Just a quick scan down the list below reveals an extraordinary breadth of genres and subject matters, from imposing, expensive science fiction films to quiet, intimate stories about men at sea on boats or outlaws breaking out of prison to be with their wives. Disparate though the films are, they’re all linked by at least one common motif: their music is utterly brilliant.
So with 2014 already well underway, and an entire new wave of films with great music in them beckoning, join us as we look back to the movies of last year, their finest soundtracks, and the must-listen pieces of music you can dig out on each one.
1. Gravity (Steven Price)
Must-listen track: Don’t Let Go
When does sound become music and music become sound? When you’re so busy not breathing that your ears can’t tell the difference any more. Steven Price’s accompaniment for Gravity, in which you can literally hear the death of a machine as a trumpet loops through a failing synth, is a bravura piece of technical design: a pulse-racing yet heart-stopping string of sonic vibrations that captures the experience of floating through space without hearing anything outside of your suit.
Weaving that with a haunting vocal line that nails Dr Ryan Stone’s lonely struggle to survive, Gravity manages to move and terrify in equal measure. A thrilling action theme with no percussion? That’s bold. What Price creates? It’s out of this world. Never has the word “soundtrack” been more apt.
2. The Hobbit (Howard Shore)
Must-listen track: The Forest River (Extended Version)
If movie music is about capturing the feel of what’s onscreen, there’s no greater composer than Howard Shore. His work on The Lord Of The Rings made Middle-earth come to life – and his two soundtracks for The Hobbit have kept it that way. In fact, this might just be the best of the lot. If An Unexpected Journey‘s contrast of small and large themes felt a bit signposted, The Desolation Of Smaug throws you into Tolkein’s world without a map.
Familiar tunes are there, along with the age-old uppy-downy rule (good guys go up, bad go down), but they’re combined with a wealth of new material to the point where it’s easy to dismiss the seemingly directionless sound. Repeat listens, though, reveal all kinds of inspired touches.
The Necromancer’s motif makes a strong return before blaring into Sauron’s familiar tune in A Spell Of Concealment, while The Shire is almost nowhere to be seen amid the darkness, its nature-driven sound fleeting past in the ambiguous theme for animal-friendly newcomer Beorn. Thorin’s rousing heroic medley, meanwhile, is initially kept under wraps, making way for the marching harpsichords of Dale (the town’s downward medieval vibe – Thrice Welcome – hinting at the untrustworthy politician at its head) and the Rivendell-ish vocals of The Woodland Realm.
All the while, six notes loom large over the score, seemingly attached to nothing. Then, you reach the second half of the album and Smaug reveals himself: an intimidating motif inverting Sauron’s evil power before swooping on your eardrums.
Shore is joined by orchestrator and conductor Conrad Pope for this movie, but Howard’s hand makes sure everything sounds the same – even as Conrad introduces industrial, metallic gongs for the showdown in the dwarfish kingdom that climaxes in a deafening, fiery spectacle.
It’s here that Thorin arrives, with Durin’s Folk and Protector of The Common Folk pitting the king’s rising motif against the descending omens of Dale, Azog (remember him?) and Smaug. The stand-out new music, though, belongs to Tauriel, who gets two themes to herself: one, a romantic serenade that lights up the shadow around it, the other, an ass-kicking five-note fanfare that flows through The Forest River for five glorious minutes with all the romping charisma of Indiana Jones.
Stack them all on top of each other and you have another supreme piece of acoustic world building to rival the Star Wars universe. With a second hand to share the workload, Shore has the chance to go bigger and bolder than before: complete with Ed Sheeran’s beautifully orchestrated acoustic number, I See Fire, Tolkein has never sounded more exciting or complex – you’ll be dipping in and out of these musical pages for years.
