Where do you even begin with a year brimming with as much exciting music as 2020 had to offer? Even if you limit it to what made it to TV screens, it’s still a daunting collection of possibilities.
To start, there were the undeniable musical charms of “Central Park,” “The Eddy,” and “P-Valley,” all of which drew heavily on original songs to help tether their stories to a distinct time and place.
Phillip Glass (“Tales from the Loop,” along with Paul Leonard-Morgan), Harold Budd (“I Know This Much is True”), Alan Silvestri (“Cosmos: Possible Worlds”) and Atticus Ross (“Dispatches from Elsewhere,” along with Leopold Ross and Claudia Sarne) all added to their robust, ever-growing bodies of work.
Musicians who have helped define the atmospheres of their respective series — like Ramin Djawadi for “Westworld” or Jesse Novak for “BoJack Horseman” — continued to do so as the characters in focus faced monumental changes. In the middle of it all, Jeff Russo held onto his title of the busiest musician in Hollywood with an astonishing 12 series airing or releasing new episodes this calendar year.
And with composers like Alexis Grapsas (“Trigonometry”) and Aska Matsuyima (“Betty”) making memorable TV score debuts of their own, there’s plenty of reason to believe that whatever comes in 2021 and beyond will have that same sense of emotional, adventurous musical freedom that helped make all of these series such compelling watches.
For now, in no particular order other than alphabetical, here are 10 scores that stood out among a sonically rich year.
Nathan Barr, “The Great”
Centering one of the trickiest tonal balances on TV this year, Barr’s score drapes itself in the familiar sounds and rhythms of a period piece with Georgian-era sensibilities. But like the Tony McNamara script driving the series (and a pair of expertly calibrated performances from Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult), there is, of course, a knowing wit underneath the facade. Barr lets this music complement the loose playfulness that runs through the show’s DNA. That, in turn, opens up the musical language of the series, making room for both baroque keyboard stylings and jazzy brush drums at the same time. Massaging what seem like competing generational ideas and showing how they can work in (sometimes literal) harmony is a key ingredient for a show that revels in having one foot in the past and another in the present.
Terence Blanchard, “Perry Mason”
This HBO origin story/re-imagination hybrid could have easily collapsed under its own self-serious tone. This first season, built around the death of a young child, reflects that dark catalyst throughout its runtime. Even in the face of all that, Blanchard draws on his jazz bonafides to give some life among the melancholy. The Los Angeles of the early 1930s was on the brink of a transformation, one that Blanchard captures in somber muted trumpets and echoing piano chords. Perry Mason himself might be a hostage of his own past, but the show’s end credits give Blanchard a chance to sprinkle in a taste of the now. Even in the bleakest hours of “Perry Mason,” there’s a trajectory and an evolution nudging its hero’s convictions forward.
Ben Frost, “Dark”
It would have been easy for Frost to draw on the Netflix series’ opening season style, with a score fashioned to match the time machine that sends a whole handful of family trees into chaos. Delicate mechanical melodic details giving way to thunderous, earth-swallowing surges was the initial dance that “Dark” did. As the show’s scope extended far beyond its starting point, so too did Frost’s music. There were sure hands guiding the story to make certain it never buckled under the weight of its own ambition, yet one of Frost’s valuable tricks is helping the viewer sense that things are teetering on failure. Nearly every sure-footed melody gives way to some pulsating threat looming just beyond the horizon. If it feels like music cultivated in a reality similar to but not exactly our own, then Frost did his job well.
Devonté Hynes, “We Are Who We Are”
Like most of his other work, Luca Guadagnino’s series is frequently backed by natural, ambient sound. It’s the sparse efficiency of how Hynes’ score is used that makes the composer’s work even stronger. Whether breaking some austere meandering around a character’s new military base neighborhood or shading in the edges of an afternoon spent on the coast, there’s purpose in these often-circular melodies. Sometimes, they’re a surprise, like the opening bit of restlessness that underlines the start to the season. Whenever it may surface, Hynes brings the same instinct for texture here that he carries over from the music he makes as Blood Orange. It’s deceptive in how simple it appears at first, but only gets richer through its rising and falling and repetitions in between. A perfect complement for the show surrounding it.
