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Best of 2020: Soundtracks and Scores

In Disney and Pixar’s “Soul,” Joe Gardner is a middle-school band teacher whose life hasn’t quite gone the way he expected. His true passion is playing jazz, and his dedication to his dream is steadfast—he lives alone in his Queens apartment, immersing himself in his music, and when he does venture out, he spends most of his time talking about jazz. But when he finds himself in another realm helping someone else find their passion, he discovers what it truly means to have “Soul.” Directed by Academy Award® winner Pete Docter, co-directed by Kemp Powers and produced by Academy Award® nominee Dana Murray, p.g.a., “Soul” opens in U.S. theaters on November 20, 2020. ©2020 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.

Music is a core part of the human experience. Whether it’s your favorite band or what you hear while watching a great movie, music makes life better, plain and simple. When it comes to the world of cinema, film scores and soundtracks serve that same purpose. So, continuing a longstanding tradition of mine (though a first for Awards Radar, as everything is during our first year), I’m bringing an annual list of the year’s best to you. Not only that, I’ve recruited several staff members to help out, to have as diverse a sense of taste here as possible. So, while people like Bruce Springsteen and Taylor Swift make appearances, this is an eclectic list. Enjoy!

Here now are the best scores and soundtracks of 2020, as chosen by the Awards Radar staff!

Honorable Mention: All Together Now (soundtrack), The Outpost (score by Larry Groupé), The Trial of the Chicago 7 (score by Daniel Pemberton), and The Way Back (score by Rob Simonsen)

Disney+

16. Birds of Prey

For this DC super anti-hero film about a group of female badasses, it’s only fitting that director Cathy Yan wanted the soundtrack to represent its own gang of powerful women. Featuring tracks from a wide array of female performers ranging from Joan Jett and Patsy Cline to Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion, Birds of Prey exemplifies the spirit of this movie’s celebration of the complexities of women and what they’re capable of. Yan worked closely with Atlantic Records on assembling the soundtrack, tracing the journey of these characters through female powered songs that tie in to the themes of what these women are up against throughout the movie. The Birds of Prey soundtrack is the perfect counterpoint to the much maligned musical decisions made in the earlier DCEU film Suicide Squad. While that film’s soundtrack was a haphazard collection of chart topping hits that didn’t mesh together at all, and were dropped in abruptly at inappropriate, jarring times throughout the movie, there isn’t a single needle drop in Birds of Prey that feels out of place. This is the kind of soundtrack you want to have backing your movie up, one where each time a song clicks in it only amps the audience up more, rather than pulling them out of the moment. -Mitchell Beaupre

15. Red, White, and Blue

Lovers Rock has deservedly gotten most of the attention when it comes to the way music is utilized in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe miniseries. That doesn’t mean that it’s the only one where music plays a crucial role, however. McQueen uses music throughout the series to establish time and place, but Red, White, and Blue also gives it a greater meaning. While the soundtrack is loaded with excellent tunes from the era from musicians like Al Green, Marvin Gaye, and Grandmaster Flash, it comes into clearer focus when Leroy Logan (John Boyega) and his family play a visit to another family, where Leroy hangs out with his longtime friend Lee John. Played in the film by Tyrone Huntley, John is the lead singer of the band Imagination, and it’s clear that him and Leroy have this special bond over music. In one of the most memorable scenes of the film, the two of them get down to the track “Somebody Help Me Out” by Beggar & Co., and you see the weight of the world lifted off of Logan’s shoulders. He is so worn down throughout this story, but in this one moment with his friend and an energetic song, he lets loose and is able to just have some fun. It’s one of the rare lighter moments in Small Axe, and it speaks to how much McQueen’s series displays the power that music can have on us. -MB

14. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

The premise of Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga could make it easy to dismiss it as a complete farce. To do that would be a huge mistake. While it is a comedy, Director David Dobkin took the music very seriously. He brought in music writer/producer Savan Kotecha to lead a team of mostly Scandinavian song writers to find the proper sound. His vision was to capture the spirit of the often-overproduced song contest while hitting the right balance between homage and satire. As a result, the soundtrack is not only technically sound it is also teeming with the joyful campiness fans would expect from anything branded Eurovision.