3. The Broken Circle Breakdown (The Broken Circle Breakdown Bluegrass Band)
Must-listen track: Wayfaring Stranger
While many soundtrack lovers will already have started to listen to 2014’s Inside LLewyn Davis on repeat, they may be missing out on 2013’s widely overlooked country-driven counterpart, the similarly themed and equally sorrowful The Broken Circle Breakdown. Performed by the movie’s talented cast – including writer and actress Veerle Baetens and her co-star Johan Heldenbergh – it’s a collection of familiar folk standards that are sung by the lead couple’s band as they go through a heart-wrenching break-up.
“If I needed you, would you come to me? Would you come to me for to ease my pain?” they ask each other on-stage. The singers may be Belgian, but those American blues have rarely felt so raw. A jukebox of painful honesty, every banjo and fiddle-filled cover is a three-minute window into the characters’ devastation. Think Blue Valentine with country music. Bluegrass Valentine.
Watch the movie, buy the CD, then congratulate yourself every time you manage to listen to Wayfaring Stranger on the bus without weeping.
4. Iron Man 3 (Brian Tyler)
Must-listen track: Can You Dig It
Ask anyone to hum the music from Iron Man 1 or 2 and they’ll start singing AC/DC at you. Ask them to hum the music from Iron Man 3 and they’ll come back with Can You Dig It, the blisteringly cool end credits number that hops between familiar guitar power chords and sax and organ like the conductor’s got rockets in his feet.
There are traces of the now-standard Zimmer-inspired tone here, but Tyler follows Shane Black’s lead to create a new theme that matches Tony Stark’s personality and, more importantly, morphs throughout the movie without ever being lost in the noise of a number-one rock band. Forget AC/DC: this is The London Philharmonic Orchestra baby, and their James Bond-like line, all jazzy fourths and straight minors, is as catchy as it gets.
Why so high up the list of 2013 scores? Because Iron Man 3 is the satisfying sound of Marvel’s superhero getting the recognisable theme it deserves; for the first time in the franchise, it has a real musical identity. The fact that it kicks off with Eiffel 65’s Blue (Da Be Dee) is a bonus.
5. Cloud Atlas (Tom Tykwer, Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek)
Must-listen track: The Cloud Atlas Sextet for Orchestra
“That’s it! That’s the music I heard in my dream,” yells Jim Broadbent’s composer after Ben Whishaw’s apprentice plays the movie’s main theme on the piano. It’s a tall order for a soundtrack in a movie based on an unfilmable novel, but Tom Tykwer and his regular collaborators are more than up to it. They start with The Atlas March, a simple, looping melody with hints of David Mitchell’s original Debussy-ish description, but then reinterpret that tune – mixed with the Opening Titles’ rhythm – to fit six strikingly different story lines.
Choirs, orchestras, blues, synth, you name it, they do it, past, present and future. A repeating structure, riff and beat tapping out the same universal tune across time and space? That elusive glimpse of perfection holds together this impossible project, a universal thread that underscores the parallel themes within Cloud Atlas’ mind-boggling chart of humanity. You’ll be hearing it in your dreams for weeks.
6. Prince Avalanche (Explosions in the Sky & David Wingo)
Must-listen track: Join Me On My Avalanche
Explosions in the Sky join forces with David Wingo for one of 2013’s biggest surprises: a tiny atmospheric score that lights up Paul Gordon Green’s enchanting indie. Conjuring up the desolated isolation of a fire-ravaged forest (in which our leads are painting lines on a highway), this is an album full of airy piano arpeggios and floating clarinets that takes two contrasting instruments and intertwines them into an odd couple of softly-stepping melodies.
Then, as the awkward, on-screen bromance begins to flourish, those signature explosions start to happen. Choirs, cellos, drums, synths; it’s a disjointed union that captures both the surreal slices of humor and warmth that defines the men’s relationship. When it clicks, you’ll swear you’re there beside them, paintbrush in hand, bickering over who gets to play what on the stereo. Sometimes, the simplest of tunes can be the most affecting.
