Previous Lists... Top 2D Fighting Games
Welcome back to the Top 5, Vice-squad. This week, I’m tackling every otaku’s secret obsession - - the anime OST. If you watch Japanese cartoons with any kind of regularity, then you’re sure to have noticed the music. And if your heart’s not made of stone, then you probably have an opinion about 'em!
Even my shriveled black heart doubles in size when I hear the FIST OF THE NORTH STAR theme…
This is not the Top 5 of theme songs, though! Those heartless devils at the VICE PIT already covered that one. No no, we’re talking about albums here - - music that supports, enriches, or defines the feel and tone of an anime. Albums I might even listen to if I didn’t like the show they’re associated with...
HONORABLE MENTION == BIG O
This soundtrack could have made this list on the merits of the insane Queen-take-off theme song alone - - but the rest of the album is pretty damn solid, as well!
There’s the expected bombast of a giant-robot-show, but also plenty of moody, spooky and haunting songs to fill to out the track list. The show is half-mystery, after all, and the album reflects that. In fact, I’d argue that the more pensive and somber tracks actually steal the show some!
Plenty of memorable songs, and a tone that manages to effortlessly cover epic robot fights and foggy memories of a mysterious past, make this a real winner.
NUMBER FIVE == NEON GENESIS EVANGELION
I’ve ranted before about my feelings for this show, but there's no denying the power and success of its music. The theme song is recognizable from the first note and catchier than a bad cold on an airplane. Despite all the poppy melodies, the hilarious synth-horn-section and upbeat tempo, there’s a fair amount of sadness in the vocals. That sadness hints just a bit at what you’re in for with this emotional rollercoaster of cartoon.
This soundtrack is all about melodrama on an almost operatic scale. The mood bounces back and forth between somber and panicked, with some really epic moments and spirited climaxes. For the most part, this music lurks, creeps and smolders; such that when the big horns and more aggressive melodies do arrive, it all feels especially gigantic.
“Rei I” is full of sweet, lilting melodies played over sparse piano and strings, while “EVA 00” opens immediately with tense stabbing staccato strings before introducing ominous swelling horns and some nasty guitar.
“Marking Time Waiting for Death” uses a pounding, clicking rhythm that suggests both a ticking clock and a beating heart. The track builds steadily until reaching its climax in a heap of horns. And of course, there’s the triumphant swell of “A Decisive Battle” and the shuffle of “NERV” which has a bit of a spaghetti western vibe to it.
These songs and themes are absolutely memorable and the grandiose horns make a lot of sense with the enormous robots, monsters and big, big feelings of the show. The performances are all dead-on... with the possible exception of what sounds to me like a flub towards the end of “Tokyo-3" (or is not there, and I'm just crazy?).
NUMBER FOUR == FLCL
Almost on the opposite spectrum from EVA, here's non-stop, messy, garage energy - - with tons of gems by J-rock superstars, the Pillows. I have to admit, I’m not usually into J-rock outside of the context of anime, but these guys totally won me over. “Ride on Shooting Star” is undeniable and infectious. The cutting twang of that guitar fits so nicely next to the slight sneer of the vocals, and the drummer knows exactly when to let the song breath...
The songs without vocals tend to work just as well, balancing between screeching, fuzzed-out guitar, and a refreshingly raw drum sound. Songs like “Rush” and “Advice” set a somewhat aggressive tone, but the grunge and fuzz always give way in time for an optimistic or triumphant melody to poke through. Despite being so loud and aggressive, these songs are never overbearing or gloomy.
This is a case where the whole feel of the show is so dependent on the music that this soundtrack feels completely indispensable. FLCL just wouldn’t be as good with a more traditional, reserved, or less aggressive soundtrack. It supports the style of storytelling and the manic nature of the characters, as well as just sounding damn nice.
If this soundtrack stumbles at all, it’s in the slower, quieter moments. These feel a bit more like padding, less memorable, and less interesting than their more boisterous counterparts. Honestly, I think the Pillows are just more comfortable playing loud and messy, and it shows.
This is absolutely an album I would listen to if I’d never seen FLCL (or even if I hated anime). It fits alongside albums by Yuck, Sonic Youth, Wavves, or even Boris. And if you’re familiar with any of these bands, you know what a compliment that is!
NUMBER THREE == VISION OF ESCAFLOWNE 1 + 2
This is an example of music that works less in individual albums, but perfectly as support for a show. The music itself is often subtle, airy and sparse (though there are definitely some heavy-hitters), designed to fit behind the action of a scene. This is a collection of very well-composed music that anchors the show and defines the setting.
Yoko Kanno, once again proving she’s capable of anything, composes a score of sweeping and epic classical arrangements. Of all the albums on this list, this actually feels the most like a traditional Hollywood movie score like LORD OF THE RINGS or HARRY POTTER.
And then there’s that theme song... that big softie Tom's favorite...
This is about as bubbly as I’m comfortable getting. To be honest, this is pushing it a little bit, but yeah, I can’t resist. I’m not made of stone, OK? The driving piano that introduces the song, the deep bell hits that accents the rhythm, and those unrelentingly peppy vocals force their way into your heart and never,ever back down...
