[Article - The Best of 2004]

2004 has come to a close. This year saw a lot of losses in the film music industry, especially with Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein (among others) passing away. However, there are still many great composers out there, and as part of our annual end-of-the-year event, here are my picks for The Best of 2004.

Top 10 Soundtracks of 2004

The Incredibles (Michael Giacchino)
This has to be one of my favorite scores of the year. The big-band / 60's jazzy adventure/action score has a lot of heart to it too, and once you hear this score, you won't be able to get it out of your head. It still excites me to hear it, months later.

The Aviator (Howard Shore)
After kicking major butt with The Lord of the Rings, Shore delivers a solid dramatic score for Martin Scorsese. With plenty of classical influences and period-toned pieces, this album and score is top-notch.

Sideways (Rolfe Kent)
For his latest Alexander Payne film, Kent goes jazzy - lots of laid back and swingin' rhythms, as well as plenty of emotional moments. This is a versatile album you can enjoy in all manners - focused listening, or casual background music.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Edward Shearmur)
This throwback to the big orchestral swashbuckling scores of the '30s is a blast to listen to. Shearmur takes his knowledge of orchestral writing to heart, and gives us a varied and powerful score, full of pomp and circumstance.

The Polar Express (Alan Silvestri)
Silvestri had two great scores this year - Van Helsing was a powerhouse action score with lots of choir, but the soundtrack was missing the low-key intimate moments, which were sorely missing. The Polar Express, however, is a great score with plenty of emotionally moving themes, as well as some great action writing to boot. The songs are a mixed bunch, but one of them definitely stands out (as you'll see below).

The Passion of the Christ (John Debney)
John Debney might be known for his comedy scores, but he diverged from the expected with his percussive, ethnic score for The Passion of the Christ. Using soloist Lisbeth Scott in a brilliant performance gives what could have just been Middle-Eastern music a soul that uplifts and inspires.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (John Williams)
It took a while, but finally Williams delivered a Harry Potter score that I was impressed with. With numerous themes, some playful, and some emotional, most of the good stuff is at the front of the album - and you can tell Williams was having fun with the orchestra. It gives me hope for Star Wars: Episode III to hear this kind of writing once again.

The Punisher (Carlo Siliotto)
It's a modern spaghetti-western, in the style of Ennio Morricone's Sergio Leone scores. Memorable themes, and a very European sound, make this a unique action score. While the film is ultimately forgettable, this is a soundtrack that sticks.

Hellboy (Marco Beltrami)
While I, Robot was the more "emotional" of the scores that Beltrami wrote in 2004, Hellboy was the most interesting. With strong themes, and plenty of emotional and action music, the album is a great listen.

Team America: World Police (Trey Parker / Harry Gregson-Williams)
Even though Marc Shaiman's untimely departure from the project meant that Harry Gregson-Williams had to scramble to write the score, and underscore for the songs, he delivered exactly what this action-film satire required. Trey Parker's songs are painfully funny, hitting every clichéd genre with gusto. Gregson-Williams was, in a way, asked to parody himself, and gave us a fun (if not predictable) score that would make Jerry Bruckheimer wet himself.

Honorable Mentions

The Village (James Newton Howard)
With strained violin solos and tense emotional music, The Village is one of the more interesting and haunting scores of the year. Even better, there's no gratuitous pop-song at the end!

King Arthur (Hans Zimmer)
Where Team America: World Police was a satire of Bruckheimer films, Zimmer's score to King Arthur is a full-blown event, with big themes, huge action, and even some romantic stuff that shows up, well, as a gratuitous pop-song at the end.

A Noteworthy Unreleased Score

Troy (Gabriel Yared)
Sadly, one of the best film scores of the year was never released. Or included in the film. Gabriel Yared's score to Troy was tossed, because it was apparently deemed "too old-fashioned". However, that's exactly what the film needed. This large-scale operatic work features choir, soloists, and a staggeringly beautiful love theme. It's a shame this happened, but it's also not uncommon. Welcome to Hollywood!

Top 5 Songs of 2004

"I'm So Ronery" / "America, F**k Yeah!" - Team America: World Police
With a bunch of songs all worthy of praise, these were the best from the film. Kim Jong Il just wants to be loved - is that so wrong? Well, his pronunciation is. And that makes "I'm So Ronery" work. A Spinal Tap edged hard rock anthem, "America, F**k Yeah!" is just too funny to talk about. I'd love to see them try to perform it at the Oscars!

"Learn to be Lonely" - The Phantom of the Opera
The latest film adaptation of a Broadway musical, The Phantom of the Opera gives us a new song that, while actually kinda depressing, is a nice way to end the film. Interestingly enough, it was performed in the film by the Phantom during the Masquerade Ball sequence, but was cut for time.

"Believe" - The Polar Express
I will be a happy person if no one ever tries to rhyme "hot" and "chocolate" ever again in my lifetime. While these are a few annoying songs on The Polar Express (as well as a few classic holiday oldies), "Believe" by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard is quite good, reminding us all why Christmas is so special.

