The Top 15 Film Soundtracks of 2015

Mad Max, Star Wars, Whiplash, The Falling and more, in our choice of 2015's best movie scores...

As Ennio Morricone bags a BAFTA for The Hateful Eight‘s music, and looks dead certain to finally pick up an Oscar, it would seem the perfect opportunity for this Music in Film column to stick on the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s wintery Western. 

Yet a glance at the rest of the award season contenders reveals a whole array of different scores that deserve attention for different reasons. After all, the last year was one heck of a 12 months for film soundtracks, giving us a new John Williams masterpiece, reminding us (thanks to Xavier Dolan) just how good Oasis’ “Wonderwall” can be, and even capturing the power of silence in Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s stunning sign-language drama, The Tribe. And that’s not to mention Sicario, Carol, or Mad Max: Fury Road. The list goes on.

So, before we delve into Morricone’s bag of tricks in more detail – and that time, I promise, will come – let’s take a moment to pause amid the awards snubs and celebrations and really appreciate the best film scores from 2015. Because let’s face it, it’s never a bad time to listen to Star Wars one more time.

1. Whiplash

What makes a great drummer great? This brutally brilliant masterpiece explores the boundary between bullying and pushing musicians to achieve their potential, but it wouldn’t work half as well without the soundtrack to back it up: from the opening drum roll on the snare to the nine-minute cover of “Caravan,” complete with virtuosic percussion solo, the movie’s suspense stems from the perfectly timed score (by Justin Hurwitz), which combines old standards with original compositions (big band numbers care of Tim Simonec) that allow the sound of JK Simmons’ teacher to seep into the background of Miles Teller’s constant practicing.

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It’s the choice of Hank Levy’s Whiplash, though, that is most inspired of all: its shifting time signatures make it a genuinely difficult piece to play, while the film smartly avoids us ever hearing the thing in full, only adding to its elusive and intimidating intangibility. This is flawlessly conceived and wonderfully executed – Whiplash simply doesn’t miss a beat.

2. Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens 

In all the film music that exists in the universe, there is one sound that is unmistakable: Star Wars. The Force Awakens may not be preceded by the 20th Century Fox ident (which is in the same key as the main theme – a deliberate move to continue the spirit of that fanfare), but from the opening chord, it’s clear that John Williams has still got it. What is ‘it’? It’s a combination of ticks and flourishes, from trumpeting triplets to harmonies and leaps, all of which add up to that consistent accompaniment across the saga. It’s an achievement that shouldn’t be underestimated: how many other franchises have seven films under their belt with the same composer providing the music for each? The result is an astonishingly complete musical identity, which constantly turns to its individual parts for inspiration.

In Episode I and Episode II, the Imperial March lingers in the background of young Anakin’s themes, giving his romance with Padme an ominous tone. Years later, that kind of reinvention hasn’t gone away: if you thought you couldn’t hear the Star Wars theme for the first time again, The Force Awakens‘ “Scherzo For X-Wings” will set you straight with its sumptuous, smooth brass. There’s a constant sense of Williams adding texture to old clothes, but it’s deceptive: out of the 100-odd minutes of music in the film, only seven minutes are made up of older themes, according to this fantastic interview with Williams.

But that sound remains nonetheless, a spectre hanging over this new generation of notes. Our new villain, Snokes, is heralded by a growling choral theme, which, one embellishment aside, seems to take us right back to a crucial scene in Episode III between Anakin and Palpatine (see this video here for that in more detail) – and, in a world of leitmotifs, that kind of touch can define a character. Or how about the moment when Luke appears, only to be accompanied by the minor chord steps of the Imperial March – a sign, if not of his impending villainous presence, then of his conflicted emotional state (in case the beard didn’t give it away).

Yet even in his 80s, Williams is still trying something new: “Rey’s Theme,” the best thing on the whole album, is the first piano-led theme in the whole franchise (pianos were last used in the background of Hoth for jangling, icy suspense). Combined with a flute and celeste, her introduction on the planet of Jakku, as she slides down a sand dune, sounds remarkably unique. It comes with a minor third fanfare that can be delicate and tiny, dramatic and fiery, or, by the end, rousing and action-packed. When it combines with Kylo Ren’s music (“The Adbuction”), the effect is magnificent.

