(Robert Aki Aubrey Lowe / Back Lot Music)
Robert Aki Aubrey Lowe

Having provided vocals and electronic work for Jóhann Jóhannsson on “Sicario” and “Arrival,” Robert Aki Aubrey Lowe (also known as Lichens for his impressive alt. music work) now stands in front of modular mirror to say his four-word name five fateful times for his smashingly impressive and utterly terrifying Hollywood debut. Where sound design scores of this type can be somewhat lazy in thinking that drones and dissonance equal fear, Lowe’s next-level talent at engineering ungodly sonic effects (abetted by the eerily evocative cello playing of “Joker” composer Hildur Guðnadóttir) get under the nerve endings like few soundtracks of this type – the same of which can be said for filmmaker Nia DaCosta’s unexpectedly stunning approach for this direct sequel (as much this film tried to deny it) that finally does the premise of “Freddy’s Revenge” right. Of course it would be impossible to deny Philip Glass’ iconic themes, but it’s the way that Lowe upends and reworks them for bare bones organ pulses and distended voices over the upended Chicago skyline opening titles that speaks for the nightmare fuel that lies ahead. Lowe demolishes much of any idea of melodic normalcy with guttural sampling, beehive like buzzing and chattering pulses, all creating the idea of a soul twisted by racial hatred clawing its way out. Like the best horror scores tuneful or not, this “Candyman” transports the listener out of the theater and into some insanity-inducing twilight zone. It’s the kind of experimental score that’s not for the foolhardy, let alone those seeking to take the Candyman test. But for those daring enough be led by Lowe’s utterly unnerving music, this is a brave new “Candyman” that has sweetly bizarre rewards within.     

The Card Counter

(Score by Robert Levon Been & Giancarlo Vulcano, Songs by Robert Levon Been / BMG Rights Management)
Robert Levon Been (Photo by Piper Ferguson)
Giancarlo Vulcano

Few filmmakers capture the tense, often monosyllabic voices of God’s Lonely Men like Paul Schrader, an approach for ultimately explosive ennui that has inspired any number of interesting, idiosyncratic scores. Certainly one of Schrader’s most unsung works was 1992’s “Light Sleeper,” whose upscale drug dealer was given a darkly grooving jazz-rock noir score and tunes by the late Call singer Michael Been – the only score he’d ever do. Hopefully that won’t be the case as Schrader welcomes the artist’s son Robert Levon Been (of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) into the tormented antihero musical fold – as joined by Giancarlo Vulcano (who conversely brought joy to Kimmy Schmidt) for a soldier brought low by his participation in the terrors of Abu Ghraib. Given real acts that no one wants to hear about, Schrader creates a fictional character who antiseptically wraps his surroundings while burying his emotion in casino tournaments. But there’s a dark storm musically brewing that will eventually pour violently out in Been and Vulcano’s gutturally twisted samples and cool electronics that make this the next sonic level of “Light Sleeper” while taking its alt. approach down an even more twisted, hypnotic path. Ranging for slicing chords to sinisterly percolating atmospheres and voices, it’s the primal scream and self-torture of patriotism run amuck. Been’s inextricably enmeshed songs are beautifully gloomy tone poems that would fit seamlessly into a Twin Peaks juke box, turning its rock grooves into haunting, emo washes that are the melodic release from the score’s sonic tar. Both combine for a hypnotic, haunting portrait of the kind of twisted, trapped souls that Schrader exceptionally reveals as mirrors to our darkest instincts, no more so than in this exceptional comeback film and its next-gen, baleful musical talent. 

Come True

(Electric Youth & Pilotpriest / Milan Records)
Electric Youth (Austin Garrick and Bronwyn Griffin)
Pilotpriest (Anthony Scott Burns)

A hip, existential take on the type of dream walking material usually done at a far gnarlier Freddy Krueger level proves to be perfectly electrode-suited for the gorgeous trance rhythms of Electric Youth, a group shot to alt. stardom with their song “A Real Hero” showing up on “Drive’s” now-classic playlist. As joined at the cool synth hip by Pilotpriest (aka “Come True” director Anthony Scott Burns) whom EY had collaborated with on the used (but released) score for “Our House,” the trio first’s utilized collaboration is transfixing poetry in motion as a sleeper is awakened, along with attendant nightmare apparitions. It’s a mesmerizing wall of twilight sound, surrounded by voice and Zen atmospheres that gets across the weird science involved with retro grooves that show the duo / trio as inheritors to the Brian Eno crown. Electric Youth also contribute the memorably soothing tune “Modern Fears” in a score that’s more trippy than scary, also neatly incorporating Shriekback’s Coelacanth, a tune tellingly used in the breakthrough alt. soundtrack for “Manhunter” that makes for another cool callback here to the dawn of Synthwave.   


