Best Movie Soundtrack Releases of 2014
Diverse and musically rich selection of titles to whet the score-hound’s appetite
With 2014 being such a great year for movies, it would be easy to just list many of their soundtracks in a list of the top scores as well. But there have been some fantastic Holy Grails offered up, titles that fans had long been lobbying for. And, for the sake of variety, it is only fair that we give some credence to a couple of the lesser-known, but equally worthy score releases from older movies that have finally found their way onto disc or download. So, hopefully, we will find a diverse and musically rich selection of titles to whet the score-hound’s appetite.
So, in no particular order ... let’s dive headfirst into what I can assure is one hell of an aural ride!
Guardians of the Galaxy (UMC)
Tyler Bates has already proved to be adept at creating bludgeoning action music, what with his 300, Watchmen, Slither and John Wick scores, and although there is plenty of bruising energy at work here in Marvel’s most outrageous and downright entertaining SF fantasy epic, there is also heart and soul. Quite skilfully flitting between the darkness of evil Ronan and the squabbling nature of the bizarre heroes, and between the lush expanses of a deep space opera and the whirligig action that punctuates, this is a score written on a large canvas, yet pleasingly intimate at the same time. Wonderfully moving passages for the humanoid tree, Groot, provide a shimmering veil of spectral sacrifice and earnest devotion.
The score is big and wild. Choral backing lends gravitas. Catchy rhythms keep the pace energetic. Excellent use of large orchestra and an array electronic colour give a traditional yet consistently fresh vibe to what is a mammoth score that incredibly keeps running right alongside the thunderously fast action, and still finds time to convey the beauty of the rich and entrancing visuals. Bates is big on building to rousing crescendos and this score ably rewards his passion for thunderous finales. The awesome track Guardians United excellently brings all of this together in one furiously rousing set-piece of chaotic bravado. But the entire is fast, dynamic and epically realised.
True fans will lap up the Awesome Mix Edition, which features the eclectic array of hip 70’s tracks that play such an enjoyable part in the soundtrack and the story, most especially Blue Swede’s Hooked on a Feeling and Rupert Holmes’ delightfully cheesy Escape (The Pina Colada Song).
The Light at the Edge of the World (Quartet Records, limited to just 500 copies)
Was a tremendously violent adaptation of the Jules Verne novel. The original idea had been for it to be a typically family friendly adventure to be released at Yuletide, but somewhere along the way, the vigorous Kirk Douglas swashbuckler veered into leering cutthroat territory as a lonely lighthouse becomes the trap that a vicious band of buccaneers under the command of Yul Brynner use to lure ships to their doom. After his comrades are murdered, the surviving lighthouse keeper, Will Denton, played by Douglas, must outwit the motley crew and take back his island. Much action, bizarre torture and bloodshed ensues in a film that was definitely not for kids.
Piero Piccioni’s lavish and swooning score is delightfully thematic, though I feel that it really hinges around the main theme, which is so organic and melodious that it can be adapted for many different emotions. It can be sweeping and evocative of the hopes and ideals of Denton, steeped in the rugged beauty of the island and the tranquil isolation it offers. It can be achingly romantic and heartfelt, full of the sweet tenderness and yearning that he finds encapsulated in the form of Samantha Eggar’s fought-over human prize of wreck-survivor, Arabella, and in the frequent memories that Denton has to his prior life and love. And it can also be heroic and elegiac as Denton’s battles to survive the island and turn the tables on the vicious band of pirates. I’m reminded of how Ennio Morricone could use a single theme and toss it about, fold it up and rework it throughout a score.
But Piccioni has other elements up his sleeve to counter such harmonious reverie. Dark drum loops and a primal percussion accompany some of the demented antics of the despicable marauders, the score managing to be as wild and exhilarating as it is romantic and windswept. These brooding action cues lend the score raw momentum and a sense of dread, whilst maintaining the flavour of rugged romance and adventure.
Quartet’s release boasts an illustrated booklet along with the entire score and a couple of premier tracks that feature the composer, himself, playing the solo organ in what went on to become his own favourite soundtrack undertaking.
