The Best Scores of 2018

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(Joseph S. DeBeasi and Michael Stearns / Madison Gate Records)

A year of atypically impactful scoring starts off with the Dawn of Man, a savage epoch that’s usually heard in film scores with raging earth tones fashioned from the bones of Stravinsky and Holst. But in playing the first bond between hunter-gatherer and wolf-dog, composers Joseph S. DeBeasi (“American Sniper”) and Michael Stearns (“Baraka”) hear an evolution from ethereal music to symphonic friendship for “Alpha.” Taking a cue from the experimental world beat of Stearns’ globe-spanning, ethnically attuned documentary work on the likes of “Chronos” and “Samsara,” “Alpha” unfolds with a sense of mystical synth wonder for its harsh landscapes and even more menacing animals, creating a feeling of awe and dread that must have possessed the first cognizant humans. Asian-accented wind instruments convey the sense of their tribe, the score gradually building from ephemeral tones and primal, spear-throwing percussion as fear gradually turns to symphonic friendship. It’s a striking journey of scoring discovery where the soundtrack has to truly paint a picture where there’s way more growling than dialogue. “Alpha” is all about the powerful layers of emotional evolution, trekking through the primordial landscape on a musical path less taken.

(Michael Giacchino / Milan Records)

For all of the epic genre scores that Michael Giacchino creates (this year counting another swaggering visit to Jurassic World and The Incredibles) his most powerful soundtrack lies within the bummer in name only of “Bad Times at the El Royale.” Given a Tarantino-esque crime ensemble with loads more empathy, Giacchino opens new doors of film noir, acid rock and suspenseful dread for a knockout score that certainly doesn’t put a “do not enter” sign on his big, symphonically brassy balls he’s known for. Weaving together themes for multiple, deceitful characters, Giacchino’s score has a wink in its eye as it collects “Royale’s” plotlines with a punchy tone that takes a way different 60’s tone than his “Incredibles” scores. When a Manson-esque cult leader shows up at this nefarious bi-state hotel, the score swiftly goes to hallucinogenic hell as all bets are off, building to militaristic payback and tragic emotion that show off any number of styles that Giacchino can ace – ones that hopefully won’t be booked for a one night stay over.

(Terence Blanchard / Back Lot Music)

The enduring partnership between jazzman-composer Terence Blanchard and agent provocateur director Spike Lee has raged, and laughed at the violent ironies of race relations, which now shows off their mutual best by pulling a white sheet over their targets’ eyes with this stranger-than-fiction takedown of the KKK by a black-Jew cop tag team. Starting off with a gleefully militaristic take on “Dixie,” Blanchard has his merry way with the prideful music of the old South’s glory, showing off his muscular way with an orchestra while also bringing in a rock guitar and soul vibes that let us hear the 70’s-set movie’s social awakening. Blanchard’s emotionally charged themes have never been more potent at both mocking racists and showing just how deadly their threat is. Blanchard often channeled an Aaron Copland-like sound of Americana for Spike Lee to make a bitter point, and here’s it’s a gut punch of profound rage for a news footage ending that drum-beatingly resounds with bitter defeat. It’s a shock to the system unequalled by any film or score this year in showing that nothing has changed at all.

(Ludwig Göransson / Hollywood Records)

Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson certainly had the street cred to take on Stan Lee’s most revolutionary superhero, given his urban-themed work for Childish Gambino and “Creed” director Ryan Coogler, here taking a socially conscious leap into the Marvel Universe. Given the costume-wearing king of an African nation with roots both tribal and super technological, Göransson collects an array of authentic instruments and vocals that make Wakanda rock – delivering one of the most authentic African scores ever realized by Hollywood. He also crafts an equally memorable 70’s urban crime signature for villain-to-some Killmonger. But given that this is a comic book movie score when it all comes down to it, Göransson just as successfully unleashes the symphonic utility belt audiences expect. By the time that tribal beats, hooting vocals and orchestral fisticuffs are thematically duking it out for the boss battle, “Black Panther” hits a crescendo of exciting, emotional superhero scoring and black pride, showing just how unique Marvel movie scoring has gotten with collaborators determined not to sell out to The Man, expect if it’s capturing the spirit of Stan.

