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2012 will be remembered for a number of reasons – I expect in a couple of decades, school history textbooks will be full of stories of the London Olympics, of the unfulfilled Mayan prophecy and of the fifteenth anniversary of Movie Wave.  It’s tempting to say that back in 1997 when I started writing inane ramblings about film music on the internet that I didn’t expect to be doing it for fifteen years.  In fact, it’s so tempting that I will indeed say it.  Back in 1997 when I started writing inane ramblings about film music on the internet, I didn’t expect to be doing it for fifteen years.  A lot has changed in those fifteen years – not least my waistline.  But the ramblings have remained consistently inane.  Anyway, as a new year begins, it feels sensible to take a look back over the last twelve months.  It’s tempting to say that this continues an annual tradition; sadly, that doesn’t have the virtue of being true, so I can’t.  But just maybe it will start one.

In terms of soundtrack albums, the biggest thing that’s changed since 1997 is the way they’re released.  Back then, anything recorded in Los Angeles came with very high reuse fees which meant soundtrack albums for all but the biggest films were restricted to, usually, 30-40 minute lengths.  This meant real care was taken by the album producers (usually the composers) to produce a great listening experience.  Today – well, not so much.  More significantly, almost all album sales were in bricks-and-mortar stores.  There were occasional releases of classic scores on CD, but usually these were reissues of old LPs.  But the times were just starting to change – Nick Redman at Fox was able to start the release of classic scores from that studio and, over the years, most of the other studios jumped on board.  A relaxation of the union reuse payments meant that suddenly the restoration and release of vintage LA-recorded scores became possible; Film Score Monthly started its series of limited edition CDs, the Varèse Sarabande CD Club re-emerged and in the years that followed other labels followed suit.  This trend has continued and 2012 saw a number of fantastic releases – my personal favourite was La-La Land’s release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

For me personally, I had the opportunity to visit California during August and September and it was wonderful to meet some great friends from the film music community I had previously known only online – the aforementioned producer extraordinaire Nick Redman, and also the most erudite of film music writers, Julie Kirgo, plus others I had known virtually for years.  Best of all, I got the chance to see my old mate Jon Broxton for the first time since he left these shores seven years ago; his website Movie Music UK has been going for as long as this one, and his ramblings are far less inane than mine.  I got to see the great John Williams in concert for probably the last time – I’m so glad I got that opportunity.

In terms of new scores, 2012 produced some gems – some for big movies, but plenty more came slightly further from the beaten track.  Unusually, the box office was not dominated by films scored by Hans Zimmer and his crew, with just two of the top ten movies of the year featuring their work. Other composers who have been tremendously prolific in recent times took well-earned breathers – there was only one new score from Michael Giacchino and just two from John Powell – and those two guys had scored approximately 68,000 films between them during 2011.  Alexandre Desplat was probably the busiest composer – no fewer than nine films were released with his music during the year.

One of the more memorable (and more unsavoury) film music-related incidents of the year for me was a brief public exchange (on Facebook) with Hans Zimmer, who did not appreciate my review of The Dark Knight Rises.  It evidently caused him a great deal of distress, went on to do the same thing to me, and I was glad when things died down again.  It became clear that his main objection was to a factual error I had made regarding the composition process for that particular score, which of course I was happy to correct; but still it seems very odd that undoubtedly the most successful businessman film music has ever seen should be so publicly upset at a review on a website like mine when he has received far more scathing criticism from far more high-profile people than me on a great number of occasions.  Whether I ever write another review of his music, I’m still to decide – perhaps it would be better for all concerned if I didn’t.  My strong views about his negative influence on film music have been aired plenty of times in the past so there’s no need to dredge them up again.

There seemed to be a slight shift back towards more traditional, orchestral film scoring – a look at the biggest box office hits of the year sees names like Alan Silvestri, James Horner, Thomas Newman, Patrick Doyle – it’s hardly time to put out the bunting but perhaps there may be a slight resurgence in the type of music which attracted me – and, I suspect, most of my readers – to film music in the first place.  Anyway, here are my favourite ten scores of the year.

