The 25 most underrated scores of the decade so far

What scores of the past five-and-a-bit years deserve more love? Sean lists the 25 most underrated soundtracks of the decade so far...

We’re over halfway through the current decade (whatever name it currently goes by) and in that time we’ve been treated to some truly outstanding film scores that deserve more recognition. Here’s a sampling of the rich soundtrack offerings from the past five-and-a-bit years.

25) The Hunger Games (James Newton Howard, 2012)

A late replacement for Danny Elfman, the ever-mercurial Newton Howard’s contribution to the Hunger Games series is one of its most emotional yet undervalued assets. Whilst Howard’s later scores laid on the operatic grandeur (in-keeping with Katniss Everdeen’s emotional journey), it’s the first soundtrack’s minimalist, earthy blend of folksy textures with occasional brutal action and soaring emotion that is most effective. That the score was overlooked in favour of producer T-Bone Burnett’s involvement was perhaps inevitable, but Howard’s work is well worth a second appraisal.

24) 127 Hours (A.R. Rahman, 2010)

Having first collaborated with director Danny Boyle to Oscar-winning success on Slumdog Millionaire, Rahman resumed their partnership with this harrowing and powerful story of survival. The composer’s typically genre-defying blend of conflicting textures, brutal moments and lyrical beauty provides the oft-challenging movie with much of its soul, getting inside the contradictory nature of hiker Aron Ralston and his shocking true story. It’s an important reminder that such a visually striking movie is carried just as much by its score.

23) Stoker (Clint Mansell, 2013)

Former Pop Will Eat Itself front man Mansell has carved out a niche as one of the most angular and distinctive of contemporary film composers; even so, his work on Park Chan-Wook’s visually ravishing English-language debut is something special. In-keeping with the story’s twisted fairy-tale nature, Mansell’s score effortlessly moves from gossamer innocence to something much darker, a highly accomplished work that accentuates the film’s atmosphere no end. Also featured on the soundtrack: a stunning piano duet composed by Philip Glass.

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22) John Carter (Michael Giacchino, 2012)

This mega-budget Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation went down as a major catastrophe for Disney and, as is always the case, the accompanying score sadly went with it. This is a real shame as Giacchino’s richly upholstered and thematic music is one of its key strengths, valiantly attempting to inject majesty and emotion into the movie’s bloated CGI action. Alongside the more acclaimed likes of Star Trek and Jurassic World, this is one of the scores that further consolidates Giacchino as the heir apparent to the adventurous likes of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith.

21) The Wolfman (Danny Elfman, 2010)

The travails behind the making of this flawed Gothic horror tend to overshadow its impressively grandiose qualities, not least of which is the score by genre veteran Elfman. Itself a victim of brutal post-production edits, the score as heard in the film is a patchwork of Elfman’s own ideas and tracks embellished by other composers; a standalone listen reveals it to be a richly atmospheric score that leans heavily on Wojciech Kilar’s 1992 masterwork Dracula, but in Elfman’s own distinct style. The very definition of a score that deserves another chance.

20) The Greatest Miracle (Mark McKenzie, 2011)

Never heard of this obscure Mexican religioso animation? Don’t worry, there’s no need; instead simply feast on the awe-inspiring score from veteran orchestrator turned composer McKenzie, a sumptuous blend of soaring, melody and beautifully tender moments. Having long collaborated with the likes of Jerry Goldsmith, McKenzie’s sophisticated touch comes as little surprise but his work here deserves far more recognition. With shades of Ennio Morricone and James Horner, it’s deeply emotive score.

19) Transcendence (Mychael Danna, 2014)

A disastrous attempt at a topical, AI-based thriller, the directorial debut of Oscar-winning DP Wally Pfister nevertheless allowed composer Danna to paint on an intriguing and expansive scale. Danna has always favoured richly enveloping soundscapes that mix the orchestral with the electronic (see Life Of Pi) and Transcendence continues in the same vein: an intelligent musical depiction of the synthetic and humane working hand in hand. It’s much, much better than the movie it accompanies.

18) Mama (Fernando Velazquez, 2013)

The last decade has seen an explosion of Spanish film composers on the film score scene, among them Roque Banos, Javier Navarette and Velazquez who all draw on a rich vein of Gothic romance. The latter’s score for this Guillermo Del Toro-produced supernatural horror is one of the finest from the Iberian contingent, a moody work that knows how to lay on the scares but which puts even greater emphasis on heart-rending emotion, especially during the wrenching climax. It’s one of the most sophisticated genre scores heard in recent years.

