2019 favorites · List · Year-end

My Top 10 Albums of 2019 (+ EPs)

2019 #1

Pleased to say I had trouble fitting this into a top ten.

Many repetitive trends haven’t changed in this time, or in the last 3 years for that matter. We need to get off this 808 addiction for one thing. So, while I hope for some big changes in the 20’s, I felt this was a great year for overall quality and I’m excited to find more! In the meantime, here’s my favorites so far. Note… Final order is rough.

I list my top 5 EPs and honorable mentions below my #1 as well. SO many albums sat in a ‘close but not quite’ spot for me this time, but the amount is impressive for sure.

Two write-ups are from my ‘Top 5 Albums of 2019’ halfway series hence copied in italic.

10/9. Jenny Hval – The Practice of Love

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art pop / electronic / synth pop

RIYL – Opus III, Grimes, Yeule, Pastel Ghost

What a nice surprise. Jenny’s lowered the last album’s edgequeen poetry and made way for more yknow, singing, not to mention doused her voice in hypnotic water-crystals (synths). A fairy-ish falsetto like hers over such a shiny electro sound gives this an Opus III charm that should interest trance fans. Two tracks fall back into the spoken word, but the rest makes a quality EP. Good music for any aspiring mermaid.

10/9. Caroline Polacheck – PANG

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art pop / folktronica / glitch pop / electropop

RIYL – Chairlift, Ramona Lisa, PC Music, Imogen Heap

Caroline sings like a fairy-tale lead lost in the woods. Her voice has an almost narrow quality, but her delivery is strong and elastic. It’s not every day you hear vocal sky-dives like hers on the same album as A.G. Cook, a yacht rock update and folksy ballads… Which is why Pang is good.

For all her great theatrics, I love the calmer sound on “Go As A Dream”. It’s become my new favorite Caroline vocal. Far from showy as in “Door”, but incredibly soothing: I can sense the birds and deer watching her in a Disney forest. The way she added that adorable new agey harp confirms this for my ‘garden refuge’ mix. -wink wink- To top it off, this song will do wonders if your mom was into Imogen Heap.

Pang is a testament to how technology allows us to fuse our inspirations. She’s created an effective self-portrait from each of her (known) trademarks here whether they had much in common or not.

8. Teebs – Anicca

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downtempo / folktronica / indie electronic / wonky

RIYL – Bibio, Tycho, gardens, birds

While I worry his palette is getting plainer (not enough bells! too much guitar!) there’s just nobody in e-music like Teebs. Listening to him feels like napping in a painter’s garden. It’s interesting to hear him branch out while sticking to his own path as he does here. Full review here.

7. Sudan Archives – Athena

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chamber pop / art pop / folktronica / neo soul

RIYL – Kelsey Lu, violins, wooden sounds

Not every day you hear violin (let alone one inspired by Sudanese fiddling) in electronic context, but Sudan fuses them like it’s nothing. Such woodsy, keening riffs like these are a refreshing change from the tropes I’ve come to expect with trendy alt-pop. They’re a great anchor and counterpart to the electronic backbone. When it comes to singing, Sudan sounds like a goddess tending to an ancient garden. She has insight to share and she’s focused all the way on her work, but her presence is a calming one in the end.

Athena is a slow burner, but certain tracks (“Down On Me”) are quick to hit you with a graceful melody. It works like a garden too: you have to water it to hear the true potential. As with another creative new string player, Kelsey Lu, I hope Sudan can keep blossoming as an artist. We need more string players to step into electronic music!

6. Karen O & Danger Mouse – Lux Prima

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indie pop / art rock / neo-psychedelia

RIYL – Karen O’s “YO! My Saint”, Arctic Monkeys’ “One Point Perspective” + “American Sports”, U.S. Girls’ In A Poem Unlimited, space

Imagine my shock when Karen O drops a nine-minute suite with Danger Mouse in November. Despite a new producer, “Lux Prima” felt like a sci-fi evolution from last year’s ghostly torch song and a personal ’18 fave, “YO! My Saint”. The idea of a full album piqued my curiosity. The style was hard to predict, but that added to the excitement!

Beyond Karen’s expected indie elements, Lux Prima centers on warm, groovy surrealism in similar fashion to Italian 70’s scores. For example: the filtered strings propelling Karen’s underwater balladry in “Reveries” or the smooth bass lines and uneasy melodies in “Nox Lumina”. Like those soundtracks, Lux Prima doesn’t stick to 2-3 common recipes, so we have misty dream-folk in “Ministry” and twangy disco in “Turn The Light”. Yeah, that last one’s… weird.

