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As we wait for Oscar nominations to drop next Monday, movie lovers find themselves reflecting back on a fantastic year for cinema (if little else). And regardless of your end-of-year rankings, everyone should agree that 2020 was a particularly strong year for movie music. The Academy Award for Best Original Score is going to be a highly competitive category, with compelling compositions in a variety of genres competing for only five slots. It is a testament to the fact that today’s top composers possess highly original voices comparable to the best directors, and elite musicians working in the television space created long-form scores that were every bit as powerful.
From a modern Pixar classic to a brutal war movie, period pieces to Lovecraftian sci-fi, the movies on this list could not be more different. But they all struck a chord (no pun intended) with audiences around the world because of their unapologetically original visions. And as any movie lover knows, it’s almost impossible to do that without great music. Audiophiles have been thrilled to see many of the year’s best scores released as vinyl records, proving that they can stand alone as albums in and of themselves. Hollywood has been great about recognizing scores as an essential part of the film industry. But the fact that these pressings can share shelf space with today’s hits proves that film scores are also an essential part of the music industry. It makes sense, since almost every major art form has found itself pivoting back towards physical media in one way or another, at least on the fringes. Spinning these scores on your home record player turns them into the soundtrack to your life.
Below are eight of the best scores and soundtracks of 2020 that are available as vinyl records. They are all worth a listen (and a watch, if you haven’t seen the films yet), and many have a good shot at snagging a Best Original Score nomination next week. Sure, you can always stream them. But just like your favorite movies are worth owning on 4k Blu-ray, it’s never a bad idea to own a physical copy of a score that connects with you. These are all fantastic works of art, and the vinyl pressings gives you one more way to enjoy them.
The news that Hans Zimmer was not scoring “Tenet” elicited a collective gasp of anguish in film school dorm rooms around the world. But Ludwig Göransson, hot off the success of “Black Panther,” quickly put those fears to rest. He matched one of Christopher Nolan’s densest films with a harsh, deliberately-disorienting score whose intensity proved to be the perfect companion to the cryptic film. Not only is it one of the year’s best scores, but it is almost certainly deserves to be played on a great sound system more than almost anything else released last year.
A strong case could be made that Emile Mosseri is the most essential musical voice working in indie film today. His contributions to films like “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and “Kajillionaire” are not to be missed, but “Minari” might be his best work to date. The Korean-American coming-of-age story that takes place in Arkansas, is a one-of-a-kind film, the type of movie that feels so delicately perfect that if you removed one aspect, the entire thing would fall apart. The music was certainly applied with a light hand, but it shines brightly at exactly the right moments. Mosseri’s subtle storytelling serves as a guide to both the characters and the audience at the same time. The combination of piano-tinged instrumentals and Korean vocals make the dreamlike score an essential part of one of the year’s best films. The score is set to be released on vinyl next month, but you can (and should!) pre-order it on Amazon now.
For “First Cow,” one of the brilliantly understated director’s most playful concepts, Kelly Reichardt tapped folk musician, William Tyler, to write the score. The troubadour knocked his first Hollywood assignment out of the park, crafting a sparse sonic landscape that managed to underscore the film’s emptiness while subverting the Americana imagery that Reichardt loves to explore. The vinyl recording certainly deserves a spot on your shelf next to any of Tyler’s solo albums.
If you’re a cinephile who likes music enough to collect records, it’s almost impossible for you not to love “Soul.” While the film is much, much more than a tribute to jazz, music plays such an important role in the story that it was always going to make or break the film. Pixar enlisted Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who have been on quite a roll lately) to compose the music, and and they shed their stark industrial style in favor of a glimmering score that serves as a reflection on what it means to be human. The end result is a musical experience you will want to revisit for years to come, just like the movie.
After the massive success of “BlackkKlansman,” expectations were sky-high for Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods.” Working with one of the largest budgets of his career, Lee delivered with his critically-acclaimed, timely reflection on the Vietnam War and the sad state of racial justice in America. The score found Lee reuniting with frequent collaborator Terence Blanchard, who crafted an intense, swaggering score that knew exactly what it wanted to say, and refused to let the audience put any distance between themselves and the horrors they were witnessing on screen.
At the risk of reopening the “where does television end and film begin” debate, it’s safe to say that frequent Alex Garland collaborators Ben Salisbury, and Geoff Barrow, wrote a score that can go toe-to-toe with any movie released last year. The haunting soundtrack to Garland’s highly-stylized science fiction mediation was recently released on vinyl by Lakeshore Records, and it’s a must-own for fans of the series.
Nicolas Cage makes so many delightfully bizarre movies these days that you can be forgiven for not keeping up with all of them. We barely had time to appreciate this vaporwave-tinted, H.P. Lovecraft inspired B-movie before he was fighting animatronic creatures to the death in “Willy’s Wonderland.” But that fact is no reason not to pause and appreciate “Color Out of Space,” and the fantastic Colin Stetson score. The saxophonist, who lists both Arcade Fire and Ari Aster as collaborators, went all out. And that’s putting it mildly. The score manages to find the perfect common ground between the film’s maximalist aesthetic and the legendary writer’s existential themes, creating something truly special in the process.
For his intense courtroom drama “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Aaron Sorkin reunited with his “Molly’s Game” composer Daniel Pemberton, who has also collaborated with the likes of Danny Boyle and Ridley Scott. The result was this sweeping score, recorded in the legendary Abbey Road studio. Pemberton’s mastery of classic Hollywood motifs underscores the sweeping story of injustice. Yes, it’s very Hollywood-y, but Sorkin, who has maintained his ability to see a light at the end of the tunnel when it sometimes feels impossible, owns up to the aesthetic, and executes it as well as anyone could.