Music in Film: top 12 movie soundtracks of 2012

As 2012 recedes into history, Ivan counts down his pick of the year's finest movie soundtracks...

While Den of Geek writers were busy voting for the top film of the year, I’ve been rifling through my collection of albums from the last 12 months to work out which film soundtrack was the best.  The conclusion? It’s been one heck of a year.  (Please excuse the long list of Honourable Mentions at the end…)

These are the best movie soundtracks of 2012. Probably.

1. The Master (Jonny Greenwood)

A quick rewatch of the trailer to Paul Thomas Anderson’s film reminds you of the power of Jonny Greenwood’s music. The Master is surpassed by its haunting score, which nails the psychological state of Joaquin Phoenix’s Able-Bodied Seamen, increasingly dominated by His Master’s Voice. It may not be as lyrical as Greenwood’s Norwegian Wood soundtrack, but from the nostalgic tones of Ella Fitzgerald to the beautiful harmonies of Split Saber, Greenwood gradually ramps up the discord, painting a picture, not just of Freddie’s troubled mind but of a nation struggling to retune itself in the wake of the War. Breathtaking.

2. Berberian Sound Studio (Broadcast)

It’s only fitting that a film about sound recording is responsible for 2012’s most mind-boggling score. Peter Strickland’s mini-masterpiece sees Toby Jones travel to Italy to provide the soundtrack for a 1970s horror – mostly by chopping and squishing vegetables. British band Broadcast composes the music for the unseen film within the film. Full of Morricone and Giallo-style flourishes, it’s a sea of flutes and synth, while choirs and organs add a medieval vibe. This is what makes up the bulk of the official CD release (out January 2013), but as the album goes on, the noises Toby’s foley artist creates seep into the CD, just as the Vortex’s music takes over the character’s claustrophobic world. Clicks, whirrs, cabbages and screams? The result is a sonic eargasm the like of which has never really been heard before. And that’s before you get to the track devoted entirely to the “dangerously aroused goblin”.

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3. War Horse (John Williams)

At the ripe age of 80, John Williams’ partnership with War Horse director Steven Spielberg has never sounded better. Taking us back to Dartmoor 1912, Williams still manages to pull new things out of the bag, this time coming up with a pastoral piece that Ralph Vaughan Williams would be proud of. Slowly galloping from woodwind and strings into the thundering sounds of war, War Horse’s main tune (a rising and falling four-note refrain) is moving without ever becoming schmaltzy. Away from the battle, the score climaxes with a tender piano solo, which strips down the theme to something staggeringly simple. Few composers would have the balls to do that, but Williams’ octogenarian balls are apparently bigger than ever. And just to prove it, he rounds things off with a syrupy solo from favourite trumpeter Tim Morrison – some of the loveliest brass playing heard on screen since Nigel Hess’ theme for Hetty Wainthropp Investigates.

4. Beasts Of The Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin/ Dan Romer)

From a name everyone in Hollywood knows to two that they’ll soon never forget: Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer. Zeitlin stunned the world with the magical realist Beasts Of The Southern Wild when it skipped into cinemas last year, but the amazement doesn’t stop there: he co-wrote the music too. Told from the perspective of Hushpuppy, a six-year-old living in an isolated, flooded New Orleans community, the film visually captures the wonder of its heroine. With little more than some strings, a celesta and a rising trumpet, the score does exactly the same thing. Ten seconds of The Bathtub – or, indeed, any of the other fantastic, Cajun rock-infused tracks– and you’re lost in a child’s world completely. All that from two unknown 29-year-olds? In an industry dominated by Hans Zimmer, this is a staggering rush of fresh musical blood.

5. Looper (Nathan Johnson)

Have you ever hit your head on a car door? Record that sound and times it by 1000. You’re 0.001% of the way to understanding how Nathan Johnson’s mind works. Anyone who saw Brick couldn’t fail to notice Nathan’s unusual bottle-based soundtrack. With Looper, his third collaboration with cousin Rian, he’s gone from glass bottles in car parks to guns in alleyways and 10-foot PVC tubes. Taking these noises and twisting them into instruments (christened with names like “gurgleganger”) and adding bits of real orchestra, Johnson miraculously crafts a theme that’s both recognisably familiar yet excitingly unique. The fact that it inspires genuine emotion (Her Face) as well as thrilling action (Run) is even more brain-spinning than hitting your head on a car door 1,000 times. This man is surely one of the most original composers out there today.

6. The Hobbit (Howard Shore)

Howard Shore’s return to Middle-earth balances the old and the new with incredibly dexterity. From Bilbo’s cheerful Shire signature to the threatening tones of Azog The Defiler, the sound of Tolkien’s world is technically, and emotionally, consistent. That backdrop paves the way for a superb new theme for the dwarves, which starts with the atmospheric earworm of the Misty Mountains song and climaxes in a four-minute medley (Over Hill) that bursts into some of the best mountain-climbing music you’ll hear all year.

