Over the last few years, our understanding of television has changed dramatically. With it, too, has changed the way we understand music in television. This year in particular demonstrated the important role music can play to not only soundtrack a show, but set it apart from the competition. The scores on this list address the complications of our time by looking back as well as forward.
Westworld, Ramin Djawadi
HBO's Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi ushered in another complex narrative for them this year with Westworld. Whereas previous efforts of Djawadi are known for their bigness, his work on Westworld became especially delicate with heavy emphasis on the player piano to play original compositions as well as covers of classic songs. Rarely does a score work so well to fully integrate the topics of a story (in this case artificial intelligence).
Race for the White House, Anne Nikitin (episodes 1, 3, 4)
This year CNN produced a six-part series looking at especially important presidential races. Anne Nikitin and Ty Unwin were enlisted to divvy up responsibilities by each taking three episodes. While Ty Unwin's episodes sound more like traditional television documentary, Anne Nikitlin really sets her efforts apart by bringing the skills exhibited composing for documentary films like The Imposter and Chuck Norris vs Communism to the small screen. Her palette often thrives on rich strings and percussion, which provides her episodes a distinctive weight and thoughtful depth that really treats each story like a thriller with unimaginable stakes.
Penny Dreadful, Abel Korzeniowski
Penny Dreadful has always had an odd combination of horror and soap opera awash in gorgeous cinematography and stellar performances by some of our finest actors and actresses working today — most especially Eva Green. What Abel Korzeniowski (who I interviewed after the first season) has done to ground the show from the get-go is nothing short of astounding. He understands the need for balance, and has really done some of his most incredible work these last few years. Without his contributions, the show would not have nearly been as successful as it was.
Black Mirror, Max Richter, Geoff Barrow, Ben Salisbury, Clint Mansell, Alex Heffes, Bear McCreary, and Martin Phipps
There were many reasons to be happy when Black Mirror was picked up by Netflix. One in particular was its original music. With the upped budget and reception possibilities for its third season, the show was able to broaden its musicality and enlist some of the great composers working today. This gave the show an added dimension and helped make each episode distinctive. Whereas Max Richter brought his brand of classicism and an eerie simplicity to his music, Clint Mansell and Martin Phipps bring their particular brands of electronica and experimentalism that align well with their particular episodes.
Luke Cage, Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad
Luke Cage was always going to be about breaking boundaries with its title character and his integration into Netflix's successful suite of comic shows. However, bringing Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest into the madness demonstrated the depths the show wished to reach and how valuable the music was going to be in unfolding the narrative. This is anything but a traditional score and speaks to ways in which music can do your show a major favor if respectfully developed.
Bates Motel, Chris Bacon
One of the greatest things about this Psycho origin tale is Chris Bacon's composition work in support of its narrative. Complex arrangements with a sense of pop song mechanics and melodrama provide a grand palette for this narrative out of time. Part horror story and part soap opera, the show continues to surprise audiences as it has moved beyond its kitschy conceit into its own narrative complexity with Bacon's music tracking along at every turn.
Peaky Blinders, Dickon Hinchliffe
Founder of the band Tindersticks, Dickon Hinchliffe has also been a composer and arranger for many years. His attachment to Peaky Blinders brought about a subtle shift to the show that maintained its hard brash attachment to music and its cutting, but in a way that also provided some breathing room and elevated the show to greatness. This is more than just a steampunk-enraptured nostalgia trip. Like many of the shows on this list, it's an evocation of a lost time that's relevant to the present.
Planet Earth II, Hans Zimmer, Jacob Shea, Jasha Klebe
Planet Earth II attracted more viewers in the 16-to-34 age bracket than The X Factor. That's significant for any production, much less a nature series. David Attenborough said, "I'm told that we are attracting a larger than normal number of younger viewers and apparently the music of Hans Zimmer in particular is striking a chord."
The opening suite, as featured on the album release, is a stunning representation of the composer's depth and integrity beyond the bombastic music he's most often associated with. Collaborating with Jacob Shea and Jasha Klebe, with whom he's worked in various capacities for years, additionally brings a dimension to this iteration of the show recognizing the dangers faced by this planet. It is no longer simply about recognizing the beauty of the world, but recognizing the threats that grow every day.
Underground, Laura Karpman, Raphael Saadiq
WGN's show Underground has gotten a lot of attention for the impact of its music and decision to not be nostalgic. In keeping with the extensive array of musical performers is the great Laura Karpman behind the score. In collaborating with Raphael Saadiq and executive producer John Legend, she says, "Mostly what we decided was we didn't care about time. That it was about emotion. It was about being visceral. It was reflecting both the urgency and the drama and the emotion that's going on and the fact that the show is a period piece taking place pre-Civil-War only affected us in that it influenced some of the instrumental choices at times...we want to acknowledge the period, but we also want to take it in a different direction."
The score also happens to be mixed by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, who is becoming a significant composer in her own right.
The Fall, David Holmes
David Holmes's claim to fame is still the Ocean's Trilogy, but every step away from that work has shown an exquisite thoughtfulness to everything he does. For the past two seasons, he has worked on The Fall and provided layers of musical depth that jettisoned the narrative from its first-season success into something much more than a cop show. It's about the depths of human existence and how our lives can become entangled with each other. Holmes's ability to traverse musical styles easily to create a world entirely its own, yet still attached to the world as we know it, is a gift.