*Press A* 2019 ~ The Year’s Best Videogame Soundtracks

As the videogame market expands, it reaches places and people perhaps previously uninterested in its products. In 2019, with the quality of games striking ever upwards, that expansion was reflected throughout the world of developers, with many different kinds of artists joining the game-making fray. And so, possibly more than ever before, our favourites tended to emerge from the small indie scene where little-known composers release interesting, complex works often buried by the sheer amount of new stuff. We hope to shine a light on some of these.

Mercifully, indie developers’ increasing commitment to simultaneous VGM releases means excellent sets now get far wider windows of exposure! We only hope to say the same one day for AAA studios, who continued to lag their smaller, more collaborative peers in terms of soundtrack releases ~ and are thus much less present in this year’s list.

Another interesting detail from 2019 related to the proliferation of excellent indie releases: the emergence of even more diverse styles and innovative ideas than before, as our list hopefully shows. (We’ve kept our genre splits but it was certainly harder to place some this year.) Careers also emerged or blossomed for many young composers, from whom we can soon expect a deluge of commissions; every VGM fan now knows the names of Lena Raine or Jukio Kallio by now, to name just two. This generation is not only prolific ~ it has also taken care to make our community a joyful network of artists and fans who support each other. We are happy, however small our contribution, to belong. 

And now, by genre and in alphabetical order, we present the *Press A* Top 20 videogame soundtracks of 2019!

Ambient

Jim Guthrie ~ Below

Released too late for last year’s list, Below nevertheless remained at the back of our minds throughout 2019. It is as bold as the game’s aesthetic, seemingly sculpting an electronic soundscape out of the air itself, crackling with noise while simultaneously drawing clear, consistent tonal moods. Make no mistake, however, since this is no straightforward ambient album: its drones demand your full attention, and its brightness often collides with the creeping sense of something transcendental happening right at the edge of its sounds. This expressionist slant is best developed in the second half of the OST, much more melodically and beat-inclined, the interactions between its layers less of a textural development and more of an immediate, impactful collage. One year later, even with the strong competition offered by this year’s VGM, Below’s complexity continues to draw us back in, and will probably continue doing so for a while yet. (David Murrieta Flores)

Julian Glander ~ Art Sqool

The unfocused cover invites closer inspection, but no clarity can be found. The beguiling soundtrack for Art Sqool offers the same lack of resolution, both in the electronic timbres that remain obstinately distorted or at least fuzzy throughout, and in its lack of linear or logical sequencing. Befuddlement may arise after the opener ~ under a minute of absurd electronic voices to a hand-clapping beat ~ but the set then pivots broadly to electro-ambient, occasionally to trip-hop beats. During your artistic development it will twist and turn through drone pieces (the distinctly Fuck Buttons-esque “C.L.O.U.D.S.” or the noisier “Breathing Sounds”), elaborate, arpeggiated melodies (“Eraser Song”) and of course more funny-voice interludes. After these 15 short tracks have elapsed, the initial befuddlement has yet to dissipate ~ and yet you feel content and somehow, moved. Welcome to art school, Glander says, where you as a ‘froshmin’ will learn nothing you need to know about art. And yet, that is also everything you need to know. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)

Loscil ~ Lifelike

Well-known in the ambient world, Loscil is taking a step into the scoring game with Lifelike, and what a step it is. The beautiful visuals, like a painting in motion, are corresponded by the spacey electronic tones of the soundtrack as they also expressively draw up an aural environment. For an ambient OST, it is surprisingly emotional, its low-key harmonic shifts a brush with which to transmit peacefulness with a little tinge of sadness; the isolation of the lifelike form played is one full of hope, but the music never loses sight of the cosmic darkness from which true hope is born. When more beat-driven, conventional aspects emerge, they serve not a narrative purpose but to dramatically highlight the work done by layers upon layers of emotional ambience. They make the hope shine, and their brilliance permeates the whole album. (DMF)

