Top 10 Soundtracks and Scores of the Decade 2001 – 2010

     December 29, 2010

With 2010 coming to a close, and the imminent arrival of an entirely fresh, unexplored, and unpredictable decade of cinema, what better time to start bombarding you with top ten lists of past highlights? We’ve done top ten posters, top ten trailers and top ten Christmas movies (and an alternate Christmas list for those who disagreed with the first).

This time: scores and soundtracks. There is a distinction between the two, but it’s murky, and as more and more films are using a mix of both original scores and pre-existing tracks, who are we to try to keep them separate?  Hit the jump for more.

Normally we’d review the highs and lows of the year, but this isn’t just the end of a year. This is the end of a decade, an era. That means it’s time to peruse the plethora of phenomenal films released over the past ten years, reexamine the music that defined them, and pick ten that make the cut. That’s not an easy task. I could write about fifty brilliant soundtracks and still leave numerous brilliant composers and scores unmentioned, and naturally, juggling with such subjectivity means that the ten I choose may very well not be the ten you would. That’s what the comment section is for. One of the enjoyable aspects of this type of feature is the heated discussion it provokes. Do you agree or disagree? Truthfully, we want to know, and your comments can extend the list and offer an even more informative and comprehensive selection of top scores and soundtracks.

One thing I noticed whilst piecing together this list, is that aside from fantastic music, these are ten great movies that could easily warrant places on a top films of the decade list. That proves to me (although I already had more than an inkling), that the quality of a film’s soundtrack and the quality of the film itself go hand in hand. Directors take note: get yourself some sick tunes or your film might just fall flat.

Anyway, with no further ado, let’s face the music and dance*:

(*dancing is optional.)

10. INCEPTION – I’d be slammed if there wasn’t a score by Hans Zimmer on this list. It’s not like I don’t have enough material to choose from. Pirates of the Caribbean, The Last Samurai, The Dark Knight, etc. (note that Gladiator is exempt from this list since we started the decade in 2001.) He’s a composer with over 100 films under his belt, almost 50 of which he composed in the last ten years and he’s amassed a serious collection of awards for his works, too many to list, including an Oscar, and multiple Golden Globes and Grammys. I was hard pressed to choose just one of his works that epitomized his genius, but since it’s fairly fresh on my mind (having rewatched Inception several times since it’s release on Blu-ray), none seemed a better choice than this.

With a constant undertone of anticipation and suspense, it’s no surprise that the climaxes in Inception are so furiously powerful and overwhelming (I’m still talking about the music…) Unlike many of the other soundtracks presented on this list, it’s difficult to enjoy this one while on a leisurely stroll in the park. Indeed, as someone amusingly suggests on YouTube – “imagine just doing your laundry to this”. It couldn’t be done. At least, not without shredding your clothes to cope with the fist-clenching suspense, or climbing in to the laundry drum itself to experience the full excitement of your world spinning in anti-gravity. This is a soundtrack of epic proportions, and the perfect backing to Nolan’s perfect film.

9. INTO THE WILD – Eddie Vedder was chosen by director Sean Penn to compose the soundtrack to Into The Wild, and he composed and recorded the entire lot in a couple of weeks. Vedder’s lyrics help to tell the story of Christopher McCandless, the American student who gave up everything to live alone in the solitude of Alaska, where he died nearly five months later. As a narrative tool the songs work well, accompanying the beautiful natural imagery of the film, the broad landscapes, and McCandless’ carefree character.

Vedder’s songs are very folksy, acoustic rock ballads; free spirited, wild and passionate, effortlessly conjuring that nostalgic feeling of teen rebellion. The majority of the songs are on the short side, fleeting but effective and earthy. They feel truly organic. It’s an appropriate musical backdrop to a tragic and yet uplifting film and it’ll have you longing for the wilderness in no time. Various tracks on the soundtrack received critical acclaim, netting Vedder three Grammy nominations and a Golden Globe.

