The Best Scores of 2015
THE AGE OF ADALINE
(Rob Simonsen / Lakeshore Records)
The year’s most beautifully emotional, if underrated film gets a gorgeous, heavenly score from Rob Simonsen as it chronicles the seemingly blissful, enduring existence of its angelic heroine. Her seeming gift of immortality is bestowed with angelic voices and magical melody. “Adaline” is the definition of beyond-lush, yet unforced melodic scoring as it weaves a spell of longing, tender enchantment for a fairy tale that’s a dream come true for those who believe that true love, and unabashed romantic scoring lies in the stars.
BRIDGE OF SPIES
(Thomas Newman / Hollywood Records)
While not exactly as explosive as his work for “Spectre,” Thomas Newman provides a superb Cold War score that’s far more about diplomacy than action. Though he might paint a chilly U.S. vs. Them landscape with charging patriotic rhythm and a chilly Russian choruses, Newman’s ability to blend alternately playful and haunting samples with powerful, Americana orchestrations conveys an Honest Abe everyman propelled into an unlikely, threatening situation. It’s wistfulness in the midst of sometimes-perky political gamesmanship that not only provides an impressive musical portrait of the seeming End of Days, but also for Tom Hanks’ always reliable definition of American values that helped avert catastrophe.
(Hans Zimmer / Varese Sarabande Records)
No composer is as responsible for the rise of synthesized A.I. in Hollywood scoring as Hans Zimmer, who along with additional composers Steve Mazzaro and Andrew Kawczynski engage in an in-your-bleeping-face return to the good old retro days of his uninhibited electronic scores as “Drop Zone” and “Broken Arrow” for Neill Blomkamp’s terrific, unjustly maligned spin on “Robocop.” Beyond dense in its in its kitchen sink approach to fusing Krautrock-era computers for the sampled state of the art, Zimmer’s electro-punk score brings on the ultra percussive 8-bit rhythms, voices and heavy metal guitars that we know and love from the start of his action scoring career, but also crafts a memorable, often unexpectedly sweet thematic tapestry that movingly embodies Chappie as big, wanna-be-loved kid in a cruel world where machines have more soul than most of their makers.
(Patrick Doyle / Walt Disney Records)
As particularly evidenced in such scores for Kenneth Branagh on “Henry IV,” “Dead Again” and “Much Ado About Nothing,” composer Patrick Doyle has never been bashful about letting his robustly old-school orchestral colors fly when it comes to the wish fulfillment. And afforded the yards of luxurious dresses worn by “Cinderella,” Doyle delivers one of his most lavishly gorgeous scores, his melodies swimming in Prince Charming chivalry, hurtling pumpkin carriage excitement and a moving, thematically heartfelt ability to only hear the best in awful stepmother situations. It’s Disney pixie dust come to wonderfully rapturous musical life, the truly enchanted stuff of which sparkling fairy tale musical magic is made of.
(Ludwig Goransson / WaterTower Records)
Those that feared some alt. composer punk was going to take over the “Rocky” ring with no heed of Bill Conti’s patriotic approach for the Italian Stallion will be knocked on their asses by just how terrifically Ludwig Goransson (of the small, sublimely ethereal “Fruitvale Station”) rises to the challenge to show himself off as a composer of significant symphonic fortitude, capturing both a streetwise protégé and the inspirational tone of one of America’s greatest movie heroes. Given a memorable theme for Apollo’s offspring, Goransson goes for an ethereal, soulful groove that gradually builds with orchestral power, playing the familial bond between upstart and a weathered pro whose charm came from his palooka humanity. When the stalwarts of the classic “Rocky” themes and a Afro-soul spin on “Gonna Fly Now” hit, the result is beyond thrilling, as is the warrior percussion for the big fight – making “Creed” the definition of how a composer can throw new groove and old school symphonic styles into a match where both magnificently come out on top as a bell-ringer for the next composing generation.
