The Best Scores of 2014

(Click on the album covers to purchase these soundtracks)

(Zacarias M. de la Riva / Movie Score Media)

Scores like “A.I.” and “I, Robot” have portrayed automatons as having infinitely more soul than their human creators, a purity of electronic spirit that makes them closer to God than any flesh and blood creation. No score has religiously captured that spiritual ghost in the machine with the beautiful, beatific quality of Zacarias M. de la Riva, whose transcendent use of the chorus, and the anguished, spare strings of homo sapien despair merge for a moving requiem to the human race, while signaling the birth of a purer, spiritual society in his musical world building for this striking sci-fi indie from Spain.

(Alberto Iglesias / Sony Classical)

In a year that’s seen a revisionist deluge of biblical films (none more so than the heathen experimentalism of Clint Mansell’s “Noah”), Alberto Iglesias (along with fellow Spanish composer Federico Jusid (“Isabel”) and Harry Gregson-Williams (“Kingdom of Heaven”)) rides a wave both heavenly, and psychological that parts the Red Sea for Moses in “Exodus.” It’s a score that powerfully taps into the ancient symphonic force of old school Hollywood scoring that befitted Elmer Bernstein’s “The Ten Commandments,” yet is modernized here with an intimate and epically propulsive manner that “Exodus” director Ridley Scott last drew from Hans Zimmer for “Gladiator.” And it’s likely that Alberto Iglesias will similarly arrive within at least-nomination foot of the burning Oscar bush for his stunning, all-enveloping score that not only achieves grand, melodic spectacle (its build to the big splash is especially spine-chilling in its symphonic majesty) but also plays the tragedy of two “brothers” rent asunder by a force beyond their reckoning, as well as the torment that comes from wreaking havoc while being on a mission from God. Iglesias’ talent for ethnically driven scores like the Academy-nominated “Constant Gardener” also lets him beautifully tap into a wellspring of ancient Egyptian and Hebraic music in a way that further pushes the studios’ new wave of putting earthy authenticity into the bible’s most spectacular stories, here paying off stupendously with a score that most importantly hears the troubling, and triumphant message between men and God.

(Victor Reyes / Movie Score Media)

Composer-led concerts have played a notable role in thrillers, from John Barry conducting “Deadfall” to Lalo Schifrin opening “Red Dragon” and most notoriously Bernard Herrmann waving on an assassin-cueing cymbal crash for Hitchcock’s remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” But no film has used this nifty gimmick as a central, film scoring coup de theatre like “Grand Piano,” which takes place entirely from the perspective of Elijah Wood’s classically traumatized pianist, whom a madman puts in the position of playing for his very life. Brilliantly synchronized to the character’s bravura movements, Reyes’ keyboard-and-symphony mash of every great concert piece from Beethoven to Mahler also has to pull double-duty as suspense score, hitting both the ivories with killer precision and the on, and off-stage cat-and-mouse game between psychopath and prodigy. It’s a score that’s all about sweat-flying control and structure, given the kind of furious melodies that one could easily imagine becoming concert favorites, especially when it comes to the most insanely rewarding piano solo yet heard on a score. One feels like jumping up and shouting “Bravo!” given the versatility of Reye’s convincingly classical work.

(A.R. Rahman / Hollywood Records)

No Indian composer has brought together the musical flavors of East and West like A.R. Rahman, who brought home an Oscar for the hip-hop Raga rhythms of “Slumdog Millionaire.” But no score is literally indicative of Rahman’s good taste like this across-the-street duel between snooty French and earthy Indian cuisines, an ultimately affection battle that Rahman turns into a delicious masala of time-honored ethnic instruments and Gallic rhythms. Seasoned with percussive playfulness, ethereal romance and heartfelt drama that musically paints a picture as to how time-honored cuisines can be turned into something new and worthy of a musical Michelin Star.

(Alexandre Desplat / Sony Classical)

Desplat Photo by Brigitte Lacomble

If I didn’t have personal rule to only afford one best score per composer, Alexandre Desplat would certainly occupy several spots on this list for another year of exceptional work, particularly those soundtracks centering on World War 2. Where he infused the art geeks of “Monuments Men” with a comically marching, can-do attitude then gave a soaring spirit of nobility that allowed an athlete to soar above “Unbroken’s” Japanese prison camp, the winner must go to the ever-flowing rhythmic masterworks that Desplat uses to drive the code-breaking Turing Machine. As France’s most notable melodist since the days of Delerue and Jarre, Desplat ones again weaves terrifically memorable and flowing themes that embody the precise calculations of a beautiful, tormented mind, while also cleverly emulating such mathematical modernist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Like Alan Turing’ creation that pre-figured computers, Desplat’s music calculates on several levels at once, conveying a desperately larger, ominous scope beyond a gear-filled room to give the suspenseful feeling of the free world at stake, while also outputting the wonders of puzzling out technological creation in a way that makes a withdrawn scientist, whom others think of as more machine than man, into a tragically poignant figure as noble as any hero on the battlefield.

