The Best Scores of 2012


(Click on the album covers to purchase these soundtracks)

(Dan Romer & Benh Zeitlin / Cinereach Music)

An adolescent’s ability to turn a dangerous world into a place full of fantastical possibility provides the subtext for this strikingly fresh, Cajun-cum-magical realism score by director Benh Zeitlin and co-composer Dan Romer. “Beast’s” flooded island is a palpable, dangerously enchanted place in this jambalaya of music box bells, fiddles and plucked strings, strongly melodic storytelling that dances with local flavor while taking listeners to a truly new, mythic land where giant prehistoric pigs can come to life. In the their native ensemble that effortlessly approximates the emotional power of a full orchestra, Zeitlin and Romer also hauntingly hear childhood’s end, a somber responsibility that tolls with loss, finally resounding with the triumphant joy of a generation stubbornly continuing to take root in a water-logged reality beyond anyone’s imagination.

(Tom Tykwer & Johnny Klimek & Reinhold Heil / Water Tower Music)

It’s a mark of hubris to write a score that can span centuries with music that’s powerful enough to be remembered through countless lives and deaths. But the Pale 3 of Tykwer, Klimek and Heil pull their ambitious goal off to dazzling effect, ranging from a techno future to pokey pizzicato comedy and a swirling chorus of biblical realization. Seamlessly tying its divergent musical styles, stories and timelines together is a beautiful “Cloud Atlas” theme, music so believable in its classicism that a listener might think it was written by one of the great maestros. A staggering evolutionary leap from the trio’s breakthrough trance-techno score of “Run Lola Run,” “Cloud Atlas” is an immense sum total of not only the human experience, but of mankind’s capacity for musical self-realization itself, all as embodied in a theme or the ages.


(James Horner / Varese Sarabande)

When it comes to a composer to play your martyrdom, no one delivers a historical, church-worthy send-off like James Horner, who’s sent William Wallace, a regiment of black union soldiers, and most of the passengers on board the Titanic to a gloriously heroic musical eternity. Horner accomplishes this with every wonderful trick in his book here to give a rousing musical elegy to a little-known band of Mexican-Christian freedom fighters in this stirring film about battling for what’s right. Shostakovich-ian licks, tolling church bells and a chorus of seeming hundreds join with Horner’s iconic talent for thematic nobility, all driven by terrific, ever-escalating excitement that could be on the range with the composer’s “Zorro” scores. Easily the most Horner-ific score he’s done, “For Greater Glory” is a 21-Pistolero salute to the days when film scores weren’t afraid to be big, bold and above all musical.


(Fernando Velázquez / Quartet Records)

The ability of the human spirit to overcome the unimaginable is at the heart of Fernando Velázquez’s tremendously moving score, his feat made all the more impressive by how well he avoids melodramatic disaster score clichés. In the face of 2004’s devastating Asian tsunami that claimed tourist and native alike, Velázquez plays both the restrained determination of a family to reunite in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, all while suspenseful dread washes over them. Graced with a truly memorable theme to bond his characters,
Velázquez most often employs an emotionally restrained approach for strings and piano to reflect a far bigger picture of wreckage and anguish. When the strings finally soar with large scale melody, the tears that Velázquez’s work helped earn feel truly justified, standing in for those who found their families, and others who lost theirs’ to nature’s fury.


(Mychael Danna / Sony Masterworks)

Mychael Danna Photo Credit by Sally Stevens

Mychael Danna has ventured to India before with the likes of “Kama Sutra,” “Water” and “Vanity Fair,” creating an intoxicating melange of the land’s ancient instruments and rhythms with a western-style orchestral sound. “Life of Pi” is most majestically ambitious voyage yet to the sub-continent, its karmically religious culture very much a state of mind for a young man cast away on the ocean, with only a ferocious tiger for company. Danna impressively deals with both spirit and survival for a score that richly blends musical ethnicity and Hollywood tradition, as Indian winds, percussion and voices join with strings that are both capable of soothing lushness, or the symphonic anger of a God Storm, with a moving piano melody finally helping to ask about the very nature of imagination and belief when all is lost. Indeed, few scores take such a melodically profound slice of a very big 3-D picture like this “Pi.”


