What a year, huh? Film music is one of my favorite parts of the industry and I revel in my scores the whole time, revisiting my favorite tracks and moments as I dance through the insidious process of choosing only a few to highlight each year. This was a great year for film music, one that I’ve been agonizing over for months now as I tried to whittle my list down to only ten (plus, you know, enough honorable mentions to really have about fifteen). I rethink each list after several months and for the first time, I would like to issue the following correction! No Time to Die has grown from being something I sort of enjoyed to being my most-played score of 2021 (and it destroyed all other contenders in my Spotify Wrapped). Hans Zimmer just…really brought it. If I were to do the list over again I’d remove Spider-man: No Way Home and add this instead.
As always I have a few honorable mentions. These are a few of the scores that I found absolutely wonderful but just didn’t quite put in my top ten. I think they’re all worth listening to (and a couple will be purchased on vinyl) and I think you’ll have a great time with each one!
- Pinocchio & The Outfit – Alexandre Desplat is a favorite of mine. His work has won awards for films with Guillermo del Toro and Wes Anderson (The Shape of Water and The Grand Budapest Hotel respectively). He assisted in ushering in a new era for everyone’s favorite Kaiju, Godzilla, and his never-seen score for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is one of the great bits of music that I’ll never hear. This year he worked with both Guillermo del Toro and director Graham Moore on Pinocchio and The Outfit, two charming films that contained dazzling music. Pinocchio is an ode to disobedience, one that dances through both rousing and haunted themes while spinning strings around the naivete of awakening into a world fully aware. Tracks like “Everything is New to Me” and “The Dogfish” show the contrast between delightful rambunctiousness and love and terror as it all swings towards an elating finale. The Outfit tells a different tale, one built in meticulous piano key strikes that punctuate moments like staples and scissors going through a bit of cloth. Mark Rylance may lead the film but it’s Desplat’s mercurial hand that leads this charming little thriller to greatness. Read my reviews for Pinocchio and watch it on Netflix, while The Outfit can be found on Amazon Prime
- The Banshees of Inisherin – Carter Burwell is a melancholy composer, perfect for the likes of the Coens or Martin McDonagh. He’s worked on In Bruges, The Tragedy of Macbeth, and No Country for Old Men, but in 2022 he offered up a moody piece of chamber music for The Banshees of Inisherin. His work creates individual identity pieces for a multitude of characters (and one for a donkey but sadly nothing for the pony or its shite) and then layers them atop one another to build a more vicious drear than I could have ever anticipated. It’s one of the best scores of 2022 and will be a frequent listen for me in the coming years. The film can be watched on HBO Max.
- The Batman – I don’t like Michael Giacchino. I think he is at his most competent when using music written by better composers (like Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, and Will Schaefer) to create music for franchises they have already worked on. His work with Matt Reeves on The Batman is in his wheelhouse, utilizing ideas from Hans Zimmer and Kurt Cobain to create something familiar yet new. It’s perhaps the most interesting thing the composer has ever done, apexing his aping skills with some of his least annoying pun titles (my god those can fuck right off with a vengeance), and its desire to remain an emo piece of rage works across the board for me. Tracks like “Highway to the Anger Zone” and “An Im-Purr-Fect Murder” are absolute bangers and yes I shuddered typing those titles out. Much as I hate to give this lazy bastard an inch I just…I have to give credit where credit is due. This is a wonderful album with some familiar music layered upon itself in new ways. Read my review here and watch the film on HBO Max.
- The Menu – This was an absolute delight, wasn’t it folks? Colin Stetson’s work with Arcade Fire and Bon Iver may be what you’re familiar with, but this saxophone aficionado is a composer with mastery of his instrument alongside the french horn, the flute, the cornet, and the clarinet. He’s scored Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Richard Stanley’s The Color Out of Space, but it’s perhaps The Menu that allows him to fully stretch out and see what he can do. It’s giddy strings and lithe woodwinds for this tasting event, with Stetson embracing the idea of mocking an art fan by creating some of the year’s best art. It’s bouncy, it’s silly, and it’s delightful in how it manages to resist going for a heavier tone while its subjects realize the gravity of their situation. I think Stetson deserves more work and I think his work on The Menu is one of the delightful surprises of the year. Read my full review here and watch the film on HBO Max starting January 2nd!
