2013: 15 Best Film Scores

Even as frequent soundtrack listeners, it's only at the end of the year, when we come to take stock of the various scores that have passed through our ear canals over the previous twelve months, that it's possible to get a measure of the state of composition for film. Which is to say that, having spent the last few days relistening to some of the major scores of 2013, it's been a fantastic year.

From industry veterans working on megabudget tentpoles to major rock bands teaming with acclaimed auteurs to low-key indie types making their soundtrack debut with tiny overlooked pictures, there's been a breadth and depth to the film music of 2013 that, as a site that started off focusing on that side of things, has made us very happy indeed.

As such, it proved nearly impossible to pick our favorites, let alone to put them in any kind of order. But we managed it, and below, as part of our ongoing year-in-review coverage, you'll find the 15 finest film scores of the last twelve months, which should scratch the itch of any soundtrack fan. Take a look at the write-ups and listen to extracts below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section. And check back next week for our verdict on the finest soundtracks of the year as well.

Oblivion, Tom Cruise

15. M83 - "Oblivion"
Director Joseph Kosinski sure has a thing for electronic French outfits scoring his movie. After the miraculous coup of getting mysterious robotic duo Daft Punk to score his debut feature "Tron: Legacy," he turned to Anthony Gonzalez, aka M83, for his follow-up: a daytime sci-fi extravaganza called "Oblivion." (Producer and musician Joseph Trapanese, who also helped Daft Punk on their score, aided Gonzalez.) The best material in the "Oblivion" score is when Gonzalez is allowed to be his most M83-y: sweeping, gorgeous, dreamily ethereal, like in the wonderful moment where Tom Cruise and his partner (both romantic and otherwise) Andrea Riseborough go skinny dipping in Cruise's far-out futuristic pad. It's a piece of music so pretty that it almost makes your heart ache. And it's evocative of the kind of thing that Gonzalez and Kosinski could have gotten away with more had the studio not interfered so heavily (Gonzalez talked about the hellish experience of making the movie with Pitchfork). More often than not, though, the score strikes a delicate balance between having a glittery disco personality and serving the movie's action sequence needs (complete with the "Inception"-style horn blasts). It's also worth noting that Gonzalez composed one of the very best songs from a movie this year in the theme song, which plays over the film's main-on-end credit sequence. As sung by Royksopp collaborator Susanne Sundfor, the song lovingly incorporates elements of the score but more fully gives way to M83's gauzily poppy inclinations, complete with a belted-from-the-heavens chorus. It's one of the more dazzling aspects of a movie that isn't exactly short on jaw-dropping moments.

Mud Matthew McConaughey

14.  David Wingo - “Mud”
One of the masterstrokes of the near-meteoric rise of Jeff Nichols was borrowing a composer from friend and collaborator David Gordon Green. David Wingo scored many of Green's early films, as far as back as "George Washington" (recently reteaming with him for "Prince Avalanche"—see below), and came up with one of the most memorable scores of 2011 at his first time at bat with Nichols on "Take Shelter." We hope the collaboration with Nichols is as long-running as the one with Green, because they've come up with gold again for "Mud." Even more so that its predecessor, it's real country-fried stuff, with Wingo combining bluegrass banjo and fiddle with persistent percussion and foreboding strings. The latter in particular is crucial to the film: even at its most carefree, the filmmaker and his composer don't let you forget that something terrible is coming.

12 Years A Slave

13. Hans Zimmer - “12 Years a Slave”
Over the last three decades Hans Zimmer has racked up nearly 160 film and television credits, on average composing the music for about six films a year. In 2013 alone, in addition to the two scores we’re highlighting here, Zimmer also contributed to “Rush,” “The Lone Ranger” and an indie called “Last Love.” For any composer working as long and frequently as Zimmer has, there’s bound to be a little overlap among your own work which is basically a long-winded way of saying that yes, Zimmer’s main theme to “12 Years a Slave,” entitled “Solomon,” does share some similarities with his score to a certain 2010 blockbuster. But as much as we’d like to picture director Steve McQueen sitting around asking Zimmer to give him “some of that ‘Inception’ top-spinning music” for his harrowing slavery drama, it’s more likely that this was probably not intentional. However when it works as well as this score does, it’s hard to grumble too much. Listen to it again and see how McQueen’s images of Solomon’s journey have been seared into your memory whether you know it or not: men gathered in the field, a plate with some blackberries and a crumb of biscuit, the skin of someone’s back lashed to fraying ends, a black body swinging in the summer breeze. Some have criticized the score for being too heavy but this is almost certainly by design. From the quiet strings of Solomon’s theme to Paul Dano’s rhythmic, hand clap-heavy taunt “Run, N*****, Run” to the nightmarish industrial sounds of Godzilla approaching (as one critic put it) as the slaves are loaded onto a riverboat, the sounds and images in the film are inextricably intertwined. McQueen uses both picture and sound like blunt instruments. He doesn’t want you to forget. He wants to leave a mark.

How I Live Now

12. Jon Hopkins - “How I Live Now”
Jon Hopkins couldn't have asked for a better 2013. The long-time Brian Eno and Coldplay collaborator who's also a Domino-signed solo artist, produced one of the best records of the year with his Mercury Prize-nominated Immunity, but more importantly for our purposes, followed up his terrific scoring debut on "Monsters" with another stellar score for Kevin Macdonald's apocalpytical Bildungsroman "How I Live Now." The film, a bleak and uncompromised vision with more in common with "Come and See" than "The Hunger Games," went disappointingly underseen, but it's the rare score that works well as a standalone record (though it's best-served in context, obviously). Nodding to Eno and Mogwai, it layers dread-infused electronica under sparkly piano and even nu-folk influences, for a record that, like the film, encompasses both swooning romance and stomach-churning despair, sometimes in the same breath. There are a few very strong song choices as well: Amanda Palmer's "Do It With A Rockstar" opens up, while Hopkins tinkers effectively with Daughter's "Home" for a percussive and striking remix, and teams up with Bat For Lashes' Natasha Khan for the stunning "Garden's Heart."

clarie denis, the bastards

11.  Tindersticks - “Bastards”
Bastards” is the type of movie that feels as if it’s bleeding into the audience. Claire Denis’ revenge thriller is what some would call her first “genre” picture, which seems to be at odds, musically, with frequent collaborators Tindersticks, who have composed a number of her films. Known for their tuneful, romantic melodies, here the group shifts into another gear, underscoring the material with a haunting, plodding noir sound, a thick soundscape that allows for pulsating, singular beats that click into a downward 2-2 pattern. The effect is sinister, almost rhythmically queuing the viewer to follow the film as it slowly pieces the clues to the fragmented story together; it’s not catchy, but you almost want to nod your head to the beat. It’s minimalist, but the few notes create a borderline oppressive aura, something of a surprise for a band that prides themselves on grandiose, romantic chamber music. At other moments, a slinky dance beat underscores the sleazy sex involved in the twisty plot, accompanied by a haunting, echoing reverb, as if the music itself was haunted, the idea of dance beats being marred by the filthy actions associated with it. Appropriately, the movie ends with an upsetting reveal accompanied by the Tindersticks’ instantly-catchy cover of Hot Chocolate’s “Put Your Love In Me,” sonically providing a moment of low-key seduction as a series of truly upsetting images flash on the screen.