The film centers around Icelandic pop duo Fire Saga, played by Will Ferrell (Lars) and Rachel McAdams (Sigrit), who dream of winning the outrageous global song competition. Sure, it may be tough not to laugh during “Volcano Man” as Ferrell walks through a volcanic terrain wearing a full suit of body armor while belting out tunes with McAdams. But, if you can ignore the visual antics and let your ears do the judging you’ll see there’s much more to appreciate beyond the humorous facade.

The soundtrack crosses genres and styles from straight out folk music to surprisingly touching power ballads and an array of others in between. Each viewer is sure to have their own favorite. Be it the goofy (and catchy) “Jaja Ding Dong” or the emotional show-stopping “Husavik” – the soundtrack has something for everyone… as long as you have an open mind.

While Ferrell sang his own lyrics, McAdams was blended with vocalist Molly Sandén (My Marianne) to attain the right sound. The trio is joined by a handful of other global artists, past Eurovision contestants and winners, and even pop superstar Demi Lovato. Together they deliver a soundtrack that not only works perfectly to support the film’s story, it also stands on its own to be quite an enjoyable listen. The soundtrack will have you humming for days. Like Lars and Sigrit do not underestimate this underdog. A Best Original Song nomination would be a fitting conclusion to the Fire Saga story. – Steven Prusakowski

13. We Are Little Zombies

This Japanese musical from filmmaker Makoto Nagahisa is surely the least known movie on this list (it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page!), yet it’s also perhaps the one that ties the music most directly into its storytelling. We Are Little Zombies is the tale of four orphans in Japan who bond together after the deaths of their parents and then decide to form a rock band. It’s a wild concept, and Nagahisa’s pop confection styling only further makes this film feel like something you’ve never seen before. There’s a video game aesthetic to his approach here, something that’s matched by the tunes that the band comes up with, calling to mind the way that Scott Pilgrim vs. The World used those synth video game sounds to create a unique rhythm that weaves into the structure and rhythm of the film. The title track, as well as another track titled “Zombies But Alive”, are both available on the film’s official Japanese channel, and they’re both ear worms that were stuck in my head for days after I saw the film. It got a pretty under the radar release from Oscilloscope during the summer, available mostly on virtual cinema platforms due to the pandemic, but it’s a film well worth catching up on, if only for one of the most infectious and original soundtracks of the year. -MB

12. Lovers Rock

Is there a movie so intrinsically linked to its soundtrack than Lovers Rock? I don’t think so. Taking place over the course of one night, almost entirely set within the confines of one location during a house party, Steve McQueen has created an experience that is wall to wall filled with music. There is one song or another playing over almost every second of this movie. It’s clear that McQueen’s love letter to this black community is tied to the communal experience of music. We light up with this crowd of people when Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” comes on, remembering the first time we heard the song as they all start busting out their best moves while singing in unison. Then, of course, there’s the scene set to “Silly Games” by Janet Kay, as fine a testament to the power of music as there has ever been on film. Kay’s melodic vocals bring this room of friends and strangers to a state of practically hypnotic rhythm, so much so that when the music stops the entire room of people continues to sing along. McQueen’s Small Axe anthology is loaded with so much pain brought on due to systemic racism, so much violence against the black community in physical, mental, and emotional ways. It’s grueling to get through, yet perhaps the most necessary and important collective work of the year. In this moment, however, all of that has faded away. For just a brief moment, there is nothing outside of these walls. There’s just this community bonded together, drowning out everything else with Kay’s words. There’s a reason why The A.V. Club declared it the best scene of the year. I’m inclined to agree. -MB

11. Nomadland

The beauty of Nomadland is enhanced by its mesmerizing music. The fact that Ludovico Einaudi didn’t compose it originally for the film is inconsequential (even if it’s not Oscar-eligible as a result). It fits so perfectly with the tone and mood of Fern’s journey, enhancing the wonder of the vastness she encounters everywhere. This is the Standout track of Nomadland, for me at least. -Abe Friedtanzer

10. Wendy

The story of Peter Pan has been told over and over again, and there’s a buoyant, adventurous energy to the music of Wendy that makes it feel especially timeless. Writer-director Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer reunite after Beasts of the Southern Wild to compose another stirring soundtrack that captures the spirit of youthful imagination. Wendy pulls it off. This here, at least for me, is the Standout track for the film. -AF

