The Best Film Music Scores Of The 21st Century

The Best Film Music Scores Of The 21st Century

Jonathan at the cinema

Now that title deserves a big, brassy fanfare… just imagine it in your head, OK?

I confess – a lot of modern movie scores don’t get my heart racing. These days, especially on genre films, most projects want music that is safe and somewhat vanilla and they want it yesterday. I can understand that – we’re talking about film music that is commissioned, defined and on a really tight deadline – not so much room for rogue elements or crazy notions in big budget cinema.

Thankfully, you can still sometimes hear extraordinary, new blends up there on screen. Film scores that remind you how you can fall in love with music on film. Here are some scores from the 21st century that knocked me for six.

Babel (2006) – Gustavo Santaolalla

Argentinian musician Gustavo Santaolalla was not a film composer, banging on directors’ doors from the get-go. Instead, his existing original music was placed in a number of projects and it went from there. You know, there’s something I’ve always noticed – if you have a piece of music that is a real winner, a knock-out piece, it fits over a LOT of surprisingly different scenes. It’s as if the piece of music carries a cargo of emotive power and it can be simply transferred to whatever it’s placed on. In addition to the wonderful music Gustavo wrote for ‘Babel’, his existing tune ‘Iguazu’ was re-used (as it has in a number of different projects) in the film. Check out this example of a knock-out piece that would work on a whole host of different visuals!

This one got the OSCAR for music too – nice one, Academics!

Dancer In The Dark (2000) – Bjork

Now this is grim as fuck, but the music is absolutely beautiful – bright, memorable, musical numbers shot through with alternative composition techniques and Bjork’s amazing talent as a songwriter. In the film, there’s the curious clash of typically lo-fi, early Lars Von Trier visuals with sumptuously well-produced, hi-fi music. As the story goes, Bjork’s character is a fan of musicals and Hollywood dreams who is gradually losing her sight. She experiences the rather disappointing real world using those colourful frames of reference, breaking into song and hearing music in the rhythms of random factory machines. There’s an interesting Overture in this film, something that Von Trier has done a number of times. It’s at the start, as you probably guessed! Have a look.

AI Artificial Intelligence (2001) – John Williams

Williams had an amazing run from 1975-1985, where so many of his works entered the public consciousness. How well known is the music from Jaws, Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones, Close Encounter Of The Third Kind and E.T.? I mean, seriously, how did he do it?! Now, this isn’t a tune that has sunk into the general consciousness, but it is ridiculously beautiful. I reckon if the film had been more generally popular, a TITANIC for example, everyone would know and love this piece.

There Will Be Blood (2007) – Jonny Greenwood

I first heard this on the radio, John Kelly’s show on Lyric FM, and I thought it was stunning. Jonny Greenwood is a talented fecker – with his band Radiohead, he goes and makes albums that instantly hit the top of the ‘Best Albums Of All Time’ lists and then does his first conventional Hollywood film score and blows minds entirely. I marvel at this piece – the call and answer in the strings and the incredible sound of the Ondes Martenot instrument. You try order an Ondes Martenot at Argos… guess what? They don’t have one. Where’s my Ondes Martenot, Jonny?

Inception (2010) – Hans Zimmer

A very popular choice this – a score that has found its way onto many an iPod and many a trailer. This is Zimmer’s take on a surreal James Bond-like score, which was the intention of the director Christopher Nolan. It single-handedly boosted the popularity of Low Brass samples on libraries for film composers. Nowadays, you just load up the ‘Low Brass’ sound and away you go! But how did he do it? 6 bass trombones, 6 tenor trombones, 4 tubas & 6 french horns, that’s how!

Another note-worthy element in this score, which has graced many, many a trailer itself. This is Half-Remembered Dream, which is a sort-of-cover of the Edith Piaf classic ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’ played in the film, but slowed down, so that the brass stabs that you would hear in the French tune get very low and slow!

The Fountain (2006) – Clint Mansell

There is tremendous power in this film score; Clint Mansell is another one of those composers who finds his music suits re-use over lots of different projects. How many times have we heard his Lux Aeterna ( appear on whatever, TV ads for next Saturday’s Rugby match? Loads, that’s how many. The music to The Fountain doesn’t specifically follow action on screen, it’s really more of an evocative, emotional character that shares the film with the visual component. Interesting players were hired to perform this music, the Kronos Quartet and Mogwai. No surprise that these musicians can really up the intensity, as they do towards the end of ‘Death Is The Road To Awe’.

Road To Perdition (2002) – Thomas Newman

I absolutely love Thomas Newman’s work. He does tend to sound rather like himself a lot, but I love that sound, so I’m always happy to hear it. His recognisable motifs are soft, undulating piano harmonies, ambient synth beds and heartbreaking strings; it’s a winning combination. His work on The Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty (which was remixed into a dance hit!) are very well-known, but here’s the beautiful opening piece from ‘Road To Perdition’, with some lovely Uillean Pipes too.

A Beautiful Mind (2001) – James Horner

I consider James Horner one of the old guard, in the sense that he’s a real pencil and paper maestro and has written so many classic scores. He had a huge run with Braveheart & Titanic – here’s one of his works that I really enjoy – a wonderfully dramatic, filmic piece this, from A Beautiful Mind.

The Hours (2002) – Philip Glass

I remember being truly impressed by Glass’ work on The Hours, because I knew, had I been given job, I wouldn’t have known what to say musically on this incredible film. I think his music works so well in The Hours because it doesn’t state anything at all, it’s a cool breeze that carries with it emotional content. It’s not literal music, in the way that Horner’s A Beautiful Mind score is.

Lord Of The Rings Series (2001, 2002, 2003) – Howard Shore

You could not make a list like this and leave out the phenomenally successful Lord Of The Rings. Music so popular that concerts are performed around the world, exclusively playing music from Lord Of The Rings. The soundtrack albums went Gold or Platinum everywhere. It’s got all the hallmarks of the classics; lush harmonic composition, detailed orchestration and a composer who is always ready to go right out there and experiment. It’s got a huge orchestra, a huge choir, a raft of well-known solo singers, exotic world music instruments and internationally renowned instrumentalists.

There is a book written solely about Shore’s music to Lord Of The Rings, “The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films” by Doug Adams.

There is an hour-long documentary about the making of the music for the Lord Of The Rings.

It’s popular.

So here is all of the music in one go… enjoy!