2018’s best film music is about reinvention. We may be doomed to an endless parade of reboots, remakes, and sequels, both spiritual and otherwise, on our theater screens—a problem that, to be fair, is not a new one for Hollywood—but thankfully we’ve got visionary composers and performers who can mold familiar themes into fresh new shapes. Some of these reinventions upend our expectations, as with Thom Yorke’s delicate, hypnotic response to Goblin’s bombastic score to the original Suspiria. Others are more interested in refinement, like the new textures John Carpenter added to his Halloween theme for David Gordon Green’s remake. And some present the expected in vivid new ways that spark the imagination, like the triumphant pop mastery of A Star Is Born and the Afrofuturist innovation of Kendrick Lamar’s hip-hop driven Black Panther soundtrack. Even self-reinvention is on the table, as in Jonny Greenwood and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s edgy scores for a pair of similarly boundary-pushing films.
We’ve collected 10 of the year’s best soundtracks and scores—here defined as the work of songwriters and composers, as opposed to the music supervisors who compile existing songs into soundtrack albums—below.
A Star Is Born
The problem with most movies about fictional musicians is the music. For an audience to really become immersed in the world of a rock (or pop, or country, or hip-hop) star, we have to believe that thousands of people would actually pay money to watch this person perform—and that’s tough to do with milquetoast filler. A Star Is Born understands this very well, recruiting professional songwriters like Jason Isbell, Paul Kennerley, and Lukas Nelson to help bring the musical oeuvre of Bradley Cooper’s tortured country singer-songwriter Jackson Maine up to festival-circuit level. And while Cooper’s co-star Lady Gaga hardly needs help writing pop hits, she’d bring in heavy hitters like Diane Warren and Mark Ronson to work on her solo album in real life, too. The verisimilitude of the result is remarkable: You can actually imagine singing along with “Shallow” on the radio, or hearing “Heal Me” piped in through the loudspeakers at a fast-fashion emporium, or watching Ally play “Always Remember Us This Way” on grand piano at an awards show—which Lady Gaga might actually do come Oscar season, closing the musical reality loop. [Katie Rife]
Looked at one way, Cold War can be seen as a kind of shadow Star Is Born: Though it unfolds over a couple decades and on both sides of the Iron Curtain, Pawel Pawlikowski’s gorgeously monochromatic period romance centers, too, on the tumultuous relationship between an older musician (Tomasz Kot) and the young, beautiful chanteuse (Joanna Kulig) he plucks out of obscurity. But the spectrum of music highlighted here is much wider than what a simple rock-pop dichotomy could hope to cover. Brilliantly, the film uses its mostly pre-existing songs to mark each leap forward in time and map the seismic changes rippling through a post-WWII Europe. Ragtag rural folk of the Mazowske variety gives way to bombastic Soviet propaganda music, then bebop piano and French jazz, then Gershwin and Bach, and finally—to officially eulogize the death of an old world and the birth of a new one—“Rock Around The Clock.” It’s a mid-century mixtape of cultural transition, perfectly curated. Pawlikowski even has his own trailer-ready “Shallow,” though his version is sadder, smokier, and sexier: a Polish folk standard, “Two Hearts,” transformed into a lounge ballad melancholy enough to stop yours. [A.A. Dowd]
Marvel may have already scored a soundtrack hit with the throwback jukebox pleasures of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 1, but it wasn’t until the hero from Wakanda that it landed on an album as inspired as the film that birthed it. The Black Panther soundtrack may be a compilation, but this is the Kendrick Lamar show through and through. The rapper’s presence saturates nearly every contribution, be it his appearance on the fiery Schoolboy Q excitement of “X” or his pit-er-pat hook on the Travis Scott team-up “Big Shot.” And the tracks credited to Kendrick bump with the Afrofuturist throb of the film that prompted him to curate this compilation. The opposite of a lazy cash-in record, Kendrick and his collaborators all deliver top-of-their-game beats and verses, the entire project doubling as a victory lap for Top Dawg Entertainment’s creative insurgency in hip-hop, the rare 21st century movie soundtrack that’s also a massive commercial hit. [Alex McLevy]
How do you create a soundtrack for a remake of a film known, in large part, for the titanic power of its soundtrack? If you’re Thom Yorke, you go in the exact opposite direction of the Italian prog band Goblin, conjuring up a double-LP spell of queasy dark ambient, droning Krautrock, and ballads that evoke Radiohead at its Amnesiac-era dreariest. In the context of the film, it adds an intoxicating new dimension to the on-screen witchcraft. As an album, it makes a great case for Yorke’s future as a solo artist—or at least a soundtrack composer. [Clayton Purdom]
You Were Never Really Here
