The Best Scores of 2016

By • December 13, 2016

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ARRIVAL
(Johann Johannsson / Deutsche Grammophon)

An Icelander whose intensely psychological, yet still melodically accessible modernist scores like “Prisoners” and “Sicario” speak in alien languages of subsonic strings and nerve-chilling brass at last gets his actual close encounter as he translates the Rorschach Test language of obelisk / monolith dwelling inter-dimensional deities here. Johannsson brilliantly captures both a sense of wonder and fear with beholding the mind-boggling, verbally-scrambled unknown as whale cry motifs join with alternately moaning and chattering voices, backed by a strong orchestral sound that serves as a powerful universal musical translator in a way that’s both harmonically understandable, and profoundly strange in a soundtrack that now elevates Johannsson to level of film scoring’s Gyorgy Ligeti with the score equivalent of “2001’s” climactic head rush into the experimental unknown.


DOCTOR STRANGE
(Michael Giacchino / Hollywood Records)

Michael Giacchino is the Composer Supreme when it comes to being the hardest working musician in the genre multiplex realm this year, keeping up a consistent sense of symphonic wonder with the likes of “Zootopia,” “Star Trek: Beyond” and a little prequel called “Star Wars: Rogue One.” But it’s Giacchino’s first franchise venture into The Marvel Universe that casts a particularly beguiling spell with “Doctor Strange,” not only for summoning up all the thematically heroic orchestral forces at his command, but also drawing up the musical mystical arts of way-out reverse sampling, the harpsichord and the sitar, creating a crazy-quilt melodic universe that’s the equivalent of a mind-bending Steve Ditko splash page from the original comics, a devotion to the source material that makes Scott Derrickson’s movie such a particularly joyous adaptation. Giacchino’s admiration for this kind of colorfully iconic stuff always brings out a real sense of fun and excitement well suited to each blockbuster, here conveying a particular excitement of a very talented fanboy romping about a fantastical playing ground he’s always longed to be a part of – in this case a constantly morphing, topsy-turvy cosmos he zooms about with groovily psychedelic panache.


GODS OF EGYPT
(Marco Beltrami / Varese Sarabande)

Having played “Knowing’s” apocalypse and “I Robot’s” mechanical revolt for all of its wonderful orchestral bombast in the service of Egypt-born filmmaker Alex Proyas, Marco Beltrami really gets to go to cosmically symphonic town for this wonderful exercise in throwing any semblance of restraint to the winds as he pays tribute to these “Gods,” as well as his mentor Jerry Goldsmith with enough sweepingly memorable, Middle Eastern-style themes to fill Set’s treasure vault, It’s the stuff that bold Saturday matinee thrills are made of in service of giant beings with a habit of transforming into metallic beasts, or a flat Earth being guarded against an equally gigantic demon – waved off with music that’s a terrifically fun exclamation point to wonders within Proyas’ unsung vision of “Planet Egypt.”


HIDDEN FIGURES
(Benjamin Wallfisch & Pharrell Williams & Hans Zimmer)

The uniquely suited team of Wallfisch, Williams and Zimmer more than have the right stuff to musically chronicle the below-the-line black women whose math-magician skills truly got the space race off the ground. It’s a combination of soul, futuristic percussion and symphonic pride that seamlessly rockets with an inspirational vibe, never failing to hear melodic optimism in the face of almost unbelievable prejudice, finally uniting in a common, movingly melodic goal that’s greatly empowered by Williams’ sense of energetic vocalese – though his vocal beat box stylings stop understandably short of a chorus of “Happy,” given the less-than gleeful era its heroines’ music nobly gains its determined respect from.


MOANA
(Mark Mancina / Walt Disney Records)

An animated scoring ethnomusicologist second to none for Disney with his ventures to Africa in “Tarzan” and Alaska for “Brother Bear,” Mark Mancina sails, and soars higher than ever as he hits Polynesia’s south seas for “Moana.” Already a rhythmatist of note with “Speed,” Mancina combines drum percussion with the sounds of instruments as old as the island gods, then puts them in league with the west’s Hollywood tradition of a rollicking symphony orchestra for a respectfully thrilling adventure score that hears a universal language of heartfelt Disney Princess emotion, along with The Rock’s brawny antics for a thoroughly fun, culturally heroic splash.