(James Newton Howard / Lakeshore Records)

James Newton Howard used alternately rocking and ethereal electronics to convey Los Angeles as a cross-culture melting pot as capable of humanity as it was danger in his stylistically seminal music for 1991s “Grand Canyon.” Now Howard fast forwards to his synth scoring’s next, disturbing evolution as orchestra combines with a hypnotic, industrially-tinged sound for a city gone soullessly dark in the face of a sensation-starved media beast that must be fed. Giving it a diet of car crashes and murder are pedal-to-metal percussive runs to the next crime scene, eerily beautiful washes of samples becoming the hypnotic pull of news cameras and LA neon to a hungry, camera-toting wolf – music that captures an empty, transfixed soul looking for meaning amidst the menacing, growling suspense of where he’ll find his next live-at-11 prey. Yet for a movie that’s the most caustic TV satire since “Network,” Howard is sure to bring in a pokey, humorous theme that tells us everything that makes this psychotic Sammy run, often at top speed. As he finally bursts into twisted metal and groovy percussion for its end titles, Howard upends his “Grand Canyon” riffs into the height of bleak, energetic irony for a musical city of red-splattered news footage night that’s truly lost any sense of hopeful vision the composer first imbued it with.

(David Hirschfelder / Varese Sarabande Records)

The power of awful memory comes flooding through David Hirschfelder’s impactful, movingly dramatic score as a British victim of Japan’s wartime, railway-building atrocities finds himself pulled back into a past he desperately tried to forget. The nightmares of nerve-crawling strings, body-pummeling Asian percussion and twisted sound masses come out of the worst real-life horror movie imaginable to create a pit of despair. Yet it’s in the pulling out of these awful memories to find an almost impossible-to-believe reconciliation with the enemy that is where this score’s power lies. Even the buried humanity from a former torturer comes into the present with tender flutes, met with an emotional return from his victim that’s heard as through a lush, noble orchestra and an elegiac theme, with a building, Latin chorus asking benediction for the plight of POWs that must never be forgotten.


(Jason Moran)

Sure “Selma” is a movie that is “inspirational” to the core in every, outstanding respect, as you’d expect any film, or score to be about iconic, speechifying leaders from Abraham Lincoln to Mahatma Gandhi. But what makes this biopic of Martin Luther King’s finest hour truly soar is the beautiful subtlety with which those words come out, no more so than when accompanied by the moving notes Jason Moran, a jazzman making a stunning score debut here. Often played with spare, elegiac, and sometimes regretful melody for piano and strings, “Selma” grows with the power of conviction, ultimately assuming tall orchestral stature when meeting its baton-holding haters at the height of non-violent nobility. With Moran’s equally understated use of Afro-centric melodies to personify the civil rights movement’s leaders, Moran knows when to deal his big musical cards for maximum, emotionally affecting impact during his memorably thematic marches. It’s a score that speaks softly, while knowing how to hold its heroic head high when faced with big sticks crashing down upon it, the score’s soulful eyes on the noble prize.

(Marco Beltrami / Varese Sarabande Records)

Marco Beltrami has proven himself to be a master of the musical apocalypse from the Straus-ian strains of “Knowing” to the twisted rock guitar heralding “World War Z.” But he’s never heard humanity’s end with she sheer invention of the perpetual motion train that throttles through the frozen, globe-spanning tracks of “Snowpiercer.” Musically embodying a twisted locomotive as the ultimate representation of class warfare, Beltrami unleashes a twisted score that’s powered with haunting themes for piano, anguished strings and axe-pummeling action, a tone that ranges from the impressionistic to the thunderously melodic as Beltrami delivers both tragic emotion and seemingly righteous payback. “Snowpiercer” is a gripping hell of a ride down the steerage class of what humanity’s last, tolling hour.

