The Best Scores of 2013

(Click on the album covers to purchase these soundtracks)

(John Williams / Sony Classical)

The kind of unabashedly thematic, and mostly melodic music that’s made John Williams into the most popular film composer of all time is often the sound of innocence itself, an unabated musical youthfulness that he’s also played to ironic effect when dealing with children confronting the unimaginable. Here it’s a genocide that’s heard, but rarely witnessed within a young German girl’s sheltered life during World War 2. Such is the devastating, gentle power that speaks volumes for “The Book Thief’s” score as it encapsulates the innocence, first loves and ultimate shock of innocence lost, but not hopefulness itself in a incredibly moving score that will have listeners stealing handkerchiefs by the boxful.

(Javier Navarrete / Silva Screen Records)

Having shown a haunting talent for hearing the bond between youth and the uncanny with “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone,” Javier Navarette achieves his most sublime supernatural score as he plays the now-ageless bond between mother and daughter vampire through two centuries, varying between a beautiful, Beethoven-based classical style to the religious chorus and gnarled electric guitar that contrast the struggle between taking victims peacefully and violently, with both blood sucking approaches, making for for a horror score of uncommon poetry and undead empathy.

(Bear McCreary / Sparks & Shadows)

Bear McCreary takes a major step for mankind, not to mention his own big screen ambitions with this beautifully propagandistic score for an ill-fated space mission. But that in no way detracts from the honor and glory these corporate sponsors seek to score their increasingly dire found footage with. Evolving the swelling themes and Glass-ian rhythms that announced McCreary’s talent on TV’s “Battlestar Galactica” revamp for this cinema verite sci-“fact” movie that’s more than the equal of “Gravity,” McCreary comes up with the year’s most knowingly gorgeous theme, then puts a relentless sonic pulse behind its lush variations that resound with the joy of first contact, as well as the human cost in bringing extra-terrestrial video to our planet.

(Johan Soderqvist / Sony Classical)

It’s only fitting that Swedish composer Johan Soderqvist and Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl share the same Nordic blood, an ability to see a mythic, cosmic scope in setting out to prove the seafaring prowess of South Americans islanders, and music’s ability to convey one man’s dream of connecting with the spirit that’s driven humanity’s explorations forward from our race’s beginnings. The result is an uncommonly lyrical score of a seafaring team driven by something far greater than themselves, gliding on suspenseful, and transcendental melodies for conch horn, orchestra, piano and sublime instrumental exotica that, like this excellent movie’s space-eye shot, hears down on Heyerdahl’s incredible endeavor through the ears of a universal brotherhood of wanderlust.

(Anthony Gonzalez, Joseph Trapanese / +180 Records)

You could say that Joseph Trapanese is the composing “side man” to far more renowned alt. superstars like Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda on “The Raid” and Daft Punk for “Tron: Legacy,” a score that was a major evolution in the alt. sci-fi sound of combining big beats and rock rhythms alongside the old-school orchestral guns. But now by getting a nice credit alongside M83’s Anthony Gonzalez for “Oblivion,” Trapanese not only righteously advances his own musical identity, but makes another giant evolution in fusing future techno rhythm with a solid symphonic voice, creating an post-apocalyptic musical landscape where a sense of wonder and melancholy memory join with slam-bang percussion. But if there’s a highlight to “Oblivion’s” thematic voice, then it’s the breathless drone vs. Cruise chase, perhaps the most exciting cue in a movie this year as it takes action percussion to a whole new level of ever-ramping rhythmic adrenalin.


(Cliff Martinez / Milan Records)

Rarely has a film composer been faced with a blank emotional slate like Cliff Martinez when given the sadistic waxwork of Nicolas Winding Refn’s unfortunate follow up to “Drive.” That Martinez was able to produce one of his most astonishing and melodically rich scores says much about the idea of composer-as-performance, who gives actual feeling to the hateful characters with a darkly stylistic score that varies from lush Herrmann-esque romance to fearsome dissonance, swelling symphonic penance and the glistening Cristal Baschet atmospheres that have become the composer’s trademark – all evoking true musical beauty from cinematic punishment. Far less a higher authority can easily give Martinez dispensation for his Oscar worthy acting here.

(Alexandre Desplat / Decca)

Desplat Photo by Jaap Buitendijk

Alexandre Desplat is a composer who excels in female empowerment, be it the playful whimsy of “Julia and Julia” or giving voice to the past tragedies that make “Coco Avant Chanel” even more musically determined. “Philomena” gives Desplat the chance to equally play humor and drama with a theme that’s brilliantly inspired by the merry go round that enchants its heroine to deceivingly sinful acts as an ill-informed youth. Desplat movingly captures “Philomena’s” bouncy, eccentric spirit, which is nonetheless chained by the dark Catholic fanaticism that has put a lifelong cloud over the lives of her and legions of desperate mothers and children ripped asunder from them. But then, what is life if not a carousel of the blissful and bad, two emotions that movingly drive “Philomena’s” road trip of self-discovery.


