Jabbaflow

The Music of ‘Star Wars,’ Ranked — From Jizz to Calamari Ballet

John Williams' score is probably the most iconic in all of cinema — but this is about the music within the films

The legend goes that when George Lucas showed his follow-up to American Graffiti to a group of pals before it had finished effects or music, they all hated it (Steven Spielberg, to his credit, said it had potential). The lesson being, Star Wars needs music to make it work.

John Williams’ score to the original Star Wars is probably the most iconic in all of cinema, but it isn’t just the “Main Title” cue, “Princess Leia’s Theme” or “The Imperial March” that makes the galaxy far, far away so sonically impressive — there’s the music within the films (“diegetic music,” as scholars call it) that, of course, has to be placed there by the creators.

That music, be it indigenous percussion pieces from the Forest Moon of Endor or vaguely Middle Eastern themes from the streets of Tatooine, rounds out the Star Wars galaxy in ways as important as the expensive visual effects. The franchise is impressive enough to even have its own in-universe style of music, known as — and I swear I’m not making this up — “jizz.” (Those who excel at playing jizz are known as jizz-wailers.) It’s hard to put an exact finger on jizz (my apologies) — in its purest form it’s adjacent to swing or jazz, but with an added calypso element and a sometimes ill-fitting use of synthesizer. That final piece of the puzzle can sometimes sound “off” even today, but, well, that’s what we get for living on our boring planet. Not all Star Wars music is jizz, but it finds its way into places you wouldn’t expect, and almost all of it is terrific.

Since The Rise of Skywalker is too new, we’re not including it our countdown of in-universe music from the live-action films. But when you do see the latest, be sure to groove to the vibes of the Festival of the Ancestors and also strut to some jizz in a cantina on Kijimi where Babu Frik hangs out.

All told, there are 24 moments pre-Rise. There are scenes where you probably thought there was music, but in truth there is none (looking at you, “Death Sticks” gag). 

Also, as of this writing, there is nothing to report from The Mandalorian, even though the helmeted bounty hunter actually visited the Mos Eisley Cantina, the place that started it all for Star Wars music. Watch, next week Baby Yoda will end up going to band camp, but for now, nothing from that series is in here. 

With that introduction, and starting from the bottom, verily, we say, punch it:

24) Dex’s Diner from Attack of the Clones

It’s hard to get too mad about any Star Wars music because all Star Wars music is fun. But Attack of the Clones is the franchise’s most dire nadir, and this sequence inspires the heaviest cringe. Obi-Wan Kenobi decides to pop in at Dexter Jettster’s Guy Fieri-esque greasy spoon to get info about, I dunno, a trade embargo or something (the prequels are completely incomprehensible to me, sorry). While there, we hear the “wacky” version of jukebox rock ‘n’ roll. It doesn’t quite count as jizz, just some background twangy guitar souped-up through synthesizers. This is one of the pieces of Star Wars music composed by Joseph (son of John) Williams. Happily, the younger Williams (who also had a stint as the lead singer of the band Toto, but not during their hit-making years) made better contributions to the franchise than this, as we’ll see down the list.

23) Jabba’s Baroque Recital from Return of the Jedi

This is a nice and simple piece of Western Classical-style music, composed by John Williams, that’s overheard as C-3PO and R2-D2 present the holo-recording of Luke Skywalker in Jabba’s Palace. Somewhere in the background, it’s presumed, someone has the hi-fi switched on, unless Sy Snootles and the Max Rebo Band (more on them later) are also classically trained? It’s possible! The synthesizer effects have a nice next-generation A Clockwork Orange sound to them. Someone please Photoshop false eyelashes on Jabba the Hutt’s right eye to finish the job.

22) Dobra Doompa from The Force Awakens 

This is one of two examples of quality cantina jizz heard at Maz Kanata’s castle, flowing out of another tune that ranks a little higher. In real life it was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and J.J. Abrams: Search deep on the director’s IMDb page, and you’ll see he has some other composer credits, so maybe he actually helped in laying down these beats? Who knows? At Maz’s, the music is performed by the Shag Kava Band, who sing in Huttese (“Dobra Doompa” only has the one phrase). Truth is that this is one of the rare examples of jizz that would fit in perfectly fine at a cantina in this galaxy, too. It isn’t that strange!