IN THE HEART OF THE SEA
(Roque Baños / WaterTower Records)
After his exceptional work on the sanguine studio fare of “Evil Dead” and “Oldboy,” Spanish composer Roque Baños gets his long-deserved, big Hollywood shot as the harpooner for director Ron Howard – hitting his exceptional true story of “Moby Dick” dead center as he pits the primal, melodic beauty of mother nature against wantonly destructive mankind. Creating distinctive sounds that contrast soulful, angered animals against their oil-obsessed pursuers, Banos hears the excitement of the kill with tragic irony, then delivers comeuppance with percussive, ship-ramming fury before reaching a sort of Zen understanding (though not hammered in) of the ongoing futility of whaling. Baños succeeds in creating empathy for both parties, no more so than in beautiful themes that carry the tragic weight of history, his poetically soaring themes and a beautiful whale chant capturing the true-life myth that will become the stuff of literary legend.
(Michael Giacchino / Walt Disney Records)
Having gotten an Oscar nomination for “Ratatouille” and a win for “Up,” Michael Giacchino looks to have a chance of bringing on the gold statue of happiness for his lovely, ultra-emo score that literally goes inside a girl’s head. It’s a wonderland that positively sings with joy, sadness, fear, anger, disgust and all of the musical feelings in between. Always a kid at heart in his enthusiastic approach to any subject, Giacchino is at his inventive best here, thematically anchoring his reactions while going for any number of eccentric, jazzily peppy instrumental combinations that turn the developing mind into a wacky carnival. He’s equally adept at capturing a spectral sense of the subconscious, or having the mature, melodic depth of any adult score, all adding for a true, sweeping sense of wonder that’s likely to stir the tear ducts. “Inside Out” is a sum total of all the emotional creativity that Giacchino puts into his uniformly excellent Pixar scores, this one like none other.
MAD MAX FURY ROAD
(Junkie XL / Watertower Records)
Tom Holkenborg truly lives up to his composing pseudonym of Junkie XL with this brilliantly berserk portrait of the musical wastelands, an orchestrally ominous, yet furiously exciting place to be, driven on nox exhaust of Doof Warrior tribal drumming and flaming metal guitar licks. But just when you might think that “Fury Road” will be paved with relentless percussion and bleeding metal vamps, Junkie reveals just how complex his massive, musical attack is, bringing in Wagnerian-worthy strings that reveal the blighted, tragic lives and emotional yearning of characters who know they’d meet instant death if their hard-ass masks betrayed humanity for an instant. It’s a powerhouse elegy of grieving, symphonic loss for the world that was, even as the score’s thrumming, throttling engines of madness gleefully never stop revving up for one rhythmically murderous chase on the desert highway to leather-clad hell, ending in a smashingly epic score.
(James Newton Howard / Lakeshore Records)
James Newton Howard might have done a bravura job finishing up “The Hunger Games” saga this year. But when it comes to a scoring contest where there’s no winner in its political brinksmanship, then “Pawn Sacrifice” gets the scoring checkmate. Given a decidedly unlikeable antihero in Bobby Fischer, Howard’s poignantly gripping approach pulls off the feat of making us understand, if not care about a prodigy whose real battle was with mental illness. These demons in the mind are created with eerie samples as the melodic forces of those who care about him bang hopelessly at the door. More impressively is how Howard’s subdued score captures the deep thought that makes for the mental warfare of chess, creating a setpiece of triumph against Boris Spassky as thrilling as any way bigger-played football game, yet with a poetically tragic end that lets us know that Fischer’s actually lost a far bigger match.
(Alan Silvestri / Sony Classical)
From a time traveling doc to a talking spaceship, Alan Silvestri has soulfully embodied many dreamers’ cinematic flights of fantasy. Now given a real-life daredevil who achieved the impossible feat of stepping on the clouds themselves, Silvestri brings a beautiful, soaring empathy to “The Walk,” his score telling us how the sight of seeming madness can unite mankind itself. Silvestri creates a reverberating, lighter than air theme that builds into a fully soaring, chorus and orchestra, while other times achieving gasp-inducing daredevil feats of spinning his music off from Mozart into its own memorable motifs, all while capturing the 70s-era jazz and circus music that’s made for its hero’s mad feat. Yet underneath “The Walk” is a mournfulness for its now-lost buildings and the people in them, an emotional gravitas that only makes Silvestri’s work, and Robert Zemeckis’ film all the more touchingly profound.
