ScoreKeeper’s Top Ten Film Scores of 2018

ScoreKeeper goes into the scoring-verse and discovers ten gems representing the year's best!

When I reminisce upon the collective output of film scores I experienced in 2018 I’m intrigued by two stimulating observations. The first is how surprised I am by what scores piqued my interest the most. I have an open mind and try to ignore expectations when first experiencing a film and its score; however, if you do this long enough, it’s inevitable to notice patterns. There were a lot of fantastic film scores composed this past year (a higher ratio than in previous years) and many of them were completely unexpected. 

The second intriguing observation is how deeply these scores counter what I usually preach. While I’m constantly on the lookout for bolder, braver scores that take risks and eschew popular trends, I find myself impressed with a handful of titles that excelled at countering these ideals. Though I certainly wouldn’t call these scores “safe,” I recognize they weren’t just taking risks for the sake of risk-taking alone. There were a lot of smart decisions made in the world of cinema in 2018 and it was refreshing to experience so many in film music. 

To everybody who penned music for a film this past year, I applaud you. You feed this glorious art form and I regret that I can only single out ten of you. There are certainly more to celebrate. I look forward to 2019 where even more amazing film music awaits. Enough with the monologuing…here are my top ten favorite film scores of 2018…

10. Mary Queen of Scots by Max Richter

This might be one of the more beautiful scores I’ve heard all year. Max Richter is a well-respected composer of concert music and has only recently begun to make larger ripples in cinematic waters. His sense of narrative is not as refined as his contemporaries; however, Richter makes up this subtle difference with his compositional, textural, and harmonic instincts.

What’s especially interesting about Richter’s score for Mary Queen of Scots is that even though it’s accompanying the oft-told tale of Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart’s rivalry in England during the 1500s, the music which makes up the principle ideas of the score are governed by contemporary constructs. There are certainly subtle hints of the period peppered throughout the score. Nevertheless, Richter scribes very modern compositions making this hoity-toity fable more accessible to present-day audiences.

For example, the primary harmony Richter employs in the primary theme (I - vi - IV - V) is extremely modern. You’ve heard it a thousand times in various film scores and is even the foundation for practically every rock ’n roll song penned throughout the 1950’s (remember “Heart and Soul” from your piano lesson days?). Richter is not trying to “take us back to the period” per se, but rather bring the period to us. Jealously, pride, ambition, vanity, and treachery are not exclusive to the period in which this film takes place. All are alive and well today and the music is a constant reminder of that. The main theme is used a lot throughout the picture, almost too much, but I did find it effective in bridging the cultural gap between the story and its audience.

When I saw the film in the theater, my wife leaned over before it started and said, “I guess we’re about to hear a lot of bagpipes in this score?” We didn’t, and I really appreciate that (even though I like bagpipes) because it’s a daring approach which universalizes the story and makes it relatable no matter which century you’re living in.

9. Crazy Rich Asians by Brian Tyler

I love big band jazz. It was born in the 1910s and crescendoed through the post-war years into the early 1950s when rock ’n roll supplanted its dominance in popular culture. Big band usage in cinema is not unique, but it’s primarily relied upon to capture the period of a particular story whether it was current at the time, or made years later.

What I admire most about Brian Tyler’s big band jazz approach to Crazy Rich Asians is that the movie has nothing to do with the 1940s and his score isn’t hampered by the tropes you’d expect to hear in a film revolving around Asian culture. While the movie certainly tackles cultural issues specific to Asian families and is backed by the inclusion of traditional Asian instruments, at its heart is a universal story about love, sorrow, and living up to the unrealistic expectations of your significant other’s parents. Tyler’s rousing music is the engine underneath the hood of this vehicle and it’s chugging along at 689 horsepower.

Big band jazz is rare in cinema today mostly because of its appropriation, but also because it’s damn hard to write well. You can’t fake it in ways other folks get away with faking other styles and flavors of music. I was shocked to hear Brian Tyler lay it down so strongly. He didn’t just hint at the style. He went for the jugular! “Text Ting Swing” is one of my favorite individual pieces of film music written this year. Echoing the spirit of Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” it’s as large a big band sound as Tyler usually concocts with his orchestral scores. There’s no fear of subtly here and I think this film about excess benefits greatly from it.

I also have to give a shoutout to the incredible performances on this score. Even if you can’t marvel at its composition, you can be awestruck by the musicians driving it home. These players are astonishingly talented. I’m giving extra bonus points for the baritone sax solos. We need more of these in cinema!

8. Under the Tree by Daníel Bjarnason

This could be one of the more raw, visceral, stark, and exposed scores I’ve heard in a while and what makes it so exceptional is that it’s composed for a comedy. This score completely obliterates the boundaries of music and proves there is no textbook method to scoring a film. Music contains so much power and we’ve been exploring it in cinema for more than one hundred years. Yet we’re still breaking the surface of its potential and learning from it every day.

I can’t recall hearing a score quite like this before (nor used in this way). If you heard it apart from its film you might question its qualifications as music. If you had to guess you might think it belonged in a horror film, maybe? When you experience Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason’s music for Under the Tree in connection with the movie itself, it delivers a wholly unique experience that begins to redefine what you know and understand about film scores, especially as it tries to solicit humor and wry smiles.