(Nathan Johnson / La La Land)

Showing an interest in eclectic percussion since his first score for cousin Rian’s directorial debut “Brick,” Nathan Johnson brilliantly takes his love for offbeat sounds into the twilight future zone here. Sampling a junkyard’s worth of metal and string sounds, then combining their insanity with a conventional orchestra, Johnson achieves an alternately noisy and melodically pleasing balance between sound design and thematic music, with both approaches often colliding with stunning results for a film noir soundtrack that can be as sharp as the scraping of age-old rust, or have the emotionally affecting brush of a piano key for fatalistic hitman romance.


(Jonny Greenwood / Nonesuch)

Few scores dared to be as bizarrely in your face as Jonny Greenwood’s “There Will Be Blood.” But then, few directors, or characters brooked no prisoners like Paul Thomas Anderson and his raging bull oilman. Back with the filmmaker for an even more inscrutable anti-hero who falls into a cult of personality, Greenwood’s equally confrontational score is fascinating by the sheer, modernistic insanity of its ideas. Avante garde strings and brass layering a denseness of ideas to embody a s super-genius’ manifesto. Yet one can easily hear the pull of his words within Greenwood’s magnetic music that conveys two addled minds- one full of devilish ticking clock self-assurance, and the other a mess of conflicting, angrily percussive motivations. One of the few scores that could easily be on a concert stage as much as a soundtrack, Greenwood’s “Master” once again proves that there’s no other composer with the provocative balls to screw with the nature of film scoring itself.


(Alexandre Desplat / Varese Sarabande)

Magical snow seems to coat Alexandre Desplat’s genre work, whether it’s fallen upon “The Golden Compass” or Hogwarts Academy in the final two “Harry Potter” scores. But rarely has the composer’s holiday cheer descended with the adventurous joy as it does with the iconic team that comprises the “Rise of the Guardians.” Conjuring a child’s-eye belief in fairytale icons with gentle strings, pianos, bells and Yuletide horns as well as employing more muscular orchestrations for the action chops of a Cossack-style Santa Claus, Desplat pulls off the first fairy tale superhero score with his deft balance between naughty and nice. But perhaps more importantly, the majesty of Desplat’s score will make this deserving film’s viewers believe in the feats of imagination that a robustly thematic symphonic score can conjure.


(Nick Urata / Milan)

Since riding high on the ethnic whimsy of his group Devotchka for the breakthrough songs of “Little Miss Sunshine,” Nick Urata has applied the same sweetly comic charm to scores for “I Love You Phillip Morris” and “The Joneses.” But it’s “Ruby Sparks” that marks a major symphonic evolution for the composer, his rapturous strings brimming with the power of creation in a nebbish author’s conjuration of his book’s dream woman. But if Urata’s Gypsy spirit has given way to such Russian composers as Prokofiev here, Urata’s sly spirit is very much present in his score’s deliberate pomposity, a take down of literary delusions of godhood that also finds terrifying percussion in the shackles of control, and a moving sense of romantic loss in surrendering to the power of the typed word.


(Walter Murphy / Universal Republic)

If John Williams and Henry Mancini teamed to score a film about a foul-mouthed teddy bear, then it’s likely the result would be something akin to Walter Murphy’s orchestrally lush, and infinitely hep cocktail jazz score that makes Seth MacFarlane’s seemingly crass concept into comedy gold. It’s a conviction that marks both MacFarlane and his “Family Guy” composer more-than-impressive studio feature debuts. Not only does he play “Ted’s” innumerable pop culture salutes (right down to the Indy theme), but his genuinely moving emotion gives true heart to the movie’s swear-filled, cannabis-stained stuffing, God’s farts and all.


