If you've ever watched a John Carpenter film without knowing who made it, you'll sure as hell be reliably informed within the first ten minutes. If not because of the distinctly cool and obviously eccentric Carpenter tone, then the fact that his name pops up over about 90% of the opening credits. From writer, to producer, to director, Carpenter's defining fingerprints are all over his movies. However there's one credit that doesn't get the same recognition as his other talents, and that's his impressive experience as a cinematic music composer.

From his assured début in Dark Star, Carpenter has often scored his own films, but unlike the many 'auteurs' who take on too much and end up half-assing everything, Carpenter's scores have become iconic in their own right. Anything from the pulpy disco rock of Big Trouble in Little China to the instantly recognisable theme from Halloween, there's plenty of inspiration that modern composers have drawn from. So, in anticipation of Carpenter's debut album, Lost Themes (which we can't believe hasn't happened sooner), I have had the luxury of providing the Essential John Carpenter Playlist just in time to get you in the mood for what's certain to be an atmospherically moody, synthy, and probably silly affair of an album.

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Halloween (Michael Myers)

Perhaps the least surprising entry of any Essential Playlist ever so we'll get it out the way first, but honestly, could I leave such a track out and still live with myself? Although it's been overplayed to death since its release in 1978, the Halloween theme is every bit as chilling today as it was then. It's difficult to take 'Michael Myers' seriously in this day and age; parodies, over-use and similarly influenced musical beats have, in a way, muddied the impact of the simple original. Throw off that baggage though and have a sincere listen and it's clear why the track is still so popular today. "Iconic" is a word thrown around with little care these days, yet anything other than that label would be a disservice to the legacy of John Carpenter's original Halloween theme.


The Thing (Main Theme)

Collaborating with Ennio Morricone, The Thing's soundtrack tinkers with the dichotomy between a classically influenced horror score and modern bassy minimalism. Definitively Carpenter tropes are obvious from the first bars of the opening theme; threatening pulsating beats give way to a rising screeching organ that's steeped in atmospheric '80s tension, while the initial slow ominous tones contrast with a later classical horror arrangement of loud organ notes and intense piano tones. The contrast between both of these elements is perfectly played to the point where just as you think you've settled in and gotten familiar with the eerie styling, Carpenter and Morrione throw a curveball by unexpectedly breaking into something bombastic that you'd expect to find in a '40s monster movie.


Escape from New York (The Duke Arrives/Bombastic)

An explosive and complimentary duo, 'The Duke Arrives/Bombastic' is a superbly stylish mix of rocky beats and sci-fi electronica that culminates in a deliciously funky moody crescendo. It's this track in particular where Carpenter's modern day imitators can be most obviously heard. A little bit of Hans Zimmer here, a little bit of Clint Mansell there, Carpenter's credibility as an influential composer is evident in just how accommodating his scores could be to any genre of film. And lets face it, if we're going to be leading a futuristic rebellion, we're going to be wanting to do it to this soundtrack or we're not going to want to do it at all. Effortlessly cool.


The Fog (Reprise/Main Theme)

Creating a truly chilling horror theme is a bigger challenge than it may first appear: it's hard enough for studios to get it right with images never mind music. Carpenter's The Fog theme and its reprise oozes atmosphere and antagonism while experimenting with a fantastical piano arrangement allows for an alien and isolating soundscape. The slow deliberate piano allows for a tone that's ethereal and mystical, while keeping the synthetic Carpenter edge. These off-kilter influences and the choice to adopt a less conventional style of horror music could have been disastrous in the wrong hands, but what could have devolved into something laughably silly is transformed into a memorable horror masterpiece in the care of John Carpenter.


Big Trouble in Little China (Pork Chop Express)

I'm just going to outright say it: if you haven't seen Big Trouble in Little China for whatever reason, then shame on you. Like the movie it derives from, the Classic Rock inspired soundtrack doesn't disappoint; a funky bass and unequivocally '80s guitar and synth tones create some truly infectious tracks. Though a little bit silly today (like just about everything from the '80s), Big Trouble's charmingly dated music somehow makes it sound even cooler; it's big and it's daft, but damn if it's not fun and catchy.Big Trouble boasts the type of score that just wouldn't happen now. It's clear that Carpenter enjoyed himself when crafting every hook on this soundtrack, and that enthusiasm can be heard in every beat.


Assault on Precinct 13

The effective rising intensity of Carpenter's synth-heavy and retro Assault on Precinct 13 score has seen a bit of a cinematic revival recently. Without Carpenter's popularising use of foreboding action beats mixed with the prominent use of intense yet melodic synthesisers, it's hard to imagine that we'd have anything like Cliff Martinez's superb Drive score today. The electronic sensibilities and ethereal synth focus of Assault on Precinct 13 makes for a truly distinctive soundtrack rarely found in such a bombastic action film.


Prince of Darkness (Theme)

Prince of Darkness starts with the classic Carpenter bassline but soon escalates into something much less constrained. The sonic weight of each rising synth note is extremely effectively as a lead-in to the main atmospheric melody that all seems far too good to be in a film called Prince of Darkness. The main thematic hook is soothing, but the intense bass never stops for more than an interval, bringing with it an inescapable sense of dread and tension that culminates in something as equally hypnotic as it is intense. While it features the familiar Carpenter motifs, Prince of Darkness sounds much more confident and self-assured, and as a result, the new-found authority that pulses in each tone embellishes a much fuller and compelling sound.


They Live (Welcome to L.A.)

'Welcome to L.A.' sets the perfect tone for the satirical They Live; tinged with Wild West homages, 'Welcome to L.A' is purposefully low key and overtly reminiscent of an old out of date Film Noir soundtrack. Its throwback nature is obviously tongue-in-cheek, and the distant saxophone sounds as if it's trying to be as ridiculous as possible, but it's hard to not get swept up in its perfectly played atmospheric sleaziness. Listening to this makes you feel like you're 8 years old and you've just cast yourself as the lead detective in an old crime film, staking out the regular dive club after a hard day on the job.


Lost Themes

A little bit of a cop-out, but Lost Themes as an album has some of the best pieces of music Carpenter has ever crafted. Unshackled by the whims of studios and the restrictions intrinsic to film composing, the tracks on Lost Themes seem fuller, more expressive, and overall just benefit from inherently better arrangements. Each track is significant and full of variety, yet still they still retain the distinct John Carpenter tropes. In a way these tracks are more effective than the previously mentioned film scores because they work better as their own entity. Damn, if Carpenter can create tunes as good as these when he's committed full time, part of me wants to see what he could achieve if he exclusively scored films from now on. If nothing else on the list has swayed you, think of it all as build-up to this single defining tour-de-force.