And to think I don’t have to write any more words about film music for the rest of my life…”You’ve written more than enough“, some might say.
Like I always say, there’s something inherently magical about film music. I wouldn’t miss it for all the unoriginality (I prefer the word ‘homage’) that it so proudly displays at every glorious turn or twist. So. Let us have our 7 minutes and 38 seconds of pure bliss, away from the politics, away from 2017. Let’s go back to 2016 for just another few moments.
(Yes. You can pretty much guess my winners from just reading the above paragraph.)
Best Scores of 2016
10. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them | James Newton Howard
It is within popular belief, that any composer attached to projects previously associated with John Williams, are pretty much setting themselves up for unfair expectations, failure to meet said expectations and, well…a lot of ‘what is WRONG with you?’s.
Frankly, anther victim to this cancer happened to be veteran film music composer James Newton Howard, who has eagerly taken upon the wand and proceeded to concoct his own brand of magic for the world of witches and wizards. His defiance was deftly showcased by a 2 disc treatment of the film score, where Hedwig’s theme only managed a 30 second-long whimper before the new guy rocked up in town, bringing with him his own vintage mannerisms for fantasy scoring, polished world building and jazz.
I consider Howard to be one of Hollywood’s best fantasy composers, as he has continuously proven himself worthy of the title, even when the films themselves didn’t deserve such gems. Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Lady in the Water, The Last Airbender and Maleficent are a mix bag of films ranging from decent to abysmal, and yet they all share a common thread of great scores from the man.
Having penned a slew of charming themes, including identities for Newt the eccentric Greenpeace wizard, the Thunderbird (this world’s version of Zapdos) and Kowalski the bumbling No-Maj, Fantastic Beasts has gained itself a musical landscape that is worthy of the Harry Potter universe, even if Howard did seem to miss a few incantations, when the opposing jinxes of contemporary mediocrity forced him into a few passages of uninspired fluff.
9. Star Trek Beyond | Michael Giacchino
It is becoming increasingly frustrating, that Michael Giacchino alone is hogging all these giant franchises. How I yearned for my man John Powell to score a space opera one of these days…But hey, if you hog all the playgrounds, at least try to have fun in all of them, right?
Star Trek Beyond was a surprisingly good time; surprising in the post-trailer world anyway (I suppose all of you here can remember the…ice-cold reception of the first trailer, right?) Heralded by classic Trek fans as a return to form and praised by regular film-goers as an effective blockbuster, Michael Giacchino’s third waltz with the franchise is starting to show some fatigue in the cracks. But the composer more than held his own, coming up with some brand new material that can be considered to be some of his best yet for the reboot universe. Spock’s theme may have taken an even more depressing backseat, but in its place came Jaylah’s theme and the gorgeously romantic musical identity for Yorktown, a sentient being’s haven from the most optimistic of imaginations. Echoes of Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner lyricism in Giacchino’s flashy and new Trek soundscape is always welcome.
I might’ve surprised some with ranking this above Giacchino’s admirable venture in Rogue One. Truth be told, the tragedy of circumstance haven’t been kind to the latter project; with the poor guy having to score a STAR WARS film, the holy grail of John Williams (tenfold worse than JNH’s Harry Potter situation, I’d say) in a month. The score never elevated itself from comfortable realms of being respectable and functional, and thus was never truly impressionable.
8. The Last Guardian | Takeshi Furukawa
The composer in his linear notes for the physical album release, was very quick to mention the mentality behind scoring the PS4 exclusive title in more traditional fashions: “Musical themes are the cornerstones.”
And themes there were. The game score showed incredible range in tonal harmonics and instrumental combinations, ranging from humble piano solos to growling woodwind textures and crescendoing symphonic outbursts that befits the most intense of climaxes. Under the baton, the London Symphony Orchestra brought to the score an organic sense of human honesty and creative liveliness, perfectly able to transport this particular listener to another world, without me even needing to pick up the controller and play the game.
The second half of the album in particular, featured some of the best game music passages of the year.
