If the following soundtracks had to be filtered through the Academy’s stringent qualifications for awards worthiness, almost half wouldn’t survive the cut. Luckily for us, this is simply about how music plays a key role not only in accenting the storytelling, but freshly evoking a film’s drama in one’s memory. Regardless, these collections also work beautifully on their own.
CLICK THROUGH FOR OUR TOP 10 SOUNDTRACKS
Originally employed by Alfonso Cuaron to provide temp music as he sought out a composer for this space odyssey, Steven Price ended up giving the filmmaker exactly what he needed, combining electronic and acoustic instrumentation that’s more sound design than traditional score, placing breathing and singing sounds, and even wine glasses, through electronic processors for a sonic texture that is laden with a sense of dread.
Disney turned to “Avenue Q” tunesmith Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez for the winning songs of “Frozen,” including the girl-power ballad “Let It Go,” sung to soaring heights by Idina Menzel, and “For the First Time in Forever,” by Menzel and Kristen Bell. Underscore composer Christophe Beck’s chilly symphonic soundscapes constitute his best-ever work in films.
If a mainframe computer could talk, or weep, it might sound something like this — acoustic and electronic keyboards, guitar and drums are sometimes paired with a synth wash, with the occasional string accompaniment from indie rock darlings Arcade Fire. “Divorce Papers,” “Song on the Beach” and “Photograph” recall Chopin etudes, and there’s a feeling of solitude and melancholy in many of the pieces, with all the joy and pain and vulnerability associated with new love.
#7 “Saving Mr. Banks”
Thomas Newman’s gorgeous, buoyant, original score — replete with strings, piano and woodwinds that contrast the new frontier of P.L. Travers’ youth with the theme-park Americana of Disney Studio — is paired with variations of Richard and Robert Sherman’s classic tunes from “Mary Poppins.” If “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” as sung by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak, or Dave Brubeck’s “Heigh Ho” from “Dave Digs Disney” doesn’t put you in the holiday spirit, then nothing will.
#6 “12 Years a Slave”
This stirring combination of music — comprised of Hans Zimmer’s cello- and violin-based underscore and Nicholas Britell’s reinterpreted spirituals, work songs and dances — both dramatizes and evokes the music of the 1840s period of Steve McQueen’s jarring film. “There are elements of church music, African rhythms, proto-blues,” Britell told Variety. “I didn’t want it to sound like 20th Century gospel.”
#5 “The Book Thief”
Eighty-one-year-old composer John Williams demonstrates again that he hasn’t lost his touch, creating a quiet symphonic backdrop for the story of a little girl in Nazi Germany who learns to love books while the war takes its toll on all around her. Subtlety and restraint are the bywords for this poignant score.
#4 “All Is Lost”
Alex Ebert, the musician best-known as Edward Sharpe of the Magnetic Zeros impresses with his scoring debut on “All Is Lost,” providing music that’s meditative, spare and atmospheric. Alto flute, bass flute, strings, upright bass, acoustic guitar and giant crystal and Tibetan bowls create an ambient effect not unlike whale cries, giving a sense of extreme solitude and existential dread.
Portland-based composer Mark Orton employs a counter-intuitive approach to this woebegone tale of an elderly retiree grasping at straws, contrasting the film’s themes of marginalization and family dysfunction with an acoustic chamber score that’s by turns wistful, jaunty and always gorgeously tuneful. His chamber arrangements alternate between guitar, violin, trumpet, piano, reed organ and bass harmonica, providing rich texture to the film’s stark b&w imagery.
#2 “Inside Llewyn Davis”
The Coen brothers reunite with “O Brother Where Art Thou” producer T Bone Burnett for another stellar song score of traditionals, this time of the folk music variety as might have been heard in Greenwich Village circa 1961. Artists like Marcus Mumford and the Punch Brothers make significant contributions, but it’s star Oscar Isaac’s versions of “Hang me, Oh Hang Me,” “Fare Thee Well” and “The Death of Queen Jane” that resonate the deepest.
#1 “The Great Gatsby”
With original and adapted songs exec-produced by Jay Z and an underscore by Craig Armstrong, the soundtrack is chock-full of gems that address the theme of star-crossed love and Jazz Age joie de vivre. Standout tracks include Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful,” Coco O’s “Where the Wind Blows” and Sia’s heartbreaking ballad, “Kill and Run.”