1: Journey – Austin Wintory

I haven’t reviewed this yet (but will do so soon) so perhaps its appearance at the top of my list will come as a surprise.  But it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to those who’ve heard it.  I quickly run out of superlatives when I talk about it – the finest video game score I’ve ever heard, the finest new music of any kind I heard in 2012, a step ahead of any film score from the year.  It’s profound music, full of emotion and intelligence.  There are great melodies, the orchestration is exquisite, the performance a joy to hear.  It was clearly a labour of love for all concerned.  Video game music is one thing that has seriously shifted in the time I’ve been writing this website – few took it seriously back in 1997 when I began.  But people take it seriously now, and Wintory’s music for this game takes it another step forward – the music doesn’t just have to be exciting when it’s scoring cut-scenes but fairly generic at more open moments of the game – the whole thing can be completely full of feeling.  Hopefully Wintory will get the kind of big break that Michael Giacchino got after people took note of his very good video game scores.

2: The Amazing Spider-Man – James Horner

One thing that never changes is James Horner’s ability to stir controversy.  Few film scores so divided opinion in 2012 as this one.  Personally, I loved it, both in the film and on the soundtrack album.  The Spider-Man theme is a great, memorable piece of music and shows that actually, you can still write great tunes for films like these; the material underscoring Peter Parker’s relationship with Gwen Stacy more emotionally-developed than any other material that’s been in one of these comic book films for years.  If you believe those who shout loudest at film music messageboards, audiences around the world were wetting themselves with laughter at Horner’s ineptitude and smoke was coming out of their ears when they heard two seconds of music from Star Trek II when Spidey first started leaping between buildings.  Ah well, that’s up to them.  For my money, Horner is the best film composer currently active in Hollywood and I hope there are many further years of laughter ahead for the non-believers.  Interestingly, my review of this album has received more hits than any other review I’ve ever written.

3: Life of Pi – Mychael Danna

Ang Lee’s spectacular film enticed one of the most easily-accessible scores of Danna’s career; but while the composition was relatively simple by his standards, there was a great richness in its exploration of the film’s themes of faith and friendship.  In my California trip I briefly saw Danna at the Newman stage at Fox recording this score – ironically, on that day he was remotely recording a boys’ choir who were actually performing a studio in London.  There’s something truly moving about his music; and his familiarity with world music – Indian in particular – made him the perfect choice for the film.

4: The Impossible – Fernando Velazquez

OK, perhaps it’s a little monothematic, but what a theme that is.  It must have been very difficult for the composer to score such a tragic occurrence – the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 – without stepping over the line into melodrama, but I think he achieved it admirably.  Some might think the overt emotional manipulation – actually quite rare in film music these days – does indeed step over the line, but it won me over.  It’s not always easy to listen to, but it’s very rewarding music.

5: Skyfall – Thomas Newman

David Arnold had become so firmly established as the house composer for James Bond, it came as a surprise when Thomas Newman was announced to score this film, even though it was directed by Sam Mendes.  It raised a lot of eyebrows – there was nothing really in the composer’s back-catalogue to suggest what he might deliver for the film.  But what was in his back catalogue – all over it – was quality, in virtually everything he’s done.  I remember the raised eyebrows when he was announced as the composer for Finding Nemo, and he delivered the goods there too.  It doesn’t sound like John Barry and it doesn’t sound like David Arnold – but it does sound like James Bond music.  (It was great to hear the fantastic radio host Tim Burden quote my review to Newman during an interview!)

6: Argo – Alexandre Desplat

Most people seem to have gone gaga over Desplat’s score for Rise of the Guardians (which is good fun) – but in another excellent year for the composer, this is the one that stands out to me above the others.  I love the Persian mood Desplat creates; and sue me, I love the jingoistic Hollywood music for the finale, which hasn’t gone down that well with all of the composer’s fans.  Perhaps there was more intellectual stimulation from some of his other outings during the year; but not more entertainment, I don’t think.

