*Press A* 2021 ~ The Year’s Best Videogame Soundtracks

2021 represents the beginning of a relatively slow path toward recovery, with an ever-more-populous list of VGM releases relative to the prior year. Our list this year is again testament to the sheer diversity coming to define the game soundtrack panorama, with (as usual) indies leading the charge. AAA will usually strong-arm its way onto our lists in one shape or another, however, and this year’s sole representative, Battlefield 2042, certainly suggests these big-budget productions are beginning to take note of the experimentalism beneath them, with leftfield artists commissioned who can articulate richer, multifaceted soundworlds for game experiences usually accompanied by forgettable film-like music.

A most welcome confirmed trend from 2020 is the phasing out of the synthwave/darkwave OST. With 30XX our sole entry in the “Retro” category, it hints at new possibilities for mining the musical references of the past in order to craft soundtracks no longer tied to the straightforward resignification of 80s electronics. We hope new retro music emerges from this wave; arguably, for example, Chicory has remade many a stylistic construction of historical VGM into something innovative and ambitious. The same could be said of Axiom Verge 2, which uses old chip sounds for purposes other than recreating a type of musical environment, its compositions becoming progressively complex and vast. In the end, we believe the community is more than ready to move on, and to completely reformulate what it means to make something sound “retro” in the context of VGM.

Before moving on to the main event, we would just like to say: we’ve all made it this far, so congratulations! Enjoy some well-deserved music from some of VGM’s most accomplished and promising artists.

And now, by genre and in alphabetical order, we present the *Press A* best videogame soundtracks of 2021!

Electronic

Alex Roe ~ GRIME

Without knowing much about the game’s tone, the aesthetic established by the soundtrack is one of high gothic drama: think Wojciech Kilar’s Dracula, but less modern and more romantically-inclined, filtered through a slight John Williams sense of poetic scale and melody. Grave choirs, stirring orchestral sections, high-strung chords; it’s an excellent example of the genre, as bombastic as it is carefully crafted. The electronics add to it in ways that resemble many a Castlevania soundtrack, making its tone effectively alternate between the steady ambience of gothic mystery and the hectic activity of heroic themes. Tracks like “Misbegotten Amalgam” showcase this interplay, the result of which is music that is incredibly fun to listen to. Though the soundtrack might present itself at first as deadly serious, it has the warm heart of a B-movie, and the more you listen to it, the easier it is to realize how powerfully lovely all its gothic mannerisms are. Pour yourself some dark red wine, put this music on, and imagine your home as a castle lost in fog and rain. You’ll laugh like a villain, and it will feel glamorous as hell. That’s the beauty of GRIME. (David Murrieta Flores)

Andrew Prahlow ~ Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye

How to append to one of the stand-out soundtracks of the last couple of years? Lena Raine had the same challenge with Celeste: Farewell in 2019, and opted for a distinctly evolved sound. Echoes of the Eye does the same, although orbits the source material a touch closer ~ a reflection of the sheer diversity of Outer Wilds to start with. This DLC soundtrack, which seamlessly fuses electronic with ambient composition while drifting from the folksy interludes that exemplified the first release, carries more overt anxiety upfront. Even when the main, warming motif from the base OST returns in the third track (“River’s End”), the key is different, the mood somehow unsettling. A musical uncanny valley. Prahlow also takes longer detours into dark caverns of unknown origin, where ambient swells, rumbling bass and distorted chimes evoke the structures of a civilization dormant and forgotten ~ and maybe hostile. Echoes of voices emerge then quickly fade, a shaft of light bursts through but is soon sealed, a human hand reaches out before being snatched by the darkness. A good third of the set moves swiftly through moods and phases as though fast-forwarding through a silent film; we are none the wiser as to the drama unfolding, but are still enchanted by the mystery, ambient in texture if certainly not in delivery. Prahlow has risen to the DLC challenge, and we eagerly await his next, wholly new outing. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)

Full stream

Tee Lopes ~ Streets of Rage 4: Mr X Nightmare

There’s something of a “natural” fit in Lopes’ coming to produce the latest music for Streets of Rage 4. His Sonic Mania soundtrack was an adept, baroque reconstruction of what made Sonic music so engaging, and his contribution to SoR 4 does pretty much the same, reconceptualizing both the techno roots of Koziro’s originals and the more eclectic twists introduced by Deriviere only last year. His synthetic approach, much more rooted in electronic music than Deriviere’s mostly classically-oriented spirit, efficiently extracts the groove from all sorts of styles, from dub to nü-metal. Like Koziro, Lopes draws a clear line from the movements of the dance floor to the game pad, utilizing all sorts of stylistic crossovers to connect heart and hands into a singular energetic flow. Also just like Koziro’s, this music would perhaps not translate that well into the club, but the point is not to dance, but to punch, to kick, and to jump into rhythmic, pounding violence ~ to become one with the sheer force of the beat. Give “Ritual of Battle” a single listen ~ it will be more than enough to sway your mind into the melodic, yet urgent cadences of stylized videogame aggression. (DMF)

