What makes a good movie score? Is it how effectively the music pairs with the movie? Is it how easy the songs are to listen to by themselves? Determining what makes an effective score is a tricky task.
Truthfully, it’s a combination of several elements. All of those elements were taken into account when compiling this list of the best of 2017. The mission was to find music that paired well with their corresponding movies along with music that could be enjoyed anywhere at any time.
The list below consists of some of the more obvious Oscar favorites as well as some lesser known scores that were likely ignored due to the small scale of the movies. It’s unfair that the big budget films get recognized for their music every year when hardworking composers put together incredible pieces of music in smaller films. It’s equally important to note that these scores all differ stylistically. Simply put, there’s something for everybody.
10. David Wingo – Brigsby Bear
The quirky indie hit Brigsby Bear wowed critics and audiences alike with its heartwarming humor and optimistic tone. In particular, SNL regular Kyle Mooney earned heaps of praise for writing the undeniably inventive script. Frankly, this isn’t the type of movie you’d expect from a dude who used to make YouTube videos about not knowing how to smoke weed. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to appreciate.
A movie as unique as Brigsby Bear needs an equally creative soundtrack to go along with the madness. That’s where David Wingo comes in. Wingo is known for his collaborations with Jeff Nichols and David Gordon Green, but he has proven that he’s not above working with first-time directors. His work in the 2015 zombie flick Maggie was admirable. His work in Brigsby Bear, however, is a step above admirable. In addition to just sounding lovely, the movie’s music is liable to give viewers and listeners a sense of hope. The cues all match the sentimentality of the film, which results in a memorable listening experience.
If first-time director Dave McCary continues to work with Wingo, he’ll be in safe hands. The two go together like peanut butter and jelly (excuse the cliché). Maybe the music is such a perfect fit because Brigsby Bear feels like a slightly quirkier David Gordon Green movie, but it may be easier to say that Wingo is a versatile and extremely talented composer that deserves more attention than he gets.
Highlights: The Pier, You’re My Friend, Premiere
9. Carter Burwell – Wonderstruck
Burwell recently picked up his second Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score. Unfortunately, it’s easy to argue his nomination was for the wrong movie. To be fair, each of Burwell’s contributions this year were excellent. He composed the music for Goodbye Christopher Robin, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and the criminally underrated Wonderstruck.
Each score rightfully earned rave reviews from critics, but the Academy unsurprisingly decided to throw Three Billboards another nomination. It’s hard to complain when his work is top notch regardless of the movie, but there’s something about his work in Wonderstruck that stands out.
Wonderstruck rapidly bounces between various tones, which means Burwell has to keep up with the frequent tonal shifts. At the same time, he’s tasked with creating something that feels semi-cohesive.
Essentially, he has to find the right balance in order to satisfy viewers and listeners. While there are sharp contrasts between certain cues, all of Burwell’s music still feels like it’s coming from the same movie. For example, Talking Picture is an almost melancholy tune while the carnival-inspired Daughter of the Storm is a weird combination of playful and creepy. They work together because they paint a picture of childhood innocence, even if they do so in dramatically different ways.
Perhaps the experimentation is what makes this a more memorable listening experience compared to Burwell’s other work. It’s a goodie bag full of surprises that still manages to feel like the product of one mind. It’s not as neat and tidy as what listeners are used to, but it stands out in plenty of other ways.
Highlights: Silent Whispers, Daughter of the Storm, Runaways
8. Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch – Blade Runner 2049
Surprising absolutely nobody, Hans Zimmer’s score for last year’s sci-fi epic is suitably phenomenal. Some people began to worry after longtime Villeneuve collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson was kicked to the curb in favor of the arguably safer choice, but clearly the director knew what he was doing.
Apparently Zimmer and Wallfisch were chosen because they were better able to replicate the sound of Vangelis’s soundtrack from the original film. The ability to match the sound of the original was so important because Villeneuve had to both present viewers with new ideas and please longtime Blade Runner fans.
Thankfully, Zimmer and Wallfisch put together a score that fits the Blade Runner universe while also standing on its own. The opening cue, appropriately titled 2049, instantly transports viewers into Villeneuve’s beautiful sci-fi world. It’s a slow, almost eerie piece of music that gradually crescendos until layers upon layers of sound combine to produce a moving melody that sets the tone of the film.
From there, the composing duo continues to up the ante until Sea Wall, the ten minute piece de resistance that essentially slaps viewers in the face with its raw intensity. It’s the strongest cue by a mile, but it’s hardly the only one worth listening to.
The 94 minute original score makes every second count. There are obvious highlights scattered throughout the grandiose soundtrack, but there isn’t a single track worth skipping. It’s hard to deny the fact that the score works better in conjunction with the film considering how impressively it’s able to impact the tone, but the songs are certainly worth a listen by themselves. It would have been interesting to see what Jóhannsson was capable of doing, but it’s hard to complain when the featured music is so damn beautiful.
Highlights: Mesa, Sea Wall, Tears in the Rain
7. Aesop Rock – Bushwick
Last year, one of the most respected members of the hip-hop community decided to take a crack at scoring a movie. The lyrically verbose Aesop Rock got the opportunity to add something new to his resume when he made the music for action-thriller Bushwick.
While the movie itself was generally panned by critics thanks to the shallow plot and generic action sequences, Aesop Rock’s multi-layered beats were hard to criticize. This rapper rose to prominence because of his ability to spit intelligent rhymes, but his music still manages to shine when he’s not behind a microphone.
Anyone familiar with the artist’s previous work should feel right at home here. The cues are heavy on bass and even heavier on synth, which leads to an experience that’s immensely enjoyable both on and off screen. Bushwick is far from a perfect movie, but Aesop’s aggressive beats help ratchet up the tension when the filmmakers are unable to do so. A movie so reliant on suspense needs someone like Aesop Rock to set the scene, and lucky for us he does a fantastic job.
On their own, the tracks are equally effective. Sure, it sounds like an instrumental version of your typical Aesop Rock album, but that’s hardly a problem. Few artists can make beats this frenetic and captivating. If anything, this serves as further proof that Aesop Rock is more than just a wordy rapper. He’s a valuable musical artist
Highlights: Jaguar, Chesterfield, Raiders
6. Giona Ostinelli & Sonya Belousova – M.F.A.
Not a whole lot of people saw this brutal rape revenge thriller when it came out last year, which unfortunately means not a whole lot of people got the opportunity to hear the movie’s hypnotic score by Giona Ostinelli and Sonya Belousova. Like the film itself, this composing team is relatively unknown, but viewers may recognize them from their work on Darling, Carnage Park, and the television adaptation of The Mist. Although they tend to go for a distinctly electronic sound, every score still feels like a completely unique experience. In other words, they’re anything but one-trick ponies.
For example, while The Mist attempted a more melodic sound in line with countless other horror films and shows, M.F.A goes for a more aggressive and experimental sound. Empty Canvas presents listeners with a cacophonous mixture of different sounds that come together to create something truly special. This cue is an excellent setup, but things only get progressively more interesting as the soundtrack nears its conclusion. Pursuing Him, the most prominent song on the soundtrack, is unlike anything you’ll hear in a movie this year.
The sheer inventiveness of the score makes it a fantastic standalone experience. While it pairs perfectly with the mood of the film, it’s hard not to come back to some of the songs after the credits roll. Certain songs are a bit too experimental for casual listening, but some of them beg to be heard again and again with the bass turned all the way up. These ladies know how to make your skin crawl and your foot tap, which is quite the feat.
Highlights: Empty Canvas, Escaping Kennedy, Pursuing Him