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)

September 2020: Highlights

Things have really picked up this month, prompting serious decisions about what I would realistically have time to focus on. At the same time, the race is now on to listen to any major releases I missed or put off all year in preparation for year-end lists. Yes, it’s already that time! In the usual way of things, the longest year of our collective lives is also careening past us, the unforgivable march of time continuing on its way. Below are a few of September’s highs and lows to enjoy in its wake.

BBHF: BBHF1 -Nankasuru Seinen-
(2020.09.02)

It’s always with more hope than faith whenever a group makes the best debut list of the year, as BBHF would have last year, if it hadn’t turned out they were just masquerading under a new name. Many of the groups won’t amount to much, or like so many K-pop groups, sputter out or disappear. In many cases, the only thing left behind is one great moment orchestrated to prove beginner’s luck. So maybe it’s a good thing BBHF didn’t make the cut, or maybe the name change was just what the band needed, as their “debut” studio album, an ambitious 2-disc concept album chronicling one man’s emotional journey through a labyrinth of history and emotion set to a wave of poppy 80’s synth rock, proves. “Sooner or later, everything changes / I’m not happy at all / For better or for worse, this country is falling into a depression” they lament in “1988,” folding the twin tragedies of a burst bubble and a broken heart into an excuse to get wasted. “Let’s drink till we’re sick, of love itself,” they urge, as the synths swell and the titular character high tails it in a bid to escape depression and responsibility as if a physical entity, like so many Don Drapers before him. “Carrying all the burden in the back I will go south / I will go south, to survive.” It’s not the helpful message we need, perhaps one of the reasons the album was pushed back from its original May release date, but it’s honest, and refreshing, a J-rock band refusing to hide behind dour epithets without any genuine emotional anchor behind them. “Apps that I merely touched once and don’t use / I deleted them all, that is the pleasure of getting rid of things,” the opening track opines; one only wishes it was possible to shake off everything as easily.

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

The story of getting Mulan released to the public is almost as epic as the film’s story line, a journey that promises to get topped only by Wonder Woman 1984 or No Time to Die‘s own struggle to hit the silver screen. Gregson-Williams battled his own struggle in providing the musical backdrop, standing in the shadow of legend Jerry Goldsmith, and reckoning with one of the most iconic songs in Christina Aguilera’s discography. Luckily, he neither kowtows to nor completely eschews the original. If we’ve had to wait an extra six months to see the film, imagine how G-W, who began work for the film years before its release, felt! Luckily, the extra time paid off, with this score every bit as robust as the plot line and titular character requires: along with the usual soaring strings, there’s plenty of time-period appropriate instruments from the erhu, to woodwinds. The whole thing is capped off by the 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.” What this soundtrack didn’t need was a repeat of “Reflection,” with the new vocals a mere memory of what the singer was capable of delivering twenty years ago, when she was still ambitious enough to put the work required into making it sound so easy. This score isn’t re-writing the Disney playbook, but it’s one of the few I was genuinely looking forward to this year, and it has delivered in ways the film, based on critical reviews, hasn’t.

TAEMIN: NEVER GONNA DANCE AGAIN: ACT 1
(2020.09.07)

TAEMIN is one of the closest people we have to The Great Pop Star, something on a par with the type of megalomania we had in the 80s and early 90s, a Michael Jackson or Madonna, a Solitary Figure with an otherworldly sense of talent, charm, and charisma. All of these traits are on display in his newest video for “Criminal,” including the hardly-human way he moves his body and the uncanny knack he has for looking through the camera straight at the heart of the viewer on the other side. It’s important, but easy, to look past all the shiny surfaces, CGI, and loose fabrics TAEMIN is always draped in, because there is never a moment he doesn’t emanate straight out of it. Like his predecessors before him, he’s seemingly more comfortable in front of the camera than behind, a man who comes alive in the pageantry of performance, and not a moment before. The rest of the mini-album serves its purpose well. TAEMIN’s sound is down pat now, a hook-based, sinister pop infused with tantalizing mystery, like the foreboding “Strangers” and ethereal “Clockwork.” It’s hard to be upset that his team rarely thinks outside of this box when he excels so well inside of it — a TAEMIN playing in his own shadowy sandbox instead of the bright ones his SM peers are often found running amok in is part of what preserves his iconic imagery. I’m not looking forward to his two-year absence to serve his time in the military, and thinking of SHINee without him helps little with the looming void. I’m glad he’s leaving us a few more tokens, and between this and his duties in SuperM, I’m sure the physical requirements of training will seem relatively familiar to the work SM has him put in day in and day out.