(Mica Levy / Milan Records)

More than ever, it seems like every filmmaker is looking for a score that sounds like nothing else before it to suit their vision. “Under the Skin” fits matches that seemingly impossible request in the truest sense of just how bizarrely innovative “music” can be – if that’s what you can label Mica Levy’s skittering, droning, piercing and buzzing work of sonic anti-matter. If Voyager ever sent back the soundtrack of a movie made by aliens, the utterly unique “Under the Skin” would be it, which perfectly suits director Jonathan Glazer’s movie about an extra-terrestrial, fake flesh-covered seductress capturing her horny victims with cosmic tar, all while discovering some small amount of her own romantic humanity in the bargain. Yet within the terrifyingly strange noise-music that Levy conjures from God knows-what, the composer actually finds themes, and dare one say melody from this disturbing, transfixing mass of experimentalism. Easy soundtrack listening “Under the Skin” most certainly is not, but the daring will doubtlessly find themselves being pulled in by the oil-black sensuality that Levy’s exerts with the most innovatively weird score in memory.



(Frank Ilfman / Movie Score Media)

Stop me if you’ve heard the same cinematic tune about a perceived miscreant tied into a chair for all manner of mental, and physical torture to be performed upon him. Thankfully, the Israeli breakout film “Big Bad Wolves” whistles the genre song with smashing black-humored suspense, as captured with a thunderous score by Frank Ilfman, who twists a thrillingly mean symphonic knife as he relentlessly veers between frantic action and sly, Herrmann-esque strings as a set-up for ironic, tragic outrage that hammers home that these sort of confessionals never turn out well – even if Ilfman’s work is full of truly twisted satisfaction.

(Max Richter / Milan Records)

The blurring between animated, and real worlds gave composer Max Richter and filmmaker Ari Folman their breakout works with 2008s “Waltz With Bashir,” where a shell-shocked Israeli soldier tried to come to grips with his country’s invasion of Lebanon. Now the mesh of flesh and blood with cartoon imagery reaches an epically imaginative peak with “real” actress Robin Wright’s headspace to provide a striking meditation on art, commerce and politics with a film, and score that are the height of bizarre, artistic illusion. A musician in the tradition of John Adams and Michael Nyman, Richter uses long, ever-developing string lines to create a mood of suspended virtual reality, his beautifully floating, dream-like melodies creating a true sense of importance for a life-capturing technology bravely flowing into a new animated frontier, given a classical sensibility with its mutations of Schubert, along with plaintive strings and pianos – until the rudeness of Hollywood exploitation and a maniac toontown come rushing in with rocking, guitars and bubbling videogame-like rhythms. There’s a feeling of transcendent grace and commercial subversion to this very smart “Congress” that feels musically metaphysical in the smartest, and most graceful way even with far-out animation bashing at its walls of peaceful, melodic illusion.


(Michael Giacchino / Sony Classical)

Giacchino Photo by Deborah Coleman/Pixar

If there’s an heir apparent to Jerry Goldsmith’s throne of mixing savage rhythms with orchestral melody, then Hollywood should be bowing down before the chest-thumping energy of Michael Giacchino, who follows up his track record with fantastical franchise reboots like “Mission: Impossible” and “Star Trek” with what’s arguably the best “Planet of the Apes” picture new or old. A true enthusiast of the composing lawgivers before him, particularly “Apes” musical pioneer, Giacchino brings in all manner of inventive primitive percussion to create an ape society, while using a terrifically explosively thematic orchestra when it comes to their reckoning with the remaining human survivors. His furious, adrenalin-charged action writing makes this score feel like a true evolution from the time we walked through The Forbidden Zone. But it those first talking simians were mostly villainous with Goldsmith’s neo-experimental approach, Giacchino’s movingly noble orchestra and choral finery truly hails Caesar with the soaring, gong-ringing, myth-making rush of a Christ figure that truly shows how the series has developed its viewpoint that animals are more musically virtuous than any Homo sapien in musical sight.

(Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross / Columbia)

No two composers are insinuating a nightmarish industrial sound into alternative scoring like Nine Inch Nails’ guitarist Trent Reznor (L) and band collaborator Atticus Ross (R). After director David Fincher caught the razor-scratching NiN earbug by using the song “Closer” over “Seven’s” diseased killer journal opening, the director brought in the Reznor and Ross to created the ever-mutating, high tech sound of “The Social Network” to the tune of an Oscar, before creating a rhythmically sinister snowscape for “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” But where Reznor and Ross have embodied David Fincher’s twisted psychology to in-your-face musical effect, the duo have now produced a score that works so brilliantly because of its mostly subtle insinuation with “Gone Girl.” Becoming the scheming housewife from hell, Reznor and Ross use their distinctively eerie fusion of alternative rock of surreal percussion to create trouble in flyover suburban paradise, cooing with sensual humor before their rhythms become far more disturbing. Otherworldly layers of synth and sample overdubs tear off the gift-wrapping from the perfect woman to shimmering, nightmarish effect as the music becomes progressively unraveled. Yet the score is never less than mesmerizing, unable to break apart from a black widow’s spell, her web of deceit weaved with equal parts black humor, suspense and shock to clever, surreally psychotic electro-shock notes.

