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Synchrotones’ Favourites of 2020

January 24, 2021

Whilst a lot can be, and has been, said about the year 2020, Synchrotones’ Soundtrack Review is not the place for it. Whilst cinemas were shut for most of the year, streaming outlets like Amazon, Apple, Disney and Netflix were able to benefit from locked-down audiences.

So we did get to see new movies; and we did get to listen to new scores. And some of them offered a silver lining to an otherwise dreadful year.  Here are some my favourites.

But what about Synchrotones’ hiatus?

Thank you for asking. Yes I was and still am on hiatus; and I’m still not sure if Synchrotones will return in full force. That said, I have continued listening to scores and I think it’s only fair I offer at least one run-down this year. I’ll start with my favourite scores of 2020 and a selection of remarkable composers. There will be a separate post which will serve as a giant catch-up of last year’s releases.

Synchrotones’ Favourite Soundtracks of 2020

OVERALL FAVOURITE SCORE OF 2020

THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD (Christopher Willis) – This is, by some considerable margin, my favourite score of the year, possible even decade, and certainly ranks amongst the best of this century so far. It’s got beautifully soaring and stirring themes, lush and colourful orchestrations, some seriously clever, fast-paced writing and a top-notch recording. The entire orchestra gets a decent work-out; it really is a rare treat! Every cue is a highlight, but some still manage to stand out a little more, such as “A Corker of a Corker”, “A Blissful Summer”, “Adventures of a London Gentleman”, “David’s Writings” and “A Life Well Written”.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS go to THE CALL OF THE WILD (John Powell), THE WITCHES (Alan Silvestri), ELEPHANT (Ramin Djawadi), WILD MOUNTAIN THYME (Amelia Warner), A LIFE ON OUR PLANET (Steven Price), ENOLA HOLMES (Daniel Pemberton), THE CLAUS FAMILY (Ann-Kathrin Dern).

FAVOURITE SCORE FOR AN ACTION/ADVENTURE/THRILLER FILM 2020

THE CALL OF THE WILD (John Powell) – This is one heck of a fun, toe-tapping score with memorable themes and colourful orchestrations. It is everything we’ve come to expect from JP, so much so that even a deaf Ludwig would recognise this is a Powell score. There are moments where it’s sailing very close to the DRAGON’s winds, but I’m not one to mind such things. COTW is lively and energetic where it needs to be, and ever so gentle elsewhere. Beautifully balanced and ultimately just plain beautiful.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS go to ENOLA HOLMES (Daniel Pemberton), BIRDS OF PREY (Daniel Pemberton), ORIGENES SECRETOS (Federico Jusid), MULAN (Harry Gregson-Williams), DE PIRATEN VAN HIERNAAST (PIRATES DOWN THE STREET) (Mathijs Kieboom), MEISTER DES TODES 2 (MASTER OF DEATH 2) (Ian Honeyman).

FAVOURITE SCORE FOR AN ANIMATED FILM 2020

MOSLEY (Alain Mayrand) – After nearly two decades in production-hell, MOSLEY opened to mixed reviews. Alain Mayrand’s score is nothing short of an absolute delight. It’s got a memorable soaring main theme; and the orchestrations are suitably magical. Strings and winds create drama and magic, whilst percussion and brass add a sense of adventure (and danger) where needed. The film does tackle serious issues, so the score is not all fluffy. It’s action-packed, magical, whimsical and downright beautiful.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS go to OVER THE MOON (Steven Price) A CHRISTMAS CAROL (Alex Baranowski), MOSLEY (Alain Mayrand), WOLFWALKERS (Bruno Coulais), ONWARD (Michael Danna, Jeff Danna), FEARLESS (Ann-Kathrin Dern), PETS UNITED (David Newman).

FAVOURITE SCORE FOR A COMEDY FILM 2020

THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD (Christopher Willis) – This is, by some considerable margin, my favourite score of the year, possible even decade, and certainly ranks amongst the best of this century so far. It’s got beautiful themes, lush orchestrations, some seriously clever writing and a top-notch recording. But you already knew that from an earlier paragraph.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS go to WILD MOUNTAIN THYME (Amelia Warner), GODMOTHERED (Rachel Portman), HAPPIEST SEASON (Amie Doherty), EUROVISION SONG CONTEST (Atli Orvarsson), EMMA (Isobel Waller-Bridge, David Schweitzer).

FAVOURITE SCORE FOR A DOCUMENTARY 2020

ELEPHANT (Ramin Djawadi) – This is such a pleasant listen from start to finish. It’s everything you’d want it to be. It’s playful and colourful, charming and uplifting; full of African musical influences. Some may have called it a LION KING-lite, but I disagree. This score stands firmly on its own four elephant feet.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS go to A LIFE ON OUR PLANET (Steven Price), RISING PHOENIX (Daniel Pemberton), THE WAY I SEE IT (Marco Beltrami, Brandon Roberts), SADAN HANIM (George Kallis), LOUIS THEROUS: LIFE ON THE EDGE (Miguel D’Oliveira).

