If I were to think back to where I was in 2009, as a reference point for the decade that has just gone by…time REALLY didn’t go by THAT quickly huh?
This year’s contemplation came a few weeks late, because of the seriously bipolar weather suffered by Australia: bushfires in December/January quickly gave away to thunderstorms and flash flooding, which promptly knocked out our broadband.
A lot has happened. A lot of stories I got to witness and tell. A lot of triumphs and a lot of bullshit. Music enjoyment-wise as a fan of film music and soundtracks, the gold plunder is evermore deep, and I always relished in finding new names making it big in the spotlight.
2019 was also a year of goodbyes, as multiple years-long franchises close their curtains on a bygone era. How To Train Your Dragon. The MCU. Star Wars.
In continuing one of this blog’s last longstanding traditions, I present to you: the best in soundtracks of 2019.
A Tribute to Victor Young | Richard Kaufman & New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
“What the hell” I thought: since this segment is a bit of a loose cannon anyway, meant to give me an excuse to sing praises on great music that I either was born too late to appreciate before, or just didn’t discover until recently, I would do well to highlight compilation albums as well. So let’s begin with the incredibly rare, straight-from-a-bargain-bin, Victor Young tribute album, which also served as my official introduction to this late great cinematic maestro.
I took a Hollywood Film course as an elective in university last year, and one of the first films we were assigned to watch, was the western classic Shane. Lo and behold, the yearning and gorgeous main theme of the great American Frontier was what greeted me.
While the original soundtrack for Shane have succumbed to the sands of time, with a recording quality that leaves much to be desired, with conductor Richard Kaufman, the New Zealand Symphony recorded a nicely varied suite, highlighting the generous and warm orchestrations and the beautiful main theme. In addition, the album presented selections from a number of other films, book-ending the album nicely with two more suites that cycles through Young’s varied (but always deliciously inviting) composing styles and moods.
Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales | Yuri Poteyenko
This one is just downright old school swashbuckling, albeit with more of a leisurely ‘cruise’ pace than the likes of Cutthroat Island.
Yuri Poteyenko is probably one of the biggest film music names you’ve never heard of, considering he keeps his workload mainly to domestic Russian and Eastern European pictures, but when I chanced upon the indie record company that releases his music, I was presented with an adventure game score whose ethos seem to take after Shore’s Lord of the Rings, rather than Korngold’s Sea Hawk.
Rather than a relentless barrage of symphonic acrobatics, relentless momentum and drive, Age of Pirates’ music; in adherence to the role of game music of this nature, aims to develop atmosphere, and hint at a larger world beyond the gamer’s monitor. As a result, the various suites presented on album are patient sketches that slowly build up themes, develop them, whilst certainly not neglecting to allow the orchestra opportunities to burst some eardrums.
Best Scores of 2019
10. Masquerade Hotel | Naoki Sato
I had to kick myself in the shins for not recognising Sato immediately when I watched this film at the 2019 Japanese Film Festival, being pleasantly charmed by the opening waltz that accompanied the film’s introduction of the game board, so to speak. Few composers working regularly in Japanese screen media have established such an unique and contemporary voice in the field as Sato in the past decade.
Simply put, Naoki Sato’s consistency relies on his loyalty to an unique voicing of orchestration and composing, which makes his music very easy to enjoy by those who are already accustomed to the Hollywood brand of blockbuster film scoring. People who appreciate the power anthems of Hans Zimmer and his pupils, but would prefer a little extra classical flavouring would definitely find Sato’s works an easy listen.
The composer for the better part of the past decade, has maintained a certain recording quality for his orchestral scores: robust with a heavy, growling reverb that at times runs dangerously close to drowning out the intricate orchestration detail that he is obviously talented in. This creative choice, people may compare with Zimmer’s tendency to supplement recorded orchestral elements with synths; usually used to boost the bass to give it more of a growling kick (a controversial technique amongst film music fans), or Michiru Oshima’s love for cathedral-levels of wet reverb and echoy grandness in her orchestral recordings. However, Sato runs this line a bit more lightly, presenting a soundscape that is still heavy handed, but still marginally more appreciable for listeners who prefer the organic orchestra above all else.
In the case of Masquerade Hotel, the music is decidedly unsubtle, with just enough style to counterbalance its utter lack of subtlety: you’ve got the extravagant waltz as a main theme, relentless ostinato-led suspense, and reverb-heavy choir being used to provide additional grandeur to the action music. What lifted this score just above the line, is simply how solid the foundation is: the score may have benefited with more thematic development, such as providing more variations for the brilliant main theme (although the accordion-supplemented end titles variation is a masterstroke), but the core of the score, the heart, is beating strong.
