Looking Back: Jeremy Picks the 10 Best Soundtracks/Scores of 2016
by Jeremy Kirk
January 13, 2017
More often than not a good soundtrack in a movie can be just as captivating as the visuals in which it accompanies. We live within the world of that film as we experience watching it, but a good soundtrack – composed score or curated list of songs – can allow us to reengage with the film on a purely auditory level sometimes even offering up an entirely new perspective. It's why this list is always such a joy to put together at the end of any year (review my previous soundtrack picks for the Best of 2014 and Best of 2013). Listed below are my Top 10 Soundtracks/Scores of 2016, and, as always, it's a fun list to put together. These are the scores and song lists I will surely be listening to in the coming months, the soundtracks that are every bit as memorable as the films themselves. (You can also find my Top 10 Films of 2016 here.) Enjoy!
#10. Oasis: Supersonic
Just listen to their songs, and you're likely to agree that Oasis, love them or hate them, has an incredible knack for writing memorable and engaging songs. The songs are almost as memorable as the ever-present rivalry between siblings Noel and Liam Gallagher, which the documentary incredibly lays out. Using actual, home footage shot over the years, Oasis: Supersonic is one of the best documentaries of the year, and the song usage by director Mat Whitecross is as clever and as eye-opening as any footage the film has to show us. He doesn't incorporate the obvious choices either with the film's structure or the intelligent way in which he uses each of their songs. You may have had to have been a fan of the troubled band to appreciate the many aspects at work here, but, coming from someone who grew up listening to Oasis, the soundtrack for this Supersonic documentary ends up being as engaging and heartbreaking as the story told within.
#9. Swiss Army Man
The Daniels' Swiss Army Man is without question one of the most inventive films of 2016, a wholly cerebral comedy-drama about mental illness and the way in which we, as individuals, perceive the world around us. Naturally, it comes with a score as cleverly conceived and as emotionally executed as the entire film itself. Composed by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, the music comes into the film at the most interesting moments, the characters often providing the first, few bars of music themselves before the score swells into non-diegetic crescendos. Sometimes the characters played by Paul Dano & Daniel Radcliffe find joy in pre-conceived music like "Cotton Eye Joe" or the Jurassic Park theme. Whatever the source of the music, though, it plays a strong hand in the heavy dose of imagination at work in Swiss Army Man.
#8. American Honey
The Spring Breakers honorary award for achievement in utilizing catchy, modern tracks in extremely ironic ways goes to American Honey this year. It almost went to The Purge: Election Year with its usage of Miley Cyrus' "Party in the USA," but that tongue-in-cheek, musical choice doesn't hold a candle to the way American Honey takes modern, American hits and slaps them with a deeper meaning. Rihanna's "We Found Love" is the grandest of the musical juxtaposition this film has to offer, but other tracks like Sam Hunt's "Take Your Time", The Raveonettes' "Recharge and Revolt", and E-40's "Choices" help build the world and characters in which filmmaker Andrea Arnold is creating here. That's saying nothing of her usage of Bruce Springsteen's "Dream Baby Dream" and Lady Antebellum's "American Honey". All of the tracks play to that love-sick, hopeless, aimless existence that encapsulates each of her characters, each song adding one more crack to the already shaky, family structure of friends depicted.
#7. Green Room
A film about a punk rock band being trapped in a green room by Nazi skinheads is sure to have a few, key tracks laying about on its soundtrack, and, as is the case with everything found in Green Room, it doesn't disappoint. Filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier has a keen grasp on every aspect of his films, and his ability to make the film as much about the music as it is about the characters would be shocking if it were any other director. The film provides an endless slew of impressive, punk tracks, most notably a dangerously clever usage of Dead Kennedys' "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" which adds as much to the film's comedic tone as it does the foreboding sense of threat all around these characters. To its core, Green Room is about the differences in all of us, some more dangerous than others, and that includes taste in music. The added bonus of the main characters' discussions about their desert island band brings a lifelike and worthwhile level of lighthearted humanity to the proceedings, and, as indicated by Saulnier himself, the end credits track provides an answer to the running gag about Anton Yelchin's protagonist's indecisiveness. Like I said, clever.
#6. La La Land
We were pretty sure filmmaker Damien Chazelle would have a strong grip on the music in his follow-up to the incredibly intense but impressive Whiplash. La La Land was pretty far from expectations after that gut-punch of a movie, but Chazelle proves here he can pull off lighthearted simplicity every bit as well as he can intensely gripping drama. From its opening number, "Another Day of Sun", which pulls off an upbeat flipside to REM's "Everybody Hurts" music video to the incredible dance sequences between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, every musical aspect to La La Land is on point. Granted, the film could have used a few, more numbers strewn throughout to fully grasp the sensibilities of old-school, Hollywood musicals, but what we're offered here is every bit as joyous and memorable as what's been offered before. That's to say nothing of the incredible, piano numbers and deep-set attitudes towards jazz. La La Land may be a film which will be outlived by the music found within, but it will always be a soundtrack worth re-experiencing.
