Top ten original soundtracks/original scores of 2018

A disclaimer: I am not a movie person. Nor have I really played video or other games, Tetris notwithstanding, in about fifteen years. I have nothing against any of these mediums, but I am not passionate about them, and when you have limited time to pursue avocations after a day at work and doing all of the adult things that need be done on a seemingly endless loop, your perspective on what is really and truly important to you becomes very clear. Simply put, I put my time toward what is most meaningful to me, which is music, and only occasionally watch films, and don’t play video games at all. This can be problematic for someone who adores film and video game soundtracks as much as any other of my favorite genres, but it doesn’t have to be.

In Charlie Brigden’s July installment of his monthly soundtrack roundup at The Quietus, he admits much the same, acknowledging the dissonance of enjoying a soundtrack bereft of the visual its created to enhance. “The context is obviously the film itself, so by taking the music away from that you are completely stripping it of context and relevance, right?” he asks, and concludes, no, not really. I generally agree that there seems to be two types of original scores: “On one hand, you have composers that are interested in curating an album that is musically interesting as a record, while on the other there seem to be those that put the score on album as it is and leave it at that.” It is the former, the “musically interesting as a record” scores that, as someone who watches so few films, appeals most to me. The majority of the records on this list will reflect that bias, though the latter is in no way missing. I am aware of how this might impede my ability to enjoy a record that could be perfect save the fact that I haven’t seen its corresponding film or video game.

All lists are biased, and this genre, as represented on this blog, is particularly so — I would rather “listen” to a movie then watch it. My philosophy, summed up by Brigden again, is that “[soundtracks] are a separate product, even if they are ostensibly a by-product of the film.” And like all the music I listen to, I do my very best to judge them as such, for when a score can entertain or bewitch on its own, like any other popular song removed from its music video, it is a success worth celebrating. Here are ten released in 2018, in no particular order, that deserve a party.

Humans: Dead Shack (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Mostly here to fill your Stranger Things void, the soundtrack for indie-horror film Dead Shack is obviously inspired not only by John Carpenter, but by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s homage to John Carpenter and other synth scores of the 1980s. Yes, we’re there now. Lots of imitators have emerged since Stranger Things became such a success, but Humans have managed to create a truly eerie and menacing vibe in this bare-boned score, where the hushed silences in between speak the loudest.

John Powell (& John Williams): Solo: A Star Wars Story (Original Soundtrack)
If you know nothing about John Williams, you can spend a whole afternoon studying the Music of Star Wars portal on Wikipedia and walk away bewildered and overwhelmed by his work on the legendary sci-fi franchise, but it’s only if you spend additional time even briefly skimming his body of work that you begin to get an understanding of the pressure someone like John Powell faced in composing Solo: A Star Wars Story. Powell, a giant in his own right, called the experience “difficult,” “nerve wracking,” and “professionally humbling” in the booklet accompanying the CD release, yet he needn’t have worried. Though Powell is mostly known for less “heavy” films (last year’s Ferdinand is a particular career-highlight for me), that doesn’t preclude him from casting a little bit of his own “witchcraft” and weaving a bit of his own “profound storytelling.” Solo offers the experience of old-school action and adventure fans expect in the canon, without ignoring all of the romance inherent in the genre. Whether the film itself reflects this same swashbuckling grandeur is up to professional film critics and anyone who has seen more than just one of the films.

The Newton Brothers: The Haunting of Hill House (Music from the Netflix Horror Series)
The Haunting of Hill House has received mixed reviews, dividing fans of innovative, artsy horror and viewers who like a little domestic drama with their haunted-house jump scares. Yet the soundtrack for the series finds success on all fronts. There have been a slew of critically-acclaimed horror-film soundtracks this year, from Johann Johannsson’s Mandy, all the way down to mediocre B-grade scores like The Nun (Abel Korzeniowski) and Winchester (Peter Spierig). The Haunting of Hill House finds the sweet spot in between, with haunting melodic pianos interspersed with simple atmospheric mood-setters, reflecting the tone of defeat, trauma, and nervous anticipation permeating the teleplay.

Jukio Kallio: Minit (Original Soundtrack)
There are now whole fandoms dedicated to chip-tune, so Kallio’s entry into the 8-bit world is hardly groundbreaking. But what elevates Minit is its strict adherence to melody and form, rather than simply recreating the tinny wave forms of the arcade. Songs like “Minit’s Awakening” and “Alarming Swamp” are fun-sized odysseys in themselves, capturing the fun and essence of both the video game and The Video Game. It’s a little bit moody and wholly absorbing — the jukebox genres on the second half are particularly inspired, offering near-parodic summations in easy to swallow, capsule-sized bursts, mirroring the game play itself.

James Newton Howard: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Probably the most traditional score aside from Powell’s Solo that you’ll find on this list, James Newton Howard’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is the composer’s best score of the year, in a year full of choice picks — indeed, it almost feels that the pick for this panned Disney fantasy flick is mere seconds away from becoming another panned fantasy flick, Fantastic Beasts: The Tales of Grindelwald instead. That’s because the two soundtracks share several similarities, and while Grindelwald has the distinction of not lifting pieces from Pyotr Tchaikovksy’s The Nutcracker Suite, it is exactly that which makes it instantly recognizable. But if at any moment the spoils seemed unearned (certainly any other producer might not get away so easily with the score’s not-unusual take on the material), it’s worth remembering that any holiday bauble is meant to be a shiny, glittering confection that evokes the warmth of childhood and holidays gone by. And there’s enough of all of that mixed in with the gloomier pieces, plus a fun Nutcracker 101-piano solo by Lang Lang, to make this as beautiful, and rose-colored, as any holiday memory.