Things do get pretty dark on these albums, though. There’s a lot of pretty silly choral chanting of “Escaflowne” throughout, and some really evocative and somber tracks between all the soaring triumph and giddy J-pop.
“Shadow of Doubt” is a standout with its cascading layers of strings and syncopated rhythm. I have to admit the choral pieces can also be pretty beautiful, once you get past the fact that they’re singing the name of a giant dragon-robot...
Escaflowne has a far sweeter soundtrack than the others on this list, but the weight of its climactic moments - - and its patient, elegant approach to themes - - earn it a place on this list, and the distinction of it being some of Kanno’s best work.
NUMBER 2 == TRIGUN – FIRST DONUTS
This is sort of a no-brainer for anyone who was into anime in the 90's. Again, I’ll spare you my opinions on Trigun itself and just say that this soundtrack fits the mood of the show perfectly....
And damn if it doesn’t make my head nod!
“H.T” charges out of the gate with a dirty, distorted riff that you’d have to be dead not to love, before the punchy backbeat propels us to a big hook of even more guitar. It’s short, heavy and leaves you wanting more. I also think it’s a smart decision to go for a kind of “desert rock” vibe with the music. There’s a bit of a winking self-awareness to it, and it promises a good time.
Plus, are those bongo fills I hear!?
Surprisingly, the rest of the soundtrack is a bit harder to pin down to one category; though it all feels cohesive and “of the desert.” Sure, there are the wailing distorted guitars, bongos and funky drums that you might expect after hearing the theme song, but there’s also a fair amount of flute, electronic noodling and some really gentle melodies. There’s a wide range of emotions here, and I actually like the sort of techno-breakbeat-rock since it hints a bit at the show's sci-fi element.
Album opener “No Beat” is a perfect example of how odd and awesome this soundtrack is. It’s an immediately challenging song, full of weird noises, and it does in fact feature a beat that’s a little hard to find at first. It's surprisingly complex and interesting stuff!
But don’t worry... there are also plenty of big riffs to come. Not to mention some jangly western guitar, and even a few quieter, jazzy moments...
Occasionally, FIRST DONUTS does drift off the rails a bit into cutesy or boring territory. However, while there may be a few stumbles, I don’t think there’s a true dud on the album. The best moments tend to be the more ballsy ones, like the soaring guitar in “Blood and Thunder” or the wall of drums in “Yellow Alert.”
It would have been nice to get one more face-melter like “H.T.,” but there’s a lot to like in what’s here...
This is an album full of impressive musicianship, interesting and unusual arrangements, and amazing (and surprisingly funky) drumming. And yes, also big fat riffs.
NUMBER ONE == COWBOY BEBOP 1
Yoko Kanno seems incapable of making a bad soundtrack and this is, by my estimation, her greatest triumph. Soundtracks that try to approximate a certain sound, or genre, often tend to sound false or forced. These songs feel alive, unique, timeless, and legitimate. I wont pretend that this album can stand alongside classic jazz albums, but it feels like a loving nod to them as apposed to a half-assed attempt to replicate.
And that theme song…!
“Tank!” is perfect. I get goose-bumps every time, and when it’s over I have to fight the urge to hit back and start it all over again. The feel is perfect for the show, and it’s got an amazing jazzy swagger that just sounds hip, retro and classy. Like the Lupin III of our generation, COWBOY BEBOP had a lot to offer, and this theme song made that clear from the very beginning...
Almost unbelievably, the rest of the soundtrack is just about all on par with the opening theme! This is a rock solid collection of songs: many you’ll remember from specific episodes, and others you may have missed the first time through. There’s a mix (unsurprisingly) of up-tempo jazzy numbers and old west plunking and harmonica, which give the album a nice variety and pace.
And damn can these guys play!
I was actually a little shocked to find such a high level of musicianship in all of the soundtracks in this Top 5, but the Seatbealts blow them all away. They absolutely tear up the more raucous and energetic tracks, but even the spaced out slow-jams like “Space-Lion” are pretty flawless (when those vocals creep in at the end, I get chills!). This album is brimming with heartfelt enthusiasm and confidence. “Waltz for Zizi” is almost a parody of an old west ballad, but it works because the band believes in it and they just nail the performance.
This song starts with a pretty awesome cover of Tom Waits' "midtown" before becoming its own thing. Really love that intro (and the original Tom Waits version)!
I suppose my one complaint with this first soundtrack is the conspicuous absence of “The Real Folk Blues.” I’m betting this was to get audiences to keep buying the soundtracks (there are a ton of them after all), but it’s a shame because this would feel like a truly complete collection of Bebop’s “greatest hits” if it had that closing theme.
I must admit, “Memory,” the song that does closes the album, is also pretty perfect and always leaves me wanting more...
I’m sure many of you are outraged that you don’t see one of your favorites on this list.
Well, you know what to do-- leave an inflammatory comment in the section below! Maybe I’ll even consider making a Part 2…
Alex Eckman-Lawn is an illustrator and comic artists from Philadelphia. Check out his site - -alexeckmanlawn.com - - rumble with his Tumblr - -dudenukem.tumblr.com - - and hit up his Twitter: @alexeckmanlawn