But there’s still a beautiful echo of the chord progressions of the main Force theme going on, which ties her to Skywalker/Jedi days of old. Unlike tragic figures of the past, her melody always moves up to end phrases with longing and hope – so by the time it’s counterpointing against the main theme over the end credits, there’s a sense of both old and new ringing in your ears.

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Ask me before Episode VII and I might have said it was time for another composer to take the reins, but judging by this, there’s still room for some nostalgia in the cinematic universe – especially one that can reinvent itself so effortlessly, yet remain so instantly recognizable. The sound of Star Wars is strong with this one.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9IK-kmGDukU

3. Mad Max: Fury Road 

In my secondary school, they used to do something in end-of-year concerts called “Drumology,” which basically involved six or seven people playing different drum sets at the same time. A few too many years later, when it comes to modern film scores, action means “drums.” So it’s only fitting that Mad Max: Fury Road, the actionest action movie of 2015 featured not just one, but all the drums. It makes Hans Zimmer’s Man Of Steel score look like those kids in my school.

Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL, worked on that soundtrack with Zimmer and was part of The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s “Magnificent Six” super group. He’s clearly learned a lot from Hans – in fact, his grasp of drums might be even better. Or, to be exact, his grasp of rhythm. Take the main theme for Max: two notes on a cello that haphazardly boom throughout the score, often played an unpredictable number of times in a row. As the film goes on, and Max begins to team up with Furiosa, that pulse becomes more regular and controlled, his audible threat becoming tamer and safer.

Everything in the score follows this kind of precise beat, overlapping to create a cacophony of thrillingly choreographed chaos. Between the descending strings and the doofing guitars, the result is a soundscape more than a classic score – to the point where you really notice when they’re not playing. It’s a deafeningly bold accompaniment to what is essentially a silent movie, one that makes you appreciate silence. “Silence,” here, though, consists of a background hiss and whine. You spend it waiting for the guitars of Immortan Joe’s war party to return – a nail-biting experience that must be exactly how Max feels all the time.

4. Birdman 

Birdman joins Whiplash and Mad Max in the list of 2015’s best drum-driven soundtracks – despite being a completely different beast. It feel strange to talk about an Oscar nominee from last year’s awards now, especially as Alejandro G. Iñárritu sweeps the board with The Revenant, but Antonio Sánchez’s work on the director’s comedy is unlikely to be repeated ever again: it sits alongside Miles Davis and Lift To The Scaffold as a rare improvised soundtrack, as the director and drummer went through the script line by line and he made up rhythms to accompany every sting and action.

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Compared to the formal structure and harmony of the classical music used in the play being performed within the film, the haphazard percussion accompanying the behind-the-scenes chaos proves the perfect way to bring out the unpredictable comedy and colourful characters; a beat that wanders as much as the mind of our lead protagonist, it’s like listening to a train of thought that only keeps speeding up. This is dizzyingly good.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v162MTr_RPM

5. Carol 

Carter Burwell has long been one of the best composers in the business, with his work for the Coen bros. impressing as early on as Miller’s Crossing. 80 odd films later and Burwell’s blossomed even further, with his soundtrack for Carol as much as part of the film’s tragic, swooning style as the cinematography. It begins with a graceful triple-time track that waltzes the film along with a delicate rippling between happy and sad – the woodwinds tentatively jumping up in hope, before falling back down into the original minor key – but as the tracks develop, we find ourselves listening to lingering echoes and pairings of notes that manage to feel intimately connected, but, thanks to that slight delay, isolated and distant.

It’s a heart-breaking, beautiful listen, ringing with all the feelings that our lead couple cannot speak aloud.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-SD1z24eVo

6. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. 

I wasn’t alive in the ’60s, but I’m certain that The Man From U.N..C.L.E. is what they sounded like. There’s a bit of everything from the decade in there, from Mission: Impossible‘s flutes and U.N.C.L.E.‘s harpsichords to The Ipcress File‘s cimbalom. Even the recording equipment used to capture them are from the period, with the whole thing produced at Abbey Road.

But it’s not just the instrumentation – although there’s a lot to be said for the sheer number of bongos the movie crams in your ears – it’s the feel of it. Composer Daniel Pemberton understands how to piece them together, so that they undercut each other, never allowing the ensemble into a steady, predictable beat. The jukebox tracks are superbly chosen, from Roberta Flack’s “Compared To What” to Nina Simone’s “Take Care Of Business,” but their stilted and staccato rhythms are repeatedly echoed in the rest of the score: syncopation and sass are the order of the day. Even “Che Vuole Questa Musica Stasera” gets a subtle new string part layered over the top to give it a climax.