Laura Karpman and Raphael Saadiq, “Lovecraft Country”
Few scores from this year had to be as nimble and versatile as the one for “Lovecraft Country.” Karpman and Saadiq took their cues from the show’s genre-hopping, week-to-week look at discoveries of all kinds, be they monstrous or enlightening. So there’s the unmistakable orchestral Hermann-evoking DNA in places, but the space to use a fresh palate for each new episode’s own organic quest. It’s gentle enough to complement the multiple romantic threads weaving their way through Tic, Leti, Hippolyta, and Ruby’s respective fights for survival. With little more than a few well-placed tremolos, this pair can also conjure all the terror its protagonists face. As episodes present different portals to past generations and possible existences, the music along that journey can be gigantic and precise in equal measure, however much it’s needed.
Ronit Kirchman, “The Sinner”
Over three seasons, “The Sinner” has dealt with the encroaching consequences of the past. Kirchman has managed to turn that sense of inevitable reckoning into an unnerving low hum. It’s not a constant presence (the USA show has always used silence well), but this score always pops up taking the shape of an unwanted memory. It can arrive as a deep rumble, a sudden jolt, or a breath of fresh air that slowly morphs into something more poisonous. For both Bill Pullman’s detective Harry Ambrose and whoever he’s chasing, things are always on the verge of going wrong. Kirchman is so deft at dialing up the dissonance in a way that, by the time anyone realizes that something’s amiss, it’s probably already too late.
Emile Mosseri, “Homecoming”
Anyone writing the music for Season 2 of this Prime Video enigma had a tricky task at hand. After the opening season fashioned a tapestry of pre-established, decades-spanning cues for a throwback paranoid thriller, Mosseri kept that spirit while fashioning something his own. As Janelle Monáe takes center stage, playing a character also trying to piece together missing memories of the recent past, there’s a distortion happening at the edges of Mosseri’s music. The traditional sense of building dread gets dotted with these jagged melodic fragments that never seem to travel where you’d expect. Each breakthrough leads to something fractured, like matching up shards of glass that form a recognizable shape and still leave plenty of its cracks showing. Without knowing exactly where the machinations of the season may take new and familiar faces, there’s an electricity in that unpredictability, powering all the anxiety underneath.
Dan Romer and Mike Tuccillo, “Ramy”
For all the big swings that punctuate some of the show’s most memorable episodes, “Ramy” is a series built on self-reflection. Much like the ideas of faith, family, and purpose that Ramy himself is juggling in his own life, Romer and Tuccillo’s score is seemingly always just beyond reach. You can almost see the airy synth-scapes hovering above the show’s pivotal moments, in bursts of anger and despair and confusion. The central melody from the show’s first season (embedded above) resurfaces as Ramy continues to find his way through a tradition he’s still trying to understand. This music follows and shifts with him as he seeks some sense of connection, in whatever form that may take.
Ben Salisbury, The Insects, and Geoff Barrow, “Devs”
It’s thrilling to hear the music for the world of a show that promises a temporary glimpse at paradise before showing how that vision curdles. Watching characters in Alex Garland’s FX on Hulu drama descend into a technological prison of their own making, this musical team helps build the psychological cage around them. The choral flavor holds the potential for something sacred, balanced out by an industrial layer that sometimes feels like instruments being ground down to powder more than they’re being performed. A collaboration between Salisbury, Barrow, and The Insects (which also lead to the music for the TV adaptation of “Hanna,” another score that could easily have made this list) results in the occasional musical swarm around the show’s central Devs project. It’s essentially what Lily is trying to find out for herself: Is it the sound of bees pollenating a new kind of technological organism or flies buzzing around a doomed, dying experiment? Either way, it keeps you hypnotized.
Colin Stetson, “Barkskins”
Stetson’s work on Hulu’s tragically preempted space exploration drama “The First” is some of the absolute best in the last few years of TV. After proving that he can translate his bold sound to something more pensive, “Barkskins” finds the musician tapping back into something more raw. The low bass tones, whether from strings or his signature baritone sax, seem to come just as much from the land itself as the characters struggling to harness what they see as a new frontier. Rather than a soundtrack to a conquest, that rebellious streak serves as a kind of musical warning against the colonial interests bent on shaping both people and nature to their will.