*Press A* 2018 ~ The Year’s Best Videogame Soundtracks

This year the proliferation of unique styles and new approaches to old genres brought videogame soundtracks to what is perhaps a new high in quality and thought. From niche to popular composers, classical traditions to synthwave, everything we celebrate from 2018 bears the mark of being distinct – whether a modern spin on old, or just modern.

Smaller productions are naturally aligned with distinctiveness, avoiding the standardized bombast of many a AAA project. But even in the big-corporation scene there are always a few soundtracks that stand out – we celebrate a handful below. It is in this sense that our Top 20 list does not read like a “who’s who” of videogame OST composition; as with our parent, A Closer Listen, it is not the purpose of *Press A* to illuminate those already blinded under spotlights for the mere sake of it. Instead, our celebration tries to direct readers new and old towards a selection of high-quality sets – be they from the most revered AAA or the smallest indie studio – that showcase the wild, exciting and vibrant communities of (game) music composers the world over.

(So no, we don’t have Call of Duty or Battlefield here, people – 11:11 Memories Retold came much closer.)

This year we’ve divided the sets into five genres for your viewing pleasure: ambient, electronic, modern composition, retro, and rock, pop and eclectic.

And now, by genre and in alphabetical order, we at *Press A* present our Top 20 videogame soundtracks of 2018!

Ambient

BeauChaotica ~ Paratopic
Everything is in place, but something is wrong. Paratopic is a dark ambient OST that perfectly encapsulates the sense of the uncanny, growing from bizarre shifts in texture and sound types. Its disjointedness is the horror lurking on the very surface of old-school Vangelis synth tones that give way to more contemporary drones, creating a clarity rare among horror soundtracks, videogame or otherwise. The fear of the unknown upon which most OSTs of the kind latch unto is gone here, replaced with perfectly defined soundscapes and electronic drones that feel much closer to the ideals of synth sci-fi soundtracks, pushing the listener towards a disturbance that does not rely on uncertainty. In here, it is the known that we should fear the most. (David Murrieta Flores)

Availability: Streaming and digital purchase here.

Colorfiction ~ 0°N 0°W
In the past years, there have been quite a few experimental games that directly link place to sound (like Proteus). Colorfiction’s latest contribution is perhaps one of the genre’s best. 0°N 0°W presents listeners with a system of ambient music that privileges the continuity of sound across imaginary space – its refusal of linearity is also a refusal of layering, perhaps the landmark of ambient ever since its beginnings, simply because the system requires constant input. As a soundtrack, this album works towards ambiguity and an uncertainty that emerges from there being simultaneously too little and too much to focus upon. And yet, this is its only constant, a systematic approach that suggests infinite branching paths within a finite field of action, our attentions exerted not in terms of depth but of width, the scientific names of its tracks a cypher for the limitlessness of experience. (DMF)

Availability: Streaming and digital purchase here.

Hammock ~ Far Cry 5
Collaborations between worlds that rarely meet almost always turn up something interesting. Hammock’s Far Cry 5 is one of those, turning a soundscape of aggression into a sweet, melancholic haze. Where the rest of the game’s enormous, ambitious soundtrack not so subtly (and at times unfairly) relates folk songs with religion, nature and violence, Hammock redirects all that energy towards the quieter, diffuse experiences of the religious, making what is basically a post-rock hymnal. It doesn’t lose sight of Romer’s dive into the sinister aspects of unflinching belief, as in “Set Those Sinners Free”, but it does operate with a much gentler disposition towards those the soundtrack attempts to portray. Tracks like “Now He’s Our Father” aptly mix hope and sadness with an ambient sense of place, creating a different set of relations between nature and religion altogether – at times sublime, but at other times beautiful as well. (DMF)

Availability: Official full upload on YouTube; digital purchase here.

Tim Shiel ~ Glowing Pains: Music from The Gardens Between
Perhaps inspired by this small indie game’s focus on memories of childhood friendship, Shiel solicited contributions to his score for The Gardens Between from musical friends across the globe – producers, composers and singers. The result is a patchwork quilt of ambient dreamscapes based on – but separated from – the in-game music. Atop the gossamer veils of drone, rhythmic guitar chords and soothing piano that blanket much of the set are more salient voices that appear then quickly retreat – often only once. These imbue the set with variety, charm and surprise, and communicate the emotional core of these otherworldly sounds – from the plangent trumpet melody in “The Storm” to the soothingly languid vocals in “Are You The Same”. Shiel describes the creation process as like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, and the finished picture is both calming and captivating. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)

Availability: Streaming and digital purchase here.

