The Best Scores Of 2011

(Click on the album covers to purchase these soundtracks)

(Thomas Newman / Relativity)

There’s always been something ethereal, if not downright unearthly about the dreamy, often rhythmic sound that’s allowed Thomas Newman to become the first alt. rocker to make it big as a film composer. It’s a sound that’s particularly well-suited to the spiritual, conveying a universe behind the walls of reality in such scores as “The Rapture,” “Oscar and Lucinda” and “Phenomenon.” Now Newman’s on the side of the angels with hats for this moving, faith-based Phillip K. Dick adaptation. His mesmerizing mix employs strings and acoustic guitar, suspenseful beats, experimental dance pieces and ephemeral atmospheres, all of which seem to have been culled from some other musical reality. All produce an affecting, romantic resonance, conveying the tender refusal of the human heart to be manipulated by unimaginably powerful forces. It’s an intelligent approach that allows “The Adjustment Bureau” to touch a higher power with the most delicate, and hypnotic of melodic touches.

(Fall on Your Sword / Milan)

While this ersatz sci-fi film may have been too precious with an indie-ness that reached for the stars, it’s that same, ambitious lo-fi quality which has yielded an infinitely more successful score from the Brooklyn-based duo of Will Bates and former LCD Sound System guitarist Phil Mossman. With a chamber and piano vibe akin to The Kronos Quartet (as channeled through Clint Mansell’s rhythmic score to “Moon” and the pulsating energy of Daft Punk’s “Tron Legacy”), Fall on Your Sword emerges with a truly haunting voice, one that speaks for two lonely souls on the fringes of a counter-Earth discovery the whole planet can see. It’s a mix of instrumentally isolated humanity and cosmically weird musical science that comes off like emo grunge from Alpha Centauri for one of the year’s most unusual, and distinctive scores that hears the outer limits of the organic and the electronic.

(Cliff Martinez / Lakeshore)

A master of avant-garde noir scores like “The Limey,” “Traffic” and “Narc,” Cliff Martinez’s criminal tone poems often don’t talk above a hush. His hypnotic sound of silence is taken to a new level of impactful understatement for “Drive”’s barely verbal hero, whose whispered, minimalistic samples speak far louder than big orchestral notes could. Propelled by the glass sustains of the Cristal Baschet instrument that made Martinez’s “Solaris” into a cult score, “Drive” motors on existential exhaust and steely rhythm. It’s a hollow-sounding, haunted vibe for a getaway man with more buttoned-up emotion than meets the ear. With its intensity rising from a slow, surreal burn to a gnarled wall of grimly ticking burn, “Drive”’s haunting score plays like Tangerine Dream’s “Thief.” But here that iconic sound of crime cool is taken to the musical chop shop- its rhythm mostly gutted until the sad, dream-like dread of a life of inescapable crime is all that remains under the entrancing musical hood.

(Alexandre Desplat / Watertower)

Given the dreariness that afflicted the last two Potters, you wouldn’t have expected the saga to end with such an emotionally rousing bang. And if Alexandre Desplat’s score for the first “Hallows” got a bit bogged down by that film’s deathly depression, here the composer uses one big, Rowlins-worthy spell to create the musical equivalent of the movie’s satisfying sucker punch, one that’s arguably made “Harry”’s saga go out with more satisfaction than any genre franchise before it. The previously gloomy musical fog solidifies into an epic of vulnerability and desperation, as Desplat becomes one with Hogwarts’ last stand. Heroically exciting and emotional without indulging in any of of the kind of rah-rah, cliffhanging moments you’d expect from good triumphing over ultimate, no-nosed evil, Desplat’s score makes us care, and root for this band of magical brothers. At the end, it’s a fragile, lovely feeling of survival that the second “Hallows” socks out, at once paying homage to the John Williams’ music that started it all, while maturing that lush, symphonic style to fit the wizened, battered glass frames of a boy wizard who’s done a hell of a lot of growing up through eight movies. It’s maturation that Desplat’s music makes us feel with a power forged as much from real-life emotion as the effects spectacle around it.