(Mike Patton / Milan Records)

Faith No More’s Mike Patton proves himself to be equally audacious as a film composer as he is a rock star, creating a truly WTF score for this distinctly American epic that charts two generations of criminals and equally culpable lawmen. While jarring at first to hear this miasma of religious choruses, grunge chords and experimental string writing over “Pine’s” rural landscape, Patton’s approach turns out to be completely inspired in conveying the sins of the fathers and the continued errors of their songs. His music conveys the penance they all desperately yearn for, an elegiac vibe caught between raw anger and beautiful somberness that’s is modernistic film scoring at its most daring, and provocative.

(Michael Giacchino / Varese Sarabande Records)

Michael Giacchino once again proves to be the perfect scoring captain for the iconic spaceship that boldly goes, especially with a powerfully symphonic score that is completely unabashed in its intention to be music. His second mission teams his first “Trek” score with a blazing new array of suspenseful themes that bring the Federation’s militarism to the fore, while also giving equal warmth and heroism to the bonds of friendship that have made Gene Roddenberry’s characters into pop legend, with even the nefarious Khan given a piano empathy that makes this seemingly evil superman all the more human. Giacchino’s “Darkness” is blockbuster scoring at its best, with music that’s as determinedly big as its effects set pieces, or as moving as the Enterprise crew’s unblinking willingness to sacrifice themselves for the needs of the many.


(Clint Mansell / Milan Records)

Clint Mansell is a composer who’s delighted in pushing women way over the verge of a nervous breakdown in scores like “Requiem for A Dream” and “Black Swan.” But “Stoker” just might be the most beautifully psychotic of the unhinged bunch, as Mansell’s talent for using undulating, ever-building rhythms plays the slow burn fatal attraction between an unhinged teen and her mother’s far more warped lover, their lust consummated by a truly striking piano duet. More than any other alt. composer, Mansell has found an unhinged symbiosis between the sublime beauty of Beethoven, the trance beat of Philip Glass and the gnarled guitar chords of death rock to create musical poetry from the slow walk to the cliff of madness.


(Lorne Balfe / Sony Entertainment)

Though it’s far more of an interactive movie than it is a video game, the negligible level of first-person shooter ability here doesn’t prevent “Beyond Two Souls” from being a complete immersive experience, especially with the eerie, and rapturous quality of Lorne Balfe’s score, leveled up with the ace technical and musical production oversight of Hans Zimmer. For a heroine seemingly cursed by her lifelong bond to an invisible entity, Balfe conjures a truly beautiful theme, topped with a female voice that resonates with a wounded emotion that binds this powerfully symphonic score with a deep emotional resonance while also neatly delivering the percussive action that the videogame genre can’t live without, with the big bonus points of rock-driven guitar and string suspense that makes “Souls” a worthy successor to Zimmer’s “Inception.” That “Beyond’s” score ends up in a truly spiritual place says much about how well the “game’s” ambitions succeed at outweighing its button-pushing expectations. Hopefully Sony will see their own light and make Balfe’s score available for download beyond its present PS3 platform.


(Laurent Eyquem / Varese Sarabande Records)

Bucolic echoes of his countryman Georges Delerue inflect French composer Laurent Eyquem’s look at the emotional battle for a small town’s hearts and minds during America’s Civil War. Eyquem gives this rural village a lushly effective orchestra for the countless lives being lost beyond its borders, as aching fiddles, poignant pianos and heartfelt strings create an uncommon intimacy that ties its pro and anti-fight characters together in a common sense of tragedy, while reflecting their need to truly bond together for an intimately powerful score about any era’s war at home.


(Joseph Lo Duca / Back Lot Music)

Joseph LoDuca has doubtlessly picked up no small amount of ghoulishly frightening humor from his early “Evil Dead” stints with Sam Raimi, a delightfully twisted sensibility that now powers up everyone’s favorite killer doll for a full-on assault of childhood music that maliciously plays over this unexpectedly terrific VOD sequel – one that’s more than good enough to play on the big screen. With “Suspiria”-like bell percussion conjuring every happy toy that might be in a kid’s treasure chest, LoDuca builds suspense with an ominous, old school horror score that rings through ”Curse’s” old dark house setting with voices, organ and creeping pianos, dementedly waiting for the moment that Chucky’s no-batteries surprise springs forth with a ripping rock guitar that jams with the old school creepy stuff. Rarely has such musical life been pumped into a killer icon for comedic horror scoring at its best.