(Cliff Martinez / Milan)

As the composer who virtually created the ethereal indie sound with “Sex Lies and Videotape,” Cliff Martinez has always played psychological tension in offbeat, ethereally percussive ways. Here’s it’s a moody spider’s web of drones and percussion that’s closing in on a magnate’s gigantic F-up, rhythmic tension that’s all about the inner turmoil that clings to the antihero as he uses all of his charms to clean things up. Speaking with his soft, haunted confidence, Martinez’s Eno-ish washes of melodic textures always have a cold beauty that doesn’t let him off the hook.


(Howard Shore / Howe Records)

David Cronenberg’s film may have been a big ride to nowhere, but that doesn’t mean the director doesn’t always bring out the creative best in his faithful musical driver Howard Shore, who takes the wheel along with the alternative band Metric. It’s a hypnotic voyage into mega-finance’s existential, corrupt underbelly, music that’s full of long, drifting neo-industrial soundscapes that create a palpable sense of bubbling tension. Though as small in its approach as his score for “The Hobbit” is epic, “Cosmopolis” is equally as powerful expressing Shore’s drive for ear-catching experimentation.


(Michael Giacchino / Walt Disney)

Between stuff like “Super 8” and “Star Trek,” few composers approach effects tentpoles with the blazing geek excitement of Michael Giacchino, who lights them on fire with the kind of orchestrally thematic exuberance that’s more than marked him as the John Williams to be. For this blockbuster that should have been, Giacchino is in Martian hog heaven, pouring on the grand symphonic adventure, ethnic percussion, choral hosannahs and trumpeting four-arm, sword-swinging action. In short, “John Carter” is everything that makes a score of this type great, creating a sense of wonder that’s breathless with its massive enthusiasm that makes musical fanboys of us all.


(Nick Cave and Warren Ellis / Sony Masterworks)

Australian composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have proven they understand America’s violent musical frontier like few other foreigners with the likes of “The Assassination of Jesse James” and “The Road.” Now taking on the prohibition era backwoods with the same defiance to musical tradition, the duo blend the roadhouse guitar blues with angry, often dissonant percussion that defies any decade, creating a palpable sense that brutality can happen at any second, yet with the kind of art that makes their sometimes assaultive approach into a thing of backwoods poetry- even if it’s only a little taste of their moonshine that’s provided on a similarly powerful soundtrack album.


(Anton Sanko / Lions Gate Records)

When so much horror music is all the rage, Anton Sanko applies the haunting tone he gave to a family torn about by tragedy in “Rabbit Hole,” applying the soulful intimacy to the far more visceral experience of a kid being possessed by a Jewish-centric demon. Sanko deftly balances classy, and subtle psychological piano and string melody with the genre’s ragingly percussive orchestral demands, with just a hint of Hebraic ethnicity to further separate the film’s score from the usual Christian tone that accompanies a child-hating hell beast.


(Michael Brook / Lions Gate Records)

After the existential acoustical youth sound for a kid who didn’t want to fit in for “Into the Wild,” Michael Brook goes back to 80s high school experience, complementing the song soundtrack’s mix tape for the dawn of alt. with a beautifully sensitive score about the madness and joys of fitting in, joining poignant guitars, piano, aching strings and dream-like synths for a touching musical portrait for the deep, life-changing bond of friendship.


(Mark Mothersbaugh / Pale Blue)

Pretty much only known for his ironically Baroque scores for such Wes Anderson pictures as “Rushmore,” not to mention the wacky antics of two zillion cartoons. Devo-man Mark Mothersbaugh takes on full-throttle Jason Statham bad-assness for what’s arguably the star’s best action picture. And hearing the brooding strings, militaristic beat-downs, metal guitars and Chinese stylings for “Safe’s” mayhem is the thrilling equivalent of finding out the guy you thought of as the ship’s cook was a stone-cold musical killer all along. “Rugrats” will never seem the same again.