FAVOURITE SCORE FOR A DRAMA FILM 2020

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (Daniel Pemberton) – Incredibly vivid and diverse score with many different musical influences. Gospel, Soul, Funk, Rock… it’s all there. A handful of cues are nothing short of spectacular, like the intense “Take the Hill (Hear my Screams”, the hypnotic “Blookd on the Streets”, the elegiac “Stand Up” and the soulful song “Hear My Voice”.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS go to THE RACER (Hannes de Maeyer), THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN (Craig Armstrong), THE LIFE AHEAD (Gabriel Yared), HILLBILLY ELEGY (Hans Zimmer, David Flemming), THE LAST FULL MEASURE (Phillip Klein), THE SECRET GARDEN (Dario Marianelli), SILVER SKATES (Guy Farley), CHANCE (Ian Honeyman), THE GLORIAS (Elliot Goldenthal).

FAVOURITE SCORE FOR A SCI-FI/FANTASY/HORROR FILM 2020

THE WITCHES (Alan Silvestri) – A new Zemeckis-Silvestri collaboration always gets me excited and THE WITCHES does (or: do?) not disappoint. I found it surprisingly action-packed, with plenty of Silvestri’s typical thumping rhythms. There are a couple of great, memorable themes and Silvestri, as he often does, builds the entire score around these themes.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS go to WISH UPON A UNICORN (Frederik Wiedmann), LOVE AND MONSTERS (Marco Beltrami, Marcus Trumpp), UPSIDE DOWN MAGIC (Tom Howe), THE FAMILY CLAUS (Ann-Kathrin Dern), JINGLE JANGLES (John Debney).

FAVOURITE SCORE A TELEVISION SHOW 2020

HIS DARK MATERIALS SEASON 2 (Lorne Balfe) – As with Season 1, HIS DARK MATERIALS SEASON 2 got two separate releases this year. The Anthology offers 9 cues which presents the key themes for this season, whilst the score album offers 35 cues and thrice the playtime. For me, HDM marked Balfe’s best work to date and HDM S2 follows unfalteringly in those footsteps. Strong themes, interesting orchestrations and some surprising chord progressions here and there and plenty of genuinely exciting and emotional cues.

HNOURABLE MENTIONS go to THE RIGHT STUFF (Adam Taylor), THE NEST (Paul Leonard-Morgan), TALES FROM THE LOOP (Philip Glass, Paul Leonard-Morgan), WHITE LINES (Tom Holkenborg), ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL (Alexandra Harwood).

FAVOURITE SCORE FOR A VIDEO GAME 2020

GHOST OF TSUSHIMA (Ilan Eshkeri, Shigeru Umebayashi) – Such a beautifully measured work. It’s quietly restrained and requires (and deserves) your attention to fully appreciate Eshkeri’s work. It’s nowhere near as in-your-face as some of the below listed honourable mentions, but it gets under your skin and draws you into its world – and that goes for both Eshkeri’s and Umebayashi’s contributions. Eshkeri’s use of Japanese instruments feels authentic; and he offers a sweeping, if slowly paced, main theme. Orchestrations are gorgeous and efficient; it sounds big enough, but but not in a Hollywood style. Everything is finely balanced, achieving the biggest impact with the fewest means.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS go to MEDAL OF HONOR: ABOVE AND BEYOND (Michael Giacchino, Nami Melumad), ORI AND THE WILL OF THE WISPS (Gareth Coker), STAR WARS: SQUADRONS (Gordy Haab), IMMORTALS: FENYX RISING (Gareth Coker), LITTLE ORPHEUS (Jim Fowler, Jessica Curry).

Synchrotones’ Composer of the Year 2020 #1:

DANIEL PEMBERTON – British composer Daniel Pemberton delivered four remarkable and very enjoyable scores. All of them display a great ear for detail and superb production values. For me, the best of them is ENOLA HOLMES, full of quirky themes and colourful orchestrations to match. The main theme is an infectious, toe-tapping affair that occasionally ventures into Elfman territory. The score also reminds quite strongly of LABYRINTH, one of my favourite scores last year.  |  Some of LABYRINTH’s elegiac string movements also make their way into THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 which is at once an incredibly funky score that makes you want to get up and dance, yet also offers plenty of moving, introspective cues, with “Trial Day 151” reminding me of Goldenthal’s adagios. The score concludes with a powerful, uplifting anthem “Stand Up”.  |  BIRDS OF PREY-AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN could classify as a ‘bad ass’ score. Lots of harshly distorted synths, guitars and vocals, accompanied by rock percussion and ‘coo coo’ lyrics. Stylistic influences range from the aforementioned rock to drum ‘n bass to acid house to opera to jazz and many others. It’s all held together by Pemberton’s quirky ideas, particularly a circular synth/guitar riff, and his uncanny grasp on all these styles. It’s a bit too harsh and loud for my taste, but that said…. There’s so much interesting stuff going on that even I am willing to sit through the pain to hear what’s happening next.  |  RISING PHOENIX is another really cool score from Pemberton, with this one revolving around an aggressive but inspiring 3-note motif that sounds like an inverted version of Queen’s stomp and claps from “We-ee will, we-ee will, rock you”. At times, this score is as loud and high-octane and BIRDS OF PREY, but on the whole, it is much more evenly balanced with quieter introspective material. That said, at 74 minutes the album feels a tad too long..

