It was a great year for movie scores and original songs, and one made particularly memorable by the addition of so much new blood in an industry where the veterans usually float to the top. Sure, there was typically great work by the old standbys like Thomas Newman, Hans Zimmer, and Alexandre Desplat, but some of the most memorable and affecting music was by fresh meat. And the original songs? Who in 2011 would’ve thought Lana Del Rey would be recording a song for a Baz Luhrmann movie in 2013 - and not just any song, but one played multiple times during the film’s most climactic scenes. Not me! Nope! But here we are.
So what were the 10 best scores and 5 best original songs of 2013? Let’s find out before we’re no longer young and beautiful.
The Top Ten Movie Scores of 2013
10. The Place Beyond the Pines - Mike Patton
I did not like The Place Beyond the Pines. Or, I didn’t like the final third of The Place Beyond the Pines. The movie has three very distinct acts with jarring transitions between each, but everything apart from the screenplay remains consistently polished, especially Mike Patton’s unique and wonderful score. It’s a noisy, thunderous piece of orchestration—complete with reverberating electric guitars and terrifying choral arrangements straight out of Candyman—but boy does it sound good. Out of context, the score loses a bit of its theatrical oomph, but “The Snow Angel” is an extraordinary piece of music whenever you listen to it. Ugh. Maybe I should give this movie another chance. Standout Track: “The Snow Angel”
9. Stoker - Clint Mansell
Clint Mansell is one of my favorite composers, and I had the pleasure of hearing him perform this score live earlier in 2013 before seeing Stoker. It’s unsettling —even for him (he composed the Requiem for a Dream score, for Pete’s sake)—but it's also the only thing that propels the otherwise disappointing film it surrounds forward. And if you get the chance to see him live (he’s one of the few composers I know of who performs with some regularity), go go go. Standout Track: “The Hunter Becomes the Game”
8. The Way Way Back - Rob Simonsen
This was the first I’d heard of Rob Simonsen, but I’m delighted to have been introduced. The Way Way Back is an acoustic-heavy, wistful little score that would feel at home in any coming of age movie. Or, you know, afternoon walk around the block with your headphones on. It’s short and a little repetitive, but “Duncan’s Theme” is a lovely little melody you don’t really mind hearing over and over again. Standout Tracks: “Duncan’s Theme” / “The Way Way Back”
7. The Spectacular Now - Rob Simonsen
Another Rob Simonsen score! Two more wistful teens! The Way Way Back proved Simonsen’s deftness with creating memorable melodies, but The Spectacular Now is much more focused on building and maintaining atmosphere. It’s a dreamlike, slightly electronic composition perpetually on the verge of a crescendo that never quite comes. But his restraint works, and the score is kind of magical because of it. Standout Tracks: “It’s in the Air” / “Sutter and Amy”
6. Prisoners - Johann Johannsson
Listening to this score reminds me that I cannot imagine sitting through Prisoners a second time. What an endlessly dreary movie that was! (Great, but dreary.) Johann Johannsson’s score is the sonic equivalent of a winter drizzle: It’s gray and it’s wet, but not too wet to walk through—and by the time you reach your destination, you’re drenched and can’t wait to shower and change clothes and for it to be spring again. Standout Track: “Through Falling Snow”
5. Mud - David Wingo
David Wingo has built a career scoring quiet, emotionally captivating movies set in the American south. He’s scored David Gordon Green’s three best movies (George Washington, All the Real Girls, and Snow Angels), as well as Mud director Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter (another great score—oof, that finale). Mud continues his winning streak with its somber, ethereal tracks that are ultimately, much like the movie itself, quite hopeful. Standout Track: “Ending”
4. Gravity - Stephen Price
I would give this to Gravity based on its final track alone, but fortunately the rest is equally stunning. Listening to this will make you feel like you’re wearing 3D glasses and screaming, “SANDRA WATCH OUT FOR THE SPACE DEBRIS! SANDRA!!!!!!!! WATCH OUT!!!!!! SANDRAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! OH MY GOD THE SPACE DEBRIS IS BACK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Standout Track: “Gravity”
3. Enough Said - Marcelo Zarvos
Ugh. Nicole Holofcener movies. I want to jump inside them and become friends with all her characters and never ever leave, even if that means living in Los Angeles. But since that is not possible, I will have to settle for listening to her scores through my headphones while at work. Holofcener paired up with Marcelo Zarvos for a second time (after 2010’s Please Give), and he’s created something oh so wonderful with Enough Said. Much like Holofcener’s films, his compositions are deceptively simple - there’s rarely more than a piano and acoustic guitar - but oh, how you feel them. Standout Tracks: “Eva and Albert” / “Do You Want To Kiss? (Reprise)”
2. Oblivion - M83, Anthony Gonzalez, Joseph Trapanese
M83! What took you so long to score a movie?! Actually, whatever! I don’t care because you did so well with Oblivion! Good heavens! This score! First-time film composer Anthony Gonzalez (M83) knocked it out of the park and right into the super dumb alternate universe where Oblivion takes place. It was impressive enough that Gonzalez was able to compose such rich and memorable pieces for the film’s most essential scenes, but the texture he’s created—and which he sustains throughout—makes even the filler tracks feel special. This is a magnificent piece of work, and (we can only hope) the beginning of a lengthy new side-career for Gonzalez/M83. Standout Tracks: “StarWaves” / “Undimmed by Time, Unbound by Death”
[CORRECTION: An early version of this story credited the Oblivion score to only M83.]
1. Short Term 12 - Joel P. West
Short Term 12 is a disarmingly honest little movie—one of my favorites of the year—and the music is no different. Joel P. West’s score is esssential for the movie’s emotional successes (much like last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, though in a much subtler way) because it understands the movie at a fundamental level, as if its notes are weaving in and out of the actions onscreen. Short Term 12 is as beautiful and memorable as the movie it was written for, and that’s the highest praise I can give any score. Standout Tracks: “Let’s Walk Then” / “This Is Home” / oh just listen to it all at once and cry.
- Mark Orton - Nebraska: Had this been a Top 11 list, this would have been #11.
- Hans Zimmer - 12 Years a Slave / Man of Steel: Each had a single great track, but the rest is majestic, Zimmer-y filler.
- Thomas Newman - Saving Mr. Banks: It’s Thomas Newman, so it sounds like Thomas Newman. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just an obvious thing.
- Alexandre Desplat - Philomena: A perfectly lovely, waltzy, almost lullaby-ish score. But not as memorable as Desplat when he’s at his best.
The Five Best Original Songs of 2013
5. Arcade Fire - “Supersymmetry” (From Her)
This appears on their new (and disappointing) album Reflektor but was allegedly written specifically for Her (which they also scored). It’s both robust and delicate, and maybe one of the most enchanting songs in Arcade Fire’s discography.
4. Emily Wells - “Becomes the Color” (from Stoker)
This isn’t technically in the running for an Oscar because of its newly strict rules on where it plays, but this is a vibrant, stunning (if slightly horrifying, given the context) song.
3. Idina Menzel - “Let It Go” (from Frozen)
This will win the Oscar. We all know it will. And that’s fine! It’s a great song—the only song in Frozen that I found at all memorable.
2. Susanne Sundfør - “Oblivion” (from Oblivion)
Like M83’s score did for the film itself, Susanne Sundfør’s track makes Oblivion’s end credits worth watching.
1. Lana Del Rey - “Young & Beautiful” (from The Great Gatsby)