09. Little Women | Alexandre Desplat
An example of good old-fashioned, stylish composing. As the intimate but larger-than-life story of sisters finding their ways in the world, Alexandre Desplat’s experience in scoring period dramas is on full display here.
What sets this score apart is the unique musicality and virtuosity that Desplat often infuses into his work: you get a distinct impression that while the composer is certainly scoring to picture, with specific sync points needing to be hit…with his duo piano and chamber orchestra ensemble, what Desplat has instead created, felt effortlessly like a collection of original compositions and musical sketches that have a life of their own, away from the picture.
The disposition of Little Women’s score is light-footed, generous and youthful, with a warm and inviting recording mix, but still never lacking in the composer’s usual flair for involved and tirelessly rendered orchestrations.
Those who tend to criticise Desplat’s style of writing to be too cold and calculated in its deliberate intricacy and craftsmanship, may find a fitting antithesis in Little Women.
08. Knives Out | Nathan Johnson
Can I just begin by saying: If only there was an even bigger instance of a massive, perfect, hopelessly classy ‘Fuck you’ to a certain toxic segment of a certain pop culture fandom…
Rian Johnson started working on Knives Out barely a month after Star Wars: The Last Jedi premiered in December 2017. Usually, one would assume that Johnson be living it up, having just helmed the biggest project a filmmaker would ever hope to land in Hollywood. Instead, because social media is social media…the fandom split into camps, with the director and cast receiving downright disgusting trolling and threats. While Johnson maintained dialogue with the community, with enough respect and dignity for himself and his colleagues to defend his decisions with TLJ (which, as far as yours truly is concerned, resulted in a beautiful and poignant film), he saw better to just continue with his craft, as he dug out a concept that he has had at the back of his mind for a decade: a Hitchcockian thriller, but with all the delicious delicacies of a contemporary whodunit murder mystery.
The result? One of the most satisfying cinema experiences of the year, with an ending that had me grinning wider than the Joker, a gold class ensemble cast, and just a great ol’ film that put to rest any doubt that Johnson is raw talent, contrary to whatever spite that may have came his way.
Returning to his regular collaborator, Nathan Johnson (Rian Johnson’s cousin) opted to score this picture with a full orchestra, recorded at the famed Abbey Roads studio. Despite the lofty production, the score retains a deliciously Victorian chamber personality, complete with decidedly classical renderings of string quartets and piano solos, beefed up by accompanying full brass, winds and percussion.
The score rides a fine line between subtle homages of Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock collaborations with light-fingered waltzes that made certain the mood is never too dreary as to dampen the film’s humour. At the same time, the slow and deliberate tempo of much of the cues is expertly orchestrated to fuse with the picture, a compliment to both Johnsons.
07. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil | Geoff Zanelli
James Newton Howard’s score for 2014’s Maleficent was seen by some as the composer’s Renaissance, after a period of…less than inspired output. The score gave the composer a full symphonic palette, and thus Howard’s best tendencies were finally allowed space to breathe: approachable character themes, mastery of harmony and melodic choreography, brutal operatic action and no less amount of luxurious indulgence: the composer sought to infuse the traditional full orchestra further by adding more brass players than usual (alongside the choral ensembles of both London Voices and a boys choir), allowing Maleficent’s score to have these gigantic, multi-layered action cues where brass-led melodic lines could counterpoint and dance between each other without losing the grunt and power. Wagner would’ve been proud.
Even so, the masterpiece and instant classic that was Howard’s score did not transpire into the film itself, nor did it justify the need for a sequel, at least in the eyes of yours truly. Nevertheless, 2019 came with Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, where a change in director also saw the composing duties been transferred to Geoff Zanelli, an understudy of Howard’s close pal and fellow film composer, Hans Zimmer.
No doubt, skepticism surrounding Zanelli’s ability to match, let alone follow up on Howard’s work was obvious, including the belief that none of the latter’s thematic material would return and see subsequent ongoing development. This problem is based a precedent set by how themes were tackled in the MCU for major characters such as Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, where multiple composers who wrote music for each of these characters’ films were never obligated to maintain thematic continuity in their scores.
I admit to doing a double take upon first listening to the score. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil’s score captured so much of Howard’s ethos with the 2014 entry, it was uncanny, and I say this with no intentions of hostility towards Zanelli. Quite the opposite. The score is beautifully orchestrated, has maintained its relentless forward momentum in action writing, lyrical beauty in its more tender, woodwinds-centric elements, and is refreshingly faithful to continuous development of the original material alongside newly introduced themes. This is very much a repeat of John Powell’s achievements last year in scoring Solo.