(Tyler Bates / Hollywood Records)

Marvel took a big gamble on a “Star Wars” goof with a third-tier group of nearly forgotten superheroes, one that paid off in smash hit spades with a winning combo of heart and humor that also delivered on the space opera – no more so than with the thrilling eccentricity of Tyler Bates’ score, as delivered by a composer whose last musical comic book (ahem, graphic novel) team was DC’s ultra-serious “Watchmen.” Sure we might have feared what Bates’ score was going to sound like, especially given how “Guardians” spent so long promoting itself with Peter Quill’s admittedly awesome mix tape of 60s and 70s oldies. But what Bates delivered in his biggest score yet was a rousing tribute to a certain 1977 score from grandpa John Williams, delivering all of that symphonic style’s thematic goods, while eccentrically goosing them up with ethnic alien-isms and a rock and roll action energy. It’s sci-fi superhero scoring where epic attitude is truly everything.

(Eric Serra / Back Lot Music)

No one had quite heard a hitwoman played with the exotically energetic, percussion-funk approach of Eric Serra’s career-making hit for “La Femme Nikita” back in 1990. Though Serra’s sense of rhythmic experimentation has never ceased in his continued action ventures for filmmaker Luc Besson, “Lucy” builds upon “The Fifth Element’s” satiric sci-fi approach, takes the composer into the gonzo stratosphere as a very reluctant drug mule attains brainiac goddess-hood. Starting out with dark, menacing, beats for the terror of an interior super-drug, Serra gradually evolves the score with an eerie reverse-beat theme, trip-hop rock, pokey jazz and militaristic marches, finally going for the cosmic rush of a chorus-powered orchestra. “Lucy” plays like action scoring on something way stronger than LSD, creating a wildly stylistic score where it delightfully seems anything can happen.


(John Debney / Lakeshore Records)

Those listeners who felt like they were given the shock treatment by John Debney’s nerve-jangling industrial score for the serial killer chase of director Brad Anderson’s “The Caller” will no doubt be pleased with the stormily old-school melodic suspense that fills their latest venture inside a place where the inmates have truly taken over the asylum. Debney’s thick, thrilling walls of symphonic sound are far more sympathetic here, if no less wary when it comes to representing the plot’s unhinged, build to a bravura trail of mysterioso music, its discoveries alternately playful, romantic, and terrifying. Lilting violins, piano and waltz melodies give “Stonehearst Asylum” a costumed sense of time and place before Debney brings matters to a fiery fore by unleashing some of the most exhilarating, emotionally propelled action writing of the year. Rarely has the sound of 40s Hollywood bedlam been given a vibrantly welcoming, or insanely entertaining therapy as in this “Asylum.”


(Joel McNeely / Back Lot Music)

As one of the 90s stand-out symphonic composers with such nostalgically bountiful works as “Radioland Murders,” “Iron Will” and “Squanto,” Joel McNeely has since explored TV territory in the “American Dad!” company of master wise-ass Seth McFarlane. Certainly one of the biggest soundtrack thrills this year was hearing McNeely get another major Hollywood shot as he played straight man to McFarlane’s ode to “Blazing Saddles,” riding along with the vibrant spirits of Jerome Moross, Alfred Newman, Elmer Bernstein and Bruce Broughton with nary a tip of the musical hat to the profane shenanigans around him. But then in today’s company town, you almost have to do a throwback movie to hear the kind of unapologetic, rip-roaring thematic melody on display as McNeely delivers everything you’d want to hear in a traditional western score and then some, from vast Big Country strains to hoedowns and a twanging guitar and brass showdown – with even a Stephen Foster “Moustache Dance” thrown into a symphonic range that John Wayne would certainly love riding in if he didn’t know better.


(Carlos Rafael Rivera / Varese Sarabande Records)

That fact that Liam Neeson’s distinctly un-“Taken” strut into “Seven” territory was way to disturbing for his usual action hero audience takes nothing away from this stunningly gritty movie’s aura of despair and depravity, a haunted mood disturbingly accentuated by Carlos Rafael Rivera in the year’s most unsung, and electrifying composing debut – one made all the more unnerving by its subtlety Rivera’s background as a guitarist serves him well in allowing director Scott Frank to create a throwback mood to a distinctly 70s vibe of conspiratorial menace, its music practiced by such past composers as Michael Small and David Shire. Rivera impressively follows in their dark, gripping footsteps with shivering, lonely orchestrations and ghostly voices, yet somehow gives some small sense of hope for the human spirit as his score pays memorable, thematic penance for the sins of the cop past among the truly haunting, melodic tombstones that Rivera’s music lies at our feet.


