In creating a solid work of cinema, the movie soundtrack is hugely important and a poor one can completely destroy a film. Horror films would be nothing without their atmospheric, chilling ambiance and no action-packed car chase is complete without a thumping, exciting piece of music.
In no particular order, this is a list of slightly more alternative movie soundtracks that deserve to stand out from the crowd a little more. Whilst no one will deny that Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Jurassic Park have phenomenal pieces of music in their soundtracks, they hardly need me to boast about them.
Drive – Cliff Martinez
Nicolas Winding Refn experienced his first Hollywood success with beautifully stylised thriller Drive. Chosen by lead actor Ryan Gosling to direct, Refn brought his unique vision to a film that could very easily have been a throwaway actioner.
The movie soundtrack is so symbiotic of the film’s themes that it’s like Refn himself imagined it. Whilst Martinez provides the undertones, it’s the featured artists such as Kavinksky, Lovefoxxx, Chromatic and Electric Youth that make this soundtrack stand out as much as it does.
The lo-fi 80s feel makes ‘Nightcall’ and ‘A Real Hero’ almost pop tracks, but they are grounded by the haunting breathy vocals of LoveFoxxx and the slight detuning of the synths. This disjoints and distances the music from the listener, reflecting the Driver’s disassociation with everyone around him. I promise the others won’t be so preachy, but Drive has managed to do so much with minimalist music that I felt it needed some gushing on my part.
American Beauty – Thomas Newman
Even people unaware of this film will have heard Thomas Newman’s instantly iconic piece ‘Any Other Name’, with the piano chords hovering over the long drawn out strings proving that simple chord progressions can provoke just as much emotion as the most complex pieces of music.
The rest of the soundtrack is equally as compelling; the synth strings intertwined with real orchestras give the tracks a very breathy, claustrophobic feel. This is not a movie soundtrack to dissect or go into technical detail about. This is one you just put on and listen to.
Spirited Away – Joe Hisaishi
No true movie soundtrack list could be complete without a nod towards Joe Hisaishi. His contribution to the success of Studio Ghibli anime, especially in the West, cannot be ignored. His experimental style has given each Ghibli film its own unique sound.
My personal favourite is Spirited Away. The opening track ‘One Summer’s Day’ is the perfect introduction to everything that is great about Joe Hisaishi. He uses the piano in a way others might use a choir and instead of 8 bar progressions, his melodies will often last up to a minute.
In the opening of ‘One Summer’s Day,’ it almost sounds like he is walking down the notes on the piano. His lighter music is almost reminiscent of early Disney, but when he creates tension, its such a unique sound that it’s hard to compare to others. With a 30 year back catalogue, it’s hard to know where to begin with Hisaishi, but Spirited Away is a great place to start.
Monsters – Jon Hopkins
Monsters was an $800,000 indie film released in 2010. It didn’t perform too well at the box office, but it was pretty fearless in what it tried to create and I would seriously recommend it to anyone with an interest in indie films. What they managed to achieve on a limited budget is incredible and it’s a shame it did not have more success. It’s by no means perfect, but I always hate it when people are not rewarded for taking risks.
Back on topic, the movie soundtrack is phenomenal, Jon Hopkins is, for me, on par with Thomas Newman in what he can achieve with simple progressions. The track ‘Monsters Theme’ is the standout, making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The other tracks are pretty much variations on the theme, but they each have their own unique quality. I especially love the reverse delay he uses on tracks like ‘Candles’; it’s haunting and beautiful.
If you don’t have the time to watch the film, at least give a few of the songs a listen. It’s a masterclass of low budget movie soundtracks that can give blockbusters a run for their money.
Up – Michael Giacchino
Even people who are not fans of the film or even animation in general seem willing to admit that ‘Married Life’, the instrumental retelling of the protagonists’ marriage, is one the most emotional moments in cinema of recent years. Even the track on its own leaves a lump in your throat.
