When considering movie scores, we felt it prudent to welcome Erik Woods of the Cinematic Sound Radio show/podcast to help us cast a wider net. Woods gave us the perspective we needed: He openly admitted that many of the scores he listened to most over the course of 2016 were to films he hadn’t seen, or were scores he loved long before seeing the movies that birthed them. Which presents its own share of critical quandaries: Divorced from their visual sides, and from their whole reason to exist at all, can scores be appreciated on their own? Should they?
This list answers that question with a shrug. Regardless, Woods introduced us to scores we would have never considered (Nerve and Pete’s Dragon) that have become favorites, scores he discovered apart from their films. He also recommends the scores to Gods of Egypt (Marcos Beltrami), Tale of a Lake (Panu Aaltio) and Michael Giacchino’s Rogue One.
While we’re at it: In addition to his picks below, Kenji dug Carter Logan’s Paterson OST, and Michael Montes’s work for Always Shine. And Dom really liked Cho Young-wuk’s The Handmaiden score, as well what Bobby Johnston composed for City of Gold.
So, if we’re going to agree on anything, here they are, our picks for the best scores of 2016:
15. Assassin’s Creed
Composer: Jed Kurzel
Justin Kurzel’s big-screen adaptation of the popular game series may play like little more than a self-serious, two-hour prelude to a new franchise—one that most likely won’t get off the ground if its box office showing has anything to say—but his brother Jed’s score does a rousing job of convincing the audience that the fate of the world truly is at stake when Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender) ventures into the Animus. Even better, as propulsive as Jed Kurzel’s score is, it admirably avoids bombast of the type that someone like Hans Zimmer has become notorious for indulging in similarly minded big-budget action spectacles. Instead, lower registers dominate, vaguely suggesting music more appropriate for a psychological horror yarn than a flashy Hollywood tentpole. Assassin’s Creed may not have made a whole lot of sense, or offered much worth looking at, but its score at least gave its audience members something to believe in. —Kenji Fujishima
14. Kubo and the Two Strings
Composer: Dario Marianelli
For this epic action-adventure from Laika, Dario Marianelli’s score is anchored by the shamisen, a three-string, guitar-shaped instrument originating in the 16th century in Japan as a typical accompaniment to kabuki or similar puppet plays (as Kubo magically wields it to bring his origami characters to life). Almost everything in the score is built around the shamisen—as such, not too many scores this year command such range, balancing the light-hearted elements of Kubo’s quest with deeply heartwrenching moments of drama and terror. Feel the pitch of ocean waves, feel the spirit of adventure, feel the timelessness of the story’s fantasy—in Marianelli’s mix of lush, soulful symphonic writing and traditional Japanese instrumentation, Kubo and the Two Strings finds a perfect tone for its young hero’s exploits. —Erik Woods
Composers: Hauschka and Dustin O’Halloran
Whether you’re into Lion or not hinges on whether or not you consider being forced to sob-drool into your popcorn a sign of a successful film. More importantly, in order to guarantee that their audience ruin expensive concessions with mucous, a filmmaker must demand a score as perfectly calibrated for climactic melancholy as the images they’ve edited together. With the duo of Volker Bertelmann (otherwise known as Hauschka) and Dustin O’Halloran, Garth Davis couldn’t have dreamed of being able to draw a more direct line between his story of an orphaned Indian boy and the Platonic ideal of the Human Tear Duct. Both composers have found a fine balance between ambient, abstract musicality—O’Halloran spending some time on the Kranky label—and more straightforward melody—Hauschka’s breakout album being 2011’s Ferndorf, a quiet triumph of earworm-y piano suites—and together they operate within a gray area between sweeping orchestral themes and detritus-tinged found sound. Following the journey of Saroo (Sunny Pawar as Young Saroo; Dev Patel as the elder) from the terror and isolation of his childhood predicament (“Lost (Part One)”) to his inevitable homecoming after 20+ years (“Arrival”), their score is as heartwrenching and extreme as the film has a tendency to be, including the requisite stop-overs into sad horror (“Escape the Station”) and interstitial moments of grandeur laced with experimentation (“River”). Bertelmann has developed a reputation for altering the strings of his piano with assorted knick-knacks and noisemakers, and here, that embellishment couldn’t be more welcome, helping to tether the score’s—and, for that matter, the film’s—most transcendent parts to firmer ground. —Dom Sinacola
Composer: Clint Mansell
Since giving Darren Aronofsky his ear for every one of the director’s scores, Clint Mansell has soundtracked a hilariously broad range of films and assorted visual media, from Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces to the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror, always able to find monumental portent in even the most intimate of stories (and missing out on an Oscar nomination for Black Swan at that—see the Arrival blurb below for more details). With Ben Wheatley’s retro-dystopic High-Rise, Mansell has honed in on the kind of pressure-tested refinery that made his score for Requiem for a Dream such a guaranteed wet dream for so many movie trailers in the early 2000s. Strings lilt, bells chime, and in the distance a disconcerting, swooning aria is whistled by someone will ill intentions: Mansell’s score for High-Rise is seamlessly, architecturally sound, fitting Wheatley’s weird take on class politics so well it offers up music that earns both its sophistication and its sordidness without judging either. —D.S.
