In early February, indiewire put together their list of The 25 Best Music Scores of the 21st Century. Whilst there were some great selections, I felt there were many scores that were sadly overlooked. So, I was inspired to put together a list of my own. Rather than collate an assortment of what I felt could objectively be viewed as ‘the best’ soundtracks of this millennium thus far, I wanted to curate a list that spoke clearly to my defined tastes. Hence, the following 25 picks reflect heavily what I like to listen to both in and out of the film world.
Most of the following soundtracks are available to stream on Spotify, so there’s no excuse as to why you can not have some magnificent music filling your ears today. I have included a link to a track from each soundtrack highlighted for your listening pleasure. On that note, and with no further ado, I present my 25 favorite scores of the 21st century, for your listening pleasure, in ascending order. Enjoy!
25. The Greasy Strangler – Andrew Hung (2016)
A film as wonderfully twisted and bizarre as Jim Hosking’s The Greasy Strangler deserves a soundtrack to match it, and Andrew Hung certainly delivered on this front with his score. Hung gives us a jaunty background of up-beat bleeps, bloops, squeaks, squelches and chipmunk vocals to accompany the film, and manages to perfectly compliment the frankly insane characters and visuals, while also providing listeners with an enjoyable standalone auditory adventure, if they desire. It’s a score that will bring a smile to your face, and is unlike anything else you are likely to hear in a cinema.
24. Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait – Mogwai (2006)
Having a Glaswegian post-rock band compose the soundtrack for a documentary following a famous French footballer during his final competitive match may seem like an unusual choice, but upon viewing the final product, there is no doubt that it was the right one. Even non-football fans can find themselves captivated by the film, due to Mogwai’s luscious instrumental arrangement hovering over proceedings, much like one of the 17 synchronized cameras recording the game. The haunting melodies, soft pianos and guitars and ambient echoes turn a simple football match into an emotionally affecting experience, worthy of the formal farewell of one of football’s greatest players.
23. Swiss Army Man – Andy Hull and Robert McDowell (2016)Underwater
The Swiss Army Man soundtrack is, much like the film, a truly unique composition. It is comprised mainly through the manipulation of the vocals of Andy Hull and lead actors Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, in lieu of contemporary instrumentation. This assists in replicating the feeling of isolation that exists when stranded from civilization, but surprisingly also evokes an uplifting swell of emotion that encapsulates the ability of the human spirit to overcome inconceivable odds and trying circumstances. It may be hard to believe that a film about a suicidal cast away making friends with a farting corpse could make you cry, but Hull and McDowell’s aural contribution to the film has tapped into that special something that only the coldest of hearts will find easy to brush off.
22. Donnie Darko – Michael Andrews (2001)
The Gary Jules-led cover of Tears for Fears Mad World dominates most discussions about the Donnie Darko soundtrack, but Michael Andrews’ overall contribution to the sound of the titular character’s world should not be understated. Andrews played every sound, with instruments ranging from piano, xylophones and flutes through to synths and ambient drones and alarms, without a hint of any brashness whatsoever. He creates a soundscape that softly mimics the mindset of Donnie without overshadowing what takes place on-screen, and as such, lets the characters and developing story breathe. Whilst initially overlooked, Donnie Darko has flourished into a cult favorite, and the score is a wonderful example of how to effectively use minimalist, yet layered, sound and music to create a brooding atmosphere.
21. Good Time – Oneohtrix Point Never (2017)
The Safdie brother’s Good Time is a non-stop anxiety-inducing trip into the world of Robert Pattinson’s Connie, as he attempts to pull together the funds needed to bail his brother from prison. Experimental electronic musician Oneohtrix Point Never’s score increases the stress levels through it’s use of oscillating synths, pulsating bass-lines and rhythmic percussive hits. It is a blindingly brilliant composition, recalling the best works of Vangelis and John Carpenter, and would feel right at home in a dystopian sci-fi landscape. As impressive in a solo listen as it is backing the film, OPN’s work won the 2017 Cannes Soundtrack award, and rightfully so. Who knew that the soundtrack to a panic attack could be so mesmerizing?
20. Upstream Color – Shane Carruth (2013)
Shane Carruth is a genius. It has to be said. His two films (Primer and Upstream Color) demonstrate the capability of an auteur in their prime, with minimal financial expenditure, but complete creative control. He oversees every single aspect of his films, and one has to wonder if there’s anything he can’t do. The score for Upstream Color is, like the film itself, a gloriously ethereal slow-burn, a lush and melodic soundscape that tugs ever so gently at the amygdalae. As The Sampler draws Kris to his location using infrasonic sound, the viewer is also pulled into the world of the film through the beautiful ambiance created by Carruth. His next film is not expected any time soon, but it can not come soon enough. If he is performing soundtrack duties in addition to all the others he is likely to undertake, it is sure to be something special.