While yes, Zanelli’s relative inexperience and still developing skills in pacing and polish still shows in the score, his ability to adopt and build upon Howard’s foundations is admirable, and ended up strengthening the integrity of this project. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is a worthy score to be a regular listen alongside 2014’s masterful entry, whether you appreciate the film themselves or not.
06. Professor and the Madman | Bear McCreary
Bear McCreary is just one of those names in film music business. As a literal workaholic who somehow consistently delivers 4+ major works every year, 2019 seems to be the year the man has become completely unhinged, while also discovering a magical fruit, and proceeded to sap it of its powers to fuel his creative drive. Not only was 2019 one of his most busiest years to date, it was also his most consistently astounding.
Professor and the Madman presented McCreary with a comparatively rare opportunity to write music that are of a more pensive personality. The hero of the score centers around the solo cello and an elegant, if slightly tragic main theme. The theme is steeped in classical-era lyricism, and anchors the score within a graceful sense of periodic nostalgia. The generous album bookends with an equally compelling poetry-inspired vocals piece, performed by Melanie Henley Heyn, which serves as callbacks to the ancient-sounding Celtic soundscapes the composer conjured for the Outlander series.
05. Endro~! | Yoshiaki Fujisawa
I made a point on social media, that in no way did I think what Yoshiaki Fujisawa composed was ‘meant’ to be for a TV anime like Endro~! Now what did I mean by that?
This was by no means a cheap jab at the TV show itself, as I myself really enjoyed its charming parodies of JRPGs, while also delivering exactly what it set out to do: cutesy girly adventures with a…weird blend of childhood innocence and a brand of pervertedness in its character designs that somehow manages to be subtle and blatant at the same time (It took me several episodes to realise that the otaku stand-in magician girl had her panties exposed the whole time, thanks to her barely functional wardrobe in terms of covering up). Instead, what I am commenting on is that the music written for this late-night show was far and away of a higher level of sophistication than it ever needed to be; a level of craftsmanship and genuine showcase of colourful orchestration not usually utilised for a low-key slice of life that would’ve been more than adequately serviced by a chamber ensembles of guitars, penny whistles and a small strings section.
Instead, utilising a sizeable orchestral ensemble, Fujisawa crafted a magnificent showcase of fantasy adventure music, with heroic fanfares, youthful melodies of playful woodwinds, fast-paced action music that paid homages in all the right places. The result is an unbelievably enjoyable nostalgia trip of old-school fun.
If you grew up listening to joyful 80s adventure music crafted by the likes of John Williams, Alan Silvestri and James Horner, mixed with a fair share of old school JRPG ear-worm tunes, chances are you would enjoy this score…which is more the shame, since Fujisawa’s score for Endro~! was never released as an official soundtrack CD album, or even on digital platforms. Instead, the music is sectioned off as extras in the TV show’s multi-volume home video releases, which are priced infamously high: a fate that several anime scores unfortunately suffer every year (with composers like Keiji Inai being an uniquely regular victim to it).
04. Godzilla: King of the Monsters | Bear McCreary
For a few weeks since release, this score was on the top of this pile. Though this has obviously changed since then, I still regard what McCreary has created here to be a relative masterstroke of a breakout – because as workaholic and busy he has been in the past decade, Godzilla: King of the Monsters represented McCreary’s first opportunity to score a truly Blockbuster project.
It has been remarked that Godzilla tends to bring out the very best of the various composers who have written music for its films in the past few decades. It is no exception with Bear McCreary, as he delivered a true ‘fanboy’ product to match his reverence for the king of monsters’ legacy. Amassing a full orchestra, choir, various regional instrumentation and even a ensemble of Buddhist monks, the composer’s soundscape for the film is one of unrelenting power and symphonic mayhem.
As well as resurrecting the classic Akira Ifukube themes, McCreary populated the film score with individual character themes for the various monsters that come to deck it out with Godzilla, giving in particular the brass section and choir a workout. The monks were recorded chanting religious texts, adding a undercurrent of otherworldly spirituality to the musical vernacular. A touch tokenistic if you ask me, but it gets the job done. Besides, I’ve long accepted that Hollywood’s shtick was never subtlety and contextual accuracy, especially with film music (because this is EXACTLY how ancient Egyptian music was like, right?)
03. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker | John Williams
Nine films over some 42 years. ‘Longstanding legacy’ would’ve still been an understatement.
Viewed through that lens, The Rise of Skywalker’s score may be seen by some as a comparatively lukewarm conclusion to the Skywalker Saga. And while I would agree wholeheartedly if we are talking about the film itself (an all-round disappointment in my books), the music is another story.
