Like a divine consolation for our collective heartache, the world was gifted with an absurd volume of beautiful new things to listen to in 2016. But epochal new albums from the likes of Radiohead, Anohni, Frank Ocean, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, and the sisters Knowles (to name just a few) only told a small part of the story, as much of the year’s best new music was Trojan horse-ed into our lives via the movies.
Conner4Real wrote pop songs as catchy and profound as anything by The Weeknd, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling exchanged a series of bittersweet ballads, and a Polynesian princess followed her voice over the horizon. But it was the instrumental pieces that cut the deepest, as many of the best new films were proudly inextricable from their scores. “Moonlight” and “La La Land,” currently dominating the awards circuit, are just two examples of movies that refused to wear their music as mere ornamentation; they demand to be watched with your ears.
Here are the 10 best scores of 2016. Feel free to click the Spotify links and listen along while you read.
10. “Kubo and the Two Strings”
Dario Marianelli is one of those guys who can pretty much do it all, the Italian-born composer as comfortable writing music for a moody adaptation of “Wuthering Heights” as he is an adventure movie about a doomed expedition to the summit of Mount Everest. With “Kubo and the Two Strings,” he effortlessly transports himself to a magical pocket of ancient Japan, where a one-eyed boy entertains the people of his village by playing songs on his enchanted shamisen.
Music is obviously integral to Laika’s latest film, its young hero walking the countryside with his instrument slung over his shoulder like a samurai sword, and Marianelli’s plucky compositions allow Kubo to articulate himself through song as expressively as any Disney princess.
Highlight Track: “Story Time”
9. “Manchester by the Sea”
Disqualified from the Oscars due to the unfathomably stupid logic that voters might not be able to distinguish the music from the pre-existing classical pieces that Kenneth Lonergan uses in the film, the beautiful score that Lesley Barber composed for “Manchester by the Sea” is nevertheless deserving of major recognition.
Confronted with the difficult task of writing accompaniment for a movie that’s both immensely tragic and also carried along by the steady — sometimes hilarious — currents of everyday life, Barber provided a collection of music that aches with the pain of the film’s lead character without drowning him in it. Balancing angelic choral pieces against piano tunes in which the chords roll like waves against the shore, Barber’s score is surprisingly ornate for such a shaggy film. Much like Lonergan’s script, the music never dips too far in any direction; it traces a bottomless loss by circling around it rather than attacking it head on, and ultimately sinks all the deeper for that.
Highlight Track: “Manchester Minimalist Piano and Strings”
His work may be a touch too traditional to inspire the kind of dust storm that a musician like Mica Levi kicked up when she began writing for films, but Jay Wadley may be the most exciting “new” composer to enter the fray in 2016. Born in Oklahoma and trained at Yale, Wadley has been fiddling on the fringes of the movie world for a few years now (he contributed to a handful of docs, web shorts, and even “CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story”), but “Indignation” is the first project that hints at his full potential.
The best film ever adapted from a Philip Roth novel — a low bar that nevertheless reinforces the difficulty of what James Schamus has accomplished with his directorial debut — “Indignation” is a fatalistic heartbreaker about the tragically fleeting romance between a Jewish transfer student and a troubled beauty at an Ohio college in the early 1950s. Fraught with existential anxiety and trenched with infinity pools of regret, “Indignation” is hardly the routine melodrama that it sounds like, and Wadley ensures that the movie itself never sounds that way. His rich, superficially “classical” compositions are every bit as tortured as Roth’s writing, and as achingly beautiful as any of the treasured music that Schamus commissioned for films like “Lust, Caution” and “Brokeback Mountain” when he was running Focus Features.
Beautiful in a vacuum; listen to how delicately a track like “I Can’t See You” scatters drops of hope across a bedrock of darkness — Wadley’s pieces do a brilliant job of balancing doom and suspense, which proves instrumental in allowing Schamus to pull off a tricky framing device that suspends the movie between past and present, life and death. It’s hard to overstate how exciting it is to hear a young composer write such a rich score in a traditional vein — Alexandre Desplat, Rachel Portman, and the rest of their generation won’t be in the game forever, and I remain cautiously optimistic that we’ll still be making movies after they’re gone.