As a result, Karen sings like she’s trying on new hats. With a voice like hers, which could rile a punk party and woo you to sleep in the same ten minutes, most songs give her space to shine. Her wordless wailing on “Lux Prima” and her wistful hum in “Ministry” come to mind. However, some of DM’s stylings (while impressive) aren’t the best fit for Karen, dulling her spark. Other times, melodies aren’t as interesting as the lavish backing.

The Lux Prima/Nox Lumina suite has me wishing they engaged more with their space themes, but what’s there is compelling. Lux Prima sounds like a proper solo debut and a step forward for KO. I miss Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but I’m glad to know she’s open to experiment in her solo career.

5. Nonlocal Forecast (aka Angel Marcloid)

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new age / electronic / jazz fusion

RIYL – 90s Weather Channel music, Eyeliner,  “Aquatic Ambience” from Donkey Kong Country, “Dire Dire Docks” from Super Mario 64, digital synths

One in countless Angel Marcloid creations, Bubble Universe! shows her gift for oceanic digital synths. Song-wise she flips between glittery 80’s new age and upbeat jazz fusion in tribute to the Weather Channel. The latter approaches chaos, but she unites it all through the giddy sheen of the digitized 90’s. If you thought this era was fun at all for synths or video game music, BU! is tons of fun and a great mood booster. Imagine such a soundtrack with a subtle prog-jazz influence and you have the idea. My favorite VGM is water-themed, so I applaud Angel for exploring this vibe.

I managed to chat with Angel a few days ago. She mentions another NF album is on the way despite juggling this, her Fire-Toolz album and many mixing jobs this year. How does she do it???

4. Angel OlsenAll Mirrors

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chamber pop / singer songwriter

RIYL – Scott Walker, Susanne Sundfor, Anna Von Hausswolf, strings

For once, a hyped late-10s album where I GET the hype. The usual barrier between me and ‘chamber pop’ is the slowness and twee indie-rawker vocals, but Angel steps closer to a smoky folk songwriter. Her presence is mysterious enough to compliment the velvet carpet that is her new string section. Picture a woman you’ve never met with a Foggy Past visiting your Victorian fireplace to escape the storm and you have the right idea.

With many beautiful moments at both soft and loud volume, this album excels in slow burns. Every other time it began to ramble, I’d get a cinematic flourish or crescendo. “Chance” is the best example, having the same huge, frosty catharsis as a good movie climax.

All Mirrors is a delicious cross between chamber pop and folk’s ghostly edges. (See “Summer” for the latter, which makes me want to ride a horse in the mountains!) Glad this is getting the praise it deserves.

2/3. Ioanna Gika Thalassa

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art pop / darkwave / ethereal wave / synth pop / dream pop

RIYL – This Mortal Coil, early Cocteau Twins, Bat For Lashes’ Two Suns, IO Echo, Anna Von Hausswolf, filling the void Grimes left when she made Art Angels

Somehow Ioanna Gika knows 70% of what I want from gothic music right now. She can siren-sing like a lost Mortal Coil guest. Synth layers, string flourishes and fierce rhythms make her soar in all directions. She fuses modern sounds with folk references like Bat For Lashes’ best work. In a way, she represents the next step in an all-too-small group of modern artists revitalizing ethereal wave. (These include early Grimes and Pat Moon; needless to say, I hope we keep getting new artists in this vein.) Add guitar, piano and a surprise krautrock break and the sound is flexible to bring her ambitions to life.

She’s an expert at building tension, to the point many songs could fit a movie. “Roseate” for one, which compares her losses to walls breaking with the urgent beats and howls to match. As heavy as it gets, her voice is sweet and humane enough to keep the void from swallowing everything. I love how much this contrasts the drama surrounding her. A gentler song like “Weathervane” has her shivering like a bird in a desolate tundra. I get a feeling Thalassa’s world was a pristine, homely one since warped by the grieving that inspired it. Thalassa feels like a true trip inside what she felt then.

Thalassa is both a strong emotional release and culmination of Ioanna’s great taste. It’s a must-hear if you want something a little more individual than the usual post-punk rehash. I’m convinced she can liven up the goth scene. Touring with Chelsea Wolfe suggests she’ll get her due with time.