9. Da 5 Bloods

Through blaring horns in scenes of triumph, booming tones in scenes of raucous action, and softer melodies to complement softer scenes as well as the vibrant scenery of Vietnam, Terence Blanchard’s score for Da 5 Bloods takes Spike Lee’s film to a whole new level. In contrast to his suave, blaxploitation film-inspired score for Lee’s previous film, BlacKkKlansman, Blanchard takes to a more march-inspired score for Lee’s latest film, perfectly encapsulating the overarching theme of war. With these very harmonious pieces complementing such a dynamic film, Blanchard’s score surely climbs the ranks as one of the greatest scores of the year. -Miles Foster

8. Minari

Often times when it comes to awards season, Best Score is a category that could be more accurately titled as “Most Score”. Similar to categories like cinematography and film editing, it’s often the flashiest, most in your face scores that get the most attention. It makes sense. When you’re watching a movie if the score is so omnipresent, so pronounced that you can’t pay attention to the scene, you’re going to remember it and fill in that slot when it comes time to cast your picks. Emile Mosseri’s score for Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is not that kind of score. In fact, I didn’t even really notice it the first time that I watched Chung’s semi-autobiographical tale of a Korean family trying to find their American dream in 1980s Arkansas. However, on a second viewing I began to appreciate how much Mosseri’s compositions inform the emotional impact of this story. Minari is a remarkably delicate movie, and Mosseri creates a symbiosis with Chung’s direction, composing these gentle tones that guide the viewer’s emotional response without making it obvious. It’s a masterclass in supporting the overall experience of the movie, rather than distracting the audience by putting the music front and center. After making his film debut as a composer last year with marvelous work on The Last Black Man in San Francisco, it’s clear that Mosseri is going to be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. -MB

7. American Utopia

American Utopia’s soundtrack is the same setlist as the Broadway show, with songs spanning David Byrne’s entire career. There are songs from the album American Utopia that spawned the stage show, songs stretching back to Byrne’s early career with Talking Heads, and a few covers. The soundtrack exudes joy and hope in a way that washes over the whole show, makes you think about the world and current events while also making you feel like everything is going to be alright. Maybe the most affecting song in the film is a cover of Janelle Monáe’s protest song “Hell You Talmbout,” which only continues to gain relevance and resonance as we continue to see unjust killings of unarmed black people. The film closes with the joyful exuberance of watching the whole cast dance around the theater as they perform “Road to Nowhere” and watching the whole audience jump up and join in on the fun. -Grace Carbone

6. Mank

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are joined at the hip these days with filmmaker David Fincher. That’s pretty strong company to have, obviously, With Mank, they all attempt something a bit different, with technical perfection resulting. From my rave review, I wrote:

It goes without saying that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross contribute a perfect score for a Fincher flick, but this is really above and beyond.

Of course, Reznor and Ross have proven to be malleable, but a period-accurate score for this period piece is truly above and beyond. While there’s no one track that stands out like Hand Covers Bruise from The Social Network, the entire score stands out as a brilliant piece of a whole. Tied in to the film itself, that’s how you appreciate their latest bit of aural wonder. -Joey Magidson

5. Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You

The Boss is my favorite musician, so a documentary about the making of his latest album was always going to be right up my alley. However, not only is it a tremendous insight into Bruce Springsteen‘s creative process, watching incredibly catchy songs come together is a truly hypnotic experience. In that way, this soundtrack has a cinematic feel to it in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You is a unique musical doc, as detailed in my rave review here:

Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You works on multiple levels. As an accompaniment to the forthcoming album Letter to You, it’s certainly a treat. However, it isn’t just supplemental material like that. Each song is catchy and works on its own, but the combination of all of them coming together, it’s hauntingly beautiful, fueled by the special relationship the band has with each other. To watch this flick is to be in the room while geniuses are at work. Who hasn’t wanted to be there for something like this? Now, we finally can be, and oh is it something special to witness.

