2013: Soundtracks of the Year

(In Alphabetical Order – and with a Spotify playlist at the end!)

A Field in England – Jim Williams

As you’ll soon find, my favourite soundtracks tend to be those that are terribly weird and heard over incredibly odd imagery. So what better place to start than A Field in England, Ben Wheatley’s remarkable trip into the past, conjuring up all manner of madness. Jim Williams’ accompaniment mixes traditional folk tunes and instrumentation, adding layers of strange brooding synth, tapping into an ethereal and primal noise down in the darkness of the soul. Though it is ‘Chernobyl’ by Blanck Mass, the only licensed music on the soundtrack, that dramatically adds to A Field in England‘s standout sequence (Reece Shearsmith exiting ‘the tent’), it’s made even more disturbing juxtaposed with the giddy silly nursery rhyme that immediately follows it.

Cloud Atlas – Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil

Not only does Tom Tykwer direct the best parts of the multi-era, multi-director, multi-character adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel, but then (along with Klimek and Heil) goes and does a bang up job on the score as well. And given that a piece of music forms a crucial part of the story (and is the title of the bloody thing), there was probably some pressure to deliver something that you would react to in the way the characters do too (how many times do we see a film where a work of art is created that blows everyone’s minds, except those of the audience?). But despite the odds, Tykwer and co. succeed entirely. Well bloody done.

Evil Dead – Roque Baños

Horror scores tend to fall into a rather obvious trap of plinky plonky piano when building tension, then frantic strings and loud crashes at the appropriate moment of shock and terror. And Baños’ score for Fede Alvarez’s remake of Evil Dead certainly has a dollop of that, but what makes it brilliant is just how balls-out full-tilt it goes when it needs to, with a chorus of shrieking banshees and even an air raid siren when the horror requires it. But it also has proper themes too, not just using the tools at hand to create a cacophony because the action demands. Just watch the spectacular performance of it above.

Inside Llewyn Davis – Various Artists

The Coens are no stranger to revitalising a specific musical subgenre from a specific era, single-handedly making bluegrass a ‘thing’ with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the soundtrack for which won a Grammy Award for Album of the Year. And with regular associate T. Bone Burnett back producing (along with Marcus Mumford in an associate capacity), Inside Llewyn Davis rekindles that O Brother magic again, where you don’t have to know anything about the New York folk scene of the early 60’s to appreciate the mix of new covers and old material. And while it makes no sense out of context, and only a little in context, the sheer silly joy of ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’ has got to be worth an Oscar nomination, right?

The Kings of Summer – Ryan Miller

Quite likely my favourite comedy of the year, The Kings of Summer instantly got into my good books thanks to its videogame-inspired score from Ryan Miller. Just as the three kids embark on an adventure of sorts, Miller’s music often sounds like it has been lifted from a SNES RPG, as if they are on some kind of magical quest of their own invention and imagination. There’s a warmth and texture to the electronic melodies of that era that lends itself beautifully to both the dreamy paradise of an endless summer and the bubble-bursting reality that threatens their idyll. And the themes hold up nicely in their various iterations throughout.

Only God Forgives – Cliff Martinez

Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up to Drive was never going to have the same crossover success, deliberately going out of its way to alienate Ryan Gosling acolytes and divide even those who would otherwise have expected to like it. So too was its soundtrack unlikely to impact on popular culture in anyway like Drive. However, that’s not a slight on more fine work from Cliff Martinez, which this time is less given to a cool hollow metallic sheen and more to dark pulsing Carpenter-esque synth, with the occasional vaguely Asian flourish, drum beat or gothic organ out of leftfield. Oh, and a couple of Thai karaoke ballads for good measure. As with the film, it wouldn’t be to everyone’s tastes, but it’s full of flavour.

The Place Beyond The Pines – Mike Patton

And so to Ryan Gosling Mark II – again, The Place Beyond the Pines has its flaws, and Mike Patton’s music perhaps sums up the criticisms that it overreaches itself and falls short of the sweeping story its trying to tell. But I’d much rather watch a film with real ambition that doesn’t quite pull it off than one which opts for the obvious, and so with the score, Patton does a great job at making the personal feel grandiose, and the domestic epic, reaching extraordinary peaks in the process.

Les Revanants (The Returned) – Mogwai

The first (of two) TV scores I’ve included in this year’s soundtrack list, but they were both just too damn good to ignore. The mostly instrumental Mogwai lent their creative might to the French drama series in which the dead come back to life and cause all kinds of relationship problems, setting a perfect mood of mystery, melancholy and menace. Though unfairly criticised for not offering much in terms of answers come the close of series one (I didn’t care why or how the dead returned, I was just wrapped up in the characters and atmosphere), no-one could fault Mogwai’s haunting score. As soon as that music-box plays and the clock-like ticking/tapping comes in over the titles, you know you’re in for something special.

Under the Skin – Mica Levi

Mica Levi (of Micachu and the Shapes) does a ‘Jonny Greenwood’ and presents a deeply impressive and darkly foreboding score for Jonathan Glazer’s stunning film. As Scarlett Johansson’s character goes about her business, the heightened strings scream “horror” so loudly, it’s a wonderful nudge and wink to the audience of the fate of those that come into her close contact. But the otherworldly noises that are incorporated into the overall soundscape are just as crucial to conjuring an unshakeable sense of unease, tying everything together into one extremely effective and evocative package.

Utopia – Cristobal Tapia De Veer

One of the most intriguing new TV series of the year, Utopia had an incredibly distinctive score to match its story and visuals. Cristobal Tapia De Veer’s music is filled with the unexpected and the unusual, from warped electronica and distorted radio chatter to creepy whistle-humming and ‘that weird hiccup noise’. By turns unsettling and playful, it was absolutely intrinsic to the tone, and success, of the show.

And here’s a Spotify playlist for you all, featuring some snippets from the above soundtracks, plus a few substitutes and near-misses.



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