Music is essential to the cinematic experience. Even silent films had amazing scores that helped to fully tell the story. Nowadays, we see, or more accurately hear, powerful scores and catchy soundtracks that elevate movies to the highest levels. As part of our celebration of the best of 2018, we’re going to be counting down the ten best soundtracks and the ten best scores of the year!
Below are ten original scores and ten soundtracks that represent 19 different cinematic achievements. The fact that only one title crossed over to both shouldn’t be seen as a bad sign, but rather how diverse the sounds of 2018 were. Submitted by multiple members of the staff, this shows the passion that good music can bring out. Whether it’s tender compositions or chart-topping tunes, everything we’ve got to share with you is a bit of movie music that touched our hearts. We hope you enjoy!
10“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”
Daniel Pemberton got robbed in 2018. One of the scores of the year that I will never stop listening comes from his total flex in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which will blow you out of your seat. His work combines musical genres in ways you’ve never realized they can go together. Pumping a drum kit throughout a big orchestral score was a risky choice. The result is an electric score that lets you feel every little tick.
Pemberton uses sounds in creative new ways you’ve never thought to use them. “Visions Brooklyn 1, 2, 3” might be the most impressive track on the soundtrack. Using a simple whistle, some drums, and a simmering electrical sound, he crafts an extremely upbeat and fun track. At other times, the score is a frenetic drum solo. Maracas come in and out, along with some hand drums. The city of New York, and specifically Brooklyn, come to life because of the heart Pemberton puts into his work. He has emerged as one of our very composers, and you question how he missed the Oscar shortlist. What an amazingly dumb oversight that will one day feel inexcusable. (by Alan French)
9“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”
No score in 2018 showed off the versatility and skills of one Carter Burwell. Burwell takes on the unenviable task of writing 6 to 7 different scores, with no similarities between his work. Most scores of this kind at least carry signature bars that can be transferred from story to story. Yet the Coen Brothers constructed a film that simply cannot allow such a consistent style to exist. Instead, the movie continually reinvents itself, both visually and musically, and we’re all the better for it.
Burwell’s best sections of the score comes with “The Mortal Remains,” a story of ghouls, ghosts, and the paranormal. The score draws out each painstaking moment, especially when the characters exit the stagecoach. You can feel a chill crawl down your spine. Yet the film also contains hope, and the themes of tranquil bliss. It also gets bleaker, dragging you into the depths of loneliness and melancholy. Few scores can mix the eclectic tastes and styles presented in an anthology film. Yet there’s a guarantee none has ever been better than Carter Burwell this time around. (by Alan French)
Cody Carpenter, John Carpenter, Daniel A. Davies
What do you do when an iconic director, known for creating an entire subgenre of horror music, asks to return to the franchise he’s created? Usually, you would say yes without question. With John Carpenter, you melt into a puddle of tears and thank him for every note he’s crafted. With directors like Alfonso Cuaron, the love and admiration for what they accomplish on set is dumbfounding. With Carpenter, he mastered an entirely different art form and absolutely maximizes its effect to pair with visual storytelling.
What adds an extra level of nuance to the work is that John did not just bring this theme out on his own. With the help of Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies, the trio creates a chilling atmosphere. The score for “Halloween” (2018) is special. Carpenter did not just infuse his iconic work from the original film into the movie. Frankly, that worked for the past forty years, so no one would have blinked an eye. But the music lying in the underbelly of “Halloween” strives to take you out of your element. It combines segments of that original theme and then infuses new music and technology in ways you’ve never heard before. Michael Myers is a creature thudding through the night, but in this version, he feels far more physically intimidating than ever before. Listen to “The Shape Hunts Allyson,” and you instantly realize there’s more to pull from the music than any other “Halloween” score to date. (by Alan French)
7“Mary Poppins Returns”
In addition to co-writing all of the songs for “Mary Poppins Returns,” composer Marc Shaiman also wrote the original score. The score for a musical comes with the advantage of drawing from the melodies of the songs. But it also provides the challenge of using those melodies in different ways. A boisterous number can lead to moments of fear and danger. A mournful tune can turn into something optimistic.
Shaiman does all of this and more. When “A Cover Is Not the Book” leads into a terrifying race away from ill-intentioned wolves, the result is thrilling and the transition seamless. He does similar things when leading “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” into three children returning home to their angry and worried father. Over and again, Shaiman’s score perfectly takes one moment into something completely different.
And what’s more, Shaiman knew it was essential to connect this sequel to the beloved original film. To do so, he took certain cues from some of the songs from “Mary Poppins,” and wove them into his score for “Returns.” When Michael and Jane start to remember bits of their childhood adventures, the tune of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” is a perfect callback.
Sometimes it is tricky to separate the score from the songs in a musical. But listening to the soundtrack will give you a full picture of the whimsy, nostalgia, love and loss Marc Shaiman orchestrates. It is truly beautiful. (by Karen Peterson)
Few great composers from the industry have not received their fair due. Terence Blanchard, long-time partner on Spike Lee joints sits near the top. His work on “BlacKkKlansman” is a career best, adding to the rapturous tale of one man fighting relentlessly to make a difference while discovering his own identity. Blanchard finds the emotional pillar within the film, hones in on those moments, and executes them with effortless ease. (by Clayton Davis)
5“Mary Queen of Scots”
Max Richter is a thrilling talent when it comes to film score. Every composition is better than the last. He earned praise and a few awards for scoring the animated film “Waltz with Bashir” in 2008. His work on HBO series “The Leftovers” was mesmerizing. And in 2018, Richter wrote the original score for “White Boy Rick” and “Never Look Away.”