2/3. La FelineVie Future

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french pop / art pop / electronic / neo-psychedelia / dream pop / space age

RIYL – Mylene Farmer, French accents, surrealism, Broadcast, Ghost Box, Stereolab

Vie Future is a rabbit-hole trip with bits of magic (like so much music I love), but the lyrics concern Earth and humans. As a response to giving birth, losing a parent and fear for the climate, Agnes fills Vie Future with weighty questions. She has the right emotional range to give life to these complex feelings whether she channels dolls or cyborgs. She ponders death to upbeat rhythms (“Où est passée”) and hums to herself in a river (“Voyage”) with the same conviction.

Much to her credit, Future expands far beyond La Feline’s minimal wave roots while avoiding many 10’s cliches. I love how hard it is to label. You have piano, flutes, various moody synths, guitars, mallets, vocoder effects and strings. With the update on space-age themes, I’d call Ghost Box and Stereolab the closest things. And yet, that only says so much with their variety, and I haven’t heard a singer like Agnes in this context before.

Vie Future thrives in subtlety. Like a great mystery story, it unravels new tricks with time to keep me hooked inside.

1. Kelsey Lu Blood

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chamber pop / art pop / singer songwriter / chamber folk / folktronica

RIYL – cellos, Sudan Archives, non-forced eclecticism, Goldfrapp’s Tales of Us, Kate Havnevik’s “Unlike Me”, Weyes Blood, Angel Olsen

As you could guess from a cellist, keyboardist, guitarist and singer who’s worked with Solange and Blood Orange, Kelsey Lu’s solo debut isn’t easy to box. She defies more cliches than any new album I’ve heard this past year, resulting in unfiltered creativity. The minimal cello-with-vocal sound on her Church EP has evolved to a bolder statement with a stronger personality and wider palette, the electronics among the most promising. In Lu’s case, Blood sounds like the natural gathering of her inspirations. She isn’t going eclectic for the sake of it, which is often the best way to do so. Even when she goes from twangy folk (“Too Much”) to a 7-minute electro 10cc cover, she unites each sound through the sweet hums and shivers of her voice, the warm wooden tremble of her cello and clear-cut production.

Blood opens with a pair of striking cello-tinged folk songs, the sinister warning of “Rebel” and the uneasy sleepwalk of “Pushin’ Against The Wind”. In the first big shift, she dives into a cathartic pop ballad with “Due West”, setting her vocal decadence to a blanket of synth chords and a harp so fragile someone could’ve sewn it together. When I think it’s over, a cello pluck enters and cross-fades into what sounds like Grouper making ethereal wave in a church (“Kindred”). Unlike the rest of Blood, Lu sounds truly weightless as she sings like an opera singer’s ghost, possessed yet appeased. Not long after, she kicks into 70s disco with “Poor Fake”, where the album’s biggest beat threatens to kick off a party. And we’re only halfway in by then.

Blood is the most a new artist has impressed me in months if not a few years. Her awe-inspiring musical scope combined with such clear passion and creativity to match means Blood has enough to process for some time, but I’m clamoring to know what sound she’ll pursue next. Will she do more pop, guitar folk, classical cello, will it follow this album’s steps or will she do a 180? Blood tells me any of these and more could work.

EPs:

Honorable mentions

There’s more. I could add Lana, Lil Simz, Weyes Blood, Charli, Lizzo and other cult hits, but this is long enough kept to my darkhorse faves. Stay tuned for my 2019 playlist for their proper acknowledgement.

 

5-Song Gateways · Artists you should know

5-Song Gateway: Keep Shelly In Athens

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This column highlights favorite genres, scenes and artists with the intent to make it quick and easy to get into them or decide if they’re ‘for you’. I’ll focus on obscure and/or prolific projects.

The huge (as I would argue, overblown) taboo surrounding the ‘chillwave’ sound left many talented groups like this forgotten. I’m thinking another reason for Keep Shelly was their silly name, and how their vocals and lyrics get cheesy. Still, I wound up endeared by this factor more than annoyed. This is shimmery water-fairy music at heart, and as long as you aren’t pulling an all-out ‘bananis and avocados’ with your voice, I won’t complain. These ‘fairies’ have soothing voices and fabulous scenery is everywhere, so I can’t help but enjoy the ride. Beyond that, they’re one of the most ambitious groups I’ve heard in this decade’s synth-dream pop genre/scene/thing.