7. Stoker (Clint Mansell)
Must-listen track: Piano Duet
Was there a movie more carefully crafted last year than Stoker? Park Chan-wook production designed his Hitchcockian thriller to heck, making Clint Mansell’s scores one of the most integrated of recent years. Philip Glass was originally down for the job, but it’s hard to imagine anything other than Clint’s typically uneasy whirl of synths and regular rhythms taking us into our young heroine’s mind. Uncle Charlie’s warped 007-style riff, a rising and falling chromatic ditty, muddies the psychosexual water to the point of confusion, while saucy songs such as Summer Wine boost the lusty tension.
That potent, heady cocktail paves the way for Glass’ only contribution: a piano duet between Mia Wasikowka’s India and her sinister uncle (Matthew Goode). Played by Sugar Veil and Trevor Gureckis, it grows from a restrained right hand into darker bass chords, leaping with excitement in paroxysms of discord until the left hand departs, leaving an excited, naive finger on its own, limp and unfulfilled. It might well be the most erotic piano playing ever caught on movie.
Thanks to Park’s precise direction, that audible frisson sends a shiver through every frame.
8. Frozen (Robert Lopez, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Christophe Beck)
Must-listen track: Let It Go
Disney set the tone for the subtly subversive Frozen with their choice of songwriters: Kristen Anderson-Lopez and her husband, Robert Lopez, also known as the man behind The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q. The duo deliver Broadway-style numbers in abundance, keeping up conventions with songs about falling in love and fighting for one’s own identity. But accompanying the traditional chords and themes are fantastically unconventional lyrics.
“I wanna stuff some chocolate in my face”, announces Princess Anna in The First Time In Forever – a craving a Disney Princess would never admit to, let alone sing about. Combined with Josh Gad’s Olaf, a snowman who sings a Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins-worthy ditty about how great the summer is, it’s a strange fusion of modern and retro that gives Frozen a strikingly fresh sound. Christophe Beck’s Icelandic-themed instrumentals bring in bukkehorns and South Saami chanting to set the chilly mood, before everything erupts in 2013’s catchiest song: Let It Go.
“Let the storm rage on!” shouts Idina Menzel’s Elsa, “the cold never bothered me anyway.” A feel-good power ballad for the person who would usually be the villain? Frozen’s soundtrack defiantly bucks the Disney trend to create a heartwarming, funny, infectious musical about two fully-fledged sisters, who just happen to be princesses.
That Disney have released it in a rare two-disc edition, complete with deleted songs and karaoke backing, shows how confident they are in the movie’s music – and also makes it an essential purchase.
9. The Impossible (Fernando Velázquez)
Must-listen track: The Impossible End Titles
Hitting UK cinemas almost exactly one year ago, it’s easy to forget that The Impossible came out in 2013 – something that’s hard to believe while your ears are recovering after watching it. The true story of a family trying to find each other after the 2004 Thailand tsunami, Juan Antonio Bayona’s movie risked being sickeningly syrupy or cynically manipulative, but somehow avoided both. The answer lies partly in Fernando Velázquez’s score.
The versatile composer worked on Bayona’s excellent The Orphanage as well as M. Night Shyamalan’s Devil, but it’s his history as a cello player that forms the basis for this rousing score, which starts with a throbbing cello note on The Best vacation Season Ever before rising into a beautiful yet basic theme that recalls the simple power of Atonement’s Elegy For Dunkirk. That tune, broken into bits by the frantic, dissonant horror of Is It Over?, pops up all over the place until finding its way back together for a rousing finale on The Impossible End Titles.
Moving but never sickly, evocative without being manipulative, it’s a full-on symphonic catharsis that carries the kind of pure melodic force you associate with Ennio Morricone in his prime. Wow.
10. Star Trek Into Darkness (Michael Giacchino)
Must-listen track: London Calling
If Michael Giacchino isn’t in the end of year best-of list then frankly, something’s wrong. The composer’s knack of playing with other people’s themes is uncanny, so the chance to hear him do it with his own – Star Trek Into Darkness is his first sequel to an earlier score – is a treat.
