It's often said that television is having a good run lately with long-form storytelling and miniseries packages attracting top-tier content. What's less often recognized is that television score composition is also having a renaissance.
Writing music for TV isn't just about penning an opening credit theme and a few multi-purpose cues any more. We're finally seeing how ahead of their time shows like Twin Peaks and The X Files really were with their composers working tirelessly to craft new scores for every episode.
Most year-end lists are lumping television music with film scores, but I want to separate them. (Here's my list of the year's best movie music.) This list contains some incredible examples of what composers can do when given 13 hours — instead of two — to work with.
1. Hannibal season two by Brian Reitzell
Over the last two seasons this show has steadily proven itself to be the most important show on television right now. If it continues, it could become one of the greatest series ever produced. A major reason for that is Brian Reitzell, who is steadily proving himself to be one of the most important composers working today; Hannibal is his best effort to date. As this series reinvents itself each season, there's no telling what challenges Reitzell will take on next. (I talked with Reitzell last year about his work on Hannibal, and this year about his score for the video game Watch Dogs.)
2. Penny Dreadful by Abel Korzeniowski
Penny Dreadful faced an uphill battle for relevance; striving to actually make something of itelf in a world filled with stories of monsters and nostalgia. Korzeniowski's score, with dramatic string orchestrations and prepared piano, really provided a foundation that instilled the show with more depth and soul than it necessarily needed to be a quick pop sensation, but that it desperately needed to go for anything more. The show became increasingly impressive over its debut season, and looks to continue doing so in its second season. (I talked with Korzeniowski in October.)
3. Fargo by Jeff Russo
Following the Coen Brothers and making something new of their iconic 1996 movie Fargo is no easy task. Russo's music had to not only live up to the classic work by Carter Burwell, but in some ways mimic it without mimicking it. The accomplishment of Russo is that his score feels like Burwell's score in a parallel universe. Holding onto the rich instrumentation of strings and percussion, it feels like something Burwell could have done, but also extends Burwell's ideas and proves its own worth. The track "Wrench and Numbers," which is still one of the best drum pieces of the year yet was completely overshadowed by the much-hyped percussive scores for Birdman and Whiplash.
4. True Detective by T-Bone Burnett
True Detective's musical selections (as highlighted in the above YouTube playlist) were well publicized for their quality and variety. Less publicized was the original music Burnett (who also hand-picked all the music) composed. It's in many ways music to not be noticed, filling in certain spaces with just enough pronunciation, but those drums are a sound unique to Burnett's recording techniques and sets the music apart from what anyone else would have done. Earlier this year, I highlighted ten things to know about this genre-crossing genius.
Pemberton earned acclaim for his work with Ridley Scott on The Counselor. He's recognized for his ability to blend organic instrumentation with rich electronics — much like previous collaborators of Scott's, notably Vangelis on Blade Runner. With The Game Pemberton shows that The Counselor was not a one-off, but the start of something that could prove to be worth the ever-growing attention.
6. Sonic Highways by Bryan Lee Brown
This documentary series by Dave Grohl is overloaded with music not only by the Foo Fighters, but the artists chronicled in each city. The fact that Brown can even be heard amongst the rest is a testament to the distinctive touches his music provides at very particular and important moments.
7. House of Cards season two by Jeff Beal
House of Cards is continuing to be a shining achievement for Beal — one of the finest composers working today — even as many viewers are starting to pass on the show. The second season brought in new levels of orchestration and depth along with some new arrangements of pieces from the first season that truly define what this show is trying to achieve.
8. The Knick by Cliff Martinez
Martinez's style was a unique choice for this period miniseries, but one that really paid off to provide a modern sensibility. For something that could have easily fallen into common tropes, the show is some of director Steven Soderbergh's best work, a testament to why he needs to keep working any way he feels comfortable.
9. The Leftovers by Max Richter
Max Richter is an astonishing composer whose work has steadily grown in presence from Shutter Island to The Congress in addition to impressive re-workings of Vivaldi. The Leftovers is a perfect fit for his lush orchestrations along with his ability to be sparse and eloquent.
10. Sherlock by David Arnold and Michael Price
This show took a lot of new turns with Series 3; most pronounced was the music that really escalated certain factors and played with the audience's interpretations of events. It's a brilliant evolution — especially impressive when so many of the themes are now hallmarks of modern television. This past spring I interviewed Arnold and Price about their remarkable work on this show.
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