17) The Two Faces Of January (Alberto Iglesias, 2014)

One of the most strikingly stylish yet overlooked scores of the past few years is this one for the slick Patricia Highsmith adaptation starring Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac and Kirsten Dunst. The movie’s achingly swish 1950s atmosphere allows Spanish composer Iglesias (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) the ideal jumping-off point to craft a seductively nostalgic listening experience; the increasingly paranoid character interactions meanwhile allow him to take the music in darker and even more compelling directions.

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16) Ted (Walter Murphy, 2012)

Say what you will about Seth MacFarlane as a comic and filmmaker but his infectious love of classic scores resonates throughout his TV work and movies. Riotous buddy comedy Ted reunites him with Family Guy composer Murphy and the end result is hugely endearing, expertly walking the tricky line between accentuating the humour and holding back where necessary. With mischievous overtones of Jerry Goldsmith’s work for director Joe Dante, the slyly knowing musical asides to the likes of Raiders Of The Lost Ark are the cherry on the cake.

15) The Innkeepers (Jeff Grace, 2011)

Grace has recently drawn acclaim for synthetic, throwback scores like Cold In July but he’s a versatile composer, able to turn his hand to a variety of genres. This enjoyably malevolent soundtrack for Ti West’s terrific ghost story is a case in point, building menace through the churning main theme (with echoes of James Newton Howard’s The Happening) and steadily embellishing the tension with well thought-out instrumental textures (fluttering woodwinds here, a tinkling piano there). It’s a finely crafted score that will have all listeners looking behind them…

14) Thor: The Dark World (Brian Tyler, 2013)

Tyler’s rambunctious Iron Man 3 soundtrack received deserved acclaim but his thrilling work on the Thor sequel is just as good. Replacing Carter Burwell, Tyler serves up an Asgardian feast of blistering action music and long-lined emotional material, anchored by a rollicking main theme that merges the sound of Golden Age Hollywood with the more masculine bravado of 21st century film scoring. Amidst the spotty patchwork of scores to have emerged from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this is undoubtedly one of the finest.

13) Calvary (Patrick Cassidy, 2014)

Irish orchestral composer Cassidy’s film scores have been relatively infrequent; he’s perhaps best known for composing the lushly beautiful opera Vide Cor Meum for Hans Zimmer’s Hannibal. However, his score for John Michael McDonagh’s masterful black comedy Calvary is another fine work, and clearly a deeply-felt one given the movie’s connection to the Irish landscape and its people. Resplendent in a tone both ecclesiastical and mournful, Cassidy’s music brilliantly anticipates the final days of Brendan Gleeson’s priest after he is threatened with death.

12) W.E. (Abel Korzeniowski, 2011)

Madonna’s misguided take on the story of Wallis Simpson and the Edward VIII abdication crisis has largely been forgotten, bar Andrea Riseborough’s impressive performance. However, the sumptuous and elegant score from Polish composer Korzeniowski (the man behind the music for TV sensation Penny Dreadful) rises above the storytelling contrivances to cast a hypnotic spell. Truth be told it belongs in a much more sophisticated movie than this, but credit ought to go to Madonna for enlisting the superb talents of this somewhat underused composer.

11) Jane Eyre (Dario Marianelli, 2011)

So many costume drama scores have a sugar-coated, vaguely superficial air to them; that’s why Marianelli’s impressively restrained soundtrack for Cary Fukunaga’s Charlotte Bronte adaptation is such a breath of fresh air. Tied closely into the emotional awakening of Bronte’s title character (played by Mia Wasikowska), Marianelli’s score gradually blooms from cold austerity into sumptuous melodic beauty courtesy of Jack Liebeck’s exquisite violin solos; a work of tact and restraint that captures Jane’s complex essence brilliantly.

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10) Beasts Of The Southern Wild (Dan Romer, Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

Film music, as with all music, has the miraculous ability to adopt the textures of certain locales and transport the listener to somewhere they might have never visited. In the case of this jubilant work, co-composed by director Zeitlin with Romer, it’s clad in the mood and rhythms of America’s Deep South, an earthy musical depiction of the Louisiana ‘Bathtub’ environment as seen through the eyes of young child Hushpuppy. Yet the score also has an enchanting, whimsical streak in-keeping with the story; the way these seemingly conflicting ideas are meshed is in itself magical.

9) A Million Ways To Die In The West (Joel McNeely, 2014)

Comedy scores are a very tricky balancing act to pull off; too intrusive and it’ll overtake movie in question, too restrained and it’ll feel like a missed opportunity to accentuate the humour. It’s therefore entirely to the credit of the terminally underused McNeely that his rollicking Western pastiche for director Seth MacFarlane stands as one of the most richly entertaining comedy soundtracks of recent years. A glorious homage to the likes of Elmer Bernstein and Jerome Moross, it rises far above the shortcomings of MacFarlane’s movie as a wonderful celebration of the old west.

