The 20 best soundtracks of 2016

By in Features

The year in soundtracks.

This year’s Oscar season was met by a few soundtrack firsts that were simply too juicy (for the establishment) to resist. Master of the playlist, Quentin Tarantino’s first ever originally commissioned score for The Hateful Eight was delivered by none other than maestro Ennio Morricone, marking his first Western soundtrack after forty-odd years from the frontier. It scooped best score then but now, by December, the competition – from the likes of Jóhann Jóhannsson, Alex Somers, Cliff Martinez, Nils Frahm – is fierce.

Meanwhile, following a surge in 2015, video game soundtracks on vinyl had their strongest year yet. Led by labels like Datadiscs and Iam8bit, old school classics were given deluxe touches, whilst contemporary titles went straight to press.

But the real story unfolded in our living rooms. From Marvel’s Luke Cage to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, Netflix out-stripped the competition in long-form television. Whether you’ve got a subscription or just use your little sister’s, you probably spent the summer glued to Stranger Things. The Netflix original has the most addictive title sequence in TV since Twin Peaks, which incidentally was finally reissued this year after what felt like an eternity of teasing.

In a sentence, soundtracks in 2016 have been more exciting than ever. Our round-up here is split into new titles and reissues (ten for each) – and within these, screen soundtracks of every kind – filmic, television, gaming – are eligible to contend. Here’s to a banner ’17.


New Releases


trials-of-the-bloog-dragon


10. Trials Of The Blood Dragon

Power Glove

(Invada)

Listen / Buy

Power Glove returned this Fall with another synth-roaring score for Trials Of The Blood Dragon, a gaming hybrid of the physics-based racing series Trials and the Far Cry 3 universe, which the duo also soundtracked in 2014. Think massive arpeggios, monster synths and blasts of proto-house in the same ‘80s B-movie aesthetic as the game it’s based on. Invada Records, the label of Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, promises the pressing is the brightest neon pink coloured vinyl you will ever see. Who are we to disagree?


gruff-rhys

9. Set Fire To The Stars

Gruff Rhys

(Finders Keepers / Twisted Nerve)

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A biopic charting the first weeks of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’ arrival in 1950s New York that carries with it a pleasing synergy in the experiences of its Welsh composer “arriving”, so to speak, into a world that’s less familiar, Gruff Rhys conjures a gentle and intimate collage of a time not lived, drawing on but not aping the cocktail jazz and atomic age Americana of the era. While the film struggled to make an impression when it was released back in 2014, the score carries with it a sort of timeless intrigue, and the sound of a bonafide song-writer applying himself to the art of atmosphere. Not one on many people’s radars this year, but a unique soundtrack presented in a gorgeous Dada-inspired sleeve by the ever industrious Finders Keepers, whose last minute Moomins blow-out also needs a mention.


the-revenant

8. The Revenant

Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto & Bryce Dessner

(Milan)

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Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Ryuichi Sakamoto, raster-noton’s Carsten Nicolai, The National’s Bryce Dresser. This was the super-trio behind the soundtrack to one of the year’s most hyped films – mostly because Leo had to sleep inside a horse carcass and eat bison parts for the Oscar win. The score however was not eligible for the Awards because Sakamoto layered his work with that of the other composers. The result of the collaboration though is a patchwork of orchestral and electronic visual sounds. “It was always my intention to write something that complements the stark, cold simplicity of nature,” Sakamoto told us. “In a way nature’s brutality can be much stronger than anything created by man, man is always fighting against nature, and losing.” As intended, the modulated cues subtly play the voice of the natural world in Iñárritu’s icy frontier saga.


nils-frahm

7. Victoria

Nils Frahm

(Erased Tapes)

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One of the year’s most talked about films, Victoria was rightly celebrated for its audacious, virtuoso single-take format, which follows the lost young Spaniard through the Berlin night between roughly 4 and 6.30am. As time stretches to accommodate the accelerating narrative (as only our experience of the present can), Nils Frahm’s soft-touch score becomes increasingly important, helping guide the moments of calm and bend those of intense activity. When the characters return to the club, glutted on adrenaline and booze, pace slackens completely, and it is just the music that holds the film in suspense, allowing the few minutes that pass to become hours in Frahm’s hands. Largely built around the pianist’s signature improvised style – whose nostalgia and emptiness fits like a glove with the film’s more subtle subtexts about companionship and youth’s search for substance – the Victoria soundtrack should be celebrated in tandem with that of the cinematography, for the two are practically inseparable.