(Hans Zimmer / WaterTower Music)

Hans Zimmer

When a Hollywood auteur want a space composing jockey to take them to a planet that should of course sound like they’ve landed on weirdly virgin film scoring territory, Hans Zimmer continues to be that go-to musician for charting strange new worlds and realities. After diving into the rock guitar dreamland of “Inception” and using an organ to warp space-time through “Interstellar,” Zimmer lands on a new Arrakis with his experimental boldness more than intact. As surreal as sci-fi scores have gotten (Toto’s O.G. “Dune” high among them), director Denis Villeneuve’s more realistically depicted desert planet is a whole new playing field of gorgeously throbbing surrealism. Tapping into a primal deposit of hallucinogenic spice, yet with thematic lucidity, Zimmer’s throttling percussion, mystical waves of strings, piercing tribal voice and acid rock are truly the ultimate trip when it comes to conjuring an overwhelming atmosphere, all while sending mystically religious undercurrents into these drum sands. Zimmer even comes up with regal bag pipes for a wildly creative score that’s a spice snort like no other “Dune” score before it. 

Jakob’s Wife

(Tara Busch / Lakeshore Records)

Tara Busch

It would be a sin to hand the fertile, distinctly unhallowed ground of a female empowerment vampire film (which also happens to be a hilarious take on a dysfunctional marriage between a sexually repressed woman who wants to roar and her impossibly uptight preacher husband) to anyone but a female composer who could dig into the supernatural power dynamics at play. Tara Busch gets across this nastily fun statement in both genuinely creepy and humorous style with her impressively subversive feature scoring debut. It’s also one of the most weirdly distinctive bloodsucking scores since Simon Fisher-Turner’s “Nadja” and Dan Jones’ “Shadow of the Vampire” as Busch creates her sensually bloodsucking witch’s brew by way of warped pianos, eerie female voices and freaky ambiences for a nightmarishly seductive sound. Ghoulish, growling electronics, devilish guitars and blasts of throat-ripping trip-hop create the feeling that any sinister musical thing can happen, while at the same time evoking a classic, creeping piano sound evocative of John Carpenter, if said director-composer was having his brain fried. Busch’s “Jakob’s Wife” is a work of singular, gonzo inventiveness that’s a freaky blast of fresh air, one that’s as bizarrely unnerving as it is devilishly playful. 

Last Night in Soho

(Steven Price / Back Lot Music)
Steven Price

“Gravity” Best Score Oscar winner Steven Price has certainly had a blast enabling the enjoyable kid’s stuff of Edgar Wright with rock-driven boy’s fantasies from “Baby Driver” to “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.”  But it’s in the filmmaker ditching his fanboy stuff to become the ultimate, time-twisted fangirl of seemingly swinging 60’s London that Wright affords Price his most innovatively impressive score for “Last Night in Soho.” Blending modern electronic grooves a la Massive Attack alongside intimate piano paranoia, lullaby voices reminiscent of “Rosemary’s Baby” and Giallo grooves, Price creates a wall of mirrors breakdown for a murder mystery caught between two decades. Groovily and creepily thematic, it’s the scoring equivalent of a fashion victim Alice diving into a ghostly looking glass, creating a gorgeous miasma that’s a triumph of modern sonic production alongside a 60’s spirit of Carnaby street pop and psychedelia, no more so than as Price warps such standards as “Downtown” and “There’s Always Something There to Remind Me” with the sensual voice of starlet Anya Taylor Joy. The musical sound of a mind coming undone has rarely been as strikingly groovy.  


(Alexis Grapsas & Philip Klein / Lakeshore Records)
Alexis Grapsas
Philip Klein

Though one might expect The Cage going into Seattle’s haute cuisine underground to ferret out his stolen prized truffle pig would lead to typical VOD mayhem, “Pig” reveals itself as the one of the year’s best and most emotionally devastating big screen surprises. The main course amidst the backwoods and city streets is grief, as seamlessly served up by composers Alexis Grapsas and Philip Klein. With an emphasis on rural strings and dark, unplugged guitar rhythms, “Pig” often sounds like a western about a lone grizzled cowboy cast adrift into the wilderness. Given sharply acoustic driving rhythms that keep the score on seemingly vengeful edge as the former master chef is propelled from one suspect location to the next, “Pig’s” impactfully brief, rurally inflected score ends up being far more about contemplation and tenderness as an alt. music sensibility is applied to the old western musical chestnut of the retired culinary gunslinger on a mission, only to poignantly find himself at the fiddle and banjo end of the road with a succinct score that speaks poignant volumes for a nearly mute character  