(Steve Jablonsky / Varese Sarabande Records)

Steve Jablonsky’s rhythmically energized scores have helped no small amount of flag-waving, anti-alien movies blow the godless insectoid scum to smithereens without a second thought – all of which makes the utter, musical subversion of “Ender’s Game” all the more powerful. While Jablonsky’s heroically patriotic percussion is a major player in “Ender’s” action, it’s joined by eerie, otherworldly atmospheres and a church-like choir for a trippy approach that provides true, and surprisingly moving musical food for thought to the kind of effects blockbuster music that’s always blown up bug-eyed monsters real good.


(Abel Korzeniowski / Sugar Free Media)

Always an unabashed melodist with his orchestrally sumptuous scores to “A Single Man” and “Romeo and Juliet,” Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski applies all of his rapturous power to The Magic Kingdom to brilliantly seditious effect for this stolen footage revelation of Disneyland as the most nightmarishly surreal land this side of “Brazil.” Yet it’s the wide-eyed wonder that this gorgeous score is all about, until the B-movie chills of mad scientists, retro jazz of sexually wanton tourists and the dissonance of demon-eyed small world dolls poke in to his ersatz Max Steiner / Alfred Newman sound that could easily serve as the soundtrack for a soaring Disney ride, whose ultimate destination is symphonic B-movie madness.


(Christophe Beck / Walt Disney Records)

Chris Beck has shown his affinity for snowy enchantment in scores like “Fred Claus” and “Ice Princess,” with Disney magic in particular for their Oscar winning short “Paperman.” It’s a talent for bright musical wonderment that covers the landscape of “Frozen” with affection and derring-do adventure. The sparkling Menken / Ashman scoring spirit of such past Mouse House girl power fairy tales as “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” is on glistening display in Beck’s sweetly sublime work that’s all about casting a spell of melodic wonder and excitement, with the added touch of Nordic instruments and voices that pay tribute to the movie’s roots in Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen.”


(Steve Hufsteter / Soraya Recordings)

It’s one thing to replicate the Euro-Giallo-Psychedelic horror groove like “Berberian Sound Studio” and “Amer,” but it’s a whole deal to put actual blood and soul into a spot-on replication. Leave it to “Repo Man’s” Steve Hufsteter to create another cult-worthy score as he conjures the retro progressive rock, creepy organs, rushing winds, moaning female voices and cool jazz that make for Xan Cassavettes’ brilliant tribute to Jean Rollin’s French lesbo-vampire films, as transposed to erotic hipster New York City and its wooded, body-dumping environs. But for Hufsteter, it all plays like a lyrically groovy twilight zone that’s both frightening and hypnotic, conjuring the rush of the eternal dark and why being undead is the best ticket to hearing the Velvet Underground children of the night.

(Alex Heffes, Decca)

It’s no easy task to score music for one of the most towering figures of this century’s fight for equality, especially when a movie doesn’t try to paint him as a saint. But Alex Heffes rises to the occasion with a fist-holding theme that’s the sound of nobility under Apartheid fire itself, a bold motif that holds fast as it’s put to a decades-long test of imprisonment by the Afrikaaner regime, which is embodied by dark samples. But by the end of “Mandela,” those rock-like rhythms are now inclusive with the impassioned, orchestral sound and determined, tribally-influenced percussion that holds Mandela and his believers together for their ultimate triumph of uniting all of South Africa in hopeful democracy, all forging an emotionally epic, righteously swelling score that makes Mandela’s fight as vibrant, and affecting as if it took place yesterday.


(Brian Tyler / Glassnote)

Few composers have their pulse on the popcorn multiplex sound like Brian Tyler, who’s able to butter up its rock-rhythmic musical recipe with genuinely memorable themes and melody that’s far from fluff, especially effectively this year with the Marvel superhero antics of “Iron Man 3” and “Thor: The Dark World.” But when it comes a score that just damn fun, then it’s “Now You See Me” that takes the cake. Sure the funk-Schifrin-thief groove has been musically ripping off The Man for a while, but the next-gen composer homage has rarely been done with so much groovy swagger as Tyler’s riffs that have the orchestra rock Bond-worthy spy fun down in rejuvenated spades, conveying not only the super confidence of its super illusionist thieves, but the actual symphonic feeling of the joy of magic itself – creating a con that’s the real musical deal.