Eddie Vedder was recently rumored to be a potential songwriter for the film We Bought A Zoo starring Matt Damon, after he was included on a compilation disc attached to the script. Neil Young was also on the CD. I hope they are involved if they can create anything as good as this.

8. ABOUT A BOY – Damon Gough aka Badly Drawn Boy, was the man hired to write and perform the entire soundtrack to About A Boy, and the result was an album better than anything the man had written before. When we think About A Boy, we think of Hugh Grant and that kid off Skins (Nicholas Hoult), we think of Toni Collette before she stepped in to Tara’s shoes, we think of dead ducks and floating loaves of bread, but above all we think of friendship and optimism. Gough couldn’t have created an album more fitting. About A Boy is a feel good film with a feel good soundtrack to boot. Catchy but not annoying, this is indie pop at its best: acoustic guitars and heart felt lyrics.

Author of the original best selling book, Nick Hornby once wrote that one tune from the soundtrack, called “Minor Incident” is one of the songs that has had an effect on his life.

7. SNATCH – Guy Ritchie’s missing diamond caper was his second top notch London gangster film, following Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Aside from the pukka script that had us in stitches, it’s blessed with an insanely cool soundtrack, effectively a compilation of killer tunes. Reggae, drum n bass, dance, rock, pop – you name it, it’s there.

Highlight tracks include 10cc’s “Dreadlock Holiday”, The Strangler’s “Golden Brown”, The Specials “Ghost Town” (The Specials were also included on the Shaun of the Dead soundtrack, which I mention because it was a very close contender for this list) and Massive Attack’s “Angel”. If it wasn’t in the wrong decade (released 1998), Lock Stock would definitely have been on this list too. Ritchie’s taste is impeccable. Perfect as a soundtrack and perfect as a standalone album, here’s one to kick back and chillax to, and it’s currently available for just $7.99 on Amazon. “Goody gumdrops. Get us a cup of tea, would you, Errol?”

6. CITY OF GOD – One might not think that the story of a drug war that raged (and rages still) in Rio de Janeiro would have such a positive soundtrack. But with City of God, director Fernando Meirelles and composers Ed Cortes and Antonio Pinto chose/ wrote a soundtrack so sexy and suave that eight years on, it still has me busting moves. In fact, that’s one of the highs about this music: it’s timeless. It morphs to match the eras portrayed in the film as our protagonist, young photographer Rocket, grows up discoing to the vibrant Brazilian funk of the 60s, 70s and 80s.

It’s an upbeat soundtrack, one that could easily function as a stand alone album. An impressive mix of latin funk with a seriously tight horn section and simply awesome brass riffs. The general excitable ethos of the film is reflected well: passionate, energetic and funky as fuck. The soundtrack also includes tracks by funk soul sensations James Brown and Tower of Power.

For the record, (and for anybody that cares about such things), City of God currently stands at #18 on IMDb’s top 250 movies of all time. Fernando Meirelles also chose a beautiful soundtrack to his 2005 hit, The Constant Gardener.

5. BLACK SWAN – Until I heard the score to Black Swan, composer Clint Mansell’s latest collaboration with director Darren Aronofsky, I thought that the music to The Fountain (2006) was almost as perfect a score as could be written for film. Indeed, there was much “um-ing” and “ah-ing” before I eventually decided that the more recent, Tchaikovsky inspired score really did surpass the first. I wanted to credit The Fountain, as it could easily have filled another spot on this list if I wasn’t such a stickler for diversity (of film and music).

However, I was moved to tears by the spectacularly grand music that accompanied Natalie Portman’s Sapphic fantasies and fragile ballet dancing in Black Swan, and the recent news that it was deemed ineligible for Oscar consideration (along with a number of other great scores) infuriated me, and made me even more eager to include it here. It is heavily sourced from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, but to hear Mansell’s majestic modern interpretation as the background to such a terrific film is truly emotional. I think the 19th Century composer would be deeply impressed.

4. THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES – Walter Salles biopic sees Mexican heart throb Gael Garcia Bernal star as revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara on his motorcycle journey through Latin America, the trip that inspired him to seek justice.

Poignant, thought-provoking and evocative guitar melodies form the foundation of Gustavo Santaollala’s BAFTA Award winning score. Sparse and atmospheric, Santaollalas compositions will linger long after the final black and white photographs of the famous duo, Ernesto and Alberto, fade with the credits at the end of the film. Uruguayan singer songwriter Jorge Drexler also won an Oscar for Best Original Song for his contribution to the soundtrack with the song “Al Otro Lado del Rio” (“On the Other Side of the River”). Santaollala has since scooped two Academy Awards for Best Original Score, for Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Babel (2006) – both fantastic scores, but neither as deserving as this, and it wasn’t even nominated. If Santaollala plucks your strings, also be sure to check out his contributions to Amores Perros (2001).

3. THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY – Howard Shore’s epic score for Peter Jackson’s adaptations of Tolkien’s hobbit lore is a modern masterpiece. In turns exciting, flippant and uplifting, and then suddenly ominous, oppressive, even frightening – Shore’s score ranges from the simplicity of a shire bard singing alone to a fiddle, to the thunderous battle hymns driving the armies of Middle Earth against Sauron. Shore manages to evoke the sheer scale of Middle Earth and the dramatic chaos underway therein, without neglecting the sense of adventure shared by Frodo and Sam, or the mischievousness of Merry and Pippin.

Grand and exhilarating, there are themes so memorable throughout Shore’s work that one needs only hear them for their accompanying scene to unfold in the minds eye. Who doesn’t relive the Battle of Helm’s Deep or envisage the Riders of Rohan when they hear the music? These are such magnificent and joyous melodies that they sweep you up and draw you in, like being caught up in a revolt, the energy is contagious. You can literally feel the power of the music. Howard Shore has written a classic that will never be forgotten, a most ideal pairing with Tolkien’s books, and Jackson’s films. I can’t wait to see what he does with The Hobbit.

Performed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, The London Philharmonic Orchestra and The London Voices, the soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings earned Howard Shore three Oscars, four Grammys and a Golden Globe.

2. SUPERBAD – This hilariously outrageous teen comedy from Greg Mottola is backed by one of the finest soundtracks a film could ever ask for. Largely composed by Lyle Workman (also credited with a slew of other Apatow comedies including Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The 40-Year-Old Virgin), the soundtrack also features numerous masterworks from funk soul extraordinaires The Bar Kays, Curtis Mayfield, Dice Raw and The Roots, and Rick James. For his own compositions, Lyle Workman managed to assemble a band of tremendous musical prowess to record with, including the Godfather of funk James Brown’s very own drummer, Clyde Stubblefield and bassist, Bootsy Collins.

It’s an eclectic mix of ups and downs to match the relationship between main characters Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera). Essentially, it’s the perfect party playlist, with tunes to dance to, to sing along to and to make love to. “Do me baby, like you wanna, do me baby, if you gonna” croons Jean Knight on one of the hit tracks, “Do Me”. I wanna. But seriously, this is an album that you’ll play again and again.

One notable absence from the official soundtrack album though: Pork and Beef by The Coup – the track playing when Bill Hader, in his coppers uniform, beer in one hand and glass in the other, starts bopping to the lyric, “Don’t trust the po-lice, no justice no peace”. Utter genius – a pity it’s not included.

1. THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD was undoubtedly one of the best films of 2007, probably of the decade, and perhaps ever. The musical accompaniment to such an exceptional movie could only be scored by such geniuses as Australian folk-rock heroes Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and they did a fantastic job. It’s a travesty they didn’t receive more by way of plaudits during the 2007 awards season.