(Christophe Beck / Hollywood Records)
If there’s one quality that distinguishes the difference between DC and Marvel movies, then it’s the word fun. Given the potentially goofiest Marvel superhero to make a movie out of, “Ant-Man” turns out to be the most enjoyably lightweight of the pack, sly escapism that’s all about its Joe Schmoe hero’s bemused sense of being shrunk to a pint-sized crimefighter, yet determined to live up to the mantle. Chris Beck embodies his unlikely aspiration with a terrifically memorable theme and punchy action, lassoing the astonishing percussive sound of his new insect friends with a retro sense of absurdity that reaches its delightful height as our speck of a good guy hangs ten on his ant posse.
(Fernando Velázquez / Quartet Records)
Having proven himself adept at playing ghostly scares with the likes of “The Orphanage” and “Mama,” Fernando Velázquez is given his ultimate Gothic vehicle by Guillermo del Toro. The composer responds with an absolute, melodic sumptuousness that matches his director’s triumph of production design, music that blazes with darkly romantic themes as colorful as the stark-red clay that props up this ersatz House of Usher. This is old school haunted estate scoring at its best, furnished to the gills with storm and lightning action, spine-tingling strings and an overall sense of lavish melancholy – music that goes for the corset with all of its bleeding, romantic heart on display to turn terror into a thing of refined, rapturous beauty.
(Carter Burwell / Varese Sarabande Records)
A composer with a penchant for playing women bucking their expected place in a ruthlessly conformist society in such scores as “Fur” and the Emmy winning “Mildred Pierce,” Carter Burwell reteams with that miniseries’ director Todd Haynes for a hushed, elegant score that hides itself in the shadows for the budding romance between a woman ill-suited to being a housewife and an uncertain salesgirl. It’s a love that blossoms though aching violins and eerily echoed pianos, a near-chamber approach that grows from flirtation to love in the musical shadows, themes that capture the pain of a near-impossible relationship at the disapproving time, but still carrying a sense of moving, emotional inevitability that makes the couple’s anguish worth it.
KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE
(Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson / La La Land Records)
Having given rudely satiric energy to the superhero tropes of Kick-Ass, Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson take on the venerable institution of Savile Row spying, living it up with posh John Barry orchestral brass action while vandalizing the proud, patriotic MI6 snottiness with the rock and roll rhythms of their rudeboy recruit. The result is thematically thrilling, insanely fun score that positively sings with race-the-clock, save-the-world action with all of its in-one’s-face attitude intact, placing 007’s musical stylings into a hoodie that still manages to properly, and bombastically salute King and Country, as pitted against dastardly, horn-shrieking villainy.
(Douglas Pipes / Backlot and La La Land Records)
If you wish ill musical will to fall on everyone’s favorite holiday of good cheer, then “Krampus” is the score sock of black coal for you, joyously dangling over the hellish fireplace of the biggest, baddest Santa of all. But then, what else would one expect from the malicious holiday teaming of “Trick ‘r Treat” filmmaker Michael Doughterty and Douglas Pipes, as the composer warps every Xmas tune and clichéd instrument into a raging, winter terror wonderland. The most brilliantly seditious black Christmas score since Jerry Goldsmith’s “Gremlins,” Pipes’ raging horror music takes its prankster spirit to Godzilla-sized dimensions of bell ringing, holly jolly action. Yet, like every movie of this type, Pipes can’t help but acknowledge the true hearth and home spirit of Christmas by the end, even as evil St. Nick leaves wonderfully malefic and melodic destruction in his wake.
