After Gravity blew your eardrums out of the airlock in 2013 with its seamless mix of sound effects and music, it was hard to imagine a film wowing just as much the year after, but 2014 was a year in which movie soundtracks became, if anything, even more intricate, from films about the nature of being a musician to those that replicated the noise of human existence for alien senses.
Before 2014 becomes a distant ringing in the ears, here are the top 14 movie soundtracks of the year.
1. Under the Skin (Mica Levi)
Once you’ve heard Mica Levi’s soundtrack to Under the Skin, everything else sounds both disappointing and even more exciting. I say ‘soundtrack’ because, like the best movies, Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi understands that sound and music are two halves of the same hastily-conceived metaphor.
Performed live at the Barbican last year, the bizarre birth-like opening – complete with a woman reciting random words, like a robot learning to grasp language – becomes even creepier in-person, but it’s the eerie string motif, rising away from the human acoustic spectrum, that really wriggles beneath your epidermis. It soon clicks that you’re hearing the world through alien ears, be it the electronic static of what might be a mothership trying to contact Scarlett Johansson or the beating heart of people around you; a rhythm that can be found everywhere from the trains passing by to the footsteps of clueless men being led, hypnotically, to their death. That mesmerising lub-dub drum beat seems to get stronger, as our protagonist appears to grow more human-like. You find yourself wondering what on earth Johansson’s ET would make of the album if she heard it.
2. Inside Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac/Various)
“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” There are films about folk singers. There are others accompanied by folk singers. The Coen brothers’ tale of a struggling musician who never becomes famous is a folk album in its own right. Oscar Isaac droops his way through the live act, one that uses music to define its main character: he’s sad (a favourite of his is “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”), bitterly unsuccessful (Bob Dylan’s famous cover “Green, Green Rocky Road” gets an airing, as well as Llewyn’s version), but also grieving for the loss of his partner.
Every song he plays is one chosen by him, as much as it is by the directors behind the camera, so the headline song, “Fare Thee Well,” sums up everything we need to know. First included on the album as a duet with Marcus Mumford, we later hear it solo, a version that sees Llewyn change the time signature so he can sing it without the second voice; a looser, raw recording that turns the warm harmony of a love song into a downbeat blues number. The inspired faux-novelty ditty “Please Mr. Kennedy” (played halfway through) is the stand-out track, featuring Adam Driver on guest shouting, but make no mistake: this ain’t his gig. This is from Inside Llewyn Davis. And it never gets old.
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Alexandre Desplat)
Alexandre Desplat composed five movie soundtracks in 2014 – down from six in 2013 and eight in 2012 – but his work rate continues to produce good stuff year after year.
While The Imitation Game‘s precise mechanics and The Monuments Men‘s period vibe are both enjoyable, it’s The Grand Budapest Hotel that really stands out. Desplat’s instrumentation is as versatile as ever, from the Balalaikas and lutes to the shuffling snare drums, each rushing over each other to create a colourful, carefully choreographed sense of chaos: the sound of Wes Anderson’s fictitious country.
Throughout, the order of Ralph Fiennes’ polite concierge is enforced by ritual, on-the-beat bass lines, but everything escalates into glorious silliness come the finale, with people reciting “rumpty tumpty tumpty”, excited organs and over-the-top brassy fanfares. You could almost swear you were in Eastern Europe, if it weren’t for the tongue in cheek humour of the whole thing. Balalaika? You’ll bala-love it.
4. How to Train Your Dragon 2 (John Powell)
After years on action duty, then animated service, John Powell delivers his best score to date with this stunning sequel piece. Taking its cue from the evolving family relationships, exciting action and tragic plot twists, Powell’s music soars off the page, starting with his irresistible flying melody from the original and building to a poignant tune for Hiccup’s dad.
After the gentle woodwind of the first film, though, this score has a harsher, darker sound – friendly bagpipes become horns of war – that is beautifully contrasted with a cute Celtic love song halfway through. It’s a movie that appreciates the importance of music – and Powell rises to the occasion, serving up something that is dizzyingly complex and immediately rousing.
5. Interstellar (Hans Zimmer)
It began with one day’s work, as Christopher Nolan gave Hans Zimmer a single piece of paper with the core idea of his movie: a father leaving his daughter. The resulting theme – a hypnotic piano number – gradually collides with the booming strings of their reunion in a score that manages to contain all the epic cosmic winds of the universe (complete with religious awe, courtesy of a London church organ) inside a delicately intimate tune.
