Some people—a convenient straw man, for instance—might argue that the days of the movie soundtrack are numbered. “From & Inspired By The Motion Picture” releases are less and less common, it’s hard to find music videos for specially written singles that feature footage from the movie in the way that was so common in the 1990s (thank God), and in the iTunes and YouTube era, you can find the one song that you love from a movie without needing to pick up a whole CD of stuff you don’t care about.
But our convenient straw man would be wrong. 2012 saw two of the biggest selling soundtracks in recent memory, from “Les Miserables” and “Pitch Perfect,” and this year has had an impressive run of quality selections. And as long as directors like David O. Russell, Martin Scorsese, Noah Baumbach and Edgar Wright, among others, are still going, there’ll still be films stuffed with immaculately selected pop songs.
As such, having covered the best movie scores of 2013 last week, we’ve picked and ranked our favorite soundtracks from the last twelve months. There should be something for everyone here, from Disney-loving tweens to aspiring indie-rock Katnisses to European electro-heads to old folkies. Check out our picks below, where you can listen to some extracts, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section.
15. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”
Thus far, the soundtracks to “The Hunger Games” series have taken a leaf from those of previous young adult mega-franchise “Twilight,” with a series of CDs featuring new cuts from a mix of massive pop artists and trendy alt-rock types, most of which aren’t included in the film. The “Twilight” soundtracks were pretty much the sole redeeming feature of that series, which isn’t true here, partly because “The Hunger Games” movies are much better (“Catching Fire” in particular), and partly because the albums aren’t as strong, with a rather more hodge-podge mix of artists, and some hilariously literal lyrics “Inspired By” the world of the series. But still, amidst the blandness of Coldplay‘s “Atlas,” Of Monsters & Men‘s “Silhouettes” and Imagine Dragon‘s “Who We Are,” there’s a lot to like on the “Catching Fire” OST. The National contribute a typically stirring cut, “Lean,” The Weeknd lends some sultry R&B while also teaming up with Sia & Diplo on another cut, girl-of-the-moment Lorde strikingly covers Tears For Fears‘ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” and there’s even some Patti Smith. Any young adult franchise that can introduce the tweens to Patti Smith is alright in our book, and we’ll put up with The Lumineers at their most Mumford-y in order to get there.
You wouldn’t know it from the marketing (due to Disney‘s usual plan of hiding anything that might put off teenage boys from trailers and teasers), but “Frozen” is, even more so than predecessor “Tangled,” a full-blown movie musical, with eight new songs by “Avenue Q” and “Book Of Mormon” composer Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez. And while the competition (“Tangled” and “The Princess & The Frog“) isn’t that tough, it’s certainly the best effort from the studio since their golden years in the 1990s, though admittedly not as strong as “Aladdin,” “Beauty & The Beast” et al. Not every track lands, with “Love Is An Open Door” proving borderline unlistenable, and “Reindeers Are Better Than People” and “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?” being somewhat disposable. But opener “Frozen Heart” gets things off to a stirring beginning, Josh Gad‘s comic number “In Summer” is, like the later ensemble piece “Fixer Upper,” a real charmer, and “For The First Time In Forever” tugs the heart strings effectively, especially in its reprise. And in “Let It Go” (released, painfully, as a single by Demi Lovato), it has something of a new classic of the genre, one that’ll be murdered by musical theater majors in auditions for decades to come.
13. “Afternoon Delight”
Jill Soloway’s 2013 Sundance film about a stripper and stay-at-home mom in crisis with a salvation complex is easily one of the most undervalued indies of the year even if it unfortunately dips into a shrill, messy third act. While it’s melodramatic and vexing to some, much of it is beautifully character-based as Kathryn Hahn’s lead essentially reaches her emotional tipping point, uncorks, explodes and makes some incredibly poor choices (that some say break suspension of disbelief; we say they fall knee-deep into comedic ugliness). Soundtracking this hilarious, often hard-to-watch breakdown is a choice, but motley crew selection of songs. Most awesomely accompanying this melodrama is Parliament Funkadelic (“Hit It and Quit It,” “”I Wanna Know If It’s Good To You,” “Biological Speculation“), perhaps the unlikeliest choice of band to soundtrack the drama of a well-to-do suburban house mom in Los Angeles. But lord does it work. Elsewhere, the sexy beat to Juno Temple’s stripper character is supplied by a strutting and propulsive mix of hip-hop and indie electro-beats (Marika May, Swahili Blonde, Purity Ring’s “Belispeak,” JJAMZ) or lyrical introspective cuts (Bowerbirds’ “In The Yard,” Wilco’s “She’s A Jar,” Dirty Projectors‘ “Impregnable Question”). Sadly, no official soundtrack was released from this one, but it was definitely one of the more memorable, striking and eclectic uses of music in an indie movie this year.