Composer: Brian McOmber
The plot of Trey Edward Shults’s debut feature—a self-destructive former addict visits her estranged family on Thanksgiving—is familiar, but the formally adventurous execution is not, and much of its offbeat charge comes from Brian McOmber’s expressionistic score, which pushes this character study into horror movie territory. To the film’s slow, zoom-in close-up of the title character (the director’s aunt, Krisha Fairchild), McOmber from the film’s opening gears us up with a crescendoing cacophony of strings. Later, to a montage of Krisha trying to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner while interacting with members of her extended family, McOmber unleashes a barrage of non-melodic electronic noise, some of it sounding like the aural equivalent of a ballbearing smacked around in a pinball machine. Still, McOmber’s music isn’t all jittery discomfort: When Krisha pops open that fateful wine bottle, the score becomes exultant, as if expressing Krisha’s relief in the moment. For Shults’s desire to inhabit Krisha’s mindset, McOmber provides music that finds consistently, viscerally inventive ways to stay keyed into the manic ups and downs of psychological anguish. —K.F.
10. Pete’s Dragon
Composer: Daniel Hart
Having notably toured with St. Vincent and a long-time member of the Polyphonic Spree, as well as providing music to this year’s Exorcist TV series, Daniel Hart, a Texas-born multi-instrumentalist, got his much-deserved big break on Pete’s Dragon. The score is a thematic delight: refreshing, rich, soaring—Hart wore his heart (pun, though obvious, not intended) on his sleeve with this one. Clearly inspired by some of James Horner’s greatest moments, Hart’s work on Pete’s Dragon was a lyrical, sweeping lift from what I found as the dark and utterly depressing doldrums of summer movies in 2016. For a brief moment, Hollywood was shown the light by one of its most gifted up-and-coming composers (with prominent help from Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, among other previously mentioned indie music luminaries.) —E.W.
9. The Neon Demon
Composer: Cliff Martinez
Cliff Martinez has collaborated with Nicolas Winding Refn before (Drive, Only God Forgives), but Refn has arguably never put Martinez’s synthesizer-heavy sensibilities to such startling use as in The Neon Demon. In the way it combines character study, fashion-industry satire and horror movie, Refn’s latest may well be the most stylistically ambitious of his recent work, and it’s a tribute to Martinez’s music that he’s able to pull it off as remarkably well as he does. Not only do the synthesizers here impart a slick and inhuman sheen wholly appropriate for a world like the fashion industry, so obsessed with spotless surfaces, but Martinez uses them mostly to provide a surreal aural context for the Grand Guignol antics that eventually bring the film to its over-the-top climax. Still, Martinez’s music is locked into the psyche of its main character: an underage fashion ingénue whose desire to make money off her good looks is reflected in music that seems to yearn, anguish and tremble with fear alongside her. —K.F.