Just like our two antagonistic protagonists, there’s also a sense that each individual part of this intricately layered group is being pushed to its limit: the flute is played less like woodwind family and more like percussion, while the bongos fill in every gap at breakneck speed. The result sounds like the ’60s: cool, unique and, most important of all, fun.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YF3DtAEnlss

7. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation 

2015’s other dose of period cool comes from Rogue Nation. Mission: Impossible has always been inseparable from its soundtrack, thanks to one man: Lalo Schifrin. His signature theme from the original TV series has an almost Pavlovian effect upon people. Audiences hear it and they perch on the edge of their seat. Tom Cruise hears it and he starts dangling off the nearest skyscraper. After Danny Elfman’s symphonic arrangement (Mission: Impossible) and Hans Zimmer’s loud, unsubtle treatment (M:I-II), Michael Giacchino made M:I his own with two fantastic soundtracks that played with the theme in every way imaginable. It’s to Joe Kraemer’s credit, then, that he comes up with arrangements that even Giacchino didn’t think of.

Relying more on the original theme than any of the other composers, the result feels firmly grounded in its roots: Kraemer reverses the familiar bass riff or loops incomplete phrases of it to form the basis of various tracks, well aware that the falling minor arpeggio (and its chromatic steps down) can be used for emotional character beats as much as a pulse for set pieces. It’s an approach that feels simpler than what went before, but this is vividly complex. For a taste of just how complex, check out the vibraslap on “The Plan,” employing the same rhythm used by Lalo in “Jim On The Move” on the TV show’s soundtrack.

As the final touch, Kraemer also restricts his whole orchestration to instruments from Schifrin’s original ensemble, delivering something that has the sound of Mission: Impossible, as well as the style and energy. Following Zimmer, Elfman and Giacchino is no easy task, but Kraemer makes it look like Mission: Walk Around The Park.

8. The Falling 

Carol Morley’s mysterious tale of an epidemic spreading through a ’60s girls’ school is a wonderfully absorbing blend of hormones and psychological horror. That air of uncertainty is given a hazy, intimate depth by Tracey Thorn’s songs. That’s partly thanks to the inspired orchestration, which uses the same instruments as the pupils play on screen in their band (think tambourines and wood blocks). It’s a move that anchors the music in a diegetic sense, but – through the combination of the cast’s performance, Chris Wyatt’s editing and Carol’s fluid direction – helps it to spill over from the literal into something less tangible.

A hypnotic, rising xylophone line accompanies Morley’s mesmerising montages of fainting and friendship, as the lyrics talk of following the singer “all the way down.” All the while, a recurring three-chord rhythm resists the constraints of a four-four time signature, the dotted crotchets building up a drive that becomes unnervingly hypnotic. Thorn recorded them with a deliberately loose pace, she told Rolling Stone, a tactic that throws you off yet pulls you into the music’s thrall.

“My friend, my friend, uncurl unbend,” sings Tracey, a twisting lyric bulging with beckoning allure, only for later tracks – “Girl… Are you there?” – to capture the film’s sense of loss and being lost. Over time, the chords (which hop from keyboard to guitar) augment into increasingly unusual modulations, as the dizzyingly poetic words echo and repeat, only to resolve into straightforward quavers, happy key changes, and a regular beat that hints at catharsis. Wood blocks, tambourines and a tender ear for teen intoxication? Best. School. Assembly. Ever.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_QZw4mPx0A

9. Jupiter Ascending 

The Wachowskis’ space opera was far from Star Wars, but Michael Giacchino’s typically orchestral approach, with its flourishing themes and instrumentation was certainly epic. That’s evident from the first tracks of the album, which form four movements of his original composition – something that was written before the film was made. You can tell, as Giacchino revels in the freedom to introduce and explore his themes at his own pace.

While some elements recall Star Trek, this is mostly a reminder of the composer’s John Williams-like qualities; Jupiter‘s love theme evolves into a stonking action theme, while flurries of downwards strings and chromatic brass fanfares evoke the scale of Star Wars. Throughout, the composer shows a knack for melodies that step one note higher or lower than where you expect the tune to go; a trait that gave Star Trek‘s main theme its stirring chord change halfway through and adds menace to the villainous Abrasax theme.

