I remember the first time I watched Terminator 2. The word ‘mind blown’ didn’t exist in my vocabulary then but that’s exactly what I was. It was a perfect action movie with amazing stunts and a breathless screenplay. And its soundtrack spoke to me. Eerie and futuristic while still having a human sadness to it, Brad Fiedel’s score in Terminator 2 captured its whole vibe: humanity versus machines. It was the first time I consciously enjoyed the sound in a movie and how that made me feel.
The second instance where I distinctly remember being in love with the sound of a movie was while watching John Woo’s Broken Arrow. I watched it in the Central theatre in coimbatore, on a 70 mm screen with its famously loud, thumping speakers. It would be another couple of decades before I’d find out that the soundtrack was composed by Hans Zimmer. My love affair with Zimmer OST had started way earlier before I knew the names of composers.
Being a bit of a digital hoarder, I built up enormous libraries of music scoured from my friend’s hard disks back in the days of computers coming with large CPU towers that can be picked apart. Like strange artefacts brought by seafaring merchants to a trading port, my collection grew with things I found in my friends’ collections. It was through this process I discovered nearly all the pop hits of the era (not through MTV - I hardly watched MTV).
One such collection I’d built contained hundreds of movie OSTs (that I would later learn expanded to original sound tracks). It had all sorts of new and old scores from classics like Chariots of Fire to more modern (then modern) staples like Mission Impossible (two, of course). Over the years, my music fad would shift quite a bit but I always enjoyed the original scores. Tracks like Clubbed to Death from The Matrix, Moby’s Extreme Ways from the end sequence of Bourne Identity, all of Kill Bill, etc., have been played to death.
Since I continue to enjoy original soundtracks so much, I decided to make a list of what I think are the best hollywood movie soundtracks (not TV) of the last decade. I have limited this to the last decade to make my life easier. Even so, a list of just 9 entries is too small a number and I may have knowingly or unknowingly omitted several awesome soundtracks. If so, let me know what I’ve missed in the comments.
So, there you go, in no particular order (not ranked).
(1/9) Arrival, Johann Johansson + Max Richter
Arrival is such a sublime movie with a place in the top 3 science fiction movies of all time. The best movies leave me with a feeling that persists long after I’ve walked out of the theatres and Arrival did that. In the case of Arrival, the feeling is punctuated by eerie harmonics over a droning background that plays when we are shown the Heptapods for the first time (Listen to Heptapod B). Johann Johansson’s sound captured the discomfiting sense of the unknown in this movie never more so than in First Encounter which should be awarded the best alien score ever. (Wait till minute 2:13 and then get goosebumps). A tragic side note: Johann Johansson, the composer, passed away in 2018.
However, the score that defined the movie for me was Max Richter’s The Nature of Daylight. While not composed for the movie specifically (the music is also featured in Shutter Island in its sad, dramatic conclusion), its presence in Arrival’s conclusion captures an entire lifetime. You are forced to contend with the revelation of the director’s sleight of hand and the fateful nature of Louise’s life. The only thing you do after it fades away is sit quietly listening and try not to cry.
(2/9) Insterstellar, Hans Zimmer
Look, having just one Hans Zimmer soundtrack here is a travesty but I want to keep the list diverse. Given a choice, I’d fill the entire top ten with my staple favorites including The Dark Knight (although it’s more than a decade old), Inception, Blade Runner 2049, Dunkirk , etc. Yet, even amongst these, Interstellar soars above like gargantua. Maybe I have a weakness for contemplating the beyond but the music was as much a spectacle in the movie as Nolan’s cinematography was.
The overarching tone is set by the powerful 1926 four-manual Harrison & Harrison organ from a 12th century Temple Church in London. This adds to the larger than life feel of the music. In true Zimmer-Nolan style it boomed louder than usual in the theatres right from the moment Cooper chases after an Indian drone through the cornfields (the sound actually broke an IMAX) but I did not mind it one bit. The best of this and the most memorable track for me is No time for caution that plays during the docking scene (Listen to No Time for Caution). Haters will hate, but Insterstellar is an exhibition of what movies can be and its soundtrack is transcendental.
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(3/9) Joker, Hildur Guðnadóttir
Despite its overtones, the movie and more importantly the music put a big smile on my face. Joker is quite nearly a musical that features some amazing tracks from all over including Frank Sinatra, Cream, The Animals, etc. But to me the haunting pieces were the original soundtrack from Guðnadóttir, especially the Subway and Bathroom Dance scores. Both of these soundtracks reflect the unsettling emergence of Joker in a way that always gives me goosebumps as the brooding Halldorophone melody washes over you, . It amazes me how a sound can capture a region but if I were to associate a sound for the northernmost locales and perhaps imagine a viking raider party, it would be set to this sound surely.
In Joker, set against a decaying Gotham, with extreme wealth divide, the track reflected the tenseness of the times (Also read: The totally unnecessary, mishmash review of Joker and Asuran). It’s a bad idea to listen to it right before going to sleep because it fills me with adrenaline and keeps me awake for the next several hours. Rightfully so, this gave Hildur Guðnadóttir a Golden Globe (first female composer to win) and a bunch of other awards.
(4/9) The Social Network, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
I am not a wine snob but if I were, I’d compare The Social Network to a fine wine. David Fincher made a gripping thriller out of something as mundane as a college kid creating software in his dorm room. Even Aaron Sorkin’s dialogues, that I normally find stilted and overwritten (who am I to critique), felt magical in this film. But the glue that brought it all together was the synth-heavy magic of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. With Fincher, they become a force of nature.