(Danny Elfman / Cirque Du Soleil)

Who’d have thought that Danny Elfman would do one of his most inspired movie scores for a movie that didn’t really exist- let alone several at the same time? It’s this inventive, stylistic bounty that’s made me give a deserved mulligan to the Elfman soundtracks that you can only see live on stage at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood- home to Cirque Du Soleil’s movies-as-a-circus show “Iris.” With the music sending Cirque’s death-defying performers over audiences’ heads, trampolining off buildings, and contorting themselves into pretzels, Elfman’s work gives new meaning to being “in synch” with these moving human pictures. Ranging from furiously percussive symphonies to music box bells, solo pianos, syncopated voices and swing jazz, “Iris” not only traverses the amazing history of Elfman music with sections reminiscent of “Edward Scissorhands,” “Nightbreed” and “Dick Tracy,” but that of Hollywood scoring itself, with Elfman doing his own spins of “West Side Story”’s finger-snapping jazz to the raging dance ritual of “King Kong.” At once tightly controlled and spur-of-the-second, “Iris” brings out a new sense of invention and freedom from a composer who’s already one of Hollywood’s most inventive performers. “Iris” is a musical high wire act that Elfman pulls off with tremendous energy, and one definitely worth seeing in person.

(Conrad Pope / Sony Masterworks)

After adding to the sound of any number of great scores for the likes of Danny Elfman, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams, ace orchestrator Conrad Pope finally gets his big moment on stage, musically embodying no less than the most famous sex bomb to ever sashay across the big screen. Abetted by a theme from Alexandre Desplat (for whom Pope orchestrated two “Hallows” for), Pope goes beyond the beautiful blonde iconography to discover the little girl lost inside of the star. It’s a lovely “Week” indeed as Pope discovers Marilyn Monroe’s true musical soul, while also capturing the pure delight it is for a newbie to be part of the wonderful world of filmmaking. As he plays the magic, and vulnerability of a Hollywood golden age with his own voice, Pope also recalls any of the melodic greats he’s collaborated with, while also reaching back to the kind of classic love themes practiced by the lyrical likes of Francis Lai and John Barry. For any one in adoration of the movies, let alone one of its most famous figures, your listening time couldn’t be more memorably spent than with Conrad Pope.

(Patrick Doyle / Varese Sarabande)

Patrick Doyle’s got some pretty heavy simian scoring steps to follow to make his own display of dominance for an “Apes” film, especially when you consider the paw prints include those of Jerry Goldsmith, Leonard Rosenman and Danny Elfman. But it certainly helps that “Rise” is arguably the next best film in “Planet of the Apes” franchise next to the prequel “Conquest” (the uncut version that is). While Doyle certainly performs some percussive monkey tricks here, what makes his “Apes” entry so impressive is how he emotionally makes its hero Caesar more of a Homo Sapien than any of us. It’s a depth of melodic feeling that turns this “Planet” into perhaps the most musically human soundtrack of the series, music that makes us want to cheer for our own species’ demise. When it comes to that long-awaited revolt, Doyle employs a mix of electronic action percussion with a primal orchestra. It’s a similar approach to his other winning summer score for “Thor,” showing how this once classically symphonic composer has successfully evolved to be as good as any other action-scoring alpha ape out there. Given the justified acclaim that’s greeted this movie, Doyle’s younger peers might just be cowering below this elfish, grey-haired Scotsman when he beats his chest.

(Jeff Grace / Movie Score Media Screamworks)

It’s the vampire end of the world as we know it. But forget any condescending horror music clichés, especially from composer Jeff Grace. Having written the viscerally unique scores to such films as “The Roost,” “House of the Devil” and the forthcoming “Innkeepers,” Grace’s most effective decision is not to play The End like some bloodsucking apocalypse, full of the usual strident orchestrations and big “Boo” moments. What Grace, and this excellent movie deliver are far more somber and smart than that. If anything, “Stake Land” plays like a road trip through the dying remains of the Confederacy, with violins, a solo piano and Orff-like bell percussion capturing a rustic, and desolate sense of wonder at what civilization’s become, a place where man’s savagery is worse than any monster. Far more poetic than depressing, “Stake Land” strikingly lovely melodies ultimately are about the hope that comes with sacrifice, while still paying off the more sanguine musical moments when needed. A truly great “horror” score in name only, “Stake Land” shows the emotional possibilities that lie within genre scoring.