21) Arena Percussion from Attack of the Clones 

If one expands the definition of diegetic music too widely, it starts to get blurry between composed cues and sound design. I mean, take R2-D2: Aren’t all of his bleeps and blurts a form of music, really? Anyway, these rattling drums, horns (space vuvuzelas?) and chants that play for a moment as giant beasts come to tear Natalie Portman’s shirt not only border on musique concrète, they afford us an opportunity to salute longtime Star Wars audio artist Ben Burtt, who is the credited composer on this track.

20) Mos Espa Arena Band from The Phantom Menace

There are a lot of sound cues buried in the mix from Qui-Gon Jinn’s wanderings on Tatooine (where, keep in mind, he’s mostly just looking for a spare part for his ship). They have a difficult-to-pin-down quality, a mix of Far Eastern here, a little Moorish there — John Williams was clearly having fun. This particular track, which you hear for a moment prior to the podrace, is the most cacophonous.  

19) Ewok Feast from Return of the Jedi 

This is one of two terrific moments from Return of the Jedi when the gang is “captured” and enter the Ewok village. Those little teddy bears may look cute and cuddly, but they have their own advanced culture and art forms. John Williams’ composed jam features numerous percussion instruments as well as a whistle of some sort. Keep in mind this was well before the late 1980s/early 1990s boom of so-called “world music” — in pre-internet days, one would only hear such explorations of indigenous drumming in a Western context when waiting for the Rhythm Devils break at a Grateful Dead concert. So this cue isn’t just from a galaxy far, far away, it’s also “far out, man.”

18) Squid Lake from Revenge of the Sith 

Okay, it’s time to get a little controversial. In Revenge of the Sith, Chancellor Palpatine takes Anakin to the Galaxies Opera House on Coruscant. While there, he really sinks his fangs into him, preparing for his turn to the dark side. They’re ostensibly watching the Mon Calamari ballet known as “Squid Lake,” but it’s never quite clear if the ominous music we’re hearing is from that ballet, or if it’s just John Williams’ non-diegetic score. There’s one shot where the “ohhmmmmmm”s really get loud and we see the glowy weird sphere in the center of the Opera House — is that “Squid Lake”? No one really knows. Anyway, it only lasts for a second, no matter how cool it is. 

17) Desert Winds from The Phantom Menace

Here’s some more of John Williams’ Middle Eastern noodlings from the streets of Tatooine. The whistling you hear would be much cooler if it was a traditional instrument (as is the case with other Phantom Menace cues), but the synthesizer patches just make it sound corny. 

16) Untitled Blues Conclusion from Return of the Jedi 

I’m a considerable Star Wars nerd, but I couldn’t tell you the name of these few seconds of music. I’m sure someone out there knows. In the 1997 “special edition” of Return of the Jedi, before the Max Rebo Band gets into “Jedi Rocks” (more on that in a bit) we catch them at the end of this bluesy number. That’s Rapotwanalantonee “Rappertunie” Tivtotolon on the growdi (harmonica), and of course, Max Rebo himself plugging away at the keyboard. It’s a short moment, but a good example of the more late-night stylings of Jabba Palace jizz (again, sorry).

15) Victory Celebration from Return of the Jedi 

On its own, “Victory Celebration” isn’t a bad piece of music. It’s got a nice shuffle rhythm, soothing vocals and woodwinds. It sounds like something that might play under a tourist bureau ad for an island nation. What’s unfortunate is that this is one of the abominable changes that Lucas made for his so-called “special editions” in 1997. It replaced “Ewok Celebration,” better known to us all as “Yub Nub,” something which, you can be sure, is going to rank much higher on this list. The removal of “Yub Nub” from Star Wars is one of Lucas’ gravest sins, but we shouldn’t take it out on “Victory Celebration” or on John Williams. He was just following orders.

14) The Street Singer from The Phantom Menace 

The most eerie of the “Tatooine Street Music” cues features a male vocalist and a string instrument called a Cretan Lyre put through an echo effect (plus a little hand-drummed percussion). It instantly evokes a feeling, but upon further examination it sounds to me like the melody is intentionally desultory, as if John Williams didn’t want to make this cue too good. (It’s not like Williams doesn’t know how to create a great melody, right?) I suspect that this is background music that was very much intended to stay background music. But, sorry, still pretty cool!

13) Caretaker Party Music from The Last Jedi

Now let us quibble over whether this is technically Star Wars music! It’s from a scene deleted from Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII (a movie about which there is zero controversy) when Rey is on Ahch-To trying to convince Luke Skywalker to go be a good guy again. In a moment of panic, she rushes down to where the goofy caretaker creatures live and stumbles upon a party. At first, they’re dancing to bagpipes and bells, but after a cut, it changes to a fast-and-furious drum circle with bagpipes and didgeridoo. What’s in that green milk?

