Last week we kicked off our end-of-year coverage (all of which to date you can find here) in fine style by celebrating our 15 favorite scores of the year, but that’s only half the story in regards film music. Just as integral to our enjoyment, and often even more so to a film’s profile (as an ancillary, well-curated selection of earwormy tracks can be a highly marketable extra), is the soundtrack. Of course, picking the best soundtracks of the year comes with its own pitfalls, so first and foremost we have to say we’ve gone with selections that enhance the viewing experience of the film, as opposed to listings that necessarily make for brilliant compilation albums outside of their filmic context. Furthermore, there are probably films that we did not like, or that made little impression on us, but yet had a great selection of tracks by artists we love, however with one notable exception below, we’re not really featuring any of those either.
There are, furthermore, a couple of films that feature one or two songs used in standout fashion, but maybe not quite enough to build to an album’s worth—never fear, however, there is a good chance that some of the ones you might be thinking of right now will make it onto our final music-related year-end list, Best Movie Music Moments, which is coming soon.
Still, there are a lot of picks here that we’ll be happily spinning for the next few weeks and months and beyond, whether because we happen to love the songs individually (and soundtracks are a great way to discover your new favorite band) or because cumulatively they add up to a reminder of some of our favorite films of the year.
So stick your headphones on, turn up the volume, and get ready for a little chair dancing as you fall in love with/guiltily enjoy/are appalled by our 15 Best Soundtracks of 2014.
15. “Wish I Was Here”
Zach Braff‘s 2004 directorial debut “Garden State” is perhaps best known for its era-defining soundtrack, which helped to bring the likes of The Shins, Iron & Wine and Zero 7 to wider audiences, to Grammy-winning, platinum-selling effect. The actor-director’s belated second movie, the famously Kickstarted “Wish I Was Here,” had a fraction of the impact both as a movie (partly because it was wretched) and as a soundtrack, but it’s the latter that proved to be the film’s redeeming feature. As you might imagine, it’s a mix of unthreatening indie rock and a handful of classics (one of which, Paul Simon‘s “The Obvious Child,” was put to much better use elsewhere this year), but Braff’s musical taste remains better than his filmmaking. There are a couple of disappointing numbers here, including “Donnie Darko” one-hit-wonder Gary Jules and a dull Coldplay/Cat Power duet, but there was also some lovely tracks old and new from the likes of Badly Drawn Boy and The Head and the Heart, plus excellent, specially-written tracks by Bon Iver (the stunning “Heavenly Father”) and, inevitably, The Shins (“So Now What”). There’s nothing here that’ll change your life, as it were, but plenty of gems to make the soundtrack worth a listen.
14. “Top Five”
While we’re spending the month unleashing no shortage of lists, Chris Rock understands that the power of rankings is in what it reveals about the person making it. Just look at The Playlist’s collective 20 Best Films Of 2014, which features “Under The Skin” in the top spot by a wide margin, and you get an idea of the sensibilities of our team, and the kind of work we appreciate and gravitate toward. While “Top Five” doesn’t aspire to be much more than a firing-on-all-cylinders comedy (which it is), Rock understands that if you don’t care about the characters, the lasting power of a film will evaporate. And so, it’s through the simple device of having characters list off their top five rappers throughout the film, that we get a quick insight into who they are as people. Granted, you may need to be familiar with hip hop history and music for it to resonate, but for those who know their Ice Cube from Ice-T, it’s a winning gambit. As the relationship between Rock and Rosario Dawson’s characters evolves, so too do their lists, and writer/director/star underlines it all with choice cuts by Jay Z and Kanye West, Slick Rick, LL Cool J, and Scarface all landing on the soundtrack. They’re all deep cuts for a movie that’s consistently lights on its feet.
13. “The Gambler”
“For me, I was able to create my best soundtrack ever with this movie,” director Rupert Wyatt said of his upcoming drama “The Gambler.” Immodesty aside, he’s right. While Wyatt’s movie can be uneven and doesn’t always hit its marks successfully, the remake of the 1974 film of the same name is striking, ballsy, and go-for-broke. Perhaps this is never better exemplified than in the movie’s Scorsese-esque soundtrack laced with fatalistic cool and dark irony (Alan Price’s “Poor People” is hilariously used). Chaptered up into seven days as a perilous and potentially fatal deadline looms for Mark Wahlberg’s character to pay his outrageous debts, most chapters begin with a song that helps set the mood of escalating tension. The movie evinces all kinds of swagger (Pulp’s “Common People,” St. Paul and the Broken Bones’ classic-sounding smoky-cool soul track “The Glow”’), existential trouble (Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth”), and hip tracks with a sinister edge (Easy Star All-Stars’ dub covers of Pink Floyd). And it also includes alternately pulsating or soulful tunes by Timbre Timbre, Ray LaMontagne, and Billy Bragg covering Bob Dylan. All of it has loud and brassy use throughout. Even the final moment of the film, set to M83’s melodramatic “Outro”—even if it’s not going to work for all viewers— is like a supernova crescendo of emotion and feeling that is, at the very least, unforgettable.