(John Williams / Sony Masterworks)

For another masterpiece in what’s likely to be remembered by the vox populi as the greatest composer / director teaming in Hollywood history, John Williams takes on the role of Mr. Ed for Steven Spielberg- that is, giving human voice to an animal most likely unaware that he was the star of a major studio production. It’s a lovely, deeply affecting musical vocabulary that confirms the species as some of the most noble, and lovely of God’s creatures. Starting with a lush, Irish-inflected approach that marks Williams’ welcome return to the land after “Far and Away,” the journey of “War Horse” progresses to the darker, anguished territory of “Saving Private Ryan,” with Williams capturing compassion, tragedy and the folly of battle on a grand, tear-moving scale that bonds horse and human alike as a victim. Indeed, the horse’s heroically militaristic flight across the trenches of World War I stands as one of the most stirring, heart-rending pieces in Williams’ career. Full of stirring goodness and the sunset-drenched themes that are completely inseparable from Spielberg’s imagery, “War Horse” stands up majestically for music, movie and animal lovers alike.

(Henry Jackman / Sony Masterworks)

After getting his superhero feet wet on the non-powered avengers of “Kick Ass” with the help of John Murphy, Henry Jackman now goes it solo for the beginnings of Professor X’s merry band of mutants. The fact that this origin story is set during the Bondian swinging 60’s adds a terrific retro spy vibe to a score that’s more than contemporarily rocking with its fine mesh of electronic and orchestral abilities. Jackman’s themes leap out with big melodic brushstrokes that would befit a Jack Kirby splash page, from a truly pissed guitar theme for Magneto to the kind of cape-flowing, symphonic hosannahs that tell you the good guys have just jetted in to save the world. It’s Jackman’s full-throttle commitment of playing comic book heroism as the stuff of glorious legend that makes the composer pass this “Class” with flying colors.


(Brian Byrne /, Varese Sarabande)

Irish composer Brian Byrne takes up residence in 19th century Dublin for the upstairs/ downstairs cross-dressing-by-necessity of “Albert Nobbs.” While there’s a sprightly, Gaelic-accented classical sound to the happy-go-lucky strings and harpsichord that propels this not-so proper man of the hotel about, Byrne gradually looks behind the confident veneer to discover a lonely, terrified woman who just wants to literally fit in. It’s a poignant musical quest for acceptance that’s tremendously moving for its melodic vulnerability, nattily attired with a powerful, tenderly tragic theme and an especially resonant Sinead O’Connor lullaby that grants some measure of fairy tale acceptance to the film’s sad, yearning heroine.

(Alan Silvestri / Walt Disney Records)

With a knack for brassy, militaristic melody that’s given comic book-ish power to such muscle men as Arnold Schwarzenneger and Sylvester Stallone, Alan Silvestri’s innately patriotic action sound for the likes of “Predator” and “Judge Dredd” just might make him Hollywood’s answer to John Philip Sousa. And that’s exactly the right qualification to suit Silvestri up with the wing-tipped red and blue of “Captain America.” It’s a smash entry for the composer into his first outright superhero score, capturing an earnest, golden nostalgia that gives tremendous, aw-shucks salute-ability to The Captain, while bringing in a techno element for the Hydra villains that make this thoroughly entertaining soundtrack anything but antiquated. Not I’m frothing at the mouth to hear what Silvestri will be bringing to the ultimate Marvel movie collection next summer.

(Cliff Martinez, Watertower)

If Martinez’s “Drive” score was about precise, mental control, then the composer’s “Contagion” is a score of a very different, and more palpably terrifying microbe. Here he unleashes truly queasy samples that sound like germs buzzing under our skin for sonically unnerving effect. And while Martinez’s trademarked percussion moves the pandemic along on its global scale, “Contagion” also differentiates itself as a far bigger orchestral beast, with simmering, snarling danger bringing back the long-thought cured 70’s noir sound of such musically infectious masters as Michael Small (“The Parallax View”) and Don Ellis (“The French Connection”). It a turbulent throwback sound that makes “Contagion” sound like a brooding conspiracy score, only one where a mass of disease cells are the supremely confident villains. Martinez’s grasp of that brooding style is indeed a cool musical virus to have back.

