Film.Music.Media Presents The Best Scores Of 2018
by Kaya Savas, Leo Mayr and Koray Savas
February 4, 2019
Even though we’re all well into 2019, we’re not done with 2018 yet! It’s time go back and revisit the best of the best, the scores that stood out and managed to grab our attention and make a lasting impact. It’s time for Film.Music.Media’s Best Scores Of 2018.
Each year, the industry sort of helps define itself with the movies, games and shows that are released. In some years we see a surge in excellence in the independent film/tv/game realm, and in others we see the studio tentpoles step it up. Whether or not the scores to these films, shows and games will stand the test of time to become classics is yet to be seen. But these are the best scores of 2018. Ones that deserve your attention and showcase some of the best musical storytelling of the year.
As in the past, we will be splitting each visual medium into its own category, because we believe that each format has different musical needs. Below you will find the top 5 scores in video games, television and film. We will also toss in 1 honorable mention that barely missed the cut but deserves your attention as well.
Before we start, please be aware that it’s possible for a score to make our “Best Of” list even though it hasn’t been reviewed on the site.
Let the countdown begin!
Video games pull in more revenue than any other visual medium, meaning that games are such a huge part of our storytelling culture. For a game score, we are looking at how well does the music not only tell a story, but also compliment the gameplay. A linear shooter will require different needs in comparison to an open-world sandbox game, but in the end it’s finding a balance that makes the music an integral part of the gaming experience. Game music is is such an important aspect of the player's emotional connection. With some games spanning over 100+ hours of gameplay, it's up to the composer and the developers to find a way for the score to become part of that experience.
Honorable Mention: Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey by The Flight
5. Far Cry 5 by Dan Romer
Dan Romer cracks his first video game score by bringing his somber folk sounds to the world of Far Cry. Far Cry 5 is an open-world game that takes players into a fictional mountain town in Montana where you must take down a doomsday cult.
Romer relies on the banjo and violin to give the score a sense of American folk, but that's just the surface. The score has plenty of percussive and "synthy" action moments to keep the adrenaline pumping, but it also has serene moments of tranquility has you explore the beautiful open country. The theme anchors the series well, and it's a welcome sound every time you boot the game up.
4. The Banner Saga 3 by Austin Wintory
Austin Wintory's The Banner Saga 3 completes an immense 3-game journey that started with the first game in 2014. This year we saw the trilogy come to a close, and the tactical role-playing game has always showcased some of Wintory's strongest storytelling.
The final chapter sees Wintory evolve his score to where he brings the same excellence that has come before, but with even more layers of emotional resonance. The score helps bring this fictional world to life by giving players an emotional connection to the hero's journey unfolding onscreen. This mythical world based on Norse mythology is alive thanks to Wintory's exceptionally executed score.
The Banner Saga 3 is a stunning, intense final chapter to this wonderful trilogy. Austin Wintory once again manages to improve on every aspect of the previous scores while also adding entirely new ideas to the mix. The many soloists and vocalists, as well as a wonderful orchestral backbone make this a remarkable and unique experience, well worth revisiting time and time again.
3. Marvel's Spider-Man by John Paesano
In a world where we are constantly bombarded by a new superhero film every few months, we as an audience can suffer over-saturation very easily. Marvel's Spider-Man was a game in development for quite some time and heavily anticipated. The end result was truly the Spider-Man game we were waiting for.
John Paesano's score is infused with a sense of wonder and excitement that the character and open-world game needed. While you swing around the city, it's almost as if the music is scoring your every move as you control your journey. This cinematic wonder as well as the deep character building, makes this incarnation of Peter Parker one of the strongest. And even though the main theme may not be as iconic as other heroic themes of the past, it fits so well in this world and makes this game what it is.
Marvel’s Spider-Man is everything you could want from a great Spider-Man movie, as well as from a great Spider-Man video game, all thrown into the same package. The music in particular is crafted exceptionally well and takes the spotlight more often than not. John Paesano delivers what is easily one of the best video game scores of the year.
2. God Of War by Bear McCreary
God Of War is a long-running series that had been loosely based on Greek mythology. For this 2018 installment, we find our main character Kratos much older and on a quest to fulfill his late wife's final wishes. He embarks on a long journey with his son and will battle some of gaming's most creatively designed mythical creatures as well as memorable boss battles. This installment is more steeped in Norse mythology, and composer Bear McCreary's brings the gravitas in heaps.
The powerful 3-note main theme is stunningly powerful, and makes for a perfect anchor for the game. While the game requires that testosterone-fueled action, there is an elegance and beauty to the score that injects an emotional vulnerability. God Of War is a tremendous experience, and Bear McCreary's score not only showcases his best abilities as a storyteller, but showcases some of the finest game scoring.