Giacchino builds upon his original Star Trek theme (one of the best French Horns showcases around) and gives it a tweak, taking advantage of its flexible chord progression to deliver both inversions (Sub Prime Directive) and straight action numbers. The new kid on the block is London Calling, for bad guy John Harrison, and it doesn’t disappoint, a triplet-led piano miniature that dances between minor and major seventh to drive up the tension. That rhythm infects everything else in the score (Meld-merized), but Giacchino’s only getting started. He soon chucks The Kronos Wartet into the warp drive, a madcap frenzy of noise with a choir shouting in – yes – Klingon over the top.
All that character and colorand still time for a balls-out reworking of Spock’s theme (The San Fran Hustle), a moving nod to Kirk’s dad (Warp Corp Values), not to mention Alexander Courage’s souped-up classic? Unlike the mildly disappointing movie, Star Trek Into Darkness’ score is one of those you wish could go on for even longer.
11. Man Of Steel
Must-listen track: Earth
2013 was another year where Hans Zimmer turned in several scores. Rush’s old-school guitar work was fun, but Man Of Steel was where you could tell the effort really went in. Why? Because rather than his usual minor thirds, Zimmer went for another intermission entirely: a major fifth. Leaping from there up to a sixth, then a seventh, then a full octave, it’s a daringly simple theme that isn’t Zimmer doing Zimmer at all. It’s Zimmer paying tribute to John Williams. The rest is drums. Drums, drums and more drums. Played by, according to the CD liner notes, 12 world-class drummers, who were brought together to create a super army (or world engine, if you will) that can be unleashed at will.
But step away from the bombast and pick up Disc 2 of the Man Of Steel’s Deluxe Edition: when Zimmer’s decision not to follow in Batman’s footsteps plays out on delicate piano and guitar (Earth), it’s bliss. Who needs 12 drummers when you can have five notes?
12. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (Daniel Hart)
Must-listen track: Ruth and Sylvie
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ title comes from a misremembered folk song – and composer Daniel Hart goes with it, turning the whole movie into a lyrical ballad in its own right. Fiddles and guitars introduce the traditional folk vibe, while shimmering strings create a hazy sense of a half-forgotten legend, but the music’s power comes from a relentless clapping that runs through it. Hands slap thighs and fingers snap in syncopated loops, mimicking instruments and overlapping each other until it accelerates into a hypnotic blur.
There’s something of Jonny Greenwood’s uneasy dread lurking beneath the sparse landscape, but guest vocals from local Texas talent Curtis Heath, John Graney and Andrew Tinker give the whole thing a grounded emotional warmth. And all the while, that clapping continues. Applause isn’t something you’d normally call intimate, but Ain’t Them Bodies Saints makes it exactly that. A swooning little masterpiece.
13. The Lone Ranger (Hans Zimmer, Geoff Zanelli)
Must-listen track: Finale
Let’s not mess about here: The Lone Ranger isn’t on this list because of Hans Zimmer. It’s because of Geoff Zanelli. Zimmer’s score is an adequate mix of Spaghetti Western orchestration and Pirates Of The Caribbean-style tunes, but the soundtrack bursts into life with the Finale, the only time the original TV theme is heard in the movie – and guest composer Geoff isn’t about to waste it. He takes Rossini’s already-grand William Tell Overture and triples it in length, introducing a snare drum and more strings to keep the pace up – even though the speed is actually slower than the original.
Then, he flips the theme into a minor key (a move so effective you wonder why Rossini didn’t do it in the first place) before pulling out each of Zimmer’s previously boring themes and inserting them seamlessly between movements. The result is a fizzing, popping, careening composition that gallops along with irresistible enthusiasm.
The rest of the album may be merely satisfactory, but this single track is easily the best 10 minutes of movie music from 2013. It’s so good that (whisper it) it might actually be better than Rossini’s original music. Someone give Zanelli a full score immediately.
14. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)
Must-listen track: Leaves Expanded May Be Prevailing Blue Mixed With Yellow Of The Sand
In a world where Michael Giacchino gives his album track names such delightfully cute puns as The Incredits and Does It Still McFly?, there’s always room for Shane Carruth’s equally idiosyncratic track names: Leaves Expanded May Be Prevailing Blue Mixed with Yellow of the Sand. Right. A Young Forest Growing Up Under Your Meadows. Ok, then. The Sun Is But A Morning Star. You bet it is.
But for all its absurd levels of pretention, Carruth’s music is just another string to the talented filmmaker’s bow – and an important one at that. Upstream Color may be annoyingly obtuse, but it sits alongside Stoker as one of 2013’s most carefully crafted pieces of art. Composed by the writer-director, Upstream’s score is a huge factor in creating the lofty sci-fi’s transcendent, yet bluntly horrific, atmosphere; an ethereal mix of wafting electronics and slow keyboards.
At times recalling David Lynch’s heyday, it seduces you with hazy synths before gongs and beeps take you up to a higher plane. A plane where titles like The Finest Qualities Of Our Nature Like The Bloom On Fruits Can Be Preserved don’t seem so daft after all. To so skilfully match sound and visuals is impressive on such a tiny budget. To do it while also writing, directing and starring in a movie is just scary.
15. Les Miserables (Various)
Must-listen track: One Day More
Do you hear the people sing? You will do, thanks to Tom Hooper’s groundbreaking decision to record his whole cast singing live on-set. It’s an inevitably mixed bag; away from the bad CGI, Russell Crowe acquits himself well as Javier, while Hugh Jackman’s Valjean brings a little too much vibrato to Bring Him Home, but Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen’s chemistry makes for a cracking Master Of The House and Samantha Barks’ On My Own is staggeringly sincere.
But the show is stolen, inevitably, by Anne Hathaway. Given the freedom to vary the delivery of her signature tune, her decision to blub through I Dreamed A Dream rather than belt it out Broadway-style creates a heartbreaking four-minute ballad that will bring you to tears at least twice. By the time the cast unite for One Day More and that well-known finale, you’ll be hearing the people sing in your head for weeks.
16. Saving Mr. Banks (Thomas Newman)
Must-listen track: Let’s Go Fly A Kite
Thomas Newman’s Disney score just trumps his music for Steven Soderbergh’s superb thriller Side Effects thanks to its ability to juggle Disney past and present: taking its cue from Mary Poppins, Feed The Birds is delicately inverted for Newman’s main theme, while a dainty piano version of Chim Chim Cher-Ee links flashbacks with the present day.
The highlight, though, is undoubtedly Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak as The Scherman Brothers, singing and writing their way through Mary Poppins’ much-loved classics behind a piano. When Emma Thompson’s reluctant author hears their rendition of Let’s Go Fly A Kite (featuring Bradley Whitford and Melanie Lawson), you’ll be hard-pressed not to waltz around the room with glee.
17. From Up on Poppy Hill (Satoshi Takebe)
Must-listen track: The Breakfast Song
Like Disney, Studio Ghibli have always known how to pick a good soundtrack. Normally, that’s because the answer is Joe Hisaishi, who’s scored everything from My Neighbor Totoro to Hayao Miyazaki’s final movie, The Wind Rises. His son Gorō, though, hired Satoshi Takebe to compose the charming music for From Up on Poppy Hill.
A tiny movie about a tiny love story, the melodies throughout are suitably sweet and twee, setting the relaxed pace for the life within a sleepy coastal village. But the songs will get even the most sedated viewer’s toes tapping. The standout? The Breakfast Song, a simple ode to fried eggs and food written by Gorō and Hiroko Taniyama, composed by Hiroko Taniyama, arranged by Satoshi Takebe and performed by Aoi Teshima.
Together, they produce perhaps the most cheerful opening to any movie in 2013, while stirring up your appetite. Who knew your ears could get hungry?