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

(Joel P. West / Hollywood Records)
Joel P. West

The indie-minded partnership of filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton and Joel P. West has certainly evolved from the intimately scored likes of “Short Term 12” and “Just Cause” to the point of being handed the ten golden rings to the Marvel kingdom. It’s a deserved smash hit that’s powered in no small part by the excitement of West’s memorable, circling theme that conveys ancient magic in an uncondescending East meets West style. Seamlessly taking on this kind of giant symphonic score like its hero to the Kung Fu manor born, West draws on the energy of ancient Asian wind and percussion instruments, mixing them with symphonic energy and, most importantly, the emotion of a conflicted father-son dynamic that’s at the heart of the film’s success. There’s a great, epic sense of growing to assume one’s destiny here, all with the kind of dynamic melodies that are the stuff of Marvel comic book movie, a fusion of mysticism, rousing action and proud musical culture that gives the “Shang Chi’s” score its distinctive identity in the Marvel musical universe, while at the same time showing big things ahead for a composer who hasn’t stepped off of the character-centric path no matter how huge the canvas.  


(Jonny Greenwood / Mercury KX)
Jonny Greenwood

After making a distinctively offbeat impression with his score for “There Will Be Blood,” Radiohead front man Jonny Greenwood’s appearances as a composer have been relatively few and far between until appearing with a vengeance this year with three new soundtracks from Jane Campion’s psychosexual western “The Power of the Dog” to regular collaborator Paul Thomas Anderson’s surprisingly unpretentious (if still eccentrically scrambled) youth flick “Licorice Pizza.” But it’s with “Spencer” that Greenwood makes his biggest, expectedly idiosyncratic impression. “Jackie” filmmaker Pablo Larrain’s creates a far better follow up to the theme of a woman trapped in the corridors of power, here trading political royalty in the midst of grief for the doomed, fairy tale figurehead princess being driven mad as her lifeforce is dashed against the rocks of cold, callous British royalty. Greenwood digs into Di’s headspace in a way that bashes free form jazz with classically elegant string work, getting across the idea of a unique personality trapped by elegance. It’s a score that’s both gorgeously melodic and discordantly nuts, announcing itself in the film in a way that’s deliberately distracting. But that’s exactly the brilliant idea here in conveying Diana’s primal howl that’s trying to burst through the oh-so controlled persona she must project in fear of her life, to a rigid pseudo-Mafia family determined to smother individualism. Greenwood’s blaring trumpets jam with dissonant, Bach-goes-nuts strings and harpsichords at one moment, the score then deceptively smooth at the next with the queenly, thematic elegance of an organ and chamber piano and violin. It’s a daring, exceptional work of psychological scoring that’s a deft, confrontational counterpoint to the parade of hollow, gorgeous imagery of one house of Windsor historically determined to eat any woman trying to escape.   

Wrath of Man

(Christopher Benstead / Sony Music)
Christopher Benstead

Like fellow Englishman Steven Price, Christopher Benstead had made the leap from music editing the likes of “Clash of the Titans” and “Wonder Woman” to announce his composing skills with a vengeance for “Wrath of Man.” It’s an infinitely darker follow up to Benstead’s score for Guy Ritchie’s “The Gentleman” featuring criminal characters here who are anything but that. It’s a heist score of pure, relentless percussion with classical music at its black heart – a musical time bomb set in motion with its balefully impressive theme. More like a dark chamber work fueled with murderous testosterone than the kind of hybrid action approach one might expect, Bernstead’s pace alternates between tortuously drawn-out string and drum punches to roaring, slicing action. Payback is the one motif that’s on the mind of Benstead’s guttural effectiveness in creating a score whose momentum takes no prisoners as he creates a thing of nihilist musical beauty, especially in showing how a theme can be taken to its sin eating breaking point.     



(Javier Navarrete / Hollywood Records)
Javier Navarrete

If there’s a composer in the world who knows where a child-tormenting monster is hiding, whether it be “The Devil’s Backbone” orphanage, “The New Daughter’s” ant hill or underneath the Oscar nominated scoring tree of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” then Javier Navarrete knows how to locate the fairy tale creature – or in “Antlers’” case a flesh eating Native American legend located in the Great Northwest. Scott Cooper’s powerfully tragic and  truly unsettling film should have had its praises sung given the kind of uncompromising approach that’s the stuff of real horror. It’s a sad spirit animal that Navarrete powerful follows as a little boy does his roadkill best to deal with the werewolf-like Wendigo fate that’s befallen his family, a spell that Navarrete evokes though a hauntingly tragic theme, as markedly played on a piano given the story’s revelations of tormented bloodlines. With folksy guitar, tribal percussion, metallic effects and ghostly voices as thick as the film’s Val Lewton-esque foggy atmosphere, Navarrete uses both melody and dissonance to create a brooding, ever-tightening sense of awful fate, yet with poignant sympathy for its youngest victims, climaxing as the orchestra assumes its full, fearsome shape. It’s a mix of innocence beset by flesh-ripping doom and gloom that spares no one, even as it shows musical compassion for them.  