God Of War is a stunning video game score that reminds us how well musical storytelling can work even in a triple-A title like this. In a flood of open-world sandboxes, the more linear games that focus on story over large playgrounds also tend to allow more developed musical storytelling. While it's not unusual to see fantastic scores in smaller projects, having a game of this scale use its score to the fullest potential is something you don't want to miss.
1. Red Dead Redemption 2 by Woody Jackson
Rockstar is known as the king of open-world gameplay thanks to the Grand Theft Auto franchise. But when Red Dead Redemption appeared in 2010, it changed the game. A fully robust score was needed, and it couldn't hide behind the radio stations of licensed music that Grand Theft Auto had. Rockstar went out on a limb and hired Bill Elm and Woody Jackson from the band, Friends of Dean Martinez. And while Bill and Woody formed a great duo for Red Dead Redemption, it was Woody who carried the weight of that score, including the Undead Nightmare expansion.
Rockstar noticed it too, and Woody went on to become Rockstar's go-to composer. Woody scored all the in-game music in L.A. Noire and then co-scored Grand Theft Auto V with Tangerine Dream, The Alchemist and Oh No.
When Red Dead Redemption 2 was announced, Woody's involvement was anticipated but not official till the release. And with Red Dead Redemption 2, Woody Jackson has given us the best-scored open-world game of all-time. Red Dead 2 is also a quintessential entry in the western genre. The music in Red Dead 2 is so vital at every moment, and it brings the world to life like no other open-world game before it. From gentle strums on a guitar as you ride in the open country, to perfectly crafted set pieces on the more intense story missions. You have a bold new theme, but also references to that theme from Red Dead Redemption since the events in this game happen prior to Red Dead Redemption.
Red Dead Redemption 2 hits you hard. The music not only supports the richly animated and acted characters in the story, but the world around them. The score feels alive, and you barely recognize tracks repeating. Even in brilliant games like Fallout 4 or Breath of The Wild, you have certain tracks that are triggered and repeated on end throughout your 80+ hours in the game. Here, while there are certain cues that repeat, there's so much space between them. And Woody has crafted these cues knowing how long players will be with this game, he has truly perfected the open-world approach. Also, his voice as a composer shines through so much more here. Red Dead Redemption wasn't shy in its love for inspired sounds. Of course, Morricone is still one of Woody's big influences, but Red Dead Redemption 2 is truly its own unique voice in the genre. From all the unique side mission encounters to the focused main storyline, the music in Red Dead Redemption 2 is on a level that will be hard to top.
As of this writing, no official soundtrack has been released. We have been told it's in the works, and Woody Jackson did collaborate with a lot of other fantastic musicians here. But the core of the musical storytelling is Woody, and he is truly the voice of this franchise. Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of the best open-worlds to get lost in, and much of that is owed to the music.
Many auteur storytellers are leaving film to helm TV series that have become some of the finest forms of visual storytelling. Television saturates our world in the digital age, and it's where we escape to in the comforts of our own home. Television poses a completely different approach for composers, and add on top of that the insane scheduling that becomes the reality for anyone working on a TV series. Yet somehow, composers and their teams overcome the logistical nightmare of scoring television to deliver amazingly powerful scores that cover hours and hours of storytelling.
Honorable Mention: Comrade Detective by Joe Kraemer
5. Yellowstone by Brian Tyler
Taylor Sheridan has quickly risen from a prominent writer to one of the most talented writer/directors working today. He's a storyteller obsessed with westerns as well. Sheridan wrote the screenplays to Sicario, Hell Or High Water, and Sicario: Day of the Soldado. He wrote and directed Wind River and now co-created and directed all 9 episodes of Yellowstone.
Brian Tyler steps in to score this powerful and dark modern-day western that revolves around a rancher, his family and the encroaching forces surrounding his land. What follows is some of Tyler’s most intimate, mature and engaging music to date. For most of the show’s runtime, the score consists of reflective moments, dominated by gorgeous melodies and instrumentation. The music is written mostly for strings, with a lot of the quieter moments focusing on stunning piano melodies. Through orchestration, Tyler always manages to keep a safe distance from clichéd western sounds, only occasionally using sounds and instruments you’d expect from the genre.
Tyler wonderfully creates a western score that fits in Sheridan's world filled with love of the land and morally questionable characters. The score builds fantastic emotional swells while honing in on tone and pacing exquisitely.
4. Genius: Picasso by Lorne Balfe
Lorne Balfe's score for season 1 of Genius was nothing short of amazing and rich storytelling. This season Balfe had a chance to craft a brand new score from scratch to dissect and explore Pablo Picasso. Once again, Balfe manages to utilize fantastic instrumentation and craft to build an emotionally charged look into a fascinating character.
