Thursday, February 11, 2010

Top 10 cinematic scores of the decade (2000 - 2009)

I started writing this blogpost in Dec, of 2009. When a friend asked me my opinion of the top 10 filmscores of the decade, I decided to release it, in unfinished form. Better to have something out there than nothing at all.

You may notice that I decided to call this post the Top 10 "cinematic" scores of the decade, instead of using the word film scores. The reason for this is really very simple. There are several video game, TV scores, and even "trailer" music albums that belong in a musical library if you love cinematic music.

Many of you may know I'm a film score junky. Out of the 11 GB of music I own, 73% of that is cinematic scores. Sometimes I feel guilty for buying an art book because I feel that I need to catch up on some of the scores I want to own.

My criteria for this list is:

1. The album has to have strong music throughout. 1 or 2 really strong tracks don't make-up for the rest of the tracks.
2. The music has to elicit some emotion. If it uses a lot of gimmicks or is a strong piece of technical work, it still has to hook me in some way.
3. It can't be too repetitious. Some of my favorite scores repeat one theme over and over, but for the sake of this list, I wanted to include scores that had many themes and a variety.

and now for the list.


Klaus Badelt is one of the most overlooked composers in Hollywood in my opinion. His score for the first Pirates of the Caribbean film is absolutely stunning. The themes are memorable and the music is beautifully performed. So you can realize my frustration when I heard that Klaus's mentor, Hans Zimmer, was picked to compose the music for the following films. I have nothing against Hans Zimmer, I just really liked Klaus's score and would have liked to see him score the next films. On a side note I liked only 1 track from Dead Man's Chest.

The Time Machine score has moments of beauty, wrapped in intrigue, and sweeping melodies of bittersweetness. In the track Emma, we get a sense of Professor Hartegen's love for Emma and we feel the loss of her through the tragic accident. The whole score gives lives in the spirit of adventure, and it is no surprise that several of its themes have been used for the Jules Verne festival (a convention of sorts to celebrate and give tribute to timeless films and filmmakers representing the Jules Verne traditions of adventure, exploration, and imaginative flights of fancy. ) Tracks like The Time Machine and Professor Alexander Hartegen both have "preparing" openings and then start you on your epic journey. Klaus uses the full orchestra to his advantage, and the quality of the symphony hall it is recorded in produces a rich echo.

I've painted quite a bit to the track I Don't Belong Here. I can start to feel my head bob as I listen to it. Listening to it, you can really get a sense of epic wonder and exploration. It crescendos in voices and cymbals in a way that makes you want to join the space program.

Montage pictures of the human race, the earth, and all the animals in it. Do it in your head as you listen to Eloi and Stone Language and in the end of Godspeed. You'll strongly believe that it's all worth fighting for.


I feel that because of the film's low reviews and box office earnings, Final Fantasy is often overlooked.

Elliot uses low brass to present a dystopian landscape and voices that seem to come from a different time. Right away Race to New York ups the adrenaline with strings that literally sound like they're racing, and then flow into a melody that sounds very classic. Much of the score doesn't sound like modern science fiction, it sounds like classic science fiction. The score has a Golden age feel to it. Death rays, tesla coils, and Flash Gordon come to mind, and yet it still works with the futuristic imagery.

Toccata & Dreamscapes sounds like a nightmare, a cacophony. While I usually shy away from music like this, I can listen to this and other tracks like it because Elliot weaves mystery into them.

The Eighth Spirit blends mystery and magic. Far off voices join strings perfectly before brass and drums chime in to say: "something epic is going on here! We better see what it is."

Dead Rain uses previous themes but presents it on top of electronic percussion. It really pushes the futuristic feel without getting into a tone that will be outdated in 10 years.

Zeus Canon sounds like something Wagner would write if he was doing a piece on an evil professor and his sonar death ray. Blue Light continues this by sounding like another tribute to the villain's evil weapon. Shaky strings, bright brass and bells crash upon wallows of voices that really seem to symbolize the amount of destruction the Zeus Canon can achieve. Adagio & Transfiguration starts slow and beautiful, but then takes it up a notch from Blue Light and presents music fit for the end of the world.


Michael Giacchino really surprised me with Star Trek. The thing is...I shouldn't have been surprised. The music sounds like Giacchino, and it reminds me of the theme he wrote for the Black game score. I think what surprises me so much is that Michael was able to write an entirely new theme and score for a well established franchise and come out totally shining. That's true talent. He does use the classic themes and puts a bright twist on them in To Boldly Go and End Credits, so he doesn't leave classic fans of Trek in the theatre, expecting to hear their fanfare.