Highlight Track: “Can You Hear Me?” – Extended Edition
Fortunately for us, Wadley won’t have to shoulder that burden alone. Nicholas Britell didn’t quite come out of nowhere — his previous film work includes “Gimme the Loot” and a number of standout pieces from “12 Years a Slave” — but he’s another one of those young composers who planted his flag in 2016, scoring an extremely wide variety of projects that ranged from an Israeli period piece (Natalie Portman’s directorial debut “A Tale of Love and Darkness”), to a documentary about Native American gang violence on a Minnesota reservation (the Terrence Malick-produced “The Seventh Fire”), to a clumsy Civil War epic starring Matthew McConaughey (“Free State of Jones”). But of all the music that Britell wrote this year, none will resonate more intensely than his score for Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight.”
Evoking the conflicted, sharply pointed compositions that Zbigniew Preisner contributed to the films of Krzysztof Kieślowski, Britell’s score is sometimes plaintive (“Chiron’s Theme”), sometimes ambient (“You Don’t Even Know”), and sometimes deeply distressed (“Don’t Look at Me”), but they’re always beautiful. That’s crucial to a film that dares to see beauty in an environment where so many refuse to even look for it, a film that ekes poetry from a milieu that’s so often exploited for its violence. “Moonlight” is a movie about the things we feel but cannot say, and Britell’s score reflects how those things build and flail and settle inside of us — how the song doesn’t have to remain the same.
Highlight Track: “The Middle of the World”
Mica Levi made a splash with her score for Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin,” the art rocker’s queasy and unnerving music providing the perfect accompaniment for the story of an alien trying to make sense of a ruthless new world whose denizens were quick to exploit her slightest vulnerability. And… okay, I think I might have just figured out why Pablo Larraín thought to hire her for “Jackie,” a movie about Jackie Kennedy’s fight to find equilibrium in the White House and a way forward during the days after her husband’s assassination.
Levi unshackles the film from the poverty of expectations and the petrification of history, the first woozy notes of her score — a chill of violins that sweep across a black screen — immediately helping to humanize a woman who is so often reduced to an icon. Throughout the film, queasy gusts of string articulate Jackie’s internal disquiet, while tracks like “Children” use a tizzy of lilting flutes to give the sense of someone standing in the middle of a snow globe and trying to stay on her feet as the world shakes and flips upside down. Writing warmer and more full-bodied than she did for “Under the Skin,” Levi helps Larraín to solve their subject from the inside out.
Highlight Track: “Children”
The incredible true story of Saroo Brieley, an Indian man who used Google Earth to locate his birth family several decades after he was separated from them as a child and adopted by an Australian couple, “Lion” is a film told in two parts, with two casts, across two worlds. The film can only have one score, but director Garth Davis — seizing every opportunity to emphasize his subject’s fragmented sense of self — had the brilliant idea of hiring two composers. And not just any composers, but a pair of the best on the planet, each of whom was more than capable of doing the job on their own.
Fortunately, the music that Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann (aka “Hauschka”) composed together pays off Davis’ gamble with interest. The duo wrote a theme where their contributions play against each other beautifully, keys and strings ribboning around one another in a desperate call and response that binds Saroo’s split identity into a mellifluous whole and takes the movie home.
Highlight Track: “Lion Theme”
4. “The Childhood of a Leader”
“The Childhood of a Leader” might be set in 1918, but it sure sounds a lot like 2016. Written by art pop god Scott Walker (as opposed to embattled Wisconsin governor Scott Walker), the score for Brady Corbet’s directorial debut begins with 17 seconds of an orchestra tuning up, as if warning you to brace for what’s to come. And when the first strains of Scott Walker’s panicky accompaniment slice into the soundtrack like Penderecki having a heart attack, the strings cutting into archival footage of World War I troops marching in deadly formation, you’ll be glad for the warning.