It’s when they overlap that your mind is truly blown, as the ticking metronome of time is disrupted by the swaying triple rhythm of space travel. Love, gravity, departing, coming back. It all becomes the same thing in the end: a breathtaking whirl of ambition and emotion. If you’re tired of Hans Zimmer’s soundtracks all sounding the same, this is for you.
6. Boyhood (Various)
Can you remember where you were when you first heard Coldplay’s “Yellow?” Whether the answer is yes or no, hearing it will inevitably conjure up some recollection from the past 12 years of your life – and that’s precisely what makes Richard Linklater’s compilation so wonderfully effective. Selecting tracks from virtually every year of Mason’s growth from boy to man, they are often diegetic, heard in the background without the characters noticing; a fact that fuses them with the narrative far more than your average jukebox. Incorporating everything from Britney Spears to The Flaming Lips, it gradually moves from popular accompaniment to a playlist of memories.
7. The LEGO Movie (Mark Mothersbaugh and others)
“Everything is AWESOME!” declares the opening number in The LEGO Movie. It’s the most infectious movie music since Disney’s Frozen – and that’s no coincidence. The simplistic chord structure, hyper electro beat and unrelentingly upbeat lyrics (sung by Tegan and Sara and rapped by The Lonely Island) is like listening to a super group made up of viral cat videos. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller wrote the song, while composer Mark Mothersbaugh continues that ironically positive message with his usual brand of energetic electronic music – including the subversive insertion of our hero Emmet’s main theme underneath the catchy chorus.
Mark chucks everything from choirs (“Cloud Cuckooland”) to sea-shanty rock (“Submarines”) into his computer to conjure up the rapidly assembled LEGO kingdoms, then records it all again with a full orchestra, allowing Lord and Miller to jump between the synthetic and symphonic versions with the impromptu imagination of a seven year old. Add in Will Arnett’s soul-searching Batman song (“DARK! BROODING!”) and you have an album on which everything really is awesome.
8. Paddington (Nick Urata, feat. D Lime and Tobago Crusoe)
Paul King’s take on Michael Bond’s novels is a delightfully human tale – you know, for a film about a bear. Nick Urata’s music is a huge part of that appeal, taking the fantastical notion of a Peruvian beast staying with a run-of-the-mill family and making it familiar, through a string of playful riffs on the genres of Paddington’s adventure references, from spy thrillers to a cheeky burst of Rule Britannia.
Most magical of all, though, is the repeated use of “London is the Place for Me,” originally by Trinidadian immigrant Lord Kitchener, whose calypso ode to the UK capital crops up literally on the streets of the city, as D Lime – featuring Tobago Crusoe – appear in the background, singing the catchy number. On this soundtrack, everyone’s welcome.
9. Only Lovers Left Alive (Sqürl, Jozef Van Wissem, feat. Yasmine Hamdan)
In a year where the creation of music has been a focus for many films, Only Lovers Left Alive focuses on its consumption: our two vampires feed on culture as much as the red stuff, their story even opening with a camera spinning on top of a vinyl record. That culture is, more specifically, Jim Jarmusch’s band Sqürl, who co-wrote the soundtrack with Jozef Van Wissem. Their stand out track is “Hal,” sung by Lebanese wonder Yasmine Hamdan, who blends Arabic vocals with synth backing to fuse the old world and the new to mesmerising effect.
But for all the looping riffs hinting at the repetition of their immortal existence, not to mention the Tangier-tinged twang of strings, it’s that juxtaposition of ancient and modern – analogue and digital – that sinks its teeth in. By the end, our characters are dancing to Charlie Feathers as if it’s Beethoven or Bach. When you’ve been around for centuries, as long as it’s got a pulse, what’s the difference?
10. Noah (Clint Mansell)
Burton and Elfman. Nolan and Zimmer. No list of great director/composer collaborations would be complete without Darren Aronofsky and Clint Mansell. Here, the pair go full bombast for the Biblical epic, but for all its fantastical flourishes and wonderfully foreboding choir (check out the oomph of that Kronos Quartet) it’s the main theme that really works: a minor third that takes us back down to earth with a bump throughout. Is it too much to interpret it as God calling out the two syllables ‘Noah’? With Mansell, you can’t rule anything out. The overall result is a score that may seem loud during the movie, but proves spellbinding when listened to later. Believe.