(Matthew Herbert / Varese Sarabande)

An outcast Jewess returns to her Orthodox tribe in London to make peace with her rabbi father’s passing, only to find rebuke again in the attraction to a woman still very much entrenched in repressive tradition. It’s a journey of mutual self-discovery that’s told in exquisitely beautiful tones by English composer Matthew Herbert, who’d previously shown an emphatic queer ear to “A Fantastic Woman.” Sexual identity is just as much on Herbert’s mind here, though told in a gorgeously hushed, hypnotic manner that makes “Disobedience” an exemplar of tone poem scoring. Strings weave an intoxicating spell of a bond that religion couldn’t sunder, bringing its characters together with an almost mystical sense of fate. Yet powerful themes arise in Herbert’s gossamer approach, brass taking on an incredibly subtle sense of Hebraic identity that the score announces with a Shofar. It’s an experimental approach to explosive feelings, perfectly attuned to a culture where women aren’t expected to raise their voice above a whisper. Full of mesmerizing tranquility and a mood of discovering one’s purpose, “Disobedience” stands its ground rarely raising its voice above a beautifully mesmerizing whisper until soaringly affirming its musical identity.

(Justin Hurwitz / Back Lot Music)

From the jazz drumming rage of “Whiplash” to an Oscar-winning reboot of the classic Hollywood musical for “La La Land’s” hipster set, Justin Hurwitz is a composer who’s consistently taking on new adventures in service of director Damien Chazelle. But perhaps no risk so boldly goes as flying in the soundtrack face of what constitutes the patriotic astronaut score for “First Man,” a stunningly introspective portrait of moon walker Neil Armstrong. Basing his themes on the loss of a child, and a wedding dance to a surreal Theremin tune, Hurwitz conveys space exploration with fear and melancholy yearning, until finally surrendering to the kind of soaring orchestra that’s defined cinematic space flight since the days well before NASA. Here, it’s the ultimate trip that’s never before achieved a scope of musically emotional intimacy, one that “First Man” is all the more powerful for.

(Torin Borrowdale / Sony Classical)

Where the endless “found footage” genre thought it was being inventive by dispensing with the artificiality of musical commentary, the social “Searching” brilliantly breaks those social media shackles to become the best film of its kind – especially when it comes to using an actual score that opens up a whole new dramatic world for its laptop-set “stage.” Torin Borrowdale (“The Midnight Man”) begins with an impressively dexterous use of his main theme, an initially warm melody that tracks a happy little girl into a sad, secretive teenager. Mostly using an electronic approach to capture the digital hole her desperate father plunges into, Borrowdale’s riveting music keeps the human drama front and center through music that embodies the depersonalizing nature of the web. Taking the pulsing nature of high-tech suspense scoring up several notches, Borrowdale’s rhythmically emotional score searches with ticking time bomb suspense, alternately haunting and riveting as he shows just how powerful the seeming artificiality of film music is to a moribund genre that refused to change its tune until now.

(Lorne Balfe / La La Land Records)

This TV-to-movie franchise has gone through six missions and counting, its Ethan Hunt-led teams leading any number of stylistically diverse composers to save the world – with their one common denominator being the understandable use of Lalo Schifrin’s themes. Now the militaristic, countdown fuse gets a sparklingly cool workout from Lorne Balfe, a composer with a special set of megabudget action skills with his own franchise blasts for the likes of The Terminator and Pacific Rim. But he’s never had such a skillful commander as filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie, who delivers the series’ best entry with a plot that mixes nail-biting suspense and action with the emotional toll of spying. Running at top percussive speed, or decelerating on a dime to brooding drama, Balfe shows the solve-anything dexterity of Jason Bourne in service of Ethan Hunt’s most desperate hour. Brimming with dazzling score set pieces that give Schifrin’s melodies a workout alongside his own impactful themes, Balfe keeps excellent musical trek from Paris to Kashmir, the orchestra booming alongside breathless tablas in a way that brings incredible freshness to the multiplex hybrid action sound. Balfe’s way of amping up the excitement delivers a true highpoint of climactic action for a deliriously extended helicopter chase finale that positively breezes by as it sweeps between mid-air battles and bomb defusing tension on the ground. It’s relentless, rhythmic scoring of the best storytelling kind that keeps upping the ante for the composer and this series in wonderfully impossible ways.