Hercules (Sony Classical)
… now this one really surprised me. The film’s marketing wrong-footed the multiplexers but even managed to leave those who were privy to the joke underwhelmed. The Rock seemed ideal for the role of the ancient hero of yore, but was ultimately shortchanged by a characterisation and a screenplay that veered too self-consciously into hip revisionism, and all at the expense of spectacle and excitement. Drab and boring the film may have been, even in its extended US edition, but the score from Fernando Velazquez was an absolute blast. Very fittingly, it rollicks along with a similar feel to Alan Silvestri’s score for Beowulf which was, itself, a film that sought to expose the myth-machine that lay at the feet of legendary heroism.
There is passion and pomp, excitement and energy. The score is impressively mounted and surprisingly upbeat for much of the time. Brawn plays a huge part, of course, but there is a deftness of touch that keeps the orchestration effervescent and fleet-footed. But, above all, the score is fun. Velazquez (Mama) plays it ripe and operatic, but with a musical tongue wedged in the orchestral cheek, making then whole thing pleasingly addictive. A whiff of Michael Giacchino (John Carter, M:I-3 and 4)runs through the endeavour, which explains where the spritely machismo hails from. Even the regal pomp and heraldic elements have a sense of ebullient mischief about them.
Excellent stuff, and infinitely better than the movie it decorates.
Edge of Tomorrow
… this one was another surprise for me. I expected generic action licks and all-out bombast, but Christophe Beck’s score proved to be a much darker and more soberly nihilistic affair. The film, too, was a tour de force that easily overcame its narrative contrivances to thunder through a vigorous Groundhog Day interpretation of Starship Troopers. Tom Cruise can do this sort of thing in his sleep, of course, but that charisma just keeps you glued to the screen, no matter how preposterous the scenario.
Beck keeps a remorseless sense of gravitas and fatality to the music. The main theme acts a great ticking-clock, ever driving towards an unforgiving destination, gloriously militarisitic and doom-laden.Terrific percussive bombast and brassy surges keep the momentum of time-trapped desperation and sacrifice suitably grim. Strings punctuate the aggression with searing stabs of energy. Electonica and waves of industrial grind keep the futuristic vibe ever-present. Glassy percussion adds a sense of hip individuality. But there are also some lighter, more reflective and subdued passages that illustrate the montage aspect of Cruise’s reluctant saviour as he seeks to pull the rug from a blitzkrieg alien invasion, dying and reliving each day over and over. This allows Beck to smoothly transition in tone from scary bleakness to try-and-try-again crusade, and then to all-out heroic do-or-die.
Fans of John Powell’s blend of orchestra and synth for the Bourne movies will certainly enjoy what Beck delivers here. The soft, yet adrenalised beat keeps the score fresh against its emphatic and heavy statements of war, chaos and death.
This is available as a CD-R produce on-demand from Amazon.
Escape from LA
Is one of the Holy Grails that fans feared would never come along rockets, appropriately enough, out of La La Land’s stable with all of Shirley Walker’s excellent SF Western score for John Carpenter’s colourful but ill-fated Snake sequel to Escape from New York. Third World War-hero turned celebrity outlaw Snake Plissken now has only a few hours to get into the cesspit of depravity that an isolated Los Angeles has become and find the President’s renegade daughter before the fascist United States gets torn apart by rebel factions and a tidal wave of communist invaders. But the man with the eye-patch is perfectly able to take it all in his stride – including duels on the mean streets, surfing tsunamis along Wiltshire Blvd , shooting hoops in The Coliseum and flying through a firestorm – with Walker ’s exciting, diverse and always inventive music to spur him along. After an emphatic reworking of Carpenter’s own immortal main theme, the first third of the score is strident, clanging and militaristic, capturing the cold menace of the racist police state that has, once again, caught Snake and burdened him with a do-or-die mission.
The second third rallies through a strange and eclectic line-up of motifs and flavours – Asian, Middle-Eastern, grindhouse rock, even eerie Gregorian chant – to reflect the bizarre and multicultural world in which our antihero finds himself. The final third caters for the dramatic thrills and spills, and escape and evasion as Snake sets LA ablaze between warring factions, outwits the Che Guevara-like rebel leader, gets the girl, defeats the odds and, once again, does the dirty on a corrupt and worthless society that has simply used him an discarded him. Beyond the familiar main theme, Walker creates entirely new music for this disappointingly comedic spin, and comes up with a score that is so much better and well-realised than Carpenter’s visuals and storytelling. With a harmonica providing weary and laconic statements for Snake, deliberately enforcing the notion of him being a Western-style gunslinger, she offers a wealth of material for a near-ceaseless barrage of set-pieces, upping the excitement and the esoterica of the score continually.
