It was the year that Meryl warbled in Florence Foster Jenkins, Christopher Walken got out the cowbell in The Jungle Book, and Fall Out Boy did some unspeakable things to the Ghostbusters theme. Purer musical joys, though, were equally thick on the ground – or in the ground, in the case of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s burial motif for The Revenant. Here, to round off Empire’s big review of the year, are our 15 favourite scores and soundtracks of 2016.
Channelling ‘80s chart music this convincingly is not nearly as easy as the Sing Street soundtrack makes it look. Director John Carney, though, knows his way around a pop songsheet. Teaming up with Danny Wilson singer Gary Clark – a hero of the decade in his own right – he crafted a swathe of new New Romantic anthems in an often-magical parade of musical ventriloquy. The Clark-penned ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’ is so good, it loses nothing in the company of Duran Duran and Hall And Oates.
14. Stranger Things, Vols. 1 & 2
Composers: Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein
In the year of the synth, nothing sounded much synthier than Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s spooky compositions for Stranger Things. The pair – ex-members of Austin band Survive – soundtracked most people’s Netflix highlight of the year with pulsing tunes that sounded like someone had spliced together the musical DNA of John Carpenter, Giorgio Moroder and Tangerine Dream. Their goal for the score was, as Dixon recalled in Rolling Stone, to make audiences “happy and nostalgic and remembering their childhood as well... but then [be] scared as fuck”. Mission accomplished.
13. Kubo And The Two Strings
Composer: Dario Marianelli
Laika’s stop-motion adventure was a gem that got the score it deserved from Italian composer Dario Marianelli, his second collaboration with the studio after Boxtrolls. With lush orchestration that pays loving fealty to the story’s setting with Japanese instrumentation and motifs, it’s by turns ornate and epic. We love Hanzo’s Fortress, which builds slowly before unleashing a huge swoon of strings and pipes, as well as the altogether edgier theme for the film’s villains, ‘Meet The Sisters’.
12. The Neon Demon
Composer: Cliff Martinez
Just pipping Brooke and Will Blair’s wall-shaking Green Room score in the ‘Music To Watch People Get Tortured By’ bracket this year is Cliff Martinez’s fluoro soundscape for The Neon Demon. The composer’s third collaboration with Nicolas Winding Refn is glossy, brooding and occasionally electrifying. The opening theme is a John Carpenter-y feast of synths and bleeps that gives way to an uneasy melody, while ‘Runway’ is so otherworldly, it’s practically extra-terrestrial. Against the backdrop of the movie, it glittered and darkened like it couldn’t make up its mind whether it was at a party or a crime scene. Pitch perfect, in other words.
Composers: Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina & Lin-Manuel Miranda
With honorary mentions for Pete’s Dragon and The Jungle Book, Disney’s finest soundtrack of the year was the Polynesian-flavoured songsheet for Moana. Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda was heavily involved, once again showcasing his flair for making this whole songwriting business look hopelessly easy with ditties like ‘How Far I’ll Go’ and ‘We Know The Way’. Maui’s anthem ‘You’re Welcome’ is a hilarious standout – especially when belted out by The Rock – and ex-Conchord Jemaine Clement gets his teeth into the infectious, sleazy ‘Shiny’. Props, too, for finding something to rhyme ‘decapod’ with.
10. Hunt For The Wilderpeople
As delightful, whimsical and cheering as Taika Waititi’s hit comedy itself, Hunt For The Wilderpeople’s soundtrack is a jukebox of pure majecticalness. Kiwi band Moniker were the creators of the musical canopy that accompanies Ricky Baker and Uncle Hec’s escapade through the New Zealand undergrowth, combining synthy cues (‘Forest Spirit’) with the odd quirky gem (‘Trifecta’). ‘Makutekahu’, meanwhile, is the sound of Giorgio Moroder bumping into a bunch of Gregorians in a bush. Totally skux.