Electronic

Eli Rainsberry ~ Wilmot’s Warehouse

Process. I think that’s an important concept to have in mind when approaching the various intertwined musical paths that mark Wilmot’s Warehouse. What it did for the minimalists it also does for Rainsberry: the listener stops thinking musically, in terms of where lines start or end, and begins to think organizationally, in terms of how sounds interact, the relationships they produce, and how they develop over time. It is only fitting, then, for a game about sorting out colored boxes, since it is in figuring out of the puzzle where the real pleasure lies. The OST sways with repeating rhythms, recurrent short themes, and structures that mimic each other, but that in every track play different roles and create different moods as a result of their slightly shifting configurations. As short as it is, WW is dense and complex, a puzzle in itself, a triumph for the kind of soundtrack that sticks to a game’s themes. (DMF)

Lightfrequency ~ Nowhere Prophet

Imbuing an aura of mysticism atop a post-apocalyptic/cyberpunk setting sounds a challenge, yet Nowhere Prophet proves that the sitar and synthesizer actually make really good bedfellows. They take a little time to acclimatize, the opening track offering a tentative exchange of dialogue while drones undulate beneath. Then they are swept along through rhythmically driven electronica that oscillates between energetic and hypnotic ~ sometimes in a single track (as in the pounding trance of “Murti Monstrosity”). There are discreet polyrhythms and wonderful rhythmic shifts (listen to the end of “Smoke and Rust”), scratchy beats and driving arpeggios. Yet through this passage of intensity a contemplative aura pervades, and it is the droning quality of a more reticent sitar that eventually comes to the fore as the instruments overcome their initial hesitation (“Hope”). In the final third of this wonderfully sequenced set, Lightfrequency weaves thick tapestries that belie the danger and uncertainty we’ve passed through. (CMR)

LudoWic, Bill Kiley, DJ Electrohead, Justin Stander, Tunç Çakır ~ Katana ZERO

We called Katana ZERO ‘the synthwave game soundtrack at its classical peak’ in our spring review, so it’s inclusion here among the year’s best was inevitable. What the set achieves so resoundingly is bringing together so many producers yet melding a coherent and well-sequenced collection of tracks whose sense of languid intensity rarely relents, even in its quieter moments. And quieter moments there are several ~ from the smouldering sax-led “Volition” to the mist-laden ambience of “Coming Down”. But what sells this OST are the gnarly synths that the artists brandish in many guises, from propulsive techno through lethargic darksynth to more ‘classical synthwave’. A brooding, menacing quality lurks throughout and, when it manifests as in the overwhelming hiss and cacophonous snare of “All For Now”, it is as though a feral animal has finally been unleashed from its cage of groove. (CRM)

Ludvig Forssell ~ Death Stranding

Few OSTs have the budget and the scope to have classical orchestration, a prepared piano, a synth section, and a myriad found objects with which to craft distinct types of sound. In a way, it reflects the auteur image of a Kojima production, openly moving into experimental territory but never fully diving into the unknown. Because amidst the grinding electronics and alienating percussive sections (which include the piano) there’s always a more traditional cinematic track; the oppressive mood is built in a complementary manner between the conventional dramatism of musical sadness and loss as well as a more brazen foray into noisier, almost drone-like passages that focus on harmony and sound relations. By playing off convention and its opposite, Forssell successfully operates a displacement of expectations, keeping the listener constantly on edge as comfort clashes with unease. It is not lightly that I say there is no filler here, in an OST that’s almost two hours long, and that this is but a part of what makes it one of the year’s best. (DMF)

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Modern Composition

Alexey Omelchuk ~ Metro Exodus

What sets Metro Exodus apart from the other big-budget FPS soundtracks of the year is Omelchuk’s tasteful exploration of different timbres and genres while still maintaining a consistent throughline. This is an orchestral set that, notwithstanding some flurries of string-led bombast and raucous percussion, favours nourishing a quiet kernel of unease as it develops, leaning into industrial and dark-ambient passages in the process. We get the first sign of this, aptly, in “Premonition”, whose rung-out, ominous guitar line heralds the Ukranian composer’s adroit use of spaciousness throughout, from overtly chilling (“Dark Waters of Vulga”) to wispish ill-ease (“Caspian Mirage”). But the louder stuff is equally good ~ listen to the percussion solo that concludes “Last Train to Yamantau” and the chugging cello in “Forest Brotherhood”. The Metro series is known for bringing a uniquely eastern flavour to the FPS genre, and this soundtrack demonstrates why that should be valued. (CRM)