8) The Tree Of Life (Alexandre Desplat, 2011)

The vast majority of Desplat’s typically intricate and engrossing soundtrack for Terence Malick’s fragmentary drama didn’t actually make it into the movie (a regular occurrence for the composers who have worked with him). However, it can still be appreciated as a thoughtful, haunting and compelling stand-alone listen away from the movie itself: one of Desplat’s most challenging yet richly satisfying works, it somehow encapsulates the peculiarly contradictory nature of the human experience in all its kaleidoscopic glory.

7) Only God Forgives (Cliff Martinez, 2013)

Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s nightmarish inferno of a movie features a Thailand setting, Oedipal drama, extreme violence and the most stoic Ryan Gosling performance to date. It’s not an experience that goes down easily but it allows Drive composer Martinez the opportunity to really open the taps, the composer blending dreamy strings with pulsating electronics and occasional organ blasts to keep the listener on their toes. It’s yet another striking collaboration that marks out Refn and Martinez as a team to watch.

6) Never Let Me Go (Rachel Portman, 2010)

This moving, if occasionally overstated, adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s powerful novel plays its trump cards both in the form of its central acting trio (Carey Mulligan; Andrew Garfield; Keira Knightley) and its melancholy score by British veteran Portman. Fittingly enough for a movie tackling complex themes of life, death and fate, Portman’s score is endlessly sad and wistful, lamenting times gone by whilst straining for that elusive sense of happiness. At times overbearing, for the most part it’s a tear jerking symphony from one of our finest composers.

5) The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (Daniel Pemberton, 2015)

Guy Ritchie’s sadly undervalued take on the kitsch 1960s spy series boasted one of last year’s greatest scores; however, it was overshadowed by Pemberton’s impressive work on Steve Jobs, if only because that movie was more widely acclaimed. But in terms of purely fizzy pleasure The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is hard to beat, an effortlessly chilled and effervescent throwback to masters such as Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith and Lalo Schifrin, mixing up pop, acid jazz and retro beats in one delicious cocktail. No other score in 2015 was as stylish or flat-out entertaining.

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4) Soul Surfer (Marco Beltrami, 2011)

Often typecast as a horror and action composer based on trendsetting efforts like Scream and I, Robot, Beltrami has always had an underrated penchant for soaring, melodic material. Yet few of his scores are as consistently beautiful or hopeful as this one, a musical distillation of surfer Bethany Hamilton’s comeback after losing an arm in a shark attack. With its culturally authentic Hawaiian chants and generally warm tone, it’s one of the loveliest in Beltrami’s oeuvre, although not completely devoid of the darker material with which he made his name.

3) The Ghost Writer (Alexandre Desplat, 2010)

Roman Polanski’s terrifically tense thriller stars Ewan McGregor as the unnamed ghost writer of the title, one drafted in to complete the memoirs of a duplicitous former Prime Minister (an excellent Pierce Brosnan). Polanski’s typically expert use of mood is enhanced no end by Desplat’s wonderfully prickly and spiky score, one that utilises bass clarinet and percussion to inventively quirky yet menacing ends. The spirit of Bernard Herrmann is very much alive in this one, yet the tone is quintessentially Desplat: precise, captivating and hypnotic.

2) The Rum Diary (Christopher Young, 2011)

Like Marco Beltrami, horror veteran Christopher Young is popularly remembered for a particular kind of score. Yet whilst his creepy works like Hellraiser have deservedly garnered acclaim, several of Young’s scores like Rounders have drawn on his jazz background. The infectious and delightful score for The Rum Diary therefore must have been something of a homecoming for the composer: primarily based around a sexy jazz ensemble that’s as enticing as a margarita on a tropical beach, it’s an altogether sunny and joyous confection that proves there’s a lot more to Young than music that scares us to death.

1) Tron Legacy (Daft Punk, 2010)

Of all the pop artists who’ve crossed over into film scores in the past decade, few can claim to be as successful as pioneering French electronic duo Daft Punk. The reason? Their score to Joseph Kosinski’s long-delayed Tron sequel, quite simply the standard by which all electronic/orchestral hybrid scores have to be judged from now on. Working closely with orchestrator/arranger Joseph Trapanese (who really ought to have been credited as the third composer) over a luxurious period of 2 years, the twosome combined their rhythmic instincts with an unerring flair for the dramatic that honours not only original Tron composer Wendy Carlos but also the groundbreaking likes of Vangelis and Jerry Goldsmith. That Daft Punk have yet to contribute another score is a shame; the world of soundtracks is crying out for another ear-worming and transcendent experience like this.