But his work on Josie Rourke’s “Mary Queen of Scots” is some of his very best. Sweeping, stirring, and beautiful, Richter captures the youth and optimism of Mary Stuart. The isolation of Queen Elizabeth I. He uses strings that swell with the importance of the story and then pull back when big moments lead into private ones. The score is powerful and feminine. It evokes the film’s emotional range, of love and greed, loneliness and joy. There is hope at one moment and then despair. Richter’s score is as grand as it is beautiful. (by Karen Peterson)
4“You Were Never Really Here”
To listen to a score by Jonny Greenwood is to know that you’re in special company. His sonic sensibilities and unique choices make for compositions unlike any other in the business. With “You Were Never Really Here,” Greenwood teams with another idiosyncratic creative force in filmmaker Lynne Ramsay. Ramsay and Greenwood brilliantly transport the stress levels and tensions of the movie right on to the musical tracks.
The film is one giant mood piece, with the score reflecting that. Sometimes, a track will have a deceptively serene quality to it, while other tracks have a brooding feel that could bring on anxiety. Over the years, Greenwood has consistently shown himself to be a master of the craft. This is just the latest example of that. He may hint at standard genre beats from time to time within this score, but don’t be fooled by that. The composer is still doing things far and away from the norm. Greenwood marches to the beat of his own drummer, which is something we should be very thankful for. The score for “You Were Never Really Here” stands tall as not only one of 2018’s best, but as one of Greenwood’s best yet. (by Joey Magidson)
Few cinematic experiences have been as visceral as “Suspiria,” by Luca Guadagnino. The film uses the art of dance in horrifying, grotesque and always engaging ways. The glue to Guadagnino’s multi-chapter experimental horror remake is Thom Yorke’s even more horrifying score. In any other film, the hypnotically scary score may have overpowered the film housing it. However, in “Suspiria,” the score compliments the disparate, demonic imagery conjured up by Luca Guadagnino. It acts as connective tissues for Susie’s nightmares, which could have just been read as a collection of horrifying issues existing in a vacuum. Even more than just being a storytelling element, York’s score becomes a device that propels the film forward.
The most breathtaking scene comes during a dance performance of “Volk.” On its own, the performance grabs you and never lets you go. Add on the overarching politics of the elders of the dance academy and you have a truly thrilling sequence. Thom York’s score conveys the multi-layered drama and horror needed for this thrilling centerpiece. It’s an incredible example of a film’s score being the primary story driver. The Academy may not have included Thom Yorke’s work among their score shortlist, but time will look back at this as one of the best scores of 2018. (by Chris James)
2“If Beale Street Could Talk”
Is it possible to listen to the score of “If Beale Street Could Talk” and not cry? Nicholas Britell’s score plays so beautifully in isolation. However, when Barry Jenkins pairs it perfectly with James Laxton’s lush cinematography, the music takes on a whole new dimension. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a full sensory experience, and its score adds an integral level of emotion to the already powerful piece.
The film constantly walks between romance and tragedy. The love story between Tish (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo (Stephan James) soars whenever they stare into each other’s eyes. The score brings to life the swelling emotions and the hope that the possibilities for their life could be endless. Britell helps form this sweet, comforting cocoon of love for this couple. Their haven becomes as much a haven for us as well.
Contrast that with the reality of the present. Alonzo is jailed and its up to Tish’s family to prove his innocence. At the center of the story is this sense of hope, even against the prevailing notion that justice is rarely served for black people in the 60s. Britell’s score makes their hopelessness seem majestic, grand even. When Regina King’s Sharon touches down in Puerto Rico for a pivotal meeting, the score announces her arrival. It’s an entrance fit for a Queen. That’s just one example of what Nicholas Britell adds to every scene of the film. His score helps add to the grandeur of Barry Jenkins’ highly ambitious adaptation. (by Chris James)
It’s possible that we’re somehow underrating Justin Hurwitz, even though he’s already one of the industry’s best young composers. Only four scores in, he’s become an Oscar winner, pairing with filmmaker Damien Chazelle to really elevate music in movies. With “First Man,” Hurwitz tackles his first project not to be centered around music. Here, it’s just a biopic, one where the sounds will be of a more traditional sort. If there was any doubt that he could tackle it, mere moments into the film, it becomes clear that there’s nothing to worry about. Hurwitz has outdone himself with this one.
Sublimely done, Hurwitz mixes a classic sound with futuristic ones, creating the rare situation where a theremin is Academy Award worthy. Track after track on this score is pure magic, from “Houston” and “Docking Waltz” to “The Landing” and “Moon Walk.” Nearly every track builds to an emotional crescendo. That’s even more impressive when you see how well it pairs with the cold emotionality of Chazelle’s visuals.
Even if Hurwitz’s work didn’t pair magnificently with Chazelle’s vision, this would be the score of the year. Nothing even comes close to its haunting power. It suggests that Hurwitz is going to be an all-timer. The way that we talk about John Williams, that could be how we refer to Hurwitz a generation from now. If so, it’ll be well deserved. “First Man” is just the latest example of his mastery of the musical craft. (by Joey Magidson)
Go to the next page to see the Top 10 soundtracks.