7: Vilamor – Zeltia Montes

Perhaps I went slightly overboard in my shower of praise for this at the time I reviewed it, but it’s really very easy to fall under its spell – good-natured, warm-hearted music, a glorious atmosphere, the perfect blend of folksy elements with the orchestra.  (Unfortunately I haven’t seen it mentioned very often by anyone other than me, so it seems the majority don’t really agree.)

8: Metsän Tarina – Panu Aaltio

Beautifully expressive music for a Finnish natural history documentary, this is another score in danger of falling under people’s radar, but I hope it doesn’t because it deserves to be heard.  Very much of the style and quality of George Fenton’s acclaimed music for similar documentaries in recent years, it is a delight from start to finish and I urge people to give it a go.

9: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – Thomas Newman

Far less high-profile than his other 2012 score, but this one also makes a fantastic album, which I’ve listened to on countless occasions and still greatly enjoy.  All the distinctive Newman mannerisms are there, filtered through an Indian sound – it’s just a great listen.

10: Miel de Naranjas – Nuno Malo

A dramatic, colourful score for a film set during the Franco years in Spain, it benefits from an outstanding main theme featuring a gorgeous cello solo, and from an impressive restraint by its composer.  It’s another one that seems to have slipped under most people’s radars, but it’s well worth seeking out.

Other major scores

Here’s an alphabetically-ordered quick summary of the year’s other major scores, many of which you’ll find on other people’s “best of” lists.

Anna Karenina – Dario Marianelli – this is impressive music, classically-tinged, very elegant; but it’s also rather sombre and that prevents it from making a really great album, I think.

The Avengers – Alan Silvestri – it’s good to see Silvestri still getting big films and in 2012 they came no bigger than this.  I enjoyed his score, which at first glance is almost non-stop bombast but which reveals a surprising amount of thematic development on closer inspection.  The fun main theme is one of the pleasures of the year.

Cloud Atlas – Reinhhold Heil, Jonny Klimek, Tom Tykwer – I’m virtually the only person in the known universe who doesn’t think this is great, but not only do I not think it’s great, I think it’s pretty awful.  The score’s centrepiece is meant to be a believable piece of actual classical music, but sounds like a Zimmer-era piece of film music written by people who don’t really know how to write for an orchestra.  And that’s because that’s what it is.

The Dark Knight Rises – Hans Zimmer – the great trilogy of Christopher Nolan films came to a spectacular conclusion but my hopes that – after the incredible Inception score – Zimmer might release the shackles and actually deliver the kind of score that this series deserved did not materialise, instead him actually taking a backwards step from the previous entry.

For Greater Glory – James Horner – this is an enjoyable album but even I found some of the self-referencing a bit much in this case.  Nobody in 2012 Hollywood film music can match Horner’s compositional chops, so even for its considerable flaw I can still derive much pleasure from it.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Howard Shore – there’s some decent material in Shore’s long-awaited return to Middle Earth, but the soundtrack release is a disaster.  There’s a regular edition which omits some decent music but includes a whole host of rather turgid material which will test most listeners’ patience; and a special edition which is slightly longer and includes more good stuff, but bafflingly also omits a small amount of more tightly-edited material which can be found on the regular edition.  Both albums’ length can only be measured in terms of geological eras, which doesn’t help anyone at all.  A single-CD highlights album would have been much better than either album and that’s a real shame.

The Hunger Games – James Newton Howard – it’s not often that I like a score by James Newton Howard more than everyone else did, but I did really like this one.  Its folksy, earthy sound captures perfectly the film and it makes for a very enjoyable album, this composer’s finest in some time.

Jack Reacher – Joe Kraemer – I greatly enjoyed this score which seems to channel the great 70s thriller scores by Michael Small.  It’s more about suspense and drama than overt action but it’s a really impressive score by a composer who’s been under the radar for a long time.

John Carter – Michael Giacchino – Giacchino’s only score of the year came right at the start, and it’s a good one, but it’s an extremely long album which would benefit from considerable trimming and it seems to suffer slightly from a fairly common ailment in that because it aims to make everything sound grand and important, it ends up not really sound that grand or important.  Still, there’s a lot of strong material.

