Even as frequent soundtrack listeners, it’s only at the end of the year, when we come to take stock of the various scores that have passed through our ear canals over the previous twelve months, that it’s possible to get a measure of the state of composition for film. Which is to say that, having spent the last few days relistening to some of the major scores of 2013, it’s been a fantastic year.
From industry veterans working on megabudget tentpoles to major rock bands teaming with acclaimed auteurs to low-key indie types making their soundtrack debut with tiny overlooked pictures, there’s been a breadth and depth to the film music of 2013 that, as a site that started off focusing on that side of things, has made us very happy indeed.
As such, it proved nearly impossible to pick our favorites, let alone to put them in any kind of order. But we managed it, and below, as part of our ongoing year-in-review coverage, you’ll find the 15 finest film scores of the last twelve months, which should scratch the itch of any soundtrack fan. Take a look at the write-ups and listen to extracts below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section. And check back next week for our verdict on the finest soundtracks of the year as well.
15. M83 – “Oblivion”
Director Joseph Kosinski sure has a thing for electronic French outfits scoring his movie. After the miraculous coup of getting mysterious robotic duo Daft Punk to score his debut feature “Tron: Legacy,” he turned to Anthony Gonzalez, aka M83, for his follow-up: a daytime sci-fi extravaganza called “Oblivion.” (Producer and musician Joseph Trapanese, who also helped Daft Punk on their score, aided Gonzalez.) The best material in the “Oblivion” score is when Gonzalez is allowed to be his most M83-y: sweeping, gorgeous, dreamily ethereal, like in the wonderful moment where Tom Cruise and his partner (both romantic and otherwise) Andrea Riseborough go skinny dipping in Cruise’s far-out futuristic pad. It’s a piece of music so pretty that it almost makes your heart ache. And it’s evocative of the kind of thing that Gonzalez and Kosinski could have gotten away with more had the studio not interfered so heavily (Gonzalez talked about the hellish experience of making the movie with Pitchfork). More often than not, though, the score strikes a delicate balance between having a glittery disco personality and serving the movie’s action sequence needs (complete with the “Inception“-style horn blasts). It’s also worth noting that Gonzalez composed one of the very best songs from a movie this year in the theme song, which plays over the film’s main-on-end credit sequence. As sung by Royksopp collaborator Susanne Sundfor, the song lovingly incorporates elements of the score but more fully gives way to M83’s gauzily poppy inclinations, complete with a belted-from-the-heavens chorus. It’s one of the more dazzling aspects of a movie that isn’t exactly short on jaw-dropping moments.
14. David Wingo – “Mud”
One of the masterstrokes of the near-meteoric rise of Jeff Nichols was borrowing a composer from friend and collaborator David Gordon Green. David Wingo scored many of Green’s early films, as far as back as “George Washington” (recently reteaming with him for “Prince Avalanche“—see below), and came up with one of the most memorable scores of 2011 at his first time at bat with Nichols on “Take Shelter.” We hope the collaboration with Nichols is as long-running as the one with Green, because they’ve come up with gold again for “Mud.” Even more so that its predecessor, it’s real country-fried stuff, with Wingo combining bluegrass banjo and fiddle with persistent percussion and foreboding strings. The latter in particular is crucial to the film: even at its most carefree, the filmmaker and his composer don’t let you forget that something terrible is coming.
