While the point of soundtracks and scores is to enhance the visual experience of film, there are countless incredible musical works that stand on their own. Divorced from the visual aspect, we can focus entirely on the music, discovering elements we may have previously missed. Heck, let’s be honest, the soundtrack is sometimes the best part of the movie anyway.
Thankfully, there are dozens of record labels out there making sure we get the highest-quality versions of all that audio-movie magic we love. So, let’s take a look at nine labels that reside at the top of the cinematic game.
If you’re even remotely into soundtracks, unsettling movies, great graphic design, or vinyl, you absolutely owe it to yourself to check out the amazing things going on with Death Waltz. While the label is a subsidiary of a subsidiary, Death Waltz has its own strong direction and qualities you would expect to find with a craft label. Also, those parent companies are Mondo (maker of limited-edition movie posters) and Alamo Drafthouse (game-changing movie theater chain). You’re in good hands.
And the covers? Oh my god. Death Waltz has hired some of the best designers and illustrators working today to create arresting art that will have you staring at the jackets for hours. It’s not just about the looks though. Every classic they press to wax is done so with great care. Their Twin Peaks release was mastered by Bernie Grundman, for example. You can find everything from the recent Blair Witch remake to more obscure fare like The New York Ripper, In The Wall, and Killer Nun.
If you're looking for an audiophile experience in your soundtrack records, this may be the label for you. Waxwork tirelessly tracks down the best available masters for each of its reissues. Many of the soundtracks are remastered specifically for vinyl and aren't going to be easily found anywhere else. Releases are 180-gram vinyl, and Waxwork prints its stunning covers on heavyweight jackets. This means your records will be better able to remain warp-free and withstand the many re-shelvings they're bound to experience.
I should also mention the liner notes here. The liner note is one of the great lost arts, and Waxwork does its part to bring it back. Liner notes are not just for hyping the record. They provide the opportunity to discuss the impact and context of the work as you listen to it. The liner notes found on Waxwork pressings are extremely informative and are often written by someone directly involved in the film's production.
Founded by Geoff Barrow of Portishead, this UK-based label has been releasing records since 2003 with a heavy focus on what its website refers to as "outsider alternative music." In addition to great albums by Beak, Anika, and Sleaford Mods, Invada has been releasing amazing soundtracks and scores of recent movies and TV shows. They even have a game soundtrack or two.
The soundtracks offered by Invada tend to focus on the more daring modern soundtrack composers. Most releases are pressed on brightly colored vinyl, which may not appeal to the purists, but it definitely adds to the visual impact of the albums themselves. There is also a fun factor that cannot be denied in collecting colored or patterned vinyl.
Sometimes, you just want to go to the original source. Founded in 1972 as Varèse International (named after the famed composer), the label got its start in the avant-classical scene. In 1977, it was merged with Sarabande Records to form its current iteration. During that time, the label branched out beyond its original concept. By 1978, it was releasing soundtracks to popular films.
Original pressings are an absolute find. While I am a huge fan of boutique-label reissues, there is something to be said for having an original pressing that features the art, sound, and quality that made the soundtrack a must-have to begin with. There is a sense of history and connection that comes with original pressings—and that goes doubly so for soundtracks. Additional good news is that Varèse Sarabande is still around! So, in addition to being the source of all your favorite '80s movie soundtracks, you can pick up original pressings of current film soundtracks.
Speaking of the evolution brought on by mergers and acquisitions… Lakeshore Records. Lakeshore Entertainment is the film production company behind such movies as 200 Cigarettes, Underworld, Million Dollar Baby, and the Underworld series. Will Records produced such amazing albums as Grandaddy's The Sophtware Slump and Bebop & Destruction's The Day After.
They joined forces to release soundtracks as Lakeshore Records and have been a top-tier label for soundtrack culture ever since. Most titles come in a standard black vinyl version as well as a limited edition pressed on colored vinyl. If you really keep your eyes open, you can find store specific limited editions (such as those made for Barnes and Noble) in the virtual used bins here.
If you're into the mellow, icy sounds of the chillout scene, you probably know Milan Records. What you may not know is that in addition to their electronic output, they have released a vast amount of solid soundtracks. For over 40 years, Milan has been bringing the goods to the cine-audiophile crowd.
While many of the older releases are on standard 120-gram vinyl and have minimal packaging (as was the style of the time), newer releases may have limited editions that include colored heavy vinyl and download cards. While many of their soundtracks have been re-issued by other labels, originals are always going to have that extra bit of mojo. Budget labels might not always use the best basters, but legacy labels such as Milan almost always do.
While only around for five years, Epic Soundtrax left a serious mark. A sub-label of Epic (which itself is a subsidiary of Sony), the label was formed to release soundtracks for Sony-related films. This label is a good example of substance over style. You see, the five years that this label was around were pretty bleak for us vinyl fans (unless you were scooping up collections at yard sales). 1992–97 was peak CD-era, and vinyl was aggressively being phased out. As a result, the releases on this label weren't deluxe and many were CD-only. That's OK, though. The music itself is what matters, and they absolutely delivered it.
Additionally, now that the world has come to its senses on this whole record thing, many of the soundtracks are being reissued on vinyl. In some cases, expanded. What I'm saying here is why haven't you gotten the deluxe edition of the Singles soundtrack yet? Have you seen the track listing?
Since the late '60s, the BBC has been pressing classic British soundtracks to wax. The names may have changed—it's been known throughout the years by BBC Radio Enterprises, BBC Records, BBC Records & Tapes, BBC Enterprises, and BBC Worldwide—the quality has always been top-shelf.
While we're focusing on soundtracks specifically, I have to point out that we're talking about the folks that brought us so many great Peel Sessions (Led Zeppelin, White Stripes, Pixies) and The Beatles Live At The BBC series. If you love Doctor Who, Monty Python, the experimental breakthroughs of the Radiophonic Workshop, then you need some BBC.
Recommended Titles: Michael Parkinson Meets The Goons, The World of BBC TV Themes, The Dark Side of the Sun, Monty Python's Flying Circus, An Evening With Peter Sellers, A Clockwork Orange: A Play With Music, BBC Sci-Fi Sound Effects, Doctor Who: The Music
Between 1996 and 2010, Warner movie soundtracks were issued on Warner Sunset. The name was changed to the much catchier-sounding WaterTower. This massive label has released some of the best soundtracks and scores ever recorded, including some of Hans Zimmer's most outstanding work.
Recommended Titles: The Dark Knight, The Conjuring, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, It, Zabriskie Point, Interstellar, Ready Player One, Westworld (Season 2), The Lego Batman Movie, Game of Thrones, The Wizard of Oz