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.
20. Michael Giacchino – War For the Planet of the Apes (2018)
If you want a degree in old school compositions, listen to any Michael Giacchino score. He’s a gifted mimic, with a flair for the boisterous sound. He can resemble Henry Mancini (Ratatouille), John Barry (The Incredibles), John Williams (Rogue One), or god help us, the funkier aspects of the Beatles (Doctor Strange of all place). Fella knows how to play with an orchestra, and his work comes off like a kid in a record store; it’s endearing and often educational. But his masterclass, his total artwork, from the last decade, has to be War for the Planet of the Apes. The ape escape epic featured the very best of Giacchino, with nerve-rattling drums and bass to set tension. Operatic strings that feel like they’re rescuing characters. And a Western-style grandeur and scale that felt like Giacchino borrows the very best and biggest elements of old scores to make something all-powerful and his own.
19. Disasterpiece – It Follows (2015)
Disasterpeace, aka Rich Vreeland, was approached by director David Robert Mitchell to score It Follows on the strength of Vreeland’s video game work. Vreeland, a chiptune music-maker had scored the cult hit platform adventure “Fez” not long before It Follows. And Mitchell loved it so much he used the game as temp music. Gnarly, wavy synth pads. Lost, ambient tones and hard-held notes, swirling out in to space with gobs of fuzz and other filtering. Call it a case study in durability, but a sound that was Zelda-like on computers, became haunted and harrowing onscreen. The Disasterpeace score creeps, beeps, and electronically sweeps us into Mitchell’s fragile and terrifying world.
18. Randy Newman – The Meyerowitz Stories (2017)
You laugh, Mr. Randy Newman Family Guy reference, but you try making a perfect score in 25 minutes with nothing but a piano? Sorry to be confrontational, but like? Well it feels like Newman’s been on the defensive in recent years, with South Park laying into his honeysuckle sound, and the artist somewhat sticking to family fare like the Toy Story movies. But Newman, the master and heir to Alfred Newman, got to flex with Noah Baumbach. Newman scaled back, put together a series of tight and tacky piano melodies for Baumbach’s Meyerowitz Stories, and showed off what he can still with incredibly little. Behold what a season vet can do in a minimalist key.
17. Colin Stetson – Hereditary (2018)
It might feel like a strange compliment, but when your score has turned into a meme? Perhaps you’ve made it. Turn the volume down if you listen to this one without the movie. But “Reborn”, the shrieking woodwind track that plays for the arrival of Paimon (hail), what with its ritualistic moans, and cruelly prideful luster… somehow caught traction atop a meme of Hannibal Burress looking at his hands on the The Eric Andre Show. Like, wow. And those jokes were nasty, but everyone knew. This thing was powered by the evil air of Hereditary. Simply put: you can’t buy that level of cultural cache.
16. Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto & Bryce Dessner – The Revenant (2015)
Curiously enough, this score was kicked out of Oscar contention for recycling from the 1958 film Fortunella. But then again, once you hear the lavishly-produced orchestra, conducted by either Japanese hall-of-famer Ryuichi Sakamoto, or German composer Alva Noto? What does it matter? The duo, with help from Bryce Dessner, created the sonic atmospheres of The Revenant, perfectly pairing their audio with the viciously serene landscapes and Odyssean woes of frontiersman Hugh Glass. They massaged the string section to death in the search of the perfect audio atmosphere to elevate this revenge story. So in this case, who’s Oscar? The score for The Revenant rumbled and roared.
15. Ludwig Goransson – Creed (2015)
Creed was a rambunctious work of fusion, trading in on old tropes and characters for new kinds of stories and storytelling. The Italian Stallion’s manifest meathead destiny gave way to Adonis Creed, the forgotten son of Apollo with nothing to lose and everything to prove. Creed capitalized on the Balboa brand to offer up new voices. And Ludwig Göransson took that to heart. Göransson, a Swedish wunderkind who got his start producing music for Childish Gambino and TV’s Community among other things, found a perfect working relationship with Ryan Coogler on Fruitvale Station. Here, Ludwig found maximalist highs blending Conti-style trumpet themes of yore with ear-popping vocals from Meek Mill, Vince Staples, and Jhené Aiko. Who knew orchestras could pair so well with battle rap? Besides Cypress Hill that one time…
14. Justin Hurwitz – La La Land (2016)
Admit it, if this wasn’t mentioned, if “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme” wasn’t praised, the musical-and-theater cats would have my head on a plate. That is to say, Justin Hurwitz’s jazz score for La La Land is a timeless slice of neo-classical literary bliss. It’s Elevators and Gallows a little, or even Umbrellas of Cherbourg. But only inasmuch as those are starting points for Hurtwitz’s nouveau melancholic deliciousness. And even if some of us dunked on Gosling’s ‘jasszzzzz’ at the time, Hurwitz got the last laugh with melodies that creep out from the inner cortex from time to time, that, you just can’t help but whistle.