(Nicholas Britell / Walt Disney Records)
Nicholas Britell

Why-so-serious composer Nicholas Britell of “Moonlight,” “Succession” and “Underground Railroad” fame finally gets to let down his hair, and how, with an utterly delightful retro score that does its best to humanize Disney’s most famous fashion victim wicked witch in the company’s continued quest to rehabilitate its villains. Sure “Cruella” is not the first time a composer has been around the Carnaby Street 60’s pop-rock block, but it’s the viciously fun delight that he takes in twisted Haute couture revenge that makes this score sing it’s la-la-la’s. With organ, electric guitar, jazzy rhythms and Swingles Singers-esque vocalese, Britell takes a peppy gothic spin through London’s terminally hip fashion row, while also knowing when to give hushed, memorably thematic empathy for a character who’s essentially a little girl lost. It’s the same motif that just as easily rocks out with its viperous plotting. It’s rhythmic, sharp mod payback that’s deliciously fun, ultimately breaking into a rapturous classical waltz that would make Cinderella watch over her shoulder for a score that makes “Cruella” the belle of the deliciously 60’s good-evil ball. 


(Ramin Djawadi / Hollywood Records)
Ramin Djawadi (photo by Andrés Jiménez)

As a composer who spent a good chunk of his career playing an iron throne history spanning thousands of years, Ramin Djawadi couldn’t be a better choice to capture the beyond-millennia existence of the “Eternals.” Like “Shang Chi,” this isn’t your awesomely typical Marvel film, especially given “Nomadland” director Chloe Zhao being behind the camera, thankfully bringing on way more cosmic energy here. As concerned with space deities as the human feelings of their creations, Djawadi provides a memorably heroic, Greek God styled theme that powers through the score. But it’s really the emo approach that does wonders here as gentle strings, piano and voice provide a sense of ennui for the pitfalls of immortality. Particularly neat is Djawadi’s use of the organ and chorus (instruments apropos for conveying holy religious entities) as well as ethnic instruments for the cultures the characters have abetted when they saw fit. “Eternals” is also exceptionally well performed and recorded, creating a wash of music over the audience that conveys the film’s epically personal scope. But of course, you’re going to get a big effects finale, and Djawadi delivers grand symphonic scope and Wagnerian emotion for the sacrifice necessary to stop a planet eater. Bigger and smaller in equal measure for the Marvel movie Universe’s next, really inclusive cultural phase, “Eternals” resounds with impressively grand intimacy.


(Gustavo Santaolalla / Lakeshore Records)
Gustavo Santaolalla

A composer who played the videogame zombie apocalypse for “The Last of Us” gets to take on a far gentler tale of the solar flare end of times, as observed through the seeming last man on earth named “Finch.” With the inherently hopeful decency that Tom Hanks could bring to even an undead doomsday, the often gently strumming Oscar winning composer of “Brokeback Mountain” and “Babel” knows the righteously lyrical, guitar-topped path to pave the wave for the lonely maintenance dude and his dog-caring robot through the symphonically dangerous thick and thin of monster tornados or the shrill, menacing rhythms of a department store marauder. There’s a beautiful, wistful soulfulness to “Finch” that shows Santaolalla’s creativity in the sci-fi genre, especially in the synth percussion that creates a loveably goofy droid, a tin man that gets his heart through gentle rhythm and violin. As “Finch” sets off for the symphonically sweeping hopeful pet promised land, the Spanish percussion and guitar make it the Omega Man wild west, a voyage that Santaolalla is sure to give a sense of dramatic urgency to, as given the pathos behind Finch’s determination. It’s a sense of Moses-like destiny that affords Santaolalla one of the most gorgeously heartbreaking cues this year as tender voice, and plaintively swelling strings make for a last sunset beyond compare. It’s an RV ride through the range that Santaolalla brings a wealth of spirituality to for this unexpectedly and quite touching buddy film.  

Godzilla vs. Kong

(Tom Holkenborg / WaterTower Music)
Tom Holkenborg

A composer who knows how to use bad ass brass and monster percussion like no one’s business in such scores as “Fury Road,” “Alita Battle Angel” and “Justice League,” Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) is as well rubber suited as Jet Jaguar to take on Japan and Skull Island’s twin titans. That CGI has taken care of the need for suits is beside the musically bellowing and pounding point when it comes to the majestic, old school force of nature that the German trance pioneer turned Hollywood scoring star brings to this terrific match up. One can imagine both Akira Ifukube and Max Steiner giving their thumbs up to resounding brass themes that memorably connote angry lizard and beast god. It’s a throttling, super huge jam or orchestra and electronics that mashes these icons together with thrilling, brute force, conveying both mass and ferocious speed. As the film also goes for an Edgar Rice Burrough’s-esque hollow earth vibe, Holkenborg brings in jungle rhythms along with the majestic strains of a lost behemoth civilization. It’s an approach that’s super serious while also acknowledging the delirious insanity of a film like this, especially when dark techno beats join the tag team match in the form of Mechagodzilla. It’s exactly that unabashed, city-stomping joy that makes for a great Godzilla film and score, a hall of Kaiju scoring fame that Holkenborg smashingly joins in his inimitable action blockbuster style.     