But that’s not all. Giacchino even finds time for a waltz rendition of his romance when a wedding looms, before erupting into booming conflict (complete with gasps of woodwind and drunken slides in the brass) and, best of all, “The Titus Clipper,” a swooning little number that (thanks to its lulling 4/4 momentum and deceptively tricky percussion) sings with all the style of John Barry. All that might sound disjointed, but woven together? Blimey, it’s big.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zwoHb-QnHs

10. Sicario 

Sicario is rightly up for an Academy Award this year for Best Soundtrack – to understand why, it might help to look back at last year’s Oscars, when The Theory Of Everything was also a contender. That was a delicate piano-driven score with a precise, mathematical melody. Sicario is the opposite: a piece of hostile sound design that’d sooner hack the piano into pieces and use them as drums than play the damn thing. It’s hard to believe they have anything in common, but they do: step forward composer Johann Johannsson, who matches Denis Villeneuve’s and Roger Deakin’s intense visuals with an equally imposing score.

Playing out like the brother to Mad Max: Fury Road, the percussion here becomes a heartbeat or endless heavy breathing, racing faster and distorting out of control. This is a score that insists upon driving forwards, whether you listen to it or not, with its non-percussion instruments all playing at the bottom end of their register to keep things brooding as well as blistering. When we do get a reprieve (“Desert Music”), it’s a descending melody on a cello that keeps things digging down into the desert ground – to the drug tunnels beneath that become a central part of the story – and even “Melancholia”‘s glimpse of classical guitar only serves to remind us how the music is more about the pounding emotion of FBI agent Kate’s situation than any external geography (James Bond, this ain’t). It’s a marvellously relentless piece of work and if it doesn’t win the Oscar, Johann Johannsson is a shoo-in for the award for Most Enjoyable Composer’s Name to Read Aloud.

11. Jurassic World 

Michael Giacchino once more demonstrates his unrivalled gift for playing with existing themes on this stellar sequel. The blockbuster is almost absurdly post-modern, so it’s only natural that Giacchino should mix old and new with equal wit. After the usual booming brass and bass opener – Warning: Here There Be Dinosaurs – we soon meet our main theme, which represents our central family visiting the park. It’s a simple melody that rises only a few notes above its starting point, while a brass fanfare adds color. All the while, strings and woodwind bring warmth with flurrying arpeggios and a gentle, fluttering pulse.

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It’s only when the whole theme builds to a final three notes that sound very familiar that you realise the chord progressions have been echoing Williams’ original main theme all along. The end of “As The Jurassic World Turns,” meanwhile, climaxes with Jurassic Park‘s second signature track, only for it to be rushed through in under 30 seconds – yes, there’s a dino-sized elephant in the room, Giacchino seems to be saying, but this is his own beast. It sets the tone for some wonderfully playful riffs on Williams’ work without stealing the thunder from Giacchino’s own ear for action (the choirs add menace without, for once, becoming overbearing) and usual knack for writing memorable melodies (something sorely lacking in modern blockbuster music).

If Jurassic World were a standalone film, this would be a top-notch action soundtrack. As a follow-up to a John Williams’ trilogy, it’s as good as it can get.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HR3EygQNaUQ

12. The Duke Of Burgundy 

Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio showed the director had an intuitive ear for the effect audio can have upon an audience. That’s proven once again with The Duke Of Burgundy, which has some of the lushest accompaniments you’re likely to hear this year or last. The story of a sadomasochistic relationship between entomologists, the music by Cat’s Eyes is a swooning, seductive affair. Clarinets yearn their way up and down semitones over mellifluous flutes in “Moth”; actual moth noises are played on “Dr. Schuller; Door No. 2″ (and others) brings us yet another instance of harpsichord (here, taking us further into their timeless, private world); and “Requiem For The Duke Of Burgundy” channels Mozart with class.

Something of a musical companion to The Falling, there’s a simple, melancholic charm to the diverse album, which is summed up gorgeously on “Lamplight,” which drifts between pained strings and dreamy sustained vocals with the gentle swoosh of wings.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTWWT1apZEk

13. Steve Jobs 

First The Man From U.N.C.L.E., then Steve Jobs; Daniel Pemberton might be the most interesting movie composer around – not bad, given you’ve most likely heard of him from his work on TV. As with U.N.C.L.E., Pemberton approaches the film by limiting his palette to instruments from the period, something that perfectly echoes the script’s three-act structure and Danny Boyle’s own visuals: as Boyle sticks with 16mm for the early ’80s days, Pemberton sticks with old synthesisers, and both upgrade as the years pass.