Thomas Happ ~ Axiom Verge 2

Solo game developer and composer Thomas Happ surpassed his own prior achievements with the sequel to his retro-inspired Metroidvania. Axiom Verge 2 offers a bolder and more colourful tapestry of sound than its already excellent predecessor, the previously chiptune canvas breached by a range of Middle Eastern instrumentation, occasional vocals and even drum ‘n bass rhythms. While still predominantly electronic in creation, this set offers so much variety, from gentle acoustic and woodwind tracks (“White Sand City”, where the vocals of Lebanese-American singer Mayssa Karaa lend such atmosphere) all the way to oppressive, swelling drone (“An Otherworld”). The Eastern influence suffuses much of the first half, even guiding the most straight-up chiptune tracks (listen to the occasional flourishes from the lead synth in “Argentum Alias”), but makes way for a more familiar, murky atmosphere in the second half, where brooding and squealing synths beckon familiar motifs from six years ago out of the gloom. Definitely a set to listen to in its entirety. (CRM)

Modern Composition

Christoper Larkin ~ TOHU

Having shot up almost overnight in many a VGM fan ranking due to the astonishing success of Hollow Knight, Christopher Larkin returns with a more playful but equally atmospheric score for indie adventure game, TOHU. The classically trained composer’s clear strength is imbuing everything with an abundance of character, from protagonists to the worlds they inhabit. There is elegance in the often straightforward ways he approaches this, from the jovial, brassy waltz of “Circus” to the harp arpeggios and deft glockenspiel of “Ice”. There is little wholly surprising here, but much adeptness in how these varied instruments and techniques are rendered part of a coherent whole, even when moving to the aforementioned waltz straight from the sorrow-filled “Loss”, with its sweeping violin line and romantic chord progression ~ a transition that could easily have been jarring; or with the later introduction of ambient pieces replete with droning strings and tip-toeing percussion. Recurring passages of pizzicato strings provide strong rhythmic and melodic hooks, and the technique’s reuse helps mesh these short pieces together with a distinctiveness that renders this quiet, unassuming and incredibly compact 37-minute set one of the most delightful of the year. (CRM)

Hildur Guðnadóttir & Sam Slater ~ Battlefield 2042

Artists easily recognizable to ACL readers show up every now and then in VGM; last year it was Loscil, this time it’s Guðnadóttir, accompanied by her soundtrack brother-in-arms Sam Slater, with whom she made Chernobyl and Joker. Slater was a producer for both those projects, and now joins Guðnadóttir as co-composer of this score. What’s interesting is that scoring a Battlefield game is pretty much the game equivalent of scoring an Avengers film: huge budgets and an audience fond of action scenes and spectacle replace the left-field crowd Guðnadóttir is usually a part of. Fortunately, this hasn’t deterred the artists, who have taken the experimental road towards an effective action soundtrack, using field recordings and the modified sounds of materials present in the game setting (the sand of deserts, the glass of futuristic building windows, and so on) to build a stirring, broken soundworld. After all, the game touches upon the theme of global society falling apart due to climate change, and the OST reflects it not only in the deconstruction of the romantic, heroic main theme that’s been with the game ever since its first iteration, but also in the dark, swelling ambient of tracks like “Degrees of Warming”. There’s already some backlash against the main theme’s obscured, jagged tones: it does away with the “grim duty” romance of the original and its associations of deadly victory, presenting us instead with an industrialized version that, for the most part, solely spells death. This subversion speaks volumes, because it is perhaps the only version of the theme that feels right, and that’s already a big VGM achievement for this duo. (DMF)

