final battle, which gives John Williams' Star Wars score a run for its money.

3. Braveheart

From the woodwind instrument that provides the romantic, resolute main theme to the haunting "Freedom" suite to music of rural, medieval Scotland, Braveheart finds Horner deftly scoring scenes intimate, universal and inspirational.

2. Glory

Haunting, somber and majestic, the score to this Civil War drama was created in association with the Boys Choir of Harlem. When they sing the wordless main title, you could almost believe you're hearing the voices of ghosts from the past who need to tell their story.

1. Titanic

Certainly his best-selling soundtrack (it's one of the best-selling albums of all time), Titanic is also his most decorated: It nabbed him two Academy Awards (best original dramatic score; best original song for the smash hit "My Heart Will Go On"). Horner captures the haughty arrogance of the aristocracy, the blue-collar joy of the working class and the inevitable death that awaits most on the ship. And, of course, there's the immortal "My Heart Will Go On," the powerful ballad that provides the film with its emotional denouement.