13. Nicholas Britell – If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
It’s as if Miles Davis were alive and were the star contributor to a 2018 movie score. Barry Jenkins asked Nicholas Britell to come up with brass sounds, something indicative of black Harlem, ethereal and vintage. Britell came back swinging with not only a bold trumpet theme, but strings of love, and compositions that could fit in at a mid-century jazz club amidst smoke and low lighting. It’s a certain level of romanticism and unabashed volume scores don’t get to play in much these days. “Agape” takes a simple and repetitive horn theme, and reaches beyond the screen to become this evocative statement about love. Love of self, love of family, intimate love, and love for time.
12. John Carpenter – Halloween (2018)
He’s John fucking Carpenter you guys. Which, let’s admit, David Gordon Green’s Halloween made efforts to simplify and emotionally reconfigure the Halloween legacy, and it works as escapist throwback as well modern re-evaluation. But even hipster auteur David Gordon Green, well, he wouldn’t dare touch the Carpenter theme. It’s as they say, an all-timer. Carpenter, scoring for Green after being offscreen for too long, switched on the old keyboards, and showed the kids how a 5/4 time signature was done. It’s a staple. A reminder of how the best scores need only a great earworm to elicit a million moods and memories. And how a killer theme, like an unstoppable killer perhaps, endures in spite of itself.
11. Hans Zimmer – Inception (2010)
Little known German composer Hans Zimmer came to prominence in 2010 when, haha, we can’t keep this up. It’s a testament to Zimmer’s high intensity and jovial creativity that he could make a mark within a techno heist flicks about dreams. The guy signs up for like five big budget movies a year and he rocks every last one of them. Rush was guitar slammin’ goodness. The Lone Ranger and Rango were symphoniums on Western clichés made fresh. But on Inception, Nolan played with different styles, time, and *checks notes* Edith Piaf to create this unique blend of Hollywood scoring. “Mombasa”, “The Dream is Collapsing”, and “Time” are all songs to remember (or punch drywall to).
10. Jóhann Jóhannsson – Mandy (2018)
Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson was a musician with a gentle touch for his compositions. He approached scoring like a garden to be tended to over time. He would score a little, stop, come back, and keep scoring, or revise past work. His works with Denis Villeneuve gained him recognition. The Theory of Everything got him an Oscar nomination. His worked ranged from being brutally down beat in Sicario to fluttery and elemental in Mary Magdalene. But as a testament to his skills, nothing showcased his capabilities and flexibility better than his gnarly work on Mandy. It startles, and stuns. A hypnotic fever dream that embraces its love themes, while diving straight to hell with synth nightmares. His most daring work.
09. Jonny Greenwood – The Phantom Thread (2017)
“Big-ass strings.” That’s what PTA asked for. At least, according to Jonny Greenwood on NPR. But here’s the thing, Phantom Thread soars as both a callback to 1950s romanticism, and a snarky rebuke of traditional scoring. Greenwood, PTA’s audio muse of sorts, found exciting new territory with his illusory and effervescent work on scoring the life of Reynolds Woodcock. The pianos, cellos, all of it stitches together with lush momentum like something straight out of the House of Woodcock. The soundtrack is, dare we say, chic.
08. Cliff Martinez – Drive (2011)
Drive is a proud marvel of ‘80s pastiche, and the music reflects that. Think somewhere between Tangerine Dream and Air. Or the music of Michael Mann films and Steven Soderbergh’s early 2000s output. Electronica has rarely come off this swishy, and ex-Red Hot Chili Pepper drummer Cliff Martinez provided ample intrigue with his digital percussions and neon feel. Drive, on its face, could elicit snickers, with its cobra jacket violence and retrograde philosophizing. But Martinez holds this movie together. The L.A. thriller takes on otherworldly qualities, and classed up old sounds with a sense of eerie mystery.
07. Alexandre Desplat – The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
A monsieur glides through the velveteen hallways of his hallway as the camera allows us private access to every room and every traveler. Atop these images, a tackety piano plays a lovely tune, giving a theme to the proceedings. Alexandre Desplat makes memory both haunting and inviting with a single melody. It makes you want to sightsee with joy. Wes Anderson’s new classic of nostalgia goes to the music school vault and pulls out a number of wonderful tricks. A balalaika. Russian folks music. Church organs. It’s like going to an actually-fun museum when you listen to this oddball score. (And lastly, speaking from personal experience, try “Moonshine”, the end credits theme on a stereo. Like medicine, it is.)
