Top ten original soundtracks/original scores of 2020

A year without major theatrical releases means we were left sifting through a bigger pile of television scores, many which, built for smaller screens and softer sound systems, aptly disappointed. Still, there’s always a batch of hardworking, ambitious producers who see television and streaming as exciting challenges, rather than excuses, and cheerfully rise to the occasion. This year’s list encompasses many of these, with almost all appearing first on streaming, rather than in theaters, including one very special score that swooped in at the eleventh hour to make up for everything we might have missed out on, and tantalized with the riches to come in due time. (Note: Some of these blurbs interpolate pieces from previous notes posted earlier on this site.)

Sunna Wehrmeijer: The Music of She-ra and the Princesses of Power
(2020.05.08)

We’ve had an unlikely year of  wonderful scores by female composers in 2020, the first being this outstanding one for the Netflix animated series She-ra and the Princesses of Power. Anyone familiar with 90’s anime will be happy to recognize many familiar tropes, from transformation sequences to the safe black and white-level nuances of good and evil, all accompanied by a fantastic and fun soundtrack just as magical as any of its girls. The cues are at turns modern and whimsically retrospective, indulging in cheesy synths and fanfares without excluding the heroic bombast of tension and suspense on which the plot relies. The creators’ notes to Wehrmeijer recommended “big and epic” — but also “sparkly,” a perfect summation of the overall vibe.

Terence Blanchard: Da 5 Bloods (Original Motion Picture Score)
(2020.05.29)

Blanchard’s score for Da 5 Bloods has remained one of the most gorgeous and evocative scores of the year, more than half a year since I first heard it. One of its distinctive features is how orthodox it is; unlike some of Blanchard’s earlier scores, like BlacKkKlansman, this one is wholly traditional, utilizing the entire breadth of an orchestra’s strings and brass to indulge in the sort of heavy, heart-tugging romance and tragedy that accompanies any high-stakes war drama. The themes are as arresting as any I’ve heard in well over a year — listen to the particular James Horner-level pathos in “MLK Assassinated” or “Rice Paddies.” This one hit Netflix at the tail-end of May and has stayed with me all year.

Pinar Toprak: Stargirl: Season 1 (Original Television Soundtrack)
(2020.08.21)

Pinar Toprak has been making a name for herself in the world of original soundtracks, particular superhero flicks, and it’s only a matter of time before she gets her due on a Hans Zimmer-level blockbuster. Until then, she’s been laying the groundwork with adaptions of Captain Marvel (for which she was the first woman to score a superhero blockbuster) and the smaller-screen Stargirl. Smaller-screen it may be, but the soundtrack sounds bigger than its receptacle, with an exciting, edge-of-your-seat quality that makes for dynamic tension and gripping suspense. In a year devoid of summer blockbusters, this one nails the same atmosphere.

Harry Gregson-Williams: Mulan (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
(2020.09.04)

Nothing is created in a vacuum, certainly not film scores, unfortunately for Harry Gregson-Williams, who has created a truly laudable, diamond-in-the-rough score for this controversial live-action adaptation It’s a credit to his skill that G-W neither kowtows to nor completely eschews the original, one helmed by the legendary Goldsmith, and still manages to pull off a moving, exciting score. Along with the usual soaring strings, there’s plenty of time-period appropriate instruments from the erhu, to woodwinds, and the whole thing is capped off by a solid original theme, sung by returning vocalist Aguilera, who belts out “Loyal Brave and True,” with all of the sincerity, if not skill, as her original work on “Reflection.” This score doesn’t re-write the Disney playbook, but it has succeeded in ways the film, based on critical reviews and its catastrophic production, hasn’t.

Christopher H. Knight: Yellow Rose (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
(2020.09.25)

The succinct collection of original songs and cues from this year’s wild-card release Yellow Rose  is a wonder. The film follows the daughter of an undocumented Filipino immigrant who longs to become a country music star, so unsurprisingly, the soundtrack leans heavily on the wistful, vintage-country sound, voiced by its lead stars. However, it is the original score portion by Christopher H. Knight that really shines, surreptitiously running the emotional through line beneath an obvious, barn-storming foundation, evoking the themes of tragedy and weary hope in wry contrast to the aforementioned hoedowns. It’s the idealized and critical sound of a heartbreakingly mythical, fairyland America in one of the slightest soundtracks of the years.