A pop-culture time-capsule mixtape that’s guaranteed to inspire nostalgia in just about anyone from the iPod generation, “Boyhood” had one of the most comprehensive, diverse, and listenable collections of songs in 2014. Richard Linklater‘s decade-in-the-making opus cunningly uses big radio hits from the likes of The Hives, Gotye, and Gnarls Barkley as signifiers of a time jump, while often giving them a new lease of life: few have thought about Coldplay, or Cobra Starship, as fondly in recent years. But Linklater also keeps things firmly personal, with more traditionally Linklater-esque selections, like Yo La Tengo and a new song by Jeff Tweedy, along with the ingenious Beatles-solo-career-mixtape concept that will surely be pinched by fortysomething dads everywhere this Christmas and beyond. It might not be as era-defining as the “Dazed & Confused” soundtrack right now (and dropping the likes of “Get Lucky” from the Sundance cut was definitely a good idea), but it’s also likely to age better and better as we step away from the time the film was made.
11. “Beyond The Lights”
A contemporary spin on a sort of “A Star Is Born“/”The Bodyguard“-style musical melodrama, Gina Prince-Blythewood‘s “Beyond The Lights” has been the subject of one of the more unlikely critical causes of the year after being lost in the rabble at TIFF and screened to relatively few critics before being thoroughly embraced by those who eventually caught up with it. Detailing the romance between a Rihanna-style pop superstar (the astounding Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and an ambitious young cop (Nate Parker, also great), it’s finely wrought and brilliantly acted, and aided no small amount by a soundtrack of authentic present-day R&B. There’s a couple of duff additions in there (notably by one by insipid songstress Birdy), but all of Mbatha-Raw’s songs in character as Noni feel like they could be drawn from the Top 40, and in “Grateful,” penned by legendary Oscar-nominated songwriter Diane Warren and sung by Rita Ora, it’s a proper air-bunching ballad classic in the making. This isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste, admittedly, but it hits every one of the notes that it needed to.
10. “Obvious Child“
When you come to a movie named after a song, there’s always a worry about how, and whether, that song will be used within the film. So it’s definitely a good indication of just how charmed we were by the oxymoronically sweet-natured abortion comedy “Obvious Child” that we didn’t cringe even a little bit when the titular Paul Simon song played, even though it rings out, rather obviously over the scene that directly leads to Donna’s (Jenny Slate) unenviable conundrum. But it also shows how much 2014 breakthrough director Gillian Robespierre had earned an on-the-nose moment, by including surprising yet apropos choices elsewhere. So classical tracks (Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and a Caruso rendition of “O Sole Mio” feature) rub shoulders two songs from NYC-based rock band The London Souls, while darkly melancholic number “Nevada” from Scout Niblett counterpoints the often bawdy comedy in a way that lends depth rather than seeming jarring. Otherwise, the folksy “Single Girl, Married Girl” is used in two different versions, by The Kossoy Sisters and The Carter Family, giving a nostalgic, old-timey feel to a very modern film.
The film itself might be a rather middling, flashback-heavy, finding-yourself drama, but the soundtrack to Jean-Marc Vallee’s Reese Witherspoon vehicle “Wild” was actually quietly great, made up of the kind of classic-rock radio stalwarts that you’d probably want in your earbuds if you were hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail (while also managing to eschew any Proclaimers jokes). There are some obvious picks here—Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen—but also some more intriguing ones, like First Aid Kit and Lucinda Williams, and Vallee smartly deploys them mostly diagetical, and always memorably. Even the more overplayed artists end up fitting beautifully, like the excellent use of Simon & Garfunkel‘s “El Condor Pasa (If I Could”) or Wings‘ “Let ‘Em In.” Whatever the film’s issues, Vallee clearly knows how to use the music, and the result is a pretty damn good hiking mixtape, and probably the strongest aspect of the movie overall.