YooA: Bon Voyage
(2020.09.07)

There have been a number of girl-group members with less than solo-worthy chops getting their time in the spotlight, so it’s nice to see one come up that doesn’t deserve to go straight to the discard pile. YooA, from OH MY GIRL, has released her debut solo EP, Bon Voyage, and it’s giving off all the I ♡ Natural meets Shakira vibes. Unfortunately, the title track is the only one to take some risks with the quotidien K-pop sound, leaving the rest of the EP, especially tracks like “Nareul Chajaseo (Far)” and “Jagagmong (Abracadabra)” to fill in the blanks. Overall, the collection is indecisive, a box of pretty, but mismatched buttons that’s easy to chalk up to lack of direction, but as long as we’re not in Hyoyeon, or insipid, one-off ballad territory, I’ll take any of these I can get. In any other month, one not so jam-packed with top tier releases, this would have been easier to appreciate — YooA might not be a superstar, but mostly she just got unlucky.

BABYMETAL: LEGEND – METAL GALAXY (METAL GALAXY WORLD TOUR IN JAPAN EXTRA SHOW) DAY 1 & 2
(2020.09.09)

Live albums rarely get much appreciation, and BABYMETAL’s latest illustrates why. As a live group, they are pretty great, making use of their strongest assets to cover for places they might be more deficient. They’re idols, but a lot of their fans are metal heads, so many of the usual tricks are tweaked, with video screens promoting the band’s Fox God myth, pyrotechnics over lasers, minimal costume changes, some goth-y props, etc. Lip-syncing still helps in a pinch here and there, especially almost all of MOA and YUI-METAL’S “vocals,” while the band, central to the sound but not the marketing, remain wailing away at their instruments in shadow, with the focus staying on the three (now two) stars of the show. It’s all a lot of fun, and the band clearly enjoys the performance realm more than the studio one judging by the sheer number of live albums and videos that have been released over the course of this group’s 3-album existence. The problem is that rarely does their live music warrant so much attention — like most of it, these two albums are nearly note for note the studio versions with an audience piped in. Unless there are some crazy innovative, off-the-cuff solos, or new arrangements, albums like these, especially when they are unnecessarily spread across two separate releases, are blatant cash grabs of the worst kind. While “money-makers” is how most producers like business-minded Kobametal have always viewed idol groups, I’m not really sure how much longer fans will put up with a stagnated mythology, poor communication, and such obvious, and constant, recycling.

Ava Max: Heaven & Hell
(2020.09.18)

Going by initial buzz alone, you would think Ava Max wasn’t anything but a deliberate Lady Gaga clone. However, one thing was always clear during the drawn out string of singles leading up to her debut album Heaven & Hell: Ava Max has neither the quirky magnetism, nor the endearing desperation of Gaga’s early singles. “Just Dance” and “LoveGame,” were built on muscular hooks, their choruses as easily mutable through the expensive sound systems of clubs as tinny earbuds, the notes as hummable, and memorable, as a nursery rhyme. I barely registered any of Ava Max’s songs after the first listen. Luckily, her music works better in the album format, where the basic Euro-pop foundations lend a steady, sturdy purpose to an extended run of music, a stepping stone path of a track list that wraps up an almost 3-year block of fun, but indistinguishable singles. It’s not the best representation of what a major label like Atlantic can offer, but there’s raw material within Ava Max, one that hasn’t yet been tapped by truly innovative pop, the kind that gives songs an instantly recognizable personality. I would love to see what Max with a top-tier producer like Justin Tranter could come up with, though I worry that three years of little growth bodes ill for a journey to the next level.

