2019 was another banner year for original film and television scores. If you’re in need of some new music as the calendar shifts to 2020, start here.
Because film scores are often steeped in big emotions (and rarely have lyrics that require your attention), they make for great music for working, working out, or studying. They’re also versatile enough to listen to while you’re commuting to or from the office, or just relaxing at home with a cup of tea. The best scores transcend the films of which they’re a part to become indispensable in their own right.
Quartz picked 16 of our favorite film and TV scores of the past year—and the ideal times to listen to them. At the bottom of this story, we’ve provided a Spotify playlist with all the selections. Happy listening!
When to listen: Right after getting out of a bad relationship
You probably won’t want to listen to Bobby Krlic’s manic score for Ari Aster’s horror film Midsommar when you’re home alone at night, but don’t underestimate the raw cathartic power of many of its compositions. Toward the end of the piece above, in particular, Krlic mixes in unexpectedly epic chord progressions in between groups of dissonant strings, as if they are trying desperately to resolve themselves, to find order in the chaos and achieve a new purpose after being lost for so long.
When to listen: When you become someone’s manager
Nicholas Britell is one of the most versatile composers today. His latest work is on The King, a Netflix movie based on Shakespeare’s Henriad plays. Britell’s austere music in the film hides a certain mysticism, never more apparent than in the piece above which wonders whether Henry V’s growing power has gone to his head.
When to listen: When your grandpa offers you a $250 million inheritance
That’s right, it’s Nicholas Britell again! The composer’s score for the HBO dramedy Succession perfectly captures the tone of the series. It sounds like what an unfathomably rich American media dynasty might think their theme song would sound like, while still betraying the deep sadness and loneliness most of them feel despite all their wealth and power. It’s gravitas, with a large helping of absurdity.
When to listen: Whenever you want to feel like Sad Brad
Max Richter and Lorne Balfe’s score for the Brad Pitt space drama, Ad Astra, was sadly disqualified from Oscar contention over a technicality. This after Richter’s beautiful score for HBO’s The Leftovers was inexplicably shut out of the Emmys three years in a row. So let’s give Richter his due: His sparse and evocative score for Ad Astra distills the loneliness of the film’s main character into music while hinting at his repressed desire to reach out into the dark and seek more human connection.
When to listen: When you’re home for the holidays
If the previous scores were a little heavy for your taste, then let Alexandre Desplat’s work on Little Women serve as a lighter rejoinder, though no less impactful. His restrained, balletic, whimsical score for Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the famous novel helps the movie differentiate itself from the countless previous adaptations.
When to listen: Exploring your local abandoned tunnel system
One of the best things about Jordan Peele’s horror film Us is its score by Michael Abels. Using a variety of unusual instruments and voices, Abels manages to match the scope of Peele’s story through sound, adding to the sense that you’re watching a terrible myth unfold on screen.
When to listen: Literally whenever
I mean, it’s Elton John! Unlike the stale Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman actually does its main subject justice with a variety of lovely performances that mirror the singer’s personality. In some cases, like in the “Crocodile Rock” cover above, the arrangements of Elton John’s songs in the film added a new layer or wrinkle in the spirit of the original. Taron Egerton, the lead actor, performed all the songs himself, while John served as an executive producer.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
When to listen: When you’re in San Francisco
Everything about The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a stirring film about the changing dynamics of its titular American city, was under-appreciated, including its score by composer Emile Mosseri. The score is big and majestic, employing everything from sweeping strings to saxophones to a choir. In the piece above, local San Francisco singer Michael Marshall, perhaps best known for singing the chorus on the hip hop song “I Got 5 On It,” provides a stirring rendition of “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).”
When to listen: When you find your old Halloween mask in the closet
The best original TV score of the year, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ music for HBO’s Watchmen tugs at every theme the drama series explores: legacy, racial injustice, trauma, and love. It weaved a sonic tapestry for the many faceless characters in the series, becoming, in its own way, yet another mask behind which they hid themselves from the world. There is no moment big or small to which the Watchmen score wouldn’t add profound emotion.
When to listen: At the gym
While the Marvel cinematic universe has at times been criticized for its forgettable musical score, Alan Silvestri’s “Avengers” theme helped put a huge exclamation point on the epic superhero saga. His best moment was on the track “Portals,” which plays during the climactic battle of Avengers: Endgame. It’ll make you want to push just a little bit harder.
When to listen: When you’re not cool and want to feel cool
The original score by English singer-producer Labrinth on HBO’s Euphoria was quietly one of the year’s best. Your thoughts on the dark, explicit high-school drama may vary, but Labrinth’s music helped imbue the series with a distinct style. The track above seamlessly meshes ghostly vocals, hip-hop beats, and a fierce piano to create something that sounds completely new.
When to listen: Finding the courage to move forward after stubbing your toe
The piece above, composed by Thomas Newman, accompanies one of the film’s most jaw-dropping sequences, as we follow a British soldier during World War I running at night through the ruins of a French town, lit orange by the raging fires just beyond its wall. Bonus points that it reminds me so much of parts of “Rivendell” from Howard Shore’s transcendent Lord of the Rings score.
Game of Thrones
When to listen: Trying to finish a project right at the buzzer
The unsung hero of the final season of Game of Thrones was not Jon Snow or Arya Stark—it was the piano. Ramin Djawadi’s orchestral score on the HBO fantasy show was always great, but it was at its best when it mixed in eerie, minimalist pieces like the piano- and cello-heavy one above, when all hope for our heroes seemed lost until (spoilers!) Arya leapt out of the darkness to slay the Night King.
When to listen: When you’re on your dread-filled march to depravity
Any score that makes generous use of the timpani will automatically make our list. Icelandic composer Hildur Gudnadottir, who also made the music for HBO’s Chernobyl, may have been the most widely admired part of this year’s divisive Joker movie (perhaps other than Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as the demented clown). The score really does sound like what it might feel like to slowly morph into a notoriously deranged comic book villain. Just don’t listen for too long.
When to listen: When you wish there was a Baby Yoda to go save (your commute to work)
Critics have compared The Mandalorian to a Western, and that’s no more apparent than in the Disney+ show’s Ennio Morricone-inspired score by Ludwig Goransson. It’s perfect for when you’re embarking on an adventure—or maybe just going to the grocery store.
When to listen: In the shower
In the mood to ponder your mortality and the futility of all existence? Thinking about who, if anyone, will remember you when you’re gone? Boy, have we got the score (and movie) for you! Robbie Robertson’s harmonica- and guitar-heavy score for the Martin Scorsese mob epic makes us want to stare off into space and wonder if we’ve done enough to truly make a mark during our time on Earth.