alex-somers

6. Captain Fantastic

Alex Somers

(Lakeshore / Invada)

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Matt Ross’ enchanting portrait of a family raised on the fringes of contemporary society, Captain Fantastic needed a powerful and sensitive soundtrack to capture both the grandeur of nature and the nuances of human relations that come into conflict with it. What better place then to draw inspiration than the majesty and mystery of Iceland, a country with whom Alex Somers has been in creative dialogue for some time. Sigur Rós vocalist Jónsi joins the composer for what is an achingly beautiful and melancholy score, that succeeds in disassociating the film’s larger narrative from its physical setting in the United States. Delivered on beautiful “transparent duck egg” wax, with portraits of lead characters across the gatefold panels by Icelandic artist Ingibjörg Birgisdóttir, it’s one of Invada’s most captivating releases in what has been a stellar year. Expect the odd Planet Earth moment too.


the-neon-demon

5. The Neon Demon

Cliff Martinez

(Milan)

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Following his era-defining Drive score and his work on Only God Forgives (the less said about that film the better), Cliff Martinez was obviously the go-to for Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest, divisive piece of cinema. Where Refn’s other films involve Ryan Gosling doing cool, macho things, The Neon Demon is a female-led horror starring Elle Fanning, Abbey Lee, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Christina Hendricks and, oh yeah, Keanu Reeves. Like his other films, it’s one that split critics because, again, it abandons narrative for the senses, via the Kubrick-inspired visual mayhem and Martinez’s glitter bomb of a score. The soundtrack also features a new track from Sia and Refn’s son Julian Winding who appears both as a solo artist and with his band Sweet Tempest. Pressed by Milan Records, who have had a cracking year, the blue and red coloured vinyl discs and gatefold sleeve is a sparkly work of art.


luke-cage

4. Luke Cage

Adrian Younge & Ali Shaheed Muhammad

(Mondo)

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In the year that A Tribe Called Quest made a triumphant, surprise return, Ali Shaheed Muhammad teamed up with Adrian Younge on the soundtrack for Marvel’s Luke Cage, yet another Netflix original. Blending orchestral score with dusty ’90s hip-hop beats, the soundtrack captures the essence of Blaxploitation cinema whilst traversing the same Spaghetti Westerns terrain of Morricone – just as the narrative of Luke Cage plays out on the wild frontier of Harlem. This has undoubtedly been one of television’s most exhilarating sonic landscapes.


arrival

3. Arrival

Jóhann Jóhannsson

(Deutsche Grammophon)

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A late contender for this list, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s stock has risen sharply in 2016. Entrusted with updating Vangelis’ epoch-defining Blade Runner next year, Jóhannsson here turns his craft to a contemporary sci-fi epic Arrival, directed by long-term collaborator Denis Villeneuve. “I knew that I wanted to use voices as one of the prime instruments in the score of a film that is primarily about language and communication,” Jóhannsson said of the piece in a recent interview, working with Theatre of Voices and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe to disassociate the human voice from its lexical roots to create something at once both deeply organic and indecipherably other. It is refreshing to hear a composer lament that “in mainstream cinema, there’s usually too much music,” even if it does serves mainly to make Arrival appear all the more sophisticated in comparison.


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2. Childhood Of A Leader

Childhood Of A Leader

(4AD)

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In some ways a natural progression from the songsmith-turned-drone specialist’s collaboration with the mighty Sunn O))) a few years ago, Scott Walker’s orchestral score for Brady Corbet’s Childhood Of A Leader couldn’t be more persuasive. Or, perhaps, insistent. At times in something of a wrestling match with the young director’s 9-year-old protagonist, Walker is able to command his strings with almost dictatorial ceremony, surging and retreating with precision, hinting where necessary at the militarisation implicit in what’s to come. It’s said that Corbet lobbied to have Walker’s soundtrack mixed “5% louder” than the standard, but such contexts seem to drift into irrelevance once you’re at home with the record and the credits have long since rolled.


stranger-things

1. Stranger Things

Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein

(Lakeshore Records / Invada)

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Heard of that show Stranger Things? If, like us, Barack Obama and literally everyone else, you spent summer of ’16 glued to the ‘80s-inspired Upside Down, you’ll have noticed the period-perfect, spine-chilling synth score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of S U R V I V E.