18. Wreck-It Ralph (Henry Jackman) / The Kings of Summer (Ryan Miller)
Must-listen track: Sugar Rush Showdown / Game Night
Henry Jackman had a good year in 2013 with both Captain Phillips and Wreck-It Ralph under his belt, but Disney’s arcade game gets the high score thanks to its creative use of chip tune melodies. Balancing orchestral work with 8-bit lines (Jackman spent his youth converting music for Commodore games), the result is an increasingly symphonic score that moves from retro computers to modern strings and brass – a bold combination that pays off beautifully on Sugar Rush Showdown, delivering blockbuster-sized emotions within a Mario Kart-style package.
Wreck-It Ralph is a perfect companion for The Kings Of Summer’s score by Ryan Miller. Following up his work on Safety Not Guaranteed, Miller proves he can do big things with small stories, using chip tunes as well to nail the nostalgia of young boys running into the woods. Building up tracks like boss stages, chromatic melodies are more typical of videogames than movies, while Game Night charms with a whistling reminiscent of a Western played on a Sega Mega Drive, but the soundtrack levels up for its opening and closing numbers: a boy bashing out rhythms on a pipe in the woods. Sometimes, instead of virtual wizardry, you just need something real.
19. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
Must-listen track: Freedom
Quentin Tarantino comes his closest to an original score yet with Django Unchained, which boasts standout new tracks from John Legend (Who Did That To You?), Rick Ross (100 Black Coffins) and Anthony Hamilton (Freedom). There’s even one from Ennio Morricone: Ancora Qui. Sung by Elisa Toffoli over shots of some dinner plates being laid out, it’s the director’s most mature use of music in a movie yet, but he ends up with so many tracks that they get sandwiched together on-screen with uneven edits; an over-indulgent selection to match an over-indulgent movie.
There are songs and pieces on hear you’ll be singing throughout 2014 and older numbers from Luis Bacalov set the tone perfectly, but you can’t help but wonder what it would be like if Tarantino finally had the guts to trust a composer (Morricone) to score his movie completely.
20. The Great Gatsby (Craig Armstrong)
Must-listen track: Boats Against The Current and Daisy’s Theme
Dial down The Great Gatsby and you’ll be surprised by the music you find: this is an album that evokes the emotions of the period without relying upon Emeli Sandé’s Crazy In Love. Craig Armstrong’s Dream Violin is achingly sad, while that piercing high note (introduced in the Overture) that flashes through the screen every time Daisy’s green light turns on is an impressively subtle piece of acoustic character development in a movie defined by orgiastic excess.
For those who like the pop numbers, that’s the kind of thing they like. But you can keep the anachronistic period covers of 21st Century hits: Baz Luhrrmann’s greatest Gatsby soundtrack can be found on The Orchestral Score album.
All Is Lost (Alex Ebert)
Must-listen track: Amen
A near-silent movie starring Robert Redford and nobody else, stranded in the middle of the ocean? JC Chandor’s tale was always going to need something good to back up his lead’s resilient fight to stay alive – and Alex Ebert’s score is it. Floating between hopeful flutes and mellifluous strings, before dipping into mournful brass wails and eerily ominous choirs, it’s a diverse emotional rollercoaster that may not work that well as a standalone listen, but while watching the movie, doesn’t get lost once. The gravelly Amen, sung by Ebert’s cracked vocals, is a perfectly pitched finale.
Lincoln (John Williams)
Must-listen track: With Malice Toward None
Another year, another chance for John Williams to come out of retirement and score another movie. This time, it’s Spielberg’s Lincoln. An understated soundtrack, Williams avoids any obvious pomp, instead producing a pleasant – if not especially memorable – mix of clarinet and soft trumpet that sets the mood for the period, with its dusty political chambers and wooden fireplaces, and hints at the understated presence of Daniel Day-Lewis’ towering icon. If it’s reminiscent at times of the pastoral simplicity of Carter Burwell’s True Grit, that’s no bad thing.
Must-listen track: Waking Up
M83 may not be that happy with their studio-directed score, which derives its sound heavily from TRON: Legacy and Hans Zimmer’s Inception, but there are some strong individual tracks here that sit right alongside Joe Kosinski’s stunning dystopian world.