12. “The Kings of Summer“
For a teen coming-of-age film, there must have been a temptation, from financiers if not from the filmmakers, to slap of-the-moment pop cuts all over “The Kings of Summer,” not least once it was picked up post-Sundance. But as with many aspects of the film, “The Kings Of Summer” shows an admirable sense of restraint, with Ryan Miller‘s strong score paired with only a handful of songs, all of which prove very effective. The hipster psychedelia of MGMT (the use of their “The Youth” during the house-building montage performed a feat that hasn’t happened since about 2008, and actually made us want to listen to the band) rubs shoulders with some delicate piano balladry from Youth Lagoon, dance-skank from The Orb (ft. Lee Scratch Perry, on “Golden Clouds“), and most effectively and unexpectedly, Thin Lizzy‘s “Cowboy Song.” It might not be the most cohesive musical selection of 2013, but the variety totally works, and goes a long way to bringing about the film’s sense of an endlessly hopeful and hopefully endless summer of the kind we all wish we could have again.
11. “The World’s End“
A large part of what “The World’s End” is about the idea of trying to recapture your youth (along with alcoholism and murderous robots from another galaxy), even if it almost kills you. This is perfectly captured in the film’s soundtrack, comprised largely of incredibly specific, incredibly Britpop song from the ’80s and early ’90s (Pulp, Blur, Suede, Teenage Fanclub, The Stone Roses, et al.). Director Edgar Wright has always been pretty on point about the songs that he chooses for his films, but here he tackled the task with a tremendous sense of focus and intelligence. Sometimes the songs are thematically primed, like Primal Scream‘s “Loaded,” which opens the movie in rousing fashion, and other times they work more as a gag than anything else (like Kylie Minogue‘s “Step Back In Time,” a song we had kind of forgotten was so catchy-good). But no matter how Wright is utilizing the tracks, either to convey a story point or underline the movie’s knottier existential concerns, they’re all connected to such a concrete period of time that you can’t help but think about where the characters came from and how their formative years have influenced who they are today. In “The World’s End,” nostalgia gets turned into a puddle of inky blue goo and as far as mix tapes for the apocalypse go, you could do a lot worse than this soundtrack.
10. “The Wolf of Wall Street“
Though Martin Scorsese‘s three-hour long, hedonistic masterwork credits Howard Shore with original music, his contribution could probably be contained on a CD single because just about every second of the entire hulking, sweaty, cocaine-hoovering affair is coated in preexisting source music. Then again, his similarly sprawling “Casino” didn’t have a composer at all. “The Wolf of Wall Street” takes a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to the music, giving little attention to the actual ’90s time period (for the most part anyhow) the movie is trying to portray or what batshit crazy mood it’s trying to convey. Sometimes this purposely anachronistic streak works (Me First And The Gimmie Gimme’s covering The Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B.”), as in a couple of the bacchanalian party sequences, but other times it falls flat on its face (like when there’s a temporally displaced Foo Fighters song wedged in there for no good reason). There are a few giant “music moments” too, one set to the jumped-up Italian disco cover of Laura Branigan‘s “Gloria” by Sebastián Lelio (the second time the foreign language version of the song was used to tremendous effect this year) and when Leonardo DiCaprio and his depraved buddies are singing along to “Hip Hop Hooray” by Naughty by Nature, on his insanely opulent yacht, even mimicking the song’s trademark arm move. Simply, there’s a ton music, and so much it works (The Lemonheads‘ cover of Simon & Garfunkel‘s “Mrs.Robinson,” Howling Wolf, Bo Diddley, Sir Mix A Lot, Eartha Kitt) , that it’s hard not to just kind of stare at “The Wolf of Wall Street,” mouth agape and ears just soaking it all in. It’s an overwhelming audio/visual experience and definitely part of what makes the movie what it is.
