Every year we're graced (or punished) with an army of film scores. I've picked out my Top 10 favorite of 2009....hopefully, you'll find something you like here or perhaps have some sort of disagreement with me...whatever it is, I'm more than happy to hear about it.....
I should mention that all the listed scores are 4 out of 5 stars, with the exception of number one that earned a 4 1/2 out of 5.
so without any further ado, onto the list:
10. IN THE ELECTRIC MIST - Marco Beltrami
Coming out of an action-packed year of scoring on projects like Knowing and The Hurt Locker, Marco Beltrami settles down quite successfully with this quiet little thriller, In The Electric Mist.
One of the most unique sounding scores to come out of 2009, Electric Mist is heavy on the Cajun-flavoring. With it's eerie guitar and banjo work, a swirling icy string section and a subtle insertion of electronic sound design that creates a ghostly pulse of it's own, Beltrami's developed a tense, yet quiet atmosphere.
When the music isn't so anxious and cold, Beltrami throws some more wood on the fire, by using some mournful brass and woodwind sections, heard prominently in the opening title track.
Unlike most composers these days, Beltrami not only composes music to compliment the action onscreen, but he also constructs an aural surrounding to the film that practically becomes a character of it's own, with minimal distraction.
It should be noted that there were two separate releases of Electric Mist. The first release was in the U.K. as a 40 minute MP3 download only album and the second, being a 35 minute North American CD release. While the U.K. release is longer, the North American version contains more of Beltrami's score as it excludes two source songs.
However both versions include the excellent French Louisiana song, "La Terre Tremblante", co-written by Marco Beltrami and banjo & fiddle player, Dirk Powell.
I highly recommend this score album if you're looking for an atmospheric score using modern sounds but written with old-fashioned style.
9. DRAG ME TO HELL - Christopher Young
Re teaming with director, Sam Raimi, after the criminally underrated The Gift and the overblown mess that was Spider-Man 3, veteran composer, Christopher Young is at the top of his game with the occult horror, Drag Me To Hell.
Assaulting our ears with a Gothic grandeur of violence and terror is something Young hasn't done since the late 1980's with the first two Hellraiser films...I welcome it back with a twisted, rabid grin.
A single violin motif leads as the recurring theme throughout the score, tingling your spine as if it's haunting you from a past century, but things are quick to switch over to such grand-scale choral and orchestral beauty, one can't help but be reminded of Young's own fantastical Hellraiser waltz.
The film's protagonist, Christine's theme is a sad and lonely, as it tugs at the heart with a delicate descending piano motif, weaving itself around some lovely string work. It's very reminiscent of something James Newton Howard might write for such a film.
Now what would a Chris Young horror score be without what he does best? And that's creating a chaotic wall of absolute terror, using next to no sense in his writing technique. Making use of multiple hushed chatters and whispers to tickle the ears with an unsettling manner and manipulating the orchestra with such intensified anarchy it would make Krzysztof Penderecki proud.
When Young isn't amazing us with a grand Gothic choir, elegant somber beauty or a wall of orchestral nightmares, he's literally trying to make our hearts stop with the type of pounding orchestrated violence that Jerry Goldsmith was so damned good at. No shit of lie, not since Beltrami's "Love Turns Sour" from Scream 2, have I caught my muscles tensing up from anxiety while listening to a score.
Very much like the film itself, Young's Drag Me To Hell shocks and disturbs, yet makes one laugh quite frequently as well, with the over-the-top terror it creates...wait for the vomiting...seriously, folks, there's vomiting.
8. THE LAZARUS PROJECT - Brian Tyler
After writing for a long line of action films, composer Brian Tyler finally stepped out of his element by approaching the drama/thriller, The Lazarus Project, with great inspiration and enthusiasm.
Beginning to get a little too comfortable with large orchestrated pieces, Tyler held himself back with this project and doesn't disappoint as he plays the piano, guitars, percussion, cello, vibraphones and vocalizations himself, along with some violin and electronics to boot.
Working with two simple yet hypnotizing themes, Tyler creates a dreamlike melodic soundscape that sounds like Cliff Martinez's Solaris and Thomas Newman's American Beauty met in Heaven.
Throughout the entire album an intimate, other worldly impression is layered upon every track with such familiarity it's almost as if the score has always been playing within your mind.
Fear not action fans, the score does throw a small number of effective, heart-pounding action cues at you, if not only to remind one that Tyler is one of the best action score composers working in the field today.
The electronics in this score pulsate and breathe like a slight breeze while you sleep. Most composers today use electronics in their scores to replace a real orchestra (Zimmer & Co. I'm looking at you), however Tyler and just a small handful of other composers use them to compliment the live instruments, which work in such astonishing ways.
Unfortunately, this mesmerizing little gem went far under the radar with most film score collectors and even Brian Tyler fans. Why? I'm not sure. It could be that the film itself was poorly received and went directly to DVD. Don't let that scare you away though, it is Tyler doing some of his best work since Children of Dune or Partition.
I urge you to explore The Lazarus Project and become drawn into this enthralling diamond in the rough.
7. UP - Michael Giacchino
I think it's fairly safe to say that composer, Michael Giacchino, has had an extremely successful year. Delivering some remarkable work for the fifth season of TV's LOST, the Star Trek reboot, the environmental crisis documentary Earth Days, Giacchino produced his best score for Pixar's latest instant classic, UP.
His third venture into the Pixar world, following The Incredibles and Ratatouille, Giacchino falls onto his most heartfelt and adventurous score yet with UP.
Unlike most composers these days, Giacchino prefers to keep his orchestration very organic, using next to no electronic/synthesized wizardry and it really bumps UP up to the next level of quality.
Using a very simple little waltz-like theme as the heart of the score, Giacchino instantly reminds us of the Golden Age Of Cinema. Throughout the duration of the film, he takes this simple theme and reshapes it into several different variations, yet keeps it easily distinguishable. It just adds so many assorted layers to what at first appears to be a simple score. The theme is played solo for the most part using everything from a gorgeous sounding piano piece to a very effective muted trumpet. However Giacchino allows the main theme to soar to amazing grandeur with the whole orchestra in "UP With End Credits".
The heart and soul, Giacchino pours into many of the cues is absolutely astounding. Listen to the fourth track, "Married Life" and you will instantly be taken back to the montage in the film that ends in such heartbreak, you'd have to have a heart of stone if you didn't get even a little teary-eyed.
It's not all sweet and sensitive though, as Giacchino takes us through the motions and really kicks it into high gear with the heart-pounding action cues. So be warned, if you were expecting a nice relaxing listen, judging by the first handful of tracks, the tones changes immensely and gets induced with such adrenaline they could mistaken as an Indiana Jones cue.
Giacchino's composed a few more little themes to cleverly bounce off the main theme that's almost always in the air. There's a tribal sounding theme in a few cues that echo that of Max Steiner's 1933 classic King Kong score with it's ravishing use of jungle drums and mystery. Then there's a slight laid back tropical theme that weaves itself around the main theme in such a playful manner, it can't help but bring a smile to your face.
The Carl Stalling type of arrangements and composition make UP easily the most entertaining scores of the year and without a doubt an Oscar Contender in 2010 and already a Best Score Golden Globe Winner.
As much as I gush about this score, I should mention that there is one major problem with the album itself. For some baffling reason, Disney decided to release UP as a MP3 download only album. This is major disappointment for me and many other collectors, as I would proudly display this album on my CD shelf for all to see.
In the end, Giacchino's UP has firmly established the composer as one of my favorites working in the business today. UP is a thoroughly enjoyable score that will without a doubt stand the test of time and probably go down as one of Giacchino's greatest accomplishments.
6. AGORA - Dario Marianelli
Oscar-winning composer, Dario Marianelli's score to The Others director, Alejandro Amenábar's historical drama, Agora, is truly that of epic proportions. I don't mean Internet Fanboy "epic", I mean the the correct definition of "epic": of unusually great size or extent.
From the get-go, it is clear Marianelli is about to take us on a vast, thought provoking musical journey to a civilization from long ago.
Blending the emotional impact of Hans Zimmer's Gladiator and the layered intelligence of Elliot Goldenthal's Titus, Marianelli has constructed a lush, dramatic score to match the film's monumental tale about the rise of Christianity in Roman Egypt.
While, Marianelli doesn't really incorporate much in the way of a theme into Agora, apart from a short, subtle string motif, he opts for the use of individual instruments as the voices for separate moods and settings.
The ethnic female "wailing" has become somewhat of a tired cliche in film music today, with mostly Zimmer and his buddies to blame for that. However, Marianelli puts the voice to good use here. In a rather clever move, he's developed the ethnic female vocals into somewhat of a voice for the Alexandrian Pagans. Then he uses a massively overwhelming male choir as the menacing Christian Roman voice, resulting in a similar intimidating power heard in Howard Shore's The Lord Of The Rings scores. At one point, Marianelli even has both 'voices' battling it out with each other for the lead, resulting in enormous intensity.
The score starts out rather quietly, relying mostly on the solo female voice, some mournful string work, a collection ethnic woodwinds & flutes, complimented with some light percussion in the background. Over the duration of the score it becomes significantly darker as Marianelli begins introducing some heavy brass, the male choir and some thundering drum work.
Like in Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, Marianelli composes tragic romance, better than any other composer working today. His textural use of the harp and the cello in the more tender cues is absolutely intoxicating.
I'll be honest and admit that I wasn't entirely convinced I liked Agora all that much upon my first few listens. Although after multiple listens, like Marianelli's brutal score to The Brothers Grimm , the lavish textures and rousing orchestrations won me over.
Agora, without a doubt, is my favorite Dario Marianelli work to date and I urge you to give it a few listens to allow it to fully absorb you into it's ancient world.
5. POPE JOAN - Marcel Barsotti
Every now and then, I am reminded of how vast a planet it is and just how much great music is out there, that so easily slips under my radar.
Fortunally, I obtained a copy of Swiss composer, Marcel Barsotti's score to the German produced, historical drama, Pope Joan. Had I not been randomly browsing film score reviews online, this hidden treasure surely would have become some of that great music to go undetected.
Filled with lush orchestrations and rich, harmonious themes, Pope Joan is a rare gem that will shamefully go unnoticed by the "mainstream" score collector.
Saturating us with the standard orchestra, an array of period instruments and an enchanting choir, Barsotti develops his themes with empowering grace and intelligence.
The main theme opens the album, with a string section crescendo that reaches such powerful orchestral beauty, it's firmly established that we are in for a real unexpected treat.
The main character, Joanna's theme delights the ears with a frolicking piano and an absolutely gorgeous cello, I can't help but be reminded of the more upbeat moments in Danny Elfman's Black Beauty score.
Inevitably, Barsotti introduces the liturgical male choir with great success. While, many listeners will be put off by the overtly religious overtones of the plainsong cues, I find them to be some of the greater highlights of the album.
Perhaps what will perk the ears of the "average" score listener, are the action-flavored cues. With the rising brass sections and thundering percussion, these tracks still seem strangely at home with the rest of the softer cues.
Even more so on the extreme variation are a few tracks that introduce a medieval dance or Middle Eastern vocals into the blend. On paper these elements sound as if they'd be terribly out of place. Yet Barsotti eases them in with such elegance, you won't even notice the sudden change in tone.
Mixing modern orchestral and choral techniques with a classical style, Barsotti delivers a clean sounding, enchanting work of beauty and an astounding well-rounded album presentation.
Pope Joan is easily attainable through MP3 downloads on Amazon and iTunes, however if it's CD format that you want, prepare to pay extra, as it's only available as an import album in North America.
I can not urge you enough to give this score a chance with multiple listens. As it's layered with so many subtle thematic progressions and orchestrations, it will reward you with something different each time you explore it's pure artistry.
4. THE KILLING ROOM - Brian Tyler
While trying to narrow down my list of favorite scores of 2009, I didn't intend or even think any single composer would appear more than once on the list. But here we are, with Brian Tyler making his second appearance on the bill with yet another non-action score from Mister Action Composer himself.
Tyler's brooding, moody score to The Killing Room acts almost as if it's the evil twin to Tyler's work on The Lazarus Project. Although, both scores share the same textural tone, Lazarus was warm and dreamlike, while The Killing Room is cold and nightmarish, with it's feet firmly planted in an all too stark reality.
The Killing Room is tightly wound up, ready to burst with claustrophobic feelings of paranoia and isolation, yet it develops a deep sense of thoughtfulness as well.
Once again, Tyler is out of his bombastic action scoring element, but that doesn't mean he doesn't know what he's doing. Infact, it seems as if Tyler is out to prove that he can go back to his roots and write small and still come out with something this large and impressive. Here Tyler puts to good use The City Of Prague Philharmonic and The Berlin Heiliger Choir, along with some solo violins, cello and piano.
Although no real theme is really present, Tyler does make use of repeated textural sounds, such as a swirling string section that appears to murmur amongst itself, like the thoughts inside your head, creating a frigid sense of urgency and dread.
Not to say the string section does not reach moments of beautiful despair, because it does and it really sneaks up on you in short instances scattered throughout the score.
There are long drawn out passages of rising intensity, such that you feel as if you're going to scream waiting for it to finally snap. Almost reminding one of a modern day Penderecki, with it's screeching strings and minimiliast wailing, Tyler perfects the art of the morose here.
Interestingly enough, Tyler sparingly makes us of the choir, choosing to mix it far into the background, creating an effective haunting chill. The mix here is clean, crisp and clear to the point of such intimate fright, you feel as if the music's gotten deep inside your thoughts.
The Killing Room is Brian Tyler at his most mature composing yet, with it's subtle waves of minimalism and long passages of teetering paranoia. I can't get enough of this score and could go on forever about the feelings it stirs within me, but I hope you'll discover that on yourself. It is, in my honest opinion, Brian Tyler's best work to date.
3. THE STONING OF SORAYA M. - John Debney
The Stoning Of Soraya M. is a film meant to be experienced for it's important message against the brutal violence against women in modern day Iran, rather than be seen for entertainment purposes. The same goes for John Debney's emotionally heavy and draining score to this intense film.
Much like his own score to The Passion Of The Christ, Debney makes us of the same tone and ethnic mood, only this time there is no glimmer of hope at the end of the score. It is flooded with suffocating despair that does not let up until long after the album has finished.
I'm not trying to sway you from this magnificent masterpiece, I'm just trying to warn you, this is not the score to listen to if you're enjoying the happy go lucky mood that you're in. Rather, this score is best listened alone, at high volume in your favorite chair, just so you can absorb each and every note Debney works into his the themes and textures he creates here.
Debney uses the sorrowful voice of Sussan Deyhim, a cello, a violin and a collection of ethnic instruments, including a duduk, a oud, and some percussion, to create a more intimate sound, instead of the more operatic mood he created with The Passion Of The Christ.
Ofcourse most of these instruments have been done to death in film music today, Debney succeeds in not resorting to tired cliches and rehashed motifs, but instead brings a certain freshness to the table that can't be denied.
While Passion uses a much more rhthymic approach, Soraya goes for more of an ambient feeling. This techinque is a very effective decision, as it creates more of modern day stark reality, which constantly reminds us that this story is really happening in this day and age.
Stoning comes out with one of the most impressive cues of 2009, with it's 13-minute title track that plays over the graphic death scene of Soraya (which I never want to see again as long as I live). While most composers might take this a chance to really lay on the heavy emotional terror and overpowering sadness, Debney does quite the opposite. Instead he plays it quietly and more intimate, which ultimately ends in pure heartbreak and emotional defeat.
The Stoning Of Soraya M. will completely drain your emotions, therefore I don't imagine I will revisit it too often, but I do know I am guaranteed to be overwhelmed and entranced with it's great beauty and sadness.
2. THE RED CANVAS - James Peterson
In this day and age, it's become all too common to completely disregard the army of lacklustre action scores Hollywood seems to shit out like hotcakes. So I was completely floored when I first heard newcomer, James Peterson's score to the mixed martial arts flick, The Red Canvas. To call this score a pleasant surprise is an extreme understatement, Peterson almost literally picks you up by the scruff of the neck and hands you a real ass-kicking.
The Red Canvas recreates the action scores of yesterday, that disappeared with Miklos Rozsa and Basil Poledouris. Now take those two composers, throw in a little Elliot Goldenthal and John Williams for flavoring and you've got one of the best action scores of the past decade.
Normally I would start at the beginning of the album, but I'm gonna go ahead and start with the score's grand finale: the 11 minute opus, "Ballet For Brawlers". A well executed suite that gracefully combines the four main themes heard throughout the score. With it's brass heavy crescendos, reminiscent of Rozsa's gladiator epic, Ben-Hur and delicate string work echoing that of William's early Star Wars scores, you'd be hard off to find a better cue this year. Now 11 minutes seems like it might be too long for an action cue, but precise timing and emotion, "Ballet For Brawlers" goes by so fast, a guaranteed replay is at hand.
Unlike most film composers today who obviously take influence from other modern composers, Peterson works in a classical influence as well. Hints of Sergei Prokofiev and Gustav Holst can be heard strongly throughout the duration of the score. What stands out the most though, is a nod to Samuel Barber's "Adadio For Strings", popularized by Platoon and The Elephant Man.
Peterson throws around different moods and tones, to break the intense heavy fanfare gladiator themes and introduces some dark, romantic string writing into the mix. You can almost see Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh onscreen with these dramatically lush cues. Even a Golden Age noirish sounding jazzy number shows up, painting a picture of Humphrey Bogart enjoying a beverage on his own at a smokey saloon in the big city.
After all this, we come to back to "Ballet For Brawlers" at the end of the score. And it's still there, kicking ass.
As if this weren't enough, Peterson tags on a delightful, 20 minute long concert piece, "Moving Canvas Suite". This multiple pieced project, nods it's head to a century of film genre's music, sucessfully jumping from the romantic, the fantasy, the adventerous and the comedic. Peterson obviously knew, The Red Canvas would receive as much critical acclaim as it did, or he probably wouldn't have added it as an extra surprise to the album. "Moving Canvas Suite" almost serves as a very impressive resume showcasing his many talents in genre hopping.
If all this is just a sample of what Peterson has instore for us in the future, then consider me a fan...we'll see though. Although, I get the feeling he is not going to disappoint.
Finally I should mention I'm not usually a fan of brass heavy action music, but I had never heard it really done properly like this in a long, long time. Atleast not since I was born over three decades ago. Hell, even Williams' Indiana Jones scores aren't really all that much of a favorite in my books. Yet, The Red Canvas isn't just modern action music, it is a return to cinema music's roots of what bold and brassy used to be...and I could simply do some more.
1. LESBIAN VAMPIRE KILLERS - Debbie Wiseman
Hmmm...Debbie Wiseman's Lesbian Vampire Killers. Heh-heh...i just like typing that title.
What can I really say about this wonderful score that I haven't all ready in my gushing review written earlier this year?
A gothic masterpiece of magnificant grandeur and orchestrated choral beauty that just isn't heard in horror films anymore...nevermind, horror-comedies as terrible as the actual film itself, Lesbian Vampire Killers.
But enough of my chatter...how about a few quotes from other film score reviewers gushing over this score too?
"An extremely classy and old-fashioned orchestral romp." - Paul Cote, cinemusic.net
"...rises to the occasion with class and style...I can’t recommend Lesbian Vampire Killers highly enough, especially when you compare it to the majority of the Hollywood fare which has accompanied genre films lately." - Jonathon Broxton , Movie Music Uk
"Brilliant! Just brilliant! What a surprise this score was, particularly after watching the trailer. It is not what I expected at all and it’s a gem!" - Jorn Tillnes, SOundtrack Geek.com
"If you love gigantic gothic horror music, you need look no further....absolutely terrific, full-blown gothic romp which is enough to set the pulse well and truly racing. " - James Southall, Moviewave.net
What more do you need? Go out and seek this masterpiece out!
There you have it folks, my Top 10 favorite scores of 2009.
Whew! That was a lot of work....what I thought was only going to be about 2 hours worth or writing and research turned out to be about 14 hours.
Some honorable mentions go to:
Klaus Badelt : Pour Elle
Marco Beltrami & Buck Sanders : The Hurt Locker
Marco Beltrami : Knowing
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis : The Road
Bruno Coulais : Coraline
Jeff & Mychael Danna : The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassu
Danny Elfman : Taking Woodstock
Michael Giacchino : Earth Days
Michael Giacchino : Star Trek
Victoria Kelly : Under The Mountain
Clint Mansell : L'affaire Farewell
James Newton Howard : Duplicity
John Ottman : Astro Boy
Douglas Pipes : Trick R' Treat
A.R. Rahman : Couples Retreat
Howard Shore : The Betrayal
Hans Zimmer : Sherlock Holmes
So back to our regulary scheduled programming for now, until the Oscar nominees for best score are announced....expect to see UP show up again ;).