9. The Hateful Eight
Composer: Ennio Morricone
Spaghetti legend Ennio Morricone ticked off one of Quentin Tarantino’s bucket list items when he scored The Hateful Eight. The 50 minutes of original music he penned includes the doom-laden ‘The Last Stage To Red Rock’ – a portent for the geysers of blood to come and a distant echo of his classic score for The Untouchables – and an overture powerful enough to keep you from wandering off for popcorn before the curtain went up. Now in his late eighties, Morricone still has gas in the tank.
Composer: Clint Mansell
A film as out-there as High-Rise needed a score to ground it in the way Clint Mansell’s does for Ben Wheatley’s dystopian period piece. “It was really just trying to not get too dark too quickly,” explains the composer. “[But] as the wheels come off, I could go more, as Ben refers to it, ‘Mansellian’.” He heads towards maximum Mansellian with ‘Blood Garden’ and the oddly disquieting ‘A Royal Flying School’.
Composer: Jóhann Jóhannsson
If you were still reverberating from his thunderous Sicario score, Jóhann Jóhannsson had something slightly more soothing in store with his third consecutive Denis Villeneuve collaboration. Not so soothing that you’d use it to lull your baby to sleep, mind you (unless your baby happened to have tentacles and access to an oval-shaped spacecraft). Arrival, though, reinforced his growing rep as a composer of serious depth and range, with cues fresh enough to invite absolutely no comparisons with a certain other close encounters sci-fi. Hey, they don’t stick that Deutsche Grammophon label on just anything.
6. Captain America: Civil War
Composer: Henry Jackman
2016 was the year when Marvel, perhaps bitten by frequent accusations that their scores had been a weak point up until now in the MCU, struck back. Henry Jackman’s excellent score for Civil War was dominated by a couple of recurring motifs - the mournful/sinister Zemo theme, and the one heard here, which could handily be either a triumphant statement or a lament. Here, as it kicks off the massive clash of heroes at the airport fight, it’s both. Superb.
4. The Revenant
Composers: Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto & Bryce Dessner
Japanese experimentalist Ryuichi Sakamoto penned a score for The Revenant – AKA Merry Christmas, Mr. Leo – that was cinematic in the purest scene, adding sonic power to the majesty of the Canadian landscape and Alejandro Iñárritu’s kinetic filmmaking style. The central theme is a mournful beauty, its strings sorrowfully accompanying Hugh Glass’s weary quest for survival. Sakamoto, who was unwell during the scoring process, had Alva Noto and, more surprisingly, The National’s Bryce Dessner to lend their talents. That may have disqualified the score from the Oscar running but not, crucially, this list.
3. Childhood Of A Leader
Composer: Scott Walker
Musical hero Scott Walker’s edgy, discordant soundtrack for Brady Corbet’s birth-of-a-tyrant allegory isn’t the first bit of avant garde scoring he’s done, but it was still a relevant to anyone who remembers him best ‘Make It Easy On Yourself’ back in the ‘60s. No-one was taking anything particularly easily in this scary-compelling indie, especially with Walker’s composition provided jarring cues like ‘Opening’ and ‘Run’. With 46 string players and 16 brass committing it all to record, the overall effect makes Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score sound like the theme to In The Night Garden.
Composer: Nils Frahm
Lambent electronica combines with pulsing club music in the score to one of our films of the year. It was all overseen by Berlin’s own Nils Frahm, whose sparse refrains lend a melancholy air to the one-take dramatics on screen with tracks like ‘Them’ and ‘On Our Own Roof’. “Does such a strong film even need music?” wondered Frahm before he tackled the project. “I realised it wouldn’t be easy to create a score that embraces these bold pictures.” Happily, he found a way – and then some.
1. Hell Or High Water
Composers: Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
David Mackenzie’s classy neo-Western started out slow but left a big impression, with Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine sharing the accolades on screen. Behind the scenes, Bad Seeds Nick Cave and Warren Ellis paired up for a country-tinged soundtrack that lent the crime thriller its mood via tracks like the piano-heavy ‘Comancheria’ or the string-filled lament ‘Mama’s Room’. “We were listening to a lot of outlaw country music and I thought maybe we wouldn’t need any score,” recalls Mackenzie of his first ideas for a score, “but we found ourselves accidentally doing a Nick and Warren score as it evolved. In the end we thought, ‘Why don’t we ask them?’”