ScoreKeeper’s Top Ten Film Scores of 2015

So many scores. So few spots. It was a year full of fantastic film music.

When I compile my annual “Top Ten Favorite Scores” article, I’m usually scraping the barrel and probing every nook and cranny in search of a ninth, or tenth score to round out the ranks. This year, I experienced a rather surprising dilemma. There were so many impressive scores penned in 2015, that I’ve had to whittle a potential list of 25+ down to the prerequisite ten. It pains me to omit several scores that I absolutely adored from my final list; however, it perfectly illustrates the caliber of cinema we all experienced in 2015.

The scores I’ve selected to settle amongst my top ten, showcase the general eclecticism of cinematic music in 2015 and a busting of boundaries commonly associated with the craft. The budgets of films harboring memorable music ranged from a few thousand to many millions of dollars. There’s a smattering of new names amongst some cherished veterans, and the genres accommodating exceptional music are as diverse and unpredictable as a single isolated atom of radium-226.

At the end of the day, this is probably the best year for film music I’ve experienced since I started writing publicly on the subject more than ten years ago. The future is shining bright and hopefully there’s more exceptional film music on the horizon.

Here’s the list of my top ten favorite scores of 2015. Enjoy!

10. Zombeavers by Jon and Al Kaplan

Who says a masterfully composed score has to originate from a studio-backed showpiece with an elephantine budget? This could be the single most exciting score of the entire year for two specific reasons. First, Jon and Al Kaplan’s Zombeavers is the epitome of a “no-excuses” film score. Don’t have a large enough budget? Your film isn’t a masterpiece? You're worried audiences are afraid to be manipulated by music? Balderdash! This film stuffs its excuses in a sack and proves that if you hire a composer (or two) who knows what the hell they’re doing, they can transform your rinky-dink film into a thrilling cinematic roller-coaster that ends up being far better than it had any business being in the first place.

Secondly, this score is heaping gobs of fun! It’s packed to the hilt with so many varying colors, textures, styles, and flavors that it single-handedly gives a fun B-movie, A-movie clout. It’s a “kitchen-sink” score, the kind you throw anything into, and it functions marvelously on a variety of levels. Yet, it’s fresh, dynamic, and the main theme is catchy as hell. It’s certainly one of the more listened-to scores I’ve experienced this past year.

No more excuses for having crappy music in your film.

(buy it here)

9. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation by Joe Kraemer

I was first introduced to Joe Kraemer’s work when he rocked my world with his understated yet effective noir-action music for Jack Reacher (2012) which earned a spot at #10 on my list in 2013. When Kraemer was tabbed to scribe the score for the latest Mission: Impossible I was absolutely thrilled with the news. I loved what Michael Giacchino had done with the previous two installments; however, I was looking forward to hearing the M:I music proceed in a fresh direction.

What I’ve loved about the M:I films in general, and a reason why the last two movies (Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation) ultimately represent the best of the series, is that the underlying layers of narrative serve as a magnet to attract the attention of the music. It’s not necessarily the action that “gets all the action.” This is a legitimate and refreshing manner in which to approach scoring an action film. Kraemer achieved this to perfection with Jack Reacher and was able to continue this philosophy through M:I - Rogue Nation.

Not only does Kraemer incorporate the beloved and infectious M:I theme (composed by Lalo Schifrin) with the deft hand of a skilled weaver, but he also infuses the most recognizable strains of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot throughout the fabric of the score. This bolsters the degree of attachment the music functions within the narrative. The delicate balance of original material, operatic material, and Schifrin’s original music is truly remarkable, making it one of the more unique and complex scores of the M:I series to date.

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8. Creed by Ludwig Göransson

I can’t imagine how terrifying it would be to tackle compositional duties on this score. Bill Conti’s original music for Rocky (1976), backed by its raucous anthem, has become one of the most recognizable film scores in cinema history. It transcends its own theatrical boundaries and has ensconced itself into our pop culture lexicon.

So how does one revisit a film rooted in the nostalgia of an elderly franchise, yet remain fresh and vibrant for new audiences? Let’s face it, director Ryan Coogler had the decks stacked against him when he ventured out to craft essentially “another Rocky movie.” While people were expecting another possible “end” to the Rocky franchise, what they received was so much more. It wasn’t an end at all, but rather an exciting new beginning!