(Marco Beltrami / Silva Screen)

Having immediately proven himself modern film scoring’s answer to James Bernard with such atmosphere-drenched chillers as “Mimic” and “Scream,” Marco Beltrami now truly resurrects the ghost of that famed Hammer composer with his studio’s long-awaited, and wholly successful return to the genre. Driven by an old dark house-worth of melodic thrills and gripping, supernatural suspense, Beltrami’s horror highpoint with “The Woman In Black” shows the worst fear is the loss of one’s child with a menacing, heart-breaking wallop.


(Henry Jackman / Walt Disney Records)

Henry Jackman’s proven himself a master player when it comes to making arch subject matter musically believable with the high energy likes of “Kick-Ass” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” Now he incorporates the 8-bit sound of classic early 80s arcade games with a state-of-the-art orchestra, and gets a high score for a thoroughly fun “game” score that veers between Looney video-Toon antics and console-ready action. Yet it’s the unexpected emotional points that he scores in actually making us tear up for these characters that makes “Wreck-It Ralph” a big winner.


(Luis Bacalov, Ennio Morricone and many others / Universal Republic)

Quentin Tarantino’s sadistically groovy mash of spaghetti western and slaveploitation pays the genres musical tribute with the likes of Ennio Morricone, Luis Bacalov and Jerry Goldsmith, not to mention the blasting hip-hop of Rick Ross and Brother Dege. But where such jukebox song / score soundtracks as “Inglorious Basterds” and “Kill Bill” were consciously all over the tonal place, “Django Unchained” is the first Tarantino movie that actually seems to have a unified, new score, its heroically vengeful tone spoken in the inimitable voice of Ennio and his acolyte (and original “Django” composer) Bacalov. It’s so cool that one wonders more than ever why Quentin just doesn’t give either of them to call to score “Django Unchained” for real. In any case, it sounds like the Italian maestros’ most thrilling score in decades, even if it was brilliantly cobbled together from their past, as well as the geek love of the composers inspired by them back in the day.


“Glee’s” Adam Anders and Peer Astrom reprise the 80s hair metal guitar licks, as well as era’s mesmerizing synth-blues soundtrack vibe for a score that gets unusually long play between the dynamite jukebox tunes in “Rock of Ages” (Unreleased)

Andrew Feltenstein and John Nau make bad Mexican movie soundtracks and their songs into a thing of satirical brilliance, along with every other style that comes to Will Ferrell’s spoof-filled imagination in “Casa Di Mi Padre” (Lakeshore)

Francis and the Lights hear the entrancing human connection in the low-fi techno sound of a very believable near future for “Robot & Frank” (Unreleased)

Heather McIntosh creates an ironically stark, gripping chamber music approach to the darkly powerful experience of watching the human need to be controlled at its worst in “Compliance” (Milan)

Spain’s Zeltia Montes lyrically reaches back to the communal energy of the 60s with a tender, and haunting hippie spirit for “Lovetown (Vilamor)” (Quartet Records)

Former Echo and the Bunnyman Adam Peters goes surreally south of the border for the alt. darkness of Mexico’s drug war in “Savages” (Varese Sarabande)

Brian Satterwhite
and John Constant bring a retro-synth eccentricity to the astronaut dreams of a videogame developer for the winning indie-acoustical sound of “Man On A Mission” (La La Land)

Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda and “Tron Legacy’s” Joseph Trapanese pile on an exhilarating world of percussive hurt for “The Raid: Redemption” (Madison Gate Records)

Victor Reyes makes us believers in the paranormal by musically bridging the gap between emotional reality and eerie spectacular for “Red Lights” (Lakeshore)

Having made his legendary Latin jazz career in the days when nightclubs ruled Cuba, 94 year-old Bebo Valdés beautifully varies his love song “Sabor A Mi” into the underscore and songs that reflect the passion-filled decades of musical styles that link the star-drawn Chico & Rita

Lucas Vidal‘s career certainly won’t be quothing “Nevermore” with “The Raven’s” vibrantly Gothic suspense that makes Edgar Allan Poe into a musical action hero (101 Distribution)