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)

May 2020: Highlights

Gesu Kiwami no Otome.: STREAMING, CD, RECORD
(2020.05.01)

Every generation has their unifying song smith: Tetsuya Komuro and Yasutaka Nakata all had their rises, peaks, and falls, and it looks like we’ve now reached peak-Enon Kawatani. It’s marked by all the tell-tale signs: fingers in various pies, all maintaining consistency in brand and sound, numerous releases flooding the market as the torrent of genius overflows, and the beginning of ennui from an audience hitting the over-saturation point. We’re just at the beginning of that last one, goodwill is still intact: I had a blast with last year’s GENIE HIGH and while it seemed a little premature for another Gesu Kiwame no Otome. album so soon afterwards, the results aren’t at all bad. While I don’t think STREAMING, CD, RECORD has the same punch as the group’s early records, it’s by no means a total mess, especially if you already liked GENIE HIGH RHAPSODY, since this is the natural successor, and has the exact same spirit. Extensions, leftovers, whatever you want to call it, it’s pure Kawatani and while the whiff of disillusion grows ever stronger, I wager we’ll all still accept a couple more of these before complete fatigue sets in.

TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE: Tokyo Girls Journey
(2020.05.05)

Since declaring their status as artists rather than idols, TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE’s output has been erratic at best. After the coinciding departure of Ayano Konishi, the group lost their core fan base and with it, any consistent musical direction, flailing between mature dance-pop bops and the sort of generic idol-pop at which even B-grade idol groups would turn up their noses. With Tokyo Girls Journey, the group is back to their more grown-up sound, an EP that shoots for the best of both worlds, for example, taking very disparate parts of their iconic New Jack Swing song and feeding it through a house filter, as in the EP’s strongest track, “Bara no Kinbaku.” The following tracks are a bit more varied, with “Ever After” a pop song heavily influenced by indie, bedroom production, while “KIMI NI WOKURU” illustrates the clearest “old” TGS stripped of the fun NJS elements. There’s solid work here, but nothing that reflects where the group should be at this stage in their career, depicting neither growth, nor a path forward. Like much of their work post-Konishi, it highlights a growing disparity between what TGS was and what they could be, committing to nothing but doubt and a sense that any future releases are guaranteed DOA until Avex finally pulls the plug.

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

There haven’t been any major movie releases in months and summer isn’t looking so great either, as dates are pushed back and rescheduled indefinitely, along with their soundtracks. So while we should have been moved by Harry Gregson-Williams Mulan last month and moments from comparing his brother’s Wonder Woman to Hans Zimmer’s Wonder Woman 1984, we’re instead left to forage in the C-grade muck left behind by streaming services like Hulu and Netflix. Luckily, there is one superhero outfit that has come to the rescue: Sunna Wehrmeijer’s collected works from Netflix’s original series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, which premiered its fifth and final season this month. The series, one in a long line of reboots (and recent mahou shoujo homages like Zodiac Starforce), follows the adventures of Adora and a group of other magical princesses in a campaign against the evil Horde and their leader Lord Hordak. 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’s recommended “big and epic” — but also “sparkly,” a perfect summation of the overall vibe here. Wehrmeijer’s previous work has included several shorts and other animated projects like Spirit Riding Free and Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, but her work for She-Ra is a strategic level up, one that will hopefully open more doors for this versatile musician.