Andrea Boccadoro, Katherine Neil ~ Astrologaster

If there’s one game that could win a prize for the sheer unconventionality of its topic, it would be Astrologaster. Lucky for us, Nyamyam, the studio, went all in with the story of a quack English doctor of the 16th century, getting Boccadoro to compose a series of motets and madrigals inspired by Renaissance vocal music at large, with Neil penning them in a similarly early-modern comedic style. With one song per character in the game (and a final “main theme”), there’s plenty to satisfy anyone’s historically-inclined counterpoint needs; the bending of various period-specific stylistic rules makes this soundtrack, perhaps, the most postmodern album of the year. It is an image of the Renaissance, accurate only in its portrayal of what someone who’s not an expert or enthusiast would imagine it might sound like, and it is in successfully doing this that Astrologaster beautifully shines. (DMF)

Dale North ~ The Long Return

Even though North also released the more ambitious, more forceful Sparklite this year, The Long Return is the one that stole our hearts. With its Japanese-styled score, it makes lyrical ballads the protagonists of each composition, the emotions of the little cub in search of its mother played out within the bright harmonies of an instrumental forest. It is the length of an EP, and yet it packs so much earnestness in every twinkling, impressionist piano sequence and every sweeping, sweet melody that it becomes as deep as any LP. The variations of the main theme, present across the whole OST, never feel repetitive or dull, as they are subtly redrawn each time, often sweet, but sometimes also slightly melancholic, of a sunny sort that speaks of summer longings. I can assure you it will not be soon before you find yourself wanting to listen to the whole thing again. (DMF)

Guy Jackson ~ Sea of Solitude

One of the aspects that makes Sea of Solitude stand out from our picks this year is its sheer dramatism. Often, overbearing passion is to the detriment of a score, but Jackson handles it perfectly, channelling the deep, sad energies of the darkness at the center of a girl’s mind in meaningful directions. Tracks like “Through the Dark Matrix” are good examples: a rumbling, groaning drone yields before an elegiac strings set in which the melody soars like in so many a Hollywood piece. Its cinematic qualities at no moment become a signal of heartstrings pulled, of quick paths to feeling – they do the work of building up to grand moments, leading the listener by hand into surprising moments full of pathos where their own true feelings might arise. You might think you’ve heard all this before, but you should pay attention, because I assure you, you haven’t. (DMF)

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Laurence Chapman ~ Heaven’s Vault

Best known for his work on the Total War franchise, Chapman reins in the blood and thunder for the perfectly tuned sweetness of Heaven’s Vault. Inviting us beyond the veil into a world familiar and yet full of mystery is a chamber group of piano and strings, from which the violin emerges as a prime communicator. Through its romantic, often complex melodies we are drawn deeper into this world of forgotten languages and buried rulers (and the occasional inflection of Celtic history). There is no melodrama here ~ no frenzy or whimsy; what there is in spades is humanity ~ the songs of souls departed or lost, the stories likely apocryphal but now cemented in myth. One of the set’s highlights, “The Nebula”, projects these departed through a diaphanous vocal line, but the rest is conveyed through the dulcet arpeggios of the piano and that sweet, sweet violin. In a medium whose music often finds itself competing with gameplay and graphics for players’ attention, Heaven’s Vault is a soundtrack content with its unassuming air and modest attire; it knows the tales it imparts will be arresting for those keen enough to unearth them. (CRM)

Olivier Deriviere ~ A Plague Tale: Innocence

Meriting an Honorable Mention in our 2018 list for the melancholic Vampyr, Deriviere well-deserves a promotion this year for the bleakly sonorous depiction of a ravaged 14th-century French community. Straddling modern composition and drone, A Plague Tale may commence with intricate nylon guitar and melodic violin but reveals its true colours by the fifth track (“Inquisition”), as a heaving, bleak cello line emerges as a remorseless ostinato, eventually entwining sickeningly with a violin and being punctured only by clanging, sporadic percussion. The weight barely lifts from our shoulders henceforth but does present in compellingly varied guises, from undulating string drones (“Strangers”) through frantically sawed cello (“The Rats”) to industrial rhythms depicting chains and helplessness (“Adulthood”). Its few sweet moments aside, A Plague Tale is one of the most challenging listens this year ~ but it’s a singular and compelling one deserving greater attention. Maybe work on a new Dragon Ball game next, Olivier, to give yourself a break? (CRM)

