When Academy voters sit down to cast their ballots, they keep certain guidelines in mind. In the Best Original Score category, the main consideration goes as follows: “Works shall be judged on their effectiveness, craftsmanship, creative substance and relevance to the dramatic whole, and only as presented within the motion picture.” In other words, the game is about how the music works in the film. Which: fair enough! But music lovers often consume film scores outside the cinema, listening after they initially enjoy the music in the film or while never having seen the movie at all. And so, as I considered this year’s entries, I decided to rank them in accordance with how score fans hear them: as independent bodies of music beyond the screen. Those that felt most worthy of repeat plays earned the best slots.
5. Isle of Dogs, Alexandre Desplat
Desplat is a consummate film composer, and some of his best work has been created in collaborations with Wes Anderson, who directed this animated feature. (The Oscar for Grand Budapest Hotel was particularly well-deserved.) But here, his forays into Japanese drums and winds feel rote and incurious, one plodding canine rhythm fading into the next, creating more of a vague texture than a memorable body of music. There’s little reason to revisit this score, as there was little there to hear in the first place.
“Six Months Later + Dog Fight”
“Kobayashi Canine-Testing Laboratory”
4. Mary Poppins Returns, Marc Shaiman
In this category, Shaiman is being judged not on the excellent songs he composed (along with lyricist Marc Wittman) for the sequel, but for the incidental music he sprinkled in between them—which, thankfully, was hardly an afterthought. These cues are an invigorating tug of war between mischievous and mannered, featuring glorious orchestration (particularly in the brass) painted in classic Disney hues. There’s such a sense of fun and joy and tenderness in the writing that it made my out-of-practice band-geek hands itch to jump in on the percussion parts. But I can’t imagine listening to this material apart from the musical numbers to which it owes its DNA, which is why this balloon hasn’t lifted further toward the top.
“Kite Takes Off”
“Into the Royal Doulton Bowl”
“Off to Topsy’s”
“Race to Big Ben”
“End Title Suite”
3. Black Panther, Ludwig Göransson
Göransson did his homework for this score, and it shows. The composer’s sonic portrait of Wakanda writhes with polyrhythms, instrumentation, and vocal techniques drawn from various African musics, and he wisely foregrounds these over a more traditional superhero orchestral vocabulary to great effect. The most exciting cues take this layering a step further by slipping in trap beats and other hip-hop gestures, bringing black musical history into conversation with its present. (For a fascinating analysis of how all this works, check out this close read by Charles Burchell.) I’m tempted to place Black Panther higher in the ranking simply for its swagger, but its overall impact is somewhat ambient, and ambience isn’t always enough to spur a second listen.
“Busan Car Chase”
“Killmonger vs T’Challa”
2. BlacKkKlansman, Terence Blanchard
There’s something deeply satisfying about this score’s mix of moody orchestra and ’70s funk, like a bummed cigarette in the cool night air just outside the door of a sweltering club. Blanchard’s writing has a confident economy to it, drawing largely on washy strings and winds over a steady strut of piano and jazzy organ. So when he reaches for the electric guitar, it makes an impression. I enjoyed lounging in this soundscape so much that I suspect I’ll be a repeat customer. Just maybe not as often as with my top choice.
“No Cross Burning Tonight”
“Ron Meets FBI Agent”
“Here Comes Ron”
“Blut Und Boden (Blood and Soil)”
1. If Beale Street Could Talk, Nicholas Britell
Falling for Britell’s music for this love story is easy. His string writing literally sounds like a lover breathing next to you, and his tight, bittersweet harmonies make you ache to hear where they’ll resolve next. Colors drawn from jazz (muted horns, glittering saxes) dapple beds of velvet piano and strings, and there’s a sense of inevitability in his use of repetition, more beauty revealed with each glance. Britell has made smart, subtle use of a limited palette in this score, and the effect is a cushion of music I want to collapse into over and over again.
“Mama Gets to Puerto Rico”