Weaving beautiful, melancholy soundscapes from a small rustic string ensemble, piano and celeste, their soundtrack is heart-wrenchingly sorrowful, emotionally soaring and will invariably raise goosebumps all over your body. I’ve listened to it time and time again, there’s nothing better when you’re settling down for sleep or simply feeling pensive.

If you need reminding of just how stunning the soundtrack is, head on over to the film’s official website, where you can stream the lot for free. Cave and Ellis also scored The Proposition (2005), another work of art in a similar style, so be sure to give that a listen if you like this.

In traditional style, here are a few honorable mentions that would have featured on a longer list:

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Donnie Darko (2001)

Adventureland (2009)

Ocean’s Trilogy (2001 – 2007)

Marie Antoinette (2006)

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

  • filmguy78

    This list is compilation/pop-rock soundtrack heavy and it’s a great list, don’t get me wrong. But I think you missed out on a lot of great scores though, from John Williams’ work to the discovery of Alexandre Desplat.

    • Mark Johnson

      Desplat has done some outstanding work! Also, need to have LOTR on there.

      • Turd Ferguson

        LOTR IS on there…

  • Mark Johnson

    Great list! I love Into the Wild especially. But… the decade ended last year…

    • Turd Ferguson

      wow thats a good point

      • David

        Actually that’s a common misconception. The decade ends this year.

        Think about it. You start your month off on the 1st right? So then the first year of the decade would be 2001, not 2000.

  • Jake

    Lord of the Rings by Howard Shore was, simply put, the Greatest Score of our time. The way the music captured every aspect of Middle-Earth was breathtaking. It’s one to be regocnized for generations to come.

  • Tommyk123123

    Wow really? Superbad above Lord of the Rings? Seriously?

  • Junierizzle

    Good list. I love it when Jesse James gets any recognition. I cant believe how not a lot of people have seen it. everything in that movie is just beautiful. Youre right about music making a movie. JUNO for example was helped tremendously by the great soundtrack. It drowned out all the lame dialog. I still cant believe it won best screenplay.
    Id like to mention the score for FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. It pretty simple but effective.

  • Mehr

    How did Tron: Legacy not get there? HELLO. DAFT PUNK?!


    I’m sorry but as an avid film score lover this is by far the WORST LIST EVER!!

    Superbad over LOTR?!? And Inception out of all the amazing Hans Zimmer scores you chose Inception?

    Where’s Micahel Giacchino Johnny greenwood James Newton Howard Alexandre Desplat John Williams… even Daft Punk for TRON??

    These may have cool songs but the true meat of a films soundtrack is the score and most of these would of never made my list…

  • Ladfg34r54ff

    Patheticly (?) bad list.
    Just Inception alone would be awful to start with – One of Zimmer’s worst/most boring work so far. But almost all the others were useless choices as well. But ok.

  • Ladfg34r54ff

    Oh and Lord of the Rings score doesn’t belong on a list like this at all as well (not to speak of Superbad or stuff like that=

  • samir

    A couple things about this list really irk me.
    First of all the decade ended last year, it doesn’t matter if you think it ended this year, everyone did best of decade lists last year. All magazines and publications had them last year, I’m sure you guys saw those and so you should have done this last year.

    Second thing, it makes no sense to combine soundtracks and original scores for the same list. If is very difficult to compare the two, and it makes a lot more sense to make two separate lists for the two. How do you compare original instrumental music that goes through a whole film with some well placed famous pop songs in certain sequences of a film?

    • Indi

      [22:39:50] Ben X: you’re wrong. 2000-2009 was indeed a decade, but no more so than 2002 – 2012 will be. It’s not a calendar decade. An official calendar decade is 2001 – 2010 so this list is fine. Check this:

      • samir

        My issue is that this list feels so out of place. It just makes a lot more sense to have done it with everyone else last year. It also doesn’t make sense to have this list without a best films of the decade list, or any of the other categories.