The year’s most unnerving coming-of-age film, Corbet’s first feature is a troubled look inside the formative experiences of a young boy with a dark future. But rather than paint a reductive portrait in which every adult psychosis can be clearly traced back to a childhood trauma, the director relies on Walker’s score to articulate the rage that foments inside his pint-sized protagonist. The music charges around with authoritarian confidence: In one piece, a violent insurgency of strings crashes into a war balustrade of trumpets. In another, the ratatat of a printing press assumes a militaristic beat you can dance to. Every brief respite that Walker writes into this sonic nightmare is meant to lull us listeners into a false sense of safety, meant to make us relax so that we can feel when the hairs on the back of our neck go stiff again.
Highlight Track: “Opening”
3. “La La Land”
So much attention has naturally been paid to the songs of Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” that the score — composed by Chazelle’s college roommate and longtime collaborator Justin Hurwitz — has yet to receive its proper due.
That’s a shame, because Hurwitz’s interstitial compositions are what hold this movie together, gently steering the lovestruck characters through their respective dreams with a killer medley of hazy jazz (for those “Punchdrunk Love” vibes), a swooning waltz (“Mia & Sebastian’s Theme” could very well survive this film and everyone in it), and a show-stopping epilogue that swirls it all together. Thanks to Hurtwitz’s score, “La La Land” sounds great even during the parts where people aren’t singing their hearts out.
Highlight Track: “Epilogue”
2. “Swiss Army Man”
The story of a suicidal man on a desert island who farts his way to freedom by discovering a hyper-flatulent corpse and riding it across the ocean like a gas-powered jet ski, “Swiss Army Man” shouldn’t even exist, let alone cohere into a movingly humanistic movie about all the things that make life worth living. But cohere it does, its every aspect tuned in to the same wonderfully demented wavelength. And that goes doubly or triply true for its soundtrack, as the most playful and inventive film of the year is graced with a score to match.
Written by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell (better known as the lead singer and guitarist of the confusingly named Atlanta rock band, Manchester Orchestra), this brilliant suite of music is performed entirely a cappella — when it came to writing the perfect accompaniment for a movie that celebrates the beauty and ridiculousness of the human body, people were the only instruments that Hull and McDowell needed to use. The finished product is a lightheaded fog of hushes and harmonies, recalling Björk’s incredible “Medulla” in how intricately it layers different voices into rich sonic textures. Two of those voices belong to stars Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano, who sing ethereal covers of everything from “Cotton Eye Joe” to the theme from “Jurassic Park,” improvising their own lyrics when necessary. It’s fun, it’s strangely emotional, and — in the case of “Montage,” the best new song written for any film in 2016 — it’s impossible to get out of your head.
Highlight Track: “Montage”
1. “The Handmaiden”
An avowed maximalist, Korean auteur Park Chan-wook makes films that are easy to appreciate for their individual elements — each of his camera moves arrives with the intensity of an orchestra conductor waving his wand, each of his scores announce themselves anew with every note. Never has that been more true than it is in “The Handmaiden,” as longtime Park collaborator Jo Yeong-wook delivers a riotously unsubtle (and immensely beautiful) mess of music that drapes itself over almost every frame of this cheeky epic.
A thrilling set of compositions in its own right, Jo’s terrifically unsubtle accompaniment seeps into every frame of Park’s lurid masterwork, permitting the melodrama to go for broke and challenging the performances to meet the occasion. The music surges and seethes with the same tricksy sense of purpose that makes the film so much fun to watch — listen to a piece like Wedding,” its whirlpool of clarinets circling around a nervous tremble of violins, and you can all but see the story unfolding in front of you. Jo’s best compositions, like the barnstorming “The Tree from Mount Fuji,” are as virtuosic as any of the swooping shots that have become Park’s visual signature, and they charge forward with the same fatalistic grace. Not only is this the best and most elaborate movie music of the year, it makes “The Handmaiden” what it is — watching “The Handmaiden” without the score would be like watching “The Jungle Book” without the CG.
Highlight Track: “The Tree from Mount Fuji”