(This is a tangent to a commission I'm writing. I became aware that when I have to quickly immerse myself into an intellectual property that I'm not familiar with, the first place I'll go to is the soundtrack. I won't give away what I'm working on, but this particular soundtrack is composed by the great Bear McCreary and it got me thinking about the current golden age of scores we're living in thanks to the groundwork John Williams did in 1977.)
Something I get asked on occasion is "what kind of music do you listen to?" People are often surprised to find that I listen almost exclusively to soundtracks. Original compositions for films and video games. Do you guys not do that? Is that weird? If that's weird then what the hell is wrong with you people?
Soundtracks are great. They're the modern take on classical music - with all the innate storytelling intact - but with contemporary variety and uninhibited by convention. Modern composers are creating entire worlds, vast auditory landscapes for us to frolic in and some of you appear to be missing out. The stirring horns of Alan Silvestri, the ripping guitars of Ramin Djawadi, the unwilling-to-be-defined-or-classified brilliance of Darren Korb - there's some remarkable music out there.
Perhaps it's because I'm a writer that I'm biased towards this kind of music. When you're writing you want something that will sit comfortably in the background inspiring you, without lyrics to distract you with words that aren't your own.
So, in an effort to get you all as pumped for the great art of soundtracks as I am, I thought I'd share some of my favourite composers and their work - some if it you might be familiar with and some you probably won't but should be:
John Williams Alright we all know the work of John Williams. He invented music. It literally did not exist until he made it happen. I actually debated putting him on this list because it would be redundant. It's because of JW that I learned the term "leitmotif". John Williams is the once and future king of all soundtracks. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jaws, Harry Potter, Schindler's List - roughly 90% of all music ever composed was made by John Williams. So I thought I'd take it in a slightly different direction. As we all know The Last Jedi is the worst film of all time. It is the result of a deliberate attempt to make the worst movie ever and it is an irredeemable pile of dogshit in every possible way. Except one: the soundtrack. The soundtrack is (mostly - he tried to warn us with Canto Bight) great, John Williams does his best to pull The Last Jedi out of the burning dumpster. This particular track is for the dumbarse confrontation between Luke and Kylo Ren, where Luke says the name of the movie. I cringe just thinking about it. But William's soundtrack to this is sublime. He takes his established "Skywalker" theme from the Original Trilogy and blends it in with the new themes from the current monstrosities, including the Kylo Ren theme which is itself an alloy of the Skywalker and Vader leitmotifs. This is the "Inception" of soundtracks (not to be confused with the Inception soundtrack, which we'll get to later): (Slight points off for John Williams because he is indirectly responsible for Toto)
Alan Silvestri If there is a challenger to the King of Kings, it's Silvestri. If you were to list the classic soundtracks of all time and there was something that wasn't composed by Williams, there's a good chance it was Alan Silvestri. He has Oscars for his scores to Forrest Gump and The Polar Express, but he's also responsible for the absolutely iconic Predator theme, the sense of wonder that was the soundtrack to Cosmos and, lest we forget, the absolute banger that was Back to the Future - the audience fire-up music to so many of the comedy shows from early in my career. He also did the soundtrack to a little thing called The Avengers (well, most of it, Age of Ultron was done mostly by Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman). Like Williams with The Last Jedi you can't fault Silvestri for the failings of Endgame, but the other films in the franchise are incredible. Original Avengers is still best Avengers and the main theme is what I use to get out of bed in the afternoon. Check out this pearler:
