Before we recount the best scores of the last decade, a request. Listen. For just a minute.
Mark Zuckerberg bitterly prowls back to his dorm at Harvard on a bitter cold night. A piano melody laments Zuck’s tough night. But more tellingly, more ominously, a drone pitch sounds off. Zuckerberg’s albatross, his revenge masterpiece, the Facebook, is brewing in his mind. Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, thanks for that.
A snow-swept west gives us serene glances of a past winter like nothing we’ve ever seen. But, a gnawing, gnarly oboe, backed with drum taps and shrill strings, forebodes of things to come. Morricone. A swirling, romantical trumpet echoes the sounds of young Miles Davis, like brushstrokes, to a black renaissance atop two lovers in Harlem. Nicholas Britell. Nicolas Cage, covered in dark light, forges a beast of a blade. A literal knife in fire. And synthesizer groans top the scene in a way that might give Cannon films, nightclubs, and John Carpenter the goosebumps. That’s Jóhannsson.
The sounds of the last 10 years in movies? Not bad. Not bad at all. Lasting, memorable, chilling, thrilling, and just plain wonderful even. The ears wiggle, the brain remembers the art of good sound.
The last decade was marked by two trends. On one hand, you could argue scores got smaller, more electrical in nature. The rise of digital production, and synthesizer themes took hold. New names like Reznor, Ross, Distasterpeace, and Mica Levi showcased what you could do with a good ear and some slick hardware. It was like the 1980s all over again, but with more nuance. What was once camp, or novel, elevated itself to a sort of ethos. But while orchestras overall were scaled back, bigger name composers like Hans Zimmer or Michael Giacchino or Phillip Glass and Alexandre Desplat held on to size.
A lot of it was luck, and finding curious projects to enhance their skills. (Part of was just hanging on to studio franchises where the music budgets likely flourished.) But they all captured the spirit of old-time sounds with new elements in style. And speaking of an era in sound, those composers took on almost Rockstar-like status, playing concerts in arenas once reserved for U2 or Madonna. Hans Zimmer wailed on the guitar. Giacchino did a music battle in London where he was proposed to by the director of the new Batman. (Giacchino said “yes”, btw.) And still, this dichotomy just scratches the surface of some of the decade’s best stories in sound.
Randy Newman bounced back small. The Arcade Fire lived on screen as modern composers. And funny enough, John Carpenter came home to give the kids a lesson of dread music-making. While our films flew in the face of genre labels and conventions, music scores embraced both new and old in delightful ways. Today, we reflect upon and appreciate those trends and explorations, with the best scores of the 2010s. Now listen up, because we’re going to play this scene out together.
25. Steven Price – Gravity (2013)
What’s impressive about Steven Price’s Oscar-winning score for the Alfonso Cuarón sci-fi stunner is that it works in dual modes. When Price came on to the production, discussions of sound design, and deliberate use of silence was discussed and implemented in to Gravity. It’s an exercise in the aural. He stays back with soft, electric vibrations and whirls, carefully placed. But as the film progresses, the need for hope intensifies, and the music swells like a righteous hymn. Heroic themes blast off, as “Shenzou”, the second-to-final track, escorts Sandra Bullock back from space, like a downbeat descent from the heavens, perfectly capturing the hail Mary story that is Gravity.
24. Carter Burwell – Carol (2015)
Here was a patient, hallowed, even alluring sound. Carol tells a tale of lost love in a time of misunderstanding, and Carter Burwell’s first Oscar-nominated score evokes a sort of echoed sadness that haunts and humbles all the same. Burwell composes music for the love affair of Carol and Therese to sound like something difficult to regain. Assembled by the Seattle Symphony under Burwell, the score’s primary calling card is a string quartet that uses cello and violin to dreamy effects. The sound is hushed, sensitive, and ephemeral. But the themes, the mood, they last.
23. Philip Glass – Jane (2017)
Brett Morgan’s depiction of the wonderful life of Jane Goodall is nothing short of a miracle, cinematically. The award-winning director assembled miles of rare and roughed-up footage to create a touching assemblage of a life well-lived. But Morgan didn’t approach the music like a film. He desired something akin to opera. Enter Philip Glass. The 80-year old auteur knocked out a beauteous score, filled with optimism, lament, and a sort of magniloquence deserving of being paired with Goodall and her accomplishments. A work of emphatic harmonium. A score that warms the heart and tickles the mind.
22. Andy Hull & Robert McDowell – Swiss Army Man (2016)
The reaction to Swiss Army Man was something of a personality test. Some found its grotesque buddy film hijinks exhausting. While others held on to this deeply unique film in high regard. A film about healing and bonding, from the oddest vantage. But what everyone could agree on is the wildly catchy music. Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of Manchester Orchestra brought their indie rock instincts to this Sundance romp, and if the corpse plot wasn’t enough of a staple, the score was like a hit album all its own. A found noise classic with an infinitely hummable melody. Bom bom bom. Bom bom bom… Hell of a hook, no? Daniell Radcliffe’s body farted a lot. But when it came to score, the Manchester Orchestra chaps hardly farted around.
21. Terence Blanchard – BlackKklansman (2018)
Terence Blanchard had been doing the work with Spike Lee for decades at this point. His compositional debut was for Spike the jazzy Jungle Fever, and a year later, Blanchard gave us one of the biggest, most iconic scores of the ‘90s in Malcolm X (one still used in advertising of all things). Blanchard became Spike’s musical voice, providing Bernstein-level heft and classicism, with Blue Note swing and verve. All his scores for Spike are perfect, but it would be Blanchard’s funky, nervous, and Americana-rich score for BlackKklasnsman that would nab Blanchard a Grammy, and his first Oscar nomination. Ragtime cop blues, mocking patriotic rabble, soulful guitar-and-trumpet themes, providing elegies for black lives lost.