ScoreKeeper’s Top Ten Film Scores of 2014

There were so many great film scores last year, but only these ten made ScoreKeeper's list. 

When top ten lists start rolling upon the internet like a morning fog curling down the coast in early December, I generally do my best to avoid them so I’m not unnecessarily influenced by other peoples’ choices. That’s not always easy, nor is it even possible. I do occasionally steal a glance here and there and since I have my finger on the pulse of the film music industry, I frequent circles where such matters are freely discussed. I pride myself on being the one who uncovers hidden gems that other aficionados may not have previously been aware of; however, this year there are so many universally praised scores that I fear mine may just be another run-of-the-mill list.

While this article presents many names I’m sure you’re already familiar with, bear in mind that the world is full of talented composers, many you probably haven’t heard of…yet. To every one who penned a note of film music in 2014, I thank you for your devotion, craft and talent, and look forward to hearing more from you in 2015.

Thanks for reading my articles throughout the year. I wish everybody a very Happy New Year and a fruitful 2015 to us all.


10. Frank by Stephen Rennicks

I don’t often write about song-based soundtracks or compilation albums because they're different beasts entirely from instrumental underscores. While these usages share common ground, the functional roles distinguishing them are each aesthetically unique. The roles of lyric-based songs are primarily based on its conscious awareness through marketing the film (or recording artist), establishing source, harnessing nostalgia, or providing comfort through familiarity. They don’t often show up on my radar as having the same narrative function as non-diegetic underscores.

Stephen Rennicks’ music for Frank is a rare exception. His work is an amalgamation of all forms of musical servitude found in film: traditional underscoring, lyric-based songwriting, and diegetic (source) music. The music is as important a character in the film as Michael Fassbender’s Frank or Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Clara. There are movies throughout history that attempt harnessing music in such a manner; however, few can claim success as incontestably as Frank. I could almost make an argument that Rennicks’ music should be considered a candidate for Best Actor rather than Best Score because that’s exactly what this music is. It’s an actual character in the movie. This aural characterization of the music is further intensified by the lack of visual identification of the titular character who wears an over-sized papier-mâché head throughout the majority of the film.

Upon watching the movie, the music reverberated in my ears for weeks. I couldn’t get it out, nor did I really want to. It’s raw and unpolished with a true “garage band” sound quality running throughout the various songs and instrumental pieces. Fans of the movie are quick to herald the powerful finale song “I Love You All” sung by Fassbender (which carries through the final credit sequence, Track 25 and 26); however, I’m also beguiled by Gyllenhaal’s poignant “Lighthouse Keeper” (Track 24) and even “Jon’s Crap Songs” (Track 1) are utterly charming and delightful. It’s an impressive and unique expression of cinematic music that should not be under-heard.

9. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes by Michael Giacchino

There is an entire history of music from The Planet of the Apes franchise that can be daunting and intimidating for a composer to confront…unless you’re Michael Giacchino.

Giacchino is a confident composer who wholly understands the value and importance of nostalgia and how to fuse it with a modern musical language. His score for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes certainly sounds like an Apes score; however, it is completely unique in its subjugation of this specific story. What’s most ear-piquing, is the variance and degree of emotion Giacchino wove into the layers of chaos, fear, and explicative anger exploding between the cliques of apes and humans fighting for survival.

“The Great Ape Processional” (Track 3) is an awe-inspiring piece of music that perfectly encapsulates the tone, theme, and philosophical point of this particular narrative. It’s an exclamatory victory march burdened by the weight of an aching heart. This emotional element is relatively unique to the franchise. The apes unintentional conquest over mankind has been aided by a virus which wipes out most of the human inhabitants on the earth. You sympathize with the apes’ strong desire for peaceful cohabitation; however, you also feel the sting of betrayal when it becomes apparent that the inherent instincts of man prevent this dream from becoming a reality. There’s a lilting infantile passage toward the end of this piece which seals the perfection. It’s a complicated and powerful emotion to define verbally, yet Giacchino handles it so eloquently through music, it transcends the act of creating it.

All that aside, Giacchino also was successful at scribing some of the most intensely propulsive action music heard in cinema all year. The brutality of the score during these scenes is harrowing which further obfuscates the antagonist/protagonist blurring between the apes and the humans during their conflict.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a welcome addition to the pantheon of great Apes film scores.