The music of The Social Network captures the mood of an era. Hand Covers Bruise, with its piano notes and white noise like background, should be the soundtrack of the decade from 2010 to 2020. Genius, sadness, technology sweeping through our lives and a foreboding all mixed together. Turns out that a young Zuckerberg prowling the campus and distilling his resentment and brilliance into a foul-tasting success is best punctuated by the synthesized drone and piano melodies. Then there’s the synthesized orchestral mania of In the Hall of the Mountain King, the soundtrack for the oncoming singularity. The whole album is a tribute to our times.
(5/9) Tenet, Ludwig Göransson
Tenet is the most confusing music video I’ve seen. I had been starving for a movie on the big screen in 2020 and so when Tenet hit the nearest IMAX, I was there as quickly as I could be. I think about halfway through I gave up trying to fully comprehend what was going on and instead watched it as a well choreographed music video.
It was a musical spectacle right from the first moment. The movie begins with Rainy Night in Tallinn - an eight minute long sequence with the loudest, most beautiful bass I’ve experienced - where in true Chris Nolan fashion, a synchronized action sequence plays out. Track after track, Ludwig Göransson pulled out one of the most interesting, modern soundtracks I’ve heard (Trucks in Place, Meeting Neil, Posterity) wherein he answered two questions: Can he really replace Zimmer in a Chris Nolan movie? And How do you compose music for a time-bending, mind-scrambling action thriller? The answer to the first one is hell, yeah!. And to the second I give you the entire soundtrack of Tenet. It’s been the sound of 2020 and 2021 for me that I remember the most.
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Black Panther, Ludwig Göransson
Ludwig Göransson again. To be honest, I did not enjoy Black Panther the movie as much as the world seemed to enjoy it and found it fairly boring. But the music, on the other hand, was a breath of fresh air. For the first time in a Marvel movie I actually paid attention to the soundtrack (can you remember any soundtracks from marvel movies? They suck). Thank god Ryan Coogler brought him over into the Marvel universe (having worked with him on Creed - another great original score from Ludwig) and made it musically richer.
To be fair, unlike the other tracks I’ve mentioned, not all of Black Panther’s soundtrack is spectacular. There are pieces that are mere accompaniments to a movie and not worth its attention as a standalone soundtrack. However, special mention to two that stand above for me: Wakanda and Killmonger. The African inspired, percussion-heavy track builds up in a dramatic fashion that feels worthy of a theme that can repeat throughout the movie. Killmonger, with the ghostly african flutes followed by bassy, electronic-inspired hip hop beats can only be described as beautiful malevolence.
Suspiria, Thom Yorke
I am not a fan of horror movies and hardly ever watch them. And I haven’t watched Suspiria but I’ve listened to the soundtrack hundreds of times. As a Radiohead fan, I’ve always thought their music was perfect as a soundscape for something dreamily visual: atmospheric, melancholic and comforting all at the same time, especially the sound from the ‘Hail to the Thief’ era (which I distinctly associate with my late twenties).
While in the context of Suspiria the music is meant to be more eerie and unnerving, I listen to it like a typical Radiohead track with the Thom Yorke dial turned to 10 (I don’t mind it). Suspirium and Unmade, both with simple piano and vocals with some synthesized background drones sound really good. I enjoy Radiohead’s more electro influenced creations immensely but this feels to me classic Thom Yorke. The kind of music that I can drown in while I do my own thing for hours.
BlacKkKlansman, Terence Blanchard
Spike Lee-Terence Blanchard is a director-composer duo that’s as definite as the rising sun. But in a list filled with music that’s mostly brooding Scandinavian soundscapes or European orchestras, Terence’s jazz-fueled, funk-inspired soundtrack of BlacKkKlansman is a refreshing gust of musical wind. Once again, it’s a movie that felt like a musical, what with the glorious way the movie was shot, the aesthetics of the past, warm colors and the general flamboyance of Spike Lee. The music takes you back in time but with an attitude. The main theme, with its electric guitar riff, sets the tone for the entire movie which could be alternatively called a comedy, horror and a deeply sad view of America’s odious racial divide.(Listen to Blood and Soil.)
When a version of the Inside Man theme plays right at the end where we are shown a Klan ceremony in the context of the movie (set in 70s) and then it cuts to real life footage of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville in 2017, it is shocking, moving and stirs up something inside you that’s part anger and part fear. (Listen to The ongoing fight for equality). Honestly, this should have won the oscar over Black Panther.
Drive, Many artists
I haven’t seen Drive. But in a way this makes me happy because I get to see it for the first time yet. The only reason I am certain I will enjoy this movie is because of its soundtrack There’s something about it that’s difficult to put in words - a synth-bathed noir nostalgia. To get into it, just start with Kavinsky’s Nightcall which pretty much immediately takes you into the world of neon lights, noir and the past. The entire soundtrack of Drive is a monumentally beautiful dedication to synth. Drive feels like the future as painted by the 90s, with the best of its feels and an electronic heavy track that’s incredible.
Also, this is the only soundtrack where I broke my rule of not including tracks with amazing music but mostly compiled from artistic music (and not necessarily composed specifically for the movie). This is the reason you may not see Baby Driver in the list although it had a brilliant soundtrack thanks to the exceptional collection of music used. But Drive is too unique and too good a soundtrack to not feature in the list including
Honorable mentions: Inception, Creed, Dunkirk, Her, Gravity.
I have not including movies that obviously had spectacular music but were not original soundtracks including Baby Driver, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok, etc. Also, I have a bias against heavily orchestrated music that relies a lot on classical western although most of the stuff above is based on it - I surely like such music in the context of the movie but rarely ever come back to it.
What other original soundtracks from movies in the last decade did you enjoy a lot? Let me know in the comments.
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