(James Newton Howard / Sony Classical)

After venturing into the post apocalypse for director Francis Lawrence with “I Am Legend” and the climactic “Hunger Games” entries, James Newton Howard arrives in his most bleak, and dangerously sensual environment yet for the filmmaker alongside the Cold War black widow code-named “Red Sparrow.” Given a grippingly intelligent old school spy thriller mainly set in Mother Russia, Howard starts off by expertly taking on the identity of a Tchaikovsky symphony that literally kicks off the story. Howard certainly knows his way around Soviet femme fatales after his excellent “Salt” score, even as the emphasis here is mostly on mind games, its physicality of the erotic persuasion as opposed to the kick-ass kind. Brimming with darkly lush symphonic romance that evokes Bernard Herrmann, Howard weaves an especially brooding thematic web. Like its unexpectedly resourceful heroine, Howard’s music is cunningly icy on the outside, but emotionally vulnerable within, subtly pleading for release from the Commie sex femmebot she’s trapped into being. It’s an escape provided as Howard again assumes the grand choral tone of the Russian maestros. But look inside of the balletic orchestrations, and you’ll most certainly hear a composer at the top of his orchestral game, pirouetting its set-ups with a whole new Soviet shade of dangerous beauty.

(Nicholas Britell / Decca Records)

Having given properly snarky vibes to the robber barons of the banking collapse for Adam McKay’s “The Big Short,” Nicholas Britell really gets to go to darkly satirical town for the director with a dictatorial wannabe attempting to steal Washington D.C. No, not The Orange One, but the ashen, succinctly twisted V.P. for Bush Jr. Starting off this Kingpin look-a-like’s rise to power with dissonantly noble brass blazing, Britell also tracks Dick Cheney’s beyond-Machiavellian rise to power with swinging disco beats and “Ocean’s 11” heist grooves. While giant orchestral reveals, fake end credit swelling and an outraged neo-classical approach sinks in the fourth wall laughs, the charm of Britell’s stylistically insane score is in how disturbingly well it digs out the festering insides of its subject to reveal that there’s a human being inside there, whether we like it or not. Britell’s “Vice” is a musical mix of comedy and pathos as its melodies try to ironically fill its subjects big, black hole where a heart should be. His imposingly thematic approach upends the notion of patriotic scoring to wave the musical tropes of the red, white and blue, hearing Washington DC as the ultimate bank to be ransacked by a composer who’s equally as smart as he is brutally smart-assed.


(Christophe Beck / Hollywood Records)

Having fashioned the caper crime jazz approach that made the first “Ant-Man” one of the first Marvel scores to truly break an already effective mold, Christophe Beck creates an even bigger and better score for a way smaller sequel. While it would be foolish to completely ditch the hip sound of his last score, Beck takes way more of an O.G. symphonic superhero approach in showing who really wears the wings in this dynamic duo. His crazier, electronic and vocal writing is reserved for the out-of-phase, semi-villainous Ghost, who creates a creepily effective presence as her samples do battle with The Wasp’s blasting brass. Especially effective is how Beck’s trumpeting themes weave in and out of our recognizable world and the infinite microverse for the ever-shrinking and growing chase at the end, his trumpeting themes creating a thrilling sense of acceleration, fun and feeling. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with out of the box or why-so-serious superhero scoring, Beck’s terrific return to “Ant-Man” shows the musical virtues of pure comic book scoring fun.

(John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies / Sacred Bones Records)

Given how many composers were affectionately rebooting the minimal tone of John Carpenter’s seminal synth horror with the likes of “It Follows” and “Stranger Things,” it seems perfect that The Man himself would get the chance to play a revamped Michael Myers sequel while new blood directed it. It’s a slasher infusion that also takes place in the score as Carpenter’s one-man band is significantly livened up with the inclusion of the musician’s son Cody and friend Daniel Davies, all of whom play The Shape’s greatest thematic hits while bringing stylistically fresh kills to the psycho’s sound. Minimally infamous rhythm is joined by eerie atmospheres, blazing rock guitar and nerve-ripping metal in a way that brings new sonic ferocity to the iconic masked man, adding to the menacingly silent charisma of an unstoppable supernatural presence. Here, a filmmaker who electrified the synth horror scoring revolution shows he’s more than got a lethal spring in his step for a decades-old menace that’s snapped out of his rhythmic trance like never before.