13. Hans Zimmer – “12 Years a Slave”
Over the last three decades Hans Zimmer has racked up nearly 160 film and television credits, on average composing the music for about six films a year. In 2013 alone, in addition to the two scores we’re highlighting here, Zimmer also contributed to “Rush,” “The Lone Ranger” and an indie called “Last Love.” For any composer working as long and frequently as Zimmer has, there’s bound to be a little overlap among your own work which is basically a long-winded way of saying that yes, Zimmer’s main theme to “12 Years a Slave,” entitled “Solomon,” does share some similarities with his score to a certain 2010 blockbuster. But as much as we’d like to picture director Steve McQueen sitting around asking Zimmer to give him “some of that ‘Inception’ top-spinning music” for his harrowing slavery drama, it’s more likely that this was probably not intentional. However when it works as well as this score does, it’s hard to grumble too much. Listen to it again and see how McQueen’s images of Solomon’s journey have been seared into your memory whether you know it or not: men gathered in the field, a plate with some blackberries and a crumb of biscuit, the skin of someone’s back lashed to fraying ends, a black body swinging in the summer breeze. Some have criticized the score for being too heavy but this is almost certainly by design. From the quiet strings of Solomon’s theme to Paul Dano’s rhythmic, hand clap-heavy taunt “Run, N*****, Run” to the nightmarish industrial sounds of Godzilla approaching (as one critic put it) as the slaves are loaded onto a riverboat, the sounds and images in the film are inextricably intertwined. McQueen uses both picture and sound like blunt instruments. He doesn’t want you to forget. He wants to leave a mark.
12. Jon Hopkins – “How I Live Now”
Jon Hopkins couldn’t have asked for a better 2013. The long-time Brian Eno and Coldplay collaborator who’s also a Domino-signed solo artist, produced one of the best records of the year with his Mercury Prize-nominated Immunity, but more importantly for our purposes, followed up his terrific scoring debut on “Monsters” with another stellar score for Kevin Macdonald‘s apocalpytical Bildungsroman “How I Live Now.” The film, a bleak and uncompromised vision with more in common with “Come and See” than “The Hunger Games,” went disappointingly underseen, but it’s the rare score that works well as a standalone record (though it’s best-served in context, obviously). Nodding to Eno and Mogwai, it layers dread-infused electronica under sparkly piano and even nu-folk influences, for a record that, like the film, encompasses both swooning romance and stomach-churning despair, sometimes in the same breath. There are a few very strong song choices as well: Amanda Palmer‘s “Do It With A Rockstar” opens up, while Hopkins tinkers effectively with Daughter‘s “Home” for a percussive and striking remix, and teams up with Bat For Lashes‘ Natasha Khan for the stunning “Garden’s Heart.”
11. Tindersticks – “Bastards”
“Bastards” is the type of movie that feels as if it’s bleeding into the audience. Claire Denis’ revenge thriller is what some would call her first “genre” picture, which seems to be at odds, musically, with frequent collaborators Tindersticks, who have composed a number of her films. Known for their tuneful, romantic melodies, here the group shifts into another gear, underscoring the material with a haunting, plodding noir sound, a thick soundscape that allows for pulsating, singular beats that click into a downward 2-2 pattern. The effect is sinister, almost rhythmically queuing the viewer to follow the film as it slowly pieces the clues to the fragmented story together; it’s not catchy, but you almost want to nod your head to the beat. It’s minimalist, but the few notes create a borderline oppressive aura, something of a surprise for a band that prides themselves on grandiose, romantic chamber music. At other moments, a slinky dance beat underscores the sleazy sex involved in the twisty plot, accompanied by a haunting, echoing reverb, as if the music itself was haunted, the idea of dance beats being marred by the filthy actions associated with it. Appropriately, the movie ends with an upsetting reveal accompanied by the Tindersticks’ instantly-catchy cover of Hot Chocolate’s “Put Your Love In Me,” sonically providing a moment of low-key seduction as a series of truly upsetting images flash on the screen.
10. Clint Mansell – “Stoker”
With “Stoker,” Clint Mansell, a composer best known for his often unforgettable work with director Darren Aronofsky, had to face a unique challenge: mix Hitchcockian moodiness with a kind of shimmery sleek modernity. The results are downright haunting, like walking through a haunted house full of new chrome furnishings. Sometimes the music takes on the classical style of an old Hammer movie, with gentle music box chimes. In other parts of the score, Mansell folds in breathy piano licks or chirpy electronic flourishes (like in the track labeled “Blossoming” on the soundtrack). Park Chan-wook‘s movie is a gleefully perverse exercise in stylized freakishness, and Mansell adds much to its goose-fleshy feeling. There’s also an amazing piece of original music in the film that wasn’t written by Mansell—the piano piece “Duet,” which was composed by Philip Glass. Serving as the soundtrack to one of the movie’s most memorable sequences, it’s an elegant, spindly piece of music that was written before the movie was even shot, and while it’s a clear standout, it shouldn’t take away from the rest of Mansell’s exemplary score.
