My Favorite Contemporary Film Composers

Since I was a kid I have loved film music. Like most people my age, the scores of John Williams were an iconic piece of my childhood. The themes from Star Wars, Superman, and Indiana Jones were ever present in my consciousness from a young age. Film music is quite different now, less anthemic and more ambient in many films. My tastes have also changed as I’ve matured. Williams’ work is still incredibly rousing when you’re wanting the sense of adventure but film music is able to reflect so many tones & moods. Here are the composers I find myself listening to the most these days. I’m not a music expert so I don’t really have the vocabulary with which to talk about the intricate details of the form. I just know what I like and want to share it with you.

In Memoriam: Jóhann Jóhannsson (Arrival, Sicario, Mandy)

Before we get to the living composers, I can’t pass by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Back when I went to the movie theater, in the “before times”, I had one of my most cherished film experiences watching Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. I had heard it was good but didn’t know any details and the film delivered on the cathartic emotional experience I needed at the time. One of the key pieces in creating that experience was the music of Jóhann Jóhannsson. For Arrival, he wrote a soundscape that truly feels alien & unsettling. It’s never horrific, it just creates the sense you are in the presence of something beyond your current understanding. Later, I would hear his work in Villeneuve’s Sicario, a brooding groan of evil representing the darkest aspects of humanity bubbling to the surface. He’d also compose the score for Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy, a dark psychedelic piece of work. We lost Jóhannsson tragically from a drug overdose, a toxic mixture of flu medication & cocaine. There are great pieces of music that will never be written because this composer is gone. I want to recommend his only film directorial work, Last and First Men, an experimental picture using a concept album he wrote based on an obscure science fiction novel.

Stephen McKeon (Rose Plays Julie, The Hole in the Ground)

Stephen McKeon is one of many horror composers you’ll find on this list. Of his two works that I have heard, Rose Plays Julie is the stand out for me. I was shocked I couldn’t find tracks from that soundtrack on YouTube, though you can watch the entire movie free on the site. McKeon’s pieces have a sense of the primal & spiritual in them. Rose Plays Julie uses a woman’s echoing voice with flutes, percussion, and strings to build the sense of tragedy that comes at the end of the film. It’s haunting and perfect for a story about a woman whose life is the product of the opposite of love. His score for The Hole the Ground, an Irish horror flick, matches the tone perfectly. On the surface it’s another changeling story, but the music reminds us of what the mother figure in the story is losing. She’s headed down a dark path she doesn’t even realize and is going to lose what she loves as a result. He’s composed a lot more for film & television that I just haven’t explored yet, but what I have heard I have loved.

Christopher Willis (David Copperfield, The Death to Stalin, Veep)

I only know Christopher Willis’ work in relation to one director, Armando Iannucci. Willis wrote music for the television series Veep and two of Iannucci’s feature films, The Death of Stalin & David Copperfield. In these films, Willis is able to showcase his range. The Death of Stalin sounds very much like Soviet anthems, the type of music you could imagine being played during military parades. His David Copperfield is a tender, impressionistic score. There were many pieces that reminded me of a contemporary composer I’ve been obsessed with since high school, Michael Torke. It’s sweeping and bursting with the love for humanity that is ever present in Charles Dickens’s stories. Willis is not just a composer, he’s also a student of music, specializing in 18th century compositions and has a Ph.D. from Cambridge. 

Electric Youth (Come True, Breathing, Drive)

Electric Youth are a synth-pop duo from Toronto made up of Bronwyn Griffin & Austin Garrick. They have been a couple since the 8th grade, now in their late 30s. Their albums as Electric Youth are very reminiscent of 1980s synth-pop without feeling derivative or overly nostalgic. They take the sound in a new direction. Their breakthrough track was “A Real Hero” from Drive but since then they have collaborated with director Anthony Scott Burns on two films, Breathing and Come True. Breathing is an interesting wrinkle as it was a score not used for the film, finally titled Our House. Burns has distanced himself from that film as well citing studio interference one aspect of which was choosing a different composer for the score. We finally got a film from Burns with a complete Electric Youth soundtrack in the fantastic & extremely overlooked Come True. Their work on these movies is extremely evocative of the feeling of being a young person adrift in a cold, unfeeling world. I can’t wait to hear what they work on next.

Colin Stetson (Hereditary, The Color Out of Space, The Menu)

Colin Stetson is primarily a saxophonist who has collaborated with Arcade Fire, Bon Iver and more. The first film score of his that I heard was for Ari Aster’s Hereditary. I believe he created a soundscape that is unlike any horror I had seen before, including the saxophone but also other instruments to build the sense of foreboding and mystery. One of the final tracks, as the cult which has operated behind the scenes has succeeded, is utterly striking, truly making you feel that you are in the presence of a shining demon. He followed that up with a stunning score for the cosmic horror flick The Color Out of Space, yet another criminally underseen movie. Yet again, he captures the overwhelming sense of being caught up in a presence beyond human understanding, a sound that comes the closest to recreating the feel of reading an H.P. Lovecraft story. Most recently, Stetson wrote the score for The Menu, a movie I wasn’t a huge fan of but I did enjoy the music. It is a bit derivative of Midsommar but not enough that it feels like a cheap copy. 

Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans (Enemy, Outer Range, Christine, The OA)

The duo of Bensi & Jurriaans have mastered moody, atmospheric dread. I first heard their music in Denis Villenueve’s Enemy. It’s a film about a man’s loss of identity and the score immediately places the audience in a sense of unease, feeling like they are in a world turned upside down. These two have composed for a lot of television & movies that you’ve likely seen. Their standouts for me are The OA and Outer Range, the latter of which crescendos on a piece that perfectly syncs up with how the central character suddenly makes sense out of chaotic things that have been happening to them the whole season. I also appreciate the work they did on the tragic biopic Christine, able to underscore the final days of a real life journalist who committed suicide on live television in the late 1970s. They are certainly more ambient than symphonic but it works for the projects they are, very psychological pieces often about people’s loose grip on reality. 

Mica Levi (Under the Skin, Zola, Jackie)

Mica Levi is a classical trained English composer who has taken that foundational knowledge and branched off into some of the most stunning experimental tracks you’re likely to hear. The standout in their career is Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. I argue that this movie is possibly the best film of the 2010s, certainly up there with the top ones. That is partially because of the music Levi composed. The film is about an alien posing as a woman on Earth, luring men into a trap where they are processed into nutrients for the alien’s species. Over the course of the picture, the alien comes to understand humans better and wants to connect with them. Levi’s score, particularly the track titled “Love” is an excellent example of how they can mix the alien/dissonant sounds with a sweeping piece of music that feels like the title. This is an alien trying to understand love and doing it in their own way. Levi also composed for Jackie, providing the kind of score you might not expect for a movie about Jackie Kennedy. They also wrote the score for the Janicza Bravo picture, Zola, combining spoken dialogue from the film with the music to create something experimental but utterly perfect for the tone of that movie. Of the people on this list, I strongly believe Levi has the best chances of becoming a composer that is still being listened to and discussed a hundred years from now.

Michael Abels (Get Out, Us, Nope, Us)

Michael Abels first film composition work was Jordan Peele’s Get Out and he has remained Peele’s go-to guy when it comes to scoring his movies. Us delivered an impressive hip-hop inspired score while Nope’s music recalls the great soundtracks of 1980s adventure movies, much like John Williams’s work on Spielberg’s Jaws. Abels has worked a lot outside of film partnering with artists like the Kronos Quartet and Hilary Hahn. Abels is also a big advocate of Black representation in compositions found in film, television, and video games, co-founding the Composers Diversity Collective which advocates for this very thing. I don’t expect Peele to stop working with Abels any time soon but the composer is getting a lot of work on other projects as well. Most interesting in his scores are remixes of popular songs incorporating them into the themes of the movie. Us did this very prominently using the Luniz’s “I Got 5 on It” as a key building block to the score.

Jonny Greenwood (There Will Be Blood, The Master, You Were Never Really Here)

Of all the composers on this list, Jonny Greenwood is likely one you have heard of. He’s the lead guitarist/keyboardist for Radiohead but has had an incredible film composing career. The film score that first got him attention in the genre was for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. There’s no denying it is a powerful composition, capturing the twisted mind of Daniel Plainview and his psychological descent into madness. Greenwood & Anderson are frequent collaborators having worked on The Master, Inherent Vice, Phantom Thread, and Licorice Pizza together. The Master is a standout for me, feeling classical but also very in sync with modernist trends in music during the time period of the film. Greenwood also composed the scores for last year’s Spencer and The Power of the Dog. His music for Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is another very moving & beautiful thing to experience. Greenwood has certainly found his niche in film music and I expect we will keep hearing for him for decades to come.

Cristobal Tapia de Veer (Utopia, The White Lotus, The Girl With All the Gifts, Smile)

The first time I heard music written by Dutch composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer was in the British psycho-thriller series Utopia. It was an incredible experience, such strange sounds that fit the otherworldly, comic booky tone of the show. His score for Utopia is a key part of how much I love it and his distinctive sound has led to a lot more work. De Veer’s music for The Girl With All the Gifts, a movie I didn’t care much for, has remained on my listening rotation ever since I first heard it. More recently he scored the hit horror movie Smile and is responsible for that earworm of a theme song from The White Lotus. I think de Veer’s sound perfectly matches the twisted modern times we live in as his music underscores the way our world gets increasingly stranger & colder with each passing year.

Emile Mosseri (Kajillionaire, Minari, The Last Black Man in San Francisco)

You should watch Kajillionaire if you haven’t and one of my favorite things about that movie is the moving score by Emile Mosseri. He’s similar-ish to Cristobal Tapia de Veer without the aggression. It’s tender but still weird, feeling so fitting for the way life feels in the 21st century. Mosseri’s work has also been heard in The Last Black Man in San Francisco as well as Minari. I think his music fits all these projects so well because they are about characters yearning for something more, something better. The scores communicate that ache so beautifully that you can’t help getting swept up in them. There are some tracks on the Kajillionaire soundtrack that give me a lump in the throat everytime I hear them. It’s never despondent, but really sitting in awe of the world, the beauty that we so often miss in simple things. I’ve found his music to be perfect listening while riding the train or walking through a big city here in Europe.

Nicholas Britell (If Beale Street Could Talk, Andor, Succession, The Underground Railroad, Moonlight)

You likely know him and I don’t have to tell you much about how great he is. I first heard Britell’s work in Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight. He has become the regular composer for Jenkins’ work and never fails to deliver music that just blows you away. If Beale Street Could Talk has some of the best film tracks of the decade. Britell also writes all the music for Succession, including that theme none of us can get out of our head. Recently he wrote the fascinating score for Star Wars: Andor. I also want to point out his work on the overlooked Amazon mini-series The Underground Railroad (also directed by Jenkins). Britell hasn’t written anything I’ve disliked and this point I don’t think he ever will.


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