Jonny Greenwood’s better known for the eye-popping dissonance and Oscar-friendly romance of his work with Paul Thomas Anderson; his work with Lynne Ramsay pushes all of his proclivities further to the edge, resulting in fractured blasts of clattering percussion and uneasy, quivering beauty. His score for the hitman-redemption potboiler You Were Never Really Here mirrors Joaquin Phoenix’s remarkable performance, flicking quickly between Drive-wave menace and fluttering string elegies. Like the film itself, it’s quick, difficult, and memorable. [Clayton Purdom]
The score to the psychotronic Nicolas Cage vehicle Mandy was the last project celebrated composer Jóhann Jóhannsson completed before his premature death in February. This simple, crushing fact can’t help but color the experience of listening to the film’s soundtrack, compiled separately from the score itself and released as a stand-alone album in September. Mandy marked a new musical direction for Jóhannsson, one that pulls the seemingly contradictory aural impulses of lush synthesizer romance, cold percussive menace, and harsh buzzsaw guitars into one doom metal-influenced ambient whole that sets your whole body abuzz with blissful waves of ecstatic noise. [Katie Rife]
The synth-driven horror-movie soundtrack has become stale from overuse in recent years, but even in this oversaturated climate it’s still possible to smash through the walls of cliché through sheer mastery. That’s the case with Rob’s score for Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, which, much like the film it’s soundtracking, rips apart its glossy, flashy style from within with thrilling undercurrents of violent catharsis. The title track has the simple, pulsing melody of any number of Carpenter wannabes, and the slick dance floor beats of an Ibiza nightclub, but the decadence is cut with a cacophony of dissonant noise that glides down the track like a sudden, sharp flash of pain through the fog of a drug-addled partygoer’s brain. [Katie Rife]
Every cliché was fresh once, and you can’t blame John Carpenter for setting the standard that soundtrack composers have been trying to live up to ever since he wrote the Halloween theme more than 40 years ago. But while his acolytes may hold his ’70s and ’80s works as sacred, Carpenter does not. So when it was time for another remake of Halloween, Carpenter called upon his son Cody and frequent collaborator Daniel Davies—both of whom were instrumental in Carpenter’s recent reinvention as a touring musician—to help him reimagine the most seminal track in horror-movie history. They did so by adding a thumping heartbeat to the song’s precise and persistent clicking mechanical beat, as well as bombastic layers of atmospheric synths that add a sense of space to the original’s intensely focused forward thrust. The new compositions the trio cooked up for David Gordon Green’s Halloween, including highlight “The Shape Hunts Allyson,” share a similarly textured, expansive approach to Carpenter’s signature straightforward keyboard melodies, reasserting the horror master’s place as the king of the form. [Katie Rife]
A listening experience as jarring and unpredictable as the film from which it comes, multi-instrumentalist composer Colin Stetson’s soundtrack for the psychological horror of Hereditary goes all-in to create a mood of instability and dread. With an underlying doom-and-drone texture, Stetson’s usual woodwind techniques—upper-register saxophone, key clacks used as percussion—are on display, but he makes them subservient to the ominous low-pitch rumblings that dominate the proceedings. The film’s texture takes center stage, not Stetson. By foregoing his normal procedures and embracing electronic flourishes and swelling waves of synth-laden chorals, the music rises and falls in unsettling progression, often lingering in near-total silence for extended breaks before beginning another atonal declension or wailing melody. Consider it the polar opposite of easy listening. [Alex McLevy]
Scoring a drama about the space race probably isn’t as daunting a task as composing all the songs for an original musical. (No one needs to tap their toes along to whatever is blaring when the astronauts stride to the launch pad.) Yet the soundtrack Justin Hurwitz created for First Man is a worthy, versatile encore to his La La Land score. As in that Oscar-winning suite, Hurwitz creates a symphony of repeated themes, familiar melodies bobbing in and out of the mix like objects caught in celestial orbit. Space itself becomes a zone of science-fiction menace (“Spin”), classic Hollywood enchantment (“Docking Waltz”), and theremin-abetted majesty (“Moon Walk”), while the musician uses clicks and whirrs and groans to ground his more conventionally rousing compositions in the nuts-and-bolts procedural spirit of the material. Meanwhile, Hurwitz revives the earworm melancholia of “City Of Stars” in some delicately plucked numbers for the home front. On a whole, First Man views Neil Armstrong, that famously guarded American icon, as a man emotionally removed from the world. But as surely as it blasts us into outer space, Hurwitz’s music transports us into his head and heart, the soundstage for the musical he keeps inside, muffled by introversion. [A.A. Dowd]