9. “Drinking Buddies”
If last year, Rick Alverson tapped indie-rock label Jagjaguwar Records to curate one of the most unexpectedly soulful soundtracks of 2012 with “The Comedy,” then filmmaker Joe Swanberg did similar work by going to indie-rock label Secretly Canadian (and yes, Jagjaguwar) for much of his “Drinking Buddies” soundtrack this year. Of course, the soundtrack isn’t just tracks from those two labels (two of the key cuts are on Orange Twin and Subliminal Sound for example), but more importantly, what’s he’s done is created a cohesive collection of music that captures the spirit of his indie film that perceptively observes the fine (and complicated) line between platonic and amorous relationships, and when and where those lines tend to blur with the help of a little bit too much booze. The playful and flirtatious side of “Drinking Buddies” is well-represented in popular, upbeat indie tracks by Cayucas, Rubblebucket, Foxygen and electro rockers Phèdre, but since “Drinking Buddies” is essentially about two friends (Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson) whose social drinking-borne affection for each other is growing in ways they’re not really mature enough to understand (plus he’s in a committed relationship), the lonely longing aspect of the movie is its emotional core. And the cuts that best express that downhearted mood are the movie’s most powerful: The Amazing doing their best Nick Drake impression with “Dragon”; Sibylle Baier’s quietly sad “Tonight” (a housewife from the ‘70s whose belated home recordings were released in 2006) and Richard Youngs’ “Soon It Will Be Fire” provide much of the affecting musical heft. But “Drinking Buddies” also has a sort of contemporary ‘70s movie vibe to it and Swanberg finds two modern cuts that evoke that shaggy feel so perfectly: Plants and Animals’ “The End of That” and Richard Swift’s “Lady Luck” both of which are bouncy cuts of course, but with an subtle underbelly of melancholy coursing through them. Hell, at the very end of the day, it’s just a really terrific collection of tunes you could do a lot worse than owning.
8. “Simon Killer“
Like the film itself, the soundtrack to “Simon Killer” (it never gained an official release, leading fans to cobble together their own version) is both haunting and mysterious and it throbs with a sinister electro pulse that suggests lots about the tormented mind of the film’s protagonist. The compelling and often brilliant movie follows the exploits of Simon (Brady Corbet), a young American visiting Paris. It’s here that he develops a relationship with a Middle Eastern hooker and a Parisian woman, and starts to exhibit increasingly psychopathic behavior, until he ultimately (violently) erupts. The moody sheen of the soundtrack (which includes Austra, Glasser and Matthew Popieluch) oftentimes functions as the very literal playlist of his life—we listen as he repeats a song, “It Takes A Muscle to Fall in Love” by Spectral Display, over and over, as he walks around Paris (some great soul choices by The Arrows and Richard Cook). There are also wonderfully oddball choices like Japanese girl group The Suzan covering Miike Snow‘s “Animal” and an overlong, borderline hypnotic dance sequence set to almost the entirety of LCD Soundsystem‘s lengthy, throbbing disco track “Dance Yrself Clean.” Even if the movie left you feeling skuzzy and at sea, you had to admit that the soundtrack wove a certain spell, one in which Euro-dance trashiness and a genuine cognitive disconnect intermingle to create a maddeningly effective atmosphere, one that more often than not kind of makes you want to dance… even when truly abhorrent things are happening on screen.
7. “The Broken Circle Breakdown”
For anyone looking for a primer on modern American music in 2013, they haven’t had to venture much further than their local arthouse cinema. While the Coens have made folk music popular again with “Inside Llewyn Davis,” highlighting the seeds of a genre that would expand and further flourish decades on, Felix Van Groeningen’s “Broken Circle Breakdown” goes even further back. Believe it or not, traditional bluegrass and country music is apparently a thing in Belgium and that scene serves both the backdrop and emotional throughline to the film. Starring Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh, the pair play partners, parents and collaborators in a bluegrass band, as the events in the story shape their relationship, they express their innermost feelings through their performances. And the songs are nothing short of fantastic. Like the tunes in the Coens’ film, there are no bells and whistles or fancy adornments, but timeless songs delivered impeccably. The standard “Wayfaring Stranger” still sounds new led by Baetans, while the showstopper has to be Townes Van Zandt‘s “If I Needed You” (watch it here), a stirring and beautiful song which finds Baetans and Heldenbergh trading off vocals, as their characters go through the final stages of a relationship that has gone past broken, and become shattered. Simply, this is one of the most satisfying collections of music—from a movie or otherwise—you’ll hear this year.
