The Best Film Scores and Songs of 2016
It’s been a stellar year for film scores and original songs. Sure, one of the most acclaimed films of the year, La La Land, has seemingly brought back the Technicolor glory of Hollywood musicals. But that’s not the only 2016 film chock-full of catchy tunes. Comparing this year with last year, the quality of original songs has certainly risen. Looking at the last Academy Awards ceremony, Ennio Morricone was finally rewarded with a Best Original Score win, with the category there stacked with amazing talent (Burwell, Newman, Jóhannsson and Williams). But, in the Best Original Song category, a song from Fifty Shades of Grey was in the running, with Sam Smith’s “Writing on the Wall” from Spectre taking home the prize (ugh). Hopefully, this year we’ll see the quality of scores and songs nominated for their respective statuettes equal out. Over the course of 2016, we’ve heard a vast array of scores and songs that are worthy of not just awards acclaim, but spots on our year-end playlists.
While I tried to focus on the best of the best, I should mention scores for the films Pete's Dragon, High-Rise, Moonlight, The Witch, The Neon Demon, Kubo and the Two Strings and even Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice deserve honorary mentions.
Arrival, score by Jóhann Jóhannsson
Jóhannsson’s latest collaboration with director Denis Villeneuve perfectly captures the sci-fi and linguistic elements of Arrival. It’s quite a feat, with tracks like “First Encounter” providing the hypnotic dread of the unknown, while tracks like “Kangaru” are layered with scattered vocal rhythms. Jóhannsson felt it was necessary for the film's score to have singers speak in wordless syllabus, echoing the building of an alien language. Unfortunately, the film is ineligible for an Oscar nomination due to its use of Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” (used in the prologue and epilogue) and the Academy’s Rule 15 II E that states a score “shall not be eligible if it has been diluted by the use of pre-existing music.”
Doctor Strange, score by Michael Giacchino
Giacchino had a busy year this year. Zootopia, Star Trek Beyond, and Rogue One were wonderful scores, sure, but one stood out as a clear favorite. Diving into his first Marvel Cinematic Universe entry, Giacchino accomplished what few composers have succeeded in, creating a memorable score for a MCU film. His bombastic score for Doctor Strange provides the franchise's catchest themes, ringing loud in clear in the final credits and the track "Smote and Mirrors," which drives the film's best action sequence, a dive through the mirror universe in New York City. Bonus points for Giacchino, the MCU studio heads love him so much that they gave him the scoring duties for Spider-Man: Homecoming and they had him provide the theme for their new opening logo.
Hell or High Water, score by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
One More Time with Feeling / Skeleton Tree, songs by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Nick Cave and company brought to us a new film score (Hell or High Water), a new film (One More Time with Feeling) and a new album (Skeleton Tree) all in 2016. With Hell or High Water, Cave with his film score collaborator and Bad Seeds bandmate Warren Ellis, produced an appropriately Westerny soundscape, similar to their work on The Proposition, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Road. “Texas Midlands” is an effectively melancholic track, setting the stage for the thieves versus cops thriller. For One More Time with Feeling, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, with the help of Jesse James director Andrew Dominik, chronicled the making of their latest album Skeleton Tree. Their music is featured in the film by way of in-studio performances, with Dominik’s camera attempting to capture the agony of Cave’s lyrics throughout. Highlights include “I Need You” which acts as both an aching love song and an ode to loss.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople, score by Moniker
The score for Taika Waititi’s latest, produced by the New Zealand band Moniker, is appropriately synth-heavy, capturing the spirit of ‘80s action films Waititi was trying to capture visually. Nothing says that clearer through sight and sound than “Milestone 2 (Skux Life)” which plays underneath the film’s final, climactic chase scene. In a time when synthy scores are popping up just about everywhere, including TV (Stranger Things, Westworld), Moniker’s score breathes new life into this once again popular music genre.
Jackie, score by Mica Levi
The film Jackie is a powerful look at grief and how one woman processes it. Director Pablo Larraín is smart enough to train his camera almost exclusively on Natalie Portman and her performance as Jacqueline Kennedy. He was also smart enough to have Levi score the proceedings, making this her follow-up to Under the Skin. Similar to how Levi’s score in Under the Skin was crucial in capturing the unearthly vibes in that film, her work on Jackie is essential in portraying the levels of despair on screen. “Walk to the Capitol” plays like a funeral dirge with unnerving cues defining the insurmountable level of heartbreak at play.
La La Land, score by Justin Hurwitz, lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is another music-laced affair. A homage to the flashy musicals of old, La La Land is filled with showstopping numbers from the beautifully choreographed pre-title sequence set to “Another Day of Sun” to its more somber “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” featuring an Emma Stone performance worthy of acclaim. Pasek and Paul’s (NBC’s Smash) provide the lyrics to Hurwitz’s soundtrack, creating some of most earwormy work of 2016 (“Someone In The Crowd” has been stuck in my head for weeks).
Moana, score by Mark Mancina, songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa'i
Yes, Lin-Manuel Miranda can not be stopped. Do you know why? It’s because he’s a super talented dude. With Mancina providing the score, Miranda along with the New Zealand-based South Pacific Fusion music group Opetaia Foa'i managed to create songs for a Disney musical that end up lifting the story while not being annoyingly repetitive. There are no “Let It Go” clones here, instead you have a David Bowie-influenced glam rock track (“Shiny”) and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson rapping (“You’re Welcome”). In other words, it’s a glorious thing.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, songs by The Lonely Island
This year, The Lonely Island produced one of their best albums yet, which also just so happens to be the soundtrack for their new film. Popstar, directed by Lonely Island members Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, lampoons tour documentaries like Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and Katy Perry: Part of Me, while also satirizing the pop icons those docs chronicle. Matthew Compton is credited as the composer, but it’s the Lonely Island songs that proceed to further homage/spoof the pop music culture to its most absurd end. The entire soundtrack is catchy and lyrically proficient; it’s a shame the Oscars only shortlisted one song from the film, the opening track “I’m So Humble.” “Finest Girl” deserves all the awards for successfully creating an analogous love ballad out of the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.
Sing Street, songs by Gary Clark and John Carney
Director Carney’s latest film is very much akin to his previous two efforts, Once and Begin Again, wherein we see striving songwriters injecting their work with irrefutable passion. This time, the film is set in 1980s Dublin, where a teenager, inspired by the music videos he watches on Top of the Pops, starts his own band to impress a girl. What’s most unbelievable about the entire thing is just how the band’s songs are actually good. “Drive It Like You Stole It” feels quintessentially ‘80s, belonging right alongside “Rio” and “Maneater” on the film’s soundtrack.
Swiss Army Man, score by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell
The band Manchester Orchestra’s Hull and McDowell provided the most self-referential film score of the year. The lyrics to ”Montage” state what’s happening on screen, from the lyrics “pop popcorn” to “are we falling in love?”, the score is as upfront about its references as the film is involved in its heady topics like love and death. For a farting corpse movie, Swiss Army Man certainly packs a punch, and it uses pop culture touchstones like the theme from Jurassic Park and the song Cotton Eye Joe to hammer its message home, all of which are interlaced in its score.
As a bonus, below you'll find my personal "Best of 2016" Spotify playlist. A selection of 20 songs from 2016 films I've been going back to repeatedly over the last 12 months. Along with the selections I've discussed in this post, I've also included tracks from The Nice Guys, Star Trek Beyond (best needle drop of the year), American Honey, Green Room and Everybody Wants Some!! Enjoy!