As the year winds down to a close, film critic Lena Houst reflects on her favorite on-screen musical moments of the year.
Back in 2013, I started keeping a personal playlist of great songs from the year’s films. At the time I might’ve been planning to emulate David Ehrlich’s annual Top 25 of the year super-cut videos. I’m still tempted to try my hand at his immense editing endeavor, but for now my playlists of favorite film music will do. For me, it works as a type of experiential time capsule––each song immersed in the atmosphere of its film.
The list is pretty exhaustive, a sign both of how positively I’ve responded to the films of 2015. You’ll see songs from TV series’, which I don’t file in a wholly separate category from film, seeing as everyone’s working in a cinematic medium. Otherwise, there’s a mostly equal balance of music utilized by the films, and music made expressly for the films. I try to steer clear of crass, aberrant clunkers – much as I love Mad Max: Fury Road‘s score, it’s not exactly built for digestible listening. My goal was to build an entertaining, soulful playlist of music that might help others discover the films.
Scroll down for a complete list of the music and the work its from.
“Coat of Arms” by Cat’s Eyes
Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy is an erotic romantic study of two women in an BDSM relationship with a perfume credit for Je Suis Gizelle in its opening credits. It’s a film all about its late autumnal atmosphere, intimately captured Cat’s Eyes’ intoxicating chamber original score. “The growing sun, the end of spring,” their vocals entrance us in, lending the dawn of summer a distinctly elegiac, even mournful quality.
The entire score, and the film it belongs to, are equally soothing to marinate in, like a sensory spa treatment.
“Title” by Disasterpeace
“Soothing” is not a word I’d use for US composer Disasterpeace’s score for the sexually charged and invasive teen horror film It Follows. In the film a young woman is stalked by a shapeshifting monster passed to her sexually. Working primarily in jangling electronics, the score builds both nerve-shooting tension and bliss-stroked sexual expression, but its title track is a full-blown, John Carpenter-esque horror anthem. Building along the spinal cord and tingling up to your brain stem in its climax––it’s as electrifying as the film itself.
“Beyond Clueless” by Summer Camp
Beyond Clueless is a rhythmic film essay that draws from the heyday of high school movies in the ten years following the release of Clueless. Indie pop duo Summer Camp alight the film with a woozily infectious score that mesmerizes in the feverish mindset of these films. The music fits the eternally handsome late-20s/early-30s stars of high school movies, who learn life lessons either through cathartic epiphanies (Mean Girls) or gruesome dismemberment (Jeepers Creepers). “Beyond Clueless”, the title track, is a spot-on evocation of the gendered stereotypes and naive, youthful empowerment that runs deep in these films.
“Esper” by Remy Nadeau-Aubin
Tu dors Nicole is a very interesting film, musically. A synth score bubbles behind titular Nicole’s sense of confusion about her own maturity. She’s staying in her parents’ house over the summer with a friend doing essentially nothing, but “nice nothing.” That sense of relaxed laziness is disturbed when her brother’s rock band invades her house, compounding her feelings of insomnia and listlessness. The music by Remy Nadeau-Aubin’s band sounds like Ratatat. Its repetition into loud, agrgressive motion makes the band sound just as uncertain about their future as Nicole. “Esper” is a pretty good jam, but one with neuroses creeping beneath the surface.
“What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes
One show with an exciting, unconventional relationship to music this year is Netflix’s Sense8. The sci-fi series focuses on eight disparate individuals from across the globe who foster a psychic connection. This forces them to display empathy for those with wildly different lifestyles than their own. It also primes the show for a Magnolia-style group number, where 4 Non Blondes’ aptly quizzical “What’s Up” unites the characters in ecstatic confusion. One is being prepped for an invasive, forced lobotomy, and still there’s a moment of unity, both joyful and somber. I could’ve gone for Sigur Ros’ ethereal closing number to the season, “Saeglopur,” or Macy Gray and Fatboy Slim’s psychic sex scene diddy “Demons,” but the sheer novelty and force of “What’s Up” feel like the best choice.
“Gotta Go Home” by Okko
If you’re looking for an enthralling workout playlist, look no further than the soundtrack to Sean Baker’s transgender prostitute adventure Tangerine. Baker’s film is filled top-to-bottom with furious electronic songs that somehow help to build an intense emotional atmosphere for the story of a transgender woman seeking revenge against her pimp boyfriend for cheating on her. It makes the inventive, iPhone-shot film feel ludicrously more wealthy and endowed than it actually is, but this serves the character’s don’t-give-a-fuck sense of empowerment. I’m not sure why I’m favoring “Gotta Go Home” over the soundtrack, but it’s a tight encapsulation of the film’s reckless energy.