It is here that we raise the curtain, lower the lights, and let our musical journey fully begin. Please silence all cell phones and pagers (because I know some of you weirdos still have them) and keep all hands and arms and legs (and whatever else you may try to stick out of the car) inside at all times because I’m gonna be having some fun here.
09. The Woman King – Terence Blanchard, trumpeter and composer, His film work is wild and restless, tackling films like Malcolm X and Da 5 Bloods alongside continuing to work with UCLA as the Endowed Chair of Jazz Studies. An accomplished career has all led to perhaps his most energeting and bombastic score. The Woman King is a triumphant historical action drama from Gina Prince-Bythewood, led by a badass Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu in a breakout role, but the music stands alongside both performances and the production design of Akin McKenzie in its committed series of compositions to elevate an already wonderful film. Long discussions over instrumentation led to Blanchard and Prince-Bythewood settling on an orchestra to place the music alongside other sweeping historical epics like Gladiator and Braveheart. It works incredibly well, making the film feel warm and lived in with a lifeblood of strings and horns alongside some mild electronics work. It’s a great score that quickens the pulse and serves as a co-lead of the film. Read my review here and rent/buy the film in all the usual places.
08. Three Thousand Years of Longing – I’ve had a long journey with Tom Holkenborg, a.k.a. Junkie XL. His major rise to prominence was through his work with Zack Snyder on his DC Comics adaptations, leaning into drop-D guitars and power chords to elevate badassery. While tagging in with George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road I started to see something more personal and connective, still shrouded in badassery but with tissues of something more. He’s done this in bits like Mortal Engines and revisited some of this work in Tomb Raider, but it’s now in Three Thousand Years of Longing that he brings his strengths to the forefront and creates something encompassing the breadth of his talents. Aggressive battles, swirling strings, and romantic themes dominate in equal measure as we watch Tilda fall in love with Idris and you buy every single moment of it. Holkenborg’s score is not the total insanity promised by the film’s trailer, which is a much sillier and more frenetic thing. Instead the composer focused on sincerity and something almost primal in its deep desire to be longed for. Read my review here and rent/buy the film in all the usual places.
07. Nope – It’s a sci-fi western and that just rules. Jordan Peele’s ode to sci-fi UFOs and the audacity of spectacle is met with a vibrant and ghastly score worthy of what was laid down onscreen. Few moments in film music this year are as exciting as the “The Run (Urban Legends),” the track that fully realizes everything Peele is doing with his film and matches that energy with such a rousing drive that it’s impossible not to lose your shit in the theatre (unless the A/C is broke and your screening is 90 degrees inside like mine was). Abels has long been a collaborator of Peele’s, working on both Get Out and Us, but it’s his work on Nope that really cements the connection between the two into something truly elevated. Nope is one of those films that is all homage and feels like something completely new after its all thrown into the food processor, from the eerieness of the barn encounter to the bike-slide from Akira, Peele and Abels put together a wicked sense of visuals and an audacious score to make on of the most memorable experiences of 2022. Read my review here and watch the film on Peacock.
06. Halloween Ends – I love John Carpenter. That’s it, that’s what I’ve got on this one. David Gordon Green’s trilogy capper was divisive and complicated (I adored it), but Carpenter’s score is perhaps the most interesting part of it. On first listen I thought it was a bit of a step down from previous franchise entries, particular the 2018 kickoff to this whole affair, but time spent alone with the score made the heart grow fonder. This was a year for openly romantic films and Halloween Ends let Carpenter play in that sandbox, albeit through the lense of inevitable tragedy rather than triumphant love. Haddonfield has forever remained in the grip of its boogeyman but Carpenter has always held tightest to the roots of this cursed town. Halloween Ends might be a bit of a polarizing entry for most viewers but for me the film and score are a triumphant end to this sequel trilogy. The franchise will never truly end but if it had to I think Carpenter, alongside his son Cody and their creative partner Daniel Davies, has delivered a magnificent musical cap to this era of Michael’s blood feud with Laurie Strode. Read my review here and watch the film on Peacock.