"Tell Me Now (What You See)" - King Arthur
Clannad's Moya Brennan sings this song, with music by Hans Zimmer. It's a touching, ethereal love song, and works well with the rest of the score (which was certainly a runner-up for the Best of 2004).

"Double Trouble" - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
John Williams takes the Witches Brew from Shakespeare's Macbeth and gives it a melody. It only shows up once in the film, but the theme ends up in the score spattered throughout. It doesn't really have a meaning, but it's a clever ditty, and worked exceptionally well in the original teaser trailer.

Top 10 Special Releases / Re-Recordings of 2004

Mary Poppins: Special Edition (Robert and Richard Sherman)
It's not the "complete" soundtrack, but now we have all of the songs, and plenty of source/underscore to keep you satisfied. A second disc with archival interviews and story meetings make this an education package as well as an entertaining one.

Battle of the Planets (Hoyt Curtin / Bob Sakuma)
Japanimation comes home! This two disc set takes care of any desire you might have had for the fun music from this classic television show. It's peppy and fun, and works great as a companion to The Incredibles.

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (Vic Mizzy)
It's not creepy or cooky, but this much coveted Mizzy score finally gets its due on CD. With remastered sound, and a thick booklet, this limited release is a must-have in any serious soundtrack collector's library

Mutiny on the Bounty (Bronislau Kaper)
This three-disc set provides us with the complete score to Kaper's swashbuckling dramatic score, and with alternate takes, unused material, and source cues, it's everything you would expect it to be. Film Score Monthly is doing a bang-up job with their releases, and are true lovers of film music with the care and dedication they put into their products.

The Adventures of Mark Twain (Max Steiner, Cond. William Stromberg)
The restoration duo of Williams Stromberg and John Morgan are at it again, with Steiner's classic score. It's never sounded this good - even the DVD version is great!

Jerry Goldsmith at 20th Century Fox (Jerry Goldsmith)
This six-disc collection of rare and unreleased scores from Goldsmith's time at Fox sold out quickly, but if you can get it, it's worth it. From Damnation Alley to S.P.I.E.S., some of his earlier and lesser-known works are here.

The Great Escape (Elmer Bernstein)
Remastered and complete, this Varese Sarabande Club release fills two discs with one of Bernstein's best scores. It's a great tribute to a man who has given us so much wonderful film music.

The Big Wednesday (Basil Poledouris)
One of Basil Poledouris' earlier scores is also one of his best. It's not exactly what you would expect for surfer music - full orchestra, sweeping themes, and even some action music. Again, Film Score Monthly does us all a service with this fine release.

Dirty Harry (Lalo Schifrin)
One of the best modern action films of our time, Schifrin's score to Dirty Harry gives us a jazzy soundtrack, with bonus cues and restored sound. From Schifrin's own label, it's worth snagging.

Piranha (Pino Donaggio)
Pino Donaggio's score to Joe Dante's cult classic won't exactly put the fear of water in you like Williams did for Jaws, but it will make you double-check before you enter. Unfortunately, this Varese Sarabande Club release quickly sold-out.

Honorable Mentions

Amerika (Basil Poledouris)
This one is a must-have for anyone who is interested in where Lonesome Dove got its origins, and it's been requested for years.

Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone (Ennio Morricone)
These two albums are definitely worth considering if you are looking for a great and unique performance of Ennio's classic (and not so classic) themes.

Top Computer Game Soundtracks

The Incredibles (Michael Giacchino)
When is the last time you heard of an alternate score to one of the best film scores of the year? Not in a while, I'm guessing. Yet Michael Giacchino (along with Chris Tilton and Tim Simonec) essentially re-wrote and re-adapted his score to The Incredibles for the computer game. The structure of the cues are basically the same, but the themes are different. It's just as good as the original, but in a bizarro-world / alternate-universe way. No official CD release, yet.

Headhunter / Headhunter: Redemption (Richard Jacques)
This two-CD release from La-La Land Records gives us pretty much everything we'd want, with tons of action music that is, as our reviewer said, "James Bond meets Spy Hunter meets Metal Gear with a touch of Basil Poledouris". Either way you look at it, it's a fun-filled listen.

James Bond: Everything or Nothing (Sean Callery)
Speaking of James Bond... "24" composer Sean Callery took a stab at the latest Bond videogame, and the result is a techno-edged action score that would make David Arnold look twice. Toss in a fun song by Mya that is a throwback to the Bond films of old, and you've got a great soundtrack. But again, no official release, yet.

Republic: The Revolution (James Hannigan)
Released as a promo, James Hannigan's score to this game is a huge choral work that also has plenty of solo performances, both vocal and instrument. It makes a nice companion piece to Jesper Kyd's Freedom Fighters score.

Mercenaries (Michael Giacchino / Chris Tilton)
At this point, people are wondering if I have a thing for Michael Giacchino's music. Well, yeah, I think he's a great composer with a lot of talent and skill, and he's definitely a person to keep an eye on. That being said, he wrote the main themes for the new LucasArts computer game, Mercenaries. Tilton filled out the rest of the score, and has clearly learned well from his mentor. La-La Land Records provides the release, as well as some great liner notes.