Top Ten Movie Musical Themes of the 2010’s

As I have been writing this blog for nearly the last six years, I’ve observed many different changes going on in and around the film industry that have certainly made the last decade a largely transitional one for film as a whole.  The rise of streaming content, the growing international film market, the Me Too movement, and so on.  As we make our way through the year 2019, we are now coming to a point of looking back at the decade that was the 2010’s and seeing how it shaped our world and what is likely to come in the decade ahead.  With regards to cinema, I think that it’s time to look back at the last 10 years to see what left the most impact on the films we watch today.  Starting with this article, all my top ten lists this year will be ones related to the 2010’s, all culminating in a list early in 2020 when I list the Top 10 movies of the decade.  Each one will cover a different subject that I think helped mark the 2010’s as a defining decade in the history of cinema.  To start off, I decided to look at my personal picks for the best musical themes from movies of the last 10 years.  The list, like the others will span the years between 2010-2019, and will cover a wide variety of genres.  But one thing that will stand out about this list is the way that I’ve observed some trends in music having a more defining impact as one movie’s soundtrack becomes so influential that it spawns many more like it.  There are music tracks on this list that do indeed fall within the same soundscape, while there are also others that really do feel outside of their time.  In any case, apart from personal tastes, I do feel that these were the music tracks that left the most impact on the decade and are the ones that will continue to have a rippling effect on the music of the future.

Like many of my other music centric lists, I have provided embedded video of each theme found on YouTube, so that you can have clear context of what each musical piece sounds like.  Every composer will be listed, and hopefully I don’t stack the list with too many familiar names, because some of these composers stand amongst the greatest of all time, while some may be unknown to some of you and only got their fresh start more recently.  Also, this is a list of purely orchestral music, and no songs are included (sorry Frozen and A Star is Born).  Anyway, let’s take a look at my picks for the best musical themes from movies of the 2010’s.

10.

GEORGE VALENTIN THEME from THE ARTIST (2011)

Composed by Ludovic Bource

Here we start off with one of the common themes you’ll see about the music of the 2010’s, which is new music that draws heavy inspiration from the past.  In this case, we get a throwback to the distant past; one that goes all the way back to Hollywood’s infancy.  French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius sought out to do the unthinkable in the 21st century, which was to make a non-cynical, highly detailed replication of the kind of silent film made before the advent of synchronized sound; relying entire on the things we take for granted in cinema to drive the emotion of the story: the visuals, the actor’s gestures, and of course, the music.  And what he ended up with was a surprise Oscar winner, taking home the coveted Best Picture for that year.  The musical score in particular is quite extraordinary, because not only does it feel like a product of the period the film dramatizes, but it also captures the imagination of the modern listener, being both catchy and powerfully evocative at times.  Of course, composer Ludovic Bource (who also won an Oscar) benefits from the greatly improved technology of our times.  The score never sounds like it was recorded on warped and decaying magnetic tape like other music of that era.  It’s clear as a bell and invokes how the movie would sound if it were played with a live orchestra in front of the screen, which is I’m sure how some lucky viewer might have seen the movie during it’s early roll-out in film festivals before it hit cinemas worldwide.  The entire score has many lovely original melodies, like the “Peppy Waltz” or the “Grande Finale.”  But the main theme, devoted to the main protagonist, dashing movie star George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin), is the one that leaves the best impression, and displays the all the best elements of the score; playful, nostalgic, and just pleasent to listen to.  It’s a score that tries it’s best to invoke a time when music was central to a movie’s character, and it succeeds in every way.

9.