(Alexandre Desplat / ABKCO)

Alexandre Desplat has mastered Wes Anderson’s peculiar brand of arch, whether it be in animation with “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” or the live action of “Moonrise Kingdom” and his Oscar-winning score for “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Drawing from hayseed music to a madcap Viennese waltz, the ethnic opportunities presented by Anderson’s fractured fairy tales now take the French-Greek composer to the peculiar, stop-motion Oriental trashland called “The Isle of Dogs.” You’d think that Desplat was to the droll manor born given just how well he channels the Japanese musical spirit animals, in particular Toru Takemitsu as Taiko drums join with a groaning male chorus along with flutes and bell-ringing rhythm. It’s a deliciously portentous mix, propelled by a humorously dire theme in the same energetic manner as “Fox” and “Budapest,” here creating a world of ninja-like skullduggery and the honorable heroism of disgraced canines. As with Anderson’s stylized worldview, Desplat’s approach suggests bemused, but respectful outsiders trying to make sense of a seemingly impenetrable culture, not to mention human race, as done with humorously woeful rhythm for this drum-beating tail of woe and redemption.

(Adam Barber / Seven Arts Music)

Just because a dame keeps bad company doesn’t mean that her music isn’t alluring, as the case for Adam Barber’s beyond-sultry score proves beyond film noir doubt. Just listening to the erotic saxophone, sinister techno grooves and intimate combo of piano and brass and your ears will envision a man-eater you’ll want to be devoured by. Barber’s score conjures the coolest erotic crime jazz this side of the glory days of “Twin Peaks’” Angelo Badalamenti and “Stormy Monday’s” Mike Figgis, balancing smoky mood with playful vocalese, bass-strumming and rockabilly sense of humor about his music’s overt desire – all of which makes “London Fields” as emblematic of great naughty girl scoring as a cancer stick held between pouting, scheming red lips.

(Daniel Hart / Varese Sarabande)

For his frequent director in cinematic crime David Lowery (“Pete’s Dragon,” “A Ghost Story”), Daniel Hart pulls off a surprisingly lightweight caper score that’s definitely in the old school vein. Given a gentleman thief who’s most rocking days were likely in the 70’s, Hart pulls gently jazzy loot from Dave Grusin (“The Firm”) and wonderfully launders it into his own, relaxed, small ensemble vibe. Sure this “Old Man” isn’t the only retro jazz heist score in town, but he certainly sounds like the leader of the pack given Hart’s nimble, bouncy way with strings and percussion. But for all of its sophisticated pistol-flashing fun and games, Hart’s lovely, nostalgic theme gives a sense that crime has the cost of family, especially as his main motif goes to a classical, hand-clapping quartet for the score’s neatest reveal.

(Mychael Danna / Sony Masterworks)

Given a stonily resolute Supreme Court Justice who will hopefully never say die, Mychael Danna, a master of biopic scores like “Antwone Fisher,” “Capote” and “Shattered Glass,” musically breaks our image of the ultimate spectacled superhero grandma to reveal a ball of sensually youthful, and vulnerable energy out to change a discriminatory system to all sexes. It’s a musical origin story told in an uncloyingly inspirational way as Danna depicts a workaholic lover and mom out to change a discriminatory law, and the plight of all sexes with it. That Danna rousingly helps her do with the military energy of a brave captain, his noble symphonic approach painting Ginsburg’s determination in much the same way as another officer named Kirk. Danna wins the musical case with convincing intelligence and emotion, his strong female power theme earning its rah-rah honors with the conviction of its case.

(Marco Beltrami / Milan Records)

A composer who often screams as loudly as possible in his prolific service of horror, Marco Beltrami is given the boss-level challenge of scoring a film whose beyond-clever conceit is that even a sliver of noise will bring instant, monstrous death. Also given the deceptively bucolic existence of an expectant family. Beltrami rises to the task brilliant with his combination of rural melancholy and abject terror. It’s lyricism that could befit “To Kill A Mockingbird” as attacked by demons, with rampaging fusions of electronics, grinding brass and crazed orchestra creating a stomping, roaring presence that would give Godzilla pause. It’s a score that simultaneously strokes the heartstrings while growling in one’s twitching ear, creating a score that’s as relentless as it is poignant, a rare feat that continues to show Beltrami’s inventiveness in a musical genre he helped give a shrieking rise to.

