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Top 10 Movie Soundtracks of 2014

Vertical-blurring time! Yous all know me (if you know me) as one of the film and TV critics here, but today I’ll be reaching my hand into the murky and uncharted depths of writing about music. But, it’s music as it pertains to movies, so I think I’m safe. This year had some excellent soundtracks and scores from flicks of various styles, time periods, and settings. This list will cover both pre-existing music and specially-written scores. Basically, if the music from a movie is good enough to be listened to out of context, but still totally intrinsic to the movie itself, then that’s what I’m looking for here. And below, you’ll find my choices in RANDOM, NOT RANKED order. Because ranking things makes my heart hurt.

John Wick
From the moody and industrially bluesy score by Tyler Bates and Joel L. Richard to the eclectic mix of songs by electronic and rock groups, not to mention several tracks by Atlanta outfit Le Castle Vania, this rapturous shoot-em-up revenge flick had everything going for it in the music department, and really drove the pace of all the excellent fight scenes.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Still at or near the top of my favorite movies of the year list, Wes Anderson’s dark comedy about a hotel in the war-torn Eastern Europe is both a caper film and a love letter to a bygone age, and is very European in nature. The soundtrack for this had to reflect all of those things and Alexandre Desplat’s arrangement and compositions of bouncy and upbeat zither or dour tuba riffs are the perfect background for a bright pink hotel on a cliff. There’s also some excellent classical and folk tunes, including Öse Schuppel’s mournful chant “s’Rothe-Zäuerli” which begins the film.

Gone Girl
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have been knocking it out of the park with the film scores for David Fincher movies, from their Oscar-winning collab on The Social Network to their Grammy-winning compositions for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In Fincher’s newest film, their tinny tone-based music works equally well in the most effed up of mysteries involving a woman who may or may not have been murdered by someone who may or may not have been her husband whom she may or may not have been afraid of. That sort of obfuscation is key to Reznor and Ross’s score.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
I just watched and reviewed this movie the other week, but it’s already way up there on my list, and the music is a big part of that. Go figure an Iranian vampire western movie in black & white, with the female lead dressed like Jean Seberg and the male lead dressed like James Dean, would have an equally off-center soundtrack, filled with allusions to Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western scores, British new wave music, and Persian pop hits. It’s such a big part of the movie that they don’t shy away from it in the trailer.

Whiplash (with a special hat-tip to Birdman as well)
I certainly would never have guessed there’d be two big, talked-about movies coming out at around the same time that both so heavily featured jazz drumming. Maybe because it’s so difficult to do well, as anyone who’s seen Whiplash can confirm, or maybe because drumming is something most people don’t really pay attention to and so it’s special when it’s featured heavily. Regardless, both of these movies have some amazing jazz drumming, but I’m going to award the spot on the list to the movie all about the act of it.

Under the Skin
A movie as weird as this needs an equally unsettling score. How do you properly accompany scenes of a woman seducing men and then actually being an alien who sucks the innards out of them in a machine? And this isn’t a horror movie, so you can’t really do it like that. Composer Mica Levi (a/k/a Micachu) chooses to handle it like if David Lynch had made 2001: A Space Odyssey with a lot of keyboards, a lot of ethereal tones, and chords that change key at random intervals and yet it all still hangs together.

Inherent Vice
It’s hard to go wrong with a whole score by Jonny Greenwood, and much like Reznor and Ross with David Fincher, Greenwood has had a bit of a side career working with Paul Thomas Anderson on the films There Will Be Blood and The Master. For Inherent Vice, Greenwood reworked a Radiohead composition called “Spooks,” changing it almost entirely, and contributing many other tracks to the zany detective flick. Check out the full soundtrack here, and  listen to the Radiohead version of “Spooks” to tide us over.

The Guest
Adam Wingard’s follow-up to the delightfully nuts You’re Next is like, as many have said, a mix of Halloween and The Terminator and so the music had to reflect this. It sounds a little like the music from Drive, but there’s a definite propulsion that makes you feel like someone’s walking toward you and can’t be stopped. Do you want to dance to it or should you be running? Who can say? I’ll tell you, Mike Simonetti’s track “The Magician” will certainly get you in the mood to do some kind of movement.

I’m still not sure what I actually think of Christopher Nolan’s latest (still going “…Huh…” for a lot of it), but one thing I’m totally sure of is that Hans Zimmer’s score was the absolutely perfect accompaniment to the images onscreen. Like the film itself, parts of it are clearly meant to conjure up “Thus Spake Zarathustra” which opens 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Kubrick’s film was never this percussive. Parts of it even sound like Bach’s pipe organ concertos, which is pretty strange for a sci-fi movie about time and space.

Guardians of the Galaxy
Well of COURSE this one is on the list. How many times have you listened to the “Awesome Mix Vol. 1”? Like six billion, right? I won’t go into that part of it too much, but we should also talk about Tyler Bates’ score, again proving he’s one of the top composers of genre films today. He got both the space operatic nature of the movie and the quirky underdog comedy of the movie. It works as a piece, with the ’70s pop and soul songs really counterbalancing Bates’ orchestral majesty.

And there you have it. Again, this is my list and it’s not ranked, so don’t yell at me about the order at which I typed them out. But DO tell me what your favorite soundtracks of the year are, which ones best fit the film, and which ones have been on constant repeat in your home?

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  1. nate says:

    Chef soundtrack!

  2. Wilma Counters says:

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  3. Jams says:

    Great job!

  4. Jams says:

    Great job! 

  5. satori says:

    How is Begin Again not on this list, who knew Kiera Knightly could actually sing… and they’re effing fantastic songs.

  6. raquel says:

    Sorta good list. I don’t agree with the comments that you write about the soundtracks. For example you should never compare Hans Zimmer to Bach or Strauss (Zarathustra) they are all VERY different, and seems to me that you are doing this comparison just because of the use of the organ.

  7. Cara says:

    I’m very happy to see John Wick on the list. That was one I downloaded the second I walked out of the movie. Fantastic soundtrack!

  8. Brendan says:

    This was a really good list, but I’m bummed the soundtrack for “Chef” didn’t get any love here. To me, the songs that were selected perfectly accompany and enhance the scenes they were featured in, in addition to being fantastic songs on their own. Personally I would go so far as to say that the soundtrack for “Chef” is better than “Awesome Mix Vol. 1”. (I’m aware that statement borders on blasphemy or heresy for some,but that’s just how I feel.)

    • Chris says:

      Every link was for the musical scores, not released soundtracks and the list tended towards that.  It mentions Awesome Mix, but doesn’t really talk about it.

      • Brendan says:

        Fair point, but the article is called “Top 10 Movie Soundtracks of 2014,” which would seem to imply the entire musical body of a given film, not just its official score or theme. Based on that criteria, I would include both “Chef” and “Begin Again” over some of the other selections. Having said all that, I still think that this was a good list.