*Press A* 2020 ~ The Year’s Best Videogame Soundtracks

2020 has been difficult for everyone. We skipped our usual list covering the first half of the year given the global unease and relatively low amount of VGM released. However, shortly after June there was a surge of excellent and exciting soundtracks that restored our hope for a solid end-year list. In retrospect, while the total volume of releases was less than of late, the overall good quality of the average release made our decision process a bit more challenging. The year also further entrenched the trend already well established: a further homogenising of AAA gaming soundtracks while indies prominently champion every genre ~ with often the smallest studios producing the most captivating output.

Another interesting note from 2020 was the notable phasing out of synthwave and darkwave, which has dominated the retro scene for the better part of a decade, in favor of more open-ended, back-to-basics approaches to the genre. Our single entry in this year’s list for the “Retro” category is a lone standard bearer for new ways of making “old” VGM, which we hope represents a light at the end of an admittedly fun and interesting tunnel that feels like it’s run a smidge too long.

And now, by genre and in alphabetical order, we present the *Press A* best videogame soundtracks of 2020!

Ambient

Amos Roddy ~ In Other Waters

Amos Roddy makes his second *Press A* appearance after Kingdom: Two Crowns received a doubtless coveted ‘Tasty Leftovers’ slot from 2018. While Kingdom impressed with its variety, In Other Waters proves the composer can also commit wholly to a genre and deliver. It is serene ambience that floats on the whim of a current barely discernable, or that drifts deliberately yet languidly between fuzzy and pristine tones, as when the piano like a feeble source of light struggles to penetrate the underwater murkiness of “Pillar Gardens”. It is engaging ambience, as Roddy reveals his ear for strong melodic lines and counter melodies, as in the upbeat and all-too-brief “The Last Artificer” or the more pensive “A Drifting Lens”, which with its gentle underlying arpeggio pushes the set closer to kosmische electronica shores. Lastly, it is dusky ambience, as the growling synth that emerges from the Vangelis playbook in “Shifting Current” heralds a disquieting passage of minor progressions, dirty swells and minimal timpani-esque punctuations. In Other Waters is not ‘just’ an ambient record, but it is also a great ambient record, and we eagerly await Roddy’s next project. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)


Eli Rainsberry ~ Bird Alone

After last year’s excellent Wilmot’s Warehouse, we were keen to listen to Eli Rainsberry’s new works. While A Monster’s Expedition is perhaps the more popular, widespread release, we chose Bird Alone because it is more exploratory, more in tune with the world of noises and tones we’ve come to know as ambient music. Its strength lies in the density of composition, the meticulous intricacy of pieces that on a quick listen seem simply like bright havens of pleasant sounds. The surface, as with all ambient music, is complexity in motion, the layers occurring in ways that permit varying degrees of engagement; Bird Alone plays perfectly with the constructed nature of this sound-world, introducing quiet melodies step by step, letting the tones shimmer ever so slightly longer, and cutting every track to an exact time. The album as a whole runs for 37 minutes, and each piece, however short or long, is a distinct part of a panorama that organically grows like a conversation. Towards the album’s end, Rainsberry introduces new tones that seem to spontaneously occur, crafting ephemeral narratives with no end point. Ambient is revealed as something built, a construction in which the artist positively thrives, and we are moved to listen. (David Murrieta Flores)


TsuShiMaMiRe & Roly Porter ~ Paper Beast

If there ever was a strange pairing for an OST it’s Japanese punk band TsuShiMaMiRe, who basically sound like if Shonen Knife were formed in the 2010s, and Roly Porter, who tends to craft dense, heavy drones meant to evoke looking at the simultaneously ancient and futuristic traces of stars and desert planets. It’s not entirely a smooth experience, but since Porter’s side of the equation constitutes about 90% of the soundtrack itself, it’s not too jarring either. Porter’s contributions are of particular interest for ACL; while Paper Beast is closer to Kistvaen than to Third Law, there are elements that cross over from the more electronic, noisy soundscapes of the latter and into the ambience-focused poetics of the earlier. This is a perfect fit for a game about exploring ecosystems derived from digital life ~ together, the noise-laden fallout from echoing drones and the brightness of ambient sections that almost seem melodic produce the sense of witnessing an artificial organism grow before our eyes. There is a coldness to the touch that nonetheless betrays a wonder of the imagination, the music unfolding like an expansive tectonic shift whose duration, measured in eons, encompasses the journey of life itself. (DMF)