Having already called out the score for Jim Jarmusch’s richly playful vampire fable (mostly co-composed by Jarmusch’s own band SQÜRL), it might seem like overkill to also nominate its soundtrack, but the songs are just too good to overlook. Perfectly complementing the lute-heavy, feedback-drenched score, the songs range from the trashy, jangly SQÜRL feat. Madeline Follin (of Cults fame) cover of Wanda Jackson‘s “Funnel of Love” which opens the film in spinny louche style, to “Trapped by This Thing Called Love” by Denise La Salle that plays out while Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston’s eons-old vampire dance in their dressing gowns, to a couple of Bill Laswell tracks that fuse various Arabic-inflected cuts. The eclectic collection even has a few more modern (though still unimpeachably cool) bands in there, like spacerockers White Hills and a garagey track from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. The full listing can be found here, but if we’re honest, the standout track is the one below—the irresistibly exotic and shamelessly sexy “Hal” by Yasmine Hamdan, which is played live within the film—sending us out, as we recall, with actual shivers going up and down our spine.
Those of us who’ve seen it have all certainly been very taken with this gorgeous debut film from 2014 breakout director Ana Lily Amirpour, and of many notable elements (the glorious, textured high-contrast black and white cinematography for one) the film also boasts a terrific, totally individual soundtrack. Relying heavily on songs not just to take the place of scoring, but often to fill in character beats and moments that become all the more eloquent for not being spoken through dialogue, Amirpour contrasts long stretches of silence, featuring minimal ambient sound effects even, with luscious long cuts of everything from Iranian rock bands Radio Tehran and Kiosk, to Morricone-style Spaghetti Western melodies from the Portland-based Federale, to Middle Eastern fusion notes from LA-based DJ Bei Ru, to trippy club track “Dancing Girls” by Farah. Furthermore, pop music plays an integral role in the film’s world-building too, from the Michael Jackson and Debbie Harry posters that adorn the lonely chador-clad vampiress’ room, to an awkward getting-to-know-you silence being broken with the question, “What was the last song you listened to?” (Answer: Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello.”) Swooniest of all, though, is probably the use of English post-punk group White Lies’ “Death” over the dreamy slow motion, ecstasy-soaked moment of the lovers’ first embrace, squarely hitting the gloomy, gothy sweet spot somewhere between Echo and the Bunnymen, Interpol, and Joy Division.
6. “The Rover”
You gotta hand it to Aussie David Michôd. After “Animal Kingdom” the world was his oyster and he spent months in Hollywood looking at scripts and potential projects. But for a second act Michôd decided to take a bold left turn with “The Rover,” a dissonant, minimalist two-hander that feels literally scorched by the sun. For his post-economic-collapse picture, Michôd decided to only employ post-apocalyptic modes through mood, atmosphere, and music. While there’s some score by Antony Partos utilized, the bulk of the movie’s simmering, sinister musical tendencies are discordant and cacophonous source music by experimental and ambient composers the director chose (all of it listed here). There’s seminal avant-garde musician William Basinski (who might be experiencing a minor renaissance since he was used in “The Comedy” in 2013), Chicago post-rockers Tortoise, and Montreal-based saxophonist and multireedist Colin Stetson—a touring member of Arcade Fire, Bell Orchestre, and Bon Iver (he also wrote the underrated score for “Blue Caprice” along with Sarah Neufeld from Arcade Fire). “The Rover” is not the most inviting or forgiving movie, but that’s the point (and of course a chipper Keri Hilson song briefly breaks the mood in a moment that’s both comical and yet heartbreaking). It’s a bleak, nihilistic look at the strange and unlikely partnership between a deceptively complex simpleton (Robert Pattinson) and callous, nearly inhuman man (Guy Pearce) who will stop at nothing to retrieve all that he has lost. And Michôd’s soundtrack is equally cruel, heartless, and unrelenting—in the best way.