Hans Zimmer Let's get one thing straight right now, Hans Zimmer is a crazy person. Watch an interview with him some time, you'll see - "I thought if we hit ze glockenspiel mit a child's doll ve vill create an interesting sound". But if the line between genius and insanity is measured only by success then Hans Zimmer is certainly a genius. He actually started out by working with The Buggles on Video Killed The Radio Star, for the pub trivia contenders reading this. Zimmer's first major film work was scoring Rain Man, a movie about an offensive stereotype of a mentally handicapped idiot driving his autistic brother across America. He also scored the non-Elton John bits of The Lion King, he did Gladiator (and you'll see his Gladiator leitmotif coming through the works of his acolytes, most notably Klaus Badelt in Pirates of the Caribbean), Crimson Tide, 12 Years A Slave, Bladerunner 2049, Inception - this list goes on. He's best known for his work with Christopher Nolan, the inventor of plot. Interstellar is one of the great soundtracks to one of the great movies, have a listen:
Ramin Djawadi A disciple of Hans Zimmer, who you will find has seeded most of Hollywood with his apostles. Obviously this list of composers isn't in order, because if you know me then you know that Djawadi is my overall favourite. Generally speaking if you want to ramp up things up with some rock elements then Djawadi is your man. Look at the original Iron Man and the iconic theme Driving With The Top Down. Not that the man isn't diverse though, he scored Westworld, including an incredible piano-only version of Wu Tang's C.R.E.A.M. The casual reader will probably best know the work of Ramin Djawadi when they listen to it every week at the start of every Game of Thrones episode. However, above all that, Ramin Djawadi wrote the best theme of all time to the best movie of all time. That's right kids. Pacific Rim:
Here it is again, just in case you didn't listen the whole way through:
Darren Korb Korb is one of the most exciting prospects coming through right now. And by "right now" I mean over the last eight years. Darren Korb broke into the mainstream in 2011 with the hit indie game Bastion by Supergiant, which made waves for a number of reasons but a major highlight was Korb's incredible soundtrack - even being sampled by rapper Ab-Soul. 2014 saw Korb return for Supergiant's next game Transistor. Many wondered if Korb could deliver a soundtrack just as good as Bastion. He didn't. It was even better. He knocked it into the cheap seats. The soundtrack to Transistor is one of the best cyberpunk soundtracks I've ever heard and I've actually played it in the background while reading Neuromancer, which is about as cyberpunk as you can get. In 2017 Korb and Supergiant teamed up once more for Pyre and this soundtrack is...frankly as good as you'll ever get. It is beyond incredible, it is a true work of art. Not only is every track an exercise in emotive storytelling but Korb went to incredible lengths to ensure the most immersive experience possible. Pyre allows you to play any of the tracks in the game on demand in between missions, which is always a nice feature in a game. However, Pyre is set in a high fantasy world. There are no jukeboxes. All of the songs are played back to you by means of a minstrel who travels with you on your adventures and his only instrument is a lute, although occasionally he teams up with his significant other who plays a mandolin. So Korb not only created this incredible soundtrack, he created two more version of it - one that is played solely through a lute and another that is only a mandolin. That's right, the entire soundtrack is diagetic. Oh yeah, he also wrote an end song which summarises your actions through the entire game. This doesn't sound that impressive until you realise that there are dozens of potential outcomes and combinations dependent on your decisions throughout the game and he wrote a song that is entirely modular based upon those outcomes. The man is a goddamn genius. Knights of the Sea is a masterpiece. High fantasy, steampunk, Cervantes style faux-chivalry and the golden age piracy all rolled into one. This is one of my favourite tracks from anything, ever:
Klaus Badelt Another crazy German composer and disciple of Hans Zimmer. Badelt might not be as prolific as other composers on this list, but his portfolio has a lot of absolute crackers on it and he's collaborated on some amazing tracks. He also did a little thing called PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN!