(Roque Banos / Varese Sarabande Records)

Though he literally blasted horror audiences out of their seats with an alarm siren of a score for the hugely successful redo of “Evil Dead” this year, Roque Banos has long been equally adept at resurrecting the slightly more subtly dark spirit of Bernard Herrmann, whose presence is very much felt for this underappreciated redo of “Oldboy.” Laying the motivic bait for its antihero with the gracefully twisted effectiveness of the film’s vengeful villain, Banos’ memorable hotel room of thematic mirrors builds with rock and roll intensity, the bells of childhood lost, hammer-bashing Asian percussion and cunningly elitist orchestra. It’s a combination of in-your-face intensity and the musical embodiment of Hitchcockian suspense that build to reveal the why’s and wherefores’ of unimaginable imprisonment and revenge, laying in the mental pain with truly twisted melodic grace for one doozy of a musical revelation. You can hear the resoundingly full orchestra gasping at the twisted brilliance as the thematic dominos falling into a place of awe-inspiring, and awful musical revelation.


Two poetic Turks during the 1940s won’t let TB stop their words, or spirits from soaring, especially when accompanied by the lush beauty of old school romantic scoring that Rahman Altin lets soar for all of its string and piano worth in “The Butterfly’s Dream” (DMC)

As a weathered sailor painstakingly tries to stay alive with only a few choice words for his situation, Alexander (aka Alexander Ebert of the Magnetic Zeroes) provides the existential, musical element of a memorably original score that courses from folk lyricism to eerie metallic effects and a subtle, striking theme that dawns with the seeming realization that “All Is Lost” (Community Music).

Ryan Amon’s exciting and emotionally memorable dystopian score contrasts the thronging, ethnic music and violently percussive sound of an overpopulated Earth below with the haunting, religious voice of the spaceship heaven above called “Elysium” (Varese Sarabande).

Though dealing with an unjust killing that caused understandable outrage, Ludwig Goransson treats the events leading up to the fateful New Year Eve’s night at “Fruitvale Station” with an ambient, ethereal sound that powerfully contrasts with the soundtrack’s hardcore urban rap, showing a damaged man’s meditative and hopeful spirit that just can’t escape a brewing anger and hopelessness that will ultimately martyr him (Lakeshore)

Neither an outright country score or thoroughly brooding crime drama, Daniel Hart’s hauntingly ethereal score for “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” instead occupies the dream-like space in between the two musical styles, capturing the characters’ fateful longing in an unplugged way that beautifully befits the movie’s reprise of Terrence Malick “Badlands” imagery (Lakeshore)

One needs a powerhouse theme when it comes to an inspirational epic, and Rodrigo Leao has certainly has found a memorable melody to chart “The Butler’s” pilgrim’s progress in a score that also encapsulates decades of the black experience, all leading to a rousing, and emotionally earned musical walk through the pearly white gates of the President’s office (Verve International)

Korean composer Mowg Lee puts a headbanging spring into the step of the post-governator’s movie return with “The Last Stand,” a score that revels in Lee’s gleeful enervation of the Hollywood action sound that will likely bring him plenty of opportunities for more percussive shoot outs (Red River Entertainment)

Ted Masur is delightfully up the butt of berserk, bizarro horror comedy scoring with the musical equivalent of an E.C. Comic, yet with a relatable humanity which shows that even “Bad Milo’s” ass monster needs love too (Coming Soon).

Haim Mazar hears “The Iceman’s’” deadly wages of sin with a muted, yet powerfully impactful score whose cold, pulsing rhythms, jazzy evocation of a life spent killing and waltz-like sense of sorrowful inevitability recalls the great crime scores of past while being very much its own hitman (Relativity Music 2)

Daniel Pemberton twists the Spaghetti Western sound for south-of-the-border drug dealing, powerfully accenting the pitch-black humor and dreams of success gone tragically astray for “The Counselor” (Milan)

Brian Ralston and the rapturous performance of The Hollywood Studio Symphony Orchestra resurrect the vivaciously tragic spirit of screen siren Rita Hayworth for the movie within-a-play to “Negotiating Identities” and the on-stage events of “Private Dancer,” not only paying tribute to the composers like Hugo Friedhofer and Heinz Roemheld who helped make her a Hollywood goddess in “Gilda and “The Lady From Shanghai,” but also to such luminaries as Ralston’s teacher David Raksin (“Laura”), with an homage to Bernard Herrmann’s “Vertigo” and the Latin rhythms of the actress’ Spanish heritage for a soundtrack that powerfully blends the music of stage, screen and real life (Perseverance).


  • Randall
    December 11, 2013 @ 4:30 pm

    Great Choices EXCEPT Lorne Balfe’s Beyond should have been in the Top not Runner-up
    Great score Great Vocals

  • December 12, 2013 @ 8:40 am

    Have to say, given a few of these choices, I’m surprised that Steven Price’s “Gravity” didn’t make it to either the Best Scores list or the Composers to Watch list. Good choices overall though and happy to see Johan Soderqvist getting some more recognition for his awesome work!

  • Walch
    March 30, 2014 @ 9:17 am

    What about gréât thomas newman Saving banks ?

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