Last year, when considering the best movie scores of the past 12 months, we wondered aloud about the criteria of what determined a “great” musical accompaniment: Divorced from their visual sides, and from their whole reason to exist at all, can scores be appreciated on their own? Should they?
We answered with a shrug, and in 2017 I’ll shrug even harder: Three of these scores are some of the best albums of the year, full stop, and the rest are compelling completely on their own, regardless of the drama or splendor shown on screen alongside them.
Some scores that almost made the list: Power Rangers (Brian Tyler), Thor: Ragnarok (Mark Mothersbaugh), Woodshock (Peter Raeburn), Raw (Jim Williams) and half of the score to Nocturama, composed by director Bertrand Bonello, left out mostly because the other half of the soundtrack is made of pre-existing (though no less effective) tracks from Willow Smith and Blondie.
These, as well as choice cuts from the following—plus a few more highlights of the year in film music—can be found in a near-three-hour mix I made, which you can check out at the bottom of this article. I might be adding more as we round out the year and slide into next (especially with one of the soundtracks below not seeing release until January), so subscribing wouldn’t hurt if that’s your thing.
Here are the 10 best movie scores of 2017:
Label: Epic Records
Sucks that Hans Bwomm Zimmer replaced Johann Johannsson—that the two are cut from the same cloth makes one wonder what exactly Johannsson was doing that wasn’t working—but tone is so indelible to the world of Blade Runner, that all Zimmer had to do was imagine how Vangelis would tackle a broader retro-futuristic landscape, and it’d be difficult to come up with anything more successful than his score for Blade Runner 2049. Monolithic and chronically foreboding, Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch (whose score for this year’s It is equally worth noting, split between small-town wholesomeness and cacophony) hew closely to Vangelis’s iconic sounds, dedicated to, as Denis Villeneuve is, expanding the original film’s palate without redefining it. The score for 2049 is of a piece with the original’s, flushed with neon and sand, and there is nothing more for which we could’ve, or should’ve, asked.
Label: Lakeshore Records
Rapt with subcutaneous thrum, punctuated by lush breaths of synth grandeur, the score to Alice Lowe’s Prevenge bears the same kind of off-putting, stomach-churning mix between hard and soft, between disgusting and beautiful, between horrifying and hilarious that the strange film plies. “This Is What I Really Look Like (Rework)” begins fixated on an upsetting, high-pitched bleat before hushing and flowing into something grander, prettier; in turn, “Ruth’s Theme (Cemetery Yoga) / Visions of, Pt. 2” emerges crystallized, an incomprehensible 3-D shape of gorgeous electro-sound reflecting all light off of its many pristine surfaces, until something sinister—like the sound of gears grinding deep within Satan’s uterus—emerges behind it, lapsing into the nightmare march of “Biological Clockwork (The Walk).” Composers Toydrum are two former members of UNKLE, and their work on Prevenge bears their previous act’s transcendence of trip hop beginnings, seeking symmetry between the unimaginable heights electronic music can achieve and the street-level grime of their class-conscious origins.
Label: Lakeshore Records
As genial and briskly lovely as it can get, Jon Brion’s score to Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is a kind of old-fashioned thing—a “Crash Into Me” of movie soundtracks—the kind of score seemingly too sincere, too busy and maybe too bubbly to get made anymore, lest it distract from anything on screen. Listen only to Brion’s opening salvo, the light brass-and-woodwind punch of “Title Credits,” to get mildly (but pleasantly) amp’d for all the coming-of-age shenanigans about to unfold. Brion’s score isn’t all that different from, say, his contributions to I Heart Huckabees or Step Brothers, but that’s because no one writes music for film like him, carrying whole lifetimes of emotional weight in his scraps and snippets, each track a self-contained arc of melancholy and moving on (“Consolation”), of sadness and whimsy (“Model Homes”), or of romance and reality (“Rose Garden”). So much in so little time.
