THE BEST SCORES OF 2020

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THE BEST SCORES

AN AMERICAN PICKLE

(Michael Giacchino & Nami Melumad / WaterTower Music)

It’s been an age since we’ve gotten a great, yearningly romantic and antically funny Old Country Klezmer score. Thankfully, the un-brine-ing of Seth Rogen’s pickle merchant into the 21st century has unleashed a delightfully tasty comedic score by teaming old American gentile pro Michael Giacchino with the impressive up and coming Israeli-Dutch composer Nami Melumad (“Anastasia,” “Absentia”). One might imagine that it’s from her tribe that we get an inescapable blood line of lilting violin and Hebraic melody that can trace itself back to the “Fiddler on the Roof,” let alone “Yentl.” Or perhaps it’s Giacchino that brings on the big, symphonic comedic romping a la his Oscar-winning, and nominated Disney animated scores “Up” and “Ratatouille.” But whatever the God-given talent, “An American Pickle” is a complete delight, bringing together the simpler instrumentation of musical tradition as thrown into a rousing symphonic world full of lush, magical melodies. Driven to humorous desperation by a nicely singular theme that brings together a principled man and his shmucky descendent and then has them role reverse, Giacchino and Melumad keep an even keel with jokes that are about character and far broader satirical targets, all while making sure the score stays out of the shtick zone. What gives this “Pickle” its flavor is as much zesty energy as a real sympathy for family ties, as messy as they might be, a tone that jigs from running at the American dream to the tenderness of reconciliation for a lovely, oft-nostalgic score that’s as winningly heartfelt as it is humorous. Their “Pickle” sweetly sings and horahs with a delightful sense of cultural identity to find its place in a new, grandly comedic world.  

ANTEBELLUM

(Nate Wonder & Roman GianArthur / Milan Records

Not only did “Get Out” setting the bar of socially conscious and often darkly satirical black horror films, but it also opened up the genre to come-from-nowhere black composing talent like Michael Abels. Now joining the ranks of exciting new discoveries who make a chillingly relevant home run on what’s essentially their first studio time out are brothers Nate Wonder and Roman GianArthur. With a background in the alt. black music arena, often writing and performing with “Antebellum” star Janelle Monáe, this duo is to the twisted manor born as a successful, outspoken authoress seemingly finds herself thrown back in time to an awful era that a good part of America would love to see rise again. Among the many surprises that “Antebellum” unleashes is just how melodically well-constructed this score is, especially in an area often now given to dissonant terror. Beginning with a symphonic movement worthy of Beethoven or Schubert, Wonder and GianArthur evoke an era of glistening white plantations awash in the blood and misery of their slaves, as lorded over by masters who bask in being “civilized.” That isn’t to say there isn’t cold, abstract music along the way for the tortured residents, as well as beats that take us straight to the modern-day era as the set-up reveals just how the writer landed in hell. It’s a determined, aghast build to the big payback as the score’s themes suspensefully come together, the music becoming nobly liberating with unshackled determination. “Antebellum” thrillingly crescendos as its ersatz concert work comes together, a full chorus arriving over a memorable slow-motion sequence of the heroine riding into a reenactment in a glorious, classical subversion of Confederate glory by way of the old school maestros. It’s just about the last thing you expect from any genre piece, and what makes “Antebellum” so rousingly thrilling at hearing two composers blaze a battle hymn to confront a despicable republic. 

BAD EDUCATION

(Michael Abels / WaterTower Music)

No black composer has had as much fun subverting white privilege as Michael Abels, a classically trained musician who brought a fresh sense of how to play horror when he illuminated “Get Out’s” sunken place with his purposefully jarring, string derived sound, then used hip-hop for the untethered, orange-suited rainbow clones of “Us.”  But it’s with “Bad Education” that Abels delivers perhaps his most seditious surprise for a horrifying real-life tale of entitlement, one that goes back to his concert hall roots in a story where class, as opposed to obvious discrimination, is the rot at the polished core. A devilishly suave New York school superintendent has his hopefully Ivy League bound charges embodied with the original song “Hail Our Redeemer” that heaps unquestioningly praise upon Hugh Jackman’s self-styled savior, his glory accentuated by a resplendent orchestra. Just as Stanley Kubrick used classical music for counterpoint, Abels’ erudite, sad, and completely unconcerned vibes are wonderfully biting commentaries, as good an exemplar of using the upper class’ sophistication to poke holes in them as ever. Apart from his classical approach, Abels uses spare, repeated winds and metallic percussion to get across a calculated scheme of school fund laundering. The result is a knowingly sumptuous, often gorgeously thematic score that practically sings woe-is-me for a musically vainglorious antihero. Following in the similarly stylistic tradition of Bill Conti and Carl Stalling, Abels ventures from the Baroque to the Romantic to spell out pompous  sophistication, as heard along with hand clapping. It’s musically weaponizing privilege with a lovely, and deft touch that makes the film’s moral lesson all the more powerful, all while showing a new, wide range for Abels’ gift with satire and drama. At the least, Beethoven has possessed him quite well.   

DA 5 BLOODS

(Terence Blanchard / Milan Records)

In a Spike Lee joint that’s yielded musically unabashed expressions of black pride and outrage, Terence Blanchard has often gone to fight the powers that be in the filmmaker’s company, first in WW2 with “The Miracle at St. Anna,” and now to powerfully relevant effect as he searches for the treasure of the Sierra Madre in the ‘Nam with its wounded warriors. Lee’s films have often played with the notion of patriotism to a country that subjugates the black citizenry ready to die for it, an expression that Blanchard’s jazz-born love of brass has turned into a spirit that’s positively Aaron Copland-esque in both going with a feeling of pride, all while battling against it. “Da 5 Bloods” explosively has it both ways (while also showing that Blanchard’s John Barry touch at that) to convey an unbreakable spirit in both pride and outrage. What also distinguishes Lee’s film is that the Vietnamese are far more than stick figures here, an empathy that Blanchard reflects with his evocative use of Asian winds. When composers might reign in their feelings, Blanchard’s unabashed musical emotion here smacks you right in the face and ears, from blasting military percussion to its powerhouse strings and anthemic, soaring brass. It’s a bold, thematic salute, far more to a true band of brothers than a military that viewed them as expendable, making for a score that’s an impactful double-edged sword while delivering the Blanchard-Lee sound at its unapologetic best. 

