Truth and Movies

The 10 best film soundtracks of 2020

From Birds of Prey’s intoxicating mix of rap and pop music to Tamar-kali’s atmospheric Shirley score.

Words

Thomas Hobbs

@thobbsjourno

Thanks to COVID-19 restrictions, being able to go to the cinema has been a rare luxury for many of us this year. Yet that didn’t stop 2020 from producing its fair share of memorable movies. And with all that extra time indoors, there’s been plenty of opportunity to become immersed in great movie soundtracks. Here’s a look at 10 of the very best scores released in 2020, each proof that film music is in a great place as we head into 2021.

Da 5 Bloods (Terrance Blanchard)

Legendary jazz trumpeter and composer Terrance Blanchard provides Spike Lee’s films with their beating heart, and he continued this run with Da 5 Bloods, a film about a group of black US military veterans who return to Vietnam in pursuit of ghosts and gold in the Jungle. These arrangements shift from soul-cleansing, saxophone-driven nostalgia to thunderous kick-drums that indicates chaos is just a land mine way. Thanks to the transcendent beauty of ‘MLK Assassinated’ and the patriotic wonder of ‘Bloods Go Into The Jungle’, it would be a crime if Blanchard wasn’t nominated for an Oscar.

Mank (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross)

Whether you believe Mank is a “cynical delight” or just Ed Wood with all the fun sucked out, there’s no denying the effectiveness of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score. It is full of playful melodrama and tender jazz grooves that harken back to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s. The playful energy of ‘A Fool’s Paradise’ is a particular highlight, while the humming dissonance present in ‘Time Running Out’ feels like all the loose puzzle pieces in Herman J Mankiewicz’s head, just waiting for an outsider to help piece them together. When you see the names Fincher and Reznor together you tend to think of something dark or nihilistic, but this score proves they’re still capable of surprising us.

Possessor (Jim Williams)

Composer Jim Williams expertly uses distorted wind chimes, squeamish synths and stabs of dark bass to build tension that you can feel right in the pit of your stomach, with this unhinged music the right fit for Brandon Cronenberg’s psychological horror about an assassin that takes over other people’s consciousness in order to take down her targets. ‘Skin After Successful Skin’ is as skin-crawling as its name would suggest, while the ambient terror of ‘Opposite Inaccessible Corner’ is something you can imagine David Lynch unwinding to. Possessor is one of the best horror films of recent years, and its twisted futuristic score deserves a lot more recognition.

American Utopia (David Byrne)

A contender for best concert film of 2020, Spike Lee’s American Utopia brought the eccentric David Byrne’s Broadway show to the big screen. The music has that same delirious weirdness which is present in the Talking Heads frontman’s best work, always probing at the contradictions of Western culture. These songs find whimsy in dark places in a way only Byrne can really pull off (check out True Stories too). Fantastical songs like ‘Toe Jam’ and ‘I Should Watch TV’ shift between giddiness and tragedy, both feeling like a much-needed injection of energy amid such an exhausting time for the world. Just try not smiling.

Tenet (Ludwig Göransson)

Tenet may not be looked back on as one of the great Christopher Nolan films, but it’s certainly one of the great Nolan scores. Ludwig Göransson’s music has a fidgety cyberpunk energy, letting up the pace only occasionally for moments of gorgeous self-reflection (see ‘From Mumbai to Amalfi’). The way the synths on Posterity sound like a helicopter spinning out of control is particularly exhilarating. By the time Göransson forces you to take a swim through US rapper Travis Scott’s wavy subconsciousness, you’ll be fully converted. The Swedish composer, who is a frequent collaborator of Childish Gambino’s, is a name you can expect to hear a lot more of in Hollywood across the 2020s.

She Dies Tomorrow (Mondo Boys)

Musical duo the Mondo Boys provide a suitably tense score for this underrated drama about a woman convinced she only has 24 hours left on earth. The ticking clock on ‘The Morning After’ suggests something life changing is on the horizon, drawing closer and closer, but given the lushness of the music (just check out the glowing choir that colours ‘Desert Through The Door’), whatever it is can’t be that bad, surely?

Birds of Prey (Various artists)

Utilising some of rap and pop music’s brightest stars, the all-female Birds of Prey soundtrack moves at a blistering pace that rips the figurative rug from underneath you just as things threaten to get too syrupy. Doja Cat’s anthemic EDM/rap hybrid ‘Boss Bitch’ will make you miss those sweaty dance floors, while Megan Thee Stallion calling diamonds her “new boyfriend” tapped right into the anti-hero, feminist individuality of Harley Quinn herself.

Swallow (Nathan Halpern)

This effective psychological horror about Hunter, a nervous housewife (played by an excellent Hayley Bennett) who develops a worrying eating disorder that compels her to swallow inanimate objects, sadly went under a lot of people’s radars. The brilliant score by Nathan Halpern really brings you inside Hunter’s psyche, with songs like ‘The Glass House’ and ‘Equilibrium’ combining grandiose instrumentation, which attempts to mirror the domesticity and warmth of a 1950s housewife, with the kind of cutting synths you might expect to hear on a Mica Levi score. This musical juxtaposition shows something strange and sadistic is bubbling just under the picturesque surface, mirroring Hunter’s character journey perfectly.

Calm with Horses (Blanck Mass)

This film about small-time drug dealers in rural Ireland is elevated by its score by Benjamin John Powe (of Blanck Mass). The electro-industrial producer consistently conjures up an otherworldly hum, mirroring the dreams of the film’s characters, who each seem to wish they were just about anywhere else. ‘Loyal Skins’ and ‘Jack’s Theme’, which sounds like new-age John Carpenter, are both filled with invention; you’ll revisit these songs over and over.

Shirley (Tamar-kali)

There’s something haunting about Tamar-kali’s Shirley score, with the rising composer’s sparse music expertly tapping into the claustrophobic mood of the eponymous author’s writing process. The interplay of the string section, which possess an urgent, dread-inducing chord progression, is particularly engrossing. Tamar-kali lends her own bluesy vocals to some of these pieces, succeeding in giving a voice to the pain that sits at the heart of Elizabeth Moss’ lead performance. In our interview with the singer and composer, she said: “Music built around emotion and feeling; that’s ultimately where I try to exist as an artist.” She certainly succeeds here.

Published 23 Dec 2020

Tags: Atticus Ross Birds of Prey Blanck Mass David Byrne David Byrne’s American Utopia David Fincher Jim Williams Ludwig Göransson Megan Thee Stallion Mondo Boys Nathan Halpern Normani Spike Lee Tamar-kali Terrance Blanchard Trent Reznor

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