Electronic

Belinda Coomes ~ Ring of Pain

Never before has a card game sounded so threatening. Ring of Pain by Belinda Coomes exemplifies the joy of uncovering soundtrack gems from the farther reaches of the indie game scene ~ a strong set that conjures images of a game completely different to the reality! Part drone, part dark ambient with a veneer of horror, this soundtrack to a rouguelike card game with a disturbing owl antagonist both lulls and unsettles with strings and keys that seem to not so much speak but merely breathe, and eerie synth melodies that fleetingly emerge and occasionally morph into sinister glockenspiel (“Through the Nest”). The volume dial gradually twists as we progress, but there are few moments when the monster truly emerges (“Claws and Feathers”), replete with rumbling percussion and rasping brass; surrounding these are shorter tracks that showcase Coomes’s impressive command of tension and quiet intensity. A piano piece sways between sorrowful and sinister, collages of sound design and distorted field recordings unsettle, and metronomic percussion with staccato strings imbue the final act with grim inevitability. A twisted delight. (CRM)


Cosmo D ~ Tales From Off-Peak City Vol. 1

I awarded Cosmo D’s previous effort, The Norwood Suite, an Honorable Mention all the way back in 2017. Three years later, I’m extremely glad to say that Tales… easily took a place among this year’s best soundtracks ~ an album full of surprises with a much more sophisticated structure than its predecessor. Like many a gaming OST, it is eclectic in the best of ways, smoothly mixing styles to produce truly unique music that equally feels at ease in straightforward EDM beats and in jazz syncopation. At various times it reminded me of Venetian Snares, rooting the coherence of the sound upon distinct, almost competing approaches whose differences end up being complementary. The long-form “Caetano’s Joint”, for example, finds in the precisely repetitive nature of electronica a bridge to the loose formats of jazz harmony, its off-beat nature then becoming the bridge for minimalist aesthetics (which loves both repetitiveness and complex rhythms), thus ‘closing’ the circle, in a way. A similar operation is in place throughout the album at large, creating a musical collage that is entirely surreal, with interesting music just spilling out from the clash of unexpected elements from a wide array of genres. (DMF)


Modern Composition

Austin Wintory ~ The Pathless

Every now and then, an artwork reminds me that the word ‘epic’ is not simply a synonym of ‘great’. Or rather, that the greatness implicit in its everyday use is rooted upon the collective dream-scape of stories about transcendent figures told in poetic form. Thus, I believe it is not hyperbole to call Austin Wintory’s The Pathless soundtrack ‘epic’: it begins with a melody that reaches for multiple musical traditions, so that when the throat-singing starts, it lands as a satisfying introduction to a world of wonder, where our commonality is our difference, where anything is possible. Where The Banner Saga was Romantic, a focused swirl of neo-Wagnerian tragedy, or where Absolver was a wide yet restrained approach to a placeless, vaguely Eastern mystery, The Pathless is like a synthesis of both, embracing a heroic tone of Romance while adapting a diversity of musical traditions into its structure. The result is properly dreamlike, a poetry of eclecticism in which all the different currents are far from ‘integrated’ ~ they shine side to side, their brilliance born from unexpected dialogues. It is a vast OST, its mythical quality an achievement only a versatile composer like Wintory could pull off. (DMF)


Kyd, Schachner, Selvik ~ Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: The Ravens Saga

We don’t deliberately marginalize AAA studio soundtracks in our best-of lists; we just find their big budgets and “epic” aspirations tend not to inspire. There’s always an exception or two though (last year it was Ludwig Forssell’s magnificent Death Stranding), and this year it’s Ubisoft’s latest Assassin’s Creed instalment. Set during the Viking invasion of Britain, the soundtrack as you’d expect incorporates instruments, tonalities and rhythms both Nordic and Anglo-Saxon, with string instruments such as lyres, harps, fiddles and cellos prominent in the mix. But nakedly exposed these sounds are not; as the game inserts the contemporary into the history, so the strands of Norse folk are digitally processed and mixed with analogue synths to produce a fusion of truly captivating tone ~ a superb meeting of modern composition and drone. And melodies certainly abound, emerging stretched and ominous on strings or horns as though a Viking ship through the mist. Lending some much-needed authenticity alongside industry heavyweights Jesper Kyd and Sarah Schachner is Nowegian black-metal-turned-folk musician Einar Selvik, who sings over several tracks in a voice of anger and lament, turning the thundering “Hausbrjótr – Skullcrusher” into epic war poetry and “Asgard Hall of the Aesir” into touching threnody. 