19. The Cooler – Mark Isham (2003)
In directing the tale about possibly the unluckiest man in Las Vegas, Wayne Kramer found fortune in the acquisition of Mark Isham to provide the score. Isham is a talented saxophonist and jazz musician, as well as being a prolific film composer, and Kramer was able to utilise all of these skills to stunning effect in The Cooler. The sumptuous and sexy jazz numbers that Isham laid down for The Cooler provide the perfect backing for this quirky film, and would take pride of place in any serious contemporary jazz fan’s collection. From the first track to the last, it’s a stellar collection of tunes that conjures up a palpable audible similitude to the famous city of sin, even for those who may not have been lucky enough to visit themselves.
18. Maniac – Rob (2012)
2012’s remake of William Lustig’s brutal slasher re-invented the genre by shooting the film entirely from the point of view of the disturbed killer. Robin Coudert’s score is a befitting accompaniment to this journey into the mind of a depraved psychopath. Layered swirling synths combine with solemn rhythmic bass, lulling the listener into a sense of comfort before tearing it away with a dark and sinister turn. Parts of the soundtrack may sound familiar to those who worship at the altar of John Carpenter, but where Carpenter keeps things simple, Rob expands upon his themes, underscoring the menace with beauty, mirroring the very mannequins that Joseph Zito is obsessed with.
17. Mulholland Drive – Angelo Badalamenti (2001)
Long-time collaborator Angelo Badalamenti has provided the soundtrack to David Lynch’s dreams and nightmares for what seems like most of his career. In what is arguably Lynch’s finest outing, Badalamenti’s score seems to tap into the unconscious psyche to extract our highest hopes and deepest fears. The soundtrack bounces from playful jazz ditties to dark, encompassing synth pads and monotonous drones, sometimes slowing to a glacial pace with fractured and drawn out chords mimicking a dream-like state. Badalamenti’s adeptness at his craft is on full display here, and his ability to instill a true sense of unease among the beauty of his arrangements rivals his work on the Twin Peaks TV series.
16. Hyena – The The (2014)
Post-punk band The The have been around in some form or another for close to 40 years, and much like the line-up of the band itself, it’s sound has been ever changing. The last 15 years have seen founder and mainstay Matt Johnson concentrate mainly on soundtrack work, and the fruits of multiple collaborations with his brother, director Gerard Johnson, taste particularly sweet. Hyena is a gritty British crime thriller, following a corrupt cop as he deals with an escalating series of events within the dark underbelly of London’s drug and human-trafficking rings. The instrumental soundtrack perfectly suits the mood of the film, with druggy guitar licks, whirring drones and heavy reverb echoing throughout the soundscape to add to the unrelenting tension built up throughout the course of the film. Although The The may not have presented itself as a traditional band over the last decade and a half, as it once had, I certainly wouldn’t mind if it means that Matt Johnson continues to deliver scores of this quality.
15. Interstellar – Hans Zimmer (2014)
Christopher Nolan’s epic tale of a journey through space and time to save the population of the earth is an awe-inspiring experience, and rightfully has a score to match. Zimmer’s composition ably provides the emotional backbone that such a story requires, navigating musical peaks and valleys in soul-stirring fashion. Utilizing unconventional techniques for a major orchestral production, Zimmer experimented with choral arrangements, strings, woodwind instruments and organs to both convey the magnitude of the stakes at play and balance this with the intimacy of the human interactions in the film. Familiar motifs drift in and out to add levity to proceedings, and moments of action are satisfactorily accompanied by grand crescendos that pull heavily on the heartstrings. Interstellar is one of Zimmer’s finest achievements, which, considering his filmography, is some distinction indeed.
14. Sicario – Johann Johannsson (2015)
The recent passing of Johann Johannsson marks one of music’s most significant losses in recent memory. The Icelandic composer had accumulated a considerable portfolio of work in a short period of time up to his death, and showcased an artist at the peak of their creative power. His collaborations with Canadian director Denis Villenueve stand out as master works, and his score for Sicario is no exception. Here Johannsson worked within the lower end of the sonic spectrum to underscore the menace of all-out border war and covert ops within the film through the sounds of deep, dark bass and driving percussion. Thematically, it’s a perfect fit, and Johannsson expertly manipulates the organic sounds elicited from his orchestra with reverb and distortion to ratchet up the tension a few more notches. Although the sound is heavy, it’s not bombast. A palpable sense of sorrow is also generated in some of the quieter beats, demonstrating Johannsson’s versatility and creativeness.
