This article is part of our 2021 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, Charlie Brigden explores the best movie scores of 2021.
It’s been an amazing year for film scores. In fact, I truly can’t remember the last time it was this competitive. I weep for the poor scores that were left out of my picks for the best of 2021 — though I don’t regret putting two Jonny Greenwood compositions in. The man is a machine.
Before I get started, I do want to say that there are still far too few women composers being given opportunities, and this list probably reflects that. There’s a lot of crap that was composed by men this year for some pretty huge pictures, so something really needs to shift.
And now, here are the best movie scores of 2021.
15. Raya and the Last Dragon
James Newton Howard‘s return to Disney animation after nearly two decades is a delightful home run that provides a variety of fascinating colors and textures, not least the prominent use of electronics. His score for Raya and the Last Dragon has a heavy synth element used for the darker elements of the story, including the movie’s main enemy, the evil spirits of the Druun. This is beautifully contrasted with ethereal and lyrical melodies for the light magic of the world viewed on screen, particularly the dragons.
The action cues are intense and fierce, with typically fantastic use of heavy percussion, and the tones for the different cultures allow for a surprising amount of variety. It also feels much more emotionally coherent than a lot of similar modern blockbuster scores, and it’s spectacular when it gets going in the final act. Another feather in what now must be a gigantic cap for Howard.
14. Jakob’s Wife
Travis Stevens’ Jakob’s Wife is a vampire picture with a difference. That is why it required a unique kind of score. Enter composer and artist Tara Busch, who has long been performing film scores and similarly inspired music under the name I Speak Machine. She immediately brought a vulnerability to the film with solo piano and sampled vocals, followed by an industrial influence that captures a new sense of confidence for the title character, Anne, and her thirst for blood.
There’s a shroud of minimalism that echoes Philip Glass’ work, especially in the horror genre, and a thread of rock ‘n roll, particularly with the energetic and scuzzy cover of Concrete Blonde’s “Bloodletting (The Vampire Song),” and a touch of Kate Bush. What’s amazing is the way it intertwines and coheres into something sexy and otherworldly but still sounds like the perfect music for people being bitten on the neck.
13. The Power
British composers Gazelle Twin and Max de Wardener certainly know how to score things that go bump in the night, as illustrated by their terrifying music to Corinna Faith’s horror period piece. Built on a bed of field recordings made at a derelict wing of a real mental health facility, the score for The Power blurs together several levels of eerie dissonance, from low electronics to distant children’s singing, giving a firm yet creepy sense of history.
The disorientating feel of this score is one of its biggest strengths, as you’re often trying to work out what a particular sound might be when another hits you in the face. It’s unbearable at times, which makes the experience even more satisfying when you make it through. You’re not likely to forget much of what you hear in a hurry, even when it feels so out of focus. But when it starts to maintain a sense of clarity is when you should really be worried.
12. The Harder They Fall
Maybe you’d expect someone known as “The Bullitts” to make a great Western score. Still, Jeymes Samuel‘s music for his own feature directorial debut is a thundering triumph that recontextualizes the classical music of the genre on its own terms.
Samuel throws traditional African-American working songs, funk, and hip-hop beats into a pot with Ennio Morricone homages of whistling and heightened brass, with the result being a score that feels utterly fresh and vital. That’s even before mentioning the gospel choir that brings a truly operatic feel to the proceedings. The Harder They Fall is badass and beautiful. It’s just a shame there’s no score album available.
11. Nightmare Alley
Guillermo del Toro seems to enjoy switching composers like the wind, and it was an inspired choice to recruit Nathan Johnson for the neo-noir project Nightmare Alley. Johnson’s approach is surprisingly lyrical, but under the surface are numerous undulating strands of darkness that provide an intriguing opportunity for the listener to scratch.
The main theme for Bradley Cooper’s Stan is an unexpectedly sparse affair, a single repeating piano note that is further embellished before being stripped bare, and the treatment throughout is fascinating. It’s often as sinister and seductive as you’d expect, with the theme for Rooney Mara’s Molly a beautiful highlight amongst the murkier waters, while Cate Blanchett’s Lillith has music that sounds like it’s always calculating and conniving. It’s a wonderful, complex score that perfectly befits its subject.
Continue reading our list of the best movies scores of 2021 on the next page…
Related Topics: 2021 Rewind