Full stream

scntfc ~ JETT: The Far Shore

Spanning almost two hours across 28 tracks, JETT: The Far Shore is a multifaceted and engrossing listen whose complexity spreads to the farthest reaches ~ absolute and almost too fine to perceive. Opening track “Soak In Brine” buckles you in for this interstellar odyssey, alone surpassing 15 minutes of ambient orchestration, choral meditations and probing, discordant drones. Canadian composer scntfc accompanies VGM heavyweight Jim Guthrie as one of the lucky two to have soundtracked a game by tiny studio, Superbrothers, which released the acclaimed Sword & Sorcery back in 2011. He handles the studio’s shift from retro-styled synth-led soundtracking to synth-backed full orchestration with dignity and restraint, offering patient meditations that venture toward minimalism in tracks such as “Deploy” and “Persevere”. Repetition like a religious mantra conveys the game’s themes of non-interventionist expansionism into limitless outer space, driven by existential threat and guided by a prophecy with faith unwavering. Accordingly, the atmosphere is solemn and weighty ~ almost oppressive in tracks such “Greifers” and the percussive-heavy “Jhorgon Kolos” ~ but does tend to dissipate across the set with shorter passages offering respite through hymnal vocal parts, pristine harp arpeggios, triumphal brass (“Adapt” being a particular bright spot) or even nature’s instruments. JETT’s greatest success of many is in how it balances the twin strains of science and faith, and the dread of extermination with the hope of salvation. (CRM)

Retro

Cityfires ~ 30XX

Our sole “Retro” representative this year is as straightforward as they get ~ for the most part. 30XX is a modern interpretation of the Mega Man soundtracks of the 90s, specifically calling to mind Takashi Tateishi’s Mega Man 2 in the more up-tempo numbers. 30XX is also its own sequel of 20XX, which Cityfires soundtracked in 2017 (when we were still in *Press A* nappies). So plenty of references ~ but let’s ignore them all and just tap our feet to the year’s most infectious beats, which are rooted in momentum and occasional frenzy but which often drop into a relaxed groove (“Hollows” or the aptly named “Circadian Groove”). And the melodies! The composer has a wonderful distinctive way of executing his melodic hooks, as the squeaking synths dance up and down scales and across the left and right channels, creating a quasi-glitch palette as well as the illusion of being triggered by player actions in different parts of the screen. With few exceptions, the grouping of tracks into trios linked by a single game area and musical motif is not ideal for a soundtrack, but does in the latter half work to its advantage as we move into the “Penumbra” trio. Starting with “Penance”, the intensity drops, the melodies become more wistful than whimsical and, in time, piano and strings enter. The transition from gaudy 90s chiptune to sombre modern electronic is as smooth as it is unexpected, and this track alone confirmed 30XX’s place in our list. (CRM)

Rock, Pop and Eclectic

Ada Rook ~ Fallow

The melody of “A Long Way from Home”, the opening track of this soundtrack, eerily recalls Gregor Samsa’s “The Adolescent”, a melancholy vision of a paradise long-barren, a soft, expressionist dream. The connection might be incidental, but it does give Fallow a historical trace of acoustic post-rock sad intensity, the feeling of driving across a landscape de-familiarized by a humanly apocalypse, a great destruction enacted not by some external force but by hands and imaginations very much our own. While the mix sometimes suffers from uneven production, its roughness only makes the noisier side of the soundtrack even more powerful, harsh drones and ambient fulfilling the quietly promised threats of the acoustic, folk component. Fallow might falter in terms of technique and production, but it more than makes up with pure intensity, so much so that it easily belongs among the year’s finest soundtracks. Videogame music with such a melancholic clarity in a post-rock style is rare, and its uniqueness lies in its potential to make your heart ache. (DMF)

Japanese Breakfast ~ Sable

Although Japanese Breakfast have a track called “Planetary Ambience”, the lo-fi indie band would likely not have been many people’s first choice to soundtrack a highly ambitious, low-budget game set on an alien world inspired by Star Wars, Zelda and French artist, Mœbius. But they rose to the challenge wonderfully, using highly evocative instrumentation dominated by unusual synth tones and percussive effects, as well as a simple compositional style that befits the sparse, vibrant game world. As with Manaka Kataoka’s sublime Breath of the Wild soundtrack, there are “Day” and “Night” versions of many pieces here, the nocturnes presenting either melodic echoes or reused salient tones from their livelier brethren. “Eccria (Night)”, for example, retains the “Day” track’s distinctive warbling synth tone and metallic percussion that so effectively conjures images of weather-beaten machines moving through shimmering desert air ~ just to a sedate tempo and with some of the mids removed. Another sparingly but effectively used instrument is the voice of Michelle Zauner, who adds a touch of the celestial as well as the choral (“Exploration”). Sable isn’t the type of soundtrack that rewards attentive listening; it instead creates a singular mood that ~ more often than not, and despite the strangeness of the digital sounds ~ feels somehow organic, comforting. A hand guiding us through the alien. (CRM)