Walker found herself in an extremely rare position for a female composer – helming the score for not only a big action adventure movie, but the long-awaited follow-up to a genuine cult classic. Even though Carpenter couldn’t rise to the occasion, and the resulting pantomime merely limps to the finish-line, Walker took the challenge by the throat and delivered a bravura and fascinating score.
The disc contains lots of previously unreleased music, a bonus track, and is accompanied by a terrific booklet. The release is limited to 1500 copies.
300: Rise of an Empire (Watertower)
… very capably taking the bloody baton from Tyler Bates, who gave the original 300 such rock-enthused verve and heroic dynamism, JunkieXL (aka Tom Holkenborg) concocts a formidable, battle-heavy succession of sword-clanging, limb-lopping momentum with amassed percussion and bass, and churning, relentless drive. Both film and score fit perfectly with their predecessors, maintaining that sinew-taut aggression and brazen machismo. Even the fact that Noam Murro’s sidequal to Snyder’s original depiction of the Battle of Thermopylae boasts a couple of extremely savage performances from Eva Green, as the Persian naval commander and Xerxes’ most cunning tactician, Artemisia, and Lena Headey reprising her role as Spartan Queen Gorgo, hell-bent on avenging her fallen husband, there is little of femininity or sentiment at play.
The overriding theme is one of surging conflict, the thunderous score plunging onwards like the tempestuous sea, itself. Standouts abound, but the Artimisia’s theme is brilliantly interwoven throughout much of the action, forming a backbone of ruthlessness.
Although he has the forthcoming Batman V Superman (co-composing with the ubiquitous Hans Zimmer), it the prospect of his score for Mad Max Fury Road that is, by far, the most promising. Naturally, it would have been awesome to have had either Brian May (Mad Max and Mad Max 2) or Maurice Jarre (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) able to return to the Wasteland, but I have a feeling JunkieXL will come up with the goods. His score for 300: Rise of an Empire is strongly thematic and mercilessly war-mongering, and its driving insistency and sense of tempestuousness seems right on the money for Miller’s glorious-looking return to Max’s post-apocalyptic world.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Intrada)
Henry Jackman served-up two great Marvel scores before this – X-Men Origins; Wolverine and X-Men First Class. Whilst his Wolverine score was capable and workmanlike, it was his work on First Class that surely paved the way to his taking on the mantel of Alan Silvestri’s rip-roaring music for The First Avenger for its more seriously-toned follow-up of The Winter Soldier. Rather typically, he combines Zimmer-esque synths and pulsing electronica with strong and dramatic orchestral dexterity and driving vigour. The outstanding film plays heavily on paranoia and tense standoffs until powerful revelations tear apart the safety net that SHIELD provided for the ever-expanding Marvel-verse. Although his theme for the Winter Soldier, himself, is a disappointingly industrial grind that doesn’t sit all that well with the vastly trained, rigorously disciplined and absolutely ruthless assassin that Cap’s former best friend, Bucky, has become, it still provides a distinctive flipside to the warmer, more heroic anthems of the patriotic crusader.
Percussive loops and an insistent synth-embellished drive fuels many of the action cues, with the grander spectacle of the larger destruction of the punishing finale presided over by the orchestra. Percussion, low strings and bass trombone provide imperilled impetus. Trumpet and strings build to a powerful crescendo and a fine statement of unimpeachable heroism. But the most memorable material is possibly the more modern fare, perhaps to reinforce the fact that Steve Rogers is now indelibly relocated in time. Thus, Jackman cleverly uses the more traditional orchestra to remind us of Cap’s 40’s beginning, whilst leading the hyper-kinetic action and numerous battles with intensely arranged electronics. The steady rhythmic attack of Lemurian Star, the hushed suspense of Hydra and the relentless anxiety of Fury under attack are standouts in a generous score release.