Whenever You CallArashi: “Whenever You Call”
(2020.09.18)

It’s a shame that Arashi have reached a genuinely interesting stage of their career moments before calling it quits. Everything from a relatively robust Internet presence, to a Netflix documentary, to experimenting with popular social media platforms like TikTok that utilize their strongest appeal (personality), Johnny’s has finally allowed this group the space to grow, as the last year before hiatus, and what was sure to be a spectacular crowning performance at the 2020 Olympics went up in flames, comes to a close. This single, written by Bruno Mars and produced by D’mile is just another curve ball from the group this year. Technically, Mars’s name does not hold the same weight it would have five years or so ago, but his skill hasn’t waned in the four years since he hit a peak with 24K Magic (both the song and album). “Whenever You Call“‘s mid-tempo pace does a stellar job of covering all the group’s worst weaknesses, including some serviceable but awkward pronunciation (this doesn’t bother me, but it’s obvious most of the members are struggling a bit), and the video’s robust choreography that doesn’t quite match the laid back tone of the song (this routine has none of the chill that is a hallmark of Mars’ personality — even when he’s on his knees, he’s always in charge). Otherwise, this simple number is perfect for Arashi: bland enough to fit neatly into the group’s discography, but interesting enough to add a bit of flavor and genuine pathos to a long list of stuffy love songs. It’s no coincidence that Arashi is finally taking fun, sometimes lopsided, risks knowing that they have nothing left to lose, and it really makes one wonder what the group could have been if they had cared enough to think outside the very rigid confines of the Johnny’s formula ten or fifteen years ago instead. Of course, I have liked them just fine for the last few years, but imagine!

Movements: No Good Left to Give
(2020.09.18)

I feel a little guilty admitting that I think that Feel Something is one of the greatest debut albums of all time: the lead singer had barely reached legal drinking-age when the band put out one of the most honest and sincere depictions of depression set to audio. Does the album surpass its years to express a mature, wiser-than-its years clarity upon the subject? No, and all the better for it. The very heart-on-its-sleeve, sometimes angry, sometimes okay see-saw is the reason it works, a collection of haphazard emotional turbulence that only the young can, heart whole, deliver un-ironically. The dedicated post-hardcore touches only added to its mystifying success. Three years after its release, it’s still one of the CDs that sees the most re-play on my morning commutes. So with some apprehension, I queued up their follow-up album No Good Left to Give, already wincing at the train wreck of an album jacket. Luckily their sophomore album returns to the same trademark atmospherics of Feel Something. The genre has remained the same, but the execution feels more evolved and fleshed out, with a bit more specificity in its storytelling (“Seneca“) that lends songs a high relatability factor, and an overall less at-the-precipice than already-over-the-cliff commitment on the production side. The album can be a bit unforgiving in its relentless drive to play up the half-empty mindset when the music itself already does so much of the heavy lifting, with the lyrics an overkill at times and the spoken-wore segments still a distraction (also, note for note the same melody as the ones on Feel Something so it sounds — not in a good, come-full-circle way — like the exact same song), but this is still a world I can see myself spending as much time in as its predecessor, an aural space perfect for the bleak landscape we’ve all found ourselves in this year.

Kylie Minogue: “Magic”
(2020.09.24)

When Kylie announced the title of her new album, Disco, and revealed the cover art, I was hardly imagining the sound of “Say Something,” the first single released. But this is more like it! “Magic” perfectly captures the tone of “grown-up disco” that Minogue hinted at almost a year ago. With good reason, it lacks the serious resonance of Jessie Ware’s disco odyssey, reflecting, instead, the poppy fun we’ve come to expect from Minogue. It might not be so much grown-up, as an attempt by a grown up to capture the same nighttime feeling you only get at the club in your 20s, but it says a lot more than its predecessor. It also has a better, carefully social-distanced music video — okay, there’s only like six people total in the club and an invisible glass barrier surrounds our star, but we’re in the club again! Dancing! Celebrating! You can be nostalgic for 1979 and 2019!