(Alan Silvestri / WaterTower Music)

Who else could score the ultimate pre-millennium geek culture valentine than the composer responsible for so many of its greatest soundtrack hits? With no slight to Spielberg’s usual, and then-occupied collaborator, the director has for turning back to the future with Alan Silvestri here. Unlike many of his compatriots whose epic, fun sound has somehow been sidelined since the 90’s, Silvestri’s been on a non-stop roll, as can be also be evidenced this year alone with “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Welcome to Marwen.” But nothing hits the magical formula that put Silvestri on the map of an entire generation like “Ready Player One,” which fills its Oasis with a grandly thematic orchestral sound and still-hip virtual reality electronic beats. Silvestri’s way with sweeping, youthful heroism, charge-ahead military rhythms and sparkling enthusiasm recaptures lightning in a DeLorean for “Ready,” playing the greatest hits from back in the Amblin day with freshly dazzling excitement. It’s music that’s about the stuff of sci-fi and fantasy dreams, while also hitting the characters’ emotional beats amidst the excitement. Especially fun are the musical Easter eggs within as Silvestri unleashes notes upon the blink-and-you’ll miss ‘em cameos, from a snatch of “Back to the Future” as well as Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla march as icing on the delicious throwback calories. With “Ready Player One,” we see, and hear that the musical wizards of our movie going childhoods have never grown up in the best way.

(John Powell / Walt Disney Records)

When you’ve got John Williams setting the tone for what’s arguably the most famous film scores in history for a galaxy far, far away, it takes a musical daredevil to truly pull out of that gravity well. John Powell, no stranger to having his way with epic sci-fi scoring while simultaneously having his way with its conventions, accomplishes the feat in style for this iconic pilot’s prequel, bringing a new sound to the “Star Wars” galaxy while paying homage to it in Williams’ writing. It helps that Powell has his Ben Kenobi as a thematic co-pilot, creating a fun mosh pit as Powell varies his brash percussive style with the maestro’s smoother romantic stylings – no more so than in a brilliantly tracked asteroid evasion sequence that flies right into a distinctively Powell monster maw. But for the most part, “Solo” sings with the enthusiasm of the new guy taking over the Millennium Falcon’s control, bringing any number of new musical ideas to the critter checkerboard table while paying heed to this saga’s forever trademarked sound.

(Thom Yorke / XL Recordings)

While taking a cinematic approach that’s as insanely different from Dario Argento’s vibrantly-colored, witch-run dance academy for vivisected girls as imaginable, arthouse darling Luca Guadagnino also chooses a musical approach far afield from Goblin’s frenzied prog-rock lullaby score. It’s a revamped “Suspiria” that’s an unexpectedly rare instance where going from a scream to a whisper (at least until its ending) yields strikingly chilling results, especially when it comes to the score by alt. rock Radiohead front man Thom Yorke. With his eerily poetic and restrained soundscape of tunes and score, Yorke evokes an intoxicate witches brew to seduce its heroine to the head of the coven. He conjures beautifully tender song-themes to pirouette alongside unearthly synth reverberations, heartbeat palpitations and gnarled, piercing samples that promising dance to the death disfigurement. It’s an alt. sorcerer’s waltz for the cool kids and crones seeking eternal youth. But if one listens hard enough to the guitar grooves and spacey atmospheres, the ghost of Goblin sort of haunts Yorke’s score, whose spirit is thankfully willing to seek new, weird dimensions to work its own, intoxicatingly dark magic on.


There could be no better backseat driver to the cinematic adventures of famed, progressive jazzman Dr. Don Shirley than a next-gen musician who embodies his subject’s ideals, Trained from the womb pianist Kris Bowers is just that as he opens the “Green Book” (Milan Records) to a buddy dramedy with a streetwise wheelman though the 1960’s deep South. Segueing from his work for Kanye West, Kobe Bryant and such Afro-centric series as “Dear White People” and “Warriors of Liberty City,” Bowers not only does a spot-on recreation of Shirley’s jazz-meets-classical modernism for the film’s performances, but digs into the characters’ emotional bond with a richly felt orchestral voice, his melodic approach conveying both an awakening sense of identity and a deepening friendship that makes this racial roadmap so incredibly affecting as the soundtrack travels from ironic concert halls to cotton field realizations and the pure joy of a down-and-dirty roadhouse performance, all of which show a composer whose trip is just starting.