9. Steven Price – “Gravity”
While “Gravity‘s” stunningly evocative 3D effects, which literally hurled you into the darkest recesses of space with a kind of weightlessness usually associated with very scary roller coasters and very turbulent plane rides, got most of the attention when the movie was released. Still, an equal amount of ink should have been spilled about the movie’s exquisite sound design, including the haunting score by Steven Price, which did just as much to put you in the claustrophobic blackness as any of the floaty, you-are-there visual effects. Price’s score is at turns pulse pounding, like during the movie’s “satellite avalanche” sequence, and oddly spiritual, like when he brings in choral elements that evoke the movie’s thematic undertones. There isn’t much in the way of traditional themes or overarching motifs. Instead, it’s the kind of propulsive, atmospheric work that is largely overlooked because it seems to blur the boundaries of sound design and score, eschewing showier moments for pure, undiluted intensity. Orchestral elements bump into harshly electronic ones, and the movie’s tug of war between human survival instincts and technological reliance can be deeply felt in each piece of music. Price (who was one of our On The Rise composers earlier this year) once worked in the sound department on some major studio films, but started to edge out on his own with exemplary work on “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and alongside Basement Jaxx on “Attack the Block.” In 2013, though, he really came into his own with both “Gravity” and the score for “The World’s End,” bringing apocalyptic scenarios to startling life.
8. Cliff Martinez & Skrillex – “Spring Breakers”
Watching “Spring Breakers” is an assaultive experience; listening to it is too. Director Harmony Korine, the whacked-out pervo genius behind the movie, said that structurally he wanted the movie to more closely resemble a pop song than a film, with “choruses” and repetitious motifs (also: shotgun sound effects). It’s easy to see that when watching the movie, but without an actual score underneath to double-underline this idea, it would have been for naught. Thankfully, Korine came up with the idea of pairing dub step populist Skrillex with thoughtful composer Cliff Martinez, best known for his recent work on the similarly neon-lined “Drive.” Skrillex singles like “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” which turned the SXSW screening of the film into a giant indoor rave, bleed willfully into the more elegant, atmospheric score composed largely by Martinez. When the two collaborate, they make beautiful music together. And like the movie, their collaborations are glitchy and sprightly but also menacing and pregnant with an almost otherworldly sense of impending doom. When the movie comes full circle and delivers an orchestral take on that original Skrillex song, the snake has eaten its own tail. It’s the moment that “Spring Breakers” becomes downright transcendent. And like a pop song, you just want to watch (and listen) to it all over again the second it’s over.
7. Arcade Fire & Owen Pallett – “Her”
The first thing you hear in “Her,” Spike Jonze‘s charmingly oddball sci-fi romance, even before you see anything, are some notes from a jangly guitar. Or something. With Canadian indie band Arcade Fire you can never tell. It could be some futuristic bit of technology or an instrument last played in the mid-1800s. That sensation permeates the band’s score for “Her“—a sense of timeless futurism, where sometimes it will sound as rudimentary as a garage band amiably strumming their instruments or occasionally infused with the kind of space age coolness that evokes their new voodoo disco double album Reflektor. (The album and score share a song—the closing credits ditty “Supersymmetry.”) That push and pull wonderfully emphasizes the movie’s thematic concerns, where a relationship with a synthetic personality is more appealing than one with a flesh-and-blood woman. The last time Arcade Fire (and frequent collaborator Owen Pallett) composed music for a movie, it was for Richard Kelly‘s oblique chiller “The Box,” but the warmer hues of “Her” mesh much better with the band’s sensibilities. Their music is used sparingly in the movie, with Jonze knowing when to pump up the volume for maximum emotional impact and when to pull back and let the images just play. He makes you appreciate the music even more, because you get to hear it so fleetingly.