Bolbbalgan4: Sachungijib II Kkoch Bon Nabi
(2020.05.13)

There are only a handful of true “indie” groups in South Korea that are popular by more than word of mouth. I would not say Bolbbalgan4 is one of them anymore, though they do a very good impression of the “indie sound,” that is, a calculated avoidance of the artificial synths, hip-hop, and brand-name luster that comprises the typical K-pop sound. Instead, BOL4’s sound has always relied on its whisper-volume lead vocalist, and as of last month, sole member, Ahn Jiyoung. The group has released music at a steady pace, even finding some success in Japan with a re-work of their only full-length studio to date, RED PLANET. But unlike the rollicking fun of a K-pop banger that makes for an instant hit, BOL4 has always come off as a bit more cerebral, the lyrical content of their songs just as important as the sound, one that lovingly emulates, rather than cynically mimics, a 8.0 Pitchfork review. That kind of sentiment seems to water down what BOL4 does, though, and it’s more complicated than that: in a sea of bad-ass angst and chipper aegyo, BOL4 are a welcome antidote, part the-boring-bits of a proper K-pop EP and part but-respectfully-authentic passion for the acoustic singer-songwriter sound. Take “Counseling,” where Jiyoung blurts out a series of self-recriminations, doubts, and bitterness: “I have good memories / I think I was really happy once. I want to live like a child / I don’t think I am […] I think I should say sorry / I am not, I am not. I hope you’re unhappy.” The gentle setting for these jewels belie their radicalness, the warm aura making palatable what by any other means seems humorously incongruous next to her sisters on the chart who are currently chanting “I can’t talk to you / I’m a little excited oh nanananana.”

Bear McCreary: Outlander (Original Television Soundtrack: Season 5)
(2020.05.15)

Bear McCreary is a jack of all trades: Rather than fall into the genre rut that a lot of composers fall into (Abel Korzeniowski, Junkie XL), McCreary has kept his options and his horizons open: he’s composed music for horror films, but also critically-acclaimed video games, B-level motion pictures, and for the last five years, the Outlander television series, now premiering its fifth season. It’s easy to fall into a rut when you’re bound to the same themes, endlessly pouring old melodies into new bottles — what was an interesting novelty in season 1 hit its peak in season 2, when McCreary got to take the familiar sounds of the iconic Scottish Highlands and filter them through the French Baroque, a truly inspired collection of interpolations that brought a decadent brightness to the sometimes dour mists of the moors. McCreary’s work since then has remained positively steady, though unremarkable, giving the show the soundscape it desperately needs, but not necessarily wants. Season 5’s soundtrack keeps the thread going, offering more iterations of the “The Skye Boat Song” and “The Fiery Cross,” amidst the few novelties he’s allowed to offer. It’s comfortable territory for him by now, and it shows. The soundtrack is none the less for it, balancing its gentle and sometimes sweeping romantic strings with carefully construed dramatic arcs, and if I was at all able to devote the time that a series like this demands, I have no doubt I’d still enjoy it as much, but never more, than I did the first two seasons.

TXT: THE DREAM CHAPTER: ETERNITY
(2020.05.18)

Last year, BTS-labelmates TXT (TOMORROW x TOGETHER) made one of the best debuts of the year with THE DREAM CHAPTER: STAR, the perfect remedy for the surge of dark electro and tropical-house anthems pouring out of boy bands old and new alike. Its cheerful effervescence was replicated in their quick follow-up THE DREAM CHAPTER: MAGIC. This month’s ETERNITY edition mixes things up, adding a bit of funk to the group’s playbook with tracks like “Drama” and adolescent distress with “Can’t You See Me?” While the EP as a whole doesn’t hold up to its predecessors, I was pleasantly surprised to see TXT holding up strong after three mini-albums. The individual members have still failed to make any impression on me, and I think the group still has a long way to go to prove they are more than what their label can afford them to be, but it’s been fun seeing what Big Hit can come up with for their more conventional group outside of the pressures that BTS must necessarily impose upon them now.