It's always a treasure when a filmmaker and score composer collaborate on a number of projects, and the latest team up between director Denis Villeneuve and Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson has been delivering stunning result after stunning result (also see: Sicario). Jóhannsson's score for Villeneuve's latest acclaimed film, Arrival, is anything but a step back for either artist. The deeply intense, almost guttural music the composer has created for Arrival offers a perfect accompaniment for the engaging and emotional story in which Villeneuve is telling. The music found here almost provides an elemental level to the stunning visuals on display in each and every scene. With the work we've already seen offered up by this collaboration it's sure to be a director/composer team worth getting excited for.
#4. Kubo and the Two Strings
No animated film of 2016 surprised with as much impact as Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika's latest, stop-motion animated epic. The film directed by Laika's own Travis Knight is impressive to the senses in every way imaginable, not the least of which is the way in which he utilizes the film's music composed by Dario Marianelli. Kubo's stringed shamisen brings his origami constructions to life to tell tales of epic quests and heroic warriors, and the film's utilization of the music he plays adds a deeper, powerful level to the adventure at hand. Add to this the emotional recreation of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" provided by Regina Spector, and Kubo delivers an audio package that's every bit as engaging as the film itself.
#3. The Neon Demon
Another director/composer team-up we can be thankful for is that of Nicolas Winding Refn and Cliff Martinez. After Drive and Only God Forgives it's no question each of these artists are working at the top of their field, the collaboration between the two providing some of the best work each of them have ever put out. There is no exception in the case of The Neon Demon, Refn's tale of lost innocence and foreboding caution in the glamorous world of young models. Martinez's score is simple, almost forgettable when faced with the awesome imagery Refn has to offer here. Listening to the score by itself, though, provides a new level of respect for Martinez's restraint and a new appreciation for just how much the film improves with the aid of the music. This is another collaboration I hope to see much more of in the future, as, with the case of The Neon Demon, it's sure to provide simplistic and impressive results on a visual as well as audio level.
#2. Sing Street
Irish filmmaker John Carney always impresses with the music and songs found within his films, his masterpiece, Once (from 2007), completely blowing audiences away with its incredibly moving story and equally incredible songs. With Sing Street, Carney returns to the fray this time with an impressively upbeat story and extremely catchy tunes. The story of a young boy trying to impress a girl with his musical talents may seem old-hat in 2016, but Carney's ability to engage his audience with every bar of a song found within one of his films is ever-present and, as always, impressive. The world of 2016 movie soundtracks likely had no catchier tune than "Drive It Like You Stole It," but each track found within Sing Street is another example of this filmmaker's gifted ability to move his audience with audio as well as visual ingenuity. Sing Street provides a soundtrack that will surely be spinning and impressing for years to come.
#1. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
While 2016 had a number of great soundtracks and scores that will be playing out of our speakers or headphones for a good, long while, no movie had a soundtrack as thoroughly memorable and as impressive as Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Granted, the film itself, while hilarious all the way through, isn't as memorable as some of the best this year had to offer, but every track on this soundtrack is memorable in their own way. The Lonely Island has a knack for creating hilarious songs that provide as much humor as the film itself, and tracks like "I'm So Humble," "Ibitha," and "Incredible Thoughts," make up the most impressive aspect to this film. That's to say nothing of "Bin Laden," probably the catchiest song to come out in 2016, period. Sorry, Bieber. The film itself isn't lighting any stages on fire any time soon, but the soundtrack to Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping has that rare quality of transcending the film itself and becoming something wholly worthwhile and hilarious all on its own.
Bonus #1. Beyonce: Lemonade
As an added bonus, 2016 gave us this 65-minute, extended (music) video for musician Beyonce's newest album, "Lemonade," and the film as well as the soundtrack is as incredible as anything else this year offered up. The songs play with an immensely personal resonance, Beyonce's life story felt in her calculated and pristine lyrics on tracks like "Pray You Catch Me" and "Sorry." Her collaboration with The Weeknd on "6 Inch" is probably the sexiest work of art, film, music, or otherwise, that was experienced all year long, and "Freedom," in which she collaborates with Kendrick Lamar, is transcendent. Every song on the "Lemonade" album is an anthem of personal and spiritual freedom, and the video that accompanies the music, for a change, is as emotionally engaging and enlightening as any feature film released throughout 2016. Beyonce effortlessly moves her audience with the power of her music, and "Lemonade" the album as well as the film provide a powerful experience rarely found in any art form.
Do you agree with Jeremy's picks? What were your favorite soundtracks and scores of 2016?