Electronic

Alec Lambert ~ Heaven Will Be Mine
It’s easy to think that visual novels could have no interesting soundtrack setups, and yet, from the catchy, leitmotif-laden scores of the likes of Ace Attorney to the eclectic punch of Heaven Will Be Mine, they’ve demonstrated otherwise time and again. Lambert’s OST draws its sound from many sources, from melodic electro to rock and industrial, but what makes it really special is the care with which each sound is layered, the meticulous interactions between low and high drones in tracks like “No Heaven” and “Fog Screen” giving them a sense of both spatial and emotional expansiveness; the melancholic singing of “Home 2” a contrasting prelude to the harder techno beat of “Terraformer” and the noise-laden opaqueness of “Garden District”. I could go on, but suffice to say, the sheer personality of this OST makes it one of the year’s best. (DMF)

Availability: Streaming and digital purchase here.

feeding | ear ~ Orwell: Ignorance Is Strength
We are in an age of disconcerting relevance to Orwell’s dystopian visions from the ‘40s. Aptly, tension is at the fore of this minimalist and affecting soundtrack from Perth-based composer/engineer, Matt Mclean, whose feeding | ear moniker alone plays into the narrative of deception and displacement peddled by Orwell: Ignorance Is Strength. Evoking the decade in which 1984 is set, layers of synth growl and rumble beneath cleaner voices that stretch toward eerie melodies. Like a siren song, the main theme is alluring yet unsettling, its several repetitions across what is a comparatively short set creating easy familiarity with a kernel of unease. But in the rhythmic uncurrents does Orwell find its true hooks, as tracks such as “Day 2” pulsate with a quickening heartbeat; and when we unexpectedly breach the surface with the set’s sole prominent drum beat (“Tension”), it feels like a brief cathartic roar of the righteous. (CRM)

Availability: Streaming and digital purchase here.

Lena Raine ~ Celeste
Anxiety seeps uncontrollably through Celeste – a much-lauded gaming and musical achievement, and one of the year’s finest in both categories. Raine bases the work on a classical spine of Romantic piano progressions that shapes thoroughly contemporary electronic tissue. The keys bear the set’s frequent discordance, voicing the hero’s doubts, while synths gnarly and celestial give it a dynamism and kineticism unparalleled among this year’s picks. The beat that kicks in after almost six minutes propels “Resurrections” to another plane; the astonishing “In the Mirror” is a howl of existential turmoil that morphs through sorrow and then, imperceptibly, to incipient hope, with doubt still caressing. Persist like the game’s mountain-scaling hero through a more trip-hop-like first third to unearth the rawest emotions – the tumultuous “Anxiety”; the sombre “Quiet and Falling” that echoes Koji Kondo’s work on Majora’s Mask (still for me the best Zelda score bar Breath of the Wild). By its close you will have heard not only a stand-out sequence of music, but an important message: that all demons can be slain, even if they lie within. (CRM)

Availability: Streaming and digital purchase here.

Various Artists ~ Octahedron
Synthwave refuses to go away from the world of game OSTs, but it’s not without good reason. Octahedron showcases a selection of artists that represent the genre at its peak, moving seamlessly between nostalgic ‘80s sci-fi melodies, ambient synth-scapes and its fun, arcade-loving dance derivations. The curation here of so many different artists is remarkably pristine, in the sense that not only does it not sound disjointed at any point; even when styles are remarkably different they easily cooperate into making Octahedron a must-listen. Back-to-back dance tracks like Chipzel’s “Valor” and Andre Sobota’s “Spire” represent this well, with Chipzel’s being much more melodic and structured, while Sobota’s is all about the drums and the beat. Subtle, contrasting relations between tracks like these give the soundtrack a life beyond the game, one that even considering the genre’s inherent predictability makes listening to it a sheer joyful experience. (DMF)

Availability: Streaming and digital purchase here.