Psycho II (Intrada)
Another Holy Grail. One of Jerry Goldsmith’s most requested scores finally got the treatment it deserved this year, courtesy of Intrada. For the return of Norman Bates, Goldsmith was able to blend the wistful tragedy of a broken man simply trying to forge a new life for himself and forget a terrible past, with the lurking dread of barely submerged insanity, and the onset of a new flurry of murders. Combining mystery and haunting sentiment, his score is a high watermark amongst a decade that many see as being his most creative. Spooky atmospherics abound, with plentiful stingers, perfectly replicating the slashing of a butcher knife, to spike the nerves, but the most memorable aspect of the score is its sympathetic refrain for Norman, which plays delicately and forlornly with a touch of homespun rural Americana.
Goldsmith provides his take on the celebrated strings from Bernard Herrmann’s original, but he then skilfully guides the saga in a brave new direction, marvellously in-tandem with director Richard Franklin’s intelligent film, segueing savagery with melancholy to create a score of many textures and colours. Plentiful extras include variations of the theme for Mother’s Room and other mysterious and magical passages.
It may be a gorgeously lyrical score, but when things get dark, Goldsmith is supreme at raising the hairs on the back of the neck.
A masterpiece that pays exquisite tribute to Herrmann but stands very proudly on its own two feet.
The Hunt For Red October (from Intrada)
In a word – wow! The name of Basil Poledouris will always be synonymous with Conan The Barbarian, one of the all-time great musical scores, and he will be forever renowned as a master forger of ferocious orchestral might and muscle. He might be armed with synth this time out, as well as orchestra and mighty chorus, but Poledouris absolutely refuses to shy away from the brawn and swagger that made his name, and provides a pulse-pounding and suspenseful accompaniment to the tale of a Russian submarine commander seeking pastures new and hotting-up the Cold War in the process. Intrada’s release now brings us the complete score that he composed for the first filmic yarn of Tom Clancy’s CIA trouble-shooter, Jack Ryan, and with scintillating clarity and power it brings the house down. From the overt stridency of the Russian martial chorus to the pulse-pounding excitement of torpedo-dodging in the deep dark briny, he takes what is a somewhat talky plot, long on political intrigue and submarine skulduggery, and gives it an edge-of-seat propulsion that sets the pulse racing.
The action is intensely scored with a masterful combination of pounding rhythm and instrumental colour. This is a rollicking ride that will leave you breathless and exhilarated. James Horner tackled Russian choral and imperialist might successfully for his Red Heat score, and in many ways, Poledouris’ music for Red October, with its acutely rendered conjoining of orchestra and synth, works as a superb companion-piece.
And, hey, you just can’t get enough of Poledouris, can you?
Flesh + Blood (La La Land)
Which is just as well because we’ve also got the highly welcome reissue of his thoroughly entertaining and often quite beautiful score for Paul Verhoeven’s medieval curio, Flesh + Blood, to recommend and celebrate, though only limited to 1200 copies.
Whilst there are nods to his Conan score, this is much more freewheeling and melodic. Despite the film’s rather dubious taste and attitude, Poledouris is able to convey a warmth and a romanticism that the characters, headed-up by Rutger Hauer’s amoral mercenary chieftain, tend to lack. Altogether he paints a far rosier mood than the story would lead you to expect – Verhoeven, here, doesn’t really know what he is aiming for, tonally – the score makes for truly splendid album. By turns lyrical and evocative of a long-gone era and state of mind, and rousingly chivalrous and heroic, this is quite an indulgence that is probably much better than the film actually deserves.
There really hasn’t been a composer who could so expertly evoke a bygone world with such sparkling wit and detailed inventiveness. Scintillating harp-play and sweetly earnest mysterioso conjure up beauty amidst the bloodshed, and the action is wonderfully stark and aggressive in a powerhouse display of orchestral verve. Although very reminiscent of Conan, the music here is much smoother and more consistently toned. The main theme is also incredibly catchy. I’ve frequently heard my seven-year old daughter humming it away to herself. So, you could treat this is a (slightly) gentler and more melodic cousin to Poledouris’ two Conan score.
Also included is a booklet containing a lengthy and detailed interview with the late composer, himself, which adds immeasurably the background of the score.