(Harry Gregson-Williams / Columbia)
Space opera is usually scored on the broadest, biggest canvas with a tone that reflects man as a speck of cosmic dust, which makes Harry Gregson-Williams’ very personable approach such a delight, while still delivering on the epic goods. How it gets there by determinedly, even sweetly charting one astronaut’s pilgrim’s progress towards liftoff. He gets there with a creative fusion of orchestra and electronics that captures a tone that’s both sci-fi and scientific The result is individualistic, adventurous and ultimately spiritual, a score that’s about the goodness of mankind to team together, while not neglecting the unknowable majesty of the Red Planet in the midst of quirky desire to get the hell off of it.
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION
(Joe Kraemer / La La Land Records)
Having played the grim suspense of “Jack Reacher” for Tom Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie, Joe Kraemer gets to unleash his inner Lalo Schifrin for the team in what’s arguably the franchise’s top movie mission. But while Kraemer replicates the classic jazz-orchestral sound of the original show, not to mention putting its iconic theme through its explosive paces whenever possible, Kraemer’s own music is more than dynamite itself when employing telltale bongos, flutes and a brassy orchestral ensemble. It’s one thing to play action and suspense as an exciting through line, but Kraemer’s achievement here is in just how well his music actually tracks the breathless chases and conspiratorial suspense with all the humorous, but deadly serious cunning of Ethan Hunt, propelling the sound of TV espionage to the big screen with thrillingly thematic panache to spare.
(Jóhann Jóhannsson / Varese Sarabande Records)
Not since “Se7en” has a film, or score reached the intensity of “Sicario,” playing the cross-border drug war with kind of gut wrenching horror befitting a serial killer film. Having collaborated on the sorrowfully twisted “Prisoners,” the doom-filled duo of composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and director Denis Villeneuve really take the pessimistic gloves off here to capture all of the physical, and emotional violence of an unending, increasingly sadistic battle. Jóhannsson’s tribal-industrial percussion crosses into Mexico as if it were the gate of hell, creating low, awful tones of impending death via tunnel or corpse-filled city block for a score that carries a physically palpable effect as it impactfully mixes music with sound design But for all of the dissonance-bordering, nerve-shredding suspense, perhaps “Sicario’s” most devastating moments are its dirge-like sustaining melodies and piercing voices, weeping not only for the a ceaseless drug war’s victims, but for any sense of morality when it comes to hopelessly fighting a conflict where no one is innocent – shades of spiritual darkness that Jóhannsson bravely explores.
(Alexandre Desplat / Backlot Music)
A man who’s fought the good film scoring fight to enable women with the likes of “Philomena,” “Julia and Julia” and “Coco Avant Chanel,” French composer Alexander Desplat takes up the cause for the feminine population of England’s march for voting rights, a movement that becomes more violent as it appears that force is the only voice the chauvinistic establishment will listen to. Much like its heroine who progresses from a meek wash woman to full-blown radicalization, Desplat’s immensely powerful “Suffragette” score begins by walking softly while carrying a big emotional stick, new ideas of empowerment dawning on her through ever-growing rhythm that goes from feminine delicacy to the beat of a war-drum, it’s theme suspensefully coalescing into a beautifully noble battle cry for equal rights that’s emotionally impossible to ignore
(Theodore Shapiro / Lakeshore Records)
A Hollywood commie iconoclast gets the furiously determined, beat jazz score worthy of his HUAC-baiting brilliance from Theodore Shapiro. With oddball percussion slamming away like the keys on Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay-generating typewriter, Shapiro’s borderline experimental score gets to the soul of the unbroken artist, conveying the musically evolving 1950’s era of the blacklist, while a brooding orchestra gets across the tragedy that wrecked so many lives. It’s a score whose dark piano beats and saxophones seethe with the indignation of America’s betrayal of its basic freedoms, yet with a stirring, never-say-die melodic force that tells us “Trumbo’s” fight in the Land of the seeming free was worth it.