7. The Jungle Book | John Debney
(I really need to sit down and watch this film…) I recently spent some time going around the internet, listening to the original animated feature’s songs, even live performances of them (which were sublime, in every sense of the word). Imagine how happy was, to finally finally hear John Debney back in full form, almost a decade since his game music triumph with Lair, and 20 years since his astounding success with swashbuckling pirate music in Cutthroat Island (which in my humble opinion, was an unfortunate cinematic flop with one of the best goddamn film music finales and end credits of all time).
If anything, John Debney showcased some of his best traits in The Jungle Book: diverse artistic range, intelligent weaving of themes and motifs, and melodic sensitivity. The soundscape can switch from BBC-documentary level grandeur in one cue, to brutal tribal-like percussion-led action music in another, meshed in the midst of a collection of reworkings for the classic songs.
Let’s hope that Debney doesn’t get stuck in another 10 year-long drought. Then again, Debney was also attached to a Chinese fantasy blockbuster ‘League of Gods’ this year; a musical canvas that almost every composer will be obliged to pen a symphonic powerhouse on. So once that album hits this year, it will be another triumph for the man.
6. The Cairo Declaration | Ye Xiaogang, Chad Cannon
A historical drama film with a tinge of warfare is often a good sign for great film music, especially when it was a product not of the Hollywood mainstreams. As American-based directors increasingly move away from melodic and theme-based film music for the sake of ‘artistic progress and innovation’, the Chinese, Korean and Japanese cinemas remained behind to dig up the forgotten gems of symphonic film music. It also helps that for whatever reason, the stylistic mixing of oriental and western musical techniques always seems to bring out the best of film composers.
From a surface standpoint, The Cairo Declaration’s soundscape doesn’t feature much direct influence from traditional Chinese music, but its utilisation of the western orchestra with occasional regional flavours of dizi and erhu, was on point and amazingly effective in accompanying the on-screen drama.
5. Snow White with the Red Hair | Michiru Oshima
Michiru Oshima has scored her fair share of popular anime series during the past 2 decades. Her incredible range of projects in terms of genre is made even more interesting, by just how streamlined and…prolifically similar most of her work can be. Certainly, the composer is capable of writing with multiple styles and genres within the same score, as well as morphing into different beasts for different shows, but her distinctive insistence with compositions that are dense in textures and colour, but rather heavy-handed and simplistic in orchestration, has rendered her musical style rather bland to listen to for long, non-stop periods of times.
Take her scores for Fullmetal Alchemist, Blast of Tempest and Patema Inverted: all are written with a sense of fantastical grandeur in mind, and for the most part, Oshima succeeded in penning gorgeous outlines of themes for their respective worlds, along with rich live orchestra recordings by the Warsaw Philharmonic and the Russian State Symphony (Oshima’s regular collaborators). But for the meat of the scores, the orchestrations remained unambitious and one-note: it’s either suspense scoring with slashing strings, simple brass fanfare chords, or piano solos.
However, Oshima’s restrained style when it comes to orchestrations does come to a surprisingly well-rendered balance when she pairs it with her enthusiasm for easily identifiable musical themes, and just enough cinematic colour to best utilise her voice. Sections of her work in Little Witch Academia showcased what she can achieve with a memorable fanfare of a theme, and a world of magic and a Trigger-overdose of flare.
In the case of Snow White with the Red Hair however…every vintage Oshima mannerism possible was put on display with no less sense of pride. With perhaps one of her best main themes every written for an anime series to date, Oshima’s music soars with romanticised passion in a Disney-esque fairy tale. Heart-achingly sweet violin solos, noble trumpet solos, sweeping harps and woodwinds, all usual suspects of a love story film score. I am so glad that Oshima didn’t mess with the formula here, nor her own creative voice, because her mannerisms fitted this series to a tee.
