Great music can play a pivotal role in crafting a movie's identity. Sometimes the music is even a pillar on which a movie is built - if it is weak, the quality of the whole project takes a significant blow. Consider last year's Gravity for an example: Alfonso Cuarón chose to acknowledge the fact that sound doesn't travel in the vacuum of space, so all the audience hears in the movie is what the characters pick up within their helmets and through the vibrations in their suits. That decision put pressure on the compositions of Steven Price to carry the bulk of the audio responsibilities. Sandra Bullock's performance and Cuarón's direction were both incredible, deserving of their accolades, but Gravity would have suffered greatly had Price not been so successful. The power of effective music ought not be ignored.
For fear of flaming torches and megaphones being pointed in my specific direction, this list isn't being presented as 'the best soundtracks of all time.' No numbers, no pronounced order, nothing so serious. What follows is merely a few scores that I can't help but recommend.
Like Crazy - Dustin O'Halloran
If I were to try counting on my fingers the number of times I have chosen this wonderful score to fall asleep to, I'd need like... twelve arms. I enjoy this music so much that it makes Like Crazy probably the only movie on this list that I would watch again with explicit intention to see if and how the movie complements the music; in everything else, I'm okay with the score residing in the background. This is a man and his piano hanging out with a string section, doing everything in music's power to tell a love story. Also: Opus 55, for something with a bit more variation; or Coda, for a sample of Dustin O'Halloran's follow-up work in Breathe In.
Avatar - James Horner
Maybe I got carried away trying to sell Like Crazy. Let's dial it back a bit. Avatar is one of those movies that almost has an 'either you love it or you hate it' reputation. Comments on its quality seem to tend toward 'ooo my favorite $2 billion I SEE YOU' on one end or 'ugh it's just Dances with Wolves / Pocahontas / FernGully / Atlantis: The Lost Empire' on the other end of the spectrum. Personally, I think Cameron's movie has several redeeming qualities, one of which being its soundtrack.
The Lord of the Rings - Howard Shore
Howard. Shore. The guy's work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy is incredible. He had to write memorable, distinct themes for various regions and peoples of Middle Earth, then iterate and improve upon them dramatically for two successive installments. Add to that the fact that the proper runtime of the trilogy is 681 minutes... that there was a daunting task, and Shore delivered. Also: Recommending ten hours' worth of [magnificent] music seems a bit excessive to me, so here's a ten minute playlist instead.
Moon - Clint Mansell
Moon's score is similar to Like Crazy's in that it primarily features a man playing a piano. Like Crazy is a romance about two young lovers though, while Moon is a bit of sci-fi about a man working alone on the Moon, longing for home. The difference in genre means Clint Mansell's Moon gets to explore more intense situations. Also: Welcome to Lunar Industries.
How to Train Your Dragon - John Powell
There have been times in the last three or four years when I've been more excited to hear John Powell's How to Train Your Dragon 2 effort than to see the movie itself. That's a credit to how great I think the score is, not a knock on DeBlois and Sanders' feature (because let me tell you, I like HTTYD more than all but one or two Pixar flicks). This soundtrack covers everything from action setpieces, to romantic stargazing, to 'oh my god are you dead?' It also has one of my favorite closing credits songs ever (Jonsi's Sticks and Stones). Also: If I were to rank my favorite HTTYD tracks, Test Drive is 1a and Forbidden Friendship is 1b; Where's Hiccup?
In closing, I must admit that music isn't a major interest of mine. Film scores simply make up a genre that I've taken a real liking to these last few years. The fact of the matter is that there are plenty of scores that I haven't listened to enough to give props to here. Scores like Gladiator and Sunshine come highly recommended, and big names like Hans Zimmer and Michael Giacchino didn't even make this initial list; maybe I'll highlight them in a sequel (because Hollywood loves sequels!) to this post in the future.
One last thing as I wrap this up: I'm a gamer almost as much as I am a movie fanatic. I'd be remiss if I gushed about my favorite scores without mentioning some of the brilliant work that has come out of that more interactive medium. If it's of any interest to you, check out Behold a Pale Horse by Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori (Halo 3), Lighter Than Air by Garry Schyman (BioShock Infinite), and The Last of Us by Gustavo Santaolalla (The Last of Us).
Have any recommendations of your own? Share 'em in the comments!