Gunpowder Milkshake

(Frank Ilfman / Milan Records)
Frank Ilfman

Female assassins are so abundant in movies today that it’s hard to tell them apart for a plug nickel unless the genre gets loaded with abundant imagination and attitude, as is the case with this mother-daughter-sisterhood kill-a-thon that’s given considerable verve in the reteaming of “Big Bad Wolves” co-director Navot Papusahdo and full-on composer Frank Ilfman. Having impressed with the very black humored mayhem of that vigilante justice picture, the Israelis are now full-on berserk in Hollywood for this exercise in mayhem that’s particularly delirious when it comes to its ultra-hip scoring. Perhaps it’s just how ridiculously overworked the genre has gotten that both collaborators go for gonzo stylism that pulls off the kill. Arming his plethora of musical weapons with Spaghetti western-isms from whistling to guitar, lush strings and Baroque percussion (in addition to the kind of electric pulsing you can’t pull off a job like this without), Ilfman deliriously locks, loads and unleashes his musically self-aware energy with a blast that also throws in balalaikas, Spanish brass hat dances, 8-bit grooves, and perhaps most essentially, actual melodic heart for body-splattered bonding. It’s a true musical shot of crazy quilt stylism grrll power that does wonders when it’s all about the scoring fun of taking out the bad guy trash

The Mitchells vs. the Machines

(Mark Mothersbaugh / Sony Music)
Mark Mothersbaugh

Since his conehead band days of synth devolution, Mark Mothersbaugh’s wackiest work has given the impression of a kid playing in a mad scientist musical laboratory as opposed to anything that might be considered a traditional composing studio – whether having his way with dainty classical sounds for such directors as Wes Anderson or jumping into the antic playpen with The Rugrats. Now having achieved a sugar rush high with the gonzo retro inventiveness of his scores for “Lego: The Movie” and “Thor: Ragnarock,” Mothersbaugh gets his ultimate opportunity for mad science with the delightfully inventive robot apocalypse of “The Mitchells vs. the Machines.” Unleashing comic family angst alongside a goldmine of robo bleeps and bloops that plays like the child of Devo and Tron, it’s a score that changes directions at the speed of antic sound, yet with its mayhem tied together with a retro stylistic idea. As with “Lego” and “Thor,” Mothersbaugh grounds the electrified insanity with a strong  orchestra and operatic chorus that pits the idea of a clan’s flesh and blood heroism duking it out with the Atari-meets-Casio sound of imperious mechanoids. Mothersbaugh goes to wonderfully inventive battle that continues to show how one the punk era’s great synth satirists only got more wonderfully childish through the decades to rule this romper sci-fi room.  


(Rachel Portman / Lakeshore Records)
Rachel Portman

There’s always been a delicious zest to Rachel Portman’s way with outsized characters, a talent for hearing life as a sympathetically loopy, waltzing circus as capable of laughter as it is heartbreak. Portman’s tell-tale melodic voice is no more joyous than when celebrating individuals with eccentric taste from “The Road to Wellville” and her Oscar-nominated “Chocolat.” Now her melodically distinguished ingredients embody the larger-than-life, French-trained, Pasadena-born bon vivant Julia Child, the woman who brought nascent food porn to tastefully break America out of its Jello and hotdog-bound kitchen rut into the land of anyone-can-cook-it gourmet courses. For this lovely documentary from the makers of “RGB,” Portman whisks together a magical concoction whose ingredients are immediately recognizable at first bite. Taste wistful strings, romping rhythms, accordion waltzes and emotion as gossamer as it can be aching, all finished on the symphonic stove with memorable themes and melody, and you’ve got the musical cooking of Rachel Portman when given the kind of boisterous character canvases she excels at. Indeed, the musician who showed that women could make a film composing mark has never more stylistically scrumptious than serving up the persona of a fellow groundbreaker in a respectively wondrous field.  