Phoenix Glendinning ~ Eastshade

A game about painting, and the fantasy of an equivalence between representation and reality, could only be scored in a toned-down Romantic manner. Eastshade’s continual use of a variety of soloists grant it not only a measure of uniqueness in each track but also the sense that it is intimate. Even at its most fantastic, the soundtrack never falls for bombast, giving instruments a space and a time, a generous style of composition that highlights each and every stroke, whether coming from the violin, the percussion, or the shakuhachi. Thus articulated, the beauty of all its folky melodies is allowed to shine collectively, growing amidst harmonies as brilliant as a painterly sun. Glendinning, in this sense, rivals older, more experienced composers working in similar styles of fantasy OSTs, inspired by classical music as much as folkier variations of it, as in the medievalized main melody of “Mudwillow’s Lair”. It is, in short, a triumph for the young composer. (DMF)

Sarah Schachner ~ Anthem

Schachner just keeps getting better and better, and Anthem is perhaps the culmination of all the work she’s been doing for big-budget games in the past years. Like the name of the game states, this OST uses powerful, focused, unidirectional orchestral movements to drive the music, a continuum of explosions whose expansive harmonic fallout simply adds to the grandeur. The effective use of electronics, and in this particular case a didgeridoo, to add textural depth and highlight the most thrilling aspects of the soundtrack, reveal just how far the Hans Zimmer school of scoring has come. The grand fanfares with weird sci-fi electro-didgeridoo undertones are the crowning achievement of a style that Zimmer himself has hardly developed in recent times; Schachner, in other words, is doing the kind of interesting, lateral moves with fundamentally cinematic OSTs that the style requires, and is doing so with aplomb. We can’t wait to hear what she has in store for us next! (DMF)

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Retro

Megan McDuffee ~ River City Girls

‘We’ll take the world on and sing this dope song; don’t mess with us, we’re the River City Girls.’ What this set lacks in subtlety it more than makes us with its… lack of subtlety. It starts brash pop-punk but quickly veers straight into pop-synthwave, heralding the 1989 origins of the River City franchise but touching it up with a glossy overcoat. Across a full two hours we are treated to female pop vocal tunes (“The Hunt” being among the pick of these), grimey bass-driven grooves (“Knock Out”) and panpipe-laden chiptune (“The Burbs”). Best of all are the six boss music tracks both new and rearranged from Chipzel, whose exquisite fuzziness, tinny midi beats and abrasive amelodicness make for fantastic peaks of intensity (and I half expect Alice Glass to start rasping over a mic). McDuffee deserves plaudits for the superb sequencing, which divides the 50 tracks into logical, rewarding acts where tranquility tends to follow intensity, as well as for such a cohesive meeting of 8-bit, dreampop and contemporary synthwave. (CRM)

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Twinkle Park, Dustin van Wyk ~ Tales From Toppletown

It’s quite difficult to compose catchy, accessible music that will appeal to all ages. It’s also quite difficult to translate the particular punch of a variety of genres into a single OST, a tradition that composers like Koji Kondo ironed out quite well. It’s such a deep tradition, however, that it can still produce wonderful music, and that’s exactly what Twinkle Park and Dustin van Wyk have done with Toppletown. In retro style, they’ve adapted bossa nova rhythms, jazzy ballads, waltzes, and just the right amount of poppiness to create one of the most memorable soundtracks of the year. Just like old-school VGM in the Nintendo vein, Toppletown is full of sweet lullabies and heart-warming melodies, reminding us that you need no more than 15 minutes to make a great soundtrack. Lest we forget, the first Super Mario Bros was a mere 10 minutes long! So sit back, smile, and enjoy a short but happy ride. (DMF)

Rock, Pop and Eclectic

Adam Gubman ~ Elsinore

The second of our Renaissance-like picks on this list is the more earnest of the pair. Depicting a fantastical adventure set in early 17th-century England, Elsinore switches effortlessly between ambient evocations of torch- and candle-lit scenes (“Falling Into Madness”) to theatrical depictions of captivating drama (“Hide the Slain”). Veteran VGM composer Gubman enlisted a troupe of wind and strings players to breath authenticity into these 52 pieces (most of which are around 2-3 minutes), although does not cleave religiously to accuracy, making slender use of electric guitar to introduce new timbres across the lengthy set. Most glorious of all though are the several vocal pieces ranging from raucous tavern sing-a-longs (“Donne the Boat Boy”) to evocative Romantic ballads (“Fair as a Rose”), whose lovely melody has buried into my head like few others this year. (CRM) 