6. “The Bling Ring“
There were a lot of cool soundtracks in 2013, but only one cool enough to be released by Def Jam Recordings, the same folks who put out Yeezus, and that soundtrack was “The Bling Ring” (It also explains how they were able to secure not one but two Kanye West songs for it). Director Sofia Coppola has always been a notable soundtrack curator (she’s married to Thomas Mars from Phoenix, after all, and the band obviously have a track on the album) and this might be her most purely enjoyable collection of songs (which also includes Frank Ocean, deadmau5, Rye Rye and the call to arms Sleigh Bells cut from the trailer). Perfectly evoking the main characters’ desire to be taken seriously as thugs while giving off the vibe of young Disney Channel stars, the soundtrack mixes hard-edged hip hop (like “9 Piece” by Rick Ross) along frothier pop moments like M.I.A.‘s “Bad Girls” and “212” by Azealia Banks, which, for all its provocative filthiness, is as bouncily catchy as anything on the mainstream radio. It helps that Coppola doesn’t feel beholden to the movie’s slight period setting (of a few years ago), making for a wild grab bag of everything from 2 Chainz to a song by German prog rockers Can. There is also a nearly 7-minute selection from the original score, co-composed by Brian Reitzell and Daniel Lopatin, whose band Oneohtrix Point Never are also represented on the album. A haunting bit of swirly electronic score that suggests that, while the main characters (and the rest of the soundtrack) might give off the vibe of YOLO-ing criminal masterminds, inside there’s some deep, dark nothingness.
Given that his films thus far have shown him to have a particularly strong sense of sound as well as visuals, it’s no surprise that Ben Wheatley picked out a string of crackers for this year’s “Sightseers.” The film mixes gut-busting, jet-black low-key character comedy with the “Wicker Man“-ish pagan dread of Wheatley’s previous film, “Kill List,” and the soundtrack also combines discordant influences to create a surprisingly satisfying whole. Cleverly bookended by two versions of “Tainted Love” (Soft Cell‘s 1980s re-rub, the EP version that runs into “Where Did Our Love Go,” cunningly, with Gloria Jones‘ 1960s original at the end, with the reprise feeling that much more painful and sincere), it encompasses 1980s power-pop (Frankie Goes To Hollywood‘s “The Power Of Love,” memorably, hauntingly, hilariously appropriated for the final scenes) and Krautrock, courtesy of Neu!, Harmonia and Popol Vuh, and classical composer Edward Elgar. Most unforgettably, there are two versions of Donovan‘s “Season Of The Witch” that breathes new life into the soundtrack-staple. First, there’s Vanilla Fudge‘s nine-minute psych-freakout cover, followed by a more soulful take by Julie Driscoll. The result is like stumbling around a music festival campfire on a drug freakout, which is entirely appropriate for the film as a whole.
4. “Something In The Air”
For many, there are literally thousands of things they’ rather listen to than 1970s prog-psych-folk. But trust Olivier Assayas (whose last film, “Carlos,” also had a killer collection of songs) to make it work in “Something In The Air,” his tale of revolution and romance in 1970s Europe. Appropriately enough, for a deeply personal coming-of-age tale, the selections mostly come from Assayas’ own favorites from his teens, and while he resists smothering the film with music, the likes of Syd Barrett, Captain Beefheart and Tangerine Dream are perfectly evocative of the time and place. British folkie Johnny Flynn (soon to be seen starring with Anne Hathaway in Sundance romance “Song One“) contributes a convincing cover of Phil Ochs‘ “Ballad Of William Worthy,” while there are some deep cuts too, most notably Soft Machine‘s “Why Are We Sleeping?” which scores the film’s stand-out sequence. If you want to know what Llewyn Davis would be putting out if he took a bunch of mushrooms and moved to the Paris suburbs, this isn’t a million miles away.
3. “American Hustle”
There’s a lot going on under the surface of “American Hustle,” and its wigs, silly outfits and farcical hairstyles. It’s veneer is shiny and colorful, but the soul of its characters are mainly those of people struggling to get by, who want to reinvent themselves to the point that they aren’t leading boring, penniless lives, instead moving towards something more glamorous. And so the film’s grifters, Christian Bale and Amy Adams instantly connect to Duke Ellington‘s classy “Jeep’s Blues,” a tune that not so ironically was a time in the jazz man’s own period of sonic reinvention. Many tracks, like the movie’s sheen, are simply groovy, sexy pieces of period music, but how often they connect emotionally is what separates the soundtrack CD keepers from the bargain bin deletes. Tom Jones’ “Delilah” is transformed to an ode to a real and blossoming friendship between Bale and Jeremy Renner’s character (as is the Bee Gees’ ironic “I Started A Joke”), Jennifer Lawrence belting out Wings’ “Live And Let Die” comes from a true moment of “fuck this I’m done,” anger, and Donna Summer’s propulsive, Giorgio Moroder-produced disco classic “I Feel Love” is not only a mic drop explosion of period-piece sexual energy in the movie, it becomes an escapist cri-de-coeur for Amy Adams’ increasingly desperate and boxed-in character. And if you’re not going that deep, well, musically the movie includes some terrific ’70s cuts by ELO (Jeff Lynne contributed some original music too), America, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes and a perfectly semi-cheesy, but heartfelt version of Al Green’s “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?” by the Bee Gees. If “American Hustle” is all about an immersive con from “the feet up” as the characters say, the soundtrack takes the same method-acting like approach.