05. Bones & All – I absolutely love Reznor and Ross when they’re brought in and allowed to just do their thing. Recent years have seen them experiment with films like Mank or Soul, stepping out of their wheelhouse to expand their horizons with different types of music than previous efforts. Bones & All makes perhaps the best use of the duo since David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, allowing them to create something that feels like them while also feeling around to find something new. The opening of the film begins with shades of what will become the characters’ love theme but they aren’t fully realized yet, only developing into this state later as their two themes come together to make something achingly romantic while haunting and doomed. The two dynamite lead performances (and that of Mark Rylance, who makes a meal out of his brief screentime) are absolutely wonderful and each moment with them is brought to a new height through the beautiful, unsettling, and downright disturbing material the composers have brought to the table. It took the duo nearly eight months to present the final score and it was completely worth the effort. Read my review here and rent/buy the film in all the usual places.
04. The Northman – I love Robert Eggers but I love it even more when he switches gears. The director worked with Mark Korven for The VVitch and The Lighthouse but it’s his new work with Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough that makes his biggest film to date feel appropriate for its size. The Northman is a Hamlet adaptation, moving back to look at the epic quest for vengeance that the play is based on, and its size is matched by a massive score that pulls no punches and holds nothing back. Tageltharpa and Kravik Lyre are utilized to create sounds mostly unheard in major films, combining with Tuvan throat singing and bullroar strings to make an album that is the equivalent of someone screaming at you for ninety minutes. In a good way. I love each moment of this score, from the beginning to its bombastic end (fittingly set on a live volcano as two nude men fight to the death with swords), and I hope we get more from this duo in the future. It’s their first film score but it’s from a fully-realized and aware pair of artists that I see as exciting new voices in the industry. Read my review here and watch the film on Amazon Prime.
03. Don’t Worry Darling – Olivia Wilde’s second film may have been a mess (though a gorgeously shot one with an incredible performance from Florence Pugh) but John Powell’s score accompanying it is fantastic! It’s odd and deserves a better film, but the narrative issues of the script and the unfortunate performance from Harry Styles (someone please hold an intervention to keep him off the screen, he’s awful) don’t impact the music. In one of the most unique ideas I’ve ever heard, Powell incorporates breathing cycles and overdramatic wailing to go with this journey into a 1950s-esque town built around a hidden project. The film comes close enough to coherence that I didn’t hate it but I was sort of shocked at how much I enjoyed the score. Powell continues to surprise me, having made an amazing score for Solo: A Star Wars Story a few years back and many other pieces from the last two decades with other composers, but it’s this recent work that cements him as an innovative whackadoo of cinema that I cannot get enough of. This is a particularly gorgeous vinyl from MondoTees and the music is a must-listen. Read my full review here and watch the film on HBO Max.
02. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On – I only knew Disasterpeace from their work on It Follows, with a great 80s homage for a semi-modern film with a banger of a hook. This is much more of a charming and sweet work, utilizing inspiration from 80s Japanese ambient music and the onscreen life of the characters to create a wonderful and “at-home” sensation. It’s haunted, lonely, silly, and very fun to listen to. Perhaps its greatest achievement is the ability to set aside the eclectic in favor of something more reflective, interested in what goes on inside the self as opposed to what all surrounds us. Marcel may learn a lot about the big, wide world while searching for their family but it’s the quiet moments, listening to the wind blow through his shell, that truly bring this movie and this music to a lovely little culmination. If you haven’t yet introduced yourself to Marcel…maybe it’s time. Read my full review here and rent/buy the film in all of the usual places.
01. Babylon – I absolutely loved Damien Chazelle’s attempt to bury Hollywood with Babylon, a movie that has a desperate need to be the final say on the death of Hollywood while also reminding us that the magic will never die, but it’s a three-hour beast that will be unweildly for most audiences. What seems to be its greatest strength is Justin Hurwitz’s insane score, bouncing around and creating a coke-fueled journey that attempts to incorporate 1920s Jazz with modern sensibilities matches the energy that Chazelle throws at ever single moment of his latest film. Babylon‘s first hour is its most exhilarating, but the music maintains its drive beyond that and continues the streak of this duo creating memorable music together. From First Man to La La Land they’ve stuck together and build films that are highly reliant on music to carry a bulk of the emotional weight but its here that Hurwitz is let off the leash. He builds on previous motifs and themes, playing in familiar key signatures and structures to create something bafflingly bizarre and exciting. Babylon is leaps and bounds better than almost any other score this year. It’s my favorite and you all need to get on this one immediately. Read my review here and see the film in theatres.