THE COMPOSERS TO WATCH
Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans create a crystalline sense of unease, hushed pianos, delicately razor-sharp electronics and glass-like samples conjuring an upscale existence about to be demolished by the sins of the past. It’s a beautiful eeriness that never descends into thriller score clichés, exactly in the same, shockingly unconventional way in which writer / filmmaker Joel Edgerton brilliantly unwraps “The Gift”
A schmuck reaching for his 80s glory days discovers he can’t go home again, but that doesn’t mean that Andrew Dost (of the indie band Fun) can’t do a wonderfully spot-on recreation of the poppy synths, guitar grooves and humming voices that filled any of that decade’s classic teen films on a class reunion on an A-for-emulation ride aboard “The D Train”
Wojciech Golczewski is the musical inspector of a ghost-filled hellmouth, his thoroughly unnerving score for “We Are Still Here” creating an undulating haunted house constructed with groaning, clanking, sizzling effects and an eerily simple piano theme, a score that relentlessly and rhythmically builds for the most effective musical assault of vengeful ghosts since John Carpenter’s synths unleashed “The Fog.”
Canadian composer Benoit Grouix makes magic with “The Triplets of Belleville’s” Benoit Charest for the necromancing Englishmen of the BBC One miniseries “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,” conjuring a playfully deft sense of a sorcerous Napoleonic era in all of its devilishly fiddling orchestral splendor, creating some of the coolest scoring spells to come our way since Harry Potter graduated Hogwarts.
Slasher horror satire doesn’t get more brilliantly meta than “Final Girls,” especially when you’ve got Gregory James Jenkins pulling out a blunt musical instrument treasure chest of killer 80’s electronics (along with some very familiar Jason-friendly vocalese) to go through the teen-slaying motions in a way that salutes the genre without being condescending to it – especially when conveying the tender emotion between daughter and scream queen mom that’s the heart of this delightfully subversive scoring salute to classic synths and disco-ish Tiffany-era teen spirit.
Kreng should get an award for his absurdist composing pseudonym, not to mention creating the year’s most insanely hilarious horror score with “Cooties,” as depraved carnival music, a taunting children’s chorus and retro synths on angel pixie dust create an army of malicious kid zombies. But then again, this is likely the kind of music every parent hears when thrown into the hell of Chuck E. Cheese’s
Having taken on blood-drenched Scotland and Aussie serial killers for his director-brother Justin with “The Snowtown Murders” and “Macbeth,” Jed Kurzel impresses in the equally sanguine, yet far more rustic territory of “Slow West,” a score of powerful simplicity that feels poetically at home on a range of sudden, ironic death.
Clyde Lawrence and Cody Fitzgerald put a jazz-tapping, typewriter-clicking groove into “The Rewrite” of Hugh Grant’s community college-banished Hollywood washout, creating a low key, winning blues-jazz groove that delivers the Hugh Grant rom-com goods with a Vincent Guaraldi-esque bounce that could just as easily befit the Peanuts gang.
The mournfully crusading, Catholic guilt of Europe meets the battling percussion and softer winds of China for the epic, action scoring culture clash of Guillaume Roussel’s “Outcast,” another superb example of pan-ethnic knightly heroism in the face of impossible odds, while delivering a powerful feeling of warriors out of water, yet determined to fight to the musically epic last.
Fuse Ben Salisbury’s background in BBC natural documentaries with Geoff Barrow, the instrumental voice of the progressive band Portishead, and you’ll hear the cool, electronic grooves of artificial intelligence gaining the brainpower of the seductive droid in “Ex Machina,” their erotically ambient washes of deep digital sound and ultra-computerized, neo-rock rhythms the definition of finding transfixing intelligence inside of musical machinery
Given a director whose exploitation movies masked his own monstrous personality, John Schuermann brings on a retro cult groove that mashes 60s spy jazz with 70s crime grooves and the most bombastic excesses of creature feature music as he shoots the “Creep Behind the Camera” with a score that cleverly, and troublingly goes beyond its Z-movie humor to hear a dark psychology that’s no laughing matter
Cellist and percussionist supremes Martin Tillman and Satnam Ramgotra journey from their work on Hans Zimmer’s scores to join honorable forces as the main composers for “Last Knights’” dark, stylish retelling of the “47 Ronin” legend, forging a musical vision of determined, bleak heroism and drum-beating vengeance that captures a timeless, pan-ethnic feel of sacrificial destiny