(Justin Hurwitz & Tim Simonec / Varese Sarabande Records)

As the jazz sound and fury of a sadistic student-teacher relationship percussively blasts through cutthroat classrooms and performance halls to the tune of a standard-turned-nightmare, composer Justin Hurwitz (L) gets inside our poor hero’s head like the buzz after a bomb explosion. It’s a novel way of stripping down jazz-friendly instruments into a nightmarish mental drumkit, relentlessly pounding, or humming away like the sound of musical possession that takes a poor kid right over the abyss of hoped-for fame. In a less impressionistic realm, Hurwitz cannily creates a theme for “Whiplash’s” soul destruction that transforms from a spare, despairing piano into a cool cat performance from its beyond hard-ass instructor, conveying the idea of a wolf in sheep’s clothing who twists the free-form nature of the art form into something restrictively relentless. Tim Simonec (R) handles “Whiplash’s” more traditional jazz duties with equal aplomb, creating warm-ups and a swinging big band piece, with his name announced onstage to inspire career-ending dread from our hero. But then, every composer should be so lucky to get a shout out in the best film of the year.


Kathryn Bostic has her satirical, smooth way with the oblivious college uppercrust, and their particularly snooty composer named Schubert in her bitingly elegant, and soulful plea to “Dear White People” (Lakeshore Records)

Irish composer Patrick Cassidy has Catholic guilt to spare in his elegiac orchestra, ringing church bells and anguished chorus that lead a priest to an undeserved penance in the beautifully tragic “Calvary” (Varese Sarabande)

Robin Courdert
(aka Rob) twists about satanic horror with the chorus of avenging angels and a moving theme for true love rendered asunder as he gives a dark fairy tale point to “Horns” (Lakeshore Records)

Hans Zimmer knows to pick rhythmic protégés, with the Superman and Mad Max-bound Junkie XL (i.e. Tom Holkenborg) first impressing with pumped up Spartan percussion in “301” before showing exactly what class of creative multiplex composer he’s meant for, creating a rocking YA world built on engaging electro-beats and lavish orchestral empathy for “Divergent” (Interscope)

Two teens with cancer might engender all sorts of weepy bravery-in-the-face-of-death music. Instead, the Bright Eyes duo of Mike Mogis (L) and Nathaniel Walcott (R) take an approach that’s filled with ethereal, alternative life, its guitar chords and dreamy electronics truly representing the kind of poetic mood music these refreshingly honest teens would be listening to as they find “The Fault In Our Stars” (Atlantic)

Ok. They aren’t really The Newton Brothers. But Tayor Newton Stewart (L) and Andy Grush (R) are bound by musical blood with an impressive sense of invention that’s now really paying off, especially as they look into the a terrifying mirror world, and hear a dimension of pulsing sound whose samples, damned voices and slithering strings are the truly scary equivalent of ghost-filled glass for “Oculus” (Varese Sarabande Records).

John Paesano takes the YA kid gloves off big time with take-no-survivors, symphonically tribal sci-fi action that thrust a “Lord of the Flies”-ish teen society into the most rampagingly thrilling music this side of Jurassic Park, while also slamming home an awe-inspiring sense of apocalyptic realization for “The Maze Runner” (Sony Classical)

Everything synth is wonderfully retro again as Jonathan Snipes brings a enticingly evil, thematically glistening John Carpenter/ Goblin-esque sensibility to the Hollywood cult of “Starry Eyes,” (out soon on Waxworks) while Tom Raybould powerfully evokes the darkly futuristic “Blade Runner” work of Vangelis in the coldly sensuous form of “The Machine” (Movie Score Media)

Garth Stevenson
takes a poetic, 1,700-mile long voyage with a restless female spirit through an Australian outback of drifting strings and alternative rhythms, a quest that lyrically encompasses as much outer beauty as it is does an inner, psychologically longing attitude in his beautifully transfixing, subtly world music score for “Tracks” (Lakeshore Records)

Given a film that tells its unbelievably true story of a Jewish fighter donning Nazi garb to save his fellow Hungarians with a scope, and sense of heroic melodrama that could have accompanied any anti-Hitler Hollywood movie made in the 1940s, Timothy Williams’ score resounds with a thrillingly old-school symphonic approach that delineates good and evil with a passionately thematic approach for “Walking With the Enemy” (Phineas Atwood Productions)

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