REY’S THEME from STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

Composed by John Williams

Arguably the greatest film composer who’s ever lived, John Williams is not entering his twilight years quietly.  In his mid 80’s, he is continuing to compose new original music for a variety of films, including those for his longtime collaborator Steven Spielberg as well as for the film series that put him on the map to begin with; Star Wars.  After it was announced following the purchase of Lucasfilm by Disney that a new trilogy of Star Wars films were going to be made, many had hoped that John Williams would return to compose the scores as he had for all 6 previous films in the series.  And to many fans delight, he did.  Though no longer under the guidance of George Lucas, John Williams set out to create a musical score that would feel in line with all the past films in the series, while at the same time allowing him to branch out and try new things.  It’s hard to think of how he could add anything new to the Star Wars musical soundscape.  His Oscar-winning Star Wars (1977) score is considered by many to be the greatest ever written, and since then he’s added numerous icon pieces to this long running franchise.  So, nearly 40 years later, could he still match what had come before.  The answer was yes, but not in the way you’d expect.  The power of The Force Awakens score is that it combines the bombastic themes we all know and love with new themes that return the series to what it was best at before; building character.  Admidst powerful pieces like “The Resistance Theme” and “The Jedi Steps,” there are subtler pieces like “Rey’s Theme” that really show of his talent as a composer.  In Rey’s Theme, we get a wonderful underscore to the film’s main heroine, sounding like a small flame caught in the wind before it bellows into a bright inferno.  It’s here that Williams found something new to add to the music of Star Wars and show that he indeed could still leave his mark so many years into an already legendary career.  Rey’s Theme, more than anything, shows that even the familiar can evolve and show us new things that will only continue to grow over time.

8.

MAIN THEME from PACIFIC RIM (2013)

Composed by Ramin Djawadi

Now we come to a theme that feels more at home in the present.  One of the rising stars in the world of film composing from the last decade was undoubtedly Iranian-German composer Ramin Djawadi.  A protegee of Hans Zimmer, Djawadi cut his teeth by providing original music for numerous TV shows as well as many action films.  Carrying a talent for bombastic sound in his scores, he was very much sought after to give many projects a more epic feel.  He’s probably best known today for creating the Game of Thrones theme, which is just as recognizable to audiences as any epic movie score of the last half century.  But, he was also responsible for some incredible movie scores as well, the best of which being the one that he wrote for Guillermo Del Toro’s blockbuster Pacific Rim.  Collaborating with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, who provided the guitar riffs for much of the score’s most incredible bits, Djwadi created a wonderfully energized score that fits very well with Del Toro’s earnest but also cheeky homage to the monster movie genre.  The main theme in particular evokes the larger than life clash between monsters and men that the movie presents, but also presents the same never taking itself too seriously attitude that permeates the rest of the movie.  It’s meant to be evocative and triumphant, but also at the same time a lot of fun to listen to.  The Morello riffs in particular sell that point, counterbalancing the bigger orchestral sweeps with a little rock and roll.  It’s a multifaceted showcase that works as a great pick me up (especially for those who like something to pump them up for a workout) and it helps to present Ramin Djwadi as a talent who is likely going to continue growing as an artist in the decades ahead.

7.

PLANETARIUM from LA LA LAND (2016)

Composed by Justin Hurwitz

Much like The ArtistLa La Land’s score draws heavy inspiration from the past, only this time a little closer to the present.  The movie is a wonderfully constructed send-up of musicals from the Golden Age of Hollywood, a time when pageantry ruled.  And though it’s ambitious in it’s score, it’s centered around a story that’s intimately centered around two people in a very contemporary fashion.  What is remarkable is that a score of this type came from a composer as young as Justin Hurwitz, whose career in Hollywood is still relatively young.  Having come up in the business with his former classmate and best friend Damien Chazelle, who directed La La Land, Hurwitz is still fairly new to Hollywood, and yet has this incredible ear for the way movie musicals used to sound like.  Though the film has standout song and dance numbers, it’s the completely orchestral piece called “Planetarium” that really shows Hurwitz’s talents as a composer and it’s also the movie’s most incredible use of music in general.  Orchestrating to a a scene where the characters played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone go on a date to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles seems simple enough, and it does indeed start with simple piano and woodwinds in the early moments.  But once the scene takes off into flights of fantasy, then the full might of the orchestra comes to life, creating a wonderfully out of this world rendition of the love theme.  No words are sung, only music, and it invokes some of the great ballet sequences of movie musicals like An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952) which also relied on completely orchestral movements.  In a movie that I don’t think gets enough credit for it’s purely musical moments, and one that shows an incredible showcase for an enormously talented newcomer, Planetarium is one of the decades most incredible single pieces of music composition.