Coogler’s deft skill as a storyteller set everything up beautifully; however, it was Swedish-born composer Ludwig Göransson’s music that acted as the glue binding the various elements together into a cohesive whole. What makes this score function so effectively is that it’s completely and unapologetically embracing Conti’s music from the original Rocky franchise. You could imagine the fear of taking such a gamble and the resulting staleness that would inevitably ensue if one were to score this film using completely fresh and modern music. This approach has been tried many times over the years in similar circumstances and there’s often an air of failure associated with these “safe-road” scores.

However, I will go ahead and contradict my own words and also heap credit to how Göransson managed to infuse his own voice into Conti’s music, not just the themes themselves, but the entire vibe of the original Rocky score. This isn’t a cut-and-paste hack-job where a composer simply rehashes old material. It’s a delicate and symbiotic balance between old and new material. It’s a fresh experience rooted in nostalgia. It must have been a daunting challenge; yet, Göransson executed it almost flawlessly to create one of the more emotionally-charged film scores of 2015.

(buy it here)

7. Tomorrowland by Michael Giacchino

For half the year, I suspected that all four Giacchino-penned scores from 2015 would be on my top ten list. What he accomplished this past year is nothing short of remarkable. We haven’t seen a composer routinely shell-out multiple masterpieces in a single year since Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams in their prime.

Another glaring testimony to the fantastic year of film music we’ve experienced in 2015 is how many scores eventually nudged two of the four Giacchino works off my list. Jupiter Ascending is a phenomenal score and Jurassic World is an exemplar on how musical adaptation should be handled especially when in context of scoring a sequel.

However, there is something magnificent about Giacchino’s music for Tomorrowland that kept it firmly cemented in my top ten. Perhaps one of the reasons I adore this score so much is because I thought the film itself was rather flat. Who wasn’t disappointed with this movie? Yet, with all its cankerous flaws, the beauty and majesty of Giacchino’s score single-handedly elevated a rather dull film into a decently enjoyable experience. It’s one thing to take an inherently great film and make it even better through the power of music, but it’s so much more difficult to take a fairly flawed movie and make it enjoyable. The music for Tomorrowland is its brightest star. The textures, harmonies, pulsing rhythms, and soaring melodies are everything I hoped to imagine for this score, even if the film itself left much to be desired.

(buy it here)

6. Spotlight by Howard Shore

Surgical precision. Those are the best two words I can use to describe Howard Shore’s latest tour de force. “Less-is-more” film music often goes under-appreciated because they lack the “look-at-me” characteristics of more bombastic and attention-starved scores. In a year chock-full of fantastic films it’s been problematic for me to proclaim a favorite. While I have not yet resolved to crown a king, I have to admit that Spotlight is one of a handful of films that I have been leaning toward.

Spotlight is an extraordinarily thick and complicated narrative that unfolds naturally like a delicate flower blossoming in the sunlight. It never feels rushed, nor forced, nor unnecessary, and it kept me riveted to the screen from the first frame to the last. While I can attribute many aspects of this film to its success, the one element holding it all together is Howard Shore’s music.

What struck me upon my first viewing was how little I noticed the music. In fact, I had no idea who even composed it when the film ended and I my eyes scanned the credits for the name responsible for scribing such an immaculate score. I wasn’t surprised when I saw it was Howard Shore. He’s a master at this sort of thing and can handle the pacing, execution, and directional shape of a complex narrative. It’s through Shore’s signature simplistic style that the complexity of the narrative is so easily digestible. Even though it falls at #6 on my list, this was a serious contender for the top spot.

(buy it here)

5. Bridge of Spies by Thomas Newman

Who needs John Williams? Actually, Steven Spielberg does and I hope they continue to collaborate on more films for as long as they can. However, if Spielberg can’t procure the services of the Master himself, then Thomas Newman is more than an adequate alternative.

I was actually thrilled when they announced that Newman would be scoring Spielberg’s latest film Bridge of Spies. It marked only the third time in Spielberg’s storied career that Williams would not be scoring one of his feature films. Billy Goldenberg penned the score for the made-for-television thriller Duel (1971) and Quincy Jones spearheaded a team of composers on the score for The Color Purple (1985).