13. There Will Be Blood – Jonny Greenwood (2007)
Radiohead have sat near the top of my list of favorite bands since I heard The Bends back in 1995. With each successive release they continued to push their sound forward, seemingly not content with ‘just’ putting out a bunch of brilliant rock records. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood was a key part of this forward propulsion, introducing unconventional orchestral arrangements and electronic experimentation into the band’s music and into the indie music consciousness. He has since taken on composer duties for a number of films, not the least of which have been some of the works of Paul Thomas Anderson. There Will Be Blood sets an exceptional benchmark that many contemporary soundtrack artists would struggle to measure up against. Here Greenwood allows the stringed instruments to articulate Daniel Plainview’s isolation, geographically and emotionally. It’s a stunningly evocative composition that showcases Greenwood’s immense talent and inventiveness in his arrangements, even through the use of traditional instrumentation. His recent score for Phantom Thread proves that this was by no means a fluke.
12. Ex Machina – Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (2014)
It’s somewhat of a rarity to have a collaborative musical composition team, particularly in film. It does happen, from time to time, but tends to be the exception rather than the norm. Ben and Geoff have worked together on a number of projects now, proving that when the right chemistry is present in a writing partnership, the results can be astounding. Their partnership began with scoring duties on Dredd, written by Alex Garland. Due to studio interference they stepped away from the film, but Garland later hit them up to provide the soundtrack to his directorial debut, Ex Machina. The result is a subtle and spell-binding modern sci-fi soundscape. Much like the film itself, the score is a slow-burn, building suspense slowly and surely with it’s use of ambiance, synth pads and long drawn-out chords providing breathing space in between tense sequences of pulsating electronic stabs. It flawlessly encapsulates the visualized conflict between artificial intelligence and complete consciousness without over-announcing itself. Geoff and Ben’s presence in the credits of any film or television can be considered a mark of absolute quality, and thus far they have an impeccable record in that respect.
11. The Revenant – Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner (2015)
Ryuichi Sakamoto’s music career has spanned close to 40 years, and his debut in composing for film was the memorable Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence in 1983. Since then, he has pushed sonic boundaries, playing with acoustics and electronic elements, both inside and outside of cinema. He completed the score for The Revenant whilst in the midst of recovery from throat cancer, quite fitting as the film details the resilience of the human spirit in the most trying of circumstances. Sakamoto enlisted Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner to also contribute to the soundtrack, and the result is a glacial, expansive work that speaks directly to the soul. Alejandro G Inarritu’s film depicts the savagery of the wild, and is complimented in it’s illustration through the starkness of the score. It’s an exquisite marriage, with cellos, violins and subtle prolonged electronic tones combining to augment the sensation of pure wonder and awe you can’t help but feel when watching. The choice of Sakamoto as the composer for an early 19th century period western may have surprised some initially, but he and his team created a score that harmoniously supplemented the beauty that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski captured on-screen.
10. Lost River – Johnny Jewel (2014)
Ryan Gosling’s 2014 film is, at least in my humble opinion, a misunderstood masterpiece, and it’s accompanied by an undeniably majestic score from Chromatics, Glass Candy and Desire band-member Johnny Jewel. He frames Gosling’s dark and fantastical tale, set in a deteriorated and deserted neighborhood in Detroit, with a undeniably lavish and synth-laden soundscape. There is no question that this work is packed full of many of the indulgences that Jewel is known for: crystal pop stylings, melodic analog synths, industrial resonance, bells and chimes. He enlists the help of some of his band members for some interspersed numbers throughout the soundtrack, and cast members of the film, such as Saoirse Ronan, Eva Mendes and Ben Mendelsohn, are even featured. What we end up with is a soundtrack that has it’s own unique identity, and may not end up pleasing everybody, much like the very film it is attached to.