12) Street Band of Mos Espa from The Phantom Menace

This is the best of the “Tatooine Street Music” cues from The Phantom Menace, even if it’s so damn short. It’s a quality Middle Eastern funk-groove with a cool melody plucked out on a Cümbüş, which is a Turkish instrument that’s halfway between a banjo and an oud (there are still some electronic drums in there, though, to make it spacey and reminiscent of jizz).

11) Joining the Tribe (aka Part of the Tribe) from Return of the Jedi

This is the second of the short Ewok village percussion jam-outs. It’s shorter than “Ewok Feast,” but with that succinctness comes a clarity of vision: It’s direct, it gets you in the groove, it connects you to the living, breathing spirit of the Forest Moon of Endor… and then lifts you off back to Williams’ symphonic score.

10) Jabba Flow from The Force Awakens

The legend goes that J.J. Abrams went to see Hamilton, and at intermission he went backstage. He met Lin-Manuel Miranda and the composer/rapper/writer/performer said, “Hey, if you need anyone for cantina music, I’m your guy.” And that’s how he entered the Star Wars universe. “Jabba Flow” is a reggae-inspired bit of jizz in Huttese, and according to Miranda, it’s inspired by the work of Shaggy. We hear the song in Maz Kanata’s palace, as performed by The Shag Kava Band, which features such characters as Infrablue Zedbeddy Coggins on hypolliope. Star Wars! There’s a Rick Rubin edit, too.

9) Chicken in the Pot from Solo: A Star Wars Story

I’m placing this perhaps a little too high on the list for some readers, but I implore you to listen to this again. Composed by John Powell, it’s a swirl of weird styles. The strings are like Sinatra from his Capitol Records years, the beat is modern boutique hotel lobby area and the squat, interrupting synthesizers are pure jizz. On vocals, you’ve got Aurodia Ventafoli, Chanteuse of the Stars, singing a smooth Sade-esque melodic line (Sema-Tawi Smart plays the character, but lip-synching for Baraka May). Dueting with her in a non-quite-harmonic fashion (jizz!) is Luleo Primoc, a Gallusian critter in a tube of formaldehyde (while in editing, the team used Louis Prima as a temp track, hence the similar, but Star Wars-ized name). Mix this all up and it makes for a wild party aboard Dryden Vos’ yacht. It’s a great scene in an (oh no, I’m gonna say it) underrated movie

8) Jedi Rocks from Return of the Jedi

Here comes another difficult moment for Star Wars fans. Yes, all of Lucas’ changes (all of them!) for the rotten “special editions” are a crime against humanity. The replacement of “Lapti Nek” with this song is one of the more baffling decisions, as “Lapti Nek” is among the finest works of art ever created by man. And yet, once again, we should take a moment to pause and not take out our frustration on composer Jerry Hey, doing what the boss says, or on “Jedi Rocks” itself. “Jedi Rocks,” on its own, is great; it’s pure and sensational jizz. The Max Rebo band is in fine form, with Sy Snootles sassing it up on lead vocals and Joh Yowza (who wasn’t in the group in 1983, but whatever) essentially “toasting” in Huttese. A quick word about Jerry Hey: He’s a composer, arranger and trumpet player who has won Grammy Awards for his work with the Quincy Jones Orchestra and (here comes the connection) Toto.

7) Canto Bight from The Last Jedi

In the perfectly non-controversial film The Last Jedi that everybody loves, the action takes Finn and Rose to the Canto Casino in Canto Bight (on the planet Cantonica!) because they need to deactivate a tracking device, or something like that. When they get there, the camera swoops and swirls and there are some reversals of fortune, but what’s most important is we get an earful of hot jizz-wailin’. The Canto Bight music is especially fun because it begins as typical John Williams score and then glides into the buzzier melody.

Muso joke time: The song features steel drums and Brazilian cuícas, which act as set-up for a tease of the classic song “Brazil,” written by Ari Barroso. That nod, along with a security guard mumbling something about a “27b stroke 6” (a reference to Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil) is one of the few acknowledgements of the real world inside of Star Wars. Others include Chewbacca’s Tarzan yell in Return of the Jedi and the character Clone Commander Cody (which is either a reference to Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, the outlaw country band from the early 1970s, or Commander Cody, star of Republic serials like Sky Marshal of the Universe) from Revenge of the Sith.

