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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Artist: Rachel Portman

Album: Belle OST

Label: Varèse Sarabande

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Rachel Portman

Rachel Portman has long been film music’s under appreciated treasure. Even when she’s given mediocre-to-bad cinema to work with, she always gives it her best, which usually leads to highly memorable film scoring. Earlier this year, her work for the otherwise forgettable rom-com The Right Kind of Wrong proved to be an early-year gem, a bouncy and vivacious collection of songs that could turn even the greyest day into a sunny and peppy affair.

Portman’s truest feat in 2014, however, is the graceful score to Belle, Amma Asante’s period piece about the 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle. Undoubtedly the most traditional score on this list, Belle nonetheless represents Portman’s ability to write undeniably beautiful music in well-worn compositional modes. It’s impossible to mistake Belle for anything but a period piece score, but when the music is this pretty, it’s hard to find reasons to complain.

Portman also emphasizes the interplay between sweeping strings and delicate piano figures, a formula she nailed with her One Day OST in 2011. Belle OST is yet another reminder that Portman is one of the best in the biz, as evident in each new album.


Artist: Justin Hurwitz and Tim Simonec

Album: Whiplash OST

Label: Varèse Sarabande

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Justin Hurwitz and Tim Simonec

Given that Whiplash is a film about music, it’d have been pretty awkward if its score didn’t match the highly-acclaimed film’s level of finesse and intensity. Fortunately, those responsible for Whiplash OST did not disappoint, as the score is an absolute thrill and joy to listen to.

The influence of the suave scores to Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy by David Holmes can be heard in the original big band compositions by Justin Hurwitz and Tim Simonec, to say nothing of the long tradition of big band composition itself. However, in contrast to Holmes’ often loosey-goosey compositional style (see the très chic score to Ocean’s Twelve), Hurwitz and Simonec’s compositions focus on tight and complex rhythms.

Since Whiplash tells the tale of an aspiring drummer, it’s no surprise to hear the rhythm section sound as panache as it does on tracks like Hurwitz’s “Overture” and Simonec’s “Too Hip to Retire”. There’s even a blistering rendition of the Duke Ellington standard “Caravan”, capped off by a drum solo that’ll leave you breathless.

Well placed excerpts of the movie’s dialogue and moments of whimsy break up these flashy technical displays. A memorable example of the latter is Hurwitz’s charming “When I Wake”, which sounds as if it is being played through a scratchy victrola. Whiplash OST is both a flawless complement to its film and the perfect thing to put on the speakers at your next swanky dinner party.


Artist: Mica Levi

Album: Under the Skin OST

Label: Milan

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Mica Levi
Under the Skin

In many ways, it’s difficult to think of Mica Levi’s harrowing score to Under the Skin as “music”. These songs are often sonorous, yes. They have identifiable key signatures in some cases. But more than anything else, Under the Skin OST is the pure aural manifestation of terror. The strings creak and whip like an Arctic cold front. On tracks like “Andrew Void”, the strings wail as were they a scream emitting from deep space. The one conventionally pretty moment here, “Love”, is followed up by the menacing brood of “Bothy” and the spine-tingling “Death”.

Under the Skin‘s jaw-dropping visuals require a sonic companion equally as singular, and Levi more than rose to the challenge in writing this score. Most stunning of all is the fact that this marks only her first foray into the world of film music, as it would be a major achievement for any composer to create something this distinctive. It’s rare that a director’s strikingly original vision is enhanced and equally met by a composer, which is why Levi ought to remain on the radar of any director seeking out a musician working at the edge of the form, perhaps even beyond it.


Artist: Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurrianns

Album: Enemy OST

Label: Milan

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Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurrianns

It’s rare that a score is able to encapsulate the entire mood and ethos of a movie within itself; but, then again, Enemy OST is no ordinary score. This soundtrack, from the rising talent that is the duo of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurrianns, draws on vintage thriller soundtrack tropes, all the while creating a pervasively foreboding mood all its own. The at times darkly comic landscapes that unfold on this album are not unlike that of Scott Walker’s recent LPs, although there is none of Walker’s signature campiness to cut through the frequently bleak mood. Instead, somewhat whimsical clarinets drag out long notes that are then cut off by pizzicato plucks and earth-rumbling bass notes. When moments of rhapsodic beauty peer through the glum, as the violins do at the end of “I Think You Know”, they only serve to bring listeners back into Bensi and Jurrianns’ morose vision.

Following Prisoners (2013) and now Enemy, director Denis Villenueve is looking like a mighty fine candiate to pick up where Hitchcock left off. Should he stick with Bensi and Jurrianns, that feat would be even more likely.


Artist: Victor Reyes

Album: Grand Piano OST

Label: Moviescore Media

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Victor Reyes
Grand Piano

Grand Piano is a preposterous but ultimately trifling film. The premise is simple: after coming out of a self-imposed exile to play the piano concerto of his recently departed mentor, Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood), in the middle of playing the piece, discovers a notation on his sheet music. The notation, written in bright red, tells Tom that if he does not play the piece perfectly, a sniper will shoot him immediately.

At a brisk 90 minutes, Grand Piano doesn’t let this unbelievable plot outstay its welcome, and in the end the movie amounts to nothing more than Hitchcock-lite. However, the one benefit of the film’s premise is that it centers the action on the titular instrument. This is where Spanish composer Victor Reyes, in tandem with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, comes in.

Grand Piano OST is a film music revelation, yet it also hearkens back to the time when renowned composers like Dmitri Shostakovich and Dmitri Prokofiev would write scores that matched their symphonic work. Apropos of the plot, Reyes wrote a dizzying three-movement piano concerto, along with a tense opening teaser track and a virtuosic piece for solo piano that would give even Franz Liszt reason to pause (“La Cinquette”). In strict terms, the “Grand Piano Concerto” doesn’t feel like a traditional concerto, but rather an amalgam of concerto structures with the ethos of a movie score. However, it is precisely this union that makes Reyes’ vision so stunning.

On its own, the soundtrack has the feel of a standalone classical composition, but it also fits like a glove within the context of the film. Albums like Enemy OST and Under the Skin OST are forward-thinking in their own right, and sonically each one presented the most unique moods and textures in the genre this year. The achievement of Grand Piano‘s music, however, is that it both expands what is possible in scoring a film all the while calling back to the genre’s legendary roots. Whereas Enemy and Under the Skin OSTs equally match the excellence of their films, Grand Piano OST entirely outstrips the celluloid it was written for. Reyes here reminds us that far from nicely arranged background music, film scores are as high an art form as any other.

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