Modern Composition

Austin Wintory ~ The Banner Saga 3
Rarely has there been a game OST as decidedly tragic as that of the Banner Saga series. A mythological world in the throes of its demise and entire peoples in the process of vanishing inspired in the prolific Wintory a Wagnerian epic that prizes dissonance and leitmotifs that have transformed, over the years, across three albums. The short main theme, “We Will Not Be Forgotten”, is an excellent example: a bright brass melody that evokes a vital sadness (the kind you carry, not the kind you process) is transformed here into a screeching drone and a piece of ghostly melancholy, now with strings. Most themes from the first game are subjected to the same variations, following the grand narrative into new despairs, the music developing with the characters themselves. Taken as a whole, this series is an achievement in game music – this album in particular integrating all of it as the end of a long story told in the key of myth. (DMF)

Availability: Streaming and digital purchase here.

Brian D’Oliveira ~ Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Shadow of the Tomb Raider stands out among the autumn’s big-budget releases for its honest and intricate portrayal of the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican and South American backdrop to Lara Croft’s latest perilous outing. Trinidad-born D’Oliveira makes full use of a vast collection of indigenous, hand-crafted instruments, including percussive volcanic rocks and Aztec death whistles, to craft a deeply unsettling score propelled by rhythms from pounding (“Cenote”) to skittish (“Return To Paititi” – don’t miss the superb tempo/meter change). Ambient flutes and whistles provide gusts of melody and echoes of avian calls, creating an immersive liminal state of environmental sound design bleeding into the score, while mournful cello lines embody the descent of the game’s troubled hero. Through the gloom, unexpectedly warm moments drift into view like fireflies (“Lara’s Dream”, “Hope”), setting up a final piece both understated and touching. Listen through headphones! (CRM)

Availability: No official stand-alone version available at time of writing; unofficial uploads on YouTube.

Joe Hisaishi ~ Ni no Kuni II
For anyone who’s ever watched a Miyazaki film, Joe Hisaishi’s style is immediately recognizable – one that often utilizes a ‘soft’ modernism to create memorable themes and musical narratives with a wide array of expressive levels, from dissonant tensions to minimalist-based victory marches. Ni no Kuni II is no different in that regard – similar in essence to most other Hisaishi scores but distinctly remitting to the sense of wonder, adventure and tragedy that also marks older works by the likes of Akira Ifukube, another ‘soft’ modernist who used new music to grand effect. The Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra is a joy to listen to, primarily because of the range with which it interprets the material, from the smallest of melodies to the grandest of marches, sparing no skill or emotion in making the simplest elements of the score into engaging ear-turners and the most complex into an easily-followed emotional expanse. Ni no Kuni II is, in other words, a triumph. (DMF)

Availability: 31-track CD available for purchase; unofficial full-score uploads on YouTube.

 

Jon Everist ~ BattleTech
The grandest score in this list, BattleTech is a slow but rewarding listen. Immersing himself in the lore of a sci-fi universe of political intrigue and combat mechs (which stems from a tabletop game), Everist used a full orchestra to convey the scale of the setting as well as soloist and vocal performances to hint at the smaller, personal stories of the cast (“I Am Not a Hero”). Early tracks paint vast landscapes in serene colours with ambient orchestration and analogue synth overlays, but further progress leads to more battle-scarred vistas. Death and destruction rage through angry choral parts and thundering percussion that sounds fused together from battlefield scrap (“Meat Is Cheap”, “Bile and Venom”). Everist even created a new instrument to enhance the gritty textures that come to envelop these pieces, which eventually discard the electronics to allow the set to come full circle. Settle in for a long battle. (CRM)

Availability: Streaming and digital purchase here.

Okomotive/Joel Schoch ~ FAR: Lone Sails
Straddling composition, ambient and jazz, FAR: Lone Sails is a refreshing, unexpected breeze on a warm spring day. It’s a masterfully sequenced collection of short tracks that rarely rise above the purr of the ramshackle vehicle controlled in the game, but that are full of subtle details and delightful variation. The stars of the set-up are piano, cello and trumpet, but brushed drums, ukulele and clarinet play prominent roles among other supporting actors. Schoch uses this cast to wonderfully wide effect, from the whispering harmonics of strings and reverberating percussion (“Night” and “Canyon”, respectively) to the thick rhythmic and melodic layering in “Not Alone” and “Inconvenient Circumstances”. We feel the weight of solitude and the decay of abandoned industry, inert machines – an eeriness intoned through droning cello and faltering ivories. But even in such moments, a syncopated rhythm, polyphonous string section or trumpet solo will extend a hand, willing us onward. And when the engine roars – as in the climactic, chugging cello of “Drive It!” – it feels like both vehicle and composer will be unstoppable forces. (CRM)

Availability: Streaming and digital purchase here.