7. Halloween by John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, and Daniel Davies

Some film enthusiasts might dismiss this music as a simple rehash of a pre-existing (and highly revered) score. Let’s not make that mistake. John Carpenter, his son Cody Carpenter, and Daniel Davies’ exceptional score is a tremendous reason why Halloween is so damn enjoyable. It represents one of the bolder creative decisions concerning this picture and is one of the reasons behind its success.

We are currently immersed in a period of waxing lyrical about nostalgia where our memories are exploited at every opportunity. I’m not complaining. I’m a devoted patron of my own nostalgia and I don’t mind when those memories are resurrected through music, film, or both. This is not a new concept as filmmakers, authors, poets, musicians, and other creatives have been tapping into our nostalgic pangs for as long as humans have been creative. What I’m noticing amongst current trends are attempts to mine exactly what it is that draws us to nostalgia in the first place.

When writing or lecturing I often use the phrase “a fresh experience, rooted in nostalgia” and Halloween is a superb embodiment of this ideal. There were a lot of wonderfully wise decisions made on the production of this film. The balance of what is perceived as new with those which are old are completely synchronous. I remember when I first heard that John Carpenter would be reprising his role as composer. I was a little worried that he, Cody, and composing partner Daniel Davies would feel the pressure to “update” the score and infuse modern junk into it thus rendering it unrecognizable from our collective nostalgia. That was not the case. While the music certainly sports fresh ideas, it’s deeply rooted in what made the original score for Halloween so fantastic. The main theme (arguably one of the most famous in the history of cinema) is essentially a new recording of the original theme. No unnecessary adornments or overt orchestrations are necessary. It’s pure, raw, and simply delicious.

6. Mandy by Jóhann Jóhannsson

The mold has been cast and now broken. It’s such a shame to write about the music for Mandy as Jóhann Jóhannsson’s final score. In a period of cinema where so many formulas are followed by the masses, to hear a crying voice of originality as deafening as Jóhannsson’s saddens me. He had the rare combination of being creatively cavalier, critically commendable, and commercially viable. That’s the triumvirate necessary to catalyze change. Jóhannsson was well on his way to evolving this art form and although his life ended far too soon, the handful of scores he left behind might be enough to take those precursory steps.

Jóhannsson’s music for Mandy was not the score I was expecting; however, it is the score we deserve. It’s a bold, brash, brainy, braggadocious concoction of sound that completely characterizes the movie while dishing out transcendental creepiness. It’s a testament to the life and creative career of Jóhann Jóhannsson and I am thankful that it exists.

5. Operation Finale by Alexandre Desplat

This is one of the biggest surprises of the year for me. What instantly caught my ear from the first notes of music was Desplat’s decision to score the main title for percussion ensemble. This by itself is rare (I cannot recall another score that relies so heavily on traditional percussion ensemble scoring). When you couple this idea with the fact that it’s scoring a film about Israel’s pursuit, capture, and exportation of one of the Third Reich’s most ruthless survivors, it makes it that much more relevant.

Backed by a bevy of mallet instruments (vibraphone, marimbas), a variety of membranophones (timpani, snare, toms, bass drum), pianos (regular and prepared), and a battery of auxiliary percussion, Desplat fuses lilting solo violins, warm strings, and haunting voices together which soar above the percussive chaos below. It’s one of the more original scores I’ve heard in several years and an exemplar for a composer who routinely churns out exceptional music for cinema.

4. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse by Daniel Pemberton

I started compiling my top ten favorite scores of the year in early December and whittled down a dozen and a half soundtracks into a list of ten I felt were a solid representation of my overall opinion of the exceptional scores penned in 2018. Always one to take every possible opportunity to evaluate as many films as I can, I viewed a slew of films in the week leading up to Christmas. One of those movies left such an impression on me, I had to readjust my entire list thus bumping off a score I was eager to exalt.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is something quite new. Everything about it from the storytelling, the visual adaptation, the animated effects, and the music are unlike anything I’ve seen or heard in cinema. It’s a true “universe” movie compiling a hodgepodge of contrasting flavors, characters, sounds, and musical styles into one glorious smorgasbord of cinematic delight. I have to admit, on paper Pemberton’s ideas could seem strange and possibly cumbersome which makes its nearly flawless execution that much more impressive.

Why is it that animation is such fertile soil for bold experimentation? I can’t help but think we wouldn’t have witnessed so many creative decisions if it were a live action film. For some reason, animation frees creatives from the safety of the status quo. Why is that? I’ve acknowledged this before (look at Pixar, anime, even Disney animated films) and have never been able to satisfy my curiosity with an effective answer.

The bottom-line is Daniel Pemberton knocked this one out of the park. It’s a wonderful “kitchen-sink” score where every conceivable idea one could come up with has been deftly crammed into the musical tapestry of the film to create something that is so fresh it’s cutting-edge. The movie did so well at the box office I’m sure sequels and spin-offs are inevitable. I hope filmmakers don’t digress into “safety mode” but instead use this spearhead as a catalyzer to take even greater risks and push the boundaries of creativity further.