Full stream

Lena Raine ~ Chicory

Long and convoluted soundtracks are pretty much unsurprising in the videogame world, with albums that easily last three, four or more hours coming out every year. But long and convoluted soundtracks that feel like a powerfully unified artwork of this kind of music as a whole? That’s another story altogether. Chicory is exemplary: listeners will encounter, every step of the way, subtle hints and references to game soundtrack classics, not in terms of quotations but structures and styles that firmly ground the music in a set of traditions now being expanded. It is to Raine’s credit that this work resonates so much with the styles of Kondo and Uematsu, to name just two of the most prominent figures in VGM, but also with younger voices like Wintory, North, or Kallio. In tracing a history of VGM the first difficulty is its variety and avoiding the categorizing trap of genres; Chicory feels like a spring emanating from a commons of game music that unifies all sorts of types into a singular form of composition. This does not mean it always works, but that the seams, whenever they become visible, add to the sense that we are listening to something monumental, to something in the process of becoming a historical referent itself. It makes me think of double and triple albums across the past few decades that were ambitious, eclectic, and rebellious, too big and too much of an artwork to simply discard as a mess or ignore. That’s what Chicory feels like: it is on the verge of being too much, on the very edge of a brilliance rather close to the sun, and that’s exactly what makes it so great. (DMF)

Skillbard ~ Genesis Noir

I truly hope the jazz soundtrack is taken up by more developers as an aesthetic choice in the future, but the few we have now (usually through conventional thematic associations) tend to stand out. Genesis Noir is precisely one of these cases, in which the music builds up a thematic consistency with noir genre tropes, doing them so well and with such skill that it is difficult not to thoughtfully nod along and think of rainy evenings and neon lights. There are, of course, more than a few nods to standards (Miles Davis’ “So What” in “Tick Tock”, for instance), but also a willingness to experiment within the rulesets of jazz, as in the numerous concrete sounds and electronic interventions populating tracks like “Wave Tuner” or “You Look at Me”, which fill out key harmonic roles that allow the music to sometimes grow beyond the aural image of noir. Those moments are a revelation: they connect what is basically a genre of film music with the actual music it is derived from, all those 1940s pieces that vaguely give it shape, in a digital context that brings that image to its limits. It is at that point where Genesis Noir flourishes, giving us a glimpse of a music unconstrained by context; or rather, a way out of noir tropes that is also simply and elegantly a way through. (DMF)

Honorable Mentions

Danshin & Arooj Aftab ~ Backbone (Rock, Pop & Eclectic)
A dark, sad game about losing oneself to the systems that oppress us necessitates an OST that digs at the dead heart of noir tropes and exhumes something new. These artists interestingly give darkjazz a cybernetic voice and electronic synapses so it can sing in the language of our precarity: smooth, cool, diverse, hopelessly nomadic and a single paycheck away from welcoming a fire that will never be put out. (DMF)
Listen here

Eli Rainsberry ~ No Longer Home (Ambient)
All Rainsberry soundtracks are quiet in some way, but this kind of quietness is new for the artist. It dwells on something of a nostalgic tone, its expressionist ambient a route towards daydreams of tranquil days passing. There’s sunshine, but the light sits still, an opportunity for inward refraction, to fill a place with thoughts of comfortable times recently ended. (DMF)
Listen here

Fernanda Dias ~ Unsighted (Electronic)
Supporting a future world where automatons have turned into killing machines, Unsighted is an unsettling, chaotic but occasionally serene blend of electro-jazz, fusion and prog. While slightly uneven across its near-80-minute runtime, some excellent rhythmic moments of punching drums and grooving bass make its high points among the most engaging of the year. (CRM)
Listen here

Garry Schyman & Mikolai Stroinski ~ Metamorphosis (Modern Composition)
An ultramodernist soundtrack for an age of machines: we’ve become so used to Romantic tropes in orchestral OSTs of all kinds that we’ve forgotten all the music of the 20th century. But it is still an age of machines, and the more radical experiments of atonality and serialism perfectly fit the world of narrative videogames such as Metamorphosis, even beyond the references to the 1920s. (DMF)
Listen here

Joel Corelitz ~ Eastward (Retro)
Eastward marks our second entry that pays homage to VGM en masse. While not trying to compete with the sheer scale and ambition of Raine’s Chicory, its slightly more focused composition creates an endearing set that hearkens back to 90s adventure/RPG games, resplendent with ambient exploration, jazzy locales and techno boss battles. Corelitz also has his name against Solar Ash and the new Halo ~ quite the year! (CRM)
Listen here

Nathaniel-Jorden Apostol ~ Conway: Disappearance at Dahlia View (Ambient)
Scarcely developing from an ivory whisper, Conway is a concise and understated three-act set composed predominantly of keys and strings. A wistful piano motif casts a melancholic shadow over the first third before a stealthy tension encroaches with droning synths and percussive, scuttling noises emerging from the dark corners. In the final act, emboldened melodies come forth to proffer tentative resolution. (CRM)
Listen here

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