NEON DEMON
(Cliff Martinez / Milan Records)

As the composer who not only helped launch indie films and their often-corresponding electric sound with “Sex Lies and Videotape,” Cliff Martinez has used his distinctive, crystalline voice to push the surreal boundaries of synths, making it only natural that the similarly transgressive vision of filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn would choose Martinez to play the darkly rhythmic voice of “Drive” and “Only God Forgives.” But it’s the gamine innocence of “Neon Demon’s” model that brings out Martinez’s electric LSD like never before. Sparkling with slick, sick musical colors, Martinez conjures the artificiality of a realm where looks are everything, an all-consuming wall of knowingly hip sound that’s utterly hypnotic in its little girl lost fairly tale feel, gnarled samples and unnerving atmospheres that perfectly complement Refn’s truly sick sense of humor while creating a memorable, plastic musical realm all its own.



NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

(Abel Korzeniowski / Silva Screen Records)

If Bernard Herrmann’s music was about resurrecting the ghosts of Straus and Wagner, then Poland’s Abel Korzeniowski has re-incarnated himself as that most darkly romantic of all American movie composers in service of the impeccable, Hitchcockian spirit of fashion designed-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford. Now they move together from the positively demure “Single Man” to the cunning sordidness of “Nocturnal Animals,” as done up in the height of LA art chic-meets white trash murderousness, Given a multi-story enigma of a film, Korzeniowski’s ultra-lush themes beautifully dress up unspeakable behavior, a rapture of erotic orchestral melody whose contrast with the onscreen grotesqueries is exactly the point as his music shivers with anticipation towards the next shocking chapter. Scores rarely get this operatic in their unrestrained string and piano passion, an unabashed approach that I’m sure Herrmann himself would be beguiled by as he might hear Korzeniowski raising his ghost in the height of style.


THE RED TURTLE
(Laurent Perez Del Mar / Quartet)

Having done the animated soundtracks for the transcontinental boy’s adventure “Zarafa” and the distinctly adult horror anthology “Fears of the Dark,” French composer Laurent Perez Del Mar gets marooned on a desert island with beautifully poetic results in “The Red Turtle.” For what’s essentially a cartoon version of “Castaway” that’s even more movingly profound, Del Mar draws upon an elemental spirit of flowing, gentle melody and rhythmic danger, his score all the more vital in serving as storytelling, given that barely a word is uttered in this movie. With a haunting theme that’s often accompanied by female voice, Del Mar’s flowing orchestral melody captures a lyricism that’s worthy of Debussy’s “La Mer” in communicating the literally transformative effect of nature on man, his lovely themes for aching violin capturing despair and acceptance, playful pizzicatos embodying a renewed sense of hope (as well as endearingly comic crabs) and exotic percussion hearing the mystery of an island and its outlying sea. Like Michael Dubo de Wit’s remarkable film that draws upon the pastel naturalism of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli for what might be their best film in a line of classics, Del Mar’s music is the equivalent of those soft brushstrokes on a big screen canvas of visual poetry, a score that profoundly captures a life at first seemingly lost at sea, only to soar under, and above it though its graceful music that touches the silent tides of nature’s life force.


SULLY
(Clint Eastwood & Christian Jacob & Tierney Sutton & The Tierney Sutton Band / Varese Sarabande)

An accomplished jazz musician and connoisseur of America’s musical art form well beyond his other gigs of directing and acting, Clint Eastwood’s scores have always been about memorable thematic simplicity, memorable melodies that other artists have helped him expound upon in such scores as “Unforgiven” and “Flags of Our Fathers.” But never has Eastwood’s restrained jazz approach proved so unusual, or impactful than in the place of what’s essentially a disaster film with “Sully,” whose cockpit is comfortably filled in by artists Christian Jacob, Tierney Sutton and her band. With the score never overplaying the already heightened drama of the most miraculous crash landing ever, “Sully’s” uses the cool of jazz to represent the spirit of a captain who remained the height of calm under pressure. It’s an unexpected, tuneful approach that proves tremendously moving, particularly when Sutton gives turns the theme into song with “Flying Home.”


10 CLOVERFIELD LANE
(Bear McCreary / Sparks & Shadows)

A composer who certainly knows his way around sci-fi scoring with the likes of “Battlestar Galactica” and “Europa Report” gets to enter The Twilight Zone in the confines of a crazed survivalist’s bunker. Leave it to McCreary’s cat-and-crazy symphonic suspense for its heroine to explore the nooks and crannies of his “Lane’s” confines when the composer isn’t rushing for the escape hatch, finally opening up the score’s impressive thematic structure to take on space invader proportions worthy of John Williams. It’s an A-plus lesson in how to exhilaratingly milk a potentially claustrophobic soundtrack situation for all of its big reveal worth.