Jungle Cruise

(James Newton Howard / Walt Disney Records)

James Newton Howard

As a composer who captured the youthfully rousing spirit of symphonic adventure from the wellspring that such ancestors as John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and Erich Wolfgang Korngold drank from, James Newton Howard has long been providing ripping lost world scores to Disney from “Atlantis” to “Dinosaur,” “Treasure Planet” and this year’s “Raya and the Last Dragon.” But it doesn’t get brawnier than in his richly heroic tree of life hunting music for “Jungle Cruise.” Certainly Howard’s time doing a furiously great replacement score for Peter Jackson’s “King Kong’ puts Howard just as well in heroic stead for this just slightly less menacing and way less tragic boy’s adventure – as embodied with the reboot Bogie and Hepburn chemistry of The Rock and Emily Blunt. Beyond the wonderfully, two-fisted, rope swinging symphonic action that Howard pours on like a raging waterfall, it’s the Latin meets Conquistador by way of Highlander that magically differentiates the Brazilian-set “Jungle Book” in terms of its tropical percussion, flutes and guitar. But as always, what fuels Howard’s music for this kind of big Hollywood boat are ample themes and a delight in going for the rafters, here with a gigantic sense of fun and breakneck, brassy danger. Resplendently recalling his western scores for “Wyatt Earp” and “The Postman” while bringing on giant choral revelations at the next moment, “Jungle Trip” is a full-throttle trip through the grand days of unabashed cliffhanging action in one of the more thrilling scores that John Williams didn’t write, as piloted by a musician who takes that wheel of nostalgic excitement and turns it to a rollicking eleven. 


(Max Aruj / Lakeshore Records)

Max Aruj

If anything, filmmaker Eytan Rockaway’s pretty great little gangster movie that could has ambition to spare in cramming the plots of “Mobsters,” both “Godfather” films and “Bugsy” into a relatively tight running time, as given credence by Max Aruj’s impressive score that’s out to play with the big boys. With his solo scoring career propelled by being a protégé of prolific composer Lorne Balfe, Aruj more than pulls off a musical wages of sin portrait of the Mob’s Accountant from his street days to painting a deceptively penniless picture in Florida for his biographer in a way where no one gets off cheap. Aruj comes up with any number of strong themes here, using Vangelis-like electronics as opposed to a massive, traditional orchestra that brings current energy to the picture in a way that’s not a period piece. Out to show Meyer as a beyond flawed human being as opposed to his rep, the score captures both Lansky’s ruthless calculations as well as the pain of a screwed-up life where money can’t buy stability or happiness. Quiet, if grand ambition is what this gangster was all about, and with indie resources, it’s the quality of Aruj’s synth playing and more so his musical ability that affords him to fully get the tragedy of a figure without asking us to feel sorry for him. Where some mob scores might go for the dirty work, Aruj’s velvety, echoing synths show a keen emotional understanding of a numbers guy who tried to stay above it all, yet perhaps fell further down than many of his far more outwardly brutal peers. 

Arnau Bataller

While Spain’s Arnau Bataller isn’t the first composer to break into “The Vault” (Moviescore Media), it’s all about the fun, yet rivetingly suspenseful skill that he pulls the job off with. Of course there’s the kind of rhythmic, time-ticking locks that are part and parcel of the heist film scoring trade – done here in the midst of a soccer game neighboring an epically Gothic water-filled safe that you’d expect to find in a Guillermo del Toro film. Given that the Mission Impossible-esque team is out to steal recovered Spanish Galleon loot, Bataller gives the score history-conjuring strings to boot amidst the electro-orchestral percussion. The result is a breathlessly entertaining scoring that keeps crackerjack pace at uniting all of the pieces in the heist puzzle, making every to-the-last-second escape and near-guard discovery exhilarating and musically fresh, which is no mean feat for Bataller’s big steal given just how many composers have been sent on to crack these scores.
Nainita Desai

Where so many mountaineering documentaries (and movies) are all about the great summiting white savior with the indispensable Nepalese Sherpas treated like coolie non-entities, what distinguishes “14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible” (Lakeshore Records) is that it’s about the positive ethnic pride of Nepalese climber Nirmal “Nims” Purja, who sets off on the seemingly mad task of Project Possible to race-summit all 14 of the world’s great peaks in seven months. It’s a challenge exceptionally met in the music of Nainita Desai , who’s swiftly rising herself with “The Tower” and “The Reason I Jump.” Having started off as a sound designer for the likes of “Little Buddha” and worked with such artists as Peter Gabriel and Ravi Shankar, Desai is certainly in a skilled pole and ice-ladder position to chronicle this suspenseful and emotionally stirring tale with a keen sense of its Asian location. With walls of hybrid orchestral-synth sound, Desai creates a sense of avalanche and plunging danger, as well as the soulful exuberance of a man out to conquer nature and his own endurance for the betterment of humanity. At its most chillingly foreboding, Desai’s music has all of the foreboding of running into a Yeti. Wind-like strains, snow-blasting percussion and voice-like miasmas become all the peaks can throw against Nims, while Desai’s electronics and strings also convey a Zen-like determination to push through the sonic fury. Though the composer might not go for an outright Nepalese sound, it’s her ability to capture the feel of the gorgeous, holy formations and a staunch belief in both national pride and love of family that makes “14 Peaks” specific to a person, and his people who finally get the mountaineering spotlight in this stirring, suspenseful example of documentary scoring that throws the listener into the thick of the action and emotion.
Amie Doherty

