For my list I focused on soundtracks of recent vintage, including both reissues and newer works. The latest film score trends emphasize a growing list of audiophile recordings and a renewed interest in vinyl. In other words, soundtracks continue to offer fresh surprises for both movie and music fans.
1. Mark Koven: The Witch. Milan. Puritans in 17th-century New England were wary of music, lest it lead pure-minded souls into the snares of Satan. So what would the music sound like if you wandered out of your log cabin and happened to stumble upon a Satanic hotspot? No one knows for sure, but the soundtrack to 2016’s The Witch can help us imagine such a thing, with the nyckelharpa, a waterphone, a hurdy-gurdy, pounding drums, and the Element Choir creating a powerful witches’ brew.
2. Miles Davis & Robert Glasper: Miles Ahead. Columbia/Legacy. Don Cheadle’s first feature film avoided the clichés we’ve come to expect from musical biopics, catching Miles Davis not on his way up but during a long hiatus from touring, recording, and even practicing. It makes sense, then, that the soundtrack would opt for music that reflected the inner turmoil Miles was experiencing—like 1968’s “Frelon Brun,” a tumultuous cut that can be seen as a bridge between the Second Great Quintet and In a Silent Way. And there’s plenty of electric Miles here, with fiery guitar work courtesy of John McLaughlin and Pete Casey; funky bass lines by Dave Holland, Michael Henderson, and Marcus Miller; and the complex yet groove-oriented drumming of Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette, and Al Foster.
3. Nino Rota: Toby Dammit. Bella Casa. In 2005 the Bella Casa label, in connection with Cherry Red Records, began dipping into colorful Italian soundtracks from the 60s and 70s. The label recently took a turn toward vinyl. This soundtrack for a dark, disturbing, and thoroughly warped Fellini film based on an Edgar Allan Poe story has a noirish quality and at times sounds like bizarre lounge music. In the middle of it all Ray Charles sings a version of “Ruby” that is soulful and sexy and pure vintage Ray. A black noise floor and crisp mono sound make Toby Dammit an especially welcome reissue.
4. Austin Wintory: The Banner Saga. Reference Recordings. The Banner Saga is an adult video game whose soundtrack combines the compositions of Austin Wintory, the performances of the Dallas Winds, and the talents of Reference Recordings. Though still in his early 30s, Wintory has already compiled a career’s worth of soundtracks for both video games and movies. A Nordic strain runs through this soundtrack, where woodwinds, brass, timpani, violin, prepared electric guitar, didgeridoo, and other instruments conjure up warriors in battle and a harsh, cold climate. Alternately serene, majestic, and frenetic, this soundtrack will give your speakers a good workout.
5. Piero Umiliani: Smog. Schema. While working on the soundtrack to Franco Rossi’s 1962 film Smog, Piero Umiliani collaborated with two young American jazz musicians—Chet Baker, whose stay in Italy had already involved some prison time; and Helen Merrill, who left the U.S. in order to recover from a difficult breakup. Hearing both musicians perform over a thick noirish background is a treat. Anything but a footnote to the careers of Baker and Merrill, these performances are themselves the stuff of legend.
6. Eleni Karaindrou: Ulysses’ Gaze. ECM. Eleni Karaindrou is a Greek composer whose decades-long career has included soundtracks for the filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos; those and other works by Karaindrou (including collaborations with Jan Garbarek) have been released on ECM. Ulysses’ Gaze contains passionate, romantic, and richly orchestrated music and exquisite solos by Kim Kashkashian on viola and Vangelis Christopoulos on oboe.
7. Philip Glass: A Brief History of Time. Orange Mountain Music. A documentary about Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time was released in 1991, but the soundtrack wasn’t available until 2015, when it was released on Orange Mountain Music, a label devoted to Glass’ music. A Brief History avoids straight documentary for “biography as dreamscape,” and the dark beauty of the soundtrack enhances that.
8. Trio Dolce Vita: Amarcord. Jazzwerkstatt. This tribute to the music of Nino Rota merged the talents of Claudio Puntin on clarinet/bass clarinet, Jörg Brinkmann on cello, and Johannes Fink on double bass. Playing stripped-down versions of themes from Amarcord, La Dolce Vita, La Strada, The Godfather, and other films, the trio merges chamber jazz with the music of Nino Rota.
9. Various Artists: The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Rhino. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is set in 1976, and the soundtrack, available on vinyl, mostly consists of rock, pop, and soul tracks from that decade. Wisely avoiding the worn-out Classic Rock canon, the soundtrack offers the soulful sounds of Frankie Miller, Labi Siffre, and Barbara and the Browns; the glam rock of T. Rex and Mott the Hoople; raw power courtesy of the Stooges; and the innovative art-rock of Nico and Television.
10. Various Artists: Music for the Film Sounds and Silence. ECM. Although I’ve been listening to ECM for decades, the movie Sounds and Silence: Travels with Manfred Eicher deepened my appreciation of the label. Often showing select moments during the recording session that reveal the stress, deep concentration, and elation that are part of the recording process, the 2009 film really brings out the passion behind the music, and that’s particularly true during the scenes with Dino Saluzzi and Gianluigi Trovesi. Music for the Film Sounds and Silence shows the finished products of these sessions, with music by Saluzzi, Trovesi, Keith Jarrett, Arvo Pärt, Eleni Karaindrou, Nik Bärtsch, and others.
UP NEXT: Read Soundtracks Series, Vol. 10: Julie Mullins' Top Ten.