Never has a soundtrack for a comic book movie been so unequivocally full of awesome from start to finish than the one for “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Indeed, the shape of the film’s entire emotional core is a glorious boombox cranking out some of the most fun-loving, feel-good ’70s and ’80s tunes out there. Star-Lord’s (Chris Pratt) most valued possession, the one thing that keeps him connected to Earth, is the “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” mix-tape his mother left him. Luckily for him (and us) his mother had exceptional taste. From Blue Swede’s rollicking “Hooked On A Feeling,” to Redbone’s groovy “Come And Get Your Love,” this is the kind of soundtrack “PLAY” buttons were designed for. And, yes, we realize a certain age-group will fall in love faster than today’s teenagers, but seriously, how wonderful is it that today’s youngsters are exposed to this music in such fun fashion? Full of those, “Oh, I know that song!” and “Oh my God, I love that song!” moments, the soundtrack’s inclusion of gems like Rupert Holmes’ “Escape” and Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s classic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” introduced that much more humor, heart, and entertainment into the film. Who would’ve thought songs like 10CC’s velvety “I’m Not In Love” could fit so brilliantly in a galactic action-comedy about a bunch of lovable ragamuffins from different planets? But it’s spot on. Everything about this soundtrack is pure, unbridled, joy, from its compilation to its simultaneous time-warp effect of pulling you back into the golden era of music and pushing you forward to a comic book galaxy full of characters we love. Can we get James Gunn some form of honorary Oscar for putting this together, please?
Woody Allen may have famously said that life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad TV, but Quebecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan makes a compelling case that in fact it imitates horrendous, MOR Mom-rock instead. Which is pretty appropriate, we guess, for a film titled “Mommy.” It’s a measure of just how much his near-galling levels of directorial confidence are earned that in his tremendous, triumphant, splashily moving film (one of our top 20 of the year) time and again throughout, he uses music that we’d ordinarily cross the street to avoid to such heart-swelling effect: Eiffel 65, Dido, Oasis, Counting Crows, even Celine goddamn Dion. You can listen to all the tracks here courtesy of our sister blog Bent, though we warn you, out of context your eardrums may revolt. In context, however, these songs are used breathtakingly—you may find yourself crying at the Celine Dion track, and not for the reasons you might usually cry at a Celine Dion track. But perhaps nowhere is the bravado of Dolan’s musical choices more in your face than in this clip, where it’s clear star Antoine Olivier Pilon (one of our 2014 breakouts) is actually skateboarding along listening to some hip-hop track, but over the sun-drenched, handheld images we get the strains of the sickly, maudlin “Colorblind” by Counting Crows, and it weirdly, totally, works. If you’re going to put the opera into soap opera (and the mellow into melodrama), and you’re really going to go for broke with it, like Dolan does so successfully here, these awful, brilliant songs are inspired choices.
3. “The Guest”
One of the most immediate comparisons made to Adam Wingard’s “The Guest” is Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive.” And apart from Dan Stevens going toe-to-toe with Ryan Gosling in who-can-pull-off-super-cool-demeanor-better contest, the association is very much connected with the tracks Wingard assembled for the film’s neon-dark and chilling soundtrack. As smooth as a razor’s edge, the collection of songs is a wonderfully twisted hybrid of forgotten alternative rock, dark wave, and synth-fucked pop. Like some of our other featured soundtracks on this list, the music in “The Guest” is thematically involved in the film’s story. Maika Monroe’s Anna is a unique teenager, and the best way she sticks out is with her “weird” (read: fantastic) taste in music, like Danish dark wave band Clan of Xymox and songs like Annie’s siren-like “Anthonio (Berlin Breakdown Version),” which Stevens’ David picks up on right away and uses to his own psychotic advantage. Then, of course, we have ominous electronic tracks like Mike Simonetti’s “The Magician” to bring us right back into the film’s sinister dominion, and Survive’s “Omniverse” to remind us just how tall the shadow of John Carpenter’s“Halloween” looms over the family-invasion concept in “The Guest.” Thanks to the soundtrack’s inclusion of songs from Anna’s collection, and these electro instrumentals, the soundtrack is a twisted, retro-dabbed blend of emotion, romance, and peril, and one of the most easy-to-listen-to albums of the year. The only legitimate complaint we could possibly have is the missed opportunity to include anything from Siouxsie and the Banshees, a band that must be hidden somewhere in Anna’s playlist.
If you’re making a movie about a band, you need some pretty good music or the whole thing falls apart. And if you’re making a movie about a band as strange and wonderful as The Soronprfbs in Lenny Abrahamson‘s wonderful “Frank,” you need songs as equally as strange. Thankfully, aside from the excellent score he contributed, composer Stephen Rennicks (a regular Abrahamson collaborator) wrote some fantastic and often hilarious art-pop tunes for the band led by Michael Fassbender‘s papier-mache-head-wearing frontman to play. From the cosmically difficult “Secure The Galactic Perimeter” to the genuinely moving “I Love You All,” the tracks can be odd, even abrasive, but Rennicks cunningly makes them poppier as Domhnal Gleeson‘s character asserts his influence on the band. It’d be easy with such a strange concept for the soundtrack to dip into pastiche, but everything here feels like it could be from a real band that became a small viral sensation. And not just any band, but this band in particular. The campaign to get the Soronpfbs a Best Original Song nomination starts here.