Label: Milan Records
Brooklyn singer-songwriter—and teacher and scholar and dance historian—Tamar-kali is assisted on her first feature-length score by Mary J. Blige, among many, but it’s a testament to the composer’s salient grasp of mood, and of what director Dee Rees is attempting with her film’s tone, that Blige’s song ends up a high-profile footnote. Tamar-kali’s music for Mudbound feels rooted firmly within a southern gothic tradition, but caked in the viscous retrospective of a modern gaze, staccato strings besotted with experimental drones and levity cut with shame and sorrow and deeply felt, near-physical pain. Warmth matches, moment by moment, a palpable grief, each track a sumptuous but bittersweet lullaby marking both the end of something—a life, an era, a way of thinking—and the hope that we’ll wake to something better.
Label: Lakeshore Records
In Filmmaker Magazine, director Agnieszka Smoczynska called The Lure a “coming-of-age story” born of her past as the child of a nightclub owner: “I grew up breathing this atmosphere.” What she means to say, I’m guessing, is that The Lure is an even more restlessly plotted Boyhood if the Texan movie rebooted The Little Mermaid as a murderous synth-rock opera. (OK, maybe it’s nothing like Boyhood.) Smoczynska’s film resurrects prototypical fairy tale romance and fantasy without any of the false notes associated with Hollywood’s “gritty” reboot culture. Poland, the 1980s and the development of its leading young women provide a multi-genre milieu in which the film’s cannibalistic mermaids can sing their sultry, often violently funny siren songs to their dark hearts’re content. While Ariel the mermaid Disney princess finds empathy with young girls who watch her struggle with feelings of longing and entrapment, The Lure’s flesh-hungry, viscous, scaly fish-people are a gross, haptic and ultimately effective metaphor for the maturation of this same audience. In the water, the pair are innocent to the ways of humans (adults), but on land develop slimes and odors unfamiliar to themselves and odd (yet strangely attractive) to their new companions. Reckoning with bodily change, especially when shoved into the sex industry like many immigrants to Poland during the collapse of that country’s communist regime in the late ’80s, the film combines the politics of the music of the time with the sexual politics of a girl becoming a woman (and the musicals that exploit the same). And though The Lure may bite off more human neck than it can chew, especially during its music-less plot wanderings, it’s just so wonderfully consistent in its oddball vision you won’t be able to help but be drawn in by its mesmerizing thrall. —Jacob Oller
Label: Nonesuch (January 12, 2018)
Jonny Greenwood’s strengths as a composer—his strongest role in his other gig (Radiohead) in fact—is his ability to bury big concepts in his arrangements without ever needing to explain them. Instead, we’re sure of his hand guiding us through these stories, knowing that, though we have no intimate grasp of what’s happening behind the curtain, the wizard with a forever-bad haircut has everything under control. As Greenwood told Variety earlier this month, after citing Glenn Gould and Ben Webster as inspirations:
The smaller groups, and solo players, work like close-ups [and] not necessarily to accompany [a] visual, but rather, to focus your attention on and make you feel directly engaged with the characters. The bigger orchestral things often worked best for drawing you back to see the bigger situation.
Greenwood’s score for Phantom Thread seamlessly moves in and out, track to track, orchestras transubstantiating into quartets, into solo piano movements, and then billowing back out again, incessantly drawing one further and further into the cloistered House of Woodcock while still keeping onlookers at a distance, more out of exclusivity than anything. Mannered and presided over with meticulous care, Greenwood’s music, with the director’s eighth film, now seems a crucial piece of Paul Thomas Anderson’s craft.
Label: Milan Records
Much like Daniel Hart’s score for David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon, his fourth collaboration with the director shames not one treacly emotion nor looks down upon one emo-inflected melody, even going so far as to allow Casey Affleck to pretend to sing what is most definitely a sappy white person song pulled straight out of Ben Gibbard’s Great American Songbook, as if that’s an OK thing to do. If only this once, it is OK, because Hart’s score effectively tackles the grandiosity of Lowery’s story while dwarfing Affleck’s mostly shrouded character within the cosmic expanse of all of reality, throughout space and time and everything in between. In the long run, Affleck singing some Iron and Wine sensitive dude bullshit means nothing in light of Hart’s broader design, which doesn’t excuse any of what Affleck does, but just drown him in the tide of much better things to come.