FREAKY 

(Bear McCreary / La La Land – Back Lot Records)

While Bear McCreary has shown how effectively grim he can be with the killer likes of “The Walking Dead,” “Hell Fest” and “The Boy,” the composer has no more fun than when displaying his devilish creativity in horror comedies, whether they be  Metalheads battling demons in “The Knights of Badassdom” or a Good Guy unleashing mechanized horror in Aisle 10 for the reboot of “Child’s Play.” But it’s in the partnership of writer-director Christopher Landon that McCreary has had a particularly great final girl field day. First going “Groundhog Day” times two for him with “Happy Death Day” and “Happy Deathday 2U,” McCreary combined vengeful killer music with the humor of a been there, died-there heroine trying to break a time loop. Now Landon brilliantly goes after another movie classic with “Freaky.” Just add “Friday” to that title, and you’ll recall the hijinks that occurred when teen Lindsay Lohan switched bodies with mom Jamie Lee Curtis (or Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris if you want to get old school about it). But here, it’s picked upon school mascot Millie who ends up possessing the frame of the distinctly taller and meaner Blissfield Butcher when his attempted murder of her goes wrong due to a magical knife. As she and her high school pals race to rectify the switch before her killer bod can make mincemeat of friend and foe alike, McCreary’s delirious score goes into panic mode with the kind of roaring brass and race against time suspense that distinguished his “Death Day” scores. But what separates the men from the girls in “Freaky” is that we actually care about the heroes, allowing McCreary to put more actual emotion into the score’s rampaging energy, making this one of the very few slashers, serious or funny, that works because of its thematically sweet heart as much as it does its stabbing strings and horns that rip out said organ to celebrate any number of audacious kills.       

GREYHOUND

(Blake Neely / Lakeshore Records)

An American-led naval convoy’s desperate attempt to outrun a U-boat wolfpack makes for a nail-biting score as Blake Neely relentlessly pings the depths with rhythm. A composer who powers just about every DC superhero on the CW, Neely shows he’s more than got the big screen stuff, especially in making “Greyhound’s” ultimate corona-bound small screen destination feel like a giant, immersive experience with its musical periscope. Starting off its time-ticking run with noble solemnity, the score soon explodes into one race against the clock after the other. Sonic booms become depth charges, howling effects as the relentless percussion doesn’t let up, yet all in a grippingly melodic way. When so many hybrid scores employ rhythm to tiresome, been-there effect, Neeley makes WW2’s battle at sea truly dynamic as he embodies command decisions and the desperate search for sub-revealing wavelengths that mean split-second life or death. That it’s all musically interesting adds a whole other level of craft to Neeley’s accomplishment beyond this terrifying game of battleship as synth percussion explodes into brass-packed fury. “Greyhound” wins the race as the year’s most relentlessly exciting score, with its most moving segment given to a solemn acknowledgement of the true super heroism given in a war at sea. 

HIS HOUSE

(Roque Baños / Unreleased)

Spanish composer Roque Baños certainly has no problem navigating his way through haunted houses, whether blaring a fire alarm to raise the wood shack demons of the “Evil Dead” reboot or more recently conjuring a social media creature into a suburban domicile for “Come Play.” But it’s really Baños’ equally prolific construction of soulful dramas like “In the Heart of the Sea” and “The Miracle Season” that makes the England-set, African spirit possessed flat of “His House” the most striking ghost story score of them all, as well as the most psychologically devastating horror film of the year. With a refuge couple given their last chance for salvation in an apartment whose witch doctor is determined to drive them out, Baños employs twisted percussion and orchestral fright to try to evict them back to certain death. But it’s in the specters’ true mission of recalling the agony of their war-torn continent, and the agonized loss of its children that let Baños bring use a host of tribal winds and percussion, making the score take as much in the couples’ tortured, motherland-bound minds, creating the sense of very real loss that drives so many refugees from Africa to destruction well before the can reach western shores. It’s scoring that embodies the truly horrific strife and its mental toll that “His House” is really about, with Baños’ gift for capturing the earthbound human condition giving the film an uncommon emotional wallop as opposed to a routinely dissonant boo in showing how easily it is to be haunted in the present by the ghosts of chaos, and loss. 

MULAN

(Harry Gregson-Williams / Walt Disney Records)

It’s arguably slightly less daunting for a male composer to step into Jerry Goldsmith’s shoes than it is for a woman to don the armor of an ancient soldier, especially as that discovery would result in death in ancient China. The stakes were artistically as high to Harry Gregson-Williams, especially when it came to reprising a story that had last that netted Jerry Goldsmith an Oscar nomination along with song creators David Zippel and Matthew Wilder. But it’s in Gregson-Williams’ determination to make “Mulan” her own flesh and blood person that this exciting, gorgeous soundtrack and film wins the battle. The composer had certainly shown his ability to defend old Jerusalem for Ridley Scott’s unsung epic “Kingdom of Heaven” as well as fantasies like “The Chronicles of Narnia.” It’s that ability to marshal native sounds into a distinctly western-style orchestral sound that makes “Mulan” a powerhouse as exotic as it is exciting. With terrifically distinctive themes for Mulan, the Emperor’s army and their fearsome, bewitched Mongol adversaries, Gregson-Williams also goes back to the kind of unique electronic sounds that distinguished such early scores as “Smilla’s Sense of Snow,” alongside Asian winds and horse-thundering percussion to wipe out any feeling of kid’s stuff for Disney’s most successful cartoon-to-reality translation yet. But even amidst its excitement, what makes this “Mulan” work alongside its animated ancestor is a sweeping, honorable feeling of proclaiming one’s identity.. Yet homage must still be paid, and there’s perhaps no more exhilarating moment in a film score this year then when Mulan rides forth to a sweeping, symphonic version of its iconic song melody, a wonderful acknowledgement of what “Mulan” holds in the hearts of so many fans as Gregson-Williams’ sword and arrows are outheld to a new musical possibility.  

THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT

(Carlos Rafael Rivera / Maise Music Publishing)

In a year that rapidly broke the rules with its unexpected moves, I’m going to break my own with a column that’s solely been about film scores to proclaim that the best music I’ve heard this year comes from a Netflix TV miniseries that’s awash in wonderful, unapologetic thematic melody. Much like its chess-playing heroine Beth, composer Carlos Rafael Rivera is a come-from-nowhere success story who’s mostly been in the employee of writer-director Scott Frank from the darkly suspenseful “A Walk among the Tombstones” to his Emmy winning, female-centric western work on Netflix’s “Godless.” Like “Gambit’s” heroine, Rivera’s expert hands bely a relative newcomer status as he turns a cerebral game into as exciting a symphonic physical contest as one might play far more macho sports like football or boxing. It’s also one that’s cerebral as Rivera gets inside his heroine’s head, gossamer rhythms arranging pieces on the ceiling and hearing the ticking clock between movies as his richly musical board building to personal liberation. Given just how much scoring there is in the series’ insanely binge-able nine episode run, Rivera’s consistently dexterous motifs that favor strings and the piano always let us know where Beth’s thoughts are on the board, the scoring becoming akin to a lovely symphony full of motifs, all painting a delicate, yet strong portrait of a young woman coming to grips with her own identity while waltzing in the thought processes that mark an infinite number of variations. It’s an utterly entrancing approach that makes every challenge its own musical set piece that can be suspenseful or lyrically delicate, yet all fitting into a puzzle of a woman reclaiming her singular identity among thousands of calculations. Building to a rousing checkmate, “The Queen’s Gambit” is gorgeously lush music that’s scoring at a sumptuous grandmaster level.

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7

(Daniel Pemberton / Varese Sarabande Records)

Now more than ever, the patriotic spirit of defiance against a viciously suppressive government rings through massive protests. But perhaps no demonstration really hit the hearts and minds of a nation like the infamous head-bashing demonstrations during 1968’s Chicago Democratic National Convention that saw its protest leaders get put through a circus-like trial. British composer Daniel Pemberton, who did a remarkable job conveying the free jazz mystery 50’s of “Motherless Brooklyn” now moves, fists-raised into a rock and roll 60s with “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Pemberton combines that rebellious acoustical spirit with a sweeping orchestral approach befitting any true patriot’s plea for democracy falling on the establishment’s deaf ears. But what’s as important as capturing the sound and fury, as well as a far bigger message, is hitting the rhythmic word play of Aaron Sorkin. Having helped his script capture the very human super-genius of “Steve Jobs,” Pemberton does a great job for Sorkin in the director’s chair where dialogue particularly counts (if thankfully minus his usual author-y flourishes). The composer has a  brash, clever time, going from soft jazz to rock and then far dark symphonic suspense with the feeling of a nation’s liberty at stake as much as the defendants.’ There are dynamic builds to rioting and solemn cooling down, with one incredibly dynamic cue full of drum-smashing and shivering string outrage that brings blood to the streets. Dexterously incorporating his powerful theme into whatever style he’s using, Pemberton’s “Trial” ultimately brings a solemn, moving message about the nature of patriotism to the stand, crescendo’ing for a flag-waving orchestra that sings with an impactful, defiantly proudly anthemic emotion that won’t be suppressed, now more than ever.

THE RUNNERS-UP

AMULET 

(Sarah Angliss / Unreleased)

Few would expect the usually effervescent actress Romola Garai (“Atonement”) to make such a terrifying and literally potent writing-directing debut with a chamber horror film that combines the rotting apartment nightmares of “Repulsion” and “The Tenant” with social commentary on male-inflicted war crimes – here as a psychologically-scarred veteran of a Serbian-like conflict takes shelter in a church apartment whose attendant nun, maid and mad mom are far more than they appear. A vital, and sinisterly scolding female presence is heard in the nightmarishly beautiful score by Sarah Angliss, her stunning score making “The Witch,” “Hereditary” and “Midsommar” hold their ancient, sacrificial blood-infused mead. Schooled in ancient folk music, electro-organic contemporary styles and instrumental invention, Angliss combines her talents for conjuring ancient, ritualistic spirits with contemporary baroque into a score that an elder god could love. It’s song “God of Joy” lets us know she’s certainly anything but that. Way more in the spirit of the original pagan “Wicker Man” than recycling Satanic musical tropes, Angliss uses the beautiful, overlapping voices, creating the feeling of an unholy, payback ceremony. Entrancing with shimmering bells and flutes, Angliss just as readily uses nerve-rending effects that embodies the embryonic gunk flooding a decrepit apartment’s pipes, adding to a feeling of isolation with the unholy comfort of something far more terrifyingly rewarding ahead for its hapless antihero. Where other composers might pour on the instrumental kitchen sink to complement the creature-plugged toilet on display, the power of Angliss’ work comes from its chilling, atmospheric intimacy, exactly the right approach for Garai’s slow-burn approach. One of the most impressive horror debuts since Elliot Goldenthal’s brilliantly inventive, creepily hopeless “Alien 3,” “Amulet” is the work of a composer who isn’t so much an artist as she is a high priestess, conjuring a bewitching spirit of vengeance amidst a chamber music approach for isolated madness of coming to terms with far more real horror. 

ARCHIVE

(Steven Price / Milan Records)

Electronically powered scores have certainly evolved from the first time Bebe and Louis Barron brought Robbie the Robot to life in “Forbidden Planet.” However, even the coolest musical technology by itself can’t bring a true, emotionally affecting soul to the ghost in the machine – as neat as some of these state-of-the-art sci-fi scores might be.. A case in point is Steven Price’s beautifully haunting score to “Archive,” the excellent, affecting directorial debut of “Moon” effects artist Gavin Rothery which sees a driven, bereaved scientist tirelessly building the construct that will hold his late wife’s memory – all the while discarding the feelings of the evolving machines that seek their own identity. Having won a scoring Oscar for “Gravity,” Steven Price certainly knows something about machinery, isolation and desperate problem solving. With “Archive” just as “spacey” in its own right, Price uses hypnotic, subtly building rhythms that shift between the heavenly and darker suspense, creating a sense of determination that’s laser-focused on its scientist’s corporeal problem-solving. Layering in surreal elements with more poignant, affected string instruments, Price conveys the anguish of neglected past experiments, as well as his successful model who isn’t ready to surrender her own existence. It’s a sound that subtly spells out its feelings, much like the older robots who can’t truly communicate their humanity. “Archive’s” sadly poetic pieces help the film build to a shattering climax that shows just how impactful Price’s ethereal, bio-computer approach is for a composer who continue to push this electrified music’s existential power. 