At 47 tracks the full score is bloated; but in shorter set The Ravens Saga (one of three discrete bitesize offerings) the publisher has produced one of the biggest triumphs of the year. (CRM)


Max LL ~ Spiritfarer

Spiritfarer is a breezy, colourful and warming soundtrack to a game about death. Focusing on the peace we should all make with ourselves and our loved ones before we depart, the game encourages intimacy between player and voyager until the latter imparts their tale and finds closure. Canadian composer Max LL, who should on this set’s strength be propelled into the mainstream, imparts this sense of the individual and personal throughout 76 minutes teeming with life and variety, all within a vibrant compositional framework reminiscent of *Press A* favourite Joe Hisaishi (one surprising interlude in “My Friends” aside). Individual tracks are like vignettes, transient and evocative of the characters they are tied to. Such a lengthy set of very short tracks risks interfering with the listening experience, but such is the considered sequencing here ~ successive shorter pieces tend towards the spacious and ambient, obscuring their transitions ~ that it in fact feels more like an absorbing, briskly moving adventure. We are whisked through Japanese- and Indian-influenced locales, into a brassy hellscape, over serene waters and past snowy villages. Playful pizzicato conveys whimsy, solo guitar pieces intimacy and spacious keys levity. And tying these evolving elements together, a glorious extended motif from which Max LL extracts inspiring mileage, making you feel the continual presence of something reassuring ~ of someone ultimately trying to help. Spiritfarer is a joy and much-needed salve in this ludicrous year. (CRM)


Retro

Aivi, Surasshu, Augustin ~ Ikenfell

Works that are clearly evolving a certain style, particularly in the chiptune world where unbridled nostalgia or ironic distancing in the form of synthwave dominate, are hard to come by. Ikenfell is, in this sense, a breath of fresh air for retro soundtracks, taking identifiable cues from the 90s RPG music everyone loves, except developing it through new and exciting paths. The composers follow the Koji Kondo method of adapting folk and popular classical musics for a videogame setting to provide an everyday rhythm full of memorable warmth, and they do it with such earnestness that it’s impossible not to hum along with every melody. Most tracks are bite-sized, and all of them, like those good old, solid Kondo compositions, are clearly designed for repetition, for gameplay loops that are also mental states of ludic happiness. The artists are not exactly traditionalists, however, and the pop, rock, and acid jazz elements that pepper the soundtrack, as well as the hi-fi production, provide the way through rose-tinted glasses and into squarely innovative territory. As our only Retro selection of the year, Ikenfell points decisively towards the future of the genre. (DMF)


Rock, Pop and Eclectic

Darren Korb ~ Hades

General consensus is that beloved indie developer Supergiant Games really found their stride with isometric roguelike Hades ~ and so too did their everpresent composer Darren Korb, whose sprawling soundtrack of Greek-inspired prog rock rarely misses a beat across its two-hour-plus runtime. Ironically in fact, beats are dropped aplenty as time signature and tempo changes are scattered throughout, helping to build the restlessness that bubbles beneath the surface like the fiery lakes of the underworld. (Listen to the tempo switches in “Wretched Shades” and the especially fun “The King and the Bull”.) And so through the meeting of crunching guitars and heavy drums, electronic synths and beats, and bouzoukis or bağlamas frenetically strummed or delicately picked, a theatrical East Mediterranean patina descends upon what otherwise would have been a thoroughly Western-contemporary set. These elements often confront each other as blade to blade, but the set peaks when they’re entwined more intricately together (“Through Asphodel”). As the intensity increases, Korb resorts to more one-dimensional fodder that will delight fans of 2000s “post-metal” (think Pelican, The Ocean), but then surprises with quieter vocal-led pieces that occasion genuine interludes of sorrow or anguish. (CRM)


