Every year we go and see movies; moving images that move us, that tell stories, that ask us to feel something, invite us into their micro-climates. One of the most significant methods by which this collaborative art forms asks of our attention is through music.
A score – and source music – can serve different purposes, depending on the intention. It can act subliminally, to unnerve or to hook. It can punctuate; announce itself; demarcate. It can showboat or slip by, a creeper in the subconscious.
Here, then, is an incomplete list of some of the very best scores and soundtracks that have helped out the last decade’s great movies. There are far, far more to detail, I’m sure. This is a personal selection of the most memorable, presented alphabetically.
10 Cloverfield Lane (Bear McReary)
The opening 10 minutes or so of Dan Trachtenberg’s superlative 10 Cloverfield Lane are almost totally without dialogue save for, if memory serves, a voicemail message and a radio news report. Exposition is dolled out to keen-eyed audience members through visual clues. As engaging and immersive an opening to a movie that I’ve encountered this last decade, it is helped in no small way by Bear McReary’s stirring music, which recalls – at its best – John Williams’ most giving scores for Spielberg. Vinyl available from Mondo.
American Honey (Various)
Andrea Arnold’s first foray in the United States is backed almost entirely by a cracking contemporary soundtrack of source music, largely evoking the unbridled passion and horniness of her young cast. Hip-hop acts like Migos get their time in the sun, while plenty other cuts splice rap with the kind of hedonistic beats found throughout Spring Breakers. Meanwhile, the likes of Mazzy Star and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy counter with earthy, world-weary realness. The best compilation-style soundtrack of the decade. Available to stream only at the time of writing.
Annihilation (Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow)
Alex Garland’s seismic re-working of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy is one of the great sci-fi films of the 21st century to date. In keeping with this degree of vision, Garland’s odyssey comes with a score of suitable awe. Ban Salisbury and Geoff Barrow compliment waves of alien tones and drones with nakedly human guitar plucking, echoing the blending of ecosystems taking place within the story. It all builds to that dazzling lighthouse crescendo hinted at on the cover art. Vinyl available from Invada.
Blade Runner 2049 (Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch)
Speculative fiction evidently encourages creativity in musicians. And even if the film itself didn’t woo all audiences (I have my distinct reservations, still), the music conjured by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch proves a worthy successor to the momentous and iconic work laid down by Vangelis some 30 odd years previously. A vanguard wash of emotions imprisoned in a technological chill, entirely fitting for the beautiful images rendered by cinematographer Roger Deakins. Vinyl available from Mondo.
Carol (Carter Burwell)
Carter Burwell’s score for Carol is defined by a sense of yearning as beautiful patterns and lilting refrains keep recurring, always within touching distance of fulfilling themselves. Then, before you know it, they’re back at arm’s reach. An aching, heartfelt piece of work complimented with some smart needle-drops evocative of the picture’s time period. Vinyl available from Varese Sarabande.
Cloud Atlas (Various)
Grand folly or daring work of ambitious narrative scope? Wrangling David Mitchell’s multi-era novel into a movie was always going to be a challenge. That the story hangs, in part, on a wondrous piece of music sets out a daunting task for the composers. Fortunately, Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek et all rose to the challenge. One might argue that the mastery is in the edit when watching the thing, but the music stands by itself, majestic and inevitable. Vinyl available from Warner Bros.
Get Out (Michael Abels)
Many aspects of Jordan Peele’s zeitgeist-defining horror flick have snapped up just praise, but it often feels as though Michael Abels’ contribution is somewhat overlooked. That’s a shame, as its a tremendous piece of work, with hushed, chanting vocals prickling the sense of paranoia inherent in the story and Chris’ (Daniel Kaluuya) sceptical perspective. Vinyl available from Waxwork Records
Girlhood (Para One)
The Girlhood soundtrack album runs to less than half an hour, and perhaps egregiously omits Rihanna’s film-defining “Diamond”, instead focusing on the incidental music from Para One (aka Jean-Baptiste Laubier). But even on these terms its a glorious listen; a cycle of staccato melodies conjured both organically and synthetically. It echoes the faltering, coming-of-age steps of protagonist Marieme (Karidja Touré). Vinyl available from Because Records.
If Beale Street Could Talk (Nicholas Britell)
Nicholas Britell’s music for If Beale Street Could Talk is exquisite, and if I were reorder this selection by preference, this would take the top spot. His selections shimmer with romance and rage; the opposing emotions that power Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel. The soundtrack is further peppered with deep cuts from John Coltrane and Nina Simone among others. A phenomenal listen in its own right even without Jenkins’ pristine images. Vinyl available from Invada.
Inherent Vice (Jonny Greenwood / Various)
Another pitch perfect mix of score and source is compiled here. Picking just one of Jonny Greenwood’s collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson for this list was hard (Phantom Thread very nearly took its place), but the way Greenwood’s grooves not only sit beside but compliment cuts from the likes of CAN and Minnie Riperton make the Inherent Vice soundtrack one to dip into over and over again. The coolest soundtrack this side of Pulp Fiction? Vinyl available from Nonesuch.
Inside Llewyn Davis (Various)
It’s rare for a soundtrack album to become a success in its own right, but I feel like that happened for Inside Llewyn Davis; a compilation of folk songs that feathered through the Coen Brothers’ melancholic comedy. Like the movie itself, the record feels like a throwback to the burgeoning times of Bob Dylan, when folk music inflected the pop zeitgeist like never before (or, really, since). Vinyl available from Nonesuch.
It Follows (Disasterpiece)
Some soundtracks, like the one above, might be cosy, others come at you like knives. Disasterpiece’s jagged score for David Robert Mitchell’s horror indie lands firmly in the latter category. Hired off of the strength of his 8-bit video game soundtrack work, Disasterpiece (aka Richard Vreeland) brought a vaguely John Carpenter-esque shimmer to his work here, something that sat well with Mitchell’s sinister suburbs, helping evoke the spirit of Halloween. This score stands by itself, however. Just check out the harrowing “Heels”. Vinyl available from Milan Records.
Jackie (Mica Levi)
Picking one Mica Levi score was hard (damn these self-imposed criteria!). Under The Skin was tempting for how alien and overwhelming it was… Monos for its similar pulverising immersion. In the end, though, I went for outlier, Jackie. Levi’s most sumptuous, humanistic film music to date. Her music swells and swoons, evoking how spun we are by grief; the subject of Pablo Larraín’s superior Jackie Kennedy biopic. It’s also a record of delicate grace, much like the public image of Kennedy herself, an image tenderly fractured by Natalie Portman’s performance. Vinyl available from Milan Records.
Suspiria (Thom Yorke)
Golbin’s Suspiria music is among the most iconic of horror scores. How on Earth do you top it’s prog-rock theatrics? The answer is you don’t, just as you don’t top Dario Argento’s Technicolor hysteria. You head in another direction entirely. Both Luca Guadagnino and Thom Yorke did just that for their 2018 remake, eliciting icy cold dread and despair. Yorke’s vocal cuts surprised Guadagnino, but they nail his tone perfectly, while eerie dance number “Volk” is one for the ages. Vinyl available from XL Records.
Uncut Gems (Daniel Lopatin)
The Safdie Brothers have a good history of choosing auteurs from the alternative music scene to score their work (Ariel Pink’s work on Heaven Knows What is a case in point). For their latest and most ambitious picture they, ahem, scored Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) and the results are nothing short of phenomenal. The futurism of Vangelis’ Blade Runner score mixes with swirls of other influences, as though all the great New York soundtracks were being viewed at once, as though through a prism. Utterly fantastic. Vinyl available from Warp Records.