The film industry honors scores based on their use in movies. But our angle is different; we’re more interested in how scores work as albums. This means our preferences are a bit different from others. After a lot of viewing, followed by some intense home play, we’ve chosen ten film scores from 2015 to highlight, plus a few honorable mentions. Some of these are new to us, so we hope you might find a pleasant discovery or two here as well!
1) Disasterpeace ~ It Follows (Milan Records)
Our top choice should be no surprise, given its high placement on our Best Albums of 2015 list. The surprise is that Rich Vreeland had never done a horror score before It Follows; his prior work had been music for happy video games. Here he offers a Carpenter homage that not only honors the master, but introduces new twists. The music brought deserving attention to the film, and vice versa, creating a perfect symbiosis of events. “Doppel” is the most distinctive track, but the main theme is the most memorable. Read our review here.
2) Jed Kurzel ~ Macbeth (Decca)
Australia’s Jed Kurzel has only just started to make a name for himself, with a resume that includes The Babadook and Slow West. By choosing impressionistic, atmospheric films, he’s bought himself time to develop a signature sound. On Macbeth, it’s the sound of slow, building tension, a pot on the stove, a sword in the sheath. The strings grow more ominous as they amass, suggesting the play’s signature line, something wicked this way comes. This is the least known score here, but it’s one of the best.
3) Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto with Bryce Dessner ~ The Revenant (Milan Records)
This motion picture contains long dialogue-free stretches, leaving music to carry the weight ~ and it does. The often mournful, occasionally confrontational score may remind listeners of There Will Be Blood. This collaboration of composers produces a moody alchemy and a rich listening experience. “Killing Hawk” is especially noteworthy, as are “Church Dream” and “Cat & Mouse,” but the entire score casts a spell and never lets go.
4) Peter Gregson ~ A Little Chaos (Milan Records)
We chose Touch as one of our best albums of the year in Modern Composition, but this album isn’t far behind. In fact, Chris Redfearn reviewed them both in the same article. It’s amazing how well this soundtrack plays as an album. For this we credit the attention to small themes, which makes even two-minute tracks such as “What Happened” stand out. It all comes together on the penultimate (title) track, which integrates everything that has come before ~ the mark of a great composer.
5) Jóhann Jóhannsson ~ Sicario (Varese Sarabande)
After winning a Golden Globe for his work on A Theory of Everything, Jóhannsson returned with a double dose in 2015: Sicario and End of Summer. The former is the longer and more notable work, a successor in timbre to Prisoners, yet even more claustrophobic in tone. “Desert Music” is classic Jóhannsson, and features the cello of Hildur Gudnadóttir, but abrasive cuts such as “The Beast” capture the ear and make the listener lean forward as if still in the theatre. Read our review here.
6) Daniel Pemberton ~ Steve Jobs (Backlot Music)
Daniel Pemberton has had a lot of success in TV scoring, but a string of bad luck in film scoring, as his projects have come from major studios and included big stars, but have fallen short of success. Take for example Ridley Scott’s The Counselor, Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (also 2015), and now Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs. But it’s not Pemberton’s fault; he’s doing his job well, and he has outdone himself on his latest project. The score is highlighted by two huge tracks, the intense “Revenge” and the percussive “The Skylight Plan”, the latter a perfect fit for the time period it accompanies in the movie. Tip: take out the three Dylan and Maccabees tracks at home for a better listening flow.
7) The Octopus Project ~ Kumiko the Treasure Hunter (Illuminated Paths)
A quirky indie movie that never quite found an audience, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is graced by a similarly quirky soundtrack. The film tells the story of a Japanese woman who finds a damaged VHS copy of Fargo, believes it to be a documentary, and heads to Minnesota in search of buried treasure. But it’s really about mental illness and indefatigable hope. The film’s ending is almost unbearably sad, but The Octopus Project provides the perfect score to represent a detaching life.
8) Junkie XL ~ Mad Max: Fury Road (WaterTower Music)
The year’s most unrelenting score is a perfect match for the year’s most unrelenting movie. For those who haven’t seen it, the action is pretty straightforward: a group of post-apocalyptic wanderers flee in one direction, then change their minds and charge back where they came from. Their opponents play taiko drums and strap a guitar player (Doof) to the hood of a truck while Cirque de Soleil-style pole vaulters bend and whirl. The kinetic energy is matched by the score, now available in a deluxe expanded version as well. Percussion fans will be overjoyed.
9) John Williams ~ Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Walt Disney Records)
Why is the score to the year’s (soon to be the millennia’s) biggest movie so far down on the list? One simple reason: we’ve heard many of these themes before. On this album, Williams successfully revisits brilliant themes from past glories, while adding modern nuances and weaving new threads. The best of these can be heard in “Rey’s Theme” below.
Now we’ve got nine. But what should be the tenth?
Two of my favorite films of the year included scores that worked well in context, but fell flat at home. I still recommend Spring (score by Jimmy LaValle, Eastern Glow Recordings) and Ex Machina (score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, Back Lot Music), but the scores are better with the movies. A lot has been made of Ennio Morricone’s score for The Hateful Eight (Verve), but the composer only finished 25 minutes of new music for the film; the rest drew from his score for John Carpenter’s The Thing, and the home listening experience is marred by obscene outtakes. Flying well under the radar is Joshua Bell and Marija Stroke’s performance of Bruce Adolphe’s score for Einstein’s Light, but the score is way too short. This reminded me of the short film scores we reviewed in 2015, including Clara Engel’s We Are Not Here and Harry Edwards’ Ghazala, and another we mentioned (Rhian Sheehan’s We Are Stars). Award categories tend to ignore short film scores, but they deserve a place in the discussion. This brings us to our tenth pick:
10) William Ryan Fritch ~ Music for Film Vol. I (Lost Tribe Sound)
30 ~ yes, 30 ~ tracks are included on here from various film projects. We previously honored Fritch for his full-length work on The Waiting Room, but this collection demonstrates his strength in the smaller format. The album flows like a single work, and is a perfect showcase for his talents. We wouldn’t be surprised to see this composer hit the big leagues soon ~ Hollywood will be missing out if it doesn’t come calling. Read our review here.