(Christian Henson, Lakeshore)

African and Middle Eastern movie music was hardly rocking in that trip-hop sort of way before Hans Zimmer turned a catastrophic Mogadishu military failure into a jam session with “Black Hawk Down,” setting the same furious ethnic beat for just about every similarly-themed score that followed. But leave it to Christian Henson to give it a new, darkly invigorating spin for “The Devil’s Double” as he takes desert rhythms out for a sex and drug dance in the westernized hell club of Uday Hussein. It’s a vibe at once fearsome and invigorating, tantalizing Uday’s hapless look-a-like with the sinister, sensual grooves of a dictator’s sociopathic son. Yet the serpentine sounds of Arabic winds and drums are always there with the percussive force of conscience, reminding the film’s hero of the cost of a despicable good life in the midst of his country’s agony. Henson’s mesmerizing mix of trance grooves, harsh beats and ironic strings capture this moral quandary in the heart of darkness to powerful, captivating effect for one of history’s most unusual hostages.

(Atli Orvarsson / Silva Screen)

While set in Roman times, “The Eagle” is far more of a visceral archeological adventure in the spirit of “Quest for Fire” than the Wagnerian, sword swinging thrills of “Gladiator.” Where “Quest”’s French composer Philippe Sarde took us on a rhythmically primitive tour of the stone age, Iceland-born Atli Orvarsson makes us feel like we’re on a dangerous, ethnomusicologist mission way behind Roman lines. With that empire’s warrior seeking a standard in the country that will become Britain, Orvarsson’s tantalizing use of such ancient instruments as Carnyx, Kamancheh, a ram’s horn, and a bag pipe for good Celtic measure, make this quest for “The Eagle” as tonally alien as it is fascinating, with more civilized strings to communicate a noble warrior in a forbidding land. It’s an action score packed with admirable authenticity, music that gives credence to the sword and sandal genre, along with this unexpectedly terrific film.

(The Chemical Brothers / Relativity)

It’s hard to believe “Hanna” is the first actual film score to be delivered by these trance / industrial gods, especially when so many of their peers have been cranking out washes of grunge beats that annoyingly murder their pictures instead of supporting them. Not that the Chemical Brothers have done anything so different here, mind you. But for once, it’s a shrill, hyper-beat approach that’s completely right for a teen assassin created by super-science. Channeling the cold, high-tech rhythms of “The Andromeda Strain” through the evil, cherubic nature of “A Clockwork Orange,” the Chemical Brothers’ nerve jangling pieces piercingly shoot in the austere brutality of “Hanna”’s twisted fairy tale, somehow conveying the traditional soundtrack structure of melody and themes in the process- with the one truly organic bit being a devilish whistling theme that pervily pursues its killer babe through CIA-death Toyland.


(Roque Banos / Milan)

From the Theremin guilt of “The Machinist” to the mathematical madness of “The Oxford Murders,” few composers have resurrected the lush, Grand Guignol melodic approach of Bernard Herrmann like composer Roque Banos. But while it’s imaginable that the tormented maestro Banos channels so well could have scored those pictures, it’s also likely that Herrmann would have thrown a tizzy at the sex-obsessed, super-villain clash of the insane clown posse that makes for this lunatically entertaining film. Having long turned dementia into a thing of beauty, the crazed possibilities of this “Circus” are something to be savored for Banos with gorgeous themes, screaming Spanish Civil War percussion and a gigantic, swooning symphonic climax that plays its over-the-top climax with all of the blazingly tragic grandeur its scarred crazies deserve. While Banos’ “Last Circus” score is likely to give another generation of kids clown nightmares, it’s musical catnip for fans of the Hitchcock sound on steroids.


(Christopher Young / Madison Gate)

Christopher Young’s been obsessing with matters of heaven and hell since early in his career. Now he’s really gone to gonzo town with the thoroughly fun “Priest,” an anime-inspired flick that’s part western, part Catholic avenging superhero tale and an all-out vampire-beast flick. But if oriental genre stuff always seems delightfully off kilter when trying to play by the western genre rules, much can be said of Young’s very approach to scoring horror and science fiction. He’s one of the few American composers out there hitting these pictures with all the florid orchestral and choral stuff he’s got. Yet Young always has memorable themes to keep his bombastic excitement on track. Given its Godly hosannahs, hurtling excitement, snarling brass and feel of riding the undead range, “Priest” demands worship at the altar of Young’s symphonic horror raptures.