Enterprising Young Men has a theme in it that is used throughout the film to drive the action. Even when characters are running through the ship, it is an undercurrent that seems to say: "time is of the essence".

Nero's music throughout the score fits perfectly with the brooding, screaming, Romulan and it comes at you with blaring brass and percussion.

Overall the score is surprising. Even after its third listen.


Chris Tilton is one of those composers that you know is going to be booked solid in the coming years. He's young, ambitious, and uber-talented. He's currently composing for the TV show Fringe. I can't wait to see what he does next.

The Main Theme and Main Theme (reprise) where written by Chris Tilton and Michael Giacchino, but the rest of the score is pure Chris. Michael and Chris do share some aesthetics, but what I like about Chris's music is that it hits it's target dead on. He doesn't overuse the dissonant and shuddering strings and droning brass the Michael seems to so much in Lost.

Tabla drums, strings, sharp brass and snare drums mix in a score fitting for America's black operators and their missions.

Treneska Border Crossing gets into the covert and direct conflict action quickly and puts you into the mood quickly. You'll want to grab some black paint and NODs (Night Observation Devices) and get into the action.

The score rises and lowers into murky waters appropriately, and like any good action flick it has it's quiet points and points of cacophony.

Bridge Too Close is one of those high points, woodwinds rise sharply and snare drums beat out a military cadence that is stopped short by strings or loud horns.

Madhouse mayhem runs with reckless abandon and ends with the main theme notifying us that while we've made it out alive, the action isn't over.

The track Ambush is a horrific, anguishing take on the main theme that will really make you wonder "who's been hit!?"

Black is in my opinion, the best score to tell the story of a Black Ops operative, fighting for the freedoms we Americans enjoy so much. The main theme is weaved throughout and it carries strong tones of patriotism in it.

It is a travesty to me that EA hasn't made a sequel to the Black game and hired Chris to work on it.


Many of my friends know that Sorcerers stone is my favorite Harry Potter film. The film has so much wonder, innocence, naiveté that the later films don't. The later films get edgier, grittier, and scarier. So much of the Harry Potter franchise has changed, that it no longer resembles what it once was. I enjoy all the films and their scores, but they lack the sense of awe and magic, yes magic, that I saw in the first films.

John Williams wasn't brought back for the 4th film, subsequent scores stopped using many of the themes from the earlier scores, and they didn't use Drew Struzan for the second film or any others.

So it may be no surprise that I love the first few Harry Potter albums. The best of John Williams Harry Potter work is wrapped up in the Azkabahn installment. Hedwigs theme and pieces from Harry Potter's Wonderous World are touched upon but Williams adds Double Trouble and ups the ante.

Drums battle in horrendous syncopation in the first 20 seconds of Buckbeak's Flight, and what follows is nothing short of flying. This theme will really make you close your eyes and imagine yourself flying over a crystal lake.

Patronus Light sounds more like a Brian Eno track than Williams but it works beautifully...especially near the end of the album.

The evil that creeps in literally converges in Dementors Converge and extends it's horrific fingers into the Finale. The horror is subsequently fought back by the theme from The Patronus Light.

Mischief Managed is a wonderful sign-off to the Harry Potter series from Williams. If you own one track from ALL of the Harry Potter scores, own this one. It has just about everything you could want.


Autobots introduces us to the Transformers universe with deep, patriotic, rising horns. Much of this track reminds me of some of Hans Zimmer's work for other Michael Bay films. The voices in this track are somber, respectful, they almost sound like a salute to our armed forces.

The next track is also a theme. Decepticons eases in with electronic drones followed by deep chanting voices that seem have a low harmonic distortion. It breaks into a driving beat, moves for a bit, and then brings the voices back in. The track ends with fastly plucked strings and moves right into The All Spark. The All Spark, another theme, starts with more plucked strings which echos and mysterious voices that seem to reverberate through bottles of glass. The All Spark is a sad theme. The frail notes of this theme is mostly made up of a lonely cello, a single warrior against the backdrop of a long war. A squad of brass and voices join their compatriot and help carry the theme to completion.

For me, a good score has several themes for characters, relationships, objects, and places. The themes are repeated throughout the score. Every composer in this list is great at this. The Transformers score has 4 memorable themes and a few others that fade in and out.

Optimus, through all of his incarnations, the comic books, tv shows, movies, is a seasoned warrior, leader, compassionate hero, and upholder of justice, righteousness, and protection for sentient lifeforms. The track Optimus embodies this very well. It reminds me of The All Spark in a lot of ways, but instead of the single cello, a flute echos over a landscape of plucked strings. It's another introspective theme.