“Souvenir” by Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark
I’m used to savoring Noah Baumbach’s films for their vintage taste in style and music, but Mistress America especially exudes a rampantly emotional 80s comedy feel. Nothing evokes that quite as soothingly or open-heartedly as “Souvenirs” by Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark. The first time it plays, the characters remark “We look like we’re in a song.” The whole film drifts on a constantly engaged frequency, verbally and emotionally, like their lives are an act of relentless lyrical motion. The film’s musical life is itself reflective of its character’s naive, uncoordinated aspirations, and “Souvenirs” aptly hits both pleasing and bittersweet tones.
“Four Doomed Men Ride Out” by Jeff Herriott, S. Craig Zahler
I like it if I can find at least one laugh-out-loud track in a year of emotionally cathartic songs. Bone Tomahawk is an oater western of grisly genre twists and wry comic work from its mismatched band of characters. While many of the characters’ lines feel ironically funny, the film’s closing song, “Four Doomed Men Ride Out,” is a hysterically belted-out anthem/encapsulation of the film’s plot and themes. “Little did they know of the ANCIENT RAAAAAAAACE!,” belts out Herriot and Zahler with on-the-nose vigor, very aware of how ludicrously anachronistic many of their films’ antithetical turns are.
“Opening” by Carter Burwell
The best music tends to empower you in ways you’d never known you needed. If I were to pick the track I’ve most frequently listened to this year – and when it hasn’t tangibly been in my ears, it’s been running romantically through my head – it’s Carter Burwell’s beautiful beyond description theme to Todd Haynes’ satisfying beyond measure ’50s lesbian romance Carol. That may construct a pedestal that the film can’t live up to, and for some it will come off as too emotionally restrained. For me, though, there’s not a moment of the film that’s emotionally muted. Burwell’s score is a major part of that, mixing his usual brand of amber melancholy with the minty melodrama Haynes is most known for. It never ceases to inspire hope in my personal relationships and confidence in my own desiring.
2015 in Film Playlist
- “Cause I Knew” by Lisa Hartman (L’il Quinquin)
- “Thief Chase” by Nick Urata (Paddington)
- “Coat of Arms” by Cat’s Eyes (The Duke of Burgundy)
- “Timbuktu Fasso” by Amine Bouhafa, Fatoumata Diawara (Timbuktu)
- “White Flag” by Dido (Mommy)
- “Arcade” by Para One (Girlhood)
- “Diamonds” by Rihanna (Girlhood)
- “Lost in Music [1984 Bernard Edwards & Nile Rogers Remix]” by Sister Sledge (Looking: Season 2)
- “Sinfonietta La Jolla for Piano and Chamber Orchestra, H. 328: III. Allegro” by Bohuslav Martinu, Josef Hala (Ballet 422)
- “How Come You Don’t Want Me” by Tegan and Sara (The Duff)
- “Haunted” by Beyonce (Fifty Shades of Grey)
- “Arrestation” by Arnaud Rebotini (Eastern Boys)
- “Peeno Noir” (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 1)
- “Title” by Disasterpiece (It Follows)
- “Yamasuki” by Yamasuki Singers (Kumiko the Treasure Hunter)
- “At the Home of the Giant Wolfe” by Volkova Sisters (White God)
- “Get Down Saturday Night” by Oliver Cheatham (Ex Machina)
- “Beyond Clueless” by Summer Camp (Beyond Clueless)
- “The Power of the Mind” by Headhunterz (Heaven Knows What)
- “Esper” by Remy Nadeau-Aubin (Tu dors Nicole)
- “Who Can You Trust” by Ivy Levan (Spy)
- “What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes (Sense8: Season 1)
- “Within” by Daft Punk (Eden)
- “Bundle of Joy” by Michael Giacchino (It Follows)
- “Can’t Bring Me Down” by Awreeoh (Dope)
- “Pony” by Ginuwine (Magic Mike XXL)
- “Stronger Than Me” by Amy Winehouse (Amy)
- “Gotta Go Home” by Okko (Tangerine)
- “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morisette (The End of the Tour)
- “Turandot / Act 3: Nessun dorma!” by Giacomo Puccini (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation)
- “Une nouvelle famille” by Gabriel Yared (Tom at the Farm)
- “Souvenir” by Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark (Mistress America)
- “Sinking” by Keegan DeWitt (Queen of Earth)
- “Hymn Part 2” by Heather McIntosh (Z for Zachariah)
- “You & Me – Flume Remix” by Disclosure, Eliza Doolittle (Respire)
- “Waterloo” by ABBA (The Martian)
- “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes (The Final Girls)
- “Four Doomed Men Ride Out” by Jeff Herriott, S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk)
- “Return of the Mack – C & J Street Mix” by Mark Morrison (Master of None: Season 1)
- “Opening” by Carter Burwell (Carol)
- “Say You, Say Me” by Lionel Richie (Arabian Nights: Volume Two – The Desolate One)
- “Lover Why” by Century (Arabian Nights: Volume Two – The Desolate One)
- “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by The Platters (45 Years)