Director Thom Zimny (interviewed by us here) allows tracks like Ghosts to really pound with the passion of Springsteen and his band. It worked on the album. It worked in the documentary. Lo and behold, it makes for one of the year’s best soundtracks. -JM

4. Tenet

One score among this year’s best is Ludwig Göransson’s score for Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Tenet. This frenetic juggernaut was a huge achievement considering, as one of the first scores arranged during the initial lockdown of the coronavirus pandemic, it had to be pieced together one musician at a time. The recurring themes of reversed notes aid the film’s action sequences as well as the film’s concept of “inversion.” Balancing fast-paced and loud pieces with softer and broad ones, Göransson’s work is certainly a standout amongst many great scores of the year. -MF

3. folklore: the long pond studio sessions

On July 24, 2020, Taylor Swift surprised fans with the last minute release of a secret album entitled folklore, shortly followed by evermore. Swift had released her seventh studio album, Lover, only 11 months prior and it was unheard of to receive two albums from Swift in such a short span. The biggest surprise, however, was the completely altered sound that folklore brought to the table. The singer embraced a more solemn and entrancing style for her eighth album, and introduced her fans to an alternate world. This was unsurprisingly well received in the midst of a year where most people wanted to escape reality. Swift dives into many different storylines in the 16 songs (and one bonus song) that play. This includes a love triangle from each perspective, a somber love song to her boyfriend about her fame, and even the tale of Rebekah Harkness who owned Swift’s Rhode Island mansion years earlier.

This album is not necessarily a fun, upbeat journey, but rather a deep dive into what Swift can bring to the table lyrically. Working with The National’s Aaron Dessner and Bleacher’s Jack Antonoff, the artist offers her most affecting and memorable lyrics to date on folklore. Swift made yet another surprising decision in regards to this album when Disney+ released a movie entitled Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions on November 25, 2020. She had previously released a concert film for her Reputation tour on Netflix, but this new documentary was much more personal. This time around, instead of loud stadium crowds and rebellious tunes, Swift, Dessner and Antonoff played each song from folklore in an intimate, gorgeous and wild setting that fit the album’s ambiance. Between songs, the trio would be shown seen sitting—sometimes around a fire with wine—and discussing the meaning behind each song as well as what inspired them to write each one. Swift makes each viewer, and fan, feel like they were there with them, receiving a private concert and just hanging out with friends to reflect on it.

This album and the documentary will make you cry, especially when you hear epiphany, which is from the perspective of first responders during this demanding year mixed with the viewpoint of her grandfather at battle during a war. It will make you laugh, namely during the catchy song betty as she sings from the perspective of a 17-year-old boy who doesn’t know anything. It will even make you reassess the privileges and people you have in your life, specifically Swift’s heartbreaking love song peace during which she shares the dark side of being famous and in love. folklore is the ideal album for this year, and it rightfully deserved the brilliant documentary that was made revolving around it. It speaks to everyone who listens and says, “I know it’s been hard. Let’s cry, reflect on what’s happened, and dream about what could be.” -Kendall Tinston

2. Soul

It’s no surprise that Soul has earned the spot as my favorite score of the entire year. After all, my favorite studio on the planet just happens to be Pixar. Now when you take my favorite studio on the planet, and mix it with Academy Award winners, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, who also happened to compose one of the greatest scores of the decade, The Social Network, you have a very happy Max. But wait, it’s not done yet. For the cherry on top, you add Grammy Nominee, the Music Director of The Atlantic, the Co-Artistic Director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, Jazz LEGEND, Jon Batiste. Everything these 3 music legends created became one perfect composition. No notes are wasted. Every single measure builds the story. For me, the best score of the year, by galaxies. -Max Joseph

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit : Merie Weismiller Wallace / Focus Features

1. Promising Young Woman

Nothing musically this year beats Promising Young Woman and its soundtrack. It’s impossible not to want to talk about its instantly iconic karaoke sequence of Bo Burnham and Carey Mulligan singing along to the Paris Hilton banger Stars Are Blind in a pharmacy. I spoke to Mulligan (here) and writer/director Emerald Fennell (here), bringing up the soundtrack, as well as the sequence. It’s not just that one song, either, as the film’s soundtrack is filled with bubblegum pop that manages to take on an ominous tone. Britney Spears and songs like Angel of the Morning will never sound the same to you. In calling it the best movie of 2020 in my review, I mentioned the soundtrack:

How many filmmakers could make this subject matter, while having a soundtrack that makes clever use of a forgotten Paris Hilton bop, or a choice Britney Spears cut? Moreover, the instantly iconic sequence where Bo Burnham and Carey Mulligan sing along to Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” in a pharmacy is a scene for the ages. Fennell pulls off in Promising Young Woman what few others would even have had the willingness to attempt.

Promising Young Woman is a masterpiece up and down the line, with the soundtrack just being one more example of it. it’s perfection, plain and simple. -JM

Courtesy of Apple TV+

Here’s to more great cinematic music in the year to come!

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