Lincoln – John Williams – it’s hard to believe that John Williams could write a score which wouldn’t make my top ten of the year, but this one feels so safe, so predictable, I just couldn’t bring myself to enjoy it as much as I usually do this legendary composer’s music.  I’m sure it will be nominated for every award going and probably end up winning a lot of them, but I suspect if exactly the same music had been written by someone else then it wouldn’t be afforded that distinction.

The Rise of the Guardians – Alexandre Desplat – people seemed to go weak at the knees over this one, but it’s left me a little underwhelmed.  It’s good, fun music but I’m not sure it really gets beyond the territory so often explored by John Powell in his scores for animations.

And finally…

2012 marked just the second year since 1963 that there was not an album released featuring a new score by Ennio Morricone (the other was 2010).  He’s already recorded his music for the new Giuseppe Tornatore film, so let’s hope that sees the light of day on album before too much of 2013 has passed.  With all the absolute crap that gets released on soundtrack albums, it is hard to comprehend the fact that since 2009’s Baaria, just one of the fifteen new scores written by one of the great legends of film music has actually been released on album.

  1. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Wednesday 2 January, 2013 at 22:40

    Nice roundup! Not really like you to do this sort of summary but I’m glad you did. Although I will, of course, nitpick and say that your top 10 list would seem to directly contradict some of your ratings…But perhaps you’re doing top scores, rather than albums, or something. I also liked the mini reviews of some of the stuff you haven’t gotten around to like John Carter, The Hobbit and Rise of the Guardians (can’t really believe you prefer Argo to it, but I seem to be the only person in the world who doesn’t love Argo – at least I agree with you that he didn’t do anything Powell wouldn’t have done better). Of course, there’s plenty of stuff you’ve left off that I would put on (Journey 2, The Hobbit, John Carter, For Greater Glory) and plenty of stuff you’ve got on that I’d have left off (Life of Pi, Argo, Skyfall), but that always happens, doesn’t it.

    By the way – I’m currently listening to Metsan Tarina as I write this, which is as wonderful as you say it is. Aaltio has a big future ahead of him, at least I hope so!

  2. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Wednesday 2 January, 2013 at 22:46

    Oh, and about the Hans Zimmer thing – I do hope you aren’t serious about never reviewing his music ever again. I can imagine how surprising and unpleasant your encounter with him on Facebook was, but I think he acted pretty unprofessionally (other than correcting a factual error) and that you have every right to give him a scathing review if you feel he deserves one! I mean, I don’t think you attacked or insulted him personally or anything. But just think back to how much you surprisingly loved Inception a couple years ago and imagine if you swore never to write a review of a score of his again, and he turned out another work that pushed the same buttons.

  3. mastadge (Reply) on Wednesday 2 January, 2013 at 23:45

    Edmund, I find that I can connect with Argo nor Rise of the Guardians! This has been a bizarre year in that, while I love both Elfman and Desplat, and both have been quite prolific, neither of them has released anything I’ve yet heard that’s really clicked for me. . .

  4. James Southall (Reply) on Thursday 3 January, 2013 at 00:15

    I generally love Elfman but despite him having a prolific year, I never even considered any of his scores for this list. The most celebrated of them is probably Frankenweenie but I’ve only mustered the enthusiasm to listen to it once. He seems stuck on autopilot a bit.

    Edmund – I’m sure I’ll hear his Superman score and probably have a few things to say about it, but honestly the reaction to that Dark Knight review was so shocking to me (not just from Zimmer himself – moreso the astonishing commemts from some of his more devoted fans) I really don’t want to go through it again.

  5. KK (Reply) on Thursday 3 January, 2013 at 03:25

    Great round up James. But as Edmund said, I definitely think you shouldn’t refrain from reviewing Zimmer’s work. I simply see no reason why you should pay heed to some of the more intense fans of Zimmer. If you see flaws in the music, then you should be able to express that. If the fanboy comments bother you, ignore them. And honestly, Zimmer’s comments were rather unprofessional (despite my love of his personality). It’s tough being a critic, but that doesn’t mean you should quit when the artist you criticize expresses his displeasure.

