Every good film and TV show has its share of music that elevates the scenery. It creates tension and makes you feel unrequited emotions. Sound influences images and sometimes becomes iconic moments in our culture. In 2013, there were plenty of soundtracks to make appearances that shaped the films, but also served as high quality listening isolated from the pictures. While it is hard to properly rank all of the soundtracks on their own merits, most notably on films that I have yet to see, here are a few that stood out to me and will continue to be in rotation for the foreseeable future.
1. Clint Mansell - "Stoker"
Park Chan-Wook's American debut is pure, definitive art and the Clint Mansell score is the perfect accompaniment. Mixing the best original song (Emily Wells - "Becomes the Color") with Mansell's piano driven score goes into deep, complicated tones that make the album a hypnotic experience. Add in the amazing "Duet" by Phillip Glass, and this gothic tale is filled with life and much like the film itself, the haunting undertones drive into an unnerving form of meditation. Few scores manage to be this consistently catchy and recognizable, and the weirdness manages to anchor it all.
2. Cliff Martinez - "Only God Forgives"
Drive was a great movie that outshines Only God Forgives. The Cliff Martinez scores are the opposite case. Where Drive was more reliant on smooth, 80's cool, Only God Forgives sets a tone of a foreigner in violent underbellies in Asia. The lo-fi bass mixed with electronic instrumentation and traditional Asian techniques creates something far more engaging and sonic. It manages to be aggressive and is filled with personality on every track. "Wanna Fight" knocks the entire Drive score out of the water with an aggressive beat and so much focus that it is a shame that the accompanying film wasn't better. The soundtrack will be played repeatedly. The movie is not even close.
3. Mark Orton - "Nebraska"
Alexander Payne's rural tale of revisiting your past is matched with an almost perfectly tonal experience. Starting with a violin, Mark Orton's score is a mixture of bluegrass and country with a sense of adventure. The film's oddball flow is perfectly met with music that emphasizes what makes the countryside so fascinating. It is open, with fields stretching out to the skyline and gorgeous, traditional homes. Nebraska is a film that regales in the past, and in many ways, the soundtrack feels like a modern take on the concept. At very least, it will get you eager to drive around the fields and just lose yourself in thought.
4. V/A - "Inside Llewyn Davis"
Taking a ride in the 60's folk scene, T. Bone Burnett uncovers some old standards and creates one of the best soundtracks of the year. From the melancholy "Hang Me" through the goofy "Please Mr. Kennedy," this is a rundown of historical references to the music era that accompanies the terrific film. It is thankful that mixed with great guitar playing and harmonies, this is an album that is as essential to the film as it is just to enjoying a genre that doesn't get as much attention as it deserves. Much like Burnett and the Coen Brothers' previous effort O Brother, Where Art Thou?, this is an important soundtrack that will probably become as much of a part of the zeitgeist in the years to come.
5. Dave Porter - "Original Score from the Television Series: Volume 2 - Breaking Bad"
Taking a detour into the world of TV, Breaking Bad may be one of the best dramas largely thanks to its use of music. Dave Porter's eerie choice of sounds that mix aural tones with varying sound effects, it created some of the best music out there. This may just be a compilation of the past five seasons, but that doesn't mean that there isn't any lack of great content. All of the highlights from the final season make an appearance here, and they are all proof that Porter was as much a part of making the show successful as the writers who made the plot.
6. V/A - "Frances Ha"
Frances Ha owes as much of its personality to modern music as it does to the French New Wave scene. Fans of both will be able to appreciate the quick shifts between tunes by Jean Constantin and Hot Chocolate, which works surprisingly well. It manages to be a hip soundtrack that may be a primer to those not quite ready to explore the films of Francois Truffaut, but will party to David Bowie any day. It is upbeat, quirky, and is one of the many reasons that this film became the unexpected hit of the year.
7. Explosions in the Sky - "Prince Avalanche"
One of the most delightful surprises of 2013 was the return of David Gordon Green the auteur. Even if Prince Avalanche wasn't great enough to compare to his early efforts, it did put the director back on the right track. The score was a mystical, fun journey through ominous sounds and triumphant tones that elevate the film's saccharine content into something beautiful. The result is one of the best team-ups that will hopefully lead to Explosions in the Sky doing more soundtrack work. Until then, this brilliant album will suffice.
