A Healthy Dose of Darkness: The Best Film Scores of 2014

The year 2014 saw classic composer/director teams hit new highs, as well as a considerable dark streak take over the world of film scoring.

I said it last year, but it remains true a year later, as well: this was a good year for film music. Each of the ten scores below provide the listener with plenty of material to continue experiencing a film long after leaving the theater.

More than last year, however, 2014 was rife with distinct trends. Four of the albums below derive from well-established composer/director combos, a model that is becoming regular as directors discover composers they are comfortable working with. (Fortunately, none of the collaborations below approach anything like the increasingly tired schmaltz of the Spielberg/Williams joint.)

Also noticeable are the amount of scores toying with atonal and dissonant arrangements; more and more, composers are willing to let their pieces be a little intrusive. (See the skin-tingling horror of my third pick.) In fact, a great deal of the scores below are bleak affairs. Undoubtedly this critic's style of choice, but this also reflects a grim streak running throughout cinema in 2014. Two of the picks below come from films about the destabilizing effect of finding one's double, something that is bound to lead to a little darkness.

Perhaps that's the best way to describe 2014: the year that film score composers let a healthy dose of darkness into their work. As to the matter of just how "healthy" this dose is, read on… but don't say you haven't been warned.

Note: "OST" designates "Original Soundtrack."

Artist: Cliff Martinez

Album: The Knick OST

Label: Milan


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Cliff Martinez
The Knick

Honorable Mention: With television scores typically receiving even less coverage than their counterparts in film, our number ten spot goes to the best TV soundtrack of the year, one that stood up strongly against 2014's film music.

Even more minimalist than his excellent contribution to Nicolas Winding Refn's neonoir Only God Forgives, Cliff Martinez's score to the Cinemax series The Knick is a fine reminder that just as TV is experiencing a renaissance in longform storytelling, so too is the music that accompanies it. The Knick's music is almost entirely electronic, and so subtle that at times it seems that passages of songs are completely silent. This, of course, only heightens the ebb and flow of the score more. Plus, with track names like "Placental Repair", "Aortic Aneurysm Junior", and "Pretty Silver Stitches" (you taking notes, metal bands?), the ominous feeling of blood about to be spilled pervades Martinez's score.

The Knick OST can count amongst its bretheren the most recent album by The Haxan Cloak, Excavation, which painted a similarly malevolent electronic soundscape. Martinez, however, is even more subtle than the Haxan Cloak in fomenting feelings of dread. After hearing a song like "I'm in the Pink", you'll never hear 8-bit videogame music in the same way again.

Artist: Howard Shore

Album: Maps to the Stars

Label: HOWE


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Howard Shore
Maps to the Stars

The year 2014 was a damn good one for Howard Shore. Not only did three of his classic soundtracks for the films of David Cronenberg (Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, and Crash) finally get proper reissues, but he also teamed up with the master of body horror once again to great success, this time for the bleak showbiz satire, Maps to the Stars. Displaying the same eclectic streak that's found on his best work (The Departed), Shore here crafts a darkly comic soundtrack that uses jazzy cues and hand percussion to juxtapose against the menace that undergirds the music.

Opening cut "Greyhound" teases the listener with a jazzy upright bassline, but then two songs later Shore throws out a beautiful, tragic string-led piece in "Stolen Waters". There are also a few callbacks to his collaboration with Metric for Cronenberg's Don DeLillo adaptation of Cosmopolis on electronic numbers like "Wildfire" and "Burn Out". In balancing a consistent mood with diverse shifts in timbre and tempo, Shore proves once again that he and Cronenberg are a force to be reckoned with.

Artist: Hans Zimmer

Album: Interstellar OST

Label: WaterTower


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Hans Zimmer

The most iconic thing to come from the team of Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan up to this point is the loud, two-note horn motif that forms the backbone to Nolan's Cartesian head-trip Inception. Zimmer himself is well known for his booming action flick scores that are heavy on sweeping strings and thundering percussion. What a surprise, then, that he took the route he did with Interstellar. Ostensibly, the score would be similarly grandiose, since what is at stake in the film is the fate of humankind. The stunning planetary landscapes in the movie also suggest the use of a maximalist touch.

However, the first thing that comes to mind when hearing Interstellar OST are the quiet passages of Philip Glass' Koyaanisqatsi score, with lots of repetitive, interlinking minimalist figures on electronic instruments. The pace here is measured and introspective, rather than the constant rise/fall that one would think of an action flick. This increased presence of electronic sounds, though surprising, makes a whole lot of sense given Zimmer's roots in electronic music. In a case where one might have had good reason to expect something familiar from Zimmer and Nolan, instead the composer chose to do something a little different, and it makes an impactful difference both for the filmgoer and the listener.

Artist: Clint Mansell

Album: Noah OST

Label: Nonesuch


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Clint Mansell

Of the many composer/director unions on this list, Clint Mansell and Darren Aronofsky are perhaps the most noteworthy. As I've written before, Mansell's score for The Fountain is a landmark composition, and his reworking of Stravinsky's Swan Lake for Black Swan is an ingenious piece of interpretation.

For Aronofsky's very Jewish take on the Noah myth, Mansell teams up once again with the Kronos Quartet (as he did for The Fountain), and the results are predictably stunning. There's something of a sonic connection between Noah and The Fountain; much of the same minor key melancholy that dominates the latter crops up in the former, an unsurprising commonality given the spiritual themes tackled in each.

However, Noah finds Mansell going bigger than he ever has before, with epic pieces like "In the Beginning, There Was Nothing" and "By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed" reaching thundering heights. But while Noah is epic compared to Mansell's previous work for Aronofsky, it nonetheless retains moments of reflective intimacy. This is not simply "Mansell gone Zimmer"; instead, it finds Mansell expanding his wheelhouse all the while showcasing the strengths we've come to expect from him.

Artist: Andrew Hewitt

Album: The Double OST

Label: Milan


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Andrew Hewitt
The Double

The things Andrew Hewitt does with a tightly organized string section on his score for Richard Ayoade's adaptation of the Dostoyevsky short story The Double are nothing short of breathtaking. On tracks like "I Am a Ghost" and "A Boy Held Up by a String", lightning-fast violin notes spin wildly around each other like subatomic particles, with hammered piano notes building even more intensity beneath the rapid tempo of the strings. These moments of virtuosity crop up throughout the tense score to The Double, which proves to be an astounding entry from this up-and-coming composer.

Much like my favorite score from 2013, Rick Smith's Trance, The Double also intersperses old-timey vocal numbers ("Sukiyaki" and "Splendour in the Grass") to offset the propulsion of Hewitt's originals. The result is a volatile jukebox of a soundtrack that captures the jarring shifts in identity that derive from discovering one's doppelganger. The Double OST is a fine score that's just as much a thrill ride as the movie is.

Splash image: Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy (2014, dir. Denis Villenueve)

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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