Genius: Picasso is another example of how much of a character composer Lorne Balfe is. While he’s brilliant at structuring action and doing theme and variation, it’s Lorne’s ability to craft a character via his music that has always stood out. He even managed to find moments to do it for Ethan Hunt in this year’s Mission: Impossible - Fallout. But here, this score needed to build a character and make that character open and vulnerable to the audience, and it succeeds. Genius: Picasso is the same level of excellence we heard last season.
3. The Cry by Lorne Balfe
The Cry is a BBC miniseries based on the popular novel of the same name. The dark story about a couple and the disappearance of their baby along with the aftermath to find out what truly happened may prove too heavy for some. But it's here where Balfe was able to explore truly mature and emotionally devastating storytelling. It's not something you see too often, and that makes The Cry a rarity.
While some may dub The Cry “too depressing”, it really is one of the more bolder and mature stories of recent memory. Loss and despair are rarely explored in real-world circumstances such as they are here. And while the general twisty plot is highly dramatic and leads to some melodramatic moments, the overall organic emotional journey displayed here is very powerful. Sometimes you need a good story to remind you that you’re human, that you can feel pain and sorrow. Step away from the shiny studio tentpoles for a bit and explore something that will shake you to your core. Lorne Balfe’s The Cry is a tremendous work and some of the finest TV scoring in recent memory.
2. The Man In The High Castle: Season 3 by Dominic Lewis
The Man In The High Castle continues to be some of the finest TV scoring out there. Dominic Lewis has an amazing canvas to paint this score on, and he seizes every opportunity to do something memorable with this expertly crafted series. The way the music crafts those chill-inducing builds, or injects a deep emotional core to the story is always memorable.
You’ll pick up on some old motifs here, and enjoy the new places that Dominic takes the music to. The Man In The High Castle continues to owe a lot to Dominic Lewis’s musical storytelling, and Season 3 shows the score shining just as bright as it has been in the past 2 seasons. The album has a great selection from season 3, but the series is worth watching to see the score in action.
1. Maniac by Dan Romer
Maniac is a 10-part limited series that aired on Netflix in 2018. Adapted from a 2014 Norwegian series of the same name, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s approach to the material keeps much of the concept the same while spearheading a uniquely told love story, allowing Maniac to stand on its own merits. Fukunaga brought composer Dan Romer onboard from 2015’s Beasts Of No Nation. The music follows the narrative beat for beat, embodying multiple genres while weaving a consistent thematic core throughout.
The body of Maniac’s score explores darker as well as whimsical musical identities. As Annie and Owen travel through multiple computer-generated realities, Romer shifts the musical style of the score to match the tone and mood of each respective fantasy. “The GRTA” is a great representation of a sinister and brooding motif for the computer mainframe in charge of running these simulations. Low register notes and elongated cello lines are backed with a ‘tick tock’ to create an unsettling foreshadow of things to come. “The Lake of the Clouds” features more intricate melodies and flurried string writing to represent the medieval fantasy genre. These are but two of the countless examples of how Romer molds the music to the narrative.
Dan Romer achieved something very special with Maniac. Its themes of love, loss, and progress are echoed beautifully through the music. Through the use of melody, orchestration, and harmony, Romer takes the listener on a journey filled with humor, action, and drama, making Maniac one of the best scores of 2018 and a must listen.
It's been the staple of visual storytelling for over 100 years and it's where audiences find ways to reflect on their own lives by witnessing stories unfold onscreen, or it's where you escape reality for 2 hours with a guilty pleasure. Either way, films are something truly special. Film composers are tasked at creating a musical narrative that fully supports a movie from start to finish, and throughout history we've seen film music become the emotional backbone of what makes audiences fall in love with films that end up becoming part of us. Here are some of the best musical stories that were told in 2018.
Honorable Mention: Black Panther by Ludwig Göransson
5. Crazy Rich Asians by Brian Tyler
The reason Crazy Rich Asians makes this list is simply because it's a film and score that celebrates love. How often to we have a well-made and emotionally engaging romantic comedy that feels truly organic and celebrates all the brightness of love and happiness? While Crazy Rich Asians follows some of the genre's formulaic plot points, it's so well done that you forget about the inevitable happily ever after that's coming at the end, and you surrender yourself for the ride.
Brian Tyler's big-band score is a breath of fresh air as well. Along with some really fun big-band jazzy sounds, Tyler manages to echo some of that classic genre sentiment heard in romcoms of the past yet makes it his own.
The score is sweet and sentimental, but never saccharine or schmaltzy. The characters shine through every note and through the setting and atmosphere of the film. Brian has brought Jon’s vision to beautiful vivid life, and has given us one of most refreshingly original scores of the year despite its homaging to the styles of the past. It’s impossible to walk away from Crazy Rich Asians without a smile on your face and a tear in your eye.