Mogwai: KIN (Orignal Motion Picture Score)
Because all of the cool kids are getting original scores, why not Mogwai, who are veterans of the genre and already pretty adept at moody atmospherics? In what Stuart Berman calls “impressionistic sketches,” the band revisits career highlights and dial the tone down to an exquisite melancholy, the kind of quiet, dour ambience that demands a set of noise-canceling headphones and perhaps a hug from a loved one afterward. But it’s not all stark and starless, as touches of orchestration and synth provide a lively noise to softer piano-lead cues like “Eli’s Theme” and “Funeral Pyre.” It all makes for cold comfort; but you knew that was coming when you saw the name Mogwai.

Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper: A Star Is Born (Soundtrack)
If you’re the type of person to get swept up in Oscar buzz, you’re already familiar with the attention being paid to A Star Is Born, the third in a line of remakes of the original 1937 film (two English-language, one Hindi). That’s a helluva lot of pressure, to share the spotlight with Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand (I’m not too worried about Shraddha Kapoor), and to craft a meaningful soundtrack to the one movie on this list that contains the largest amount of source music. But if anyone is up to that task, it’s Mother Monster, who has been laying low since 2016’s surprisingly serious, less poppy (some would say, disappointing) album Joanne. A Star Is Born folds neatly into this new era in Gaga’s career: she cut her teeth on theater and that sense of high-school drama permeates all of her work, but none so much as her work with Tony Bennett, the stepping stone off which Joanne and A Star Is Born launched. A Star Is Born gives us this, without forgetting to provide a taste of all of the Gagas: introspective Gaga, serious actress Gaga, poppy Gaga, and hard-working, dying-to-be-taken-seriously Gaga. It’s not always a successful mix, especially when Bradly Cooper adds his two cents, but its whole never begs to be more than its beautiful parts. You root for Lady Gaga not because she always succeeds, but because she always gets back up again.

Jason Graves: Moss (Original Game Soundtrack)
Jason Graves hides nothing: his YouTube channel stands as a testament to the ideal Internet, the kind where information is abundant and free, where everyone is willing to share and pass along what they know, not for pecuniary gain, but for sheer enthusiasm and passion. On top of it, he lives surrounded by a veritable zoo of adorable animals (what he calls his #AudioArk), not unlike in Moss, the pint-sized PS4 adventure game starring a cute little mouse named Quill. Graves’s gentle score for this game lends the perfect ambiance to the rich Earth tones of the world, keeping within the spirit of all the low-to-the-ground, foliage-filled perspective with its sustained flutes and hushed percussion. It’s all a bit mysterious and quiet, almost folksy at times, and though its compact sound occasionally grows, it never hits eleven like a full orchestra could. It doesn’t need to: like its hero, it proves that even the smallest among us are capable of doing big things.

Lena Raine: Celeste (Original Soundtrack)
Something hauntingly vague, though familiar, runs throughout Raine’s soundtrack to the Celeste video game. Tinkling piano notes like skipped stones pepper ice-cold synths, and minimal melodies do little more than evoke atmosphere, like many a bedroom-DJ before her. Yet Raine wrings genuine pathos from each number, their lengths varying from sips of hot cocoa to an indulgent evening by the fire. Not all video games are either epic symphonic suites or chip-tune beeps, but somewhere in between, somewhere as yet unexplored. Here, Lena Raine investigates this territory with a sensitive, shy reserve, but a big warm heart.

Marc Shaiman: Mary Poppins Returns (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Despite the endless number of remakes now being churned out by the fistful, it’s hard not to get swept up in the excitement. After all, this is where Disney excels: marketing, advertising, selling substandard, cheap products made to look and feel like luxury experiences (or maybe last year’s cynical Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen has made any reader just a bit more suspicious). On top of it, this is a reboot of one of the most beloved movie musicals of all time — is it possible even theater-darling Lin-Manuel Miranda, Emily Blunt, and Meryl Streep can’t save such a vehicle? Irrelevant to our interests: the soundtrack, released ahead of the movie , is an experience all its own. There’s a reason Miranda cautioned moviegoers against spoilers: the soundtrack leads you, scene by scene, through the plot’s highlights, all the time indulging in the campy, clever, wink-wink humor of vaudeville inherent in classic Broadway musicals. Shaiman waves that magic Disney wand over the entire production, making the entire affair feel like notes left behind in Tinkerbell’s fairy dust — you’re not quite sure if this is as good as it sounds, or if there is some Fantasia-level of sorcery at work. Certainly it’s difficult to find any producer outside of this brand indulging in such a traditional sound, especially one that forces you into a nostalgic haze whenever the music quotes sections of the original score. It’s an immense sound, a rich, mammoth experience you can only get from a full orchestra, one with the ability to envelope you, to transport you, and to return you just a little bit starry-eyed, and just a little bit less disillusioned.

Honorable Mentions

Thomas Adès: Colette (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Brian Tyler: Crazy Rich Asians (Original Motion Picture Score)
Christopher Larkin: Hollow Knight: Gods & Nightmares
Mark McKenzie: Max and Me (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Rupert Gregson-Williams: Aquaman (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

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