Irish composer Amie Doherty takes the saddle of being Dreamworks Animation’s first female composer by taking a wonderfully traditional ride aboard “Spirit Untamed” (Back Lot Music). There’s certainly been a spiritual cinematic bond between girls and their steeds from the live action days of “National Velvet,” and Doherty’s alternately romping and emotional score brings that connection into a cartoon old west world. With lush strings and romping rhythm evoking the wide prairie with all the passion of a classic Big Country score in a way that imparts symphonic magic to the film’s smaller audience, Doherty also brings a fiesta’s worth of Spanish rhythm and guitar to this Spirit’s cross-cultural adolescent rider. Being sure to hit all the humorous beats of the animation medium in a smart way, Doherty takes the Hollywood reigns for a vibrantly melodic symphonic sound that captures the pure joy of an untamed equine heroine and the good-natured adolescent dreams of riding tall in the saddle.

After getting his sinisterly grooving hands up the butt of a possessed killer plush toy in “Benny Loves You,” Émoi now gets to fully jump inside a Chuck E. Cheese’s worth of life-sized animatronics from hell at an abandoned fun palace called “Willy’s Wonderland” (Filmtrax). Of course, only The Cage can stop the satanic antics of these demonic toys. But given that he’s playing a mute janitor saving the usual gallery of punk kids, it’s up for the gleefully demented scoring of Émoi to speak volumes for the hammer smashing, plush-gut ripping Cage Rage, the sinisterly airy atmosphere that enters “Willy’s” soon erupting into hammering rock and roll. Given that Willy’s has purposefully lain dormant since the 80’s, it’s a particularly awesome reason for Émoi to wreck it with 8-bit electronics on top of cheese-y 80’s string emulation. Likely one of the better hi as lo-fi scores that decade’s incarnation of Freddy never got, Émoi blasts out the retro circus from hell video arcade grooves in delightfully absurdist style. Just as much fun are the smart-assed character jingles the Émoi provides, raising hell with his background in TV commercial scoring to create wiseacre-accented earworms for the big killer critters. It’s a musically hysterical satire that should delight any grown-up listener who’s had to suffer through animatronic junk food kids’ parties from hell.
Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch (photo by Olga Stachowska)

It’s certainly the scoring year of women on the verge of having beyond nervous breakdowns, and in the nightmarish case of filmmaker Prano Bailey Bond’s bloodily striking debut “Censor” (Invada Records) it’s a prim and proper bureaucrat with major sister issues having a bad, surreal case of the video nasties. Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch conjures an impressively hallucinogenic atmosphere of eldritch samples, her own spectral voice and ghostly drones that are enough to send anyone into madness. It’s an impressively scary listen that borders between sound design and the barest idea of “music,: warping the listeners ears, yet with somewhat of a sense of humor in evoking the synth soundtracks and Giallo organs of the kind of infinitely less artful horror films that no one would want to be subjected to, yet in this case provides no end of increasingly unhinged nightmare fuel.
Tóti Guðnason

A beautifully stark Icelandic fairy tale about the perils of messing with mad mother nature’s offspring in a land where the earth-born and mystical collide, “Lamb” (Moviescore Media) cast a particular spell through its score by Tóti Guðnason. Certainly a haunting talent runs through the family bloodline between him and sister Hildur Guðnadóttir, as he worked on her scores “Mary Magdalene” and “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” while arranging her Oscar-winning “Joker.” “Lamb” reveals a stylistic chip off the experimental block in creating long, agonizing clouds of tension-filled strings that hauntingly hang over the visuals, creating a sense of dread that belies the innocence of the cute hybrid lamb girl. It’s a tone that makes one take the film far more seriously, creating a weirdly sustained, metallic and wind-racked quality part to become one with a primal land that won’t be trifled, as conjured by an impressive familial traveler into the outer limits of spectral tone poems.
Trevor Gureckis

