The Best Soundtracks Of 2018: "What Does Joy Sound Like?"

The films of 2018 featured lovely, strange, and sometimes downright terrifying music. Just what it is that makes a good soundtrack? Is it something that stands out, intruding on scenes? Or is it something that hangs back, to the point where you don't even notice it? Or perhaps it's something in between. Or maybe the best film scores are the ones that trigger a specific emotion somewhere within your mind; a memory, a regret, a loving embrace. Music that cuts right through to your very soul. Music that you won't soon forget. These are the best soundtracks of 2018.

15. Lizzie

Music by Jeff Russo

Lizzie, a melancholy portrait of Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny) and her maid/lover Bridget (Kristen Stewart), received mostly mixed reviews and very little attention. The film deserves better – it's a bit low-key, but the two lead performances are wonderful. Also wonderful: Jeff Russo's somber, mournful score. The type of music that cries out in longing, grasping at someone, or something, to hold onto. Lizzie is ultimately a sorrowful film – a story of misunderstood women who both need each other, but ultimately can't be together. It's lovely, and it's haunting, and the music underlines all of that in subtle ways. "I approached the score from a sparse point of view," Russo said. "The score only has as much of an impact as the silence behind it. We wanted to approach the score by not over-scoring the movie and allowing those quiet moments to exist. That was a really important factor."

14. Solo: A Star Wars Story

Music by John Powell (with John Williams)

John Williams is a tough act to follow, but John Powell does a damn fine job with his score for Solo: A Star Wars Story. It would've perhaps been easy to ape Williams' iconic Star Wars music and call it a day, but Powell truly strived to put his own stamp on a galaxy far, far away. "Even though I've been forever influenced by John Williams and that original music, I'm not really quite equipped to sound exactly like John," Powell said. "I have my own strange ways of doing things and they make everything sound like me, perhaps. So it was a trick of trying to transition carefully to...try and honor the style. When I'm going for big action scenes, I wouldn't quite put them together the way that John would, but hopefully you can definitely hear the influence there." Whatever you think of Solo as a film, you have to admit Powell's whiz-bang, incredibly entertaining score is a highlight.

13. Destroyer

Music by Theodore Shapiro

So much of Karyn Kusama's Destroyer is dark and foreboding, and Theodore Shapiro's ominous, driving score highlights that. But there are also rare moments of hope shining through all the muck and mire, and that's when Shapiro's score truly comes alive. Take "Ecstasy", the final musical piece in the film. It rises, and rises, and crescendos in glorious fashion, almost as if Shapiro's music is wiping away all the misery that came before. The strings being bowed here are like ice scrapers chipping all the cold, hard frost away, letting in warmth at last. "There are a lot of circular shapes within the score," the composer said. "Most importantly there's this idea of these descending scales throughout the film. And the idea is that they just keep on repeating and overlapping each other so they're constantly going in a cycle. Those scales throughout the body of the film tend to underly the relentlessness of Erin Bell's search for Silas. And at the end of the film, there's this moment where those scales transform into this moment of ecstasy and relief."

12. Widows

Music by Hans Zimmer

Hey, you ever hear of this Hans Zimmer guy? He's going places! Obviously, I'm kidding – everyone knows who Zimmer is. He's one of the most prolific soundtrack composers of our day, and he doesn't disappoint with his throbbing, pulsating, propulsive music for Steve McQueen's post-modern heist flick Destroyer. The music here is like a beating heart, and that heart tends to speed up when the action increases. And yet, Zimmer also strove to create a subtle, quieter tone with the music as well. "I wanted Widows to sound intimate," said Zimmer. "I recorded the music in a small studio in London, where instead of creating a huge sound, we made something closer, more closed off. I wanted the music to feel close and personal because the story is that way."

11. Hereditary

Music by Colin Stetson

Horror movie scores are tricky. More often than not, a composer will resort to tired approaches – loud bells and whistles intended to make the audience jump and laugh nervously. Colin Stetson's Hereditary score is different. It sounds, well, evil. Like something inhuman and cruel has infected the score, and is sending out cryptic, horrible messages to us. "I wanted to avoid certain ubiquitous tropes that found throughout the genre and throughout film scoring in general," Stetson said. "So avoiding the conventional use of strings, avoiding synths, avoiding creepy percussion — all the things I feel like a listener can maybe tune out. They get the job done, but in a way that people have heard so many times, it becomes less effective." To do this, Stetson relied on trickery – what sounds like a stringed instrument is actually a woodwind; what sounds like a synth is a bass instrument; what sounds atonal and not at all musical might be strings. It's effective as hell, and pretty damn scary.

10. The Old Man and the Gun

Music by Daniel Hart

Daniel Hart's jazzy, flirty, laid-back music for The Old Man and the Gun is as charming as Robert Redford's lead character. It's also as unobtrusive as possible – it hangs back, complimenting a scene while not kicking up too much fuss. In short, it's the perfect type of music for such a free-spirited movie. When it comes to composing a film score, Hart says he's "looking for clues I can utilize to solve the mystery of what music would best serve the scene and the film as a whole." He does that, and then some, with The Old Man and the Gun.

9. Annihilation

Music by Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow

The music in Annihilation is often terrifying. It doesn't even sound like music. Instead, it sounds like a picked-up conversation from some alien life form – pretty damn appropriate, considering the film's story. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow have composed music here that's as unique and unclassifiable as the movie itself. It's not exactly the type of soundtrack you can just put on in the background as you work, but that doesn't mean it should be ignored, either. Salisbury and Barrow wanted to avoid predictability here, and created odd sounds by using obscure instruments. "We wanted to stay away from synths in the whole film," said Barrow. "We really were not interested at all in using them. For the early part of the film, all the weird noises are all waterphone. It's this hippie kind of Californian weird instrument that you pour water into, but they were used a lot in the Seventies as sound effects."