2. “Frances Ha“
Let’s be honest, if “Frances Ha” was made by some twentysomething filmschool hotshot, it’d likely be soundtracked by a host of Pitchfork favorites—it’s not all that difficult to imagine the same story set to Vampire Weekend and Grizzly Bear. But while co-writer/star Greta Gerwig might be only just into her 30s, Noah Baumbach has a little more distance, and the film ends up with some rather more unexpected musical choices. The film features classic cuts from legends like Paul McCartney (“Blue Sway,” a track we’d forgotten how much we liked until it popped up here), Harry Nilsson (“Mrs Butter’s Lament“) and T.Rex (“Chrome Sitar“), not to mention the exhilarating, Leos Carax-nodding use of David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” But then there’s the unexpected, and hugely effective disco-soul of Hot Chocolate‘s “Everyone’s A Winner,” a brace of classical pieces from Mozart, Bach and Jaubert, and a number of lifts from the scores of Truffaut favorite Georges Delerue (nodding to one of the film’s major influences). The closest thing to a contemporary cut is a late number by South African electronica artist Felix Laband, but even that feels like it could have come from any point in the last fifty years. As a result, Baumbach makes a film that could have dated instantly, into something that 27-year-olds will be identifying with a century from now.
1. “Inside Llewyn Davis”
“Everything you touch turns to shit. Like King Midas’ idiot brother,” the impregnated Jean (Carey Mulligan) hisses at Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) in the Coen brothers’ 1960s-set folk tale “Inside Llewyn Davis.” You could say Davis was born under a bad sign. That if it wasn’t for bad luck, Llewyn wouldn’t have no luck at all. But Davis is not only an artist, he’s a product of entitled integrity and short-sightedness that goes beyond bad luck. He’s also a bit of an oblivious jerk and perhaps the exemplar of the confluences of fate that decide why people with talent don’t always “make it.” So in the Coen Brothers serio-comic tragedy about failure, being one’s own worst enemy and perhaps a little bit of being in the wrong place at the right time, there is no score: the soundtrack is all existing folk cuts mostly performed by Oscar Isaac and the actors in the film that include Justin Timberlake, Mulligan, Stark Sands and Adam Driver and produced by T Bone Burnett, with Marcus Mumford (of artisanal folk outfit Mumford & Sons) as its associate producer. “If it was never new and get never gets old it’s a folk song,” Isaac says in the film and “Inside Llewyn Davis” is full of old folks made anew. The opener is a showstopper of a song (presented two more times in different versions), a melancholy goodbye cut titled “Fare Thee Well,” which is made doubly ironic and dark for the fact, Davis used to sing it with his now-deceased singing partner. The soundtrack to “Inside Llewyn Davis” is much like the movie and the character: authentic, rich, lived-in with wisps of doleful violins, mandolins and banjos that perhaps tell us what we recognize almost immediately–this poor dope is never going to succeed. Songs wonderfully inform character too and aren’t just pretty window dressing. At his big make-or-break audition in Chicago, having undertaken his own little odyssey to get there, the oblivious Davis unveils, “The Death Of Queen Jane” a beautifully sad lament about a woman who dies in childbirth. Performing the integrity-besmirching novelty song, “Please Mr. Kennedy,” causes Llewyn to thoughtlessly tosses his long term royalties aside. Songs brilliantly weave a narrative in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” but they’re also just soulful, dolorous, gorgeous folk songs from a different time and era. As Dylan himself sings his version of “Farewell,” the Coens movie quietly whispers that the times are a changin’; one of these two ships passing in the night is disappointingly heading into waters unknown, while the other is a new hope that’s just about to hit port.
A number of the scores from our list last week were also accompanied by some excellent songs as well. In particular, “Spring Breakers” matched Skrillex & Cliff Martinez‘s score with some up-to-the minute cuts from The Cool Kids, Nicki Minaj, Waka Flocka Flame, The Weeknd and Ellie Goulding. Elsewhere, “The Great Gatsby” was ambitious, but at best, only semi-successful, and a little disappointing when put against the OSTs to some of Baz Luhrmann‘s previous films. “About Time” had some decent cuts, not least the Nick Cave song that inspired its writing, while there were a few bangers on the “Fast & Furious 6” release, most notably “We Own It” from 2 Chainz and Wiz Khalifa. And finally, there was some pleasant listening from “The Way Way Back” from Young Galaxy, INXS and Eli “Paperboy” Reed, among others. Anything else you think should get props? Point it out below.