6) Galactic Dance Blast from Return of the Jedi

It’s only a few seconds long, but it’s a shot of indelible, beautiful jizz (the above link is a loop, sadly). Max Rebo and his band are laying down some funky jams on Jabba’s skiff “Khetanna,” and you really get a sense of what kind of groove this outfit could get into. Droopy “Snit” McCool, the Max Rebo Band’s Chindikalu flute player, is truly jizz-wailin’ here, and the ever-so-slightly out-of-tune steel drum (a key element of quality jizz) adds a strangely satisfying color. It’s not their fault they were performing for an evil Hutt.

5) Cantina Band 2 from A New Hope

A casual fan may not even remember that there were two tunes in “that nutty Star Wars bar.” Indeed, there’s more to Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes’ repertoire. D’an, the Kloo horn player and jizz-wailer that opened our ears to the wider sounds of the galaxy, kept “Cantina Band 2” in his back pocket when he was meant to blend into the background a bit. It’s a peppy tune with a synthesizer bass, looping woodwinds and plenty of brassy horns. Not as iconic as “Cantina Band,” but it has room to jam out at four minutes with some quality Benny Goodman-esque swagger. Y’know, if Benny Goodman had visited a dingy spaceport loaded with criminals.

4) Symponik Nabooalla from The Phantom Menace

The “Symponik Nabooalla,” composed by Augara Jowil and performed by the Great Municipal Band, is the greatest color guard music in the galaxy. This triumphant mix of horns, whistles, percussion and exuberant voices marks the conclusion of the film, which is great because The Phantom Menace is absolutely terrible. (Diss.) But this is an absolutely smoking march at a furious tempo, and at only 85 seconds, it’s the type of thing I like to play on a loop for an hour (John Williams brings this out of me). Something else that’s key: It smashes right into the end credits cue, which features all the familiar Star Wars themes. It makes for an exhilarating juxtaposition, enough to make you forget that you just watched one of the worst movies ever made. (Double diss.)

3) Ewok Celebration (also known as “Yub Nub”) from Return of the Jedi

You just defeated a cruel Empire with rocks and sticks. What do you do? You sing “Yub Nub” of course! The lyrics were written in English by John Williams’ son Joseph, and were then translated into Ewokese by Ben Burtt (Yub Nub means freedom). The melody is infectious and mixes the rudimentary percussion instruments associated with Ewoks with some very subtle synthesizer bass of Star Wars jizz, and the eventual swell of John Williams’ orchestra before it crashes into the final fanfare. Above all else, though, there are the voices of the triumphant Ewoks. What a perfect way to end a perfect trilogy! For reasons none of us will ever understand, George Lucas decided to throw it all away and replace this with the vastly inferior “Victory Celebration.” May the Maker forgive him. 

2) Lapti Nek from Return of the Jedi

Another casualty of Lucas’ “special edition” madness, this tune, which has been replaced by “Jedi Rocks,” is a great example of 1980s R&B-influenced jizz. Sy Snootles’ vocals knocks the roof off of Jabba’s palace and the whole Max Rebo Band is truly jizz-wailin’. There are horns, synthesizers, a funky electric bass and plenty of congas. The music was written by John Williams, which leads us to wonder what would have happened if he ever teamed up with Giorgio Moroder or someone like that. Again, the lyrics were written, in English, by his son Joseph (Lapti Nek means fancy man). An aspiring reggae singer by the name of Annie Arbogast who worked in Ben Burtt’s sound department created the Huttese and sang a temp version. They ended up using it for the film, though a different Sy Snootles (Michele Gruska) ended up on the soundtrack album linked above. Here’s the seven-minute remix which was apparently released, but that I’d never heard until researching this article. 

1) Cantina Band from A New Hope

If you say “music from Star Wars,” someone will hum the orchestral theme that plays under the opening crawl. But if you say “Star Wars music,” it means Figrin D’an and His Modal Nodes. It means jizz, and it means the “Cantina Band” cue from A New Hope. Can you believe Han Solo would hang out in the Mos Eisley Cantina and listen to this stuff? Do you think he liked it? John Williams took Lucas’ direction of “creatures in a future century listening to swing music” and composed this track for trumpet, three saxophones, clarinet, Fender Rhodes electric piano and drums, plus some steel drum and synthesizer. When Luke entered that hive of scum and villainy and took us with him, he opened a door to a lived-in culture that was bigger than any one character: The batty collection of sounds (plus some wild prosthetic alien heads) was a magic formula that really drove home the innovation and excitement of the world of Star Wars. And jizz.