As I said last year, music is essential to our lives. It’s a core part of the human experience, helping us through it all (especially in trying times like these). 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, today I’m once again bringing an annual list of the year’s best cinematic music. Not only that, I’ve gone back and recruited several staff members to help out, to have as diverse a sense of taste here as possible. So, as you might imagine, this is a pretty eclectic list overall. Enjoy!
Here now are the best scores and soundtracks of 2021, as chosen by some of the Awards Radar staff!
Honorable Mention: Annette (soundtrack), Belfast (music by Van Morrison), C’mon C’mon (score by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner), The Harder They Fall (score by Jeymes Samuel), Licorice Pizza (soundtrack), The Power of the Dog (score by Jonny Greenwood), and Zola (score by Mica Levi)
13. Censor and Malignant (tie) – When I think about the soundtracks of two gialli throwback horror releases from last year, I can’t help but remember how John Cale described the omnipresent electric “humming” that defined the signature sounds of The Velvet Underground. He called that “the sounds of the modern world.” So what modernity is evoked from Malignant’s Joseph Bishara and Censor’s Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch reveling in that constant mechanical “hum” throughout their horror movies? What feeling is generated when they’re combined with the vivid aesthetic extravagance of old school genre trappings? These are, after all, both films very much indebted to movies released decades ago, many of which were unavailable to most people until the dawn of streaming. Now, anyone can find the musical influences of the atonal electronic keyboard punctuating the increasingly loud droning of what sounds like a soundboard malfunctioning as Enid enters the Beastman’s Lair in Censor. Bishara overlays more classical, operatic melodies akin to the old Hammer Horror films over the pulsating buzzes and hums, which only grows more aggressive as Gabriel draws closer. Neither of these retro musical characterizations are “pleasant” or beautiful to listen to; in fact, there is a slight off-key prevalence in Malignant and a discordant countermelody to Censor that only serve to heighten the discomfort and anxiety we feel as we watch our heroines struggle to confront the buried truths of their pasts as it threatens to swallow them both whole. There is no nostalgia in these soundtracks. At least, none that give us a sense of safety and comfort about The Way Things Were. With Censor and Malignant, the callbacks to niche horror subgenres bring back the past as something that dooms us to a bleak future. The 80’s electronic musical pastiche in these movies are anti-nostalgia. What was modern is now past, and what was past is back to haunt us today. – Robert Hamer
12. Free Guy – While it’s uncommon to see a lighthearted Ryan Reynolds based comedy under this list, Free Guy is that and so much more, and has earned its spot. Bounding between hip-hop like 100 Miles and Running by Logic, to beloved pop such as Fantasy by Mariah Carey, to old time classics including Cheek to Cheek by Fred Astaire, this album really does have it all. Each track beautifully illustrates the emotions that lead character Guy is experiencing for the first time as his world changes in front of him. It’s also impossible to not mention Christophe Beck’s artfully composed score that is included on the soundtrack and helps audiences immerse themselves in the unreal world on screen. If this isn’t enough incentive to watch Free Guy and appreciate the songs that were chosen for it, talented lead actress Jodie Comer also recorded a version of Fantasy that she sings that made it into the film, but not onto the soundtrack unfortunately. Comer’s version has a very haunting, melancholic sound to it that pairs perfectly with the scene it plays over and is guaranteed to produce goosebumps. All in all, Free Guy has a soundtrack that is not only unique, but timeless, and can be listened to on numerous occasions. – Kendall Tinston
11. Don’t Look Up – Typically known for his amazing work with strings and keys in films like Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk and shows like Succession, Nicholas Britell takes his style in a new direction with Adam McKay’s latest sci-fi satire film, going for a much more upbeat jazz influences score. Don’t Look Up is certainly a vivid film, which would require quite the vivid score. That proved no problem for Britell, whose score captured the film’s tone with “absurdity and humor, and… an inherent melancholy.” While we can still count on hearing some of those resonant strings and orchestral pieces throughout the score, we’re also treated to some big-band jazz and other fun instruments such as the banjo, mandolin, toy piano, as well as electronic influences. All of this comes together well in backing a film about two scientists discovering an Earth-ending comet, providing a frenetic mix of energy and wit with a score that won’t be forgotten. – Miles Foster
10. Encanto – It’s impossible not to swell up at the sweeping music and grandiose songs of Disney’s Encanto. Every song plays like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “greatest hits”, and are as catchy and memorable as his previous work in film and theater. What sets Encanto apart from other LMM productions, however, is how wrought with so much infectious joy each and every song have. Even when the film is at its most emotional, the music picks you right up and immediately transports you into the world of the family Madrigal. Highlights of the film’s soundtrack have to be Waiting On A Miracle, where Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) pleas for a “miracle” that will allow her to have powers equal to her entire family, or the ultra-catchy hit “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”, which may as well win the Oscar for Best Original Song. With four projects under his belt this year, there’s no stopping Lin-Manuel Miranda from delivering banger after banger, and it’s incredible to see that he saved the best for last with Encanto, and continues to surprise us all with memorable music with each production he tackles. He’s more than earned a break before The Little Mermaid remake comes out. – Maxance Vincent
9. The French Dispatch – It should be no surprise that a soundtrack for a Wes Anderson film composed by Alexandre Desplat is one of the best of the year, but here we are. With the official soundtrack blending some of the best pieces of music of the year including the opening credit “Obituary” with other pieces such as Grace Jones’ “I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)”, the transitions are seamless and create a calming atmosphere that whisks you away in Wes Anderson’s head. For a film that is oozing with style, bold choices and a unique structure, this quiet yet precise soundtrack perfectly suits the movie and ends up being a great accompanying piece when doing your own writing or studying. The French Dispatch may just be my favorite Desplat-Anderson collaboration to date. – Amy Smith