Carly Rae Jepsen: Dedicated Side B
(2020.05.21)

It’s an understatement to point out how disappointing Carly Rae Jepsen’s Dedicated was after the magnum opus E-MO-TION. While it made my honorable mentions list, I find it hard remembering more than a handful of songs off of this album: I just never go back to it in the same way that I still do its predecessor. And just like E-MO-TION, Jepsen has released a Side B, one that finally unearths the true successor. While there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking on Dedicated Side B, it does pose one question re: the decision-making process for her albums: Jepsen now has a proven track record of coming to an album with dozens of amazing songs that never make the official cut. So what prompts an artist or record label to choose a “Julien” over a “Stay Away“? While some songs are simply evident (bright, unstoppable hooks, big-name co-producers, demographic obligations), sometimes the choices seem less focused and more optimistic, perhaps reckless. Maybe Side B is a bit more generic and lacks a big number like “Now That I Found You” or “Too Much,” but it’s everything I wanted the original to be, which is to say, it lacks the hiccups like “I’ll Be Your Girl” and “Right Words Wrong Time” that slow the original down. It’s a pitch-perfect companion, one that expands upon positively, rather than overwhelms the listener with inferior cuts. It’s nice to know that we can at least count on the Queen of Endless Pop Hits for that.

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

What was that I just said about Netflix muck? Looks like the streaming service just released the month’s, and possibly the year’s, most gorgeous original soundtrack. The film it’s attached to, Da 5 Bloods, is directed by Academy Award-winner Spike Lee and follows four Vietnam veterans who return to the country in search of their squad leader and a buried treasure. The film’s release is still two weeks away, so there’s no telling if it will live up to the promise of Blanchard’s score, but if it’s any indication, we only have amazing things to look forward to. What stands out to me is just how traditional Da 5 Bloods, 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.” I’m quite content to eat my words when a score like this passes my way, and fairly certain this will be the soundtrack to beat in the upcoming months.

Lady Gaga: Chromatica
(2020.05.29)

Several music critics will have you believing that Lady Gaga is the last true pop star on the planet, but I would like to posit that Lady Gaga is only one of the most prominent spokespersons for pop itself, the type of artist who embraces her far-reaching celebrity, wanton desire for hooks upon hooks, and brazen (and successful) pillaging of any trend that will have her at the top. Her obvious endgame is Madonna-level popularity, and she’s made absolutely no qualms about playing every trick in the book from Eurodance, to controversial music videos and collabs, to the surest-bet and safest collabs of the last 12 months. The latter points to her high-profile duets with both Ariana Grande, a pop star in her own ascendancy, and BLACKPINK, YouTube’s favorite K-pop girl-group. Critics might call Taylor Swift calculating, but every pop star has to compromise artistic freedom with commercial reach, and the very, very best of them, find the sweet middle ground, right about where you will find Chromatica nestled in among the young, fresh wildcard Future Nostalgia and the smart, fun, indie-approved Dedicated Side B. Now that the album has capitulated after a pointless delay, it’s easy to see how Gaga could have believed the global pandemic would never reach the invincible shores of Chromatica — she announced a huge stadium tour as late as the first week of March, back when festivals like Ultra Music were already calling in rain checks. But Chromatica wasn’t immune, and rather than postpone the album a year or more, Gaga let go and released this huge follow-up, foregoing what was sure to be heavy rotations on the late-show circuit, clubs, and outdoor music festivals. Was the album worth the wait? Yeah, it was, and it makes the hokey visuals all the more unnecessary, the biggest superfluous hook on the entire album, one filled with monster 90’s house grooves and sizzling synths. Like a lot of pop music before it, it’s rooted in the near-past, the one just old enough to seem part-nostalgic and part-exotic to Millennials drawing from wells as deep as Amber’s “This is Your Night“‘s just audible deep-in-the-eardrums wub while out waiting in the long line to spend a night at the Roxbury, to the cool vibes of Robin S.’s “Show Me Love.” It’s more than a return to Gaga’s The Fame sound because it’s a sound that was only ever put on pause for more intimate projects like A Song is Born and Joanne that grabbed for something, anything, that would retain the spotlight after Art Pop tanked. But to be clear, Art Pop slapped, and everything in between it and Chromatica was just a strategic distraction, an elaborate show of smoke and mirrors meant to make everyone appreciate the magic of Lady Gaga once again.