8. Henry Jackman - "Captain Phillips"
The best Hans Zimmer score was not even done by Zimmer in a year when he did three. It belonged to Henry Jackman's Captain Phillips score, which added a necessary aggression to the film and made the aquatic true story of kidnap into a nail biting thriller. The music rocks as much as the waves and it pumps you up. It may have been a rocky film, but the score manages to cover up some of the more problematic elements and replace it will intensity and fear that few films of this kind have had, including Zimmer's Man of Steel.
9. V/A - "The Broken Circle Breakdown"
I bet nobody knew about Belgium's country scene, at least until this year's the Broken Circle Breakdown. While the film is an emotional roller coaster ride, the soundtrack is probably one of the most satisfying country-based soundtrack of recent years. With the songs thematically tying into the story, they manage to carry weight and the emotional toil that should come with the performances are all there. The music is an enjoyable experience even by itself and proves that even if there is a cultural difference, the music can become a universal language.
10. Randy Newman - "Monster's University"
In a sense, the appeal of Randy Newman's score is that it sounds like the kiddie version of Animal House. With plenty of marching bands, this is an album that rallies up a sense of school pride and nostalgia while also creating a sense and tone. It is Newman working at what he does best and gives the prequel a sense of purpose. Even if the film has some problematic elements, the score keeps things from ever feeling like a drag and results in one of the funnest sounding soundtracks of the year.
11. V/A - "The World's End"
One of the perks of seeing an Edgar Wright film is his ability to make one hell of a soundtrack. His latest in the Cornetto Trilogy is no exception. Mixing plenty of classic rock songs with modern techno, he makes another blend of zaniness for a night out of drinking. It is fun and will get you moving while also realizing why nostalgia isn't always a great thing. Check it out and don't forget to chug a lug along with it.
Great Movie/Soundtrack I Don't Get
Steven Price - "Gravity"
Gravity is a masterpiece of blockbuster film making. It will put you on the edge of your seat and keep you guessing. While it is true that the soundtrack works within context, it doesn't feel like the most memorable part of the film. It is highly atmospheric and relies on just as much serenity and quietness. As a soundtrack, I don't feel like it is nearly as impressive as its popularity in the zeitgeist would suggest.
Mike Patton - "The Place Beyond the Pines"
Derek Cianfrance's triptych epic is one that is probably best viewed multiple times and dissected in order to best understand it. The story of fathers and sons is an epic unlike any other and its unique take on the subject is fascinating. The choirs and chimes that make up the initial score may serve to the Catholic symbolism, but the soundtrack does feel a little redundant at times. This is another case where it is hard to enjoy outside of the film, which only helps to make the music work better.
Favorite Early Favorites
Thomas Newman - "Side Effects"
It is a shame that for most people, Side Effects quickly felt like the other Steven Soderbergh film. The one that met his farewell to the big screen was overshadowed by the HBO hit Behind the Candelabra and its brilliant Hitchcock skill was second to Stoker. However, the score almost served as hypnotic chimes beating a meditative beat into a haunting story of a woman who may be crazy. The film is excellent and the score is an ominous joy to listen to as spaced out tones that makes things feel more unnerving and most of all enjoyable.
V/A - "The Great Gatsby"
From the opening track by Jay-Z, this is an album that makes no sense. While it works within the context of the film, that is because they are sparsely thrown in. As actual tracks, the music by Fergie and Goon Rock is insufferable nonsense that attempts to capture the vapid joys of partying by being seriously fun. It isn't and the results are dull with a back end of moody tracks that add nothing to the enjoyment of the album. Save for Lana Del Rey's excellent "Young and Beautiful," this feels highly inessential and a dull waste of time.
Best Unreleased Sountrack
V/A - "Sightseers"
Ben Wheatley's strange British horror comedy is quite a memorable film. A large part comes from the unexpected amount of great use of music. Book-ended by different versions of "Tainted Love," this largely 80's soundtrack feels eerie and most of all fun. Due to how long ago it came out, the soundtrack is most likely to be compiled by the listener and not any label. However, Wheatley does have an ear for music, and what he has made is memorable use of each song. Just check out the film already and see what I mean.