THE RUNNERS-UP

CAPTAIN FANTASTIC
(Alex Somers / Lakeshore)

More proof that those in touch with Iceland’s musical spirit animal are blessed with an ability to capture profound emotion through unusual means, American-born Alex Somers’ work with the band Sigur Ros (and its essential continuation with its bandmate as Jonsi and Alex) now yields a score of singular spirituality as Somers tracks a family of ultra liberals who’ve have truly gone off society’s reservation. His soundtrack’s beautifully ethereal melodies are a unique mix of alt. rock sampling, angelic choruses, Native American winds, accordion and the music box percussion all resonating with the gently troubled vibrations of normal childhood lost, along with the, lyrical nature of mad individuality. It’s a truly “Fantastic” road trip of reckoning and reconciliation that lights a soulful funeral pyre for alt. scoring.


EDDIE THE EAGLE
(Matthew Margeson / Varese Sarabande)

In a year where 80’s retro electronics are all the rage when it comes to the sci-fi throwback realms of “Stranger Things,” leave it to Matthew Margeson to salute to the era’s days of sports-ready synth glory with this run down the slope of power-pop electro artists like Harold Faltermeyer, Bill Conti and Vince Di Cola Margeson also layers on inspirational strings for his tribute to The Day’s most unlikely Olympic ski champion of them all. “Eddie” is not only spot on with its glorious throwback beats and Eddie Van Halen rock swagger, but also the defiant underdog attitude of Margeson’s work on the “Kick-Ass” series to boot, making for a score that plays the retro thrill of victory with wonderful smile with just a bit of awesome computer keyboard cheese on its goggles after the big run.


HACKSAW RIDGE
(Rupert Gregson-Williams / Varese Sarabande)

Rupert Gregson-Williams delivers a devastating war score that plays both parts emotional inner peace and the terror of one of the Pacific’s most devastating WW2 battles, a potent segue from melodically soothing, rustic nobility to the overwhelming, Asian-inflected darkness of waves of suicidal Japanese troops. Far from a musical time capsule, the rhythmic talent that flows through the musical lifeblood of Williams and his brother Harry make for the stirring, rhythmically contemporary heroism of a conscientious object as he rappels our boys from the heart of darkness. Yet always at “Hacksaw’s” center is a rousing sense of near-angelic nobility that hears hope amidst war’s instinctual need to kill.


THE JUNGLE BOOK
(John Debney / Walt Disney Records)

One might say it was his Disney family birthright that made John Debney one of the Mouse House’s most reliable composers with the likes of “The Emperor’s New Groove” and “”Hocus Pocus,” let alone a reliable collaborator of director Jon Favreau on “Zathura” and “Iron Man 2” – all ensuring that Debney would get the plum assignment of that filmmaker’s live action remake of a charmingly carefree cartoon classic. That Debney’s muscularly exotic score doesn’t play like symphonic kid’s stuff is emblematic as to why “The Jungle Book” exceeded just about everyone’s wildest expectations, as Debney’s majestic score that proudly swings through the jungle with Max Steiner’s “King Kong” in terms of chest-beating, old-school symphonic power. For while the charm of the Sherman Brother’s songs might make an appearance here and there, Debney’s often scary score sings with the danger and excitement that make for a great, exotic boy’s adventure, blending choral majesty with drum-pounding savagery, yet in a way that’s firmly on the studio’s musical reservation as they terrifically expand their horizons with robustly flesh and blood scoring.


LA LA LAND
(Justin Hurwitz / Interscope)

While referencing 80s synth scores is all the cool millennial rage now, it’s also nice to see their soundtrack tastes can go way back as well to the 50’s and 60’s singing and dancing days of George and Ira Gershwin and Michel Legrand, as embodied by the composing-directing partnership of Justin Hurwitz and Damien Chazelle. Ditching the drum-smashing darkness of their brilliant “Whiplash,” the duo create an effervescent updating of “An American in Paris” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” by way of Technicolor throwback LA. Working with lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Hurwitz comes up with a truly wondrous tune in “City of Stars,” using it to form a beautifully thematic basis for the surprising amount of underscore here, his excellent, spot-on retro arrangements going from the simplest guitar and piano to swooning, planetarium-elevated orchestral melody. There’s also more than enough reason to convert jazz haters as well as Hurwitz effortlessly segues from O.G. improvisation to the electronically hip in this engaging slice of musical LA dream life and its myriad musical styles, turning a seemingly lost golden age of musical storytelling into the hippest tune around.