As with Nico Muhly and Carter Burwell, Trevor Gureckis shows the NYC art-alt. music scene as a wellspring for creativity. Though his solid score that adorned “The Goldfinch” didn’t have a film that could take his career off, leave it to the composer’s ventures into the uncanny lands of M. Night Shyamalan with “The Servant” and “Old” to show the composer’s capacity for enthralling, often mind-bending writing – a talent that really takes off with “Voyagers” (Lakeshore Records). Given a craft stacked with raging teen hormones that turns into “Lord of the Flies” in space, Gureckis imaginatively ventures between lovely, drifting musical atmospheres for electronics, sampling and strings that convey a sense of wonder for the cosmos. But the score soon takes a darkly enticing and troubling turn as the made-nice kids go off “the blue” and wake up to their urges, with shrill brass, increasingly agitated winds and excited rhythm throwing good sense to the space winds. Synths go berserk to metal-rending effect, with Gureckis ratcheting up the suspense in a way that crosses sci-fi scoring with chamber music-like psychological suspense as the characters are thrust pell-mell into life-or-death death maturity.
Tom Hodge

Having scored a documentary about “The Rise of the Nazis,” Ivor Novello-nominated composer Tom Hodge certainly knows something about the sound of governments run tortuously amuck, a feeling that he captures at Democracy’s darkest hour for “The Mauritanian” (STX Recordings). A true story about a terrorism-accused prisoner incarcerated without trial for decades at America’s seemingly hopeless prison at Guantanamo Bay, Kevin McDonald’s excellent film of course went unseen by our rah-rah ‘Murica audience (though thankfully critically lauded on our shores). But it’s certainly worth a devastating trip, as Hodge’s score treats unjust confinement with gripping political thriller suspense, bringing together orchestra and synth rhythm that conveys both urgency and the snail-dripping mental torture of being tossed into a Bin Laden-blamed snake pit. With percussion equally ticking away the clock with alarm and endlessness to gut-wrenching effect, Hodge also powerfully chronicles how a spirit takes flight when the body is shackled seemingly forever. It’s music that sounds as much like a jail cell as tender, spiritual determination. It’s a score that’s impressively oppressive and gently melodic, revealing a composer who’s certainly learned how to apply the persecution chronicled in documentaries into a beyond powerful narrative of a case that the United States would have happily locked up and thrown away the key if it could have.
Devonté Hynes

An English born artist whose styles have ranged from punk to rap as he evolved with such bands as Lightspeed Champion and Blood Orange, Devonté Hynes has impressed as a composer from the troubled suburban schoolgirl white bread teen living in “Palo Alto” to a black couple forced into becoming the ersatz Bonnie and Clyde of “Queen & Slim.” But it’s the stripped-down period jazz score of “Passing” (Lakeshore Records) that notably gives Hynes the light of an Oscar pedigree project. Told with artful taste by actress turned director Rebecca Hall, Hynes’ somber, soulful vibe is about the unsaid in the friendship of two women, their emotions communicated via tortured looks and the impactfully low key score that captures the era of race and prejudice whose victims dare not speak its name. Hynes uses a solo trumpet for all of its anguished power, along with poignant pianos in an approach that uses jazz’s improv nature for a lesson in surface control. It’s a pointed, sadly throwback definition of musically giving vulnerability a brave face.
Siddhartha Khosla

Siddhartha Khosla has certainly been busy for years on television with his Emmy nominated scoring of “This is Us,” the mutant action of “Runaways” and now the strikingly fun chamber music chicanery of “Only Murders in the Building.” The composer is finally breaking out into the big screen – if with the same talent for dream-big characters in the good-hearted criminal case of the “Queenpins” (Sony Classical). Subsequently, this true-life derived tale of white-collar coupon-clipping gangsta ladies gets a delightfully self-important orchestral approach. Chugging ahead as if Elliot Ness was on the trail of Al Capone as opposed to a hapless schlub who discovers the scheme of two suburbanites, Khosla’s rhythmically playful, wistfully thematic score unveils how The System can get played to both musically pokey and bombastic ends. As humorously as he played a bunch of Manhattan apartment-ites who think they’re super podcast detectives, Khosla gets across a kindred satirically self-important idea that shows off his aptitude for bigger symphonic guns, the music resounding in these heroines’ amazement at their scheme hitting it way bigger than they imagined. That the often militaristic-sounding music gigantically sends in the tanks and riot squad as part of a thoroughly fun scoring joke, one that laughs at the situation as opposed to the empathetic characters one both sides of the law.
Jermaine Stegall

Arguably Africa’s most joyful American export, Prince Akeem made a grandly entertaining return with “Coming 2 America” (Def Jam). Where Nile Rogers brought on the funk for his first visit to NYC, it’s a new, much richer musical generation given Jermaine Stegall’s boisterous score that not only hits all of the tribal beats but brings in a new sound of lushly epic orchestration, broad comedy, r & b vibes real romantic emotion and fairy tale kingdom charm in a way that rhythmically and emotionally broadens these beloved characters in a way the best sequels do while showing a composer ready to take up a bigger crown.