3. Solo: A Star Wars Story by John Powell

John Williams is the author of what is arguably the most recognized film scores of all time. The original Star Wars trilogy is unlike any other trio of scores in the history of cinema and will forever transcend the art form. Earlier this year, Williams made it known that his score for Star Wars IX could be his final score of the franchise thus marking the end of a royal era. While the Star Wars universe is poised to continue on without the maestro, there have already been signs the franchise is in capable hands.

Two years ago, Michael Giacchino became the first composer not named John Williams to score a major live-action Star Wars film with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Earlier this year John Powell was invited to join this exclusive club and he absolutely did not disappoint. Although Solo: A Star Wars Story fell flat for me cinematically, it certainly was not because of its music.

What I admire most about John Powell’s score for Solo is the aesthetic paradox he creates. It doesn’t sound like a Williams score per se; however, it does sound like a Star Wars score (I offered Giacchino similar praise for his music in Rogue One). If studios are going to proceed with more Star Wars in a post-John Williams world, composers should be free to explore their musical voice within the context of their own Star Wars perception. There’s no room in the Star Wars universe for cheap mimicry. Nobody can replace Williams’ legacy, so let’s never try. The aim should be to add value to his legacy by allowing new voices to build upon the foundation Williams created. Only then will the Star Wars universe truly expand.

Powell’s score for Solo is probably the most un-John Williams Star Wars score I’ve heard. Sure, Williams himself wrote Solo’s theme (and it’s another home run for the maestro) but overall it sounds like a quintessential John Powell score. It’s not a gargantuan departure from Williams’ work, but it is the first time I’ve felt a distinct disconnect from the John Williams sound within the Star Wars framework.

Let’s be clear, John Powell can flat-out compose! He is one of the few orchestral masters working in Hollywood today. The acrobatic ease in which he controls the orchestra through each rousing phrase is truly a marvel. I’m not suggesting Powell compose the rest of the Star Wars movies, nor would I want Giacchino to do so either (an “heir-apparent” need not apply); however, this is exactly the approach that should be taken when expanding the aesthetics of future Star Wars properties. While too many cooks certainly spoil the soup, finding the right cook to serve up the right soup at the right time surely makes a lot of soup connoisseurs very happy.

2. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom by Michael Giacchino

While Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom might not have resonated with the general populace as originally hoped, for me it was a towering home run. I wholly embraced what director J.A. Bayona was attempting to do with this film, and it ignited the 12-year-old, dinosaur-loving, monster-fearing boy inside of me. The aesthetic relationship between old-school Universal monster films and the worlds of Jurassic Park was a natural pairing that I relished. I dearly love the mad-scientist, haunted house, Franken-saur vibe rippling throughout this entire film.

None of what Bayona was trying to achieve cinematically would have resonated with anybody had it not been for the music of Michael Giacchino. His score for Jurassic World remains a favorite of mine and his follow-up may be even better. Unshackled from the omnipresent shadow of John Williams and fueled by the commanding direction of Bayona, Giacchino thrusts the Jurassic World universe into a ridiculously entertaining haunted house adventure with retro-charged monsters around every corner.

Giacchino is one of the few masters of scoring sequels. He certainly has a knack for establishing exposition; however, when given the opportunity, Michael can take pre-existing material and develop the hell out of it. This is the mark of a quality composer. It’s not always the idea, but what you do with it that matters most. Giacchino once again demonstrates his ability to take ideas, pack them with emotion, and send them on rides we never want to end.

1. Shadow by Lao Zai

This may be one of the first films I’ve seen where the visual aesthetics alone choke me up emotionally. It’s an astonishingly gorgeous movie shot in color with a completely monochromatic color palette. All of the costumes and set designs are starkly contrasted in pure blacks and whites. Director Zhang Yimou said he was inspired by ancient Chinese calligraphy and wanted the expressionistic quality of black ink on white paper to govern the visual and aural aesthetics of the film. Every single frame is absolutely sublime.

Composer Lao Zai takes this philosophy further by employing an ancient-school approach of infusing traditional Chinese folk idioms with Yimou’s calligraphic visuals. It’s a stunning combination of sight and sound that absolutely demands the highest exhibition standards available to the modern moviegoer.

What makes Zai’s score for Shadow more exemplary are the various onscreen performances peppered throughout the film. Music isn’t just a background ingredient in the movie, it’s also a central character to the narrative. What starts off non-diegetic becomes diegetic through Yimou’s storytelling, then returns to the subconscious as underscore. The lines between these two states of perception are continually blurred by onscreen “battles” and “lovemaking” via musical performance. They’re violent, visceral, and beautifully vexing.

With so many scores penned in ways which ape one another, it’s an immutable breath of fresh air to hear music so visionary function so exquisitely. There were a healthy collection of scores penned in 2018 that I feel represent the year well and define the current health of the art of film music; however, none are as powerful, commanding, or as sublimely gorgeous as Lao Zai’s score for Shadow.