Here’s the thing: KSIA never were your average ‘chillwavers’.  Unlike this scene’s generic corners, Keep Shelly aren’t ones to rehash old ideas. It doesn’t boil down to some woozy synths and pale guitar tones from a nerd writing gushy love songs about his GF. Like Royksopp, they stay adventurous at the same time as having a ‘chill-out’ appeal. They vary a lot from the structures and influences you come to expect from this music. Not every experiment works, but I appreciate their ambition.  Their one constant member RΠЯ decorates and transforms the songs as much as he wants (on lesser songs, maybe too much!). If this is chillwave, it’s a bold and shiny update. He has a great taste for expanding on chillwave’s water fixation, so give these songs a good listen if you fawn over aquatic sounds like I do!

1. “Cremona Memories” – In Love With Dusk, 2010

One running trope I love about KSIA is their taste for spontaneous ‘weirder’ or kitschy touches. This song has a throbbing sci-fi synth one moment (1:21), and a Tina Turner sample or vinyl scratch the next. Results will depend on how wild they are, but I love the way it expands songs like this. RΠЯ relies on a fairly simple groove here but throws everything he has over it to keep you engaged. KSIA don’t get too serious, and make things fun when they see fit.

2. “DIY” – Our Own Dream EP, 2011

Film scores aside, this has one of the most epic piano lines I know. A few chords and that’s it, but they play in such enormous and stomping fashion that it doesn’t matter. And those horns! Another great ‘what if’ move from KSIA.

3. “Flyway” – At Home, 2013

Relies on this one fluttery synth, but adds all these subtle riffs to bounce off of it and a weird yet awesome vocoder cameo. Another one where you have to ride the adrenaline rush. The best kind of repetition: purposeful, not too much, addictive, doesn’t take forever to evolve.

4. “Fractals” – Now I’m Ready, 2015

I don’t know, I have a soft spot for well-done wishy washy bittersweet pop songs. That is, if the right people make them, and of course Keep Shelly qualify. Really pleasant melodies, and the hopeful spirit is sweet. I love the way the chorus busts in with that Robin Guthrie guitar (guth-tar?) from the gentler verses. That little chiptune-y solo toward the end makes it even more satisfying.

5. “Hollow Man” – Now I’m Ready, 2015

This is where their ambition shines. The layers, the intensity, the oceanic textures, the twists, the synth soloing, it’s all there. You have break beats, gorgeous synths, windy vocal effects, huge build VS sad, hushed cooldown; vibraphone [!!!] fade-out… An exciting mixture in the end. Thumps like a thunder storm; when it’s music, that’s a good thing.

List

A Gothic Top 5

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With The Banshees as my biggest gateway into my serious musical interests, I’ve had a fascination for gothic themes for many years now. As picky as I get with the goth rock/darkwave scenes, they generated and influenced several of my all-time favorite albums.

To coincide with this Halloween, I’ve decided to look back on five of my most formative gothic, autumnal and/or ‘spooky’ favorites. This is more about representing than building an exact top-5, so check out this related list and my Halloween mixes if you want more!

Lene Lovich – Shadows And Dust, 2005

Lene Lovich is new wave’s wacky witch of the west. Anyone familiar with her distinctive polka-dotted voice will know this already. Shadows And Dust is the lesser-known piece to the puzzle. Despite coming fifteen years after March, Lene sounds more witchy than ever. She tributes the Wicked One herself with all the right gleeful camp on track 9.

Mixing non-forced cabaret drama with speculative themes, SAD is a goth-pop wonderland. SAD plays like a natural step from where she left off, unfazed by time. It never lacks a new trick to show off, be it wispy synth bells (“Ghost Story”), viking-like backing vocals, a grim synth-string intro (“Remember”) or an elaborate Dracula narrative (“Insect Eater”). To top this off, every song has a bouncy hook to get you nodding along. Altogether, it brings me back to Siouxsie’s Peepshow. With a bold sing-along and mutant arrangement, “Shapeshifter” makes a worthy “Peek-A-Boo” sequel. And this is coming from a fanatic!

Lene sings like she’s stirring a cauldron. Her voice wears a bit on louder sections, but I love her enthusiasm. Her wild-but-warm spirit hasn’t faded a bit, and her deeper, richer tone matches her themes. The sheer thrill she takes in voicing Reinfield on “Insect Eater” is nearly contagious. Sweeter moments like “Remember” show her knack for tender romance isn’t gone either.

Even beyond her ‘prime’, Lene had so much more to offer than “Lucky Number”. SAD is a major reason why; the limited release has me wishing more fans got to hear it.

Grimes – Halfaxa, 2010

In a Simpler Time ™ before dating billionaