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The 15 Best Film Scores Of 2013

Features
by The Playlist Staff
December 5, 2013 1:24 PM
49 Comments
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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.

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49 Comments

  • Daniel | February 20, 2014 6:38 AMReply

    Completely agree with your number 1 selection, brilliant movie and score. Also loved gravity score, although the movie was appalling.

  • andrew | January 6, 2014 8:12 AMReply

    To me after these are all garbage to mediocre scores. On par with Gangnam Style, you chew and spit, no need to rate. Hope the movies are better. To overlook monsters like Brian Tyler, for these tunes that could play great as ringtones at best, is an affront to film music industry.

  • Lyndsay | January 3, 2014 9:26 AMReply

    You know, you never really truly appreciate movies until you hear their scores. That's what makes most films so great.

  • Gabriela | December 28, 2013 1:30 PMReply

    The writers/ reviewers on this site make no freaking sense. How are you going to call a movie overrated then turn around and call it one of 2013s best film scores?! Wtf the same thing happened in 2013s 20 worst movies you list a movie that you said was underrated?! Also listing on the 20 worst list some of (by my opinion) the best movies of the year as the worst. Do ya read what ya write or just blindly put up reviews? I definitely think spring breakers was overrated and bland at most I fell asleep watching it, the host was a grand love story and now you see me was a great movie also.

  • Matthew Starr | December 11, 2013 11:08 PMReply

    I can't understand how Zimmer is on here twice yet his best work this year did not make the list (Rush).

  • G | December 11, 2013 7:35 PMReply

    This is a nice list.

    But my biggest issue is with Hans Zimmer. To be honest, I've never thought he was anything special and I still don't. His scores are great for temp tracks because they can fit to ANY film of the given genre.

    superman score = any heroic comic book film
    12 years a slave score = any sad, historical dramatic film

    I'm sorry, I don't think he is as major a talent as hollywood composers Danny Elfman, Alexandre Desplat, or James Horner. (The snide "Danny Elfman grown up" comment shows the writer doesn't think a lot of him, which is sad. Especially seeing how his music for Tim Burton was recently given a retrospective concert on the largest scale next to John Williams.

    I agree with another poster that Keegan DeWitt's score for "This is Martin Bonner" should hold a place on the list. His decision to disintegrate the music was spot on and created a beautiful, melancholy score.

    I see Mark Orton got a mention for "Nebraska" but I think you could easily loose (at least) 1 Hans Zimmer score and bump this fantastic music up to the main list! It feels tailor-made and captures the heart of the story. (I disagree that it overrides it.)

    "Prince Avalanche" "Mud" and "Upstream Color" are definitely great. Not sure if anything this year has been as good as Jonny Greenwood's score for "The Master" but definitely some great stuff.

  • Lyndsay | January 3, 2014 9:21 AM

    Personally, I like Hans Zimmer. I just like film scores, in general. One of the best scores I've heard from Hans Zimmer is "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End". Yes, I realize that's not from 2013, but I felt it was worth mentioning.

  • NewYorker | December 11, 2013 11:33 AMReply

    my 15 favorite movie scores of 2013 are defently
    1-Man Of Steel
    2-Spring Breakers
    3-Captain Phillips
    4-Violet & Daisy
    5-Charlie Countryman
    6-Filly Brown
    7-Out Of The Furance
    8-Texas Chainsaw 3d
    9-The Great Gatsby
    10-Evil Dead
    11-Gangster Squad
    12-Tyler Perry's Temptation
    13-42
    14-Mud
    15-The Iceman

  • JORDAN BELL FORT | January 15, 2014 5:45 PM

    when franco says please god please
    and shannon is just standing there looking at him
    .
    the score was spine tingling

  • Elitist Movie Snob | December 10, 2013 8:33 PMReply

    Two Hans Zimmer scores and not even a mention of Nebraska's fantastically simple score?

  • You Asshat | December 10, 2013 8:41 PM

    So then you didn't read to the end to find the "mention" of the Nebraska score then?

  • aquarius1271 | December 8, 2013 6:19 PMReply

    As wonderful as the Man of Steel score was, I think Zimmer's score for Rush deserved to be on the main list instead. The most exciting movie music I have listened for ages.

  • Debbie | December 25, 2013 6:45 AM

    Agreed. The pulsating rush (oops pun) of the score has thrilled me since my first watch!

  • david | December 7, 2013 4:23 PMReply

    Jon Brion - The Blue Umbrella

  • Sam's Myth | December 7, 2013 2:14 PMReply

    Great list as usual, and as a soundtrack freak myself I share most of your picks. A few you missed that I'd love to hear what you think of:

    Steven Hufstetter - Kiss of the Damned
    Broadcast - Berberian Sound Studio
    Rob - Maniac
    Hanan Townshend - To The Wonder
    Joe Hisaishi - The Wind Rises
    and Thomas Newman's opening theme to Side Effects.

    And an important note on All Is Lost -- and I'll post this on Ebert's soundcloud too -- but it's been driving me crazy that, seemingly, there was a version of the Excelsior theme that played over the end credits that was even more repetitive and stripped down, which does not exist on the soundtrack release. In fact, maybe I was lost in the movie but I don't remember much music being used in the actual film other than this main theme at the end, which hit me really hard. Tell me I'm not crazy and that the version of the theme used in the end credits is very different than the Excelsior track on the CD...

  • Tully | December 6, 2013 6:50 PMReply

    This is a pretty good list, folks, but no reasonable discussion about motion picture scores in the year 2013 should leave out Keegan DeWitt's contribution to Chad Hartigan's THIS IS MARTIN BONNER: http://thisismartinbonner.bandcamp.com/album/this-is-martin-bonner-soundtrack

  • G | December 11, 2013 6:36 PM

    Agreed! This was a terrific score that really boosted the overall quality of the film. It was original and well-tailored.
    Definitely deserves a spot on the list.

  • hobbittt | December 6, 2013 3:37 PMReply

    Hobbit???

  • VITHAYA PANSRINGARM | December 6, 2013 10:39 AMReply

    Cliff Martinez's work in "Only God Forgives" is quite good ? ? ?


    If you’re prepared to settle into the film’s unorthodox rhythms,
    you’ll be rewarded by Cliff Martinez’s superb score,
    which perfectly complements the film’s wild mélange of elements,
    acknowledging its Thai setting with eerie Eastern sounds
    that, by the end, feel like the spirits of Bangkok are getting ready to rise up
    and cleanse the world of Crystal and her immoral brood.

    http://www.empireonline dot com/reviews/reviewcomplete.asp?FID=137633


    scored by Drive composer Cliff Martinez, it sounds magnificent,
    perfectly conjuring the feel of backstreet Bangkok

    http://www.totalfilm dot com/reviews/cinema/only-god-forgives


    . And the synth score, by Drive's Cliff Martinez, is some kind of new classic

    http://www.rollingstone dot com/movies/reviews/only-god-forgives-20130719


    If there is one small titbit of innovation and originality in the film,
    it is Cliff Martinez's ambient, mesmerizing, gorgeous score.
    One of the year's best,
    it belongs in a much more accomplished work

    http://www.rogerebert dot com/reviews/only-god-forgives-2013

  • Marv | December 5, 2013 9:38 PMReply

    Place beyond the lines should've made this list, I also really enjoyed the score for the bling ring.

  • TOMMY DEVITO | December 6, 2013 10:42 AM

    the score in TPBTP when gosling rings from the strangers house and when dane dehaan is shot from above like his father on a bike too

  • cirkusfolk | December 5, 2013 9:53 PM

    I agree with Pines. Much better than they gave it credit for in the honorable mentions.

  • bohmer | December 5, 2013 7:00 PMReply

    Great list! My top 3 would be:
    - Upstream Color
    - Tie for Only God Forgive and the Martinez track of Spring Breakers
    - Man of Steel (The 29 minutes of Hans' Sketchbook & General Zod theme put it in #3)

  • James | December 5, 2013 6:16 PMReply

    The score for CAPTAIN PHILLIPS didn't merely have nods to Powell's UNITED 93 score. They actually tracked in the cue "The End" from the UNITED 93 score over the entire finale of PHILLIPS - it's listed in the music credits at the end. And the main theme is the same one Powell wrote for UNITED 93.

  • charlie wilson | December 6, 2013 10:43 AM

    the music when barkhad abdi and hanks first saw each other through binoculars was amazing

  • cirkusfolk | December 5, 2013 9:52 PM

    I thought the last musical cue in Captain Phillips sounded just like the last one in Inception. I figured that was why Hans Zimmer was thanked in the credits.

  • serena | December 5, 2013 5:32 PMReply

    I'm glad I'm not the only one who saw BREATH IN early (in London this summer) and swooned for Dustin O'Halloran's score.

    I would've included THE GREAT GATSBY, if only for its originality. Yeah, "Young and Beautiful" was used about 4 times, but only because it's the most Gatsby-esque song in the whole movie, and Lana Del Rey (aka Lizzie Grant) is more Gatsby than Jay Gatsby.

  • Zach | December 5, 2013 5:01 PMReply

    Nebraska has one of the more charming scores of the year. It's a different breed than most of these picks (it's bluegrass, not orchestral or electronic), but Mark Orton's work made the movie the instant classic it is, for me at least.

  • The Playlist | December 5, 2013 6:24 PM

    Ah yeah, Nebraska was on the short list for final 15 and then got bumped (problem is some of it isn't an original score and some of it is pre-existing). We should have added it to the honorable mention section. I'll amend, thanks for noting.

  • Jone | December 5, 2013 6:12 PM

    Completely agree. I've been listening non-stop. The only score this year that I've made a point to find after seeing the movie.

  • Grace | December 5, 2013 4:02 PMReply

    I feel like these lists really shouldn't be published until 2013 is actually over...because The Hobbit doesn't come out until the 13th and that would definitely be on this list because Howard Shore is a masterful composer and always delivers.

  • JC | December 5, 2013 3:46 PMReply

    I am probably biased...but Only God Forgives should be on that list.

  • ethan hunt | December 6, 2013 10:45 AM

    BEST SUPP ACTOR 2014 nominees (my predictions)

    woody harrelson OOTF
    vithaya pansringarm OGF
    barkhad abdi CP
    joel edgerton TGG
    ryan gosling TPBTP

  • BEF | December 5, 2013 3:05 PMReply

    Zimmer's everywhere, but I liked his score for "12 Years" more than anything else from his releases this year ... I was actually surprised it WAS Zimmer when his name came up.

  • Oogle monster | December 5, 2013 2:26 PMReply

    NO GATSBY?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! WALTER MITTY?!!! WHATTT!!!

  • benutty | December 5, 2013 2:26 PMReply

    "Playlist, where we try to make Upstream Color happen until we absolutely just cannot anymore."

    Kind of mad that you just didn't call Beasts of the Southern Wild best score this year. Nothing from this film season has even come close to matching the cohesion and depth it provided the film.

  • bohmer | December 5, 2013 6:54 PM

    Upstream Color happened.

    BotSW was last year.

  • Eric | December 5, 2013 2:23 PMReply

    Nice list, Playlist.

    My Top 3 would be:

    Prince Avalanche
    Upstream Color
    Her

  • Matt N. | December 5, 2013 2:20 PMReply

    The score/soundtrack for "Her" was outstanding. They had better release that. I can't find any info on it right now.

  • gert | December 5, 2013 2:14 PMReply

    Enjoyed all scores listed. What Maise Knew had a lovely score as well.

  • Charles | December 5, 2013 2:09 PMReply

    I was very pleasantly surprised by how good Randy Newman's score was for Monsters University. His use of marching band music within the score was especially great. I think it was one of the best of the year.

  • Andy H | January 17, 2014 6:53 PM

    Why are you surprised?People don't notice the score in comedies
    or animated pictures .They're hard to do ,I think,and often can really help
    a picture.The Pixar scores are all pretty good.

  • harry | December 5, 2013 2:04 PMReply

    One of the best blog posts of the year. Great selection of scores. I
    Haven't seen or heard the Redford one. Will catch up on that.

  • JD | December 5, 2013 1:38 PMReply

    'Only God Forgives' is missing from that list.

  • DANNY OCEAN | December 6, 2013 10:49 AM

    @ JD

    if you're prepared to settle into the films unorthodox rhythms,
    you'll be rewarded by Cliff Martinezs superb score,
    which perfectly complements the films wild malange of elements,
    acknowledging its Thai setting with eerie Eastern sounds
    that, by the end, feel like the spirits of Bangkok are getting ready to rise up
    and cleanse the world of Crystal and her immoral brood.

    http://www.empireonline dot com/reviews/reviewcomplete.asp?FID=137633

    scored by Drive composer Cliff Martinez, it sounds magnificent,
    perfectly conjuring the feel of backstreet Bangkok

    http://www.totalfilm dot com/reviews/cinema/only-god-forgives

    . And the synth score, by Drive's Cliff Martinez, is some kind of new classic

    http://www.rollingstone dot com/movies/reviews/only-god-forgives-20130719

    If there is one small titbit of innovation and originality in the film,
    it is Cliff Martinez's ambient, mesmerizing, gorgeous score.
    One of the year's best,
    it belongs in a much more accomplished work

    http://www.rogerebert dot com/reviews/only-god-forgives-2013

  • silver linings playhook | December 6, 2013 10:48 AM

    @ JD

    if you're prepared to settle into the films unorthodox rhythms,
    you'€™ll be rewarded by Cliff Martinezs superb score,
    which perfectly complements the films wild malange of elements,
    acknowledging its Thai setting with eerie Eastern sounds
    that, by the end, feel like the spirits of Bangkok are getting ready to rise up
    and cleanse the world of Crystal and her immoral brood.

    http://www.empireonline dot com/reviews/reviewcomplete.asp?FID=137633

    scored by Drive composer Cliff Martinez, it sounds magnificent,
    perfectly conjuring the feel of backstreet Bangkok

    http://www.totalfilm dot com/reviews/cinema/only-god-forgives

    . And the synth score, by Drive's Cliff Martinez, is some kind of new classic

    http://www.rollingstone dot com/movies/reviews/only-god-forgives-20130719

    If there is one small titbit of innovation and originality in the film,
    it is Cliff Martinez's ambient, mesmerizing, gorgeous score.
    One of the year's best,
    it belongs in a much more accomplished work

    http://www.rogerebert dot com/reviews/only-god-forgives-2013

  • ABR | December 5, 2013 1:39 PM

    I was just about to post that.

  • Chris | December 5, 2013 1:32 PMReply

    No, "Gravity" did not LITERALLY hurl audience members into space. Jesus Christ, you're a professional writer.

  • moo | December 5, 2013 2:31 PM

    This is the best comment I've ever seen on this site.

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