8. Cyrano – There’s a moment in Cyrano that is one of the biggest musical highlights of 2021. If you’ve seen the movie (and admittedly, it still hasn’t come out yet), you know what I’m talking about. It’s the number “Wherever I Fall” being performed. The whole score, as well as soundtrack from Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner, is terrific, but this one track goes above and beyond. It’s a shot in the heart the fully shows the potential of a musical, better than any other this year, for my money. Kudos to Joe Wright and company for pulling that off. – Joey Magidson
7. The Green Knight – The Green Knight’s score is best described by three words: Haunting, Atmospheric, and Memorable. I challenge you to go on Spotify or Apple Music and just listen to this album. It’s impossible to fully describe how this film gets inside your head. Through the echoing choral voices, the reeded wind instruments, and the oscillating string orchestra, Daniel Hart elicits a ghost of a score. It’s intimate and pervasive, haunting and atmospheric simultaneously. It permeates each sequence and stands next to the visuals, informing us of this world and the role we have within it. That is what ultimately makes The Green Knight one of the year’s best scores. Because it is fundamental to the storytelling of David Lowery‘s film, it’s the most memorable score of the year. It’s a score that has a hypnotic effect on you in the theatre, and it will not be forgotten. – Benjamin Wiebe
6. No Time to Die – As with all Bond films, there is both a score and an original theme song to discuss here with No Time to Die. In his first outing with the franchise, Hans Zimmer delivers compositions that are both swooning and exhilarating. As with Dune (his other major score of 2021), there is a refreshing lack of his usual bombast. Meanwhile, Billie Eilish’s titular track is in the unique position of having been released to the public more than a year and a half before the release of the film. Her moody, subdued vocals and sorrowful musical accompaniment plays excellently in context with the tone of the story, not to mention the typically exquisite opening credits. Also of note is that the film recycles “We Have All the Time in the World” (both the Louis Armstrong version and John Barry’s instrumental take) from the underrated Bond On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which is utilized here to great effect. – Myles Hughes
5. In the Heights – The soundtrack of the summer, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights is just as vibrant on film as it is on stage. With influences including rap and salsa, it may be hard to imagine a project like this working, but Miranda knows how to strike a balance. What puts the cherry on the cake of this musical are the actors chosen to perform the numbers, as stage star and fellow Hamilton star Anthony Ramos taking the helm.Whilst the gorgeous cinematography and fun choreography help bring these numbers to life, it is the songs that will get stuck in your head for days. The opening track, “In the Heights”, immediately sets the stage for what is to come, whilst “96,000” remains the best track of any musical this year and brings a sense of optimism to the neighborhood of Washington Heights. In a year filled with strong musicals, only one made me rush to my Spotify to play it over and over again, and I will continue to say its name so that it does not get forgotten. – Amy Smith
4. CODA – How can you not love CODA? Music is a huge part of the film, which easily makes the soundtrack (which includes the score) incredibly enjoyable. When I ran down the scenes of the year (here), three of them were from this movie. Just in terms of the music, the needle drops are lovely, while Emilia Jones‘ covers just stun. “Both Sides Now” will always have a new meaning for you after this one. I dare you to not put on this soundtrack and not have a huge smile run across your face. It simply can not be done. – Joey Magidson
3. Dune – One of the year’s best scores is also one of the most unique of the pack. Composer Hans Zimmer first read Frank Herbert’s novel, the film’s source material, as a young adult and often fantasized about the worlds of this sci-fi epic. Having been a fan of Dune for many years before the film’s inception, composing the film was almost written in the stars. Zimmer’s score for Dune is unlike many of the other scores he’s done. Whereas many of his other works have been very orchestral, Zimmer insists “there is no orchestra anywhere.” The score is comprised of many electronic pieces, such as electric guitars, electric cellos and the like. At certain points we hear the sounds of bagpipes and duduks come through, giving the score a unique and well-rounded feel. One of the score’s strongest components, though, is that of the voice. In using particular voices as part of the score, such as the deep chanting on the planet Sardaukar, or the strong female vocals that back the music of Arrakis and of the powerful women of the Bene Gesserit, Zimmer’s grand and beautiful score feels deeply rooted in the film and works amazingly to complete the world of Dune. – Miles Foster
2. Bo Burnham: Inside – Bo Burnham is a genius. Bo Burnham: Inside is a work of art. The songs are both utterly hilarious and deeply satirical. Whether it’s “Bezos,” “How the World Works,” “Sexting,” or especially “White Woman’s Instagram,” Burnham is working on so many levels. So much more than a stand-up comedy special, it’s an expression of so much of what we went through during lockdown. Plus, it’s just incredibly funny. A great hallmark of a soundtrack is how it plays outside of the movie. Here, they work just as well, easily crowning this the best soundtrack of 2021, at least in my humble opinion. – Joey Magidson
1. Spencer – Along with his amazing score for The Power of the Dog (not to mention Licorice Pizza as well), Jonny Greenwood has had a hell of a 2021. However, nothing beats his compositions for Spencer. This is the score that I know I’ll personally remember most this year. There’s a sense throughout that Greenwood is toying with our expectations. So many of the sounds that we hear while watching Kristen Stewart‘s title character begin traditional, before dovetailing into something truly singular. Much of the score has a horror or thriller bent to it, truly putting you in our protagonist’s mindset. It’s utterly brilliant. – Joey Magidson
What are your favorite scores and soundtracks of 2021? Let us know!