06. Arcade Fire – Her (2013)
Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Owen Pallett came to Spike Jonze’s Her to score, but not quite like the alternative gurus they’d become known for being. Her features just the gingerest piano taps, in a simultaneously glum and upbeat fairy tale score. Oscar-nominated, there’s still no formal release for this. For the love of god, Warner, release this digitally, cleanly, or on vinyl. Something for the blues or rainy days. Or remembering that Joaquin Phoenix isn’t always a kook.
05. Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross – The Social Network (2010)
The Reznor and Ross team have become household names in the last decade. Synth-and-drone power sounds for the broodier fare. Their work, especially in Gone Girl and TV’s Watchmen gaining plaudits for reshaping convention. But their debut film score for The Social Network has endured as not only the model for digital scoring, but an exemplar for how make a juxtaposed score. That score consisting of bittersweet piano melodies, melded with hurt-feelings synthesizer snaps. The Social Network‘s score is emblematic of a changing guard, how modern tech espouses cool new ways of electrifying staid traditions. And Reznor and Ross tuned right into that vibe by creating a score for our time.
04. Ennio Morricone – The Hateful Eight (2015)
One, it’s bonkers that Ennio Morricone didn’t win an Oscar for film scoring until this point. (All that in-fighting with Tarantino … for nothing.) Two, no matter what you think about Tarantino’s hyper-violent horse opera, have you seen the opening credits? Okay, and you know how those sour oboes and drum taps shake and shimmy until they build to Morricone’s name on the credits? He literally composed the score, and makes it swing big when his own damn name comes up on screen! It takes a lot of nerve, and even more credibility to get away with something like that. And it’s arguably the purest, silliest, and most enjoyable moment in the entire film.
03. Nicholas Britell – Moonlight (2016)
Every so often, there’s this feeling that the score for a movie’s going to be breathtaking before it even comes out. Think about Zimmer’s rocker horns in the Man of Steel marketing. Or Giacchino’s jollity in the UP teasers. Offer a sliver of a simple theme, or a distinct sound, and there’s no turning back. Moonlight’s initial trailer offered Nicholas Britell’s “The Middle of the World”, a key piece of music used in the film. (It’s in the scene where young Little learns how to swim, and re-watching, the fluid triumph of Britell’s string choices never diminishes.) Britell offered up some of the catchiest, most elegant music-making of any movie last decade, and announced his arrival as someone of distinct voice and taste. Chopped and screwed, aggressively classical. He fit right in to Moonlight’s lament, with a knack for hip-hop heavy bass mixed in to sensitively drawn string-work.
02. Hans Zimmer – Dunkirk (2017)
Yes, Hans Zimmer is an A-list star composer of magnificent talents. But his Dunkirk score, like battle itself, is the sum of many participants (combatants if you like). While listed as the sole composer in the main credits of Dunkirk, Zimmer, in the digital copies of this soundtrack’s release, coughed up credit to his invaluable collaborators. Yes, “Oil” is this perfectly triple-layered dirge of danger (and the most flop-sweat inducing track of the last decade), he got help for some big moments. Lorne Balfe assisted in numbers like “Regimental Brothers” and gave the film a shimmering cry of horns. And English composer Benjamin Wallfisch brilliantly re-worked the music of the famed Edward Elgar, making “Variation 15” like a slow exhalation of confident air, ready to restore the lives it accompanies. Dunkirk is drastic in tone shifts, intense and somehow just right for the fight-or-flight nature of Nolan’s supermarine thriller. If you’re looking for a huge score, look no further.
01. Mica Levi – Under the Skin (2014)
When Under the Skin director Jonathan Glazer was introduced to experimental popster Mica Levi, the director asked the Surrey-born composer abstract sound design questions. How do you translate the feeling of failing a joke, or experience sex for the first time, or even being on fire, in to sounds? Needless to say, Levi dug right in.
With 10 months, a viola, and reference points like John Cage, Giacinto Scelis, and music from strip clubs, Levi conjured up something primal, uncomfortable, a quantum leap in terms of film composition and what that responsibility even means. While rooted in familiar sounds, and clever ideas, everything sounds so wrong. Shifts in tone, beats, speeds. Yet in a winning bit of irony, that’s what makes it so right as a film score. Not only is this a work of sound so well-matched to its source, it’s a work of undeniable heft and memorability that we still can’t shake.
Under the Skin shouldn’t be listened to in even the safest of conditions, it’s so jarring. But if ever there was a more perfectly conceived and implemented work of film scoring, well, you’ll be hard-pressed something more resonant and disturbing than this one. Those strings, those chilling strings from another world. They’re with us forever.