8. How To Train Your Dragon 2 by John Powell

Sequel scores are incredibly difficult to get right. Many are simply pastiches of hackneyed music cut-and-pasted from the manuscript pages of its predecessor. Others are completely rebooted by new composers who ignore much of the previous material all together. A well-composed, well-deserved sequel demands a score richer, more potent, and more intensely developed than the previous score. You can’t just revisit, you have to reinvent!

This is an especially high-minded demand for How To Train Your Dragon 2 because composer John Powell did such an exceptional job the first time around (#9 on my top ten film scores of 2010). However great his first score is, Powell’s music for the sequel may be better! It assumes you are already familiar with the material from the first film (which you should be), so it's not there to simply regurgitate it as if revisiting some grand exposition. Instead, the music begins immediately with the acrobatic development of familiar themes that is as compositionally impressive as anything I’ve heard all year.

A successful sequel score isn’t just about development. Its entire lifeblood also depends mightily on the birth and evolution of new themes and melodic material to identify the succeeding narrative as unique. Powell subsequently excels in this area adopting infectious new themes for Drago and Valka and her dragon sanctuary.

If you want to engage in a conversation about the best sequel scores ever composed, you should certainly put this on the list of candidates. It’s that good.

7. Maleficent by James Newton Howard

I haven’t been blown away by a James Newton Howard score in a long time. Throughout the 1990s, I considered him one of the best composers working; however, in recent decades I’ve found my interest in his creations waning. It is with great delight that not one, but two of his scores have cracked my top ten list this year and they couldn’t have been more dissimilar.

Howard’s Maleficent is cut from the same cloth as epic fantasy scores of decades past where melodramatic melodies coupled with extreme dynamics and opulent orchestral colors, whisk you away to distant destinations. So many orchestral scores composed today reek of having been composed on a computer; however, this one exhibits the telltale characteristics of an unshackled imagination wrought by an old school pencil-and-paper approach. It is acrobatic in depth, glorious in scope, kaleidoscopic in color, and with an unrestrained emotional fortitude that is woefully rare in modern film music. It elevated what probably should’ve been a fairly mediocre movie to something far greater. I connected with the characters, felt their joys and pain, and accompanied them on their journey all thanks to Howard’s transcendent music.

I hope the magnificent Maleficent is an influence to the future of film music.

6. The Lego Movie by Mark Mothersbaugh

This is without a doubt the most re-watchable movie of 2014. I loved it so much and yes, “Everything is Awesome!!!” (Track 1) is indeed the undisputed earworm of the year. I’ve been a hardcore LEGO fanatic since I was about five years old and this is the most perfect theme song ever penned for the greatest toy ever created. My imagination has been “listening” to this song for decades! My only complaint about singling out such an infectious tune is that it soaks up most of the aural spotlight, so please, don’t disregard former Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh’s raucously delightful underscore!

Mothersbaugh’s music is stacked to the hilt with delicious goodness as varied and vibrant as the LEGO bricks themselves. A battalion of joyful tunes guised in multifarious musical styles too numerous to count, bombard the impermanent LEGO-scapes while characterizing the personality of each individual minifigure (and there are many!). The entire score sparkles from a slight twinge of underproduced cheesiness so as not to obfuscate the youthful spirit of the story.

You won’t find a more eclectic array of musical expression in a single score. This is what happiness sounds like. Do yourself a favor and succumb to its powerful elixir.

5. Autómata by Zacarías M. de la Riva

Reinventing the wheel isn’t easy; however, reinventing sci-fi music may even be more difficult. I was totally taken aback when I first watched Autómata and heard its intoxicating and provocative score by Zacarías M. de la Riva. It wasn’t anything like I expected which, by itself, is a testimony to its genius. The choreography of orchestral and choral textures intertwine like an opulent ballet where the independent spirit of each phrase forms a sort of “chaotic unity” that is simply sublime. I have long craved more choral writing in film music, and not simply the ubiquitous “oohs” and “aahs” that are so prevalent, but legitimate four-part choral composition set to various texts. Autómata satiates my hunger, at least for the time being.

There is so much depth to this music you can practically recount the entire narrative from the music alone. On first listen it doesn’t sound like a typical sci-fi score; however, upon further listening you can hear the subtle dystopian references as the music traverses toward universal enlightenment. It’s a grand and impressive accomplishment that piques my ears with each listen. No matter how many times I listen, I’m always exposed to something new.