Composer: Rob Simonsen
With track names like “Game On,” Staten Island,” “Lighthouse,” Dress” and “Night Drive,” Rob Simonsen’s score for Nerve is all utility: It tells you where to use it, when to use it and what to do to get the most out of it. Though it could be more of a mail-order catalog example of a soundtrack than anything worth seeking outside of the movie, it’s also a wonderfully surprising series of songs, always on the verge of settling into the kind of techno mediocrity one might expect from such a neon action-thriller starring notably beautiful white people in their underwear—until it doesn’t. A cherubic chorus emerges from the electro-dreck, or a chopped and screwed soul sample pops in to make things feel OK, forever avoiding anything that would abandon the score in the realm of an EDM cash-in. Simonsen’s soundtrack knows exactly what you think it will be, but it lives up to expectations by creating new ones. —D.S.
7. The Red Turtle
Composer: Laurent Perez del Mar
The score for The Red Turtle is a tender, but often surprising, long composition by Laurent Perez Del Mar (Evolution Man, Antigang, Zarafa) for director Michael Dudok De Wit’s feature debut. In the absence of dialogue, Perez Del Mar’s music is the most important “voice” in the film, performed by the Macedonian Radio Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Oleg Kondratenko. Like Ludovic Bource’s The Artist OST from 2011, it’s at once both whimsical and forceful, the music carrying so much of the audience’s engagement—if it fails, it sinks The Red Turtle with it. —E.W.
6. Dark Waves
Composer: Alexander Cimini
Alexander Cimini also wrote one of 2012’s strongest scores, Red Krokodil, but his work for Italian fantasy-horror Dark Waves is easily his finest, highlighted by solo vocals seemingly ripped straight out of Ennio Morricone’s imagination, gorgeous violin and cello performances, and some of the most exquisite orchestral arranging you will hear this year. The score plays a very important role in the film’s narrative, as well: It’s unabashedly romantic, and I’m so excited that there are still directors like Domiziano Cristopharo, artists who allow this kind of lyrical composition to be present in their films, who relent and lean into their scores, not to depend on the music to shoulder the emotional burden of their stories, but to simply let the music help tell them. —E.W.
5. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Channeling every ounce of ’70s sound imaginable, Moniker has assembled the lush electronic likes of Tangerine Dream and Vangelis and Jan Hammer with detours into Harry Nilsson’s harmonic effortlessness and Dennis Wilson’s beach-bum malaise—the OST’s more radio-ready track, “Ocean Blue,” pings Wilson’s masterpiece, Pacific Ocean Blue—pushing even into the vocoder odes of Zapp & Roger or the soundtrack work of Brad Fiedel (The Terminator) or that one Penguin Café Orchestra track which is just a repeated dial tone. Up for whatever, they’ve seemingly put everything they know into the nostalgic smorgasbord of their Hunt for the Wilderpeople score. Though these three New Zealanders—Lukasz Buda, Samuel Scott and Conrad Wedde—cover more musical ground than should be reasonable, recent throwbacks, from the Stranger Things soundtrack to such microgenre developments as chillwave, have prepared us—Millennials I guess?—for embracing such a mess of familiar sounds. Like Taika Waititi’s film, the whole soundtrack would be an aimless cherrypicking of genres and contradictory signifiers weren’t it all so incessantly, squarely hitting every one of our pop culture pleasure points, over and over and over until its Mad Max-ian wink of a climax. It’s goddamned majestical. —D.S.
Composer: Jóhann Jóhannsson
When the Oscar nominations arrive January 24th, Jóhann Jóhannsson won’t be a name among them. There have obviously been greater snubs in the pantheon of obliviousness that usually is Oscar season, but this time an exclusion like Johannsson’s score to Arrival feels especially bitter. It’s all because of Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight,” a composition playing throughout the film’s opening and closing vignettes, which the Academy deems a reason for disqualification given a rule in their “Oscar’s eligibility guidelines stating the score either “has been diluted by the use of pre-existing music, or it has been diminished in impact by the predominant use of songs or any music not composed specifically for the film by the submitting composer.” In other words: a technicality—especially since just last year Ennio Morricone’s winning score for The Hateful Eight used pre-existing music as well as songs not composed specifically for the film to the emotional detriment arguably on par with Denis Villeneuve’s use of Richter’s piece over Jóhannsson’s originals. It could then be argued that the “For your Consideration” version of Morricone’s score, excised of all disqualifiable tracks and distributed to Academy voters, won him the Oscar—but so it goes with Jóhannsson’s Arrival as well, sold by Deutsche Grammophon as an OST album leaving off Richter’s track. None of it really adds up.