I’m afraid to admit it, but I’m glad Williams was unavailable to score Spielberg’s latest because hearing Newman’s delicate music married to Spielberg’s narrative is an absolutely sublime experience. Newman is adroit at expressing monumental statements through restrained and quiet voices and I feel that Bridge of Spies directly benefitted from this very quality. I have little doubt that if Williams had composed the score, I’m sure it would have ended up on my list as well, but who knows. Regardless, Newman delivered a rare intimacy to Spielberg’s work that I’m not sure has been explored since Schindler’s List (1993).

It’s really the perfect Spielberg film for Newman, and together the pair created another top contender for my favorite movie of 2015.

(buy it here)

4. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. by Daniel Pemberton

Remember the name Daniel Pemberton. He’s a composer whom we’ll be hearing a lot more of in the upcoming decade. His score for Steve Jobs was absolutely brilliant and would’ve easily made the cut had it been released any other year. However, it’s his riveting and balls-awesome score for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. that really demonstrates his exceptional talent.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. certainly receives the award for my most listened to score of 2015. I’ve had this in near-constant rotation since the film was released last summer. More specifically, I’ve probably listened to the track “Escape From East Berlin” (Track 4) a thousand times. If you see me strutting down the street pretending to be some sort of badass (which is impossible since I go everywhere in black socks and blue crocs), that’s probably because I’m listening to this music on my iPhone. It’s been the soundtrack of life since August.

Pemberton’s score represents the type of music I’m always lamenting we don’t hear anymore in cinema. It originates from a bygone era where the rhythm-section backed spy score was the baddest motherfucker on the block. Each note socked you in the jaw and got your head bobbing up and down with each syncopated beat. I was always fearful we’d never get music like this again.

Well, thank you Mr. Pemberton, because you brought it back with ass-kicking vengeance!

As much as I would love to laud the composer for his amazing work, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge one of the shining stars of Pemberton’s score, Mr. Dave Heath whose jaw-dropping bass flute solos are totally badass and the engine that makes Pemberton’s sweet ride so damn hot.

(buy it here)

3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens by John Williams

During the past twelve months, when contemplating all the possibilities of the year’s best film scores, I had automatically reserved the top spot for John Williams’ music from The Force Awakens. As one who publicly opines about film music, it’s shameful to admit that I harbored pre-conceived notions toward any particular score, but let’s face it, who wasn’t expecting another miracle from the man who tosses them over his shoulder like scraps of balled-up paper.

For the record, this die-hard Star-Wars-obsessed fan whose music studio is literally wallpapered floor-to-ceiling with forty years worth of Star Wars toys and merchandise absolutely adores The Force Awakens. I’m probably borderline obsessed with it. Even John Williams score is as miraculous as I had dreamed. “Rey’s Theme” is truly one of the pinnacle melodic elements of the entire franchise and the last three minutes of the movie represent the best scored scene of any film of the entire year.

Yet, it was not without some disappointment.

My one (dare I say) critique is that it lacked a true “Star Wars” moment. There were no discernible instances in The Force Awakens where a purely undeveloped melody of considerable length carried the weight of the entire narrative. I desperately desired a singular moment similar to A New Hope (1977) when Luke gazes across the vast wastelands of Tatooine pondering his destiny while the twin suns set below the horizon, or akin to The Empire Strikes Back (1980) when Yoda uses the force to levitate Luke’s submerged X-wing from Dagobah’s swampy waters onto moist land. These moments are wholly and unapologetically carried by the brute force of a well-composed expositional melody. The Force Awakens strangely lacks such key occurrences and therefore wobbles a step or two when associating the narrative with the pre-established mythology. It was a little too quick to develop the new material and missed out on some opportunities to solidify the exposition. The subsequent Star Wars sequels and prequels were literally littered with moments like these and became a characterization of the franchise.

It’s strange to be so critical of a score that ended up #3 on my list. Instead of singing its praises to justify the placement of a score so high, I’m forced to be critical in order to explain why it’s so low. That’s what happens when you’re as talented and as influential as John Williams, the greatest film composer in the history of cinema.