9. Only God Forgives – Cliff Martinez (2013)
Former Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez has been scoring films for some time now, making his debut in 1989 on Steven Soderbergh’s Sex Lies and Videotape, and his nontraditional approach to composing is a reason why he is one of my favorite artists working in the medium today. As much sound design and percussive manipulation as it is arrangement, he has instantly recognizable style that, in his modern works, often draws much inspiration from the genre of electronica and the dance music scene. In his approach to Only God Forgives, Martinez combines a number of aesthetics and influences to create a brooding and menacing aural backdrop for Winding Refn’s seedy Bangkok. Ominous drums, swirling arpeggiated synths, pressing pipe organs, rising strings and dark and low bass and brass are all present and accounted for, as well as some delightful slices of Thai folk music sprinkled sporadically. It’s a uniquely impressive mix, and just one indication of Martinez’s stellar talent and ability to set a mood.
8. The Fountain – Clint Mansell (2006)
Former Pop Will Eat Itself front-man Clint Mansell has forged an incredible career as a soundtrack composer since first working with Darren Aronofsky in 1998 on his film Pi. There have been many fruitful collaborations with the director since, not the least of which is possibly my favorite soundtrack of all time, Mansell’s work with the Kronos Quartet for Requiem For A Dream. 2006 saw Aronofsky, Mansell and the Kronos Quartet combine once more, with some added assistance from Mogwai, for the stunning soundtrack to the science-fiction epic The Fountain. Much like the film itself, the score is a cyclic opus, with recurring sorrowful string-led motifs providing emotional grounding in between moments of post-rock that add weight to the the proceedings. It is a magnificent technical achievement on the behalf of Mansell to combine the strengths of what the Kronos Quartet and Mogwai can offer in an unobtrusive manner, and much of the soundtrack is very measured in it’s design. This magical music matrimony finally culminates in what is possibly one of the finest scored moments of this century thus far, the divine Death Is The Road To Awe.
7. Irreversible – Thomas Bangalter (2002)
Thomas Bangalter may be more famous as one half of the robotic duo of Daft Punk, whom also have contributed the wonderful soundtrack to Tron: Legacy, but his work as composer for fellow Frenchman Gasper Noe’s devastating Irreversible demands no faint praise in and of itself. From the moment we follow the protagonist’s descent into the infernal depths of the club Rectum, Bangalter instills a sudden and claustrophobic sense of paranoia and despair, with air raid-like sirens and throbbing low hertz noise leaving no room for any breathing space. Elsewhere, he mixes club vibes with the distorted synths of an 80s slasher flick, which creates an uneasy atmosphere in concurrence with the images on screen. Bangalter’s music adds a great detail of intensity to an already fiercely confronting film, and is the perfect soundtrack to a debaucherous night out dancing with your demons in Hell.
6. The Duke Of Burgundy – Cat’s Eyes (2014)
The soundtrack for The Duke of Burgundy, composed by psych-pop duo Cat’s Eyes, is a mesmerizing throwback to another era. It’s purposeful manipulation of sound quality gives it a timeless feel, and much like Peter Strickland’s tale of a lesbian lepidopterist and her lover, it succeeds in it’s goal of creating an experience that sticks with you long after the credits roll. I was not prepared to love the film and it’s soundtrack as much as I did, but it has an ethereal quality to it’s lushness that captivates as much as it excites. Cat’s Eyes made some impeccable choices in use of certain instruments to pay homage to the antiquated sounds you might hear on British television or cinema in the 60s and 70s: harspichords, bassoons, oboes and flutes all make welcome appearances, as does Rachel Zeffira’s heavenly vocals on a couple of numbers. This is truly a soundtrack to seek out and listen to as you sit back, close your eyes and dream about lovers past, present and future.
5. Beyond The Black Rainbow – Sinoia Caves (2010)
It takes just seconds of listening to Sinoia Cave’s masterpiece before you are transported back in time to 1983. Analog synthesizers, rolling drums and the sounds of the unmistakable Mellotron combine in a hazy swirl that gives strong evocations of an imagined future as envisioned by the creators of our past. Panos Cosmatos’ film is a heady, psychedelic sci-fi experience, a surreal and dream-like tribute to the golden age of the midnight movie during the late 70s and early 80s. It is enhanced significantly be the score, echoing as it does the works of Wendy Carlos, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis and John Carpenter. There can be no greater tribute than acknowledging that this soundtrack can stand on it’s own two feet as an equal among its influences and head and shoulders above its peers. It really is that good.
4. Enemy – Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans (2013)
Another Villeneuve film makes the list, this time seeing the director break away from his usual partnership with Johann Johannsson to seek the assistance of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans for scoring duties for this intimate psychological thriller. The duo has done an exceptional job in contributing to the haunting and foreboding atmosphere, fueling the accumulating sense of paranoia in the film through their atypical approach to the music. Slow-paced clarinets, cellos and violins make up much of the palette that Bensi and Jurriaans work from, with the tolling of an ominous metallic thud providing most of the percussive base. The score is as much an experimental and exploratory work as the film itself, the perfect soundscape for a dark and brooding spot of introspection and reflection.
3. Under The Skin – Mica Levi (2013)
From it’s very first moments, Mica Levi’s score gets right… wait for it… under the skin. BOOM! We’re done here. Thanks for coming.
In all serious, Levi’s work on Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi horror masterpiece is out of this world. The English singer/song-writer (also known as Micachu) communicates to the audience through a spine-tingling mixture of scratching strings, white noise, ominous drum hits and occasional digital manipulation, almost as if the music itself were some alien tongue. It’s incredibly effective, and only adds to the intense sense of apprehension felt when watching the film. It is not an easy listen, but it is precisely the efficacy in which Levi’s compositions are able to drill right into the skull and place the listener on edge that results in this being one of this century’s finest scores, accompanying one of this century’s finest films no less. There are moments of light too, the Love theme, sounding like Badalamenti via Vangelis, being a superlative example of how to hit an emotional high sans cheese. Not a bad effort for Levi’s first crack at scoring for a major film.
2. Solaris – Cliff Martinez (2002)
Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi melodrama is a slow-burning meditation on love and grief, and Martinez’s accompanying score is a facilitator of this as much as the sumptuous visuals on-screen. Martinez contributes a suitably muted and subtle soundscape to provide the connecting tissues between the cosmic love story and the emotions of the viewer. As effective as a standalone listen as it is in partnership with the film itself, his score conveys a dream-like feel, soft notes floating and sparkling in the sub-conscious of the audience like stars in the night sky. A rhythmic backbone is achieved through the delayed reverberation of notes and use of echoing orchestral drum hits, enhancing the ethereal sensation experienced when listening. This composition has a magical quality to it, the faint ambiance consistently achieved throughout a testament to Martinez’s range and composure as an accomplished soundtrack artist. Long may his music bless our ears.
1. Arrival – Johann Johannsson (2016)
From one alien invasion to another. Whilst Under The Skin concentrated on inward looking themes of identity and isolation, Villenueve’s 2016 film Arrival sought to splash paint on a much larger canvas. It tackles the subjects of loss and relativity of time through the lens of language, and it’s success is greatly enabled by Johann Johannsson’s striking score. His approach to music is equal parts sound design as it is a traditional orchestral or choral arrangement. Here, the human voice is used as an instrument, and Johannsson leads his choir to play in the realm of the avant garde, words and sentences giving way to intonations that sound entirely foreign to the human ear. He stretches, manipulates and reverberates these utterances to enhance the otherworldly quality even further. The manner in which this intertwines with the narrative and thematic progression of the film is nothing short of extraordinary. Johannsson’s greatest accomplishment with this score is that he has managed to inject his own personal brand of experimental genius into a major, commercially successful work, and the amalgamation is a wonder to behold. My heart cries out for the future soundtracks that we will not be able to hear from this man. Vale, Johann.
Many of the artists included in the above have multiple soundtracks that are exemplary works and could just as easily slot into my top 25. Some have also contributed standout projects or albums outside of the film world that are top-notch and entirely relatable to fans of their compositions. In closing, I wanted to highlight some of these additional works, in the hope you may be inspired to seek out and listen to more of these magnificent artists works.
Clint Mansell: Requiem For A Dream OST, Moon OST, Stoker OST, Black Mirror San Junipero OST, Loving Vincent OST
Cliff Martinez: Traffic OST, Drive OST, The Knick OST, Far Cry 4 OST, The Neon Demon OST
Johann Johannsson: Mandy OST, Prisoners OST, The Theory of Everything OST, Englaborn LP, Orphee LP
Jonny Greenwood: The Master OST, Inherent Vice OST, Phantom Thread OST, You Were Never Really Here OST
Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury: Drokk: Music Inspired by Megacity One LP, Free Fire OST, Black Mirror Men Against Fire OST, Annihilation OST
Mica Levi: Jackie OST, Delete Beach EP
Johnny Jewel: The Other Side Of Midnight LP, Digital Rain LP
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence OST, Babel OST, async LP
Oneohtrix Point Never: Returnal LP, Replica LP, R Plus Seven LP, Garden of Delete LP, Age Of LP
Mogwai: Atomic OST, Before The Flood OST, Every Country’s Sun LP