6. Hans Zimmer – “Man of Steel”
Close your eyes and think of Superman. What do you hear? Until recently it was virtually unthinkable that someone would answer that question with anything other than John Williams’ iconic theme. Next to Williams’ work on “Star Wars” and “Jaws”—wow, what a run from 75-79, huh?—it’s arguably the most recognizable score in film history. So it’s not exactly an enviable task for any composer to have to follow that up. Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” avoided the challenge altogether by incorporating Williams’ themes into the score but the film’s lukewarm reception made it was clear that a new path would have to be forged. Enter Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” which for all its flaws, succeeded in bringing Superman into a new era thanks in no small part to Hans Zimmer’s literally awe-inspiring score. Any fan reservations about the project were washed away in an instant by the first notes of that perfect trailer set to Zimmer’s “What Are You Going To Do When You’re Not Saving The World.” The theme was simple, elegant and triumphant, it starts small and swells under Russell Crowe’s Jor-El’s intoning, “They will race behind you, they will stumble behind you but in time they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders,” and suddenly it was impossible to be cynical anymore. The score ranges from the loud rhythmic sounds that Zimmer had been exploring in “The Dark Knight” series to quieter moments that manage to hit you right in the heart without being overly sentimental or maudlin. “Man of Steel” may not have lived up to those perfect teasers, but it was bold and beautiful and swung for the fences in ways that Marvel films rarely do. While the film didn’t quite soar like we wanted it to, Zimmer’s score did teach us to hope.
5. Jóhann Jóhannsson – “Prisoners”
Perhaps one of the most underrated scores of the year, and even one you might not remember so much, is Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s chilling score for Denis Villeneuve’s crime drama “Prisoners.” The film centers on a father (Hugh Jackman) whose children are suddenly abducted during the cold, late-fall suburbs of Pennsylvania and the vigilante-like lengths he goes to in attempts to return them to safety. Chasing down the suspects is a young, brooding detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is just as determined to find the missing children. “Prisoners” is gray, dark and brooding. A man begins to lose his soul, his family and all hope as the hours his children have gone missing begin to add up insurmountably. Jóhannsson’s score is thus akin to a unforgiving chill that burrows into your bones, a haunting hymnal of death, a dread that creeps into your soul that will never let go once it consumes you. It is perhaps then one of the year’s scariest scores and yet it acts nothing like a horror score; it is ghostly church organs, throbbing cello drones, chimes that glisten like you can feel their breath in the frigid air. The “Prisoners” score is the sound of your tomb being closed as snowflakes gently fall from the sky, melting into the ground never to be seen again; eerie psalms acting as preludes to the forever darkness.
4. Daniel Hart – “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”
The moody and mystical “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” features a trifecta of lived-in performances, sun-dappled cinematography, and a lilting, lovely score by Daniel Hart. Layers of strings, from violins and cellos to the higher ranges of bluegrass-inspired mandolin is buttressed by rhythmic hand-clapping, creating a totally unique and hypnotic sound. The score colors in all the elements of time and place, at once authentic and at other times magical and fairy-like, sounding of winged creatures taking flight. And yet, it feels organic, real, and worn, much like the aesthetic of the picture. Hart, another of our On The Rise composers this year, is a violinist and composer who also worked on David Lowery’s feature “St. Nick,” and short “Pioneer,” and it’s clear that the two artists’ work informs each other, fitting together seamlessly. Intimate, organic, grounded, and yet airy, the score of “Aint Them Bodies Saints” is what makes that film such a specific and unique piece.
