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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

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/c/cliffmartinez_theknickost_albumart200.jpg

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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

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/h/howardshore_mapstothestarsost_albumart200.jpg

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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

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/h/hanszimmer_interstellarost_albumart200.jpg

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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

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/n/notesoncelluloid-noah-cvr-200.jpg

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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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