We start with the electronic calculations of “It’s Not Working,” as a popping noise becomes increasingly erratic against the regular background – a rigid pattern, but one that’s broken. By the time the middle, meaty act – set in the San Francisco Opera House – comes along, we’ve scaled all the way to a full-on opera, complete with Verdi-like oom-pah-pah accompaniment. Meanwhile, Jobs’ claim that he plays the orchestra, while they play the instruments, is deftly summed up by two cues named after that quote, which evolve from the discordant noise of musicians tuning up to a second track that becomes more tuneful, as a Concert A (the note used at the start of a gig for performers to tune to) repeatedly plays, driving every other note into shape.

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In a film where Aaron Sorkin’s script fills almost every second of screen-time, you don’t even notice Pemberton is there. This is film composition at its most elegant, subtle and intelligent.

14. Selma 

There’s something about biopics and piano that seems to go hand and hand. Sure enough, Jason Moran’s music for Selma – his first feature film soundtrack – is full of slow, rising arpeggios, often in a minor key. But what makes Selma‘s soundtrack so moving is the way it uses that music – or, more specifically, doesn’t. Other soundtracks on this list are more noticeably stunning, which is precisely why Selma‘s is so impressive.

Silence is as much a part of the tapestry as anything else, with every death that occurs unfolding in slow-motion with no sound. It gives the horrible violence a chance to sink in – violence that, in the case of the four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, inspired the song “A Chance Is Gonna Come.” When Sam Cooke’s vocals on that track appear in the background on a car radio, it only becomes more effective. The period compilation also includes numbers such as Sister Gertrude Morgan’s “I Got the New World In My View,” whose toe-tapping rhythm captures the momentum of the movement.

But if Moran’s ebony and ivory notes and the jukebox accompaniment blend in with the period, the song at the end by Common and John Legend jolts you right out of it – in a good way. “Glory”‘s backing choir taps into the religious community surrounding Martin Luther King’s campaign, while the provocative lyrics underline the ongoing fight of hope and frustration. “That’s why Rosa sat on the bus,” raps Common. “That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up.” It’s a powerful juxtaposition of past and present, one that lets the film emphasise its pertinence today without spelling it out.

15. Inside Out 

If Giacchino’s Jupiter Ascending saw Giacchino go big, Inside Out finds the composer at his smallest. But the Pixar veteran is as innovative as ever, starting with a delicate piano loop for Joy that ends on the third note in its tonic chord – a happy lift above the usual finishing note that smacks of optimism. But that motif becomes more and more complicated, as other emotions (and instruments) enter the frame – and we’re soon left with a dazzlingly intricate mesh of the melancholic and the chirpy, with harmonies that build to a new arrangement of the original theme, and a depth and maturity that perfectly echo our young protagonist’s growth.

Special mentions

Crimson Peak

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Fernando Velázquez’s work with strings and harmonies is achingly beautiful.

The Martian

Harry Gregson-Williams’ music moves between emotional and mathematical to suit the scientific subject matter – a feat that’s only topped by the superb use of David Bowie’s “Star Man” halfway through.

Song Of The Sea

Bruno Coulais, who also did the music for “Coraline” and “The Secret Of Kells,” is master of understanding how songs feed into fairy tales, giving birth to them and helping them to resonate with younger generations.

It Follows

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Disasterpeace’s electronic score gives this terrifyingly modern film a grounding in retro horror that only emphasises its subversive nature. Hauntingly effective.

Wild

It’s so easy to overlook the smart use of a pop song in a film. Wild has one of the best movie soundtracks for precisely that reason – it understands that we automatically associate our memories with music heard at the time. And so our journey back and forth in Cheryl’s emotional trek becomes dictated by the soundtrack, with flashbacks triggered by familiar tracks – a trick that makes the whole thing more believable and moving.

White God

If you ever doubted that a trumpet could be used to calm a pack of rabid dogs, Asher Goldschmidt’s soundtrack is the one for you.

Macbeth

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Justin Kurzel’s brother, Jed, gives Macbeth a powerful punch to match its visuals using gruff battle drums and tragic, evocative cello.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

Ana Lily Amirpour’s gloriously post-modern mash-up of Iranian cinema, vampires and skateboarding gets half of its style from the jukebox soundtrack, which uses White Lies to breathtakingly cool effect.