Salem's Lot (Intrada)
Fans of Tobe Hooper’s celebrated TV adaptation of Stephen King’s classic vampire novel will already be shuddering at the mention of this score, and the terrifying scenes that it embellished back on the small screen in the late seventies. But visions of freshly vampirised teens scratching at the bedroom windows of their friends and begging to be allowed in would only have half their notorious impact were it not for Harry Sukman’s incredibly atmospheric score to smother them in tendrils as creepy as the eerie mist they glide through. Fabulous strings float and glisten. Churning percussion emboldens the threat. And that relentless, galloping main theme acts like a predatory cavalcade of supernatural abandon. The music builds ominously and is shot through with many sinister licks. The ever-ominous “Dies Irae” is hinted at with the bold-blooded trombone ostinato that embeds its threat deeply into your soul.
Intrada’s 2-disc release sports the complete score, together with jazzy lounge source cues to provide a necessary antidote to all the undead chaos. Sukman composed three variations of the powerful Conclusion, all of which are presented here.
Interstellar – Hans Zimmer (Watertower)
Well, let’s face it, you just can’t get away from the Zimmer-man, can you? Love him or loathe him, he gets the big gigs and stamps his mark indelibly upon them. But even the haters, who are legion, would find it hard to deny the power and scope of his work for Nolan’s SF blockbuster. Now, I wasn’t smitten with the movie – I found it tedious, emotionally stagnant and bloated with babble – but I fell in love with the score almost immediately. From the softer, gentler piano reflections to the glistening, incandescent
I was reminded of the Zimmer from The Thin Red Line, with hugely hypnotic passages and a slow sense of the ethereal forever unfolding. He embraces a European vibe of pipe-organ and abstract synth, with many trance-like moments that seem reminiscent of 80’s Italian art-house horror. A cathedral-like quality opens-out with the sort of exponential breadth of Vangelis. The aspect of the human experience, its hopes and fears, is dealt with in a surprisingly glacial manner, forsaking much bogus sentimentality. Zimmer never falls into the trap of overt smarm, never panders to the tropes of whimsy that James Horner or John Williams are prone to produce, and are thoroughly excellent at, I should add. Which is what I like about Zimmer’s approach here. It would have been far too easy to compose sweet spacebound lullabies and keening, heartbroken strings, but he steadfastly clings to sense of coldly beautiful pragmatism, and fate.
This is music to lie back and look at the stars to. To lull and captivate the senses with. Even, perhaps ... to die to. Often a composer who languishes in sound design so multi-layered that it all sinks into an undistinguished mush, Zimmer’s more esoteric work can infuriate as much as his more blandly intensive and droning action fare. But there is a vastness and a serenity to Interstellar that is just beatific and endlessly fascinating. The big moments are there, all right, but it remains the blending of intimacy with these soaring musical representations of deep space, the whirlpool of time and the collision of human thought and emotion that resonate the most memorably.
When I saw the film, the music drowned-out the dialogue at times ... which was something that I was actually grateful for.
Eerie, transcendental and inordinately spellbinding, this is a work of art that stays admirably distant from schmaltz, and is unafraid to depict the fragility and resilience of the human soul amidst the cosmos. Be sure to get hold of the Deluxe Edition, although true Zimmerites will know that yet more tracks exist for download.
The above selection of titles covers the score releases that I have been most impressed with during the past year. They are rich and varied, but all inventive, original and outstanding in their breadth, scope and brilliance. I heartily recommend each and every one. 2015, I feel certain, will offer just as much excitement and sheer wonder, with some amazing new scores on the horizon. We have more from The Avengers, a new Bond installment, another Jurassic excursion, more Madness from Max and more Star Wars to anticipate ... along with a whole slew of older titles getting dusted-off, embellished with extra goodies and delivered for well-earned reappraisal.Now, to mention a couple of titles that just missed the list because I hadn’t received them in time, but would surely have been worthy additions.Predator 2 gets a long-requested Deluxe 2-Disc Edition from Varese Sarabande ... and I simply cannot wait for it to turn up. A brilliant extension of his action/suspense masterclass for the original Predator, Alan Silvestri’s bombastic sequel score brings in a dementedly addictive voodoo quality as well as a more futuristic vibe. Time to finally ditch the bootlegs and the PR release.
The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies also finds itself with a lavish 2-disc treatment, this time from Watertower, in which Howard Shore gets to culminate his magnificent new themes for this second trilogy of colossal Middle-earthian adventure. Whilst I love what he did for Jackson’s Hobbit series, I still prefer is work on the original Rings. But this will surely be a terrific way to end what has been an outstanding year for scores, both new and old.
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.