4. Birdman by Antonio Sanchez

There are few scores which transcend the very craft of composing music for movies. We’re currently mired in a cinematic period where music is kept ridiculously safe, like over-bearing parents terrified of letting their children explore the world, where minuscule deviances from the status quo are considered a gamble. Real risk-taking in film music was alive and well several decades ago; however, today your ears strain for the tiniest semblance of true artistic courage.

This is what makes Antonio Sanchez’s intrepid score for Birdman such a phenomenon. His improvisatory solo drum-kit approach to scoring this film is one of the most original, audacious, and impressionable scores I’ve heard in years. The mere suggestion of Sanchez’s approach should certainly have raised a few eyebrows and furrowed foreheads. However improbable the concept, the rewards of taking such a venturesome leap are numberless.

Birdman is definitely in my top three favorite films of the year (it might even be number one). There’s no doubt the score is wholly responsible for aiding this aesthetic and technical marvel to near-masterpiece status. I’m not sure how often you’ll listen to the score when driving down the road, but that hardly matters. The quality of film music centers around narrative function, not necessarily what you listen to most.

The importance of this score to the future of cinema depends on how inspired filmmakers will be to dare their audiences with their storytelling. You take risks, you may get burned, but sometimes its the risk itself that elevates you to glory.

3. Nightcrawler by James Newton Howard

In the early 1990s, James Newton Howard roared onto the cinematic scene crafting two distinct styles of film music: lavish orchestral adventure scores and gritty guitar-centric rhythmic scores.

This year, Howard composed two scores which ended up on my top ten list, each one representing this unique dichotomy of craft from Howard’s roots. If Maleficent is Howard’s return to grandiose melodic orchestral music, Nightcrawler is a homecoming to the gravelly guitar-centric scores he penned throughout the 1990s.

What I love most about Howard’s music for Nightcrawler is its ability to perfectly convey a strong degree of “creepy curiosity.” I’m also tickled that Howard’s main theme is actually quite victorious. It’s absolutely appropriate for a hero or principle protagonist which Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) certainly isn’t…or is he? That’s the philosophical revolving door at the heart of this film which makes it one of my favorites of the year.

2. The Boxtrolls by Dario Marianelli

Laika has an ear for fantastic music and their films prove it. Bruno Coulais’ monumental score for Coraline (2009) was my #1 favorite that year and Jon Brion’s ParaNorman (2012) was a near-masterpiece itself. Even though I’m constantly preaching the merits of seeking out new musical voices in cinema, I always get a tad nervous when branded studios (like Laika or Pixar, for example) recruit new composers into their world. When I first discovered that Marianelli was hired to score The Boxtrolls, I was a bit concerned. Not because I don’t respect him as an exceptional talent, but rather, I wondered if another new composer would be able to elevate the astronomically high bar raised by Coulais and Brion while maintaining the Laika brand.

Marianelli certainly did. His music is elegant and deftly nuanced. When you listen to it under a microscope, you notice a thousand minute details working together in perfect narrative harmony. This quality is sorely missed in a lot of modern film scores where mammoth obstacles like dwindling budgets and unrealistic time constraints often derail the fine detailing composers would love to give their scores. This score is the work of a master composer who has complete and total understanding of the art and craft of music composition and all its various components. Even though Marianelli won an Oscar for his exceptional score for Atonement (2007), The Boxtrolls is by far his magnum opus.

1. The Tale of Princess Kaguya by Joe Hisaishi

There are rare scores which are so exquisitely beautiful and precious, they deserve a home inside the reverential walls of a museum rather than a movie theater. This perfectly describes Joe Hisaishi’s latest masterpiece The Tale of Princess Kaguya.

Hisaishi’s music brims with unparalleled beauty infused with the aching quiver of an affectionate heart. It’s an exemplar of restraint and how compositional precision can be more effective at communicating robust emotion and visual descriptors than the relentlessness of undisciplined excess. Any composer with a modicum of talent (and an over-indulgent sample library) can harness the strength of a large orchestra to elicit an emotional response; however, it takes a genius of extraordinary skill to evoke a rainbow of passion from a single flute melody, or summarize a complex narrative with just a handful of notes plunked on the piano. Hisaishi accomplishes this so effortlessly it’s as if he breathes it out from his nostrils.

I couldn’t be more impressed with this music. It represents everything I love about Hisaishi’s work and of film music in general. If I composed one score in my lifetime that is as half as brilliant as Hisaishi’s Princess Kaguya, I would die fulfilled.