    About the list, I really like it, with some exceptions. I didn’t think Argo was so great, but then again, I didn’t think Rise of the guardians was the greatest score ever either (though it is pretty darn entertaining). Also, Lo Impossible is beautiful, but its too monothematic and subdued for most of the underscore. So despite its stunner theme, I don’t think I can put it in my top 10.I really love Nuno Malo’s score for Miel de Naranjas though. Wonderful melancholic string writing. And naturally, being the Shore fan I am, I’d put The Hobbit on that list, but such is to be expected.

    Again, thanks for the write-up. I enjoyed reading it.

  6. Ben (Reply) on Thursday 3 January, 2013 at 08:27

    The funny thing is, James, I know that you have been quite effusive in your praise of Zimmer.

    James has reviewed 37 of Zimmer’s soundtracks for this website… 29 of those reviews were rated three stars or above. James has bestowed four or five star reviews not just on Zimmer’s popular favourites such as “Backdraft” and “The Lion King”, but obscure scores such as “Spanglish”.

    There were many Zimmer albums that I expected you to award with one star, such as “Sherlock Holmes” – but instead you gave them a pass. I was astonished that you gave such high ratings to “Pirates Of The Caribean: At World’s End” and “Inception”.

    James, since you’ve started this website, you have actually written more positive reviews of Zimmer albums than negative ones. Given that fact, I am surprised that the negative reviews you have written of his work have generated so much hostility

  7. CK (Reply) on Thursday 3 January, 2013 at 09:34

    “Both albums’ length can only be measured in terms of geological eras, which doesn’t help anyone at all.”

    This geologist and film music lover appreciates this sentence. 😉

  8. Pawel Stroinski (Reply) on Thursday 3 January, 2013 at 16:55

    James, the fact that some rabid fanboys (especially one particular female) behaved the way they did is not a reason to quit stating your own opinion. I also think you should still review Hans Zimmer albums.

  9. Solaris (Reply) on Thursday 3 January, 2013 at 18:21

    So, I disagree with you about “Cloud Atlas” and “The Hobbit” (but wont go on about why), but basically agree on most of the other Scores. But what I especially agree with is your statement about Morricone! Each year, seemingly a Bazillion of his Older scores are (re)released, but his recent Scores (despite his obvious Popularity) are all but ignored. In 2012 alone, he scored for two TV-Movies and a Documentary. Any CD-Releases? Nope!

  10. christopher (Reply) on Saturday 5 January, 2013 at 16:20

    Thanks for the review, James! I really enjoyed it. You should definitely make this an annual tradition. I completely agree with your thoughts on CLOUD ATLAS and THE HOBBIT. Your list has given me a few scores that I haven’t heard, nor even heard mentioned much. I’m excited to go and seek them out! Thanks again.

  11. BelatedObject (Reply) on Sunday 6 January, 2013 at 02:27

    Awesome review! I never would have discovered Metsan Tarina without it. Glad to see Journey on the list I thought I was going to be the only one to include that in my top 10, let alone number 1 position! I completely agree with just about everything you have written, except cloud atlas… those last 3 tracks on the album I don’t know how they didn’t win you over!

  12. Rick (Reply) on Thursday 10 January, 2013 at 11:47

    Great article, great responses from the readers.
    I’m really glad I finally started visiting your site.

