Here is a list of my top ten soundtracks – five are from video games, three are from anime, one is from a visual novel, and one is from a film. My reasons for selecting these soundtracks are fairly simple – they contributed immeasurably to supporting the tone of the medium, and remain interesting to listen to well after experiencing them in context.
This is an update of a similar post from a few months ago, but you should forget that other one even exists. This time, I didn’t forget two that should have definitely been there. And unlike that post that doesn’t exist, I decided against limiting this to original soundtracks. While OSTs can provide new and interesting music, licensed soundtracks can also do a phenomenal job of supporting a film or game.
I’ve attempted to limit the highlights to two or three tracks, but that’s difficult.
Chrono Trigger is a game that has managed to stand the test of time – an old-school JRPG that doesn’t feel dated, but rather simple and fun. The music follows along with this idea, as it is relatively simple in its instrumentation and composition, but still manages to be emotional, powerful, and sometimes just plain goofy. But the greatest thing about this soundtrack is how it manages to always supplement the scene, whether it’s a battle with an Eldritch abomination, a character theme reminiscent of Never Gonna Give You Up, or a haunting soundscape to fill the player with apprehension. Many people look back on this game through nostalgia-tinted glasses, but I can safely say this game lives up to its reputation, and the soundtrack is responsible for a huge part of that.
Highlights: Magus Confronted, Zeal Palace, and Epilogue ~To My Dear Friends~
Compared to everything else on the list, Fallout 3‘s soundtrack is also the one that seems least appropriate at first glance. Big-band swing on the radio in a post-apocalyptic survival RPG? It certainly sounds crazy, but it works extremely well to support the retro-futuristic nature of the Fallout universe while also providing a bit of a strange irony to a journey inevitably littered with corpses.
Outside of the few in-game radio stations, the music is relatively sparse, as the game tends to rely on the ambience of an empty wasteland more than constant backing music. However, when a battle begins, the music quickly becomes an intense signal of the enemy threat. And sometimes, a change in the music can save you from a surprise kill from a Deathclaw.
Fallout New Vegas had a somewhat similar set of songs available on the radio (with a bit more country twang), but Mr. New Vegas isn’t half as cool as Three Dog.
Highlights: I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire, Swing Doors, and Butcher Pete (Part 1)
One thing Quentin Tarantino’s movies always have in their favor is a kickass soundtrack, with Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction being the definitive examples. Sprinkled with a bit of everything, from Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western tracks, to songs produced by Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, to a trip-hop mash-up of The Zombies’ She’s Not There and Bessie Smith’s St. Louis Blues, the Kill Bill soundtrack utilizes a wide variety of songs to different effects, all resulting in music that supports the action, the dialogue, and most importantly, the style of the movies.
Highlights: Battle Without Honor or Humanity, About Her, and the various Ennio Morricone songs
Kill la Kill
While Sawano Hiroyuki’s soundtracks are generally awesome, Kill la Kill definitely stands above the rest. Besides Ryuuko’s theme, Before My Body is Dry, the soundtrack is loaded with a bit of everything – heavy metal instrumentation accompanied by blaring brass, an electronic song that sounds like it’s about ping pong, a song that should have been the series’ ED (aka Till I Die), and more. While it wasn’t always used to its full potential during the show, its songs ramped up the magnitude of the story and remain the most memorable and highest quality part of the experience.
There is actually a second soundtrack for the anime that was just released recently. As far as I know, it mostly consists of alternate versions of tracks, although there is some new stuff on there as well. I’ll definitely be checking that out soon.
Highlights: Before My Body is Dry, Blumenkranz, KiLLaKiLL (in Japanese it’s written as Kiる厭KiLL, which is probably an easier way to find it), and Till I Die
Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica
From the very first scene, you’re greeted by Kalafina’s Magia, and the general tone of the anime is set. While the general sound of the soundtracks is reminiscent of Kajiura Yuki’s others, such as Kara no Kyoukai or Fate/Zero, Madoka Magica (including the series and all three movies) is the peak of her output. What sets this soundtrack apart from her others, and what leads me to include it on this list, is how appropriate it is emotionally. Rather than going straight for dark music to reinforce that this is a “dark” magical girl anime, the soundtrack merely suggests it at first, even being contradicted by the poppy opening theme. As the story continues, the music progresses along with the characters’ thoughts and emotions, slowly showing just what they’re experiencing and the pain of dealing with it.
While the soundtrack for the original series is the best from an album standpoint, the soundtracks for the three movies added plenty of memorable new music, such as she is a witch for the last scene of the first movie or the entirely new music for the third.