Although I am a huge fan of Thomas Newman, I am glad that Pixar went with Michael Giacchino for this particular film. I feel people are unaware of just how much of his work they have heard. For example, he was behind both of the recent Star Trek soundtracks as well as the music to JJ Abrams’s Super 8. Both are great pieces of work, but I feel his pure strengths lies in structures and melody rather than grand orchestral pieces.
That’s why Up is my favourite piece of Giacchino’s work to date. It just flows so well with the film. His Oscar was hotly contested but it was ultimately a well-deserved win.
Kill Bill – RZA & Quentin Tarantino
Choosing the perfect existing music to go with your film can be just as much a skill as creating an original piece of music and no-one flaunts this skill as well as Tarantino. You get the impression that he has the music in mind before he has even filmed the scene as they just seem to entwine so well.
The catchy whistling on ‘Twisted Nerve’ is the one that gets stuck in people’s heads long after the film has ended. But, it’s also worth noting tracks such as ‘White Lightning’ that showcase the under-appreciated genius that is RZA. I won’t labour that particular point here though as that’s for the next choice.
Afro Samurai: Resurrection – RZA
I’ll be honest; I only added the Resurrection bit at the end so that it could qualify as a film for this list. It’s the TV show and game that made me fall in love with the soundtrack to Afro Samurai. Although ‘Bloody Samurai’ – the main track for Resurrection – is actually a brilliant track, I am only currently listening to it for the first time as I am writing this.
Afro Samurai is not just a demonstration of great music, but also showcases some great rappers. RZA is big enough to allow himself to take a step back, handing the mic to the likes of GZA and Talib, culminating in pure great hip hop. The instrumentals, however, are RZA’s domain. Having spent his childhood in cinemas watching Chinese martial arts films, his knowledge of film is equal to his knowledge of music and I assume this is why he and Tarantino get along so well.
With Afro Samurai, he brings everything to the table: the sampling and lyrics that’s made Wu Tang Clan great, but also the Eastern influence that made Wu Tang unique. It’s just a great all round movie soundtrack that I recommend to anyone who is a fan of hip hop.
Sinister – Christopher Young
As I have been compiling this list of great movie soundtracks, I have been listening to each of them to hopefully get some inspiration. However, I will not be doing this for Sinister, as the soundtrack scares the living shit out of me and I don’t want to write this blog in my own blood.
Unlike the others, this movie soundtrack is not on here for its musical accomplishments. It is on here for doing its job perfectly. It took a rather mediocre horror film and added the most unnerving score I have heard in a very long time to create great scares.
Christopher Young does more with the bass frequency then I thought possible and interweaves the sub-bass with low-end synths. The vocal samples actually remind me of a track that was made to give an idea of what schizophrenia feels like. With headphones on, it feels incredibly claustrophobic. Young is hardly new to the game as he’s being doing horror soundtracks since the early 80s. Yet, 30 years on he has still managed to create something original and genuinely terrifying.
Tron: Legacy – Daft Punk
“Shit film, but great soundtrack.”
I have heard this, or a variation, so many times. Yet, it’s true. Tron: Legacy was not a great film. But if the filmmakers did one thing right, it was handing over the soundtrack to the French duo Daft Punk. They do what they always do, which is create a lot out of very minimal sounds. They are masters of layering, but when they drop a beat, that’s when it’s Daft Punk at their finest.
The best thing about this soundtrack is that it works perfectly without the film. The two do not particularly go hand in hand. In fact, Tron: Legacy was pretty much carried by the music.
Hanna – Chemical Brothers
I have to confess that I am a huge fan of Chemical Brothers so my opinion might be biased, but this soundtrack is undeniably cool. It’s not exactly experimental when compared to some of Chemical Brothers’s personal work, but it captures the spirit of Joe Wright’s 2011 film perfectly. There’s a constant sense of immediacy and danger, with slight lulls in order for you to catch your breath.
The soundtrack works from start to finish as one giant piece of music, which most soundtracks should do anyway. This one manages to do it incredibly well.
Do you agree with these choices? Which underrated movie soundtracks do you think deserve praise? Let us know in the comments section.