THE MONKEY KING 2
(Christopher Young / Intrada)

As a master of unabashed, epic sci-fi and supernatural scoring with the likes of the world-shattering “Core” and the Asian-accented “Grudge,” Christopher Young is an ideal travelling companion for a legendary Chinese manimal trickster god, whose second outing with him is even more spectacular than their first journey to the west. With the morally uncertain “Monkey King 2” battling mountain-sized skeleton demons and flying witches, he’s the closest thing that China has to a superhero (and likely one of the oldest in the world at that), Young jumps off such robust Marvel scores as “Spider-Man 3” and “Ghost Rider” for a series of hellzapoppin orchestral battles, as a battery of millennia-old Asian instruments like the erhu are skillfully blended with raging electric guitars, the score’s numerous themes bursting with the honor of eternal warriors and choruses thundering from the heavens. The score is given extensive action workouts that draw on Young’s rousing magical powers where the symphonic sky is literally the limit. Yet his score is just as grounded in the calming, melodic lyricism of the Buddhist Sutra as it is spectacular, magic-powered musical action that Dr. Strange would be envious of.


MOONLIGHT
(Nicholas Britell / Lakeshore Records)

An urban, down low relationship forged in equal parts tenderness and violent self-hatred receives a contrastingly refined, classical chamber treatment from Nicholas Britell, who last dealt with race in the somberly effective “Free State of Jones,” Upon hearing the refined strains of “Moonlight,” you might mistakenly think you’re listening to a costume drama, the kind of music that accompanies emotionally constricted aristocrat. Yet that might be the ironic point of Britell’s hauntingly beautiful score for two urban men’s potentially punishing relationship through the years. Beyond its delicate string and piano approach, Britell also affects the instrumentation through a hip-hop “chopped and screwed” technique that only adds to the score’s poignantly anguished emotion.


THE SECRET LIVES OF PETS
(Alexandre Desplat / Backlot Music)

Sure French composer Alexandre Desplat had no shortage of big, serious work this year like “American Pastoral” and “The Light Between the Oceans” (while not forgetting his affectionate score for the seriously bad singing of “Florence Foster Jenkins”). But the most exuberantly enjoyable soundtrack in any composer’s talking animal realm goes to the Gershwin-accented “The Secret Lives of Pets.” It’s a sort of “Rhapsody in Blue” for the CGI toon set as 30’s-style swing mixes it up with bouncy poodle cuteness and bridge-hanging adventure that manages to hit every pet nationality to boot – all cohesively playing the madcap toon humor without Mickey Mouse’ing the comedy. For a composer often beset with tragedy, “Pets” proves that nothing can be as enervating or fun as hearing the pure joy of being unleashed. The result is Desplat’s pure, lushly sweet imagination on an outing with a big, tail-wagging, jazzily nostalgic heart.


STRANGELY IN LOVE
(Austin Wintory & The Controversy / T-65b Records)

Amin Matalqa’s beguilingly quirky updating of Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” plays like a Buster Keaton silent that somehow has a literary master’s dialogue in it, all the better to get the most wonderfully eccentric score this side of Jon Brion’s “Punch-Drunk Love” in depicting the fitful relationship between two even more eccentric characters – courtesy of composer Austin Wintory and the LA indie group The Controversy. Way more French than Russian in nature, Wintory’s music casts its romantic charm with accordion, harp, harmonica and any number of styles that range from Spaghetti western to whimsical waltzes, pirate jigs and tango It’s the score equivalent to opening Felix the Cat’s magic bag and having all sorts of amazingly inventive wackadoo music jump out of it with unexpected grace that’s as absurd as it is lovely.



THE COMPOSERS TO WATCH

Having helped create an all-singing serial killer tuner for “London Road,” Adam Cork uses his instrumental voice to capture the despair and ebullience of North Carolina author Thomas Wolfe for “Genius,” (Milan Records) his Americana-accented score capturing the unique, orchestral spark of literary inspiration along with the jazz bounce of a copious writer’s enthusiasm on the loose in The Big City.


Writer-director Paul Dalio devastatingly autobiographical “Touched With Fire” (Lakeshore Records) also shows him sparking with musical talent as his score rises with the chiming, child-like wonder of impossible optimism, then plunges to surreal despair in his score’s entrancing mood swings that conveys lives gone askew with mental illness, his haunting, religious-like musical portrait making us understand the price that comes with artistic inspiration born from bipolar enthusiasm.