Highlights: Sagitta luminis, Magia [Quattro], Symposium magarum, she is a witch, Holly Quintet, absolute configuration, Kimi no Gin no Niwa, and misterioso (three of these are Kalafina songs used in the movies, but they’re awesome, so I’m including them)
The Monogatari Series
The soundtrack for the Monogatari Series succeeds at doing things a bit differently than the others on the list. Half of the tracks can be described as background music for real life, as they simply add onto the normal abnormality of regular conversations in the series. Hearing a nice calm song behind a completely inconsequential discussion of how to properly spell someone’s name will somehow feel completely natural.
On the other hand, the other side of the soundtracks include songs that serve to complement the more serious side of things. And then there’s Nisemono, because Kaiki is best girl. Overall, the music is always appropriate and strengthening the situation at hand, whether an intense fight, an inner monologue about a panty shot, or a “first touch.”
Highlights: Hyouri, Sawari Neko, Ika Kaisou, Nisemono, and all of the OPs and EDs, most of which are included on the soundtracks
Persona 3 (FES)
Badass battle music? Check. Catchy tunes around town? Check. Awareness of what’s most appropriate at all times? Check. Managing to make an 80+ hour game’s music not sound repetitive? Check. Basically, Persona 3‘s soundtrack is awesome, and mentioning highlights is nearly impossible with a soundtrack so consistently fantastic. The music is essentially a combination of hard rock/metal, J-pop, hip hop… it’s very difficult for me to describe it. Despite what seems like a mish-mash of various genres, the varying tracks work to complement each other and the game as a whole, and transitions are always smooth and concise. And what better song to use for the final boss than one called Battle Hymn of the Soul? That song (and the one not too long afterwards) made the struggle of an hour plus battle worth it.
Persona 3 FES, the updated version of the game (still for PS2), added plenty of great music, such as an updated version of the primary battle theme and plenty of other tracks. Unfortunately, the PSP port of the game, Persona 3 Portable, fell a bit flat with its new music, but that doesn’t really matter.
Highlights: Burn My Dread -Last Battle-, Mass Destruction (either the original or FES version), Living With Determination, Memories of You (Kimi no Kioku), Deep Breath Deep Breath, Battle Hymn of the Soul, Heartful Cry, Darkness, Shadow, everything else
Persona 4 (Golden)
Where Persona 3‘s soundtrack succeeds at being an odd meeting point of several genres, Persona 4 takes an approach grounded in J-pop and rock, and the results are fantastic. Whether walking around town, exploring various “dungeons”, hanging out with townsfolk and friends, or engaging in battle, the music is there to remind you of just how cool it is.
Similarly to P3’s FES update, P4’s Vita port, Persona 4 Golden, added plenty of new stuff, including some sextastic new music, such as a new default battle theme and an 8-bit boss theme that fit the specific situation perfectly.
Highlights: Time To Make History, Fog, Pursuing My True Self, The Genesis, Signs of Love, Striptease, and Shin Mitsuo Tensei
Song of Saya / Saya no Uta
Within moments of beginning the story of this visual novel, you will be greeted by the sounds of what might as well be literal hellspawn. And then there’s the music. The music lends itself to create an uneasiness that carries throughout the four hours or so of the story, and the delivery is excellent. You will constantly feel uncomfortable, you will dread what might happen next, and if you persist, you will remain immersed in the dark and twisted narrative.
For horror, the atmosphere is one of the most important things, and courtesy of grotesque visuals and a chilling soundtrack, the final product reaches near perfection. If you’re going to play/read this, make sure you use a good set of headphones – it’s not the same type of aural bliss as other soundtracks on this list, but the music is a part of this story that is necessary for the ultimate experience. I can not recommend this visual novel enough.
Highlights: Schizophrenia, Song of Saya I, Shapeshift, and Slippers of Glass
The World Ends With You / Subarashiki Kono Sekai
This is some pretty nifty stuff. Designed to fit the setting, Tokyo’s Shibuya district, this soundtrack sounds both contemporary and non-mainstream, a peculiar combination that doesn’t make sense in words, but works perfectly in the game. Set alongside a focus on popular fashion and trends, the music evokes a sense of “coolness” in a setting so obsessed with the hip and happening. Basically, it’s all super nifty, catchy, and supports the strangely skewed style of the game to a T.
Highlights: Calling -1960s-, Déjà vu, Twister (or one of the variations), and Make or Break
Honorable mentions: Cowboy Bebop, Final Fantasy XII, K-ON! series, Mass Effect series, Redline, Haruhi Suzumiya series, and Drakengard 3.