Where the series takes its cue from a number of cult sci-fi flicks like The Goonies and E.T., the soundtrack references John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream. Like the series, the OST at once presents itself as a sort-of greatest hits homage whilst also managing to achieve its own dimension of authenticity.

One of the biggest challenges of scoring television is creating a title theme that hooks and hooks. Not since Twin Peaks and ‘Laura Palmer’s Theme’, can we recall a main sequence that has commanded such a strong presence, been so versatile in its application and also just sounded so damn addictive to the ear.

Yet the body of work created for Stranger Things is so rich and varied that it encompasses over 70 themes, from ‘Eleven is Gone’ to ‘Where’s Barb’ (lol), many of which were created specifically for a given scene rather than revisiting motifs. The actual release has been split over two volumes, and the success has been so runaway that a dozen or so vinyl variants have been lined up including a 4xLP limited collectors edition.

Little else this year, in the realm of soundtracks at least, became classic as instantly as Stranger Things.


Reissues


merry-xmas

10. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

Ryuichi Sakamoto

(Milan)

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It is a testament to his versatility that Ryuichi Sakamoto can appear in both new and reissued soundtrack lists this year. Here it’s the much loved score to British-Japanese drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence that gets the chart treatment. Although eminently available, it’s a reissue that captures a magical coming together of one visionary composer with another, David Bowie, who starred in the film. Despite Sakamoto’s own belief that it was too sentimental, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence a stand-out piece in the composer’s canon, with his self-consciously Orientalist style referencing some of his most powerful post-YMO work, in particular his excellent collaborations with David Sylvian.


lost-highway

9. Lost Highway

Various Artists

(Music On Vinyl)

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While many of the soundtracks on this list feature original scores, Lost Highway is a somewhat different beast, and one which sees David Lynch’s working relationship with Angelo Badalamenti take a new tangent. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is here enlisted to oversee the production, which gives the neo-noir thriller a deranged (sorry) quality. It’s that from David Bowie which bookends the album, one of his most potent ‘90s recordings, while an eclectic cast including Lou Reed, Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson and Antonio Carlos Jobim are expertly knitted together by Badalamenti’s compositions. With Lynch teasing two originals out of Reznor himself, Lost Highway’s soundtrack became a fitting counterpoint to the gothic nightmare.


run-lola-run

8. Run Lola Run

Tykwer / Klimek / Heil

(Bella Union)

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It’s 1998 and Berlin is still raw. Not yet the city of expats and lifestyle ravers that Victoria stumbles through, Lola’s Berlin is a pulsating, delirious, bipolar city on the edge, with a soundtrack to match. Never before released on vinyl, it’s a nerve-shredding, paranoid journey through acid, techno and trance that weaves warehouse ready club tracks into one of the most exhilarating ever released. The limited edition cherry red pressing pays homage to the film’s heroine, who is also rendered on the newly designed cover artwork.


chinatown

7. Chinatown

Jerry Goldsmith

(Cinewax)

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From Lost Highway to Chinatown, and supposedly one of David Lynch’s favourite soundtracks. It’s not hard to hear why. Composed by Jerry Goldsmith in just ten days after Phillip Lambro’s effort was rejected at the last minute, it’s a masterpiece of smoked-out suspense, tracing Jack Nicholson’s private dick alias J.J. “Jake” Gittes through the underbelly of ‘30s Los Angeles. With Uan Rasey’s trumpet scything through the tension like a knife through butter, it’s one of the finest soundtracks in Polanski’s canon and now lovingly reproduced with new artwork by illustrator and painter Sterling Hundley. There’s even a gold RSD version knocking about it you’re sly about it. Just ask Jake.


twisted-nerve

6. Twisted Nerve

Bernard Herrmann

(Stylotone)

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It’s been a rewarding year for Bernard Hermann fans. Aside from Waxwork’s gorgeous 40th anniversary reissue of Taxi Driver, newcomer soundtrack specialists Stylotone unveiled a string of coveted and previously unreleased soundtracks by the legendary composer.