4. BlacKkKlansman by Terence Blanchard
Terence Blanchard has done some amazing work for Spike Lee in the past, but with BlackKklansman he found a way for the score to truly marry to the picture and add depth that makes BlacKkKlansman a wholly entertaining and eye-opening ride.
The film takes place in the early 70's. It follows a young African American cop who successfully manages to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan branch with the help of his white partner who eventually becomes its leader.
Blanchard's score is simple, and here simple is perfection. The main theme echoes throughout and becomes the perfect anchor for the 70's-inspired score. The use of trumpet and electric guitar give the score a sense of style and place, but every note is helping tell the story and flesh out the characters. Blanchard does some impressive scene-building with the score too, and it never acts just as a topper. The film almost feels structured around the music, and this "baked-in" feeling is what makes BlacKkKlansman so successful in telling its story.
3. Mission: Impossible - Fallout by Lorne Balfe
Cue the bongos...
Balfe and McQuarrie teamed up to make sure the score was one of the most essential parts of the film's backbone, and that in turn made Fallout the absolute perfect example of finely crafted action filmmaking.
The score brings Ethan Hunt a new identity. We’ve seen him as a tinkering spy, a 90’s action hero relic who wears sunglasses on a motorcycle, a Bond-like suave super spy, and now more of a brute-force secret ops agent with everything on the line. Lorne Balfe’s score brings the modern edge of blending the huge rush of a massive orchestra with electronic grit and gravitas.
Fallout is one of the best action scores, period. And one of the best scores we’ve seen from Balfe. Not only is it riveting action, but for the emotional undercurrent we strip out the glossy romanticism for a more existential look at the lives of Ethan Hunt and company. Balfe’s score doesn’t take away anything from the amazing past entries in the franchise, but adds another chapter that brings this beloved action franchise into a new territory.
The fact that Mission: Impossible has turned into this franchise that celebrates practical action filmmaking where different directors and composers have gotten to leave their personal stamp, is something wonderful. Balfe brings his A-game and makes Mission: Impossible - Fallout a tour de force of action scoring and easily one of the most memorable and best of 2018.
2. If Beale Street Could Talk by Nicholas Britell
If Beale Street Could Talk reunites Nicholas Britell with director Barry Jenkins for their followup to Moonlight, which won the Oscar for Best Picture. If Beale Street Could Talk takes place in 1970’s Harlem, where Tish and Fonny fall in love and plan for a future together. Fonny is wrongfully arrested and incarcerated as Tish finds out she’s pregnant. The film follows the theme of love in all forms whether its the love of family, the love of your significant other, or the love of your child. Nicholas Britell delivers one of his most powerfully moving scores to date here as If Beale Street Could Talk finds a way to explore the human condition in an extremely powerful way.
The score is a gorgeous and deeply moving experience. If you want to explore the depths of love in all its shapes and forms while also experiencing a powerful story, then allow this film to take hold of you. If Beale Street could talk, it would be speak this score. Nicholas Britell has managed to perfectly capture the essence of what makes us feel complete, while also exploring what happens when those things are ripped away from us. Britell and Barry Jenkins are a tremendous filmmaking force, and If Beale Street Could Talk is one powerfully poignant score that speaks to us in the most human way possible.
1. The Old Man & The Gun by Daniel Hart
David Lowery and Daniel Hart are a textbook example of the benefits of a true director/composer collaborative relationship. Hart has scored 4 of Lowery’s features, the only time they didn’t work together was on Lowery’s very first feature prior to meeting. Lowery also directed Robert Redford in the 2016 live-action remake of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon, and of course Lowery and Casey Affleck have done two previous films together. So, we have a lot of collaborative history coming together for The Old Man & The Gun, and the result is a poetic and charming story about never being too old to do what you love. In this case, what our protagonist loves doing is robbing banks.
The Old Man & The Gun is such a brilliantly crafted and executed score, that it makes the film what it is. Lowery’s vision depends on Hart’s score, and Hart’s score depends on Lowery’s vision. It’s this mutually beneficial relationship where one feeds off the other to a final result that no one else could echo.
With a jazzy acoustic score and being shot on 16mm, The Old Man & The Gun feels of a different era. Yet the film is a perfect exploration of how all our stories come to an end, and we need to seize the joys of this world as much as we can. The story of Forrest Tucker is an interesting one, he was a career criminal who never physically harmed anyone and just focused on robbing banks. And in this film you will see a truly human story that you will connect to. You’ll have gained a new insight on life from seeing it, and a new layer of emotional depth from Daniel Hart’s perfect score.
The Old Man & The Gun represents the best that filmmaking has to offer in terms of utilizing visuals and music to tell a story that moves us. Daniel Hart always seems to know exactly what the picture needs, and in this case he does it again.