        The link you posted and the information you gave does make sense from a calendar perspective, but the thing is, and this is more film related than calendar related, when people say best film of the 90s or best films of the 80s, then they won’t count a film released in 1990 as a film from the 80s. With this list you cannot say these are the best score/soundtracks from 2000s, because you have included 2010. That’s more a film related thing, and not a calendar issue like you pointed out. You are allowed to make a list like this, but it just becomes pointless.

  • Crowbar

    I think this might be a good addition:

    Watchmen by Tyler Bates… as well as his work on 300. I thought the soundtrack was the best part of Watchmen. Thoughts?

  • Dan

    I have to agree with a lot of people on here. Inception wasn’t as memorable as some of Zimmer’s other works, even though in my mind he’s a bit overrated. Also, there should have been two separate lists; one for soundtracks and one for scores.
    I would have like to see LOTR at the number one spot. Shore must have written over 15 hours of music. Plus, I can’t think of anybody that wouldn’t instantly recognize the main theme, but that may be because my friends are all nerds :P

  • Collin V.

    Scott Pilgrim, Inception, and Shaun of the Dead are my favorite soundtracks IMO. Daft Punk’s score for Tron should be on this list.

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  • tigersuit

    Not to be that guy or anything. But whats up with your logic? The decade was 2000-2009, not 2001-2010. or are you saying that the year 2000 was a part of the 90s?

    • Dan

      well you are that guy, because if you’d read the other comments you’d see that someone already posted about the decade thing. a) it’s irrelevant to the list, and b) this is a calendar decade anyway.

      Good list. would be nice to johnny greenwood for there will be blood though

  • Alex

    Good list, but Lord of the Rings should be number one, as it is the best score in the history of cinema. Why does Superbad beat Lord of the Rings, Inception, and The Black Swan?? I guess I’ll never know…

  • adrian

    where is married life (UP) from MG?, or Define Dancing from WALL-E, they are ones of the most finest scores, Superbad over TLOTR and Inception, WTF is this list, and in ” honorable mentions ” you don’t even type DAFT PUNK’s Tron Legacy score,,,,,ther worst list I’ve read…at list morefrom Hans Zimmer would have been fantastic,,,

  • Tigersuit

    Well if people are using wiki.answers as a legitimate source.. Do a quick search on wikipedia(search for “decade”, and then List of decades) and you can see that my definition is valid. The “twenty tens” or just “the tens”, started with this year, 2010. Suck it, etc. Or you know, whatever.

    But to be more on topic: interesting choices on this list. All good choices, but not a lot of stuff you would expect. Nice to see you include the Superbad soundtrack.

  • Tao

    Excellent list. My ordering would perhaps be a little different, but I totally agree with everything on there.

    Chipi Chipi! (AhhYeah!)

  • christophercantos

    i understand you can’t please everybody.. and there will be a lot of complaints.

    the only sad part is that you don’t have a score from two of the best that has come out in the second half of the decade.. Michael Giacchino and Alexandre Desplat continues to give great scores after another(unlike Zimmer, who lately only produces gold with Nolan. Sherlock Holmse was kick-as though).

    also, i thought it was a lot of people are with me when i say that Michael Giacchino’s score for Up is one of the best of this decade(you could also add Ratatouille there), and that JOHNNY GREENWOOD’S SCORE FOR THERE WILL BE BLOOD IS DEFINITELY THE BEST THIS DECADE. A SCORE AHEAD OF ANY SCORE COMPOSED THIS DECADE

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  • alvin

    I would have included Dario Marianelli’s Atonement and James Newton Howard’s score to The Village.
    As for LOTR, for me, it deserved to be at the top. I have such high respect to this Howard Shore score because this soundtrack introduced me to the world of film music. It was LOTR’s music that inspired me to appreciate film score (after the films were released, around 2004) :)

  • the pencils band

    I think the best soundtrack I’ve heard, in terms of atmosphere, is the theme of Twin Peaks series, so subtle and sexy.
    Check out some music that we’d like to put in a movie!