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11 Great Scores from the Last 10 Years

In honor of the overdue vinyl release of Nicholas Britell's elegant, elegiac score for If Beale Street Could Talk, this list is a highly personalized (and highly incomplete) rundown of some of the best film and television scores of the past decade (2009-2018, for our purposes), listed alphabetically. For fairness' sake, also tried to limit the list to one entry per composer. May at some point try to do a sequel hopping back another decade, since a lot of my all-timers are from that stretch--but hey, here's a start, at least.
1Johann Johannsson
Arrival


2016 - Although often conflated with the Max Richter piece "On the Nature of Daylight" the film features expertly throughout (though it's far from the first), Arrival's other music is ominous and enveloping, definitely best experienced on headphones (if not the big screen). Full disclosure: Have still yet to listen to Mandy, which I've had in the plastic for a couple of months now, and I'm almost wondering is a way to stave off completing the tragically departed Johannsson's discography. Gone far, far too soon.
2Bear McCreary
Battlestar Galactica - Season Four


2009 - I've gotta credit McCreary (along with Hans Zimmer and Clint Mansell) with sparking my interest in film scores as works that could stand alone, rather than just supplementing a screen. Honestly, this isn't even McCreary's best work for the show--that honor, in this lowly listener's lofty opinion, would go to Season Two, which is untouchable (but also from 2006, and thus ineligible)--but the sheer volume of beautiful, sweeping full-orchestra songs and suites, surprising stabs of rock and metal, and everything bolstered throughout by non-Western instrumentation and percussion, in particular, make for a listening experience every bit as complex and underrated as the show it was built for.
3Dave Porter
Breaking Bad


2012 - Another standout from the TV world, Porter's work for Breaking Bad grew in intensity and brashness in much the same way the show did--but, for me, the first two seasons represent a melancholy peak of minimalism for the series' score. "You're All They Talk About" is a great embodiment in microcosm for the trend as a whole, using just a few sounds to invoke a whole landscape of fragility.
4Cliff Martinez
Drive


2011 - An obvious choice, but with damn good reason. Martinez's synth-laden stylized sound helped realize and flesh out the bloody neon of its world--much better, incidentally, than the Neon Demon, although the music was easily the best part of that particular mess.

Sidebar: I'm not typically a fan of combo score/soundtrack albums--they typically tend to shortchange one or the other, and end up an incoherent jumble; that's the exact opposite here, where virtually all of the non-Martinez songs, even the opera piece, feel perfectly aligned with the work as a whole.
5Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
Hell Or High Water


2016 - An aching undercurrent for a woefully under-seen film, Cave and Ellis have been carving a niche of somber, rootsy-ish instrumental work since the (also under-seen) Proposition back in 2005. This might be their, ahem, high water mark. I'll show myself out.

Also: Curiously enough, I never especially got into Nick Cave's solo, Bad Seeds, or Birthday Party work, aside from one-offs here and there--no hate, I just already had Tom Waits to scratch that particular itch. But I *did* think for a decent stretch of time that Warren Ellis was the comic writer, and was honestly more excited by that name in the partnership. The more you know...
6Arcade Fire
Her


2014 - A surprisingly moving score for a surprisingly moving film, Arcade Fire's work here is exceptional and far-ranging, with solo piano pieces ("Song on the Beach") nestling organically beside electronic exercises in drone-lit ("Milk & Honey"), and more conventionally "cinematic"-sounding compositions (the culminating epic "Dimensions," which, when coupled with the altered reprise of "Milk and Honey" and mournful-yet-swelling "We're All Leaving," form a trilogy of what makes the score work). It's no exaggeration to say the band hasn't matched its strength since, and it's absolutely criminal that this STILL hasn't seen a proper physical release.
7Hans Zimmer
Inception


2010 - Another obvious choice, and one that's been parodied as much as praised by this point (shout out, South Park!), but beneath all the bombast, Zimmer's use of melodic motifs and precise, deceptively nuanced dynamics is peerless. Honestly, that now-iconic "BWAHMP BWAHMP" mostly works in context *because* of the quieter moments. And "Time" has rightfully earned its reputation as a classic. As well, like McCreary, Zimmer is also very percussion-oriented, which I clearly have a soft spot for.
8Max Richter
The Leftovers - Season One