Andrew Prahlow ~ Outer Wilds

What starts as a convivial exchange of stories around a campfire, resplendent with plucked guitar and banjo melodies, soon dissipates like oxygen as we launch starward to unravel the mysteries of a solar system caught in a time loop of its endless demise. As the earthy sounds dissipate, constantly shifting electronics overwhelm, cold and vacuous. Soon we are pulled into orbits of whispering humanity, where shimmering synths and eerie piano melodies can unnerve as well as comfort (“Castaways”), before being dragged inexorably into the limits of existence itself, viscerally deep drones charting our descent into abstraction (the haunting “Nomai Ruins”). The first two-thirds of this captivating release marks the peak of the year, as Prahlow charts a course from folksy post-rock through chamber to dark-ambient and drone ~ and his greatest triumph is finding, in the apocalyptic spectacle of the celestial, the warmth and hope of the personal. (CRM)

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Daniel Olsén, Jonathan Eng, Linnea Olsson ~ Sayonara Wild Hearts

Another entrant showcasing the wonderful variety of videogame music, Sayonara Wild Hearts captured ears and hearts upon its release. It soundtracks an indie release equal parts game and interactive music video, its dreamy pop tunes perfectly driving surreal neon landscapes that morph and meld to the visions of a lovesick, skateboarding (among other vehicles) girl. But this is more CHVRCHES than Avril Lavigne, its crunching synths, pounding snares and aerated female vocals heaving with reverb and surface-level melancholy; actually, this is a wholly joyful record, and as we are whisked beyond the lengthier vocal tracks into the midst of 1-minute, instrumental ditties, chief composer Daniel Olsén reveals a brilliantly effective formula of condensing as many infectious rhythms and soaring melodies as possible into pieces a third the length of your average pop song (“Fighting Hearts” is a prime example). Sayonara, overly repetitive choruses! (CRM)

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Honorable Mentions

Chipocrite ~ EarthNight (Retro)
Using original Nintendo Game Boys, this OST drives a relentless set of authentic chiptunes. It is crunchy, catchy, and fast, like a muscle memory in the making. There’s so many things going on at once that after the album ends you’ll feel tired, yet you’ll want to go through it again and again. (DMF)
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Lena Raine ~ Celeste: Farewell (Electronic)
How to append to one of the great videogame soundtracks of last year ~ indeed, the last decade? Raine was blessed with that conundrum when the Celeste developers asked her to score the DLC. And so Farewell is wonderfully familiar yet… different. Less-dense constructions, ambient passages and a greater emphasis on natural instrumentation all tell of a composer confident and talented enough to not rest on her laurels. (CRM)
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Nabeel Ansari ~ Sole
A series of impressionistic pieces with powerful melodies and deep harmonies is perfect for a game in which you play the last light left in the world. The second half of this OST, in particular, is moving as much as it is contemplative ~ melancholic in all the right ways. (DMF)
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Satoshi Igarashi ~ Astral Chain (Rock, Pop and Eclectic)
Oh Nintendo, why do you forsake your soundtracks? Renowned for his work on Nier: Automata, Igarishi switches from techno-orchestration to glorious djent-inspired prog metal for Astral Chain ~ somehow guiding it through anime pop tunes and coming out triumphs. But good luck finding a full version to enjoy. (CRM)
Partial stream

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.

 

6 comments

  1. Thank you so much for considering me as an honorable mention. I don’t have a wide audience or fanbase/following and so it means the world that even my first ever soundtrack has reached you and resonated with you!

  2. Pingback: Gamasutra: Simon Carless’s Blog – Video Game Deep Cuts: 2019’s Best Best Best Best & Other Animals | Gamer2Day

  3. Pingback: Video Game Deep Cuts: 2019’s Best Best Best Best & Other Animals – Sick Gaming

  4. Pingback: Gamasutra: Simon Carless’s Blog – Video Game Deep Cuts: 2019’s Best Best Best Best & Other Animals – Gamericans

  5. Pingback: Gamasutra: Simon Carless’s Blog – Video Game Deep Cuts: 2019’s Best Best Best Best & Other Animals – The Blog Box

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