The Newton Brothers: The Haunting of Bly Manor (Music from the Netflix Horror Series)
(2020.10.09)

The Newton Brothers returned for the second installment of this Netflix horror series that began with 2018’s The Haunting of Hillhouse, though in lieu of composing brand-new themes or re-inventing their sound, they’ve largely expanded upon their original work, dashing off a series of new snippets among a collection rife with quotes from the most iconic themes of its predecessor. Luckily, they’ve learned a thing or two, trading in atmospherics for more melody, drawing out the first’s best elements: the eerie, melancholy piano most prominent in cues like “Beginning of the End Movement IV,” while eschewing the necessary, but superfluous, sharp violins and abrupt dynamics. This makes for an overall more unsettling, and more listenable, experience of the two outside of their visual elements, marking a satisfying musical coda to an otherwise unsatisfying story line.

Carlos Rafael Rivera: The Queen’s Gambit (Music from the Netflix Limited Series)
(2020.10.23)

The Queen’s Gambit is now Netflix’s most-watched limited series, an unlikely Cinderella story considering the show’s decidedly un-hip subject matter, and it’s a testament to an amalgamation of the show’s script, story, fashion, actors, and pacing that make something like the slow, cerebral game of chess and the now-cliched trope of addiction both exciting and riveting. Rivera’s score deserves a portion of that praise pie. The composer deploys suspenseful strings and lush momentum alongside a gorgeous base of piano for his score, all while maintaining distinct themes for each of the show’s most important matches. Elevating chess to the same level as more unpredictable, action-oriented sports like soccer or basketball is no easy task, but Rivera’s score is a robust example of the way a great score functions practically without notice, the more subtle but powerful force behind a film or series’ success.

Rachel Portman: Godmothered (Original Soundtrack)
(2020.12.04)

As bodies kicked back and stayed home more often this year, Disney+ amped up its offerings, including more original and exclusive content for its fledgling streaming platform. While still on wobbly footing, Disney+ is slowly finding its footing in the streaming wars by providing its audience the evergreen bread and butter of fantasy, magic, and nostalgia, here banking on all three with Godmothered, a family-friendly tale of fairy godmother training school, and its plucky protagonist who unsurprisingly, just doesn’t fit the old-school traditional formula (the modern Disney traditional formula though? Very much yes). Luckily, Rachel Portman smooths over the show’s hackneyed, dull premise with a joyful, bright-as-the-sun score that sticks very much to the traditional old-school Disney formula of whimsy and enchantment, delightfully indulging in every opportunity to Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp its way out of dull corners. While not the most original of ideas, its charming coziness brings a much-needed touch of homespun warmth to this year’s original scores.

Hans Zimmer: Wonder Woman 1984 (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
(2020.12.16)

Wonder Woman 1984 has been my most-anticipated film score since 2019 when it was announced that Hans Zimmer would be in charge. While initially disappointed that Rupert Gregson-Williams would not be returning, I figured if anyone could improve upon something as near-perfect as “Action Reaction,” it could only be Hans Zimmer. Needless to say Wonder Woman 1984 exceeds all expectations. Zimmer has become the Leo Tolstoy of film scores: his prolific scores are grand, leisurely, and big, insisting listeners sit back and travel the musical breadth and width of a film with each cue, really sinking into the adventure, tension, and romance for a total emotional and atmospheric high. WW1984 has a sense of Olympian grandeur to it, boasting an epic orchestra, swelling strings, and a stirring choral component large enough to meet the size of the protagonist’s godly origins. While citing the massive themes of the original WW in cues like “Open Road,” Zimmer elongates and expands upon Gregson-Williams’s sturdy foundation, in the process whipping up a masterpiece that sounds capable of bringing the scale of a theater hall to even the smallest screens.

Silver SkatesGuy Farley: Silver Skates (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
(2020.12.18)

The last score on this list, and the third in a busy month of last-minute, eleventh-hour, just-squeezed-it-in scores, is the soundtrack for the probably-better-on-the-big-screen Silver Skates, a Russian costume drama, set in the winter of early 20th century St. Petersburg. The plot line is straight out of early dime novels and Eastern European fairy tales, complete with a forbidden romance and, naturally, ice skating. Luckily Farley’s score finds the soul in all of that, an ode to both tradition in its classical approach, and the romantic adventure of young modern hearts, as in his interpolation of “Claire de Lune.” It’s as sweeping and grand as the trailer would have you believe, and one of the sweetest scores of the year.

Honorable Mentions

Various Artists: Birds of Prey: The Album
Alexander Taylor: Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Erwann Chandon: La dernière vie de Simon (Bande originale du film)
Selena: Selena: The Series Soundtrack
Frank Ilfman: Speer Goes to Hollywood (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)