4. Minecraft: Chinese Mythology | Gareth Coker
If nostalgic fondness alone can get a score onto this list, this one has won the lottery. Nothing about this album screamed ‘awesome!’ to me. Gareth Coker’s gorgeous score for the equally gorgeous game Ori and the Blind Forest wasn’t lived up to by the same amount of creative energy here. Instead, a series of appropriately Chinese folk music-inspired pieces dotted the soundscape with synthetic drum pads and the tired reliance on the erhu to sell the oriental atmosphere.
However. When the album had the audacity to call forth a BEAUTIFUL hulusi solo to the foreground, instantly my favourite hulusi pieces from my childhood started flooding right back to me.
The hulusi is perhaps one of the most underrated Chinese traditional instruments: its musical voice delicate, soulful and evermore warm. Kinda like China’s version of the clarinet. Have a listen to this wonderful performance of ‘The Countryside Ballad‘.
From then on, I fully embraced the simplicity of the album, which admittedly took much more inspiration from traditional Chinese folk music than most oriental-western hybrid scores I’ve listened to this year. And for that, Gareth Coker struck gold for me.
3. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinju Musical Discourse I & II | Kana Shibue
Post-WWII Japan was strangely obsessed with American culture. If there’s one thing about this cross-cultural cannibalism that’s universally good, it’s probably how Japan’s enthusiasm for jazz has practically saved the genre. Ok, maybe not save…but man would the audience for this genre be significantly less prominent, if not for anime’s continued success with the genre (cue ‘TANK!’).
Now imagine my delight when an anime adaptation of a manga dedicated to the dying Japanese theatre art of rakugo, decided to embrace its time period by going all in with multiple identities of swing, free-form and symphonic jazz. And the result was an absolute delight.
With 2 released albums and no less than 80 minutes of music (the rest of the runtime are dedicated to full rakugo performances by the main cast), the melodrama, the tragedy and the passion for art were all excellently portrayed by the soundtrack.
2. Tale of a Lake – Panu Aaltio
Here’s another thing about film music: if you think movie, TV and game music are the main representatives of this increasingly muddled classification, then nature documentary scores present even more of an underappreciated facet of film music.
Behind the chirping birds, calling monkeys and the IQ-raising voice-over of David Attenborough, there’s even more magic going on: George Fenton’s breathtaking music. For one example, at least.
Admittedly, Tale of a Lake is not a particularly prolific project, but its frankly awe-inspiring musical score by Panu Aaltio more than deserved all the praise it has gotten from the film music community.
1. La La Land | Justin Hurwitz
I haven’t stopped listening to the two released albums of this film since last Boxing Day. I still haven’t stopped dreaming of that day I get to watch the film again.
In my final encore of expressing my…admittedly blind and unknowledgeable love for jazz (I certainly know much less about the genre’s history and legends than Sebastian), the film’s frank explorations of fame, fantasy and passion lit a fire under me, it achieved the impossible and had me tap-dancing all over the house the moment I slammed the door closed behind me. I found myself humming all the themes, singing with the rest of the performers as ‘Another Day of Sun’ and ‘Someone in the Crowd’ blasted from my speakers, and reducing to a teary mess when Mia and Sebastian’s theme echoed one last time on the album.
THIS. This is film music.
The world of La La Land was a Lala-ing fantasy, and it took me on a ride. La La Land’s music was pure, innocent and passionate bliss.
Honourable Mentions (No Particular Order)
Kubo and the Two Strings | Dario Marianelli
A solid animation film score that’s not the easiest of listening experiences, but when paired with the awesome visuals of Kubo, it almost never fails to elevate the experience.
Abzû | Austin Wintory
Airy, distinctive and very much creative, Wintory’s unbroken streak of game music triumphs continues with Abzu’s almost…transcendent soundscape that pairs a harp ensemble with a drowned-out orchestra and choir to create an all-encompassing, underwater experience.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story | Michael Giacchino
Keep living the damn dream, Michael. As for your alternative, pun-intensive tracklist? Already migrated it onto my phone playlist. It’s not a Giacchino album without them puns.