11. Godzilla (Alexandre Desplat)
How do you reboot a franchise born in the aftermath of Hiroshima? Hire Alexandre Desplat, who composes a surprisingly thoughtful soundtrack for this building-smashing blockbuster. The original Gojira was a masterclass in using sound and music, thanks to its employment of Godzilla’s footsteps to build up the sense of threat. Desplat may not repeat that trick, but he achieves a similar effect when the monster roars in the final act; a yell that matches the blaring of the orchestra pitch for pitch. It’s an eerie union that sends shivers down your spine like 1954 was only yesterday.
12. Guardians of the Galaxy (Various / Tyler Bates)
Ask anyone for their favourite soundtrack of 2014 and the chances are they will mention Guardians Of The Galaxy. It’s telling that for many, that means the jukebox album that accompanies it rather than the orchestral score. Pop songs are as much as part of a film’s soundtrack as anything else, but Guardians‘ selection is special because it’s woven directly into the film. So while Tyler Bates’ score is solid, if unmemorable stuff, the stage is stolen by Star-Lord’s Awesome Mix. Vol. 1.
A more important MacGuffin than the Infinity Gem, the tape is listened to by our hero (10cc, natch) to distract himself from his sick mum – an escapism that becomes literal when he is abducted and flown off into the stars. There, the tape becomes a connection to his home planet; a remnant of humanity in strange new worlds. The result is a character-led compilation that becomes our way into most scenes (“Hooked On A Feeling” is a hilarious juxtaposition to one set piece) as much it’s our protagonist’s way into the world around him.
13. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Howard Shore)
Howard Shore’s epic finale to The Hobbit is not quite the knockout that Desolation of Smaug was, but it’s a hugely satisfying conclusion to his second trilogy – proof that the composer is a master not just of thematic conception, but also of arranging them into endless new forms to match everything from light hearted comedy to ominous action.
“Fire and Water” jumps from Thorin to Tauriel and her dwarfish romance via Bard’s heroic melody. Over it all hovers the menacing chromatic brass of Smaug and choirs preaching death and destruction. And that’s only the first track – wait until you get to “Ravenhill.” The closing song from Billy Boyd (whose voice remains as winning as ever) may sound more like a Muppets parody of a Hobbit/Lord of the Rings song than a genuine classic, but this is the third film in a row where the soundtrack has been better than Peter Jackson’s overall movie. Make no mistake: Shore’s Middle-earth world building is one to treasure alongside Williams’ Star Wars.
14. We Are the Best! / Frank (Various / Stephen Rennicks)
At some point during 2014, I signed up to an online dating website. No, wait. Stick with me on this. On my profile, I had to list the things I couldn’t live without. One of them was music. It sounds overly dramatic, but there was a time in my more hormonal younger days when it really felt like that was the case; a sensation captured by two separate films in 2014, which has earned them equal pride of place on my bedroom shelf.
We Are the Best! sees a group of young girls in 1980s Sweden rebel against tiny adolescent things, like P.E. lessons, while listening to punk. An acoustic cover by one of the trio (Liv Lemoyne) of KSMB’s Sex Noll Två is ear-grabbingly good, her gentle voice giving a vulnerable edge to the angry plucking of strings. Another group’s signature shout – Brezhnev and Reagan, Fuck Off – is hilariously bad, yet delivered with an endearingly arrogant teenage cool. But it’s the kids’ anthem, “Hate The Sport,” that is the joyous highlight: the catchiest, most sincere punk song you’ve heard in years.
Inspired by Frank Sidebottom, Lenny Abrahamson’s comedy sees keyboardist Jon (Domnhall Gleeson) join the band ‘The Soronprfbs’: a gaggle of oddball musicians and instruments, from drums and a theremin to Sidebottom himself, complete with giant papier mache head. Fassbender’s singing is superb, half harmonising, half yelling nonsensical phrases. All the while, synths wobble underneath, changing the movie’s unpredictable tone from funny to melancholic.