6.

RECOGNIZER from TRON LEGACY (2010)

Composed by Daft Punk

If you’re looking for a musical score that left a heavy influence on the decade after it’s premiere, the last one you would expect would be the one from a sequel to a cult sci-fi action film from Disney.  Disney really went outside of the box to come up with the music for it’s follow up to the movie Tron (1982).  The original itself was a oddity for the company, utilizing the synth melodies of pioneer composer Wendy Carlos, who also scored A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining for Stanley Kubrick.  In order to match that kind of soundscape, Disney looked into the EDM field of modern music, which uses the electronic synth as a major part of it’s character, and recruited two of the biggest names from that genre to put together this new score; those being the groundbreaking French DJ’s known as Daft Punk.  A Daft Punk scored Disney film seems like a weird congruence of events on the surface, but it is exactly the ideal combination that made the incredible score for Tron Legacy work.  Regarded more highly than the film it was made for, the Tron Legacy is epic in all the right ways, while never straying too far from the Daft Punk style.   And it blends perfectly into the cyber world that provides the movie’s setting.  The whole score is full of incredible tracks, but the best one would probably be the theme “Recognizer” because it’s the introduction to the World of The Grid that provides the movie’s setting.  Dark, foreboding, and sweeping, it sets the perfect tone for the rest of the movie, and shows that Daft Punk has more up their sleeves than just club music.  The Tron Legacy soundtrack itself went on to influence a electronic enhanced sound that permeated into the scores of many films from the last decade, and that is a real testament to it’s actual “legacy.”  So many movies have tried to sound just like it, mostly in the action adventure genre, so you have to respect the ones who pioneered it here first and showed just how well this kind of music could be used in film.

5.

EDEN from IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (2018)

Composed by Nicholas Britell

The most recent film score to make this list is also one that draws heavily from the past.  The inspiration however comes less from Hollywood, and more from the cultural movements that sprung out of the African American community, particularly in the Harlem Renaissance that this Barry Jenkin’s film celebrates.  Nicholas Britell’s deeply emotional score, which is brimming with nods to classic jazz and afro-centric melodies that flourished during the period of the movie’s setting, is one of the most beautiful scores that I can recall in recent memory.  The love theme in particular called “Eden” is the beating heart of the movie.  It’s a beautiful composition that embodies a strong sense of the feeling of bonding love, which is what the movie is all about as we follow a young couple growing deeply in love even while society keeps pulling them apart.  It’s melancholy to be sure, but with an undercurrent of hopefulness to it.  The movie lost out in the Oscar race for best score to Ludwig Goransson’s Black Panther (2018) soundtrack, which itself was quite good, but If Beale Streets score is so much more transcendent and in my opinion will probably be remembered long after.  Britell, who also scored the music for Barry Jenkin’s Oscar winner Moonlight (2016), went above and beyond with his work in this film.  The music is just as much a character itself, being the pillar of support for a community that often has so much taken away from it.  It’s a celebration of a people and a place, and illustrates that the music of Harlem is just as important to the character of America as any other.  As a way of giving music to an adaptation of legendary writer James Baldwin’s work, the music here just sounds so perfectly matched.  And it also shows that amongst all the heavy handed bombastic music of Hollywood, it’s something small and poetic that delights the soul in the end.

4.

THE BEAST from SICARIO (2015)

