With every great film there needs to be a great film score. The right composer put with the right filmmaker can create a sort of aural/visual magic that can prove to be transportive. A lot goes into making a film score, and taking it from good to great. Mood, themes, subtle yet engrossing, and the connection the composer has to the source material. The closer they are to it, the more their music conveys the story. That’s the difference between background noise and pure musical artistry.
Scores come in all shapes and sizes, and range from the minimal to full orchestras. I myself don’t care about the tools used, but how those tools are used. There are also scores that stand completely on their own and can be enjoyed as a standalone album, without the roadmap of the film in front of you. Those are the soundtracks I connect with. I want to be able to sit and listen to a score and enjoy it on the basis of its own artistry. Enjoying it in the context of the film is one thing, but when it stands on its own as a separate listening experience that’s a whole other level. I thought Mica Levi’s work in Monos was brilliant, but it’s not something I can necessarily sit and listen to at home while enjoying a pint.
So the following scores are ones I connected to both in the context of the films they were created for, as well as standalone experiences. Here are my favorite soundtracks(both film and television) of 2019.
Soeurs De Glisse : Daniel Davies
Daniel Davies works a subtle, restrained magic on this Belgian documentary about two sisters competing together in the Winter Paralympic Games. Using vintage synths, Davies creates soundscapes as stunning as the mountains and landscapes featured in the film.
Midsommar : Bobby Krlic
There’s an almost fairy tale quality to the score Bobby Krlic created for Ari Aster’s newest film Midsommar. Moods range from elated to absolutely crushing. Krlic works with strings and Swedish folk instruments to create an atmosphere of both dread and re-discovery. It’s as visceral and engrossing as Aster’s film. And really, ‘Fire Suite” might be the most beautiful piece of music I’ve heard in years.
Butterfly : Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein
The two members of S U R V I V E have been racking up an increasingly impressive amount of soundtrack work since their 2016 debut with Stranger Things. This year has been more of the same(including their third score for season three of ST), including a soundtrack for the BBC series Butterfly. This is the lightest and most playful soundtrack they’ve done yet, and one I’ve returned to more than any of their work so far. The story of a transgender child and the hardships and triumphs they go thru is encapsulated musically with bubbly synths and electronics. It’s the most pop-centric sound Dixon and Stein have created yet.
Black Lake S/T : Burning Tapes
Though I have yet to see K/XI’s Black Lake, I feel I’ve experienced it through Burning Tapes’ mesmerizing score. An acid-dipped trip into dark synths and electronic beats that feels part NIN and part Kreng, but always locked into Darren Page’s own musical language. He seems to have built a musical bridge that leads us into the heart of the film, one that deals with family, identity, and ancient evils, and giving of yourself thru your art. The film has its official debut at the Women In Horror Film Festival in early 2020. But you can experience the score right now.
The Lighthouse : Mark Korven
There’s a calculated dread to Mark Korven’s score for The Lighthouse. Even having not seen the film yet I can feel the sickly sense of sanity drifting away from the two lighthouse attendants, played by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. From the prickly needle-like strings, to the low groans of brass and what sounds like whales communicating, Korven paints a dark and mysterious score for a dark and mysterious film. Much like what he did for Eggers’ The VVitch, Mark Korven creates mood as dense as the fog that rolls onto the shore from the vastness of the sea.
Under The Silver Lake : Disasterpeace
If you’re at all familiar with Rich Vreeland’s work as Disasterpeace, you know that his melancholy and emotive brand of 8-bit magic can’t be touched. His work for games like Fez and Hyper Light Drifter is as important as the games themselves, creating a sonic touchstone that is equal parts nostalgia, new age, and alien. For his second turn as composer for director David Robert Mitchell, Vreeland looked back to the golden age of cinema for inspiration. Using a full orchestra, the score for Mitchell’s stoner noir Under The Silver Lake harkens back to the work of Bernard Hermann, Leonard Bernstein, and Alfred Newman. The electronic music is replaced by a truly classic approach, giving the modern day stoner mystery a vintage vibe. In lesser hands this movie could’ve been filled with classic alternative songs and bits of sleek synth thrown in for good measure. But with Disasterpeace Under The Silver Lake was pushed to new heights, thanks to some old school magic.
Housewife : Antoni Maiovvi
Maiovvi drops the Italio Disco and Giallo dread for a more nuanced, symphonic sound for Can Evrenol’s Housewife. Somber strings and lilting piano accompany Evrenol’s story of childhood traumas that haunt us our whole lives. Reminiscent of Jeff Grace’s excellent House of the Devil score, but with Maiovvi’s distinct melodic lean. A true sleeper of 2019.