But Stephen Rennicks’ compositions are what make it work, presenting Frank as a genius capable of writing songs about anything, be it tufts of carpet, creaky doors or, erm, securing the galactic perimeter. Jon’s ditties about ladies in red coats pale in comparison, turning the soundtrack into a curious exploration of talent and lack of it – and the film into a thoughtful meditation on creativity and mental illness.
This double-bill couldn’t be more different, but whether it’s oversized mask-wearing men or mini-rebels in Stockholm, they have one thing in common: a drive to express themselves through music, no matter what. One can only imagine what Frank’s online dating profile would look like.
Dawn of the Planet of Apes (Michael Giacchino)
If Giacchino isn’t mentioned somewhere on a best-of-year list, then something’s wrong. The composer picks up the franchise baton from someone else but still conjures up some heartfelt substance despite not developing pre-existing themes. How? He uses the same interval as the basis of both the tune for his hero and his villain, giving their showdown a surprisingly moving and subtle note of pathos. The fact that these protagonists happen to be apes doesn’t even cross your mind.
Cold in July (Jeff Grace)
Composer Jeff Grace is no stranger to old-school synths, but they give a chillingly retro vibe to this Western, which uses repetition nicely to build tension. (See also Grace’s Night Moves score and Steve Moore’s work on The Guest.)
Begin Again (Gregg Alexander)
John Carney’s follow-up to Once may miss Glen Hansard’s song-writing nous (the Once star contributes some songs, co-written with Carney), but Gregg Alexander and his team compose the moderately generic tracks for Keira Knightley’s singer with an easygoing, likeable charm. Knightley sings them nicely, supported well by Maroon 5’s Adam Levine.
Leave to Remain (alt-J)
Successful bands often seem to provide movie scores these days. For M83’s Anthony Gonzalez that meant the high profile Tom Cruise sci-fi Oblivion. What, then, do British band alt-J do after winning the 2012 Mercury Prize? A tiny little film called Leave to Remain, starring Toby Jones. The movie itself may not be a classic, but the band’s soft music blends beautifully into the background, adding real heart to its tale of young asylum seekers in the UK waiting to have their refugee status decided.
12 Years a Slave (Hans Zimmer)
Music is something that can define your identity – a power that 12 Years a Slave understands only too well. Hans Zimmer’s repetitive score, which uses the same four chords over and over, may capture the never-ending nature of Solomon’s horrific treatment, but it’s halfway through that director Steve McQueen really shows his acoustic knack, as we watch Solomon in a group of slaves singing Roll Jordan Roll. His decision to ultimately join in, losing his individuality by conforming to a group, speaks volumes.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (James Newton Howard)
A movie’s score doesn’t always have to be the best in the world, as long as the movie knows how to use it. James Newton Howard’s soundtrack for Mockingjay – Part 1 is a perfect demonstration, as its darker development of themes match the growing sense of identity of its heroine. But it’s the moment where Jennifer Lawrence sings “The Hanging Tree” that steals the show, as Francis Lawrence uses the country song (banned in the books by the state) as the accompaniment for a montage of rebellion, turning an impromptu tune into a rousing call to arms. Intelligent and, judging by its rise in the charts in real life, extremely effective.
The Beat Beneath My Feet (Geoff Jackson, Phillip Jewson and Paul Cartledge)
John Williams’ indie flick – currently touring the UK before a stint at the Berlin International Film Festival – follows a teenager trying to learn guitar from a rock legend (played by 90210 heartthrob Luke Perry). The origin songs, by Geoff Jackson, Phillip Jewson and Paul Cartledge, are impressively catchy, but also forward the plot along, developing in complexity and texture as our hero becomes a better player. Performed with gusto by newcomer Nick Galitzine, it’s a toe-tapping gem that’s well worth seeking out.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (The Magnificent Six)
The decision to scrap James Horner’s moving orchestral score for The Amazing Spider-Man‘s sequel and form a super group of Hans Zimmer, Marc Webb, Pharrell Williams, Johnny Marr, Mike Einziger, Steve Mazzaro, Andrew Kawczynski and Junkie XL might be one of the worst ideas in modern movie music history. The result is, at times, laughably bad – the rapping of Electro’s paranoid rage in “My Enemy” has to be heard to be believed – but sometimes, you just have to applaud the sheer balls it takes to try something different.