If I had to start by commenting on a few minor details on this score in particular: they finally got the opening titles horn blast right! Also man did they figure out how to record the timpanis: a crisp *pop* with a generous helping of bass-y reverb. Curiously, despite having largely the same staff, orchestra and recording venue, The Rise of Skywalker featured perhaps the best recording quality of the entire sequel trilogy, and came closest to matching the epic sound profile of the envious London Symphony/Abbey Roads duo.
It is clear that John Williams’ decades-long relationship with the franchise has rendered the composer’s process to at times descend into one of button-mashing and mechanical efficiency, with a gigantic library of themes continuously seeing regular revisits to invite fanboy ‘ahhhh’-ing. However…that does not take away from the fact that this is a level of technical and orchestration skill displayed by a pencil-sketching maestro from a bygone era. And it CERTAINLY doesn’t take away the fact that John Williams has remained the only single constant across ALL THREE trilogies in the past four decades.
This score serves as the bookend to a legacy. A legacy that saw the Silver Age revival of Hollywood film music serving thematic storytelling roles through the weaving of orchestral narratives, Wagnerian leitmotifs, operatic symphonic choreography and the emotional anchoring through melodies.
The conclusion of John Williams’ time with Star Wars may well see the pages of history finally turn; we may well be witnessing the beginnings of the end of a style of film scoring altogether.
02. Miniscule: Mandibles from Far Away | Mathieu Lamboley
Let’s turn back the clock to the beginning of 2019 for the final two entries.
I had the opportunity to watch this at the 2019 Sydney Film Festival, and had even purchased a ticket for it, only to fall ill & having to give up on it, along with a couple other films on the roster. Which is a shame, because having listened to the score, I am certain the experience would’ve been a good one.
Minuscule is an animated adventure film with a rather unique selling point: it is completely dialogue-free, and relies on the characters’ expressive animation, sound effects and the musical score to tell the story. And thus, Mathieu Lamboley composed the music with the same ethos that drove the very best animation scores from the past few decades.
With a full orchestra and choir, the musical language of the score is one of classic animated adventure in the veins of Alan Menken, except the music was given even more leeway here to command the spotlight, as without dialogue, emotional connection requires the music to be a central sentimental anchor for the audience.
There isn’t much to oversell here: What Lamboley had written is music that at times can be so achingly beautiful, sweeping and expressive, it is a must listen for any appreciator of Ravel, Debussy or Pierné (this recommendation works both ways).
01. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World | John Powell
Towards the end of 2018, I joked about how John Powell may well be achieving some kind of demented record, in cementing his claim for the best film score of 2019, just three damn days into the year.
Competition was rough, and at times even came to bettering him. For a few weeks, Bear McCreary’s Godzilla was at this top spot. As the months rolled along…Star Wars came, I discovered some gorgeous music in Minuscule, plus I spent some time re-listening to scores. And as much of a triumph McCreary had with his monsters score, in the end I just HAD to give my props to John Powell for concluding his very own decade-long legacy, as the caretaker for the single greatest film music trilogy of the 2010s.
Powell’s How To Train Your Dragon scores are perhaps the biggest love letters to unadulterated, old fashioned high adventure film scoring, helmed by one of his generation’s best talents. Powell proudly holds his own in an industry always flighty with trending fads, staying true to an approach to his art form that produces such great portfolios of iconic cinematic moments, people still to this day remember scenes from the preceding Dragons movies because of his music.
Truth be told: the psychology of memorable, hummable melodies from movies is often as simple as repetition; repeatedly signaling to the audience what certain sequences of notes is associated with which event, character or narrative theme. However, the mechanics of this in the context of how Powell built a musical universe across three films, is taking note of the specific melding of old and new as the composer brings the trilogy to an end.
In the track ‘Once There Were Dragons‘, the legends of dragons living alongside humans is passed on by Hiccup and his clansmen. Powell’s new ‘Berk Hymn’ theme is led by a choir as it recounts the union of hearts and history witnessed by a village of vikings. But the old roots of Berk, the abandoned lands from which the villagers had to flee, was not forgotten. A lone piano salutes the old viking theme from the first film.
Toothless’ new calling becomes the new focus, as the new Hidden World theme is performed on solo trumpet, as Hiccup sails in search of his friend. The old, primal dragon theme soon gives way to a quotation of the track ‘Forbidden Friendship’ from the first film. Concluding the track (and the film) is the joyful flying theme, poetically interwolven with the new romance theme for the dragons, as the music celebrates the two’s reunion and the meeting of two new families.
John Powell does this so effortlessly…its borderline criminal how good he is at musical storytelling. The interweaving of old and new musical ideas to convey a timeless story of found brotherhood, sacrifice and loyalty.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is an audiovisual (and musical) triumph, and John Powell cements himself as one of Hollywood’s best film composers working today.
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