We didn’t publish this list in 2020, because so few movies were released. While Hollywood has been slow to recover, streaming services and film festivals (virtual and in person) have made up the slack. We’re pleased to return with some early picks for the best film scores of 2021, knowing that some of the year’s best films have yet to be released. This being said, we’re pretty confident in our picks!
One of 2021’s top instrumental music stories is the continued expansion of the artists we cover toward the cinematic world. Years ago, many film composers were known only as film composers, but now the lines have been blurred. We’ll begin with our top five nominees, followed by five honorable mentions.
The Top 5
Aaron Cupples ~ Island of the Hungry Ghosts (PAN)
Migratory crabs share space with detained refugees on a lonely island: one group able to move, the other stuck in place. This contrast produces the tension of this “hybrid documentary,” whose OST is graced by additional field recordings from Leo Dolgan. As for the ghosts, they wander at night, waiting for recognition, for transformation, for their own chance to escape.
Dan Deacon ~ Ascension (Mars Attacks/Sony)
Only a week old at the time of printing, this OST is a dark horse candidate that we’ve elevated to the top level. Deacon’s combination of strings and percussion adds color to this new documentary about “the pursuit of the Chinese dream.” But will the awards committees recognize it in time?
Hans Zimmer ~ Dune (WaterTower)
Once upon a time, we thought Hans Zimmer might be repeating himself, as he became known more for bombast than for subtlety. A mid-career rejuvenation has resulted in some incredible recent scores, few as surprising as Dune. The IMAX format is best for viewing, but the surround sound speakers are best for hearing. Every time the percussion descends, the intensity surges.
Jonny Greenwood ~ The Power of the Dog (Lakeshore)
Returning to the Old West, Jonny Greenwood offers suggestions of wide open spaces along with the claustrophobia of living in a small minded town. The composer’s string-laden music hearkens back to his work on There Will Be Blood, as moments of intensity are followed by segments of violence.
Nainita Desai ~ The Reason I Jump (Mercury KX)
We fell in love with this film score before the movie was released, and afterwards, we fell in love with the film. Desai’s music echoes the fragility of sensory overload while reflecting the beauty of small things, as seen through the eyes of the movie’s protagonist. Best of all, the score works as a standalone album, underlining the strength of the composition.
Antonio Pinto ~ Nine Days (Parlophone)
There’s not a lot of music in Nine Days, but music is integral to the plot. As one of the year’s most cerebral movies (mostly dialogue, little traditional action), it needed a strong score to supplement the script, and Pinto was up to the challenge. If you haven’t seen this charming indie, be sure to seek it out.
Nico Muhly and Nadia Sirota ~ Gift of Fire (Bedroom Community)
Bedroom Community offers the original score to a documentary about Japanese scientists working on an atomic bomb during the Second World War. Listeners in different countries may experience different reactions. The music is mostly tender, with spots of agitation, alternating between piano and strings; the highlights include “Ruins to Setsu” (heard in the trailer) and “Come Back Safe.”
Sin Fang ~ Foscadh (INNI)
Sin Fang places music boxes and drones in subsequent tracks, suggesting a pair of potential futures for the lost and lonely protagonist. Resonant strings contribute a sense of rising drama. The score offers dignity to a character that finds little of it in life. Look for it at a film festival near you!
Tom Hodge ~ The Mauritanian (STX/Sony)
Few people saw the film, despite the stellar cast; but a drama about abuses at Guantanamo Bay was always going to be a hard sell. Not so the propulsive score by Tom Hodge, at times claustrophobic as a tiny cell, at others dramatic as the fight for justice weighed against the desire for retribution.
Valgeir Sigurðsson ~ Kvika (Bedroom Community)
Another fine entry from Bedroom Community, Kvika is the score to “MALÁ RÍŠA (Little Kingdom),” finally making its appearance as an OST. This is another in a long line of soundtrack successes for Sigurðsson, whose balance of tenderness and turbulence makes this an exciting listen.