Composed by Johann Johannsson

From something heartwarming to something utterly terrifying.  This piece of music is really unlike any other from the decade, and is perfectly in character with the movie that it comes from.  Composer Johann Johannsson, whose life was tragically cut short last year, was given the special task of scoring a movie about the Drug Wars on the Mexican/ American border that completely subverted what you’d expect.  Never bombastic, the score he wrote instead reinforces this continuing sense of dread that will never let up, much like the conflict that the movie dramatizes.  That is reflected most effectively in the centerpiece composition called “The Beast.”  When given the assignment by director Denis Villeneuve, he was told to write something akin to John Williams “shark” theme from the movie Jaws (1975).  And indeed, much like how the Jaws theme captured this perfect sense of a growing threat, Johannsson’s “The Beast” has this unsettling growing tension that builds as the music continues to swell, very much conveying the feeling of entering the belly of the so-called Beast.  Only the Beast in Sicario is no monster, nor a villainous presence.  It’s a city; Juarez, Mexico to be exact.  When we hear this theme in the film, it underscores a raid by joint American and Mexican forces who enter the city under heavy guard in order to extract an informant involved in the drug cartel.  Juarez is known throughout the world as one of it’s most dangerous cities in real life, and this musical theme really emphasizes the descent into hell on earth that this moment in the movie represents.  Quite literally, it begins with a flyover of the heavily fortified border between Juarez and El Paso and the music continues to build as the convoy of armored vehicles heads across the border crossing and deeper into the city.  It’s an unforgettable sequence made even more memorable by Johannsson’s music.  It’s too bad that his career ended so abruptly because pieces of music like “The Beast” show that Johann had enormous talent in finding the operatic within the contemporary.

3.

THE AVENGERS THEME from THE AVENGERS (2012)

Composed by Alan Silvestri

Now if there was anything that defined the 2010’s cinematically, it would probably be the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The incredible achievement by Marvel Studios to create a multi-franchise, serialized narrative across all their films will no doubt stand as the biggest thing to ever come out of this last decade.  But if there is one thing that has been Marvel’s Achilles Heel, it’s been their lack of memorable music.  Their musical scores are serviceable, but don’t have the iconic status that John Williams Superman theme does, nor Danny Elfman’s Batman theme.  You couldn’t pull any single track from one of their movies and have anyone instantly say “oh that’s Captain America’s theme.”  But, the clear exception no doubt is conveniently the main theme for the entire team itself; that of the Avengers.  The Avengers theme, first used in the original 2012 film has in a way become the main theme for the MCU as a whole, and it fits perfectly.  Who better to create this triumphant, unifying piece of music to symbolize all of Marvel’s heroes as a whole than the man who created one of the most triumphant musical scores ever for Back to the Future (1985).  Alan Silvestri, a longtime veteran within the industry, seemed to find the essence of what makes Marvel what it is, which is super heroism infused with personality.  The Avengers theme certainly takes center stage within the film franchise itself, but can be heard subtly in every other Marvel film as well, acting as a connective tissue for the whole thing.  It’s also versatile as well, carrying moments of levity, as well as triumph, but also can be used to underscore solemn moments as well, which was especially evident in the final moments of Avengers: Infinity War (2018).  It’s fitting that the central theme for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole is one that feels so exhilarating and like it’s contemporaries from DC movies of the past, it creates immediate excitement every time you hear it.  And given how important the MCU has been to cinema in the last decade, it’s only fitting that it’s main musical theme has left a similar impact on audiences as well.

2.

BROTHERS IN ARMS from MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)

Composed by Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL

Tron Legacy may have opened the door for “rave” style electronic music to become part of cinematic scores, but Mad Max: Fury Road kicked that door right off of it’s hinges. To create the soundscape for his long awaited new chapter into the Mad Max franchise, director George Miller called upon famed dutch progressive artist and DJ Junkie XL to compose the score for his post-apocalyptic vision.  And boy did he deliver an assault on the senses.  Junkie XL, or Tom Holkenborg as he’s credited, throws everything into the mix; electronic synth, heavy percussion, and even a little opera into the blender and creates on of the most original scores of not just this decade, but probably ever.  And you couldn’t expect any less from a movie where a manic rocker is shown strapped to the top of a truck playing a flame-throwing guitar.  The entire score is an insane piece of work, but probably the standout would be this particular tune called “Brothers in Arms.”  Inspired by the vehicle obsessed cult that chases after Mad Max throughout the film, the music underscores the insane road chase that comes to a climax at the end of the film.  It’s here that Holkenborg really lets loose and throws caution to the wind, allowing the score to hit it’s epic highs.  It’s unmistakably modern in sound, but has this strangely appropriate infusion of classical music as well, taking cues from Wagnerian operas.  It’s an appropriately used, as there is something almost “viking” and barbarian-like about the villainous gang in pursuit of the film’s heroes.  It wouldn’t be that shocking if the music of a post-apocalyptic world did sound this way.  By being so original, and unafraid of what it could be, “Brothers in Arms” stands as the single most epic piece of music from the 2010’s.  Holkenborg has gone on to score many more like-minded action films, no doubt because he garnered so much attention for his work here, but his score for Mad Max is still his best to date and “Brothers in Arms” his masterpiece.