Synchrotones’ Composer of the Year 2020 #2:

STEVEN PRICE – ARCHIVE is a very well-produced and stylish electronic score, as you might have come to expect from Price.  There are a lot of interesting things going on and there is a recurring 4-note theme; yet for casual listeners I think the score may be too niche (or even: too boring). It actually feels like a synth album rather than a film score. I don’t get a sense of story-telling or dramatic arches. If this was a solo project from Price, I’d be like “yeah, it’s cool, slick, mesmerising” and all those things.  As a sci-fi score, it sure sounds high-tech but emotionally I’m not sure what to do with it, despite the occasional cello.  |  OVER THE MOON sees Price injecting a little bit of Asian influences into his usual style; and it’s lovely. This lively score has a lot in common with Price’s documentary works, so if you enjoyed those then you’re bound to like OVER THE MOON. It very, very nearly won in its category!  |  Price shows a lot more restraint and melancholy in David Attenborough’s A LIFE ON OUR PLANET. Fragments of Attenborough’s narration tell of adventurous, of the vast landscapes he was allowed to explore, and of humanity insatiable consumption of the planet. Price’s music is profound, it’s solemn, it’s in awe of Attenborough adventures yet laments all the things that have been lost since. Yet, as Attenborough’s narrative takes a hopeful turn, so does the music. We have lost so much, but we needn’t lose any more if we act now. As am album, I’m sure some purists will want the music without the dialogue. For the most part, these two elements are separable if you wish to do some editing. That said, I believe the music is much more powerful because of Attenborough’s narration.

The “Holy Crap–How Much?!” Award for Most Prolific Composer of the Year:

VOLKER BERTELMANN (HAUSHKA) – Is this the most prolific composer of the year? It sure seems so! ALS HITLER DAS ROSA KANINCHEN STAHL is a melancholy yet whimsical score for strings, piano and woodwinds (as you’d expect for a rabbit-stealing dictator). A melodic (indeed thematic) score, though the themes may be too transient to be memorable. Just shy of 33 minutes long, it’s a pleasant and relaxing listen due to its slow pace, intimate orchestrations and warm sound.  |  SCHNEE VON GERSTERN is arguably the melancholiest and least easily-accessible score in this group of Bertelmann scores. Piano and strings once again dominate, along with metallic percussive sounds. It’s very slow and minimal, although not devoid of melody. It’s well executed, and it may make for a meditative listening experience, but there is very little to leave a lasting memory.  |  With DOWNHILL Bertelmann ventures into comedy with an upbeat score for strings, electronics and female yodelling (don’t worry – it hints at it without going into a full-blown yodel). Cues are short and the total run time barely reaches 30 minutes, so don’t expect too much in the way of development. Bertelmann’s still relies heavily on his melancholy / whimsical style, but occasionally injects a little bit of pace through string arpeggios (including a nod to Bach). The comedy element comes from the female vocals which range from breathing sounds to Arrival-like stuttering and near-yodelling. Again, it’s all very pleasant but won’t linger in your mind for too long.  |  Bertelmann’s usual modus operandi may be better suited to a crime series like DUBLIN MURDERS. His brooding, melancholy sounds (mostly strings and electronics) feel more at home here. Still, I’m struggling with the slow and minimalist melodies. The score is harmonic and melodic; and it creates a suitably sober atmosphere, but as soon as play time is any memory of it evaporates.  |  SUMMERLAND is, If nothing else, the most lively of the Bertelmann scores this year. Piano and strings are present, of course, but so are woodwinds and harp. The music feels more energetic as it’s constantly moving. There are pulses from bass and winds, swarming harp clusters, more virtuoso piano performances and different time signatures. Not all the time, but more of the time. So it’s a more varied listening experience, yet still not a very memorable one. It still all feels like underscore with little or no strong, pivotal cues which really would’ve catapulted this score (this one in particular) towards greatness.  |  And finally there is THE OLD GUARD, co-composed with Dustin O’Halloran, a kindred musical spirit whose music relies strongly on piano and has a minimalistic / neo-classical style. I don’t know how the collaboration worked here, but from the word go it’s a more dynamic and energetic score. We’ve got electronic pulses and clicks, propulsive loops, reverbalicious vocals, rich synth pads, alongside piano and strings. There is some really cool stuff going on, some of which ventures into Thomas Newman territory. And still…. damnit…. it leaves my memory as soon it finishes. To be fair on the composers, this is probably more of a zeitgeist thing, something that filmmakers are asking for these days, but it sure is frustrating as, again, this score falls just short of being a very cool, slick thriller score.