8. Suspiria

Music by Thom Yorke

Thom Yorke is obviously no slouch when it comes to creating music – he's the frontman of Radiohead, for crying out loud. Still, he had a tough act to follow with Suspiria. The soundtrack for the original film, from Italian prog-rock band Goblin, is iconic and legendary. How do you top that? To his credit, Yorke doesn't even try to recreate Goblin's sound. Instead, he goes for something more eerie and muted – much like the movie itself. He also throws in some unexpected vocal work, which can be slightly distracting at times. In the end, though, the Suspiria remake soundtrack prevails, primarily due to Yorke's clever approaches. "You're creating things, and you have a vague idea of some aesthetic sensibility, of where you're trying to go," the musician said. "It's a horror film, but you don't want clichés, so you're finding another way."

7. Revenge

Music by Robin Coudert

Robin Coudert, aka ROB, provided the synth-based soundtrack for the surprisingly good 2012 remake of Maniac, and now he's back offering up his skills for another brutal movie: Revenge. Here, Coudert blends synth and techno, creating a thumping, often maddening score that's as intense and unnerving as the film it's featured in. Synth-based music is ever-present in today's horror films, usually as a way to call back to the glory days of John Carpenter. But the Revenge score uses it differently, resulting in something wholly original.

6. You Were Never Really Here

Music by Jonny Greenwood

You Were Never Really Here is a film edited into fragments, forcing the viewer to fill in the blanks on their own. Jonny Greenwood's score reflects that beautifully, while also reflecting the troubled mind of the film's protagonist, hammer-wielding war vet with violence on the brain. The score alternates between beautiful string-based melodies to blaring, atonal noise that catches you completely off-guard.  When it comes to composing soundtracks, Greenwood says: "Music's a pretty great resource to have: you're looking for the moments when the film and score combine to make something greater than the sum of their parts – to make both element better than they would be on their own. Sometimes it happens..."

5. First Man

Music by Justin Hurwitz

What a lovely score this is. First Man is an intimate look at Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon who also had a hard time opening up to people. When the film is safe on earth, Justin Hurwitz's score seems to mimic Armstrong's mindset – melancholy, lonely, calm. But when First Man blasts off, Hurwitz's score kicks things up a notch. But rather than resort to your standard triumphant orchestra music, the composer makes great use of a theremin, giving the proceedings a truly otherworldly, even sci-fi vibe. The theremin, which uses electronic sound waves to create its music, was a standard instrument used in 1950s science fiction films, and using it in a film like First Man is both cheeky and brilliant. "We wanted to use some of the spacier elements, even in the more intimate earthbound cues," Hurwitz said, "and the theremin is just a great intersection between technology and humanity."

4. Mandy

Music by Jóhann Jóhannsson

Mandy is the final score from Jóhann Jóhannsson, a musician who died far too young, and who was already responsible for some amazing soundtracks – Arrival and Sicario among them. His music for Mandy is a black magic blend of black metal, droning dread and ambient waves. Mystical and memorable, the Mandy score takes the listener on a trip into the void, and beyond. Down dark corridors and labyrinthine landscapes that feel as if they're constantly closing in. It is the music of the doomed, and the damned, and it's spectacular.

3. Maniac

Music by Dan Romer

I'm cheating a little here. All the other entries on this list are from movies, while Maniac is a Netflix limited series. But I just couldn't write about the best scores of the year without mentioning Dan Romer's beautiful, heartbreaking music. Alternating between playful and solemn, Romer's Maniac music blends a myriad of styles and sounds, and yet maintains a certain loneliness underneath it all. A fitting theme, as the film is focused on characters who just can't quite fit in, no matter how hard they try.

2. Halloween

Music by John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, Daniel Davies

While he's retired from directing, John Carpenter has continued to make music. He put out two albums – Lost Themes and Lost Themes II. And when it came time for a new Halloween movie, director David Gordon Green and company made the best possible decision: they got Carpenter to return to create the soundtrack. Working with Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies, Carpenter goes all-in on creating a new, exciting score. It would've been easy for him to repurpose his original Halloween soundtrack, call it a day, and collect a check. Instead, he concocts something completely different. While the old Halloween themes are present, there's a new energy here – heavier, livelier, more modern. "It has a lot more power and bass to it," Carpenter said. "It's just the modern technology. We didn't want to change it too much. We wanted it to be recognizable and with the same spirit, but we just brought it up into the modern age." The new Halloween score is so good that I'm going to be controversial here and say that I think it's slightly better than Carpenter's score for the original film. Just slightly.

1. If Beale Street Could Talk

Music by Nicholas Britell

Overwhelming and transcendent, Nicholas Britell's lush, knee-weakening score for If Beale Street Could Talk is the very definition of breath-taking. The minute the score kicked in, I felt my eyes begin to water – and nothing had even happened in the movie yet. That's the power of what Britell has created here – the power to immediately pluck emotion from deep within you with a few notes. In the opening track, "Eden (Harlem)", Britell transports us immediately into the romantic yet tragic tone of this film. The music rings out, blooming like flowers in abundant sunshine. And yet beneath all the lovely melody, a lone, lonely trumpet rings out a few notes, crying to be heard. No other score this year comes close to achieving what Britell's Beale Street music does. It breaks your heart while making you whole again. Simply put, it's magical. "One of [director Barry] Jenkins's notes to me on the feeling that he wanted, especially there at the beginning, was this feeling of joy," Britell said. "What does joy sound like?" It sounds like this.