Brian Tyler Alright, time for someone who isn't German. Cue Brian Tyler, an American. Brian Tyler is kind of the bridesmaid of current composers - he's the go-to guy when you can't get any of the above. However, Tyler's scores are pretty damn good. You're in a good place when the only criticism I have of your work is that you're not Alan Silvestri. Tyler took over from Silvestri for Avengers: Age of Ultron and it showed, but the score is still solid enough. His other work includes the latest installment of Rambo and the quite underrated Constatine (which only really suffered from a deviation from the source material, watch it again in a vacuum and get back to me). However Tyler really flexed his muscle on the incomparable Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. This is one of the great video game soundtracks. If you want something "piratey" with a bit more grit than Pirates of the Caribbean - which is exactly what Black Flag was going for - this is absolutely perfect. I honestly struggled to pick something out to highlight how good this soundtrack is, it's all good, but the main theme I think sells it best:
Christopher Larkin Larkin is a newcomer to the field, having only really done some low-pecking order TV and commercial work. He did, however, compose and score the soundtrack to the hauntingly beautiful aesthetic experience that is Hollow Knight. The game Hollow Knight is simply magical - it isn't something you play so much as experience. It's an absolute treat of a world to explore and I can't really explain why without devoting an entire post to it, but if you've played it you'll know exactly what I mean and if you haven't then you should remedy that immediately. Hollow Knight's soundtrack is so thematically on point that it draws blood. Every track is a such a perfect fit for the mood, every leitmotif an extension of the largely emergent storytelling of the game. Larkin's soundtrack is just magical:
Bear McCreary If you want dark, spooky, grungy, and experimental you go straight to the source - Bear McCreary. McCreary looks like a vampire had a baby with a pirate and that might actually be his origin story. Bear McCreary is kind of the go-to guy for science fiction that doesn't fit in to the "space opera" category of big guns like Silvestri or Williams. If you want something with a little more dirt on it, bring in the Bear. Europa Report, Colossal, 2/3s of the Cloverfield movies - but you'll know him best for the space cowboy sounds of the Battlestar Galactica reboot. Here's his rendition of All Along The Watchtower, a track which was a religious hymn in that series...look the show got weird okay:
Danny Elfman More pub trivia time - Danny Elfman was once the lead singer of 80's "band" Oingo Boingo, who gave us Weird Science and not much else. If Williams and Silvestri are all about orchestras, and Zimmer is all about grand concepts, then if you're going with offbeat, spooky or dark you seek out the Elf Man. He's the Tim Burton of soundtracks, which makes sense considering he frequently does the scores to Tim Burton's films. This is the man who did the iconic soundtrack to Burton's Batman films, which in turn inspired the sound design for Batman: The Animated Series and a general revival of Batman as a character. Elfman also contributed to the Age of Ultron soundtrack, which was actually kind of fitting - Ultron as a character is on message with the kind of sound Elfman does. You've definitely heard his work, he composed the theme to The Simpsons, which is now playing in your head. My personal favourite is the Men In Black theme:
Basil Poledouris The now sadly deceased Poledouris was a frequent collaborator with Paul Verhoeven and together they helped forge the 80's. Poledouris gave us the soundtracks to classics like Red Dawn, Robocop and The Hunt for Red October, while the kiddies will appreciate his work on Free Willy. He also did the soundtrack to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, which is something no other composer on this list managed. What I'll remember Poledouris for will always and forever be Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven's Nostradamus level prediction of the Iraq conflict and the United States descent into populist fascism. Would you like to know more?
Mark Morgan I'm saying this a lot in this article, but if you *know* me then you'll *know* that my favourite video game of all time, my favourite story of all time, is Planescape: Torment. Pacific Rim might be my favourite film, but Torment is my favourite...thing. It is the best of all the things. *Know* this and *know* that nothing will ever surpass it. If you *know* Torment then you'll *know* what I'm talking about. What can change the nature of a man? Planescape: Torment can. The height of the Golden Age of RPG's, made by the apotheosis of RPG makers - Black Isle. Written by the incomperable Chris Avellone at the top of his game. But part of what makes Torment so great is the utterly beautiful soundtrack by Mark Morgan. It's so good that when the spiritual successor, Torment: Tides of Numenera was made they went to great lenghts to ensure that Mark Morgan scored the game. Numenera might have been a disappointment and a failure to live up to expectations, but Morgan's soundtrack was never the issue. He picked up right where he left off. However there won't ever be anything like the original score for Planescape: Torment and the vivid brands it left on my developing adolescent mind. I can't actually single out any particular track, so I'll just link the entire thing. *Know* that I searched for one-among-many and *know* that only through the unbroken whole can one come to *know* the brilliance of this soundtrack:
Frank Klepacki Klepacki's might actually be a cyborg from the future. Klepacki has limited himself almost exclusively to video games and even within that genre almost exclusively to Westwood studios and its progenitors. But even then if you're roughly my age then Frank Klepacki did the soundtrack to your childhood. Dune 2000, Command & Conquer, Red Alert - these were the misspent hours of youth. Hell March blew my frigging mind when I first heard it (imagine you're a 12 year old boy into strategy games and alternate history):
As you can see I'm somewhat passionate about the genre, but not without good reason. How good is this stuff? Keep your predictable bubblegum pop - you *know* where to find me.