The “Well Colour Me Impressed” Award for Most Surprising Composer of the Year:

LORNE BALFE started 2020 on a high…and stayed there. BAD BOYS FOR LIFE sees him adapting the BB’s original theme and having tonnes of fun with it. The staccato strings and lively percussion harken back to that 90s Media Ventures sound, though some synths and added choir give it a more contemporary epic feel. Some of the action cues are totally foot-stomping exciting!  |  With JUNGLELAND Balfe’s done something completely opposite to what you might expect from him, and I applaud him for it. From the get-go, the counterpoint brass and stark piano notes tell you that this is going to be different. Noble brass, a small string section and a handful of woodwinds make up the majority of the score’s sound palette. I could complain that the horn feels a bit incessant, but on the whole the score is a huge pleasant surprise.  |  And then there is SONGBIRD. The film has received some of the poorest and most damning reviews I’ve read in a while, yet large parts of the score are surprisingly beautiful and melancholy, reminding of (or foreboding) his work on HDM S2. This is offset with stark electronic and metallic percussion (including prepared piano). It’s not particularly pleasant (and I suspect it’s not meant to be), but I guess it provides an opportunity to work with these kinds of sound.  |  And then of course HIS DARK MATERIALS SEASON 2, which I discussed earlier.  |  I have in the past been less than kind about Balfe’s music, but throughout 2020 I have been very impressed by him. I also love Lorne’s interactions with his fans, sharing session photos, musical excerpts and inviting people to have fun remixing his stuff.

Some Honourable Mentions

JOHN POWELL – His excellent work on CALL OF THE WILD aside, John’s been very active on social media, happy to interact with fans, share stories and pictures of Moose. Powell released extended versions of SOLO and HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, and both are phenomenal. Also, in collaboration with Omni Music Publishing, the printed orchestra score for HTYYD saw the light of day, for those who want to study every single note of it.

ALAN SILVESTRI – also very active on social media, sharing pictures of him at work, on his vineyard or simply chilling with a glass of wine and his Frenchie. He spent several weeks in Manchester fine-tuning the score for the BACK TO THE FUTURE MUSICAL, which received glorious reviews from fans and critics alike. Sadly the show’s run in Manchester was cut short due to the Covid pandemic. The show is scheduled to re-start next year in London. Alan and his wife Sandra are a formidable and admirable team who seem to travel everywhere together and also support wonderful charities. In particular I want to give a shout out to Alan and Sandra for their continued support to the kids in a Manchester children’s hospital. It’s so lovely! And of course, THE WITCHES is one of my favourite scores of the year.

MIGUEL D’OLIVEIRA – We’ve got to think back to the start of 2020, which feels like thirty-eight years ago, to remember Miguel’s work on a number of Louis Theroux documentaries. Miguel’s music often helps to see the humorous side to these stories, but does play it straight when so required.  Throughout the  year we’ve also been able to enjoy Miguel’s music in the hit series FIRST DATES. The show is at once amusing and charming, much thanks to Miguel’s nonchalant tunes.  On the internet  Miguel has been keeping us entertained with his ‘medieval’ renditions of classic pop tunes (Faithless and Tears for Fears come to mind) as well as keeping us educated through his mini-series THE SHAPE OF NOTES TO COME, in which he explains where our modern music notation originated from.

ANNE KATHRIN-DERN –Having worked for several sample libraries developers, including writing demo cues, Dern gradually started writing for movies and television in the early to mid 2010s, collaborating with Christopher Lennertz, Pinar Toprak, Steve Jablonsky and Klaus Badelt. I wonder if we can call 2020 Dern’s break-out year as she delivered three outstanding and diverse scores. FEARLESS is a big ol’ action-packed adventure score. It has a bit of a RC-vibe to it in some places, but it’s still very much a traditional orchestral score. THE CLAUS FAMILY and VIER ZAUBERHAFTE SCHWESTERN (SPRITE SISTERS) are both magical fantasy scores, with the former laden with Christmas spirit. They’re both incredibly good fun, but THE CLAUS FAMILY is particular charming and poignant at times, with a handful of beautiful themes, and with top notch orchestrations, performances and recording.

Who are your composers of the year 2020? Let me know via the comment section. And stay tuned for an absolutely massive write-up…coming very soon.


Article by Pete Simons. Copyright 2020 Synchrotones.

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