Fable Legends: The Rosewood / A Tale of Two Sides | Russell Shaw
Odd choice: separating the game title’s more…story-extensive tracks from the action tracks into two albums. As a result, the listening experience needs to be heavily tweaked by me via. playlists. However, beyond that, Shaw’s compositions are nothing to scoff at.
The Nice Guys | David Buckley, John Ottman
For a 70s period crime comedy thriller, the caper & jazz disposition of The Nice Guys soundtrack felt tailor-made for its erotic undertones and a serious love for crude humour.
Best Remastered / Compilation / New Composition Albums of 2016 (No particular order)
Here, we celebrate a multitude of albums that were either remasters of the oldies, or compilation albums and re-recordings that aim to present some old material in a new light.
The Orchestral Saga -Legend of Music-
20th Anniversary: Tales of Orchestra Concert Album
Granblue Fantasy Orchestra -Sora No Kanade-
The Rocketeer (Expanded Edition) | James Horner
James Horner’s personal favourite project, the soaring 90s superhero score echoes from a age long past. One of last century’s greatest storytellers’ passing last year did not stop his music from reaching even more hearts in 2016. Let’s make certain that Horner’s music is never forgotten.
Collage: The Last Work | James Horner
The Thief of Bagdad: World Premiere Re-recording of the Complete Film Score | Miklos Rozsa
Best Individual Tracks from Scores of 2016
Naturally, as a chance to perhaps celebrate the scores not featured in the above lists, below are my favourite individual tracks from a multitude of albums. Previews included.
25. The Strongest Courage on Earth | Rokka no Yuusha
24. Strange Days Ahead | Doctor Strange
23. Coronation | Gods of Egypt
22. Their Waters Were Mingled Together | Abzû
21. Hitting The Saucer A Little Hard | Star Trek Beyond
20. Reunion | The Tale of a Lake
19. Raj’s Violin: Affection | Snow White With The Red Hair
18. Relieve Him of His Wand / Newt Releases the Thunderbird / Jacob’s Farewell | Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
17. DEKIGOKORO | Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinju Musical Discourse I
16. Tales of Zestiria Trial Shrines Medley | 20th Anniversary Tales of Orchestra Concert Album
15. Shirayuki’s Growth: Standing by Zen’s Side | Snow White With The Red Hair
14. Guardians of the Whills Suite | Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
13. Jyn Erso & Hope Suite | Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
12. The Slopes of the Blessure | Witcher 3: Blood and Wine
11. Elephant Waterfall | The Jungle Book
10. End Titles: The Last Guardian Suite | The Last Guardian
9. Now You See Me 2 Fanfare | Now You See Me 2
8. Night on the Yorktown | Star Trek Beyond
7. Battle Training | My Hero Academia
6. A Lovely Night | La La Land
5. Aquamarine | Amanchu
4. Another Day of Sun | La La Land
3. Someone in the Crowd | La La Land
2. Ka ha, tare doki (End Credits) | Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinju Musical Discourse II
1. Epilogue | La La Land
Well. It looks like La La Land has swept the top tiers, with some absolutely gallant competition from single tracks of Amanchu and Rakugo Shinju. Goodness knows if it swept the final scoreboard too…
Best New Themes of 2016
10. Theme of the Guardians of the Whills | Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
9. Main Theme | Snow White with the Red Hair
8. Main Theme | The Nice Guys
7. Theme of Beauclaire | Witcher 3: Blood and Wine
6. Doctor Strange’s Theme | Doctor Strange
5. Elephants’ Theme | The Jungle Book
4. Newt’s Theme (The Eccentric Theme) | Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
3. Theme of Rakugo Shiki | Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinju
2. Yorktown Theme | Star Trek Beyond
1. Mia & Sebastian’s Theme | La La Land
Annnnnd of course it did…
For the record though, restricting the list to 10 was a pain to say the least. The heavy-hitters La La Land and Fantastic Beasts both contained no less than 3 great themes that were more than worthy of the title.
Note: There won’t be a ‘top composers’ segment this year, since the scores I’ve listened to and liked showed no peaking preferences for any particular composers.