3. Shane Carruth – “Upstream Color”
Frustratingly so to soundtrack connoisseurs who well-realize he could likely create the greatest film score the world has ever heard, seminal techno/ambient artist Aphex Twin (Richard D. James) has refused the planet this gift (OK, he’s contributed music here and there, but never a full-blown original score to a feature). Perhaps we’re best to understand this will just never happen. And so maybe the closest we’ll get is the score to the enigmatic and abstract “romance thriller” (if one can even call it that), “Upstream Color.” Written by the film’s polymath director Shane Carruth (who also wrote, co-edited, produced, shot, casting directed and starred in the movie), the score for “Upstream Color” is almost as beguiling and hypnotic as the film itself. A movie about … thieves, complex parasites, ungulates, the unspoken interconnectedness of life-cycles, and love, “Upstream Color” is one of the most heady, layered, dense and beautifully mysterious films of the year. And Carruth’s gauzy, pillowy music is something right out of Selected Ambient Works Volume II, Aphex Twin’s album of synesthesia, lucid dreams and surreal half-awake states of consciousness. As the characters are torn from their realities and their identities, “Upstream Color” bathes them in an ambient wash of twinkling breaths, blurry memories, and out of focus, underwater experiences (and occasionally sounds like a call to arms—see the track below). Its inscrutable sustain is celestial; as if, much like the characters in the movie, we are finally divining some inexpressible truths about the universe and its holistic nature that courses through our very being. Beautiful and soaring.
2. Explosions In The Sky & David Wingo – “Prince Avalanche”
Here’s a great super group of sorts. On one hand you have the terrific and sonorous post-rockers Explosions In The Sky (many will remember them for writing the score to the “Friday Night Lights” movie, which also used some of their most anthemic and devastating pieces of music). On the other you have David Wingo, a friend and composer of filmmaker David Gordon Green since his debut film, “George Washington.” Wingo’s work has evolved leaps and bounds since that embryonic work and he’s become one of our favorite indie film composers (spin the creepy, haunting, beautiful score to “Take Shelter” for some unimpeachable proof). “Prince Avalanche” centers on two at-odd road crew workers laboring away from the rest of the world in the middle of Nowhere, Texas, alongside haunted forests that have been ravaged by wildfire. If that’s not enough thematic texture for you, I dunno what is, but Green’s film is far from gloomy. In fact, it’s a curiously rich and textured comedy about unlikely friendships, solitude, men, relationships, life and more. And it’s also introspective, melancholy and life-affirming. All of these moods and emotions are perfectly captured by Wingo and Explosions who shape a lovely and complementary score to emphasize the desolated and cracked beauty around them. The “Prince Avalanche” score glides along meditatively and sadly in its first half, and it’s swell stuff, but as the movie crescendos to its climax of tumult, blood, sweat and tears between these two frenemies and the tenuous, fragile understanding they come to, shit, it’s like the heart-swelling embrace of a well-fought war. Anthemic, resonant and stirring, there’s so much beauty in this score at times, one could cry.
1. Alex Ebert – “All Is Lost”
Arguably no composer had a more difficult task at hand this year than singer/songwriter Alex Ebert, formerly of electro-rock outfit Ima Robot, and now best known as Edward Sharpe of Edward Sharpe of the Magnetic Zeros. J.C. Chandor’s survival film pits one lonely man (Robert Redford in one of the year’s best performances) in a slowly sinking boat in the middle of the Indian ocean. It’s the man against the elements, violent storms, crushing waves, a capsizing boat, and he barely utters a word throughout the entire film, which is part high seas adventure calamity, part existential and introspective look at ourselves and our mortality (a little bit like “Gravity” for the open seas). And so Ebert has to create 100% of the interior life of the character, at least beyond the wordless, looks, glances and expressions of Robert Redford. There’s a deep ocean of things going on inside the inner world of this character; regrets, melancholy, pain, suffering, desperation, hopelessness and more. And much of it is expressed and communicated through the music; a beautiful, mournful dirge that often sounds like a slow-motion funeral hymn and one many coming to terms with his death. It’s aching, extremely moving and heartrending stuff. Especially as the character’s situation becomes more dire and he essentially deflates to a point where all hope is lost. Angelic and haunting (especially the breathtaking theme “Excelsior”), one can argue Ebert’s “All Is Lost” doleful score is the empty cry one makes as they look back on life before they meet their maker. Bloody beautiful.