Yasunori Nishiki ~ Octopath Traveler
‘Bring[ing] back the feelings from our childhood frozen deep inside us’ is how Nishiki described his goal in composing for Octopath Traveler, a retro-styled Japanese RPG harking back to old Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest classics. Full of colour and vitality, it’s impossible to not greet the celebratory “Main Theme” motif played with a flute and violin with a smile as it recurs throughout the four-hour full score. Battle themes are formulaic but grandiose, incorporating armoured-up rhythm sections and echos of motifs from elsewhere (“Battle II”); while “Tension” peaks with a thunderous exchange between brass and string sections. Celtic folk weaves through several pieces, from the reflective “Primrose, the Dancer” to the jig-inducing “A Sea Breeze Blows”; while the location themes veer from solemnity (“Dark Caverns”) to whimsy (“How Amusing!”) and much in between. Octopath doesn’t bring much new to the JRPG hearth, but has been lit with enough passion to thaw even the frostiest of hearts. (CRM)

Availability: Official CD available for purchase, digital version available through iTunes; unofficial full and condensed uploads on YouTube.

Retro

Jukio Kallio ~ Minit
In a game of extremes, where the middle point is something built over long, long periods of time, Kallio’s OST follows suit, with tracks as short as five seconds and as long as five minutes, with little in between. Inspired by the short, catchy, romantic vignettes of Koji Kondo’s Link’s Awakening (1993), the music here relays the cyclical truth of the hero’s journey by means of retro melodies that repeat and develop slightly, then repeat again, then develop, then repeat, then become overlaid with subtle electroacoustic arrangements, quiet down, and then resurge stronger than ever. Varying rhythms and styles subjected to the unifying process of stripping down and building up repeatedly lead this OST to a memorability comparable to that of its source of inspiration – sometimes I still find myself humming the main melody of “Minit’s Awakening”, and I haven’t even played the game. (DMF)

Availability: Streaming and digital purchase here.

Michiru Yamane, Ippo Yamada et al ~ Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon
With grand heritage and great expectations upon it, the soundtrack to spiritual Castlevania successor Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon delivers a confident homage to a simpler, celebrated videogame era of five-channel sound chips and quickly looping tracks. A team of composers and producers led by ‘90s/’00s stalwarts Yamane and Yamada, best-known for Castlevania and Mega Man, roll back the years with a set as bombastic as it’s possible for the blips and squeaks of 8-bit music to sound. Whether evoking thrash riffs with frenzied minor-scale melodies (“Moonlight Temptation”) or plodding industrial metal (“Blasphemy unto Heaven”), every track carries an intensity only partially offset by more disco-influenced drum sounds. And when you’re sure it can’t get any better, late track “Defiler of Taboos” tops them all, its syncopated drums and arpeggiators driving a heroic melody to stir the soul of even the most tremulous demon slayer. (CRM)

Availability: No official stand-alone version available at time of writing; unofficial uploads on YouTube.

Rock, Pop and Eclectic

Ben Prunty ~ Into the Breach
The apocalypse has never sounded so restrained. Rather than the orchestral bombast of BattleTech, Prunty soundtracked the end of the world presented in this mech-centered, turn-based tactics game with electro/post-rock intricacy. Lattice-like layers mimic the tile board on which players must defend humanity from alien invaders using time-traveling mechs (because videogames). Rigid ostinatos of reverb-soaked guitars, harps and the insistent whispers of harmonics criss-cross to barricade in polyrhythms and melodies, on occasion punctured by percussive punches. Melodious cello is the soul discernible through the mech suits (“Antiquity Row”); overdriven guitar chords the roar of humanity’s defiance (“The Wasteland”). A wonderfully low-key meeting of kosmische rock with loop-based electronics. (CRM)

Availability: Streaming and digital purchase here.

Daniel Koestner, Ben Esposito ~ Donut County
What kind of music would you expect from a game in which you play a hole in the ground? ‘I knew early on that it was going to be a game about erasure’, Ben Esposito said, ‘about erasing a place, about the bittersweetness of that.’ The soundtrack, an eclectic assemblage of acoustic melodies and electronic ambient, portrays that feeling with a simplicity akin to early games music, which is not to say that Donut County is barebones, but that it achieves a lot with what by contemporary standards is relatively little. Tracks like “Trash is Treasure” lay down easy beats and then build subtle emotional ambiences upon them, creating a calm that is nonetheless always in movement, a low-key tension that is at times directed towards ambiguity and non-resolution (like in “Lazy River”) and others at a straightforwardly resolved sentiment (the sheer happiness of “Kindling”). ‘Bittersweet’ is the key to one of the year’s best soundtracks. (DMF)

Availability: Streaming via Spotify, for purchase via iTunes; unofficial uploads on YouTube.

