It was a year when both we at Empire and the good folk of BBC Radio celebrated the ground-shaking majesty of the movie soundtrack. But which fresh scores and soundtracks caught our ear during the 12 months just past? It may not have been a vintage period for soundtracks, but any year that boasted efforts from John Williams and Hans Zimmer, had Jay-Z overseeing the soundtrack to an F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation, Tom Tykwer and Shane Carruth adding the role of composer to already arduous directorial gigs and Danny Boyle reuniting with one half of Underworld can’t be bad. Here’s our pick of the ten records you’d want under the Christmas tree.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
To some, folk music is a life force, filled with tales of despair and humanity. To others it’s just a lot of songs about how your gal’s 1000 miles away and you haven’t packed enough cheese sandwiches for the journey. The Coens’ folk fable has a foot in both camps – sometimes the music is the joke and sometimes it’s the emotional punchline – and T Bone Burnett-supervised soundtrack is at once a trove of genuine delights and occasionally a bit of a giggle (see: “Outer… space!”). Highlights include Hedy West’s elegiac ‘Five Hundred Miles’, previously sung by everyone from Nick Cave to ‘60s folksters Peter, Paul And Mary, but here with Justin, Stark And Carey doing the honours, while Oscar Isaac’s musical talent shines through in a cover of Dave Van Ronk’s ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’.
Still belting out effortlessly classy Spielberg soundtracks, John Williams had a typically industrious year. When most 80 year-olds (and, in fairness, quite a few 30-somethings) were looking for the remote control and a cuppa, Williams was signing up for the new Star Wars movie, turning out a soundtrack for The Book Thief and picking up an(other) Oscar nomination for Lincoln. The latter, while not as instantly catchy as his very finest work, was still a yard better than most other contenders, boasting a main theme that bristled with presidential grandeur and a suitably stirring arrangement of ‘Battle Cry Of Freedom’. For those who complained that the track title ‘Appomattox, April 9, 1865’ was a massive plot spoiler, wait until you get to the bit in the film where Lincoln dies.
Cloud Atlas co-writer, co-director, co-producer and probable co-tea-maker, Tom ‘When Does He Sleep?’ Tykwer’s joint soundtrack credit makes him possibly the co-est man in movie history. A true creative powerhouse, he teamed up again with German composer Reinhold Heil and Australian Johnny Klimek, his fellow Perfume alumni, for a score that had to expand on the film’s multiple, genre-twisting threads and knit them together all at the same time. Then there was the additional pressure of actually have to write the fictional Cloud Atlas Sextet that plays a role in the plot, a Debussy-esque piece of classical elegance, as well as central motifs in ‘All Boundaries Are Conventions’ and ‘The Cloud Atlas March’ to glue the six story arcs together. An unscorable score for an unfilmable film? Apparently not.
This year brought double cinematic delight for fans of post-rock mavens Explosions In The Sky. They scored two movies, wistful comedy Prince Avalanche and Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor (A.K.A. Explosions On The Ground). Both are set in the wilderness but have literally nothing else in common. In contrast to their thunderous work on Berg’s SEAL flick, David Gordon Green’s Avalanche elicited a more wistful score from the Texans. They teamed up with fellow Austin musician David Wingo, grabbed a bunch of guitars and pianos to give Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch’s meanderings a pastoral note on its main theme, and upped the atmospherics with the soaring electronica of ‘Join Me On My Avalanche’ when the tone shifted into more rugged terrain.
IRON MAN 3
For Brian Tyler, 2013 was one of those annus mirabilises clever folk like to talk about. It was the year when he was unofficially anointed Marvel’s composer of choice and found time to score a surprise hit in Now You See Me, presumably earning a gig on the sequel too. Most notably, he created a ditty for Marvel’s new logo, scored Thor: The Dark World and followed Ramin Djawadi and John Debney into the Iron Man franchise with a brassy score for part three. This one was lighter on the AC/DC, but still full of heavyweight cues, including a barnstorming main theme belted out with gusto by orchestral superheroes The London Philharmonic. Like the film, Tyler’s soundtrack plays out with the joyfully Austin Powers-y ‘Can You Dig It’, although sadly for Eiffel 65 fans, ‘Blue’ doesn’t make the cut.
THE GREAT GATSBY
With its party anthems and moments of lovelorn melancholy provided by The xx and Lana Del Rey, the Gatsby soundtrack was every bit the curveball we expected from Baz. The Aussie auteur drew a thread between the urban music of the ‘20s, jazz, and hip hop, its modern-day counterpart, to supercharge his hyperreal romance with thumping cues. It was all presided over by exec producer Jay-Z and music coordinator Anton Monsted, with contributions from Romeo + Juliet scorer Craig Armstrong and English singer-songwriter Jeymes Samuel. As Gatsby’s blinged-up guests partied like it was 1929, Luhrmann’s anachronistic playlist provided the fireworks.
Until this year, the Muscle Shoals studio on the banks Tennessee River was best known to hardened musos and passing catfish. No longer. A stomping oral history from brilliantly-named documentary maker Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier introduced the wider world to a soul music hotspot beloved of artists from Wilson Pickett to the Stones, one that lent its name to an entire sound. If you don’t have Etta James and Arethra Franklin’s back catalogues loaded onto your iPod, the film’s soundtrack showcases some of its highpoints both old (Arthur Alexander) and new (Alicia Keys). Find a space for it between your Commitments and Blues Brothers soundtracks.
The British composer tackled the unique challenge of giving voice to the noiseless expanse of space with a score that edged delicately from melody to ambient soundscape and back again over its 16 cues. Alfonso Cuarón’s brief called for a sense of perpetual motion, eshewing the percussion so beloved of action scores and recording instruments in isolation to lend intimacy to the mini-apocalypse unfolding above an oblivious Earth. Highlights include ‘Shenzou’, a gradually swelling concerto of spacy scares, the haunting beauty of main theme ‘Gravity’, and an 11-minute epic, ‘Don’t Let Go’, that toggles through just about every emotional state available to a imperilled astronaut, and a few more besides.
Another year, another uniquely QT-ified movie soundscape. This one, for Tarantino’s slice of blood-splattered spaghetti coolness, is replete with callbacks to the Westerns to which the film paid homage as well as more contemporary rap cuts from Rick Ross (‘100 Black Coffins’), RZA (‘Django’) and the raw-like-a-chainsaw ‘Unchained’ by James Brown and 2Pac. The film’s fuse was lit by Rocky Roberts and Luis Bacalov’s theme to the Sergio Corbucci Django, but there’s also plenty of Ennio Morricone for fans of the genre to appreciate. The great man initially dismissed the results as being "without coherence" but later released a statement claiming that the remarks were out of context and expressing his "great respect" for Tarantino.
The funnest and frothiest undead flick since Zombieland lurched into cinemas came with an equally fabulous jukebox of tunes. The film’s undercurrent of nostalgia for less, well, dead times is conveyed through a trio of legends including Bruce Springsteen with ‘Hungry Heart’, Roy Orbison's ‘Pretty Woman’, and Bob Dylan’s ‘Shelter From The Storm’. A fourth, Jimmy Cliff’s opener ‘Sitting In Limbo’, sold the tedium of life stuck in a permanent transit lounge between life and death with only a zombie Rob Corddry for company. Fans of ‘80s power ballads also thrilled to the heartrending sounds of John Waite’s ‘Missing You’. Our verdict? The perfect music to shuffle around saying “BRRRAAAINS!” to.