2015 - A legend in his own right (see, again: "On the Nature of Daylight"), Richter rightfully has an ever-expanding roster of scores to display--but some of his best work is tucked away in this cult (literally...) HBO series--which, if memory serves, actually has the benefit of not even going to that song's well to generate its pathos.
9Clint Mansell
Moon


2009 - Mansell is another mainstay of relatively mainstream film composers (good luck trying to escape "Lux Aeterna," basically anytime throughout the 00s), but, not unlike Richter, some of his best work is relatively out of the limelight, including this largely piano-driven, melodically minimalist score for Duncan Jones' first (and greatest) full-length film. With occasional outbursts of momentum here and there, as on the climactic "Sacrifice," Mansell's overall mode is still predominantly contemplative. Here, as on Requiem and the Fountain (my personal favorite from Mansell, alongside compatriots Kronos Quartet and, well, Mogwai, since why not?), Mansell expertly re-purposes themes and motifs, and milks intense meaning out of subtle variation and, frankly, some pretty basic melodies. That's not a knock--there's often impact in simplicity, and Moon more often than not literally resounds with it.
10Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
The Social Network


2010 - Another pretty obvious choice--but another with absolutely good reason for its reputation. Reznor and Ross have arguably yet to top this Second-Act-defining work, which is a cover-to-cover classic. Melancholy and menace intermingle ("Hand Covers Bruise"), excitement bleeds into anxiety ("In Motion"), and even bangers surge with resentment ("A Familiar Taste"). And that's just the first three tracks. This album seldom stalls from there, and even when the pace slows, it lands more as a necessary comedown than true momentum-sap. Fantastic stuff.

Also: The duo's work since has all been compelling in its own right, but nearly always with asterisks: Dragon Tattoo and the Vietnam War are especially great, but still just a LOT to absorb. Honestly, the surprisingly upbeat quartet they produced for Mid90s might be my personal favorite; not for nothing, but it's also basically the length of an EP...
11Jonny Greenwood
You Were Never Really Here


2018 - I've admired Greenwood's work for a while; he's mostly collaborated with P.T. Anderson, and while certain scores have stood out (There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread). But his work here really blew me away--what at first seems like it's going to be a riff in the vein of Martinez's drive soon gives way to something both darker and, by turn, more beautiful. Sometimes assaulting, others downright tranquil, this tour-de-force is every bit the equal of its mercurial on-screen accompaniment.
12Hans Zimmer
Dunkirk


Honorable mention: 2017 - Zimmer, as noted, is pretty formative for me (blame Gladiator and Black Hawk Down), but even his detractors seemed to begrudgingly respect his work for Nolan's unique foray into war movies. It's an equally unique score, its continuously rising tones both mirroring and intensifying the whole shebang. Between this and Thin Red Line, Zimmer's THERE for your quasi-experimental war/art film.
13Cliff Martinez
Game Night


Honorable mention: 2018 - Honestly, just fun. I came into this movie with very low expectations, and ended up floored by just how deftly is both parodied and embraced the Fincher-esque twistiness of its increasingly outlandish--deliberately so--plot. But what truly elevates things is Martinez's score, which could honestly capably serve the exact sort of movie Game Night's sending up, and do so with a straight face. The fact that it's smirking only makes it better.
14Ennio Morricone
The Hateful Eight


Honorable mention: 2017 - Repurposed from Morricone's original draft for the score of John Carpenter's The Thing; honestly could've made the cut, but seems disingenuous to do it in light of the context. Still, absolutely stellar work.
15Johann Johannsson
Sicario


Honorable mention: 2015 - "It'll make you sick" hardly scans as praise for something, but it's most definitely accurate and intended as such for Johannsson's work. Queasy, intense, and pulsating with the sort of sounds that make your stomach drop. And that's all meant as the utmost praise. Not to dwell on the negative, but the world was truly robbed of a terrific talent when Johannsson passed. What a tremendous loss.
16Nicholas Britell
If Beale Street Could Talk: Soundtrack


2019 - The inspiration for the list. If you're into film scores at all and haven't seen/heard this, do yourself a favor and scope it out as soon as possible.
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