After taking a gap year, while I tried to come to terms with the fact that my “Top Scores Of The Year” posts would soon be approaching treble figures if I included all the archival score releases coming out on CD every year, my annual column on the best scores of the year returns with a stripped down version which only deals with scores to films released in the UK in 2014 (regardless of their release dates in other countries). This means that, although none of my favourite CD score releases for the year are on this list, due to the fact that the archival stuff from decades gone by almost always sounds better than anything being written for new movies today, the list is a lot smaller than usual… erm… I mean it’s more “streamlined” than usual and, frankly, easier for me to negotiate in terms of writing. Unfortunately, the delay to this article this year was because the movie Birdman was released in London in the UK the last week of 2014 and, for some reason, it took a good few weeks for the score to arrive through my door from Amazon, even though I ordered it the day I saw it at the cinema (27th December). Still, it’s here now and so this is my list for the previous year, in ascending order up to the “number one” spot. This is, of course, nothing to do with the best movie releases of the year… one of the movies for the scores listed here was awful… and if you want to see my picks of best films for 2014 you can do so here…
For this year’s best scores, honourable “close but not quite the taking a cigar” mentions would go to Will Bates & Phil Mossman’s music for I, Origins, Robert Rodriguez and Carl Thiel’s score for Sin City: A Dame To Kill For and Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil’s score for I, Frankenstein. And so, onto my list…
15. Transcendence by Mychael Danna
I hadn’t heard a new Danna score in years and I didn’t expect the next one I’d be hearing to be a score for a movie starring Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman. The movie was almost criminally maligned on release with accusations of being somewhat emotionless and unexciting. I beg to differ although I do agree that the decisions made on this score, which is quite brooding and melancholic for a lot of the time, probably don’t add much in the way of kinetic energy to the story. That being said, I don’t see that as a bad thing either… the score serves its function in as appropriate manner as it possibly can and it’s nice to hear Danna hasn’t lost his touch. The film covers some similar ground to Besson’s Lucy but the scores are both very different to each other… which is no surprise given Besson’s current penchant for having fast car chases, explosions and lots of people hitting and shooting at each other. Danna’s score for Transcendence does start kicking into high gear at certain points, as the film does itself, but a lot of the score is very slow burn indeed… which is great if you’re in the mood for it and, obviously, I am. Otherwise I wouldn’t have included it in my final fifteen.
14. The Last Days On Mars by Max Richter
Max Richter is one of three composers on this list whose work I was not familiar with before hand. Although occasionally going into brief rhythmic synthesiser passages at various intervals, this score is mostly about stillness and the supporting of an atmosphere rather than action… almost to the point of ambient background noise in some places. Every now and again some discordant, high pitched beeps will come into the fore, as if to remind us this movie is “doing futuristic sci-fi” in much the same way that the late great Jerry Goldsmith played with that concept of expression in his score for Outland. It’s not for everyone but I really enjoy the peaceful, almost static nature of the score and it’s the only one on here that, much to my dismay, is only available as a download, rather than a proper CD. That’s just plain stupid.
13. Interstellar by Hans Zimmer
I’ve started to really get the hang on Hans Zimmer over the past five or six years and am enjoying this later period of his work much more than his earlier compositions. That being said, it’s the only Zimmer album which made it onto my list this year and that’s pretty much only because some of the organ pieces in the score sound like a dead ringer for the opening and closing movements of the Philip Glass score for Koyaanisqatsi. I really liked the music in Koyaanisqatsi and so, almost by default, I quite like this score too.
12. The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies by Howard Shore
Not much to say about this one is there? I freely admit to not really liking any of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien “inspired” films all that much but Howard Shore’s scores for the movies have been phenomenal. It’s a good old fashioned heroic fantasy score with a strong sense of leitmotif, blood and thunder thrown into the mix. Very emotional stuff and, although not quite Korngold in its genetic make up, it’s certainly got a big old Hollywood sound at the heart of its inspiration.
11. Birdman by Antonio Sanchez
Drum play, drumming, percussion or just hitting things with bits of wood. Whatever you call it, Sanchez’s score eschews the kind of conventional scoring solutions that you would expect from this kind of movie and instead, gets heavy with the rhythm, rediscovering, as many people a generation or two back already knew, that a drum kit can be as much of a driving, musical voice as any other solo instrument. It’s rare that I can get into music which has just one thing driving the majority of it – be it voice, piano, violin or even, as here, a drum kit… but this one is put together so well it makes me humble that I’d forgotten that good work can come from even the most unexpected places when there’s a strong talent behind it. It’s kinda criminal that this score has been disqualified from consideration in this year’s Oscar nominations… and somewhat confusing in light of some of the previous winners in this category, to be honest.
10. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes by Michael Giacchino
I first heard suites of music from this movie previewed and conducted by Giacchino himself at two different Star Trek concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, a few months before this movie was released. It’s a much more subtle affair than many of his scores that I’ve heard in the past but this is not a bad thing. It also features some orchestration and use of percussion, plucked strings and distorted notes which, while not particularly a parody of scores from the Apes movies of the past, is clearly a nod to the experimentation and rhythmic meanderings of previous composers in the series… but whilst still, amazingly, retaining Giacchino’s own, individual stylistic approach to the material and not speaking with their collective voices, so to speak.