    The only downside is: even if only half the 2011 scores you mentioned in the fourth paragraph were from Powell,
    poor Edmund has about 33,975 albums to buy…


  13. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Friday 11 January, 2013 at 00:09

    Hah! I wish. 🙂

  14. André - Cape Town. (Reply) on Sunday 13 January, 2013 at 13:33

    Congratulations James on MOVIE-WAVE’s 15th anniversary & thanx for providing us the opportunity to comment & rant. Here’s hoping movie producers, directors & composers will be informed & influenced by the comments and that Varese, Intrada, Tadlow and the other companies will indulge our WISH LISTS [hope you’ll create a site James]. Screen Archives’ samples + your review of VILAMOR (Zeltia Montes) peruaded me to order the CD, one of my favourites for 2012. Others include Prometheus’ release of the complete QUO VADIS score…Miklos Rozsa’s music evokes the intrigues of Nero & Poppaea > the exotic homagés to the ancient Gods > the lovers who lived in one of the greatest Empires on this planet and those on spiritual quests… THIS IS THE MOST AMBITIOUS SCORE OF ’12*****. I loved Benjamin Wallfisch’s beautiful heroic theme for CONQUEST 1453…a Turkish film that details the overthrow of the Christian Byzantium Empire by the Ottoman Islamic Sultan, Mehmet. The producers opted for a Westernized syphonic / choral score. At last a release of Joel Goldsmith’s HELEN OF TROY, with its tender romantic themes, exotic source cues and action themes. Goldsmith creates a BIG sound with synths and acoustic instruments and vocalises. There was also the sleazy jazz of Elmer Bernstein’s THE RAT RACE. And now some of my WORST SCORES OF ’12 > THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (Zimmer)…BATTLESHIP (Jablonsky)…THE DARKEST HOUR(Tyler) & TOTALL RECALL (Gregson-Williams). But TOWERING above this lot is SINISTER by Christopher Young. This hideous music is so awful that it becomes unlistenable. I AM A FAN OF YOUNG’s MUSIC, particularly those of the horror genré…but this naive & amateurish attempt at experimenting with keyboards, samplers & synths is an embarrasing failure. I truly hope that Young’s future attempts at experimentation will yield scores as successful as IMAGES [John Williams] & AVATAR [JAMES HORNER] & THE OMEN TRILOGY [Jerry Goldsmith].

  15. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Sunday 13 January, 2013 at 18:09

    Andre, I’m sorry but your list of scores you consider “attempts at experimentation” can’t slide by without comment. Images and The Omen, of course…but how did Avatar, of all things, make that list? It’s about as straight-laced Hollywood a score I can imagine! I don’t mean to say it’s bad, but I certainly don’t think it’s daring or experimental or even all that original.

  16. André - Cape Town. (Reply) on Monday 14 January, 2013 at 17:52

    Edmund – I submitted a detailed response via the AVATAR review site > Sunday night. Some virtual demon, it appears, atomised it. Let’s try again…. The exquisite melodies, inventive orchestration and commanding delivery of action cues immediately elevates AVATAR’s music above “the straight-laced Hollywood score” that’s trundled out by movieland’s musicians. The score also has a distinct identity in spite of Horner lacing it with references from his extensive filmography. It’s in helping James Cameron and his team of CGI & other production wizards create the wonderful planet of PANDORA that Horner’s experiments with non-traditional instruments are revealed as he seamlessly integrates the dazzling electronica into the mainstream orchestra. Sampled instruments are geometrically fine-tuned to create complex resonances that are rearranged into new layers of sound before swirling away into the symphonic structure of a traditional orchestra & choir. Horner and his team of synthesists have also devised the technique of ‘squeezing’ sounds and then spinning them around in either agitated or gentle percussive clusters. The end result is a remarkable fusion of electronics and orchestra and choir that are crystalline in concept. Horner’s synthesizer network of processors were invaluable in shaping the gloriously alien planetscape of PANDORA. He achieved this feat without resorting to twelve – tonal music nor Ligeti, Stockhausen and Penderecki atonalities. AVATAR’s music – both traditional & experimental – remains a highlight in Horner’s repetoire.

  17. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Monday 14 January, 2013 at 22:14

    I do somewhat see what you mean, yes. I still don’t think it’s overtly “experimental” – there’s been a lot of synth-orchestral blending in the past few decades – but you’re right that it’s done much more intricately in Avatar than often elsewhere (probably due to the long time taken to work on the score).