The dregs of society become industrial music zombies running through an NYC tenement, driven to madness by Daniel Davies and Sebastian Robertson in “Condemned” (Lakeshore Records). Chips off the angered, experimental rock block in their relations to Dave Davies and Robbie Robertson, Davies and Robertson fuse a grungy, 80’s exploitation synth style along with glowhead techno bounce and bebop jazz to create an electrified, eerily pulsating sound right in retro-line with the likes of “It Follows” and “Stranger Things,” but with a effective, raw murkiness befitting the evil low-rent surroundings that allowed “Condemned” to carve out its own, effectively evil horror score identity.


There’s a true, lived-in lyrical poetry to Steven Emerson’s surreal approach to “The Nine” (CD Baby), a dream-like score for a documentary about the down-and-out of Modesto California, their lives embodied with raw guitar chords, industrial samples, lost soul voices and hallucinatory vibes that make for the most interesting and poetic garage rock trip through through the American wasteland since Sonic Youth’s soundtrack for “Made in USA.”


After hearing England’s knightly magic for the series “Merlin,” James Gosling impressively segues to the big screen with far darker, Irish faerie folk that inhabit “The Hallow” (Movie Score Media). Beautifully verdant strings soon give way to the truly frightening string and sampled moss that fuses together with the real science-based reason for the once-human things chasing our frightened scientist family through the woods, terrifically effective horror-action and atmospheric scoring that not only plays eco body horror, but also a beautiful sense of choral tragedy for a clan that really should have listened to locals’ warnings to not go into the Emerald Isle’s forbidden woods.


The “Final Fantasy” movie saga has come a long, technical way from the game-changing, Elliot Goldenthal-scored film of 2001. Now after an even longer musical history of handling action films and trailer soundtracks form “Full Contact” to “Dishonored 2,” composer John R. Graham impressively carries on the saga’s epic musical tradition with “Kingsglaive,” matching its astonishing mo-cap visuals with a score that captures both the characters’ emotional stakes as well as the furiously drumming symphonic fury of its hellzapoppin mash-up of steampunk, sword and sorcery and giant monsters. It’s music that hits every aspect of a video game mythos unlike any other with impressively sweeping, metal-clanging devotion that turns CG into musical flesh and blood with a true sense of choral majesty.

Alt. singer and songwriter Julia Holter turns the introspective sound of such albums as “Tragedy” and “Ekstasis” into the indie-score grit of an upstart fighter refusing to stay down, becoming one of the few female composers to step into the boxing movie ring as she captures a stripped-down and ultimately orchestral inspirational spirit for the terrifically unsung drama “Bleed For This” (Milan Records)


One can easily imagine voices appearing in the head of anyone who’s been marooned on an island for a suicidal amount of time, but Andy Hull and Robert McDowell take that idea to a whole other thematically multi-faceted level with “Swiss Army Man” (Lakeshore Records) with a score that’s entirely based around vocals, from whimsical humming to joyful, drum-sailing shouts and hilariously profane songs (with even an a capella “Jurassic Park” theme thrown in) – music that also helps to bring to life a farting corpse for extra, eccentric measure.


Patrick Watson gets to the bottom of why a child made a seemingly suicide plunge for the “9th Life of Louis Drax” (Varese Sarabande), and in turn opens up a captivating, surreal world of musical possibilities as he enters an enchanted, subconscious realm of eerie voices and hallucinogenic samples, as coming back to reality with suspense-thriller stylism, as well as waltz-like rhythms. They’re two equally effective music realms that together unlock the film’s mystery for an enthralling listen.

East meets west in the sumptuous teaming of Chinese composer Ye Xiaogang (“Shower”) and the scoring debut American Chad Cannon (an orchestrator for Howard Shore and Alexandre Desplat) with “The Cairo Declaration”(Movie Score Media), an gorgeously soaring, red-flag waving WW2 score about the Allies teaming with China to stop the Japanese advance in the South Pacific. From the sweeping, Oriental rhythms of its main theme to the dark brass of enemy invaders, the patriotic march of Chairman Mao’s resistance and the heart-rending melody of love sacrificed to protect the motherland. Above all, it’s an impressively epic score that firmly declares its love for sweeping melodies a la John Barry, let alone any Hollywood film from the WW2 era worthy of its nobly symphonic salt for two composers signaling their thematic talents.


Composer Jay Wadley creates an elegant sense of anguish for “Indignation” (Nettwerk), a Philip Roth adaptation, set in the day when heavy petting was an unimaginable college crime. With passion bursting at the seam, and hopelessly hemmed in by not-so book smart intellect, Wadley creates a score of devastating, elegant subtlety, using the naturally sorrowful violin for all of its Ivy League tortured worth, along with a gently regretful piano. It’s a subtle requiem for a young love affair that should have been, if only not for over-intellectualization and the very real, primitive brutality of war.

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