Hildur Guðnadóttir was a protégé to the dearly missed Jóhann Jóhannsson, collaborating with him on the nightmarish Oscar-nominated score to “Sicario,” anti-matter music that plunged into the low tone intensity of the drug war to become the late composer’s most influential work. That torch is powerfully passed to Guðnadóttir for “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” (Varese Sarabande Records), a sequel score that goes to even more impossibly terrifying depths with her fusion of sound design, ever-ratcheting suspense and new, haunting themes that convey the sadness of a bereaved lawyer who’s been transformed into an avenging angel of death. Guðnadóttir shows a riveting talent for conveying the kind of action anger that’s usually the playground of male composers, one that this musician proves herself more than capable in with a welcome touch of feminine soulfulness, making her potential in scoring the upcoming “Joker” standalone film even scarier given Guðnadóttir’s talent for playing monsters drawn from the real world.

Lili Haydn has segued from playing a precocious daughter to Mrs. Columbo and Rodney Dangerfield to a career as a top violinist and singer who’s worked with the likes of Roger Waters, Hans Zimmer and Marco Beltrami among her own albums. She’s also steadily become a composer of note on such indies as “Broken Kingdom” and “The Sublime and the Beautiful” and the new Netflix documentary “Feminists: What Where They Thinking?” Haydn also takes impressive center seat this year to propel the ersatz Uber-man of “DriverX.” for a truly interesting and eccentric ride with any number of offbeat passengers. Haydn’s deeply empathetic violin playing helps to veer her entrancing music between Spaghetti Western strumming, eerie techno beats, indie guitar grooves and whimsical rhythm. She conveys the lost souls of LA’s concrete prairie, as brought together for an eclectic, unique musical cab fare that captures what’s odd and beautiful about humanity in the backseat, as well as the seemingly silent guy at the wheel.

Nate Heller, the musical better half of director Marielle Heller, goes from the cartoon-drawing mindset that made for “The Diary of a Teenager Girl” to the fake literary signatures of a desperate author who pleads “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Verve) when her convincingly counterfeit jig is up. Heller is just as psychologically impressive at aging up here with a jazzily sardonic sound that cuts deep into the pretentiousness of the NYC literary scene. Creating a score that Woody Allen would no doubt love, while being the most deliciously urbane portrayal of NYC’s easily duped hoi polloi since Jerry Goldsmith’s “Six Degrees of Separation,” Heller’s witty, sad chamber approach conveys a distinctly unlikable, sad sack writer who finds her biggest acclaim far better known wits. Not only conveying Manhattan in poetic tones, the intimacy of Heller’s score more importantly paints the big city as a very lonely place where bad ideas can get the better of desperate has-beens.

An enjoyably evil, bonkers spin on “The Scarlet Letter” gets exactly the tripped out sound of social media maniacs it deserves from former Passion Pit front man Ian Hultquist for “Assassination Nation” (Lakeshore Records). That he goes for an acid-beat sound that could easily be mistaken for a slasher score is the texting icing on a sadistic cake of tweeting technology run amuck, with voices conveying a holier-than-thou attitude descending into lynch mob anarchy for a twisted, killer cocktail of blackly satirical sampling whose transfixing rhythms inventively cut deep.

Few films have captured the embarrassing nightmare of an American school horror story, or have given it such a wacky neo-retro synth sound like Britain’s Anna Meredith when attending “Eighth Grade” (Columbia). Her souped-up Casio vibe is perfectly suited for a teen girl who’s on the outside no matter how much she tries to get in. Turning a pool party into a trumpeting, Philip Glass-ian freakshow or pattering a banana BJ demonstration, Meredith’s approach has a psychedelic, nervous groove that feels homemade for all of its sophistication, bounding with antsy energy that’s as nervously offbeat as its heroine.