A Shell in the Pit ~ Wandersong
While a bit uneven as stand-alone music, Wandersong is nevertheless special, its day (Vol.1) and night (Vol. 2) division working to distribute a wide array of memorable tunes in different styles whose axis is a sweet, colorful fable – a children’s book in movement. The first volume is peppered with lullabies and tranquil, expressive pieces like “The Dream King”, driven by acoustic instruments and a few electronic interventions. Surprise sounds like the one-person choir of “Blown Away” or the retro trappings of “Mermaid Ruins” make the experience akin to the ways in which our early eyes observed popping figures in a book, fascinated by colors and shapes no longer there for adults. The second volume goes more fully electronic, with elements like distortion indicating that this is indeed ‘the other side’, marked by heavy beats and more dramatic melodies. Fables and old children’s stories, after all, never clearly separate ‘day’ and ‘night’, and one always follows the other. (DMF)

Availability: Streaming and digital purchase here.

Woody Jackson ~ Red Dead Redemption 2
It’s hard to condense thoughts on as sprawling a score as Read Dead Redemption 2. ‘Dead eye’ focusing on just the dynamic in-game score – 192 pieces of it! – reveals a natural expansion of the Western-infused country/post-rock of its predecessor. Jackson respects the space in the game’s world, with low-key arrangements that elevate atmosphere over intricacy – hence, repetition and minimalism are his weapons of choice. Listen to the smokey, rich atmosphere that “Lemoyne” conveys with so little, its three main voices of guitar, harmonica and viola each pausing to let the others breathe. That seems the best word on the whole, for as much as there is brooding intensity in places, the score’s greatest triumph is how it lets us breathe in the beautiful expanse of outlaw country, whether to sit at a fire beneath a cold sheet of stars, a fellow gunslinger twanging a little slide guitar (“Lonesome Town”), or gazing upon a sunrise from a mist-laden hill’s peak. Turns out, condensing my thoughts is irrelevant; in the end, the score sings a thousand words. (CRM)

Availability: Official soundtrack release announced; unofficial uploads on YouTube.

Honorable Mentions

Lena Raine ~ ESCISM (Electronic)
When it Raines, it pours. Soundtracking an interactive novel, ESCISM starts in now-familiar Celeste language of synth waves disguising classical scales, but it soon reveals a more adventurous divergence toward IDM with floor-filling beats and spacious abstractions co-mingling. (CRM)
Available here.

Olivier Deriviere ~ Vampyr (Modern Composition)
A historically inspired soundtrack that eclectically works its way through the pathos of fin-de-siècle romanticism and a sharp ear for contemporary film music – that’s Vampyr. A moody set of strings (and sometimes voice) pieces, it weaves a melancholic narrative of nightly solitude. (DMF)
Available here.

Philip Sheppard, Nima Fakhrara, John Paesano ~ Detroit: Become Human (Modern Composition)
Three composers; three game protagonists; four hours of music. Detroit’s OST may suffer from ‘more is less’ syndrome, but tying a composer to a protagonist is an undeniably bold and effective approach – and in the repetitive Kara motif across Philip Sheppard’s set, a searing lance of humanity pierces through. (CRM)
Available here.

Zircon ~ Tangledeep (Retro)
Made in the style of 16-bit-era soundtracks, Tangledeep emulates the faux-orchestral emotional range of early Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger, providing the same sense of high-pitched, synthy fanfare and wildly imaginative adventures in pixel landscapes. (DMF)
Available here.

Disclaimer: We’ve linked to unofficial uploads for those without official streaming/purchase options. If the content creators/owners want us to remove these links, reach out and we will do so immediately.

3 comments

  1. This is an impressive list. Thank you so much for sharing. I hope I’ll find my next writing music among the pieces 😄

  2. Tomasz Gop

    Appreciate the work on preparing the compilation. There’s one game seriously missing here, though: https://youtu.be/muWSEZ6mTtU 🙂

  3. stuntaneous

    You missed Pool Panic.

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