Matt’s Guide to Movie Scores

2015 Edition | updated March 12, 2016

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Introduction

Bedgemog ComposerI personally tend to skew primarily in one of 2 directions: full-blown orchestra with memorable themes OR ambient electronica. Scores are great, though, in that you can find ANY genre of music represented. So as a “genre,” scores are wildly varied but predominantly instrumental and usually narratively-driven (so albums are varied; helpful for writing / design because it’s not a straight-line of tonal consistency). Similar to any geeky endeavor, you find that within the “fanbase” there are a LOT of smaller sects (people who JUST want orchestras prior to 1985, synthesizers only, animation, people who ONLY like the work of Danny Elfman, etc.).

Also similar to any other geeky endeavor, a lot of my personal favorite works have only been issued in “limited” runs. Scores are fuckin’ weird in that they’re still PREDOMINATELY being issued on CD; I think score fans are the only group of people in the world still actively buying discs! It’s super weird, but within the current system, logical: they’re pressed in small runs due to orchestra re-use fees (to release the music, you have to pay EVERYONE involved: every musician, engineer, composer, etc. so it’s MUCH cheaper to release it in limited numbers, usually less than 2,000 copies, because the fees are smaller).

So, for example, I *just* bought the album for “Agent Cody Banks” — that Frankie Muniz & Hillary Duff spy-kid movie from 2003, whose score was just released for the first time IN AUGUST OF 2015 — because it’s by composer John Powell (“How to Train Your Dragon,” the “Bourne” series) and it’s a super-fun mix of classic-Bond-esque spy music, mixed with finger snaps, whistling, and kazoos. But it’s not on Spotify. The reason I’m saying all this is: I’m going to tailor these recommendations to what IS on Spotify. But if, at any point, you need something in a specific tone, lemme know.
 


Yearly Score Playlists

Every year since 2001 I’ve made a “Best Scores of the Year” mix disc. When on CD, they were called Soundtrack Sampler. Since starting Spotify in 2012, I’ve built them publicly throughout the year (so the current year is always an ever-changing playlist that shuffles tracks in and out through the current year; it’s less a “finely-tuned” mix, and more just a dumping ground of tracks that caught my ear).

2012 Scores https://open.spotify.com/user/124637366/playlist/0VE2oMbI6Pts3S5HjkR5vV
2013 Scores https://open.spotify.com/user/124637366/playlist/5DGGBn77fv2qseslSWCUBl
2014 Scores https://open.spotify.com/user/124637366/playlist/3khL6YiVQT445OQEJRQinH
2015 Scores https://open.spotify.com/user/124637366/playlist/37lNpnjPHOGmo69CsVTiii
2016 Scores https://open.spotify.com/user/124637366/playlist/7KR2a4nDRcKEfDELx14O8B


Composers You Should Know

Here are my top 4 favorite “modern” composers, with a couple of my favorite albums (on Spotify) for each. These are “new batch” / 2000s-era composers, post the 70s-90s establishing of greats like John Williams, Danny Elfman, Alan Silvestri, James Horner, Howard Shore, etc. The “modern” ones I’ve listed are all scoring huge things, so they’re not exactly scrappy underdogs, but they’re names you may not be familiar with, but you’ve DEFINITELY heard their work.


JAMES NEWTON HOWARD

You could just listen to JNH’s complete filmography and you’d be all set for every tone and style you could want. The man is a chameleon — from minimalist soundscapes like “Michael Clayton” to pure magic like “Peter Pan” to Scottish-orchestral in “The Water Horse” — he’s able to do anything and everything. He constantly works (every year he seems to do 5-6 films, which is INSANE) and he’s always in demand. He’s also frequently brought in to “save” films (when a score gets thrown out and the film’s not working, he works crazy-fast to completely re-score a film from scratch at the 11th hour). He’s, in short, amazing.

“Treasure Planet” https://open.spotify.com/album/5mkMnwIpLibABWXO8hKYXq
“Atlantis: The Lost Empire” https://open.spotify.com/album/5mkMnwIpLibABWXO8hKYXq
These poor Disney animated flicks are so maligned, no one talks about 2 of my all-time favorite scores. “Treasure” features some amazing piratical-action writing (“12 Years Later” and “To the Spaceport”), and “Atlantis” goes full storytelling-bombast (“The Submarine”) as well as quasi-ethnical wonderment (“The Secret Swim”). I adore both of these.

“Peter Pan” https://open.spotify.com/album/1M5CK5CGSEhF7n7f4QIVHt
Listen to “Flying.” If that grabs you, go back to the “Main Title” and listen straight through. It’s an AMAZING album. The purest form of childhood storybook wonder ever put to music. (Disney purchased advertising rights to this score to advertise their entire company with, even though they don’t own the film!)

“The Village” https://open.spotify.com/album/1nbaQ8V8yECyjxej3rPF7G
Pure autumnal walking in the woods. It’s dark, it’s unnerving, but it’s gorgeous. Lots of creaky violins and ethereal melodies creeping out of the shadows. Newton Howard scored all of Shyamalan’s films until recently, and the scores were always great (“Unbreakable” has great atmosphere with beats). “Signs” is actually my favorite score by him, but it’s punctuated with “loud-percussion-make-you-jump” moments and it’s very “forward” and “noticeable”, so I think “The Village” is better working-on-something-music.

“The Hunger Games” Quartet https://open.spotify.com/user/124637366/playlist/2ypDGwJIoSD5sDrUDc20Jp
A bit folksy, a bit dystopian dread, lots of sad fiddles, and some wordless choir. People don’t tend to talk a lot about the scores from this series because the themes aren’t “big” memorable ones like in “Superman” or “Back to the Future” but there ARE 6-7 themes/motifs (at least) that re-occur throughout the movies, and this is one of the ONLY movie franchises in the modern “blockbuster” era which has actually kept the same composer for EVERY movie (a feat not accomplished by Harry Potter, Twilight, Avengers, James Bond, Jurassic Park, etc.) so this is actually a major score touchstone. In short, this is great “writing” music because it fades into the background, but is actually really complex and actually repeats thematic ideas.


JOHN POWELL

Has becomes known for 2 distinct sounds: big, warm orchestral (so he’s become THE go-to guy for epic, world-building animation franchises for Dreamworks, Blue Sky, etc.) and tense minimalist action (starting with the “Bourne” franchise and then asked to copycat himself frequently, since).

“How to Train Your Dragon” https://open.spotify.com/album/1kTnC045mQqurTQvGMGpmU
“How to Train Your Dragon 2” https://open.spotify.com/album/1KSr34uJsbt11kg5l2frDv
Beautiful, majestic, with minor Icelandic influences, and super rich with themes and melodies. The first score is Oscar-nominated and there’s a reason these scores have become fused with the tone of the series: they’re fantastic. “Dragon Racing” (the first cue from the sequel) is a great old-fashioned overture of themes.

“The Bourne Ultimatum” https://open.spotify.com/album/53brXw3bzCrMr8chGbbW2V
The Bourne look and sound have become hugely influential. Powell’s scoring technique is: percussion and strings, with some electronics. It’s propulsive, tense, and keeps your heartrate up. (This is my favorite of the franchise’s scores)


ALEXANDRE DESPLAT

Like a more classical Thomas Newman, his scores are usually meandering, sparkling, and extremely classical. He’s been the go-to guy for “important” awards movies for the last several years (although those ones are often “diet” versions of his other, more creative works).

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” https://open.spotify.com/album/6IV7472Hni7A1ENilCManS
Vaguely Swiss-chalet, European dulcimer-mandolin. Delicate, but quirky (i.e. Wes Anderson’s style, musically, which is why they keep working together, haha).

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1” https://open.spotify.com/album/5gI4aiUCMxTkrjEeXDbybG
I think Desplat did a good job of bringing a cold, dark “magic” to the series (he scored the final 2 films). It’s mystery-serious, but also pretty, and nowhere near the “whimsy” orchestra of the first several in the series.

“The Golden Compass” https://open.spotify.com/album/3c2NIn8uumrMAhBnf8DvRI
Clearly a trial run for “Potter,” it’s got a wistful chilliness that I like.

“The Tree of Life” https://open.spotify.com/album/5SVEvleIdF7VpH8eD6ZoEC
The track “Circles” is the definition of what a daydream sounds like, to me. It flutters and it’s a bit sad and it just sorta… keeps… going…


MICHAEL GIACCHINO

Probably the closest thing we have to the “next John Williams,” largely due to his bold, memorable themes and also the industry-leading partnerships he’s made (J.J. Abrams, Spielberg, Pixar, Brad Bird, the Wackowskis, etc.). He’s got a very “classic movie score” sound mixed with modern sensibilities: when you want big orchestra, front and center, and a movie with wall-to-wall music, you now go to Giacchino.

“Inside Out” https://open.spotify.com/album/1sNK9vLvzIo626GznCEsBN
“Up” https://open.spotify.com/album/5yN2LiMaA7nEXT35GW4hNu
“Ratatouille” https://open.spotify.com/album/7Dr08Oi3zxdCzmFulSXSs2
“The Incredibles” https://open.spotify.com/album/5Gqln6CvkfVOlDq1ne1usV
His Pixar scores are his best work, IMHO. “The Incredibles” apes John Barry’s classic Bond-sound but takes the jazz and adds in more “fun”-orchestral (final track “The Incredits”); “Ratatouille” has a wonderful French-inspired, light-ly jazzy, comfy-blankets-enveloping sound (again, final track “End Creditouilles”); “Up” won him an Oscar, largely for the strength of the dialogue free “Married Life” sequence which is beautiful and heartbreaking (I would rank “Up” fourth of these, but it’s still great); and the currently-in-theatres “Inside Out” is another experiment in orchestral-electronic-jazz fusion and it works great (try “First Day of School”).

He also single-handedly scored every episode of “LOST” (multiple albums on Spotify) and “Alias” (both albums are on Spotify), which are both enjoyable. Alias has a great early-2000s-spy electronic sound mixed with easily-identifiable world-ethnic rhythms and tones that he brought back for Mission:Impossible 3 and Ghost Protocol (both on Spotify).


Masters

These are all big names, so I’m just giving a not-on-their-greatest-hits recommendation, for each, that I really like. There are others, but I’m getting tired of typing and my knowledge pre-1975 isn’t yet extensive enough to make solid career-spanning rec’s.

JAMES HORNER
Best known for: “Titanic”, “Avatar” and “Aliens”
Instead I’m giving you: “The Mask of Zorro” https://open.spotify.com/album/5cBuyHhRz9LIlHMKWSZsrt
Flamenco, woodwinds, and latin-tinged romantic-angst!

JOHN WILLIAMS
Best known for: “Star Wars”, “Superman”, “E.T.” “Indiana Jones”, etc.
Instead I’m giving you: “A.I.” https://open.spotify.com/album/5yKkKXvX1X0finFqR3JAKL
Quiet, atmospheric — with an electronic middle section — and then tender at the end. It’s one of the most un-Williams-y scores he’s composed, and one of my favs.

DANNY ELFMAN
Best known for: “Beetlejuice”, “Batman”, “The Nightmare Before Christmas”
Instead I’m giving you: “Edward Scissorhands” https://open.spotify.com/album/4pv4SQkB4SXrY5bynbW0lf
Possibly his most signature score, unbelievably influential and oft-mimicked, it’s now considered an absolute classic. Piano, lush strings, wordless choir. Pure Elfman.
And I’m also giving you: “Sleepy Hollow” https://open.spotify.com/album/7zmd0vng4c2uLobETbruWw
Two parts: dark, dark angry Gothic orchestra of doom, and beautiful wordless-choir threads that swirl throughout. Another one of my favs.

HANS ZIMMER
Best known for: originating the “synthesized-rock-anthem” score sound that dominated the late-90s, early 2000’s (“Crimson Tide,” “Armageddon,” “The Rock,” etc. — not all of which he COMPOSED, but produced); creating the “Steel Whale” BWWAAAMMMFFF noise from “Inception” that’s in every movie trailer ever now; also scored “The Lion King” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise
Instead I’m giving you: “Interstellar” https://open.spotify.com/album/7a78GiEowpaCa7ZJs44xUU
I hate recommending something so recent over all his previous work, but Zimmer has been working crazy-hard to reinvent himself in the last 10 years, and “Interstellar” is masterful. It’s super quiet, but deeply emotional and moving; merging synthesizers with piano, orchestra, ticking clocks, and church organ (!) it’s wildly original and really interesting (also: great background music).

HOWARD SHORE
Best known for: “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit”
Instead I’m giving you: … “The Lord of the Rings” DAMMIT! It’s tough to escape this one. Here’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” https://open.spotify.com/album/04rz93AqGy9JduzV3K81Dh
They are literally already studying this one in music schools. It’s a master-work. There’s no denying it’s what’ll be on his tombstone. (Previous to Middle Earth he was known for “The Fly” and I also like “Panic Room” although they sound NOTHING like LOTR and I often can’t sit through those albums in full).

RACHEL PORTMAN
Best known for: the sweeping, classically romantic romantic sound of Miramax films in the 90s (“Emma”, “The Cider House Rules”) I wanted to give you: “Never Let Me Go” (perfect for a rainy day of writing, but NOT ON SPOTIFY DAMMIT!)
Instead I’m giving you: “Chocolat” https://open.spotify.com/album/1fs5PH1L35fEbG2csJT3AD
Her Oscar-nominated score from 2000. It’s like a slow, regretful-old zydeco. Heavy on the strings. A bit of fun now and then (“Vianne Sets Up Shop”).



I’ve forgotten to include lots of people, and there are a million albums that I really like as single, one-off compositions by people who either didn’t do anything else or I don’t really like other stuff by them, but this is as good a place as any to start. I hope you didn’t die by the time you read to the end! Hope this is SOMEHOW helpful and not so overwhelming that you can’t begin. Eep!

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