Composer John Williams’ iconic music has come to define Star Wars perhaps more than any other single through-line in the saga. From that first blast of brass pushing out from the screen after the unforgettable “In a galaxy far, far away” title card to the threatening tones of the “Imperial March” to the gorgeously hushed theme for Han and Leia, it’s the score that has persisted through sequels and prequels.
But Williams is only surface-level Star Wars tunes.
What distinguishes Star Wars is its use of diegetic versus nondiegetic music. If you’ll indulge an aside better suited for Film Theory 101: non-diegetic most often refers to a film’s score, the music the characters in the actual story can’t hear. Diegetic music refers to music within the movie that characters can hear, react to, and listen to. Star Wars mastermind George Lucas has actually been playing around with this kind of thing since his second film, American Graffiti. In that movie, Lucas fashioned the entire normally non-diegetic soundtrack music to actually be radio hits emanating from the cars of the kids cruising the streets in their hot rods. The non-diegetic thus became diegetic.
In Star Wars, Williams’ music gave the audience the cues for the rousing gigantic space adventure playing out before them, while music played by characters in the movie was mostly meant as background detail to enrich individual scenes. It birthed a whole convoluted and overly-detailed corner of the so-called extended universe featuring a laundry list of Star Wars-centric musical genres and acts. Some people think that’s a great addition to rounding out the sizable Star Wars universe, but we think it’s just kind of a dumb and unnecessary version of glorified fan fiction. Which brings us to our list.
Here is a casually definitive ranking of the musicians in the Star Wars movies.
10. Augie’s Great Municipal Band
It turns out Lucas figured music should be played in the prequels as well, but saved it mostly for the end of The Phantom Menace. Depending on whether you were questioning your own mortality and place in the world based on what you’d just seen, you may remember Augie’s Great Municipal Band as the marching band of Gungans playing a song called “Symponik Nabooalla” in the parade celebrating the defeat of the Trade Federation by Naboo fighters led by the pre-pubescent Anakin Skywalker. It’s a catchy tune that we’re sure they bust out at only the best occasions, but it’s one played by the most annoying beings in the galaxy.
9. Yub Nub
Besides helping to take down an entire technologically advanced colonial force, Ewoks totally know how to fuckin’ party. How would you feel if your primitive civilization helped defeat an army that goes around on ships called “Super Star Destroyers”? They get down by performing a song called “Yub Nub,” which was excised from the Special Editions because George Lucas is a huge buzzkill. Maybe he was angry the absolutely bonkers version from a band called Meco only made it to No. 83 on the Billboard Top 100 in 1983.
8. Victory Celebration
Lucas replaced “Yub Nub” with the more blandly titled “Victory Celebration,” a funkier song played by the Ewoks meant to portray the victory won by everyone in the galaxy and not just these overgrown teddy bears on a small woodland moon. Way to undercut the Ewoks, George. Did you know the word “Ewok” isn’t even uttered in Return of the Jedi? Anyway, bonus points for the song matching up to that one Ewok that plays the Stormtrooper helmets like a xylophone.
7. Arena Percussion
There isn’t a good clip of this cue from Attack of the Clones, mostly because many have repressed any memory of the movie. Whether or not the cricket-like Geonosian creatures actually play this music as Anakin and Padme are wheeled into an enormous arena to face almost certain death doesn’t matter. It complements perhaps the best moment in the second prequel because it manages to earn a sense of life and death for the characters that was missing from the other prequels and the rest of Attack of the Clones as a whole.
Why does this one guy get to beat out the Ewoks totally shredding from their victory against the Empire? Because this guy is just in it to hang out in Jabba’s palace in front of Han Solo frozen in carbonite and play the skins. He’s got a whole extended universe backstory, which recounts his death from Tusken Raiders after Jabba dies, but that’s a total bummer. We just want to remember the good times with Ak-Rev, you know?
5. Droopy McCool
This guy is literally a butthead, but he has a pretty chill name so he gets a pass. A main member of the popular Max Rebo Band, Droopy plays a clarinet at Jabba’s palace, which is nice to see if you’re a band geek trying to get into Star Wars. We’re pretty sure nobody has ever said, “Man, I wish I were more like Droopy McCool,” but hey, kids can keep dreaming can’t they?
4. Joh Yowza
We’ve been ragging on the extended universe, but sometimes it’s useful. Did you know Joh Yowza is actually just a stage name, and this bug-eyed alien dude in desperate need of a nose job is actually named J’ywz’gnk Kchhllbrxcstk Et’nrmdndlcvtbrx? It has a nice ring to it. Yowza is another Special Edition change, where Max Rebo’s Band plays a new song called “Jedi Rocks.” Again, who knows why Lucas wanted it changed and added this guy, but at least we get to see Yowza belt it out. Dude’s got quite a set of pipes.
3. Sy Snootles
The closest thing to Tina Turner in the Star Wars universe. In the theatrical release of Return of the Jedi she originally sang a disco jam called “Lapti Nek” sans Joh Yowza, and it was changed to the “Jedi Rocks” duet in the Special Edition. We think Lucas switched things up to chintzy CGI because the Snootles puppet basically looked like it was having a seizure instead of singing. Both songs still hold up though, giving Snootles two hits in one movie.
2. Max Rebo
The man himself. He’s like a little blue elephant baby that plays whatever the Star Wars universe’s equivalent of a keyboard is. Remember that laundry list of Star Wars genres we mentioned? It just so happens to tell us that Rebo and his band play a type of music in the Star Wars universe called (and we’re not kidding here), “Jizz.” Yes, jizz, which is the base form of other genres including the also hilariously named “Jizz-wail.” But hey, get your head out of the gutter, this is all part of a kid’s movie we’re talking about.
1. Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes
Had to be. Is it their bulbous heads or the tune itself that makes the Cantina Band so memorable? Either way, Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes — the movie’s very own John, Paul, George, and Ringo — rock the best diegetic music in the Star Wars universe. No word on whether they’re available for weddings or other private functions, but turn on the video above and let it ride for 10 hours. You’re all set.