You're A Soldier Now, Sam On The Roof, and No Sacrifice, No Victory have great examples of a theme I call The Human Race Theme. What's great about the first Transformers film is it's ability involve many human characters in the struggle against the Decepticons. The human theme represents this. The Human Theme had me really excited for the next film in the series...

Reviewing the Transformers score without talking about Scorponok wouldn't be a complete review. I saved this one for last because it's my favorite. Even watching this scene in the theatre I thought "this is the best commercial I've seen for our armed forces". Even in the chaos of a vicious battle, the soldiers and support crews perform their tasks with efficiency and precision. Every time I hear this track I can see the Warthogs, the AC-130 gunship, and the phrase "BRING THE RAIN". The theme isn't gimicky, it's full bodied with clear strings and keeps going till the battle is over.


Like most scores, Stardust is around 20 tracks, but it feels like wall to wall music. I think it's because the cues play at the perfect time. Again, like all of my favorite scores, the score has strong themes that are presented, echoed, and modified.

The score starts out with the beginning of the film, it follows Tristan through the wall in Prologue (Through the Wall). The tracks first notes are total magic, the bells and strings are hard to separate because they mix so well. In the later seconds of the track, a very cultural shift happens and we're enveloped by the sounds of the marketplace. The score moves on to Snowdrop, another magical track surrounded in mystery.

Tristan, our main character, is a naive young man, unsure of himself, who clearly has something special deep inside of him. Tristan, the track, sounds like this, word for word. The theme is echoed in later tracks, I'll touch on those in a moment.

Shooting Star is my favorite track. It's epic. The track builds and builds until it breaks into awe inspiring choir voices. In this track the human instrument shines.

THIS IS THE POINT WHERE I LEFT OFF. SORRY.

Captains at the helm features the adventure theme that is just as iconic as the Mastage drag from Stargate. Followed by the best rendition of Jacques Offenbach's galop infernal in Orpheus in the Underwold (the can can song) I've ever heard. Describing that scene to someone sounds very juvenile but watching it is pure comedy timing and genius.




  • Epitome of Trailer music
  • Nara - Cold Case
  • rock out with eastern themes
  • great epic, adventure, spy music

Dreamfall - Leon Willett -2006
  • Hospital Room is my ringtone
  • Best game score in it's time
  • Casablanca is an intoxicating eastern theme I've listened to 300+ times
  • Leon Willet = a young John Williams
  • I REALLY want to write more about this album

Gladiator - Hans Zimmer - 2001
&
Gladiator: More Music From The Motion Picture

  • memorable themes
  • multiple themes
  • Slave Who Became a Gladiator gives me chills
  • Might of Rome and Slaves to Rome - very underrated.

4 comments:

Rockhopper said...

you should some of my scores mate, I waiting for a chance to film a performance of me playing one of my scores. I have a HD camera on route, just need a decent light.

GI Jane, is awesome piece of music.
Terence Blanchard wrote something for a John Cusack starrer that repeats itself but is awesome.

There is the music form Spy Game awesome and the the Second Tombraider movie. The best I think would be the Last Samurai.

Rich

Björn said...

It's quite interesting how well I agree with you (albeit I haven't seen all entries), your writeup about Harry Potter resonates with me A LOT! That you put FF spirits within as well makes me happy, Goldenthal revived by passion for Wagner (I really think his FF soundtrack had darker touches of Wagner). John Williams remain the great one for me personally :)

... As I'm currently working for Funcom it was quite fun to see you put Dreamfall on the list, it deserves it spot very much;)

Matthew Scheuerman said...

Thanks for the comments guys!

Bjorn, I'm SO SORRY i didn't write more about Dreamfall. I really need to. As you can see though, It's #2 on the list. The Dreamfall theme MADE MY JAW DROP in those first few moments of playing that game. I don't have much time to play games at all, but I played that one and FINISHED IT.

Nick said...

A lot of music there that I absolutely adore, and a lot that I will have to scout out after reading this. My music collection is composed in much the same way as yours, about 80% cinematic music.
Good to see Gladiator, Pirates and Transformers on there, and yes, the first HP movie did have more innocent magic.
Some notable scores that you haven't mentioned but I could write about forever (and listen to for even longer!):

The Dark Knight - Hans Zimmer (Brilliant and unusual use of dissonant strings to build tension, and when the main themes finally come through you feel like you could take on Gotham yourself).

The Lord of the Rings complete collection - Howard Shore (all of them are masterpieces and together tell such a deep story even without the film!)

Bladerunner - Vangelis (perfect and eerie use of synth to suggest beauty and otherworldliness, but with those falling tones suggesting the mechanic underside that the film explores.)

Awesome write up, look forward to listening through some of your suggestions.

Nick