The label kicked things off with a full LP release of his score to the 1968 psychological horror Twisted Nerve, marking the first time the soundtrack is available in full, including additional unused cues and unheard music from the film. You will certainly recall the whistling theme, which was also used in Kill Bill by Quentin Tarantino, who contributes the liner notes here. With blood-splatter vinyl and lots of extras (is there such thing as too many?), this is the complete package.


the-warriors

5. The Warriors

Various Artists

(Waxwork)

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Where to start with Waxwork this year? Jimmying open the cult coffers to release a procession of soundtracks, from Taxi Driver to Léon: The Professional, the label has gone from strength to strength both in the choice of its output and the presentation, which is up there with the best of them. We’ve gone for their lavish re-fix of urban gang action flick The Warriors, that grabs a fistful of ‘70s New York and slams it down across two slabs of red and blue marbled vinyl (or “oxblood vest & subway car silver” vinyl to be exact). Barry De Vorzon’s theme is joined by a riot of salacious disco, NY-salsa and power rock that captures the nighttime odyssey through the city’s nocturnal underground. The deluxe edition even comes with a patch to sew your allegiance into your jacket for the next time you’re in Coney Island.


naked-lunch

4. Naked Lunch

Howard Shore, Ornette Coleman & The London Philharmonic Orchestra

(Mondo)

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Canadian body horror originator David Cronenberg and three-time Oscar winner Howard Shore have collaborated on over a dozen films, a relationship that Mondo explored this year in a round of releases. As well as Crash and Dead Ringers, the label gave Cronenberg’s courageous screen adaptation of William Burroughs’ hallucinatory Naked Lunch its first vinyl pressing.

Shore recruited both free jazz icon Ornette Coleman and the London Philharmonic Orchestra for the experimental audio accompaniment to the disturbing stupor found in the twisted visual narrative. “Orenette’s performance has a frenzy and mystery appropriate for dealing with giant cockroaches and the other beasties that plague the characters in this surreal film,” wrote Vivien Goldman in his obituary. For its vinyl debut, Naked Lunch arrived in a gorgeous gatefold with the original artwork and ‘Yellow Bugpowder’ wax to boot.


requiem-for-a-dream

3. Requiem for a Dream

Clint Mansell & Kronos Quartet

(Nonesuch)

Listen / Buy

Few can argue the influence ex-Poppie Clint Mansell’s Requiem for a Dream OST has had on mainstream cinema – the main cue, ‘Lux Aeterna’, has become a movie trailer staple, most notably used to promote Peter Jackson’s blockbuster Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. It’s frankly surprising then that it’s taken this long for the soundtrack to arrive on vinyl but in one of Record Store Day 2016’s better moments, Nonesuch gave the nightmarish score a double LP pressing with unreleased bonus tracks and newly commissioned artwork by Simon C Page. Clint Mansell also deserves a nod for his work on High Rise and Black Mirror this year.


twin-peaks

2.Twin Peaks

Angelo Badalamenti

(Death Waltz)

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The only thing more eagerly anticipated than this soundtrack reissue has been the Twin Peaks reboot itself, which could well be described as the television event of the decade. Whilst we nervously wait to find out if Cooper will be himself (if you know what we mean), Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting, beautiful, dark, sexual score has been on heavy rotation at VF HQ. Death Waltz went the whole hog to make this reissue perfect, making 25 years since its original release. New vinyl masters were cut, new lacquers were cut and the record has been pressed to 180g heavyweight vinyl, coloured to match Coop’s “Damn fine coffee”.


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1. Streets Of Rage 2

Yuzo Koshiro

(Data Discs)

Listen / Buy

The trend of old school video game soundtracks coming to vinyl had its strongest year yet in 2016, with classic titles like Castlevania and Street Fighter II getting deluxe, limited edition touches. But Data Discs reminded us that Streets of Rage 2 is one of the best gaming soundtracks ever and certainly the pinnacle of the 16-bit era.

Yuzo Koshiro’s score dealt ‘90s video game culture a new hand. Tearing up the childish rulebook that had riddled the genre, Koshiro drew instead on rave, composing the piece using then-outdated NEC PC-8801 hardware and his own audio programming language.

Its trance-y texture, swerving synths and filthy funk could have rocked as many underground clubs as it did button bashing teens. It’s no surprise that contemporary producers like Joker and Just Blaze have cited Koshiro as a primary influence.

Datadiscs, who also took care of the original last year, handled the release expertly, adding bonus tracks to two slabs of vinyl in multiple colour variations. If there was one gaming soundtrack to get this year it was this, but regardless of format, it’s also some of the best archival music we heard all year.


Artwork by Hector Plimmer

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