Hidden Orchestra ~ Creaks

Hidden Orchestra couldn’t really fail in scoring an atmospheric game about a secret, labyrhthine house, could he. Like most of his discography, composer Joe Acheson presents a set bearing subtle dynamic range and little in the way of attention-grabbing melody ~ but peer through the cracks of Creaks and you perceive a whole world of mystery beneath the floorboards. This space may appear vacant at a glance, as somnolent sax, strings and piano meander from room to empty room, but intricate percussion imbues it with life and sheer presence round every corner, down every corridor ~ just at the edges. Scuttling snare fills abound across the first few tracks and frenzied yet delicate drum ‘n bass rhythms scurry across several early pieces (“Three Islands”, “Welcome to Towers”). While dynamically presented in-game, the music has been forced into a linear set of expert sequencing, with Acheson introducing synths and more exotic percussive sounds as we delve deeper into the house. Towards the set’s close there emerge spacious, elevating pieces that force one to finally gaze upward, as with the metronomic piano of “Lifting”, emotive “Palace End” and the transcendent chamber piece “One and One”. An engaging and at times eerie delight. (There’s also an accompanying web app, Creaksbox, that generates an adaptive soundtrack to function more like the music in-game. Very cool!) (CRM)


Kevin Penkin ~ Necrobarista

Penkin delivered one of the surprise releases of the year with Necrobarista, an OST that, while rooted in EDM, breezily moves between genres and styles, swelling into synth-pop here, flowing into neo-disco there, making time for some acid jazz chill, coming down with some old-school dubstep intensity every now and then, even charging up with a reggaetón rhythm in the final third of the album… you get the idea. The fact that this is a soundtrack for a visual novel is reflected in the narrative course of every track, which weaves together not recurring themes but emotional threads emerging from all these ways of dancing. They are fun yet serious, sad and even solemn yet quite playful and moving; it is an apt reflection of a game that is about the last stop for the souls of the dead, a place of both melancholy and respite. That the source of such an expressive core is a masterfully eclectic mixture of dance musics speaks well of Penkin’s abilities as a composer, and the string-led, cinematic sections of the final tracks are the culmination of a trip that will make you move your hips and feel down simultaneously from start to finish. (DMF)


Honorable Mentions

Dale North ~ Dreamscaper (Modern Composition)
If it wasn’t before already, it’s blatantly clear with Dreamscaper that North is a master of the dramatic melody in the cinematic, classical romantic tradition. What’s new here is the introduction of raw, expressionist electronics, granting the music a sharp edge of unexpected intensity even when themes repeat. The enchanting melodies now carry a certain harsh weight, and that makes Dreamscaper a heavy hitter you’ll want to keep on repeat. (DMF)
Full stream

Laurence Chapman ~ Pendragon (Modern Composition)
As a Romantic, neo-medieval musical take on the legend of King Arthur, Pendragon strikes all the right notes: a sense of tragic history, a heroic melody that is transformed into motifs of danger, of adventure, mystery, and ominous outcomes. Chapman is in excellent form, and while this might not top 2019’s Heaven’s Vault, it’s certainly a must-listen for this year. (DMF)
Full stream

Santaolalla, Quayle ~ The Last of Us Part II (Rock, Pop and Eclectic)
Comforting in its bleakness, the sequel to The Last of Us offers few surprises given the reins are retained by Santaolalla, who again puts classical guitars and banjos centre stage to evoke the loneliness and struggles of a zombie-infested America. Here, though, the Argentinian is joined by renowned film composer Mac Quayle, who interrupts the lonesome strings with droning interludes of gnarly ambience and growling synths ~ a pleasing juxtaposition of grim. (CRM)
Full stream

Thesis Sahib ~ Spinch (Electronic)
Grimey beats and bleeping retro samples assail from start to end in Spinch, which Sahib compiled on modified Game Boys and circuit-bent instruments. Trudging hip-hop beats heighten the groove while flighty passages of 8-bit electronica bring the intensity, in this relentless explosion of noise and psychedelia.
Full stream

Various Artists ~ Streets of Rage 4 (Electronic)
While half of the tracks were produced by Olivier Deriviere, the impressive cast brought to contribute music for Streets of Rage 4 makes this a fine collaborative effort. Legends Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima are back, but this is a soundtrack with no time to look backwards – go straight, and you will find more than a few excellent new techno and EDM pulses of violence to vibe to. (DMF)
Full stream

Yu-Peng Chen ~ Genshin Impact: The Wind and the Star Traveller (Modern Composition)
Genshin Impact is full of dynamism and colour, bearing its Final Fantasy and Romantic influences proudly in a score that, like the game, offers little novelty but much quality. Unfortunately, unlike Ubisoft’s efforts with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, the official release of cherry-picked pieces ~ The Wind and the Star Traveller ~ omits much of the variety and quirky interludes that unofficial uploads offer. I hope more is to come! (CRM)
Full stream

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