7. John Carter (Michael Giacchino)

Whatever you think of Disney’s sci-fi flop, one thing is clear: Michael Giacchino’s soundtrack is great. He gets off to a thundering start by out-booming his own Star Trek score (no mean feat), before launching into a western-style theme, which reminds you of Indiana Jones, E.T, and Jerry Goldsmith’s The Mummy all at once. Michael introduces his main theme early on: three notes, which rise unevenly to match our eponymous lead’s unexpected hero status. Then he introduces waltzing romance and eastern-tinged exotic action, building up a truly colossal score. It may not be Star Wars, but this is a delightful sci-fi score that feels truly epic. Plus Giacchino does his usual trick of naming the pieces using dreadful puns. Who doesn’t love a soundtrack with track names like A Thern For The Worse?

8. Prometheus (Marc Streitenfeld/Harry Gregson-Williams)

“Interesting” is perhaps the best word to describe Ridley Scott’s Alien-prequel-that-isn’t-an-Alien-prequel and Marc Streitenfeld’s score more than fits that bill. He gets a helping hand from Harry Gregson-Williams, who pens the score’s most memorable theme – Life, a lyrical fanfare full of exploration and hope – but the rest is enjoyably complex. Mechanical thrums accompany David’s robotic theme, while the brass growls over the more sinister, percussion-powered set pieces. But unlike Streitenfeld’s other solid effort this year, The Grey, Prometheus escapes from the shadow of Inception to find its own voice. It does so by looking backwards. Firstly, by writing out the music in reverse and digitally flipping the recording (an eerie effect that adds dread to pieces such as Going In). Secondly, by taking Jerry Goldsmith’s original end title from Alien and reworking the trumpet solo into a cool, ethereal synth. Streitenfeld effectively takes the franchise DNA Ridley Scott shied away from and gives it a spine-crawling new spin. The result is impressive and interesting. Perhaps even more so than the film.

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9. Moonrise Kingdom (Alexandre Desplat)

Is there a more prolific composer than Alexandre Desplat? He’s scored nine movies that came out in the UK last year (including Argo and Rust & Bone). The question, then, wasn’t whether he would feature in this list, but which soundtrack it would be. Moonrise Kingdom ultimately won out. Anderson makes witty use of existing music, from Hank Williams to Britten’s Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra, but Alexandre adds in the real magic, reworking and reworking his own minute composition (The Heroic Weather-Conditions Of The Universe) to spellbinding effect. Its use of dainty instruments – wood blocks, a piano and celesta – builds up to tubular bells, organs, strings and, finally, a choir. The cyclical crescendo captures the naivety and urgency of Sam and Suzy’s young romance with a wry voice. Listen over the film’s end credits and you can even hear Sam give his own young person’s guide to Desplat’s work. Adorable.

10. Anna Karenina (Dario Marianelli)

Ever since he turned a typewriter into an instrument for Joe Wright’s Atonement, Dario Marianelli has proven to be one of the most versatile composers around. He confirms it with this wonderful soundtrack for Anna Karenina. Riffing upon a Russian folk tune, The Birch Tree, the score not only manages to feel like a distant cousin of Shostakovich but also blend in with the movie’s own hyper-theatrical presentation. Snares and flurrying woodwind repeatedly create the impression of dancelike pieces, while Dance With Me spirals overlapping flutes and strings over and over into a heady whirl. Track titles such as Anna Marches Into A Waltz, which does exactly what it says, fits Wright’s production design; a satirical, brazenly artificial piece of staging, where people with accordions stroll across the set mid-scene – and right onto the soundtrack. From now on, Wright and Marianelli should do everything together. Even shower.

11. The Muppets (Christophe Beck/Bret McKenzie)

Life’s a happy song when there’s someone by your side to sing along…

With all the Batmans and Spider-Mans flying around, it would be easy to place a superhero score here – but it would be at the expense of one of 2012’s happiest musical outings. The Muppets’ return was a big success, but while much can be credited to the script and direction, the music plays an important role in this fuzzy universe. Playing it alternately straight (Amy Adams and Miss Piggy’s indignant Me Party) and silly (The Moopets’ commercialised cover of Rainbow Connection) and occasionally both (Man Or Muppet), Bret McKenzie’s typically witty songs fit snugly alongside older Muppet tunes, while a barbershop cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit is exactly the kind of nonsense that won over kids’ eardrums decades ago. Combine that with Christophe Beck’s score, which spins the numbers into character-specific cues, and you end up with a rounded ensemble where puppets and people are given equal billing. That, of course, is precisely what makes The Muppets work. Well, that and Chris Cooper rapping.