Destroyer : Theodore Shapiro
Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer was a film that hit the mark only part of the time. It looked amazing, had some great performances, but story-wise it lacked in a narrative payoff. One part of the film that worked incredibly well was the score by Theodore Shapiro. Shapiro uses a full orchestra to help create the overwhelming doom that hangs over the characters and the dark roads they’re heading down. Reminiscent of Hans Zimmer and the late Johann Johannsson, his score is slow-building and works thru moments of heavy mood, melancholy pieces, and almost ambient bits. The mixture of electronic textures and an organic orchestra go to build a slow burn soundtrack that is just as engrossing spinning alone on the turntable as it is within the film.
Too Old To Die Young : Cliff Martinez
Even though Nicolas Winding Refn might go off the deep end, he’s always got Cliff Martinez there to reel the experience back in. Each of the films these two have collaborated on have been artistic pleasures for me. Delicacies of audacity and indulgence that I can’t get enough of. I’m sure most would pick Drive as their tour-de-force, but I’d say you are wrong. Only God Forgives is a masterpiece in vision and sound. Refn and Martinez made an audacious, ultraviolent picture of exquisite beauty, and most of the world didn’t get it. So what do they do after that? They go deeper down the rabbit hole, man. I feel it’s all come to a head with Refn’s Amazon Original Series Too Old To Die Young. I’m still only three episodes in and all I can fixate on is Stephen Baldwin’s cocaine snort. Oh, and the genius work of Cliff Martinez. Despite the feeling that Refn has gone off the deep end, I feel that Cliff Martinez is still at the top of his game. Using his signature vibes(neon electro dread and hazy fairy tale chimes), Martinez gives us something to connect to as we watch five minute takes of Miles Teller attempting to spit out a 4-word sentence. Cliff Martinez works his magic here, and all I can say is Nicolas Winding Refn should thank this man for what he’s done for his work.
Us : Michael Abels
One of my favorite movies this year was Jordan Peele’s Us. It struck a chord with me as I often worried as a child about some evil version of myself living in a shadow world waiting to rise and wreak havoc on the world. Michael Abels makes a Gothic score that relies on voice and percussive elements. It works beautifully in the film(much like what he did for Peele’s equally excellent Get Out.) Abels also gives us emotional heft in piano interludes and light string sections, with a sinister vibe just under the surface. I’m excited to see what comes next.
Native Son : Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein
Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s work on Rashid Johnson’s Native Son at first can get lost in your head. The airy, ambient quality is far more subtle than their work on Stranger Things. But after a few listens the beauty and darkness make their presence known. Working in more visceral tones by coloring in the quiet with atonal sounds and ambient synths, Dixon and Stein are less interested in moving you than putting you in a specific head space. There are moments when they capture the vibe of early S U R V I V E records, but given the dark nature of Native Son, they capture a tumultuous relationship and an ultimately tragic story in captivating musical moves.
Evil Dead – A Nightmare Reimagined : Joe Loduca
One of the single most frightening film experiences for me was watching Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead as a kid. Renting it from Video World and watching it with my mom and brother late one night pretty much catapulted me into a life of searching for the next great horror film. Try as I did, I never quite captured the shock and horror of that film again. I’ve seen plenty of great horror movies since that night in 1985, but nothing that was as viscerally pleasing and stomach-churning. Joe Loduca’s score was a big part of the creepy factor. But given the less-than shoestring budget, and the fact that Loduca was still figuring out how to be a film composer, he always felt he could’ve done a much better job. We now have that better job in Evil Dead – A Nightmare Reimagined. Re-scoring the Raimi classic and then performing it live to the film was a treat for those that were able to attend. For the rest of us, Mondo released the album in a 2-LP set in pristine fidelity. The results are nothing short of stunning. This wasn’t some George Lucas situation of “I can make Star Wars better by adding a digital Jabba”. No, what Loduca has done here is turn up the intensity by 150%, while also giving the quieter, reflective moments even more exquisite layers.
Stranger Things Season 3 : Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein
It’s been a pretty good year for Dixon and Stein. Lots of work and lots of exposure. And with each new film score they seem to get better and better. Their third time out with the Duffer Brothers and those crazy kids from Hawkins, Indiana seems to be the best yet. As the kids get older, relationships get more complicated, and the danger gets even more imminent, the music evolves along with it. The score is engaging, emotionally charged, and pulls us into this imagined 1980s as if we’re reliving it all over again.
Uncut Gems : Daniel Lopatin
So I’ve only had this score running thru my brain since this past Friday, but it’s already rewiring me in new and fantastic ways. Daniel Lopatin is nothing short of a musical genius. His work here reaches back to early OPN with ambient touches and heady sonic drifting. But he’s also making some of his most accessible music here. I cannot recommend this soundtrack enough.
That’s it on the soundtrack front. It was a truly great year for movie scores, and I’m sure I may have missed a few. But these 14 really hit me as quite incredible. Up next? Holy shit, favorite albums and soundtracks of the decade! Where did the years(and my hair) go?? See you soon.