Obviously Hans Zimmer’s “Rush” score is very good, pulse pounding stuff, and he does fine work on “The Lone Ranger” too, but we’ve already lauded him twice in the two arenas he excels in: dramas and tentpoles, so we felt that was enough. While it’s perhaps not the most original work and clearly follows the blueprint of John Powell’s work in most of Paul Greengrass’ notable films to date (the “Bourne” series, “United 93,” etc.), Henry Jackman’s tension-building score (which is a bit stand in for Powell, to be honest), is quite good and effective for what it is and helps “Captain Phillips” achieve rather alarming levels of anxiety, fear and desperation. We’ll undoubtedly catch some heat for leaving out the Craig Armstrong-written, often Lana Del Ray-sung “The Great Gatsby” score (also featuring The xx and Bryan Ferry Orchestra), but it loses points for being in an obnoxious movie and two, for interpolating that “Young and Beautiful” Lana Del Ray song over and over to the point of ad nauseum in the film (we love you Baz, but bad choice).
Cliff Martinez‘s moody ambient work in “Only God Forgives” is quite good too, but we preferred the Skrillex collaboration more. Ex-Faith No More singer Mike Patton‘s career has been moving towards the avant garde for more than a decade and he started dabbling with score work in the late aughts, most prominently with “Crank: High Voltage.” His main theme in “The Place Beyond The Pines” is quite good, moving even, but on reflection (and on listens after the fact), he probably needs a few more years in the trenches before he starts delivering A-game work. Indie composer Rob Simonsen is becoming quite ubiquitous. In 2013, he wrote music for “Girl Most Likely,” “The Way Way Back” and “The English Teacher” among others, but it’s his dreamy and emotional work in “The Spectacular Now” that really caught our ear. A few of the softer, quieter themes in the movie are quite underrated and gave us serious pause for consideration on this list. No doubt, you’ll be hearing from him again soon. Brian Tyler, a fairly solid if under-appreciated composer who often puts in strong work that goes unnoticed, did his best at making a splash with “Iron Man 3.” Tyler did a little with a lot, turning it into a jazzy, John Barry-esque spy score and even managed to give the robotically suited superhero a genuine, hummable theme—three movies in (four if you count “The Avengers“). It should also be noted that Danny Elfman put in some of his strongest work in recent memory for Errol Morris‘ political documentary “The Unknown Known.” Propulsive and chilling, Elfman used the choral flourishes that defined his most widely appreciated work with Tim Burton, but to new, shockingly mature effect. It’s Elfman all grown up. Mark Orton‘s charming and whimsical score to “Nebraska” is the heart and soul of Alexander Payne‘s movie, to the point that for some of us, it’s better than the movie itself. We should also mention the always-great Gustavo Santaolalla‘s pretty work in “August: Osage County” and Alexandre Desplat‘s “Philomena.” How could we forget Yasuaki Shimizu‘s Fennesz-like score to “Cutie & The Boxer” which just gorgeous.
We saw it in 2013 at Sundance, but Drake Doremus’ “Breathe In” technically doesn’t come out until 2014. However, Dustin O’Halloran has become one of the best on-the-rise composers and his beautiful work in “Breathe In” is right up there with his terrific work in “Like Crazy.” Had it been a 2013 film it would have landed on this list with a fierceness. The same thing can be said for scores to Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy” and Jim Jarmusch’s exquisite “Only Lovers Left Alive,” so keep an ear out for all three (and the movies too) next year.
– Rodrigo Perez, Drew Taylor, Gabe Toro, Cory Everett, Katie Walsh, Oliver Lyttelton