(buy it here)

2. Assassination Classroom by Naoki Sato

The biggest surprise of the year for me was the discovery of this gem of joy from Japan. Assassination Classroom is a live-action feature film based on a manga series written and illustrated by Yūsei Matsui and subsequent animated series of the same name. It tells the tale of an alien being who has destroyed earth’s moon and now threatens to destroy the earth itself unless he be killed. The alien is so fast and possesses so many powers that nobody can destroy him. Feeling sorry for the human race, he agrees to instruct a classroom of young school kids on how to assassinate him in order to earn a chance at saving their world.

I absolutely loved this movie! It’s fun, adventurous, totally whacked-out, and has a heart of gold. At the core of its success is an absolutely riveting score by Naomi Sato (who also penned music for the animated series). This is another what I like to call “kitchen-sink” score because there’s so much thrown into it. There’s a bit of electronic music, rock, pop, orchestral, a little jazz, and pretty much everything else in between. It’s backed by an infectious primary theme that is as rousing and powerful as any of the ear-piquing melodies of the 1980s. The score also harbors a succulently sweet secondary theme that tugs at the heart strings in all the right ways.

One of the reasons I adore modern Japanese cinema so much is they’re not afraid of music in their films. They go for the jugular with each and every note and force you to feel the inner emotional layers of the narrative. This was indicative of how movies were made in America in the 1980s and now Japan seems to be in the middle of their “1980s” period. Naoki Sato is one of several composers spearheading a movement to invigorate Japanese cinema with an approach to scoring films akin to Jerry Goldsmith or John Williams during this period.

The film was so successful in Japan there are already talks of a sequel. Whenever that happens, I’ll be waiting with bated ears to hear what Sato brings next.

(buy it here)

1. Inside Out by Michael Giacchino

Michael Giacchino penned four scores in the past year and all of them are worthy of anybody’s top-ten list. Among these four, the one that truly stood out for me was my favorite film score of 2015. Inside Out has been a universally revered work since its release this past summer; however, I don’t think enough praise has been afforded this exquisite score.

Film music that functions on a psychological or cerebral level always poses a daunting challenge for a composer. If you want to conjure up a beautiful sunny day, or highlight some action, or evoke the essence of Irish culture, there are fairly straightforward and tested methods to achieve these characteristics; however, if it’s necessary to capture the inner conflict between two contradictory emotions from the psychological perspective of a 12-year-old girl, it’s not that easy. There are no textbook techniques or routine tricks to make music function in such a manner, especially when general audiences are so diverse and their penchant for relating to these thoughts so uncommon.

Emotions are infinitely more specific than simply being happy or sad, which makes dialing in the precise emotion(s) for any given scenario like walking a tightrope with a balance bar. Listening to Giacchino’s score for Inside Out, especially in the context of the film, you wouldn’t think it were so challenging. He makes the impossible seem perfunctory.

At the heart of Giacchino’s music is a piquant melody first introduced in the higher registers of the piano. It’s got rhythmic energy, yet isn’t pretentiously complex and it perfectly personifies the physical mechanics of one’s own imagination. When performed slowly, it adds reflection and perspective to the scene; however, when played up-tempo, it captures the excitement of a young girl’s scurrying imagination. This melody proposes the question, “What does thought sound like?”

While the theme itself and its masterful manipulation throughout the film is significant enough to earn praise, it’s the surrounding psychological material that catapults this score to a stratospheric level. With each note, the music traverses the far reaches of Riley’s emotional state and perfectly captures the roller coaster of her evolving introspection. Giacchino also manages to paint characteristics of age onto these swaths of aural thought. As people grow older, so too does their imagination and perception toward the elements of life. His music establishes clear psychological differences between Riley’s emotions as a three-year-old and as a twelve-year-old while maintaining the cohesion of existing within a singular person.

It’s said that the greatest compliment a composer could ever receive is when an audience member cries during a movie. Visual observation is not generally powerful enough to achieve such a specific emotional response on its own, so an experiential aural element is required to emotionally connect the observer to the material and transform it into a personal experience. This is exactly what Giacchino’s music does to perfection. In the hands of a less-capable composer, this film is still good family fodder; however, from his pen, Giacchino makes this one of the great cinematic masterpieces of the aught-teens.

(buy it here)

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