With the rise of underscoring, key big-screen composers such as Cliff Martinez, Clint Mansell, and Lisa Gerrard, among others, have managed to save the Hollywood score by diminishing its presence — and, in turn, they have raised its profile. With underscoring, an attention to room tone, background noise, and overall sound design plays as much a role as once did the grand-entrance character themes of times past. Nowadays underscoring has extended its influence to television, though the rapid pace of serial productions yields different outcomes, such as looped and repeated cues. (Sadly, TV scores are still far less likely than movie scores to be released for off-screen listening.) While scores ultimately serve the narratives for which they’re commissioned, they also serve a larger aesthetic purpose: a deeper, still emerging collective sense of where non-diegetic and diegetic sounds converge, how sound frames and participates in visual storytelling. And these days there is no better place than film (and on occasion TV) scores to hear music that revels at the intersection of ambient, techno, minimalism, and neo-classical, not to mention (where available) three-dimensional spatialization.
(1) Nick Cave and Warren Ellis — Hell or High Water (Milan)Who better than two Australians to provide mirror-refracted atmosphere to this modern Texas western? Their chamber-folk approach has the violin veering between classical composure and porch-fiddle intimacy.
(2) Shane Carruth — The Girlfriend Experience (no commercial release yet)Shane Carruth (writer, director, producer, composer, and co-star of Primer and Upstream Color) takes time out from his own filmmaking (the forthcoming The Modern Ocean) to lend an elevator-drone, glass-tower sheen to this TV-serial spinoff of the Steven Soderbergh film. It is as chilly and elegant, as anxious and zoned, out as are its cast of characters.
(3) Anne Dudley — Elle (Sony Classical)The former Art of Noise member renders concise cues that balance a minimalist’s attention to patterning with a classic silver-screen sense of drama, at times evidencing echoes John Barry and Bernard Herrmann.
(4) Max Richter — Miss Sloane (EuropaCorp)If only for the highly detailed ambient techno, all pitter-patter sound design, this would be a significant accomplishment, but Max Richter has such a range of skills at his disposal, he goes on to fold in orchestrations both intimate and broad.
(5) A Winged Victory for the Sullen — Iris (Erased Tapes) A Winged Victory for the Sullen is Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran, and they infuse this erotic thriller with heart pulses and train rumbles, deeply emotional string sections, choruses that seem to fill football stadiums, and a lush, dreamy resonance.
(6) Jóhann Jóhannsson — Arrival (Deutsche Grammophon)When Denis Villeneuve was announced as the director of the forthcoming Blade Runner sequel, Blade Runner 2049, a certain subset of music fans sighed with relief. This was because of the seeming inevitability that Villeneuve’s frequent creative partner, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (their work together include 2013’s Prisoners and 2015’s Sicario), would join him on Ridley Scott’s home turf, and thus make good on the classic Vangelis score of the original film. Arrival provided the duo with a science-fiction test run, and it’s a sprawling accomplishment, both earthy and otherworldly. (Contributing to the score as well: Theatre of Voices, conducted by Paul Hillier; synthesizer player Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe; cellist Hildur Guonadottir; and a sample of vocalist Joan La Barbara.)
(7) Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammed — Luke Cage (Hollywood)It’s a nice touch that each episode of the first season of this Harlem-set superhero drama takes a Gangs Starr song for its title. And that the club central to much of the story features live performances by the likes of Raphael Saadiq, Faith Evans, and Charles Bradley, among others. But what really gives the show its cultural swagger is the instrumental hip-hop score by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammed (the latter of A Tribe Called Quest), thick with terse beats and string samples.
(8) Abel Korzeniowski — Nocturnal Animals (Silva Screen)You can depend on director Tom Ford to employ only the finest fabrics, and Abel Korzeniowski makes good on such expectations with an orchestral score that yields hyper-minimalist pleasures, like the string marathon that is “Crossroads,” and old-school romanticism, like the luxuriously syrupy “City Lights.” Not all film composers do their own orchestrations, and when they do you can often tell by the attention to detail, as is the case here.
(9) Scott Walker — The Childhood of a Leader (4AD)It’s hard to make a case that Scott Walker’s feverish score for The Childhood of a Leader is anything close to underscoring, since the music is so in your face (well, in your ear), the orchestra being such a pounding, soaring figure throughout. Even when it’s quiet, such as briefly in the opening to “Up the Stairs,” it veers around the stereo spectrum in a fly-like manner that announces its unpredictable presence. But what it is is thoroughly composed, as if Walker felt that he’d never again have a full orchestra at his command, so he best make the most of the opportunity.
(10) Trent Reznor + Atticus Ross, Mogwai, Gustavo Santaolala — Before the Flood (Lakeshore)Neither the Social Network team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross nor the seasoned veteran Gustavo Santaolala scored a major work of film fiction in 2016, but they did team up with Mogwai for this documentary about the impact of climate change, delivering characteristically meticulous instrumental gems.
And 10 More Notable 2016 Film and TV Scores In alphabetical order by artist: The clandestine auras of (11) Keefus Ciancia + David Holmes’ London Spy (no commercial release yet) • The artful claustrophobia of (12) Keefus Ciancia + David Holmes’ The Fall (no commercial release yet) • The impeccable eeriness of (13) Mark Korven’s The Witch (Milan) • The cold grace of (14) Mica Levi’s Jackie (Milan) • The hinting at familiar themes of (15) Michael Giacchino’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Walt Disney) • The high-stakes trepidation of (16) Andy Gray’s Hunters (no commercial release yet) • The muted orchestral gravitas of (17) Rupert Gregson-Williams’ Hacksaw Ridge (Varèse Sarabande) • The metric anticipation of (18) Dominic Lewis’ Money Monster (Sony Classical) • The louche tension of (19) Clint Mansell’s High Rise (Silva Screen) • The high-style electronica of (20) Cliff Martinez’s The Neon Demon (Milan).