Oneohtrix Point Never’s 2015 LP, Garden of Delete, may’ve proven that anything Daniel Lopatin sets his mind to, he’s more than capable of carrying out with equal parts grace and perversity. Shot through with horror at the transformative power of technology, Delete is as melodic and pop-infused as it is inaccessibly weird, using old, retro techniques and sounds to push techno and industrial music to their uncomfortable ends. Which fits pretty snugly with the Safdies’ style, Lopatin’s score a menacing slice of an endless kinetic nightmare, relieved every now and then by moments of unmitigated tenderness. When Lopatin’s collaboration with Iggy Pop, “The Pure and the Damned,” plays over Good Time’s quietly heartbreaking coda, the previous 90 minutes become irrevocably altered, having built inexorably to such an end, in which all of the energy channeled by Pattinson’s performance and Lopatin’s sometimes head-squeezing score and the Safdies’ terrible, magnificent vision of urban life as infinite chaos wastes out, leaving nothing but a vulnerable person either lost within a system that will betray him, or safe within a system that wants badly to help him.
Label: Lakeshore Records
Written by director S. Craig Zahler and composing confidant Jeff Herriott (with whom he scored Bone Tomahawk), the seven songs comprising one simple brute’s (Vince Vaughn) odyssey through penal Hell are lifetimes, tonally, from the literally pulpy violence in which Zahler revels on screen. But that doesn’t mean Zahler and Herriott’s music isn’t absolutely nailing it: Indulging ’70s grindhouse—I mean: duh; acknowledging that’s what Zahler is doing is pretty obvious, but that also doesn’t mean he does so without seemingly boundless love—Zahler uses these seven songs as the romantic counterpoint to the relentlessly brutal violence filling the film’s second half with blown-out skulls and torn flesh. Zahler knows his hero needs a moral grounding, a sort of mid-level gangster Bushido code, in order to do what he must as he descends into the bowels of society, so he enlists soul and RnB mainstays like the O’Jays and Butch Tavares to set the right balance. Each song is wonderful, worthy of existing for the fact alone that it’s a rare thing to at the very least get two new tracks in 2017 recorded by the O’Jays that sound so much more vital than anything we should expect out of the six-decade-old group.
There’s no one better to helm the score for Theo Anthony’s docu-essay than Dan Deacon, native and bastion of the Baltimore communal arts scene. Unexpectedly shifting from subject to subject, from medium to mode to more, Rat Film attempts a cubist portrait of modern urban growth, its nucleus the City of Baltimore’s history with rat control, Anthony rarely content buying into only one perspective or angle. And maybe the most expected tact Deacon takes in writing music to accompany the director’s musings is how unexpectedly different his work is here compared to Spiderman of the Rings or Bromst, or anything he’s been known for before, especially and including his live performances, which, if you’ve ever witnessed them, subsist on mass audience participation and seizuring electro-conniptions. Deacon’s Rat Film, in chiaroscuro contrast, is spare and soothing, content with Yo-La-Tengo-chill guitar jams (“Pelican”) and dreamy piano and woodwind ditties, as if Erik Satie licked a weed lolly (“Redlining) throughout a starlit cab ride (“Reed Clouds”) and through a vast mist, the cold night’s precipitation freezing into a colder night of vibraphone samples (“Calhoun”). Throughout his film, Anthony offers us glimpses of Deacon recording the soundtrack live, assembling an “enclosure made out of theremins,” as Deacon told NPR, his demeanor the opposite of what most people would typically see on stage, serious and concentrated as he records the movements of rats within the enclosure, perhaps searching for some sort of sonic structure he can use, or maybe just lost in the ever unfurling meaning of whatever it is he’s actually trying to accomplish. Which goes to some length to explain the beauty of both Anthony’s film and Deacon’s score: As we try to figure it out, they seem to be doing so with us, binding our experiences briefly and beautifully.
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.