What makes a great film score? There are many ways to answer this question, but on our site, there’s only one criterion: does the album stand on its own? The best film scores, like the best ads, make us want to see the movie. Even if we’re disappointed by the film, we still return to the score. The finest scores avoid incidental cues and endless repetitions, concentrating instead on mood and composition.
We’re living in an amazing time for film scores, as many of our favorite instrumental artists have made the jump to cinema. While we wish some of them would jump back, we’re overjoyed at the thought that the world is being exposed to the music we love. In fact, there were so many scores by our favorite artists this year that some have not even made this list: Mogwai, Hauschka, Max Richter, Colin Stetson, Peter Broderick, Daniel Bjarnason and Valgeir Sigurðsson, to name but a few. As the film nominations roll in, we’ll see lists of the usual suspects, but our list invites readers to go beyond the A-list to discover some hidden gems.
For those interested, the Golden Globes and Grammy nominees were announced earlier today. The Golden Globes nominees for Best Original Score are Black Panther, First Man, Isle of Dogs, Mary Poppins Returns and A Quiet Place. The typically clueless Grammy Awards nominated four scores released in 2017 for their 2019 ceremony: Blade Runner 2049, Coco, The Shape of Water and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, along with Black Panther. We think we can do better than that.
And now, without further ado, here are Rich’s Picks for the Best Film Scores of 2018!
Dan Deacon ~ Time Trial (Domino Soundtracks)
Half of our picks are from documentaries, a rich yet undervalued source of quality entertainment in both film and music. Time Trial is the saga of cyclist David Millar, and supplies the sort of visceral excitement last heard in Junkie XL’s Distance Between Dreams. As expected, the music is propulsive, sounding in turn like spinning spokes (“Better Times”), bicycle bells (“The Breakaway”) and the heat of competition (“Horns and Drums”). It’s perfect music for cycling, walking, or simply sitting still ~ that is, if one can manage to resist the flow of adrenaline.
Dickon Hinchliffe ~ Leave No Trace (Lakeshore Records)
Hinchliffe teams up again with the director of “Winter’s Bone.” In “Leave No Trace,” he faces a similar challenge: scoring a film filled with vast, dialogue-free spaces. The film resonated with audiences, and we suspect it will draw award attention for its female lead. But the score deserves recognition as well. Drawing from multiple genres, including ambient, modern composition and even post-rock, Leave No Trace ends up leaving a pretty big mark.
Erik K. Skodvin & Rauelsson ~ (A Score for) Darling (Sonic Pieces)
An early year surprise came in the form of (A Score for) Darling, composed for an independent Danish film about a troubled dancer. In this yearning score, one can hear the dancer yearning to dance, no matter how her body replies. The strings yank the dreams from the body and give them motion. Is there enough for one last ballet? Or will the world end before the curtain opens?
Hildur Guðnadóttir and Jóhann Jóhannsson ~ Mary Magdalene (Milan)
This score took on added weight with the untimely death of Jóhann Jóhannsson, but it makes a kinder farewell than Mandy. The compositions are lovely ~ one might even say holy. Few people saw the film, which was never released in the States. But the score tugs at the heart, as a memento of Jóhannsson’s productive partnership with Guðnadóttir. Together, they’ve produced an album to remember, to play over our own stories of loss and resurrection.
Marco Beltrami ~ A Quiet Place (Milan)
The most mainstream of our picks sounds nothing like the mainstream. A Quiet Place is a lesson in silence and sound that mimics the movie, and in many places, carries it. The impact of the finale (no spoilers!) is dependent on Beltrami’s glissandos. The dynamic tension is responsible for the album’s suspense as well. But what if there were no movie? The album would still stand among the best of 2018’s electro-acoustic hybrids.
Nick Zammuto ~ We the Animals (Temporary Residence)
This dreamlike, allusive film receives an impressionistic treatment from Nick Zammuto (The Books). Incorporating field recordings and dialogue, the score creates its own fantastical aural world, which may remind some of Carter Burwell’s work on Where the Wild Things Are. While the pieces are short, many blend together to create longer tracks. The digital album is out now, with a beautiful physical release slated for the new year, complete with 28-page color diary and art print.
Psychological Strategy Board ~ Penny Slinger: Out of the Shadows (Front & Follow)
One of the year’s most unusual offerings needed a score to match, and found it. Amazingly, this is the first album from the aptly titled Psychological Strategy Board. Penny Slinger’s art shatters every rule and ignores every boundary. Her story is enthralling, her limited oeuvre groundbreaking; yet she has received little mainstream recognition. These macabre musical arrangements are wonders on their own; when paired with the film, their power is exponentially increased.
Rachel Grimes ~ The Doctor from India (Rough Trade)
Rachel from Rachel’s returns with a delicate documentary score, joined by friends who flesh out her piano arrangements (though they are lovely on their own). The film tells the story of Dr. Vasant Lad, who worked tirelessly to introduce holistic health practices to the masses. One need not see the film to feel it; Grimes’ compositions are gentle, tender and warm, producing a glow akin to that exuded by the protagonist. One track is titled, “I Do What I Love;” Grimes is clearly doing the same.
Rutger Zuydervelt with Ilia Belorukov and René Aquarius ~ The Red Soul (Sofa)
Rutger Zuydervelt (Machinefabriek) has once again had an amazingly productive year, and every year he seems to have one release that leads the pack. As one seamless piece, The Red Soul acts as a sonic collage, replete with snippets of Stalin and Soviet song. The entire piece is abraded, as if rescued from the wreckage. There’s still dust in these grooves, the only evidence of lives that were eradicated and memories that were erased.
Zach Abramson, Derek Muro and David Perlick-Molinari ~ All for a Few Good Waves
Since when is a film score longer than the film it accompanies? This trio manages the feat by including full tracks, nearly doubling the length of the documentary about surfer/graphic designer David Carson. While watching, the music is absorbed into the images, but on its own, it gets to breathe ~ much like a surfer out for a morning run, wooed by the waves and the promise of one good ride. To play this mini-album is to be serenaded by the sun and soothed by the surf.