12. Lawless (Nick Cave/Warren Ellis)

After penning the script based on Matt Bondurant’s novel, Australian musician Nick Cave picked up his guitar and knocked out this corker of a soundtrack with Warren Ellis. It’s the third time they’ve worked with director John Hillcoat and it shows. The album is effectively a string of covers, which may not sound like much, but they play it all themselves. The fact that he and Ellis didn’t know a thing about bluegrass didn’t stop them. The result is a band called The Bootleggers spitting a fiery, raw energy into a cracking string of songs that work just as well in the film as they do in the infectious trailer. Genre veterans Emmylou Harris and Ralph Stanley join the fray for the odd guest vocals – the latter’s muted White Light/White Heat is a stunner. There are instrumentals included, too, but for every minute you spend wishing there was more of a full-on score, you’ll spend an hour stomping your foot on the ground in appreciation.

Honourable Mentions

While the above are the best movie soundtracks from the last 12 months, they had a lot of very strong competition. Some other scores that impressed in 2012:

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Downhill (Shlomo)

Fans of Anna Kendrick or Glee might have been hoping to see Pitch Perfect pop up, but while the a capella efforts of the film’s cast are good, they’ve got nothing on this soundtrack: a vocal score for the 1927 silent movie Downhill. Beatbox and Hitchcock? The two work surprisingly well thanks to Shlomo’s artful composition. Sung with gusto by Robin Bailey, Billy Boothroyd, Julie Kench, Harriet Syndercombe Court and Tobias Hug, they liven up one of Hitch’s more mediocre films, amplifying the emotions of Ivor Novello’s on-screen victim. “You don’t know what you’re doing to me,” they repeat until the Man on the Run archetype almost drowns the screen; a chorus that adds to, and never detracts from Alfred’s visuals. The soundtrack was performed live theatrically twice as part of the BFI’s Genius of Hitchcock retrospective. Another of the new scores for The Lodger (an excellent Bernard Herrmann tribute by Nitin Sawhney) has been released since its premiere. Hopefully Shlomo will get the same treatment.

Argo (Alexandre Desplat)

Relies a little too much on the old wailing woman stereotype, but makes up for it with Eastern instruments, a capella percussion (Hotel Messages) and some superbly crafted passages of tension (Held Up By Guards). Give Desplat an Oscar. And then the next James Bond film.

The Amazing Spider-Man (James Horner)

Horner joins John Williams and Michael Giacchino’s old-school orchestral scores with this solid reboot. In the cinema, it sounded like Titanic 2. On its own, a rousing character theme slowly moves from piano to soaring brass. Charming.

Ted (Walter Murphy)

Take Henry Mancini, add a dash of John Williams and you get this unabashedly big score from Seth MacFarlane regular Walter Murphy. A swinging Norah Jones number gives way to a sweet friendship theme, while a cheeky nod to Raiders Of The Lost Ark makes this a lot more fun than the actual film.

Avengers Assemble (Alan Silvestri)

Between the astounding tracks A Promise and The Avengers, Marvel’s summer movie has the best blockbuster theme of the year, but the rest of the soundtrack doesn’t quite live up to it. Nods to Silvestri’s Captain America score are welcome, but you wish the coming together of the characters was better expressed.

Life Of Pi (Mychael Danna)

The Canadian composer nails Pi’s innocence with this lyrical, atmospheric score, heavily laced with vocals and woodwind. The odd accordion and male scat add welcome colour and texture, but the gentle vibes are so soft and the tracks so short that they do little to work their magic outside of the cinema.

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The Dark Knight Rises (Hans Zimmer)

Hans Zimmer turns it up to 12 with this loud climax to a stellar trilogy – but with James Newton Howard out of the mix, there’s something slightly missing. Bane’s monumental crowd-sourced chant (“Deshi Basara”) plugs some of the gap.

Brave (Patrick Doyle)

The Scottish composer can be proud of this Celtic soundtrack. Parts sound clichéd, but the upbeat songs (sung by Julie Fowlis) are hard to resist and strong themes such as I Am Merida are deceptively complex. Still, it’s no How to Train your Dragon.

Skyfall (Thomas Newman)

At times lacking a consistent through-theme, Newman’s Skyfall is an adequate, but disappointing effort from such an agile composer. Its balanced use of electronic instruments ranks it above Eric Serra’s GoldenEye – but below all of David Arnold’s creations.

Shame (Harry Escott)

Escott’s subtle synth score at times reminds you a little too much of The Thin Red Line, but amid the various Bach recordings and Zimmery moments shines Carey Mulligan’s heartbreaking blues rendition of New York, New York. It sits alongside Scarlett Johansson’s Before My Time (from Chasing Ice) and John Hawkes’ Marcy’s Song (from Martha Marcy May Marlene) as must-have singing actor moments from 2012.

What were your favourite movie soundtracks this year?

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