1.

TIME from INCEPTION (2010)

Composed by Hans Zimmer

All of the musical pieces on this list represent different trends that have left an impact on cinematic scores throughout the decade, but the single very best piece of music comes from a composer who delivered something so otherworldly of it’s own kind that it stands on another level entirely.  Hans Zimmer is a composer at the peak of his craft, and has delivered some of the most memorable pieces of music for the last 30 years.  Though reliably inventive and impactful on countless films, he always seems to save his “A” material for only a certain handful of directors, and one of those happens to be Christopher Nolan.  The scores to Nolan’s movies are among the most ambitious and epic you’ll ever hear, and Hans Zimmer is responsible for the majority of them.  Whether it’s the agressive character themes for the Dark Knight trilogy, or the 2001: A Space Odyssey inspired organ-enhanced tunes of Interstellar (2014), or the ticking clock motif of Dunkirk (2017), Zimmer seems to be continually pushing the bar higher every time he collaborates on Nolan’s films.  But, it’s with Inception that Hans Zimmer delivered probably his most incredible score yet, and probably the single best piece of music from the 2010’s.  The entire score has incredible themes, but it’s the one called “Time” that stays with you long after seeing the movie.  Carrying over the motif of living in between dreams and reality, “Time” embodies the ethereal sense of waking into a new life, where time literally changes before you.  It’s used periodically throughout the film, but hits it’s high point at the finale of the movie.  And I dare anyone to listen to the final part of this piece of music and not visualize that spinning top that gives the movie it’s perfectly ambiguous ending.  For a musical score that for the most part includes some pretty aggressive elements, like the now notorious low note (“BWAAAMMMHH”) sound that became especially copycatted throughout the decade, “Time” is a beautifully noble piece to close the movie on, and it encapsulates the incredible journey that leads up to it.  It’s Hans Zimmer’s greatest work in a career that already includes some of the greatest pieces of music ever composed.

And there you have my choices for the best pieces of music from the 2010’s in cinema.  Sure, there are 9 months left to go in this decade, and one more could end up surprising and take it’s place among the movies that I picked here, but as it stands, I’m pretty sure that these will still be the best pieces of music from the last decade.  I found it fascinating how the musical scores of this decade split between looking back into the past and those looking into the future.  There were some amazing throwbacks like La La Land, If Beale Street Could Talk, and The Artist that held their own throughout the decade, but we also saw the infusion of electronic dance music come into the mix in Tron Legacy and Fury Road which gave their movies a decidedly ahead of their time sound.  Even with all that, stalwarts like Hans Zimmer, John Williams and Alan Silvestri continued to deliver musical compositions that stood up strongly with anything else they have written in their storied careers.  If there was anything that really defined the music of the movies from the 2010’s, it was the common theme of experimentation.  There was no real standard to how movies should sound during this time; composers were free to deliver music that were really meant to set their movies apart, and sound like nothing heard before.  That wasn’t always true across the board (case in point, the Marvel film’s lack of diversity) but the movies that did make an impact had scores that really challenged their audiences and made them reconsider what they like to hear when they go to the movies.  Who would have thought that the most popular movie musicals of the decade sounded closer to musicals of the past and less like the pop music of the present.  With this, I started my look back at the decade that was, and I hope many of you who read through this will continue to follow the other lists I put forward in the future.  It was a wild decade in Hollywood, and I’m interested in seeing how the closing of the 2010’s will leave it’s mark on the next ten years that follow.  At least when it comes to the music, the ones that stood out the most provided the most ideal of playlists.

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