9. Fury by Steven Price
Wow. This is a very different approach to a score for a war film and, if you compare it to Desplat’s score for The Monuments Men, it gives you a completely alternate side to the same coin. Although set in the 1940s, there’s really nothing like the hallmarks of a regularwar score to be found anywhere on this thing. Sure it’s big and bold but it’s also very contemporary sounding and, honestly, I’m amazed it actually worked within the context of the film itself. As a stand alone listen it gets a bit full-on at times but, regardless of that, it certainly sounds fresh when pitched against the subject material and, while you could imagine it scoring a few other kinds of movies, the driven vocals against harsh, grating rhythms is not something you would peg for scoring large scale conflict. Perhaps it’s the way it undermines your expectations of what it should be that mark this one out as an outstanding selection of musical invention.
8. Lucy by Eric Serra
Probably the score I was most looking forward to this year as it pairs director Luc Besson back with the composer who helped make his movies so distinctive in their style back in the 1980s and 1990s. Alas, while the score is another great slice of Serra doing what he does best… to the point there that phrase really does mean, doing what he DID best… the film took an overblown approach to the subject matter that was so obvious in its intent that it ended up pretty much insulting the audience. Still, this is about the music and not the disappointing film it comes from… an exciting, rhythmic and pulsing action fest which the composer is best known for delivering, while still including the quirkiness of approach to certain flights of whimsy… such as on the track “All We Have Done With It”. A ridiculously good score for a movie which it couldn’t, ultimately, save.
7. The Expendables 3 by Brian Tyler
Brian Tyler is another slow burn composer who I’ve finally got the hang of over the years. His Expendables scores are all stupendous examples of strong, modern action scoring with, it has to be said, not much other than a steady procession of ripped, kinetic cues. It’s a bit “samey” if you compare it to his second Expendables score, truth be told, but there’s no reason why that should be considered a bad thing (or James Horner would have ben run out of town on a rail long ago), especially since it’s a sequel which carries over the feel of the other music in the series. Not exactly original but, even so, a very solid listen.
6. Godzilla by Alexandre Desplat
Alexandre Desplat’s attempt to follow in the footsteps of such luminaries as Akira Ifikube and Masaru Sato (not to mention Keith Emerson and David Arnold) is a great succes, with the composer neatly channelling the spirit of the music of the early Gojira films without it ever really slipping into parody. He’s got the low, rumbling and lumbering, atmospheric statements, he has the “other kaiju menace” kind of sound to differentiate between the various giant beasties on screen and, importantly, he has a ostinato-style march which I think Ifikube and co would have heartily approved of. You wouldn’t mistake it for the work of any of the other of The Big G’s composers but it still has a feel of homage which matches the tone of the movie… and therein lies its brilliance.
5. A Walk Among The Tombstones by Carlos Rafael Rivera
Shifting currents of sinister unease usher in this score and give it a constant edge to it as a simple, transparent melody is picked out over the top of the general tide of unrest. And that’s just the main titles. The general moodiness of the album continues with haunting melodies, more often than not, underlined with something much chillier. There’s even shades and echoes, to my mind, of some of the pausing Bernard Herrmann used in Vertigo in one track, called ‘Kenny’s Story’. It’s a sometimes gritty score for a gritty movie but the composer is also not afraid to show the beauty of raw emotions against the darkness. I’d not heard of Carlos Rafael Rivera before seeing this movie… but you can bet I’ll keep a close eye out for him now.
4. The Monuments Men – Alexandre Desplat
I really love Alexandre Desplat’s work and this score is an amazing concoction which, basically, hits all the kind of notes you would expect of a movie which is, in many ways, a big old fashioned “war romp”, the likes of which have mostly gone out of fashion in contemporary cinema. In this extraordinary work, Desplat successful conjures up the spirit of such Ron Goodwin “war is hell but it’s kind of fun too” scores as Force Ten From Navarone, 633 Squadron and Where Eagles Dare and runs with Goodwin’s ghost towards the finish line. That being said, the score is not without emotional subtlety in places but for the main part it’s a bit of a cliché of a soundtrack… but that’s okay since this particular score proves the old adage that things become clichés because they work.
3. Only Lovers Left Alive by Sqürl
An unusual, guitar heavy score by the director’s own band which includes songs sounding like someone screaming sounds through a 1950s rock filter and some melodies which really get under the skin. It sounds quite modern while, at the same time, managing to generate the kind of elegance associated with simpler instruments from centuries long gone… which is probably the objective, since the film deals with vampires who have lived very long lives of many hundreds of years. Most years I would probably have given this the top spot to the contemporary scores of the year but, as luck would have it, we have two more scores which are even greater than this one on the list.
2. Under The Skin by Mica Levi
I’m just plain gobsmacked that Mica Levi’s critically acclaimed score for this British sci-fi movie was not nominated for an Oscar. At times atonal and disturbing, at other times boisterous and percussive, it’s a score comprising of nothing we haven’t heard before put together in such a fresh way that it actually does become more than the sum of its parts and transforms itself into a genuinely unique listening experience. If you want to feel uncomfortable and on edge, then this is a great score to give you that vibe. Amazingly enjoyable away from the context of the movie itself as a stand alone listen, this has been spinning on and off for most of the year on my stereo.
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel by Alexandre Desplat
What can you say about this one? One of the most toe tapping and beautiful scores I’ve hear in years and Desplat’s third and final entry in this list. I think this might have been on my CD player or on my iPod maybe 30 or 40 times last year. It’s fresh and exciting with catchy melodies and fast paced rhythms which will have you humming along and responding to something which has an undercurrent of jazz pacing throughout but without ever once crossing over into the kind of orchestration usually associated with that form. It’s a truly amazing and amusing score and there’s no way I could put this one anywhere else but clearly head and shoulders above all the other music released this year. An absolute masterpiece of a score which works just as well on its own as it did in the gorgeous movie it helps to support. If you only listen to one score this year… make it this one.
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