But none of it really matters either, save for the reminder that the Oscars are often pointless: Johannsson’s made a powerful statement to accompany Villeneuve’s monolithic film. Blaring and martial, it still rewards close listens, demanding both intimacy and hyperbole out of every image Villeneuve attempts. It’s an accomplishment no matter what—even if all it gets is a measly Golden Globe. —D.S.
Composer: Mica Levi
After making a name for herself in the experimental pop music scene as the founder of Micachu & the Shapes, Mica Levi jumped into feature-film scoring with her astonishing, inventive score for Under the Skin. Her contributions to Pablo Larraín’s unconventional Jackie Kennedy docudrama are no less offbeat, but in so much subtler ways compared to the alien musical transmissions for Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi head-trip. The sliding strings which open Jackie could be heard as Levi’s aesthetic mission statement in miniature: If many other composers for “great (wo)man” biopics go right for strings and trumpets to evoke nobility, Levi, with one simple gesture, announces a desire to wipe away any sense of hagiography. Just as Larraín’s film is as much an evocative portrait of a woman’s grief as it is a deconstruction of the persona Jackie tried to put in place in the wake of her husband’s assassination, Levi also creates music that is beautiful in its mourning. —K.F.
2. The Fits
Composers: Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans
Mica Levi, Cliff Martinez and the Manchester Orchestra duo of Andy Hull and Robert McDowell may be getting the lion’s share of praise for their film scores this year, but for sheer quantity, no one beat the dynamic duo of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans in 2016. Last Days in the Desert, Complete Unknown, Christine, Frank & Lola, The Autopsy of Jane Doe—all of the music in those films were their work, and all of them showcase startling imagination within different styles and registers. Their most striking score of 2016, however, is easily their music for The Fits. Anna Rose Holmer’s debut film is one of the strangest coming-of-age chronicles in quite some time: a character study that taps into the realm of the supernatural in elucidating a lonely young girl’s desire to find herself and belong to a group. And much of that sense of unfamiliarity is thanks to the droning synthesizers and chromatic woodwind lines of Bensi and Jurriaans’ music. When the titular “fits”—a mysterious rash of fainting spells and epileptic seizures—begins to strike the members of a dance troupe, and eventually a whole school, it’s almost entirely thanks to the score that this development, instead of coming desperately out of nowhere, feels intuitively, magically real. —K.F.
1. Swiss Army Man
Composers: Andy Hull and Robert McDowell
I love the soundtrack to Swiss Army Man because the soundtrack to Swiss Army Man loves me back. It knows that I spent hours as a nine-year-old dreaming of the many ways, all transcendent, I could use John Williams’ Jurassic Park theme to make my life more epic. It knows that many young children did that. It knows that “Cotton Eye Joe” should be a cherished cultural touchstone because it is both insanely catchy and it is so much more mysterious than anyone would ever give it credit for. The soundtrack to Swiss Army Man loves all the things I love—farts, Animal Collective, wordless choruses, the song ‘Wordless Chorus” by My Morning Jacket—because it loves me too, as much as it loves familiar pop movie tropes, which I also love, like montages and nostalgia and grand demonstrations of melodrama and high concepts that are somehow carried through against all logical odds. It haunts my subconscious, but in a good way. Just as Swiss Army Man is cobbled together from rom-coms and Spielbergian hope and Cronenbergian body horror and whatever else the heart desires, so is Andy Hull and Robert McDowell’s score a sutured freak-folk monster, assembled from the many multilayered voices of so many different people with so many different loves. It’s beautiful, and I love it. —D.S.