1. “Inherent Vice”
Paul Thomas Anderson‘s always had one of the keenest ears for music out there, but the last time he made a movie as laden with music as “Inherent Vice” (listen to it all here) was “Boogie Nights” 17 years ago. The film’s blessed with Jonny Greenwood‘s eclectic, accomplished score, but also with a brace of song selections that reflect the Radiohead guitarist’s influences on his latest film work, a fascinating, immediately iconic mix that does a huge amount to establish the mood. Vintage 1960s surf rock mixes with tiki-bar ditties, soul (including memorable cuts by Sam Cooke and Anderson’s late mother-in-law, Minnie Riperton), German Krautrocker Can to touch upon the paranoiac side of things, and a bunch of Neil Young (the way it reinvents “Harvest” as if you’ve never heard it before is masterful). It could seem almost randomly assembled, and yet feels totally cohesive on screen, a woozy, weed-haze mixtape that combines both classics and obscure cuts into something that does a huge amount to sum up the movie and its appeal. There’s been a lot of great music in the movies this year, but “Inherent Vice” is the soundtrack that we imagine we’ll be returning to the most over the years.
The ongoing, episodic nature of TV shows mean that often their soundtracking can feel too ephemeral to really stay with you, but the are a few examples of consistently outstanding use of existing tracks that deserve a mention here. Firstly, Jill Soloway’s “Transparent,” which already figured in our Best Scores for Dustin O’Halloran’s lovely piano-based compositions that are as deceptively simple as the show. But part of what makes them work so well is how they fit with the inspired track selection, by music supervisor Bruce Gilbert, that includes such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Yardbirds, Leonard Cohen, and JJ Cale, as well as occasionally perfectly cheesy cuts from the likes of Deee-Lite and Heart, plus the single greatest use to date of Gotye’s “Somebody that I Used to Know.”
Then Season 2 of Ray McKinnon’s underrated slowburn “Rectify” impressed us greatly with its use of tracks that often cheerfully counterpoint the down-tempo story beats and melancholia onscreen. Old school pop songs Like “The More I See You” by Chris Montez combine with instrumental moments from Hans Christian and Arvo Pärt and rockier cuts by the likes of Robert Plant to build up to a thoughfully layered soundscape that does wonders for the show’s deliberate pacing and nuance.
And finally, because it’s our last chance to, we need to tip the hat to the consistently brilliant work of “Boardwalk Empire” music supervisor Randall Poster in digging deep into the archives to mine such an impressive array of period-accurate recordings throughout.
As ever, we’ve broken a few Playlist hearts compiling this list, and there were a gaggle of soundtracks that just missed the cut, whether because not enough of us had experienced them, the film was not well-liked enough, or because we just felt the songs fell short of those listed above. Closest to the top of the pile were Joe Swanberg’s “Happy Christmas,” “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1,” “Divergent,” and the self-consciously douchey-but-fun soundtrack to the “Neighbors,” which plays such a particular role in the comedy. Beyond that, “Muppets Most Wanted,” ”Finding Fela,” “Into the Woods,” “Begin Again,” “Jersey Boys” “Get On Up,” “Memphis,” and “God Help the Girl” were all musicals, or music-themed films, and as such had big soundtracks (in some cases far more memorable than the films).
There was also support for Sundance indie “Very Good Girls,” Jon Favreau’s “Chef,” and sleeper favorite “The Skeleton Twins,” while either “Horns” or “Men, Women and Children” could have taken the place reserved for “film we disliked that we grudgingly admit had a good soundtrack” that went instead to “Wish I Was Here.”
Obviously we have limited ourselves to films with a 2014 U.S. release date, but there are few borderline cases that are top of mind at the moment and that should be coming soon in 2015. Make sure you keep your ears peeled for the excellent French Touch soundtrack behind “Eden,” also the revelatory use of Isao Tomita‘s Debussy reworkings in “Heaven Knows What,” while Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” has some good use of music too including great comedic use of Vivaldi. And Cat’s Eyes’ wonderfully entrancing songs for “The Duke of Burgundy” should also make it one of next year’s top-shelf soundtracks.
Feel free to riffle through our ever-expanding catalogue of year end 2014 features here, otherwise, it’s over to you guys in the comments section: what were your favorite soundtracks of the year now ending?
–Jessica Kiang, Oli Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Nik Grozdanovic, Kevin Jagernauth