The Zellner brothers’ whimsical deconstruction of western archetypes, particularly a maiden in need of saving by a gallant suitor, gets a wonderfully offbeat, yet seemingly authentic tip of the hat by the Austin, Texas-based, alt. mumblecore tendrils of The Octopus Project for “Damsel” (Milan Records). Picking up from the ill-fated, “Fargo”-inspired quest of the duo’s “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter,” this musical collective encompasses a warped old west with bemused folksiness. Yet in their inspired combination of unplugged, era-specific instruments and haunting electric atmospheres, “Damsel” has a mesmerizing, airy twanginess that seems unusually authentic for the genre, creating a sense of introspection and rambling energy that brings an entirely old, and new sound to an oft-trod territory, even when it’s Robert Pattison strumming their song “Honeybun.”

With a background in creating and mixing sound effects, Jed Palmer knows the ghost in the state of the art machine, a talent that make his first major studio score for “Upgrade” especially effective. Given that fellow Aussie Leigh Whannell has taken the parts of so many past cyber thrillers and assembled an impressive new creation in the same re-jigged spirit as “The Terminator” and “The Matrix” Palmer creates a vibrantly cold score that draws from retro synth sounds, It’s music that pulses with lethal, steely efficiency, conveying both shock and awe at new superhuman abilities as its serves the rhythmic needs of a thriller who’s hero is on the run – all while hearing his humanity increasingly diminished by the implant that’s the real boss. It’s a great example of how sound design and score can be fused into a new, energized musical being whose old, replicant parts have never pulsed with shinier efficiency.

If film “music’s” first duty is to work for the picture as opposed to a stand-alone listening experience, then there’s no more abjectly terrifying, and tortuous example than what Colin Stetson has conjured from the satanic pit for “Hereditary” (Milan Records). One of the rising dark princes of alt. modernism, Stetson’s horn calling, nerve-shredding sustains and grinding metal take over any threat of melody as a miniature-obsessed housewife’s existence turns into a god of hell nightmare. Among Stetson’s experimental peers that seem to be engaged in a battle of the bizarre soundtrack bands to see who can be more insane, Stetson pierces some sort of evil veil here, crafting a finally unlistenable demonic tone that truly delivers on the term “horror music,” that being “music” in name only. Its anti-matter that lets “Hereditary” really deliver for a potential genre scoring career that should make routine listeners very, very afraid as Stetson drives them to insanity.

Like a determined journalist, composer H. Scott Salinas has empathetically any number of catastrophes from an Isis-haunted “City of Ghosts” to the drug crisis plaguing both America and Mexico in “The Trade.” Now his “Cartel Land” director Matthew Heineman takes the leap from documentary to feature biopic with “A Private War” (Varese Sarabande) as the lion-hearted, one-eyed report Marie Colvin conveys the anguish of war zones for a world that doesn’t care. While her reporting is more than devastating, Salinas’ score is impactful by not hitting the listener over the head, instead hearing inwards with an acoustic, subtly ethnic tone that finds lyricism in the unimaginable. His “War” is full of danger and sadness in its muted approach, sustaining melodies hauntingly portraying the anguish of those caught in the middle as Colvin tries to convince an uncaring world of civilians’ plight. Just as impactful is how Salinas’ score finally transforms into the song “Requiem for A Private War,” as Annie Lennox provides a beautifully anguished tribute to the sacrificial definition of #realnews.

Having played Armando Iannucci’s hilarious brand of political profanity for multiple seasons of “Veep,” British composer Christopher Willis gets possessed by mercilessly oppressive Russian ghost of Sergei Prokofiev in service to Iannucci’s twisted history lesson on “The Death of Stalin” (MVKA). It’s a textbook lesson on being a musical chameleon while still retaining one’s own voice, as Willis channels a raging orchestral fist for a scrum of opportunists, each hatching an arsenal of back-stabbing plotting to take the throne of a post-dictator Soviet Union. Expertly combining surging strings with a more reflective moments for piano, Willis’ massive, panicked score is its own brand of gleefully ironic satire, especially when channeling a thematic, symphonic voice that not celebrates the kind of darkly boastful music that gave birth to the sound of film scoring itself, but hears Prokofiev’s own torment by Stalin as a sort of last, bitter laugh.

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