ARKANSAS

(Devanda Banhart & Noah Georgeson / Unreleased)

Particularly renowned in the indie scene for his bands Spiritual Bonerz and the Grogs, Texas-by-way-of-Venezuela composer Devanda Banhart’s nutty way with retro-folk instruments has been making inroads to the genre of “New Weird America.” As musically accompanied by his California-born mixer Noah Georgeson, both artists make an eccentrically strong impression in the druggie backwoods of “Arkansas.” In this impressive slice-of-subculture movie that also shows off the directing, writing and acting talents of Clark Duke (often seeing playing nebbishy characters in the likes of “Hot Tub Time Machine” and “The Office”), two low-level dealers come up against seemingly superhuman kingpin, with all put on a collision course of murder and betrayal. Though given a next gen mutation of a “Fargo”-esque storyline, Duke wisely has the music going down a brain-fried western path that’s as much about the red state as it is an archly fatalistic state of mind. With a harmonica-driven main theme smoking a psychedelic “Midnight Cowboy” vibe, Banhart and Georgeson’s roots also hear the spirit of Ennio Morricone, yet with an organ and theremin that puts their inventive score on its own fateful trip. Retro synths, twangy electric guitar and spaced-out bell percussion creating a mesmerizing, motivic landscape that’s some of the coolest alt. rock imbibing to be heard since Sonic Youth and Air, not to mention the spooky keyboards of Angelo Badalamenti . Yet though there are some poetic retro digressions and meditative piano, the music here is mostly stalking through old frontier town to the final draw with the drug kingpin. That things don’t quite go down as planned in a film that takes its sweet time developing its characters shows the distinctive personality in all departments of this small, quite remarkable indie film and score that continues to show the new film scoring roads being blazed by indie rock innovators.   

BECKY

(Nima Fakhrara / Varese Sarabande Records)

Escaped American Nazi prison trash gets wasted “Home Alone” style in this gleeful destruction derby by the makers of the killer kids’ movie “Cooties,” who channel well-deserved payback this time around into a teen girl hellion. Nima Fakhara, a prolific composer who’s particularly impressed with his synth-thick scores for the likes of “The Signal” and “Detroit Become Human” really piles on experimental anarchy to memorable effect. With just a haunting bit of piano and voice-topped humanity for a kid who’s messed up from the start with the death of her mom, Fakhara soon drives her mad to get to the musical meat and potatoes of accompaniment for arrows, knives, boat motors and lawn mowers with rhythmic heavy breathing, growling electronics and piano chords. It’s an angry mass of inventive sampling that sets a beyond ominous tone for the vengefully berserk synth shenanigans to get started. If alt. music is the beat of teen ennui, hearing Fakhara warp trance rhythms into a girl’s warpath has all of the suspensefully intense, slasher-friendly, screaming theme payback you’d hope for in a batshit genre score like this, one that in its way plays like John Carpenter having a keyboard meltdown. In the ongoing wave or retro horror synth soundtracks, here’s a killer sound taken to the next level by a good mean girl, here by a composer who knows how to cobble together electronics into particularly inventive weapons for an ersatz Native American on the righteous warpath against the embodiments of white hate that’s messed with the wrong family.         

THE HUNT 

(Nathan Barr / Back Lot Music)

As a composer who knows how to score his way around controversy, be it the outcries over torture chambers or progressive lights hitting Hollywoodland, Nathan Barr got his big hot potato thrown at him when an already agenda-gaming movie earned the explosive ire Donald Trump. But it turned out that  grenade was tossed at every political persuasion when this wonderfully black, distinctly un-PC comedy was finally unleashed. Barr’s deliciously ironic score aims its crosshairs on everyone for an exceptionally clever game of musical cat and mouse. Capturing a jolly sense of blacker-than-dark satire while also  playing its pursuit for real, Barr is the straight man ringmaster who puts devilish suspense into the film’s outrageous brutality. Using tribal drums, twisted backwoods percussion and a quite alarmed brass-heavy orchestra, “The Hunt’s” bleakly zanier intentions become more suspensefully witty for those who find these sorts of gory punchlines a laugh riot, especially when accentuated with insidiously clever orchestrations. The themes and motifs that Barr’s set up like spring traps finally really get unleashed in a kitchen knock-down drag-out between psycho liberal and valiant despicable hellcat, with every one of Barr’s metallic hits energetically calibrated to accompany the banging utensils and body crunches in the ye 

JINGLE JANGLE: A CHRISTMAS JOURNEY

(John Debney / Lakeshore Records)

From a Halloween “Hocus Pocus” to an Xmas “Elf,” few composers conjure a magical holiday spirit like John Debney. With an innate sense of melodic warmth and a lush, bell-sparking way with the symphony, the love and optimism that often come through Debney’s voice reawakens a child-like wonder, one that helps the Yuletide season sing in “Jingle Jangle.” That this isn’t a Christmas movie as such in its magical fusion of Victorian England by way of golden age Harlem, as mostly populated by black characters whose race isn’t commented on, says much that’s strikingly unusual about director David E. Talbert’s ethnic valentine to spectacles of yore like “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” – here with a magical robot as opposed to a jalopy. Debney certainly has no end of kid-friendly scores under his belt, with a stocking of soaring, gorgeously thematic melody and chorus to hit this toy-filled wonderland, which gets the added bonus of playful Mariachi rhythms for a devious Don Juan plaything. “Jingle’s” roots are also given to Debney to movingly voice through period jazz swing and gospel singers. But no cues here are quite as soaring as the robust orchestrations that lift the actors and titular automaton, music that captures the kind of John Williams magic that made you believe a man can fly. That Debney accomplished this gorgeous sound during the height of the corona lockdown by seamlessly merging his enthusiastic players is another reason to celebrate the soaring enchantment of perhaps the composer’s most meaningful gift to Christmas scoring. 