(Michael Giacchino / Varese Sarabande)

Michael Giacchino truly got his start emulating John Williams’ “Raiders” scores when he attacked the “Medal of Honor” videogames, coming up with a remarkable symphonic score that it redefined the genre’s possibility of equaling the polish, and power of any movie soundtrack. Now that Giacchino’s an Oscar-winning King of the Scoring World, it’s only fitting that he confidently puts on Williams’ shoes again, with all of the thrilling geek love that comes with it. Essentially creating the maestro’s score for the 1979 Amblin movie that Williams never got around to scoring for Spielberg, Giacchino pours on one definitive theme after the other for this stirring mix of menace and magic that fulfills filmmaker J.J. Abrams’ ambition of pitting a very pissed E.T. against The Goonies. Yet Giacchino’s own style comes roaring through loud and clear beyond his fanboy love, showing “Super 8” as just one more reason why he’s Williams’ heir apparent when it comes to motivic, melodic and big-ass symphonic scoring.


(James Newton Howard, Sony Masterworks)

In the same way that John Williams gave humanity to a horse, James Newton Howard hears the big heart in a pachyderm. But where Williams was capturing the Irish and European arenas of WWI, Howard gets to play a more romantically magical, and acoustically rustic approach for “Elephant”’s setting during our country’s Great Depression, topping it off with the era’s jazz for nostalgic measure. Howard’s “Water” is an affecting musical fairy tale of innocent love and imperious villainy, as told through the devotion of an animal that’s used for good and bad. It’s a captivating musical spell that ends with a lyrical piano glow of hope for both the human, and animal condition, lyrical enchantment that earns its elephant tears honestly.


Chris Bacon always keeps the suspense riveting while rewinding through the Source Code (Lakeshore)

Ludovic Bource’s score is anything but silent in The Artist (Sony Masterworks)

Nicole Errera finds Zen within the martial acts action of Shaolin (Movie Score Media)

Forget it, Andrew and Simon Hale. It’s not “Chinatown.” But you can nicely hear it in a videogame score called L.A. Noire (Rockstar Games)

Jonathan Keevil hears a weirdly romantic apocalypse for Bellflower (vinyl only on Oscilloscope)

Dustin O’Halloran affectingly minimal piano approach makes long-parted love feel Like Crazy (Relativity)

The Besnard Lakes
preach to the ironic alt. rock choir in Sympathy for Delicious (Lakeshore)

Michael Richard Plowman’s powerful war score makes us salute the Age of Heroes (Movie Score Media)

Steven Price wears his alien fighting, 80’s synth hip-hop hoodie with pride in Attack the Block (Decca)

Frank Tetaz strums out the idiosyncratic grunge salvation of Hesher (unreleased)

David Wingo
goes inside an eerie, ethereal wash of seeming insanity to make us Take Shelter (Milan)


  • Nilavra Bhattacharya
    December 12, 2011 @ 8:13 pm

    Hans Zimmer’s “Rango” should have been in the list

  • Lisa
    December 26, 2011 @ 10:23 am

    Glad to see that Danny Elfman was included in the list. The man is phenomenal. He deserves much more credit than he’s given, which is a shame.

  • Mike
    December 30, 2011 @ 4:28 am

    I don’t see Elfman’s score as appropriate for this list – it’s a dance work. Are all such dance and ballet scores or even incidental music for plays now soundtracks?

  • December 31, 2011 @ 4:08 pm

    Can’t believe The Skin I Live In from Alberto Iglesias didn’t make it to such a great list. Would like to hear your opinion for why it didn’t.

  • bijinius
    February 21, 2012 @ 3:21 pm

    what, no hugo?? certainly my favorite score of the year, im quite shocked that it wasn’t included here. maybe i scrolled too fast by accident and missed it or something? or maybe you guys just didn’t dig it. strange..

  • Marc Levy
    April 27, 2012 @ 9:29 am

    Critically overlooked, Silvestri’s “Captain America” was an outstanding filmscore in many respects. Silvestri and his orchestrators had so many good ideas in this work, the disappointing score mixing and editing notwithstanding. Why the film was overlooked at the Oscars reflects the current fad of “tracking” over “original scoring” established by past masters of filmscoring and a lack of critical appreciation of JJ’s excellence in story-telling. Thank you for including CA in you 2011 picklist . . .

  • Crystal Bowen
    October 9, 2012 @ 5:45 am

    I agree with bijinius – Hugo is one of my favorite scores and should have been included in this list. Although I am glad to see Alexandre Desplat here plus a few eye openers that I will check out. Thanks for compiling :)

  • Ehab Mohammed
    May 15, 2014 @ 8:24 am

    Actually the best soundtrack of all these is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 , followed by War Horse , Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Water for elephants .

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