MANK

(Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross / The Null Corporation)

A duo known for the pulsing, grinding cutting edge sounds of the award-winning “Social Network” and “Watchmen” sharpen their notable percussion to delirious, old-school effect for the soused “Citizen Kane” co-writer “Mank,” taking a time machine back to the 30’s and 40’s golden age way before computerized music was spark on the scoring wall. The result is a deliriously evocative soundtrack that’s like absolutely nothing in the electrified wheelhouse of Trent Reznor and Atticus, whose work here will doubtlessly open up new stylistic horizons for them. Beginning with somber, brassy orchestral strains befitting Bernard Herrmann’s score for Orson Well’s classic, Reznor and Ross further defy expectations of trying to imitate Bernie all the way through by promptly hitting Hollywood’s Brown Derby for a grand big band time. Then it’s off to the smoky desert inn where a bedridden gadfly pounds out reams of script pages, the music capturing his wacked-out creative process with percussion drawn from the ticking of his master’s deadline to the musical tapping of typewriter keys. It’s a wonderfully evocative approach that not only paints a rich portrait of a movie company town and its cattily embittered writing workers bees, but also the thought process of what it takes to conjure a work of genius, as heard through the synergy of an uncommonly inventive duo whose richest work yet is an ironically vibrantly throwback.  

THE OUTPOST

(Larry Groupé / La La Land Records)

In a politically charged collaboration that’s often about the drama of the highest office in “Deterrence,” “The Contender” and the series “Commander in Chief,” writer-director Rod Lurie and composer Larry Groupé have dealt with the life and death responsibilities that come with the presidential seal. But with their most powerful effort “The Outpost,” the drama impactfully comes to ground for the story of soldiers facing a seemingly insurmountable siege of their Afghanistan base. With Lurie depicting the true events in an utterly gripping, you-are-there style, Groupe’s mission is to create a documentary-like feel with his score, at first using subtle ethnic percussion and tense electronics and an orchestra to throw us into a world where camaraderie is the only thing keeping sanity when every day could be one’s last. Yet it’s in Groupé’s noble use of melody that “The Outpost” follows a lineage of war scores saluting troops given unwinnable odds. With warnings of the onslaught of course ignored, Groupé builds the unbearable tension of the calm before the storm until the score thematically explodes into action amidst hails of gunfire, screams and fireballs. Veering from rapid-fire percussion to a terrifying, growling electronic motif as he often counterpoints the chaos with emotion, Groupé throws us into the suck with a feeling for the soldiers and their self-sacrifice, running through fire with a feeling for humanity at its most desperate hour. When the film and score finally exhale with a resoundingly full orchestral melody, it’s as much of a gut punch as his tender song “Everybody Cries” is as Lurie shows us the real soldiers who lived and died. Not so much exciting as it is terrifying with a real feeling of valor under fire, “The Outpost” survives as both film and score as an elegiac, moving ode to a band of brothers struggling together when all seems lost.  

2067

(Ken Lampl and Kirsten Axelholm / Milan Records)

Right from a powerhouse orchestral opening that blasts out its epic quality as if it was “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” you hear that co-composers Ken Lampl and Kirsten Axelholm are intent on knocking their symphonic ball right out of the park – or in this case filling up just about every inch of this grandly ambitious, time-travelling Ozzie sci-fi film. Where “12 Monkeys’” sludge worker was sent from an industrially blighted future to a bleak past, the seemingly ill-fated hero here is propelled to a human-less, tree-filled future to hopefully save his race. It’s a mission given propulsive, massively dramatic importance by Lampl (who most definitely learned a lot from his studies with John Williams) and the chorally gifted Axelholm, with a seeming chorus of hundreds and an impressively massive orchestral scope resounding with the cosmic stakes at hand. Creating numerous themes tying the timelines together, the composers also show a moving intimacy in the orchestration, from a violin becoming one man’s sacrifice for many to a lovely, lonely voice singing for the ghosts of mankind amidst tree-hugged ruins – both of which impressively grow to operatically melodic scope. If scores are supposed to make a movie bigger than life, especially when it comes to beyond ambitious independent productions, Lampl and Axelholm’s dynamic work accomplishes that mission in Strausian spades, especially by concentrating on the story’s emotional scope in a way that gives its ending particular emotional resonance. At the least, the future is very assured for this impressive scoring collaboration. 

THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG 

(Jed Kurzel / Lakeshore Records)

Since their feature debut down under with the true story of a serial killer rampage in 2011’s “The Snowtown Murders,” director Justin Kurzel and his composing brother Jed have consistently taken an offbeat, gritty approach to their subjects from the viscerally intimate and atonal take on “Macbeth” to a misguided, if still musically impressive realization of “Assassin’s Creed” (all as Jed impressed on his own with “The Babadook” and “Seberg”). Now both team for Australia’s most infamous criminal family with the “True History of the Kelly Gang,” a subject whose cinematic history goes back to Mick Jagger in an iron helmet. The Kurzel band doesn’t so much shatter every Hollywood telling since as much as it blasts it to ruddy smithereens to plunge viewers and listeners into the outback’s wild west. It’s music that’s sharply metallic and lyrically haunting as it aims to disrupt the mythical truth behind the legend. Completely dispensing with the kind of music you’d expect from an oater in one of the most “real” western scores since Ry Cooder’s “The Long Riders,” Kurzel’s open range is both a savage place and a defiant state of mind, an unstrung, smartly primitive approach for percussion, bullroarer-like winds and horns that create the tension of grimy, shoot-first Irish immigrants who’ve gone native. While the late 1800’s setting gets acknowledged through chamber strings, for the most part Kurzel twists their familiar costume drama sound into punk rock ferocity, which is in synch with Justin’s pointedly anachronistic songs in the film for characters giving gun middle fingers to the colonizing Brits. Yet for all of its surly anger, there’s just as much poetic lyricism in how the score conveys a family fated from the start to go out in a blaze of folk hero glory, giving it the melodies an echoing, acoustic quality that makes the clan’s bravado ring tragically hollow. It’s a trippy score that plunders a metal-plated legend for all of its uniquely hollow worth. 

UNDERWATER

(Marco Beltrami & Brandon Roberts / Hollywood Records)

While the 80’s offered a succession of creature features pitting futuristic aquanauts against deep sea monstrosities, leave it to the cinema’s technological advances in a new millennium to really do the idea right, all while still hearkening back to those glory days. Though thrown off the deep end at 2020’s start, “Underwater” stands tall as one of the year’s best major studio genre movies and scores, especially when seasoned horror scoring veteran Marco Beltrami (“Scream”) suits up with protégé Brandon Roberts (“Salem”) to create literally atmospheric music that crushes the listener with suspense, ultimately escalating into a raging orchestra worthy of Godzilla by way of Cthulu. Combining Gothic thrills like low brass and ghostly voices alongside piercing, high-tech electroshock rhythms and voices, “Underwater’s” score keeps a continual sense of menace, encapsulating the fearful desperation of outracing one collapsing chamber after the next into the dark unknown where God knows what is waiting. Exceptionally well-modulated between eerie, skin-crawling stillness and race-against-time thrills, Beltrami and Roberts musically physicalize the idea of water and pressure, creating an unearthly ambience for the menace’s full scope to reveal itself. It’s a rush of abstract scoring and exceptional melodic construction that keeps the heart racing, yet a score that finally succeeds by being about its heroine’s never-say-die courage, the music ending with a terrifically exciting uplift for organ and electronics in a score that’s about the idea of high tech meeting a fearsomely old school monster where the ocean’s bottom itself is the haunted house. 

WORDS ON BATHROOM WALLS

(Andrew Hollander and The Chainsmokers / Disruptor Records / Columbia)

As the eccentric pairing of Mychael Danna and Devotchka proved with “Little Miss Sunshine,” it’s often the pairing of established composers and indie bands that result in the most interesting and innovative soundtracks, especially when dealing with characters who follow the beat of a different drummer. The aspiring, schizophrenic young chef in director Thor Freudenthal’s exceptional, empathetic drama “Words on Bathroom Walls” plays to a whole different rhythm. But then composer Andrew Hollander (“Waitress,” “My Friend Dahmer”) and the DJ’ing born band The Chainsmokers (Drew Taggart and Alex Pall) have used unique sonic choices in their hip careers to say the least. Here’s it’s a meeting of the eclectic minds inside the head of kid who’d like nothing better than to stop his sickness from going out of control in the form of nightmare visions and imaginary frenemies, all of whom turn his reality and relationships topsy-turvy. Like that mental illness, it’s music-of-the-moment that seamlessly ranges from youth film friendly rock-groove beats, poignant solo piano, melodically hypnotic sampling, grunge guitar and plunky retro Pong synths among a myriad of styles. Emotionally it’s a score that goes from blissful, romantic heights to nightmarish alt. depths, yet is tied together with a myriad of cool, distinctive themes. It’s score that sums up both the characters’ ages and a surreal, med-influenced world beyond it, mixing sadness with hope in an utterly captivating, rhythmic way that musically spells out mental illness in a way that hasn’t really been heard before for a scoring synergy that’s in complete, hallucinatory synch. 

THE WRETCHED

(Devin Burrows / La La Land Records)

Devin Burrows

When corona kicked the big studio guns and their zillion dollar pictures out of the theaters, the opportunity for the drive-in to rise again as the only safe way to try and watch a movie gave opportunities to small, but more than worthy films to roar. Coming screaming out of the gate as the   first big hit of the new normal was “The Wretched,” a horror indie with a witch-as-predator score that propelled listeners back to the 80’s orchestral glory days of such composers as Brad Fiedel and Alan Silvestri. Credit bro directors Brett and Drew Pierce and their longtime composing pal Devin Burrows for this especially tasty surprise, propelled by a score that starts off with a truly gnarly quality, as if it was the musical sound of vines wrapping themselves around a deer skull and into the bodies of the film’s unfortunate victims. Playfully, and scarily building tension with a remarkable variety of themes that distinguish teens getting into a world of unholy under-the-tree hurt, Burrows finally unleashes a symphonically throttling, malefic sound befitting an unlikely hero meeting a vicious crone. It’s a fun and furiously exciting score that embodies the kind of come-from-nowhere spirit that distinguishes an indie breed of composers making themselves heard in the most horrific of circumstances, show that a ferociously fun score is the best emotional medicine for fans of 80’s genre pieces as much as it is for young audiences who relish a fresh scare from the safety of their car seats.  


THE COMPOSERS TO WATCH

Scotsman William Wallace facing off against the might of the English army might be a bit more daunting than Singapore-born composer Mel Elias dealing with the expectations of following up “Braveheart’s” Best Picture and Score when creating music for its sort of sequel “Robert the Bruce” (available soon on Notefornote Music), especially given that this determined, American-shot indie film that ported over Angus Macfadyen’s surviving leader didn’t have a major studio budget at his command. But it’s exactly the once-turncoat leader’s desire to truly claim his own personality as a king and leader that gives this far more intimate, if often similarly powerful film its own spirit. With Celtic pipes essentially the only callback to James Horner’s inimitable score, Elias goes for a deeply emotional approach that’s powerfully perfect for a lesson in true nobility, as learned from The Bruce’s spiritual rebirth in the company of a peasant family hiding him as most of Scotland seeks his demise. Filled with rich, character-based themes, Elias’ approach is solemn, while not stinting on the noble excitement when swords, and clans must finally rise to the task. Though certainly melodic in his approach, it’s how Elias finds the vulnerable person within the legend that shows just how powerful an earthy musical approach can be to make the resources at hand truly sing as honorable kin to a classic in a score that makes The Bruce very much his own vibrant musical warrior. 

A female-obliterating night of the comet turns into a hauntingly beautiful requiem with “Only”(Notefornote Music) as a soulmate struggles to protest what might be the last woman on earth. Given one of the many apocalyptic projects that became unfortunately very resonant, the composing duo of John Kaefer (“The Wilds”) and Michael Dean Parsons (“How to Be Alone”) take a lyrical approach to the idea of a world of two, using electronics in a poetically organic way that captures the idea of loneliness even when together, as well as the perilously rhythmic stakes of their secret being discovered. In a world increasingly in need of tenderness as it deals with growing madness, the elegiac quality of “Only” strikes a powerfully tragic, yet entrancingly melodic chord, as created by the emotional voice for two breakout composers.  

Creating textural work while working in Hollywood as an arranger for “Sense8” arranger and violinist for such projects as “Cherish the Day,” Dublin-born Emer Kinsella makes an impressive feature scoring debut to love for “I Hate New Year’s” (Emersion Records). With grooves that are alternately edgy and romantically soothing, Kinsella’s catchy, double-edged rom-com sword is in the form of guitar of a rock star who finds her incognito Nashville stay revealing that nothing attracts like best friends. Kinsella’s way with rhythm is right in tune for a musician as the score’s energetic acoustical work and alt. percussion. It blends in nicely with the kind of progressive lovestruck melody that provides a time-worn genre with a fresh LGBT spin, showing just how creatively clever, and finally heartfelt Kinsella’s instrumental sensibilities are at giving this couple a charming groove, one that sings for the kind of fresh energy that character-driven indie scores are all about. 

 

After doing his service as an orchestrator on the likes of “Julie & Julia” and “The Equalizer,” Philip Klein was promoted to an additional composer to provide the suspensefully heroic music for men being saved from a shipwreck in “The Finest Hours.” Now Klein more than shows he’s got the right stuff to go into Hollywood battle, and remembrance with “The Last Full Measure” (Filmtrax) an honorably heartfelt chronicle of the struggle to get real-life Vietnam airman William H. Pitsenbarger Jr. a Medal of Honor after his sacrifice to save as many soldiers as possible from a Vietcong attack. The event of tragic, yet life-affirming heroism is told with emotional shadings of regret, anger and conviction through the recollections that comprise the film as an officer fights government bureaucracy for a just reward. Klein’s music is understandably somber and filled with noble brass, which is the right approach given how these vets are haunted by the past. Klein conjures their emotional ghosts by using orchestra and electronics alongside piano and violin-topped intimacy for a fateful last stand, ultimately giving the airmen a rousing salute through a deeply moving thirteen-minute piece that shows the promise of what emotionally impactful orders this composer will take next. 

An electrical apocalypse sends a tech genius, yet survivalist-savvy teen girl and her dad back to nature in “Radioflash,” a verdantly shot YA Armageddon whose strikingly beautiful score by Ramin Kousha fuses the pulsing of synths alongside a lush, mournful orchestra. A programmer on “The Signal” and “Detroit Become Human” with a growing body of scores ranging from genre pieces like “5thPassenger” to the dramatic Iranian kids’ drama “Sun Children,” Kousha does an impressive job of meshing a rhythmic sci-fi sound with tragically emotional strings, all while delivering on backwoods madman suspense with enraged, stripped down percussion and twisted metal. At “Radioflash’s” elegiac best, Kousha poetically conveys the idea of humanity itself as being lost in the spiritual woods minus its toys yet refusing to let its belief in the bonds of family die. One could easily hear this kind of swooningly mournful style in a positively pre-computer costume drama as well as a film about the seeming end of technology, showing Kousha’s powerfully thematic talents at both ends of the musical spectrum.  

Where the idea of Santa versus a hit man would seem to yield shtick, the biggest surprise of the Nelms brothers’ film is that it takes as much of a “Fargo”-esque beyond-ironic approach as possible to the premise, which in turn is counterpointed with some ingeniously novel scoring by the non-bro Mondo Boys (aka Mike Griffin and Mike Schanzlin) of “Fatman” (unreleased). Having jammed together since the age of 15 to presently impress with such innovative scores of “Dave Made a Maze,” “Life of Crime” and “She Dies Tomorrow,” the Mondos gleefully play any number of Christmas caroling chestnuts for their subversive good cheer. When it comes to the mana-a-mano between a burnt-out St. Nick and the super assassin adversary who’s never forgiven him for not delivering on his Xmas wish, the Mondos stage their showdown like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” as musical Spaghetti western-isms raining down like snow. Far more deadly serious are exactly the kind of electro-rhythms that you’d hear in any straight-up assassin movie, all adding up to three distinctly stylistic approaches that impossibly merge together for this very fractured fairy tale. Yet in the midst of the Mondo’s high concept, what comes through in the bloody end is a musical spirit that very much makes this a Christmas movie, as well as a darkly emotional warning of how a lump of coal can truly warp a kid.  

The wages of sin have long possessed the British gangster film from “Get Carter” to “The Krays.” But rarely has this genre been graced with such a mournful film or score as “Villain” (Aaron May).Marking the impressive debuts of director Philip Barantini and composers Aaron May and David Ridley, this is essentially a “Carlito’s Way” spin on the gold-hearted thug who gets pulled back in, as played by frequent English heavy Craig Fairbrass (“Avengement”). That things won’t end up well is a given with the downbeat, affecting tone of May and Ridley, who deliver a jazzily percussive vibe, as mixed with melodic music design. “Villain’s” forlorn, smoky sound still conveys a don’t F with me attitude that might not be too far off from “Get Carter’s,” though even moodier in its use of a solo bass clarinet, a cello ensemble and wafting electronic melodies. There’s also particularly inventive sampling, from its use of breaths to growling industrial sounds that convey an underworld unto itself.   

For a gleefully oh-so-wrong, visually assaultive from “Deathgasm” director Jason Lei Howden, composer Enis Rotthoff literally beats the delightfully insane hell out of his hapless hero in “Guns Akimbo” (Varese Sarabande), his anarchic retro rhythms sending turning Daniel Radcliffe’s pistol-glued dweeb into a Pac Man navigating an urban and web maze of social media enabled assassins. Rotthoff spews forth an orgy of 8-Bit arcade grooves, Beastie Boy’s percussion, Vangelis washes of electro atmospheres and enough drum and keyboard bullet splattering to make Sam Peckinpah hit the rave floor. But just pure adrenalin would be meaningless without the themes to back them up, and it’s Rotthoff’s weaving between melody and pure anarchic energy as the bodies hit the floor that makes his soundtrack for “Guns Akimbo” so much fun. Loud and bad-assed, “Guns Akimbo” is a delirious wake-up to Rotthoff as a voice to watch, way beyond his killer beat. 

An artist who’s given longtime vocal poetry to the likes of “True Blood,” “Shrek 2” and “Avatar,” Lisbeth Scott has also been applying her similarly graceful touch as a dramatic composer with “Caroline and Jackie,” “Dry” and “Justine.” But it’s with “All My Life” (Back Lot Music) that Scott gets her deserved studio level up for this true story of a young couple getting married in the face of the groom’s cancer. It’s a cinematic predicament that can often result in maudlin scoring, but given Scott’s sensibility, it’s an emotionally affecting listen with subtle, never-say-quit energy that gracefully gets to the altar. Of course given Scott’s talent, gossamer vocals come into play alongside her themes. Her scoring acknowledges the inevitable and the future beyond it with strings and floating melody, an approach that’s all the more effective in a time when cinematic, and musical hope is needed more than ever. “All My Life” is full of this poignant energy that Scott soothingly gets across while not running from the deeper drama at hand, while also the moving song “Just for You and I.” With this affecting, very listenable score, Lisbeth Scott knows how to pull out the handkerchiefs with the most delicate of touches. 

Having creatively captured the addled, animated thought process of mental illness that afflicted a Latvian family in “Rocks in My Pockets,” Italian composer Kristian Sensini hears the sinister, razor-sharp clarity of a Slovenian politician out to triumph at any cost in “All Against All” (KeyeStudioS). But it’s a dark desperation that translates in any language, particularly when given an atmospheric sound that plays to the strength of the composer’s strengths in classical music, piano and jazz – warping the two for a transfixingly sinister mood. With its percussion, electric guitar and winds, often punctuated with sharp electronics, Sensini’s mix of steely tension and wistfully ironic melody also brings to mind such paranoia-drenched 70’s scores as “The Conversation” and “The Parallax View,” as well as later conspiratorial soundtracks like “The Firm” as it conjures a world of backroom dealings, sordid sex and lethal opportunism. It’s music as fit for a tale about gangsters as it is politicians, who are most often one in the same when it comes to scoring them.  

Dara Taylor

Putting a stylish thrill into the destruction of anarchist thieves while playing the emptiness of it all,Dara Taylor’s impressive score for “Echo Boomers” (Filmtrax) is the latest hybrid evolution of a pulsating, hip gang-heist genre whose score ancestors include “Drive,” “Heat” and “Thief.” An old school robbery approach is definitely not in Taylor’s tool bag for these blunt, cutting edge characters. Instead, she uses washes of guitar, voice, warped cellos and hypnotic ambience to bring a contrasting, dream-like melody to the joyfully vicious break-ins and bad behavior of these “Boomers.” Her mesmerizing score is not so much a tisk-tisk finger as it a sideway headshake, an unforced sense of emotion that gives the soundtrack and the film an unexpected emotional bite while dreamily smashing the goods it isn’t stealing.

One of the rare thrillers where you have absolutely no idea of what’s going to happen next, or what twisted rabbit hole it will take you down, one of the best batshit surprises of “Come to Daddy”(Death Waltz) is its score by Swedish New Zealander Karl Steven. Certainly prolific down under, Steven gets his first international cult exposure in this Oregon coast-set story as a nerdy son discovers what lies in the hidden compartment in his dad’s place. Steven really has the berserk run of the place here, along with its surrounding, blood-drenched environs. With lush, Herrmann-esque strings and harp colliding with metallic percussion (some involving precariously placed saw blades). Steven also conjures the ghost of Lalo Schifrin with crime jazz vibes, and even a pleasant, parental healing melody for piano and guitar. But that’s not decidedly where the film, or score will go given the reverberating, skin-crawling strings and analogue synths that allow Steven to plunge into guttural grand guignol. With its pitch-black guitar strumming, gong-ringing Spaghetti western sense of humor, Steven’s “Daddy” is the kind of consistently, wacked-out grisly musical fun you just want to hug.   

As part of composer Jeff Russo’s team, Tracie Turnbull has been present through no small amount of the time-space-score continuum with her contributions to the likes of “Star Trek Discovery,” “Picard” and “The Umbrella Academy.” But it’s with her first feature documentary work in the here and now that Turnbull truly gets to shine with “A Brief History of Time Travel” (Notefornote Music). Given a documentary that takes one of modern sci-fi’s oldest tropes and tries to make realistic scientific sense of it, Turnbull sits confidently upon her own musical time machine that’s powered by no end of inventively graceful rhythm. Fusing together orchestra and electronics with her own cello specialty, Turnbull’s music fires off a sense of wonder in slowly drawn strings, percolating bells and full-ahead propulsion, styles that focus as much imagination from the viewer as brain power in figuring out incredibly complex concepts. Turnbull’s captivating score captures the sound of science itself in a way that’s a notable listen, and an entertaining one at that as her music boldly goes back and forth on its intimate way, using time spent with The Federation to exceptional measure in the real world, or such as we conceive of it.  

Where Howard Shore’s trailblazing “Videodrome” score way back when established new potential in twisted technological scoring for filmmaker David Cronenberg, his son Brandon has inspired composer Jim Williams to generate a viscerally worthy descendent with “Possessor Uncut”(Lakeshore).  Williams’ hypnotically droning music creates an almost mournful sense of being in another person’s skin. It’s emotion as electronic ice and brutality as eye and teeth bashing feedback, an approach that makes listeners feel like they’re floating about in a twilight zone that’s ready to attack them. It’s an often-ethereal tone that’s perfect for the passionless gloss that Cronenberg creates with his high-fashion visuals and insane ultra-violence. Yet what’s so surprising in a realm where many can mistake noise for music is that “Possessor” is quite listenable, and often lovely in its bizarre way thanks to Williams’ weird tonal science. His inventive talent melts into both machine and human, creating a new, mesmerizing sound that is Zen dread for a movie that is as ruthless as it is hypnotic. 

“Training Day” writer-turned-filmmaker David Ayers takes his most powerful ride from hell through LA’s criminal urban underbelly in “The Tax Collector,” (Filmtrax) his composing co-passenger Michael Yezerski paying dues of an antihero’s sin with a mesmerizing guitar and percussion powered score that nevertheless gives vocal sympathy and tenderness, to a crime lord with family demons on his shoulder. Capturing the club and street beats that surround the characters, as sent through a mix of inner guilt, lethally religious family allegiance and an unbreakable criminal blood line, Yezerski’s drive on the dark side hauntingly takes his character’s life apart while delivering the bloodlust throb that makes for Ayer’s Peckinpah-like comeback. Simmering for more than half of the film, it’s the kind of deceptive scoring that lays sinisterly low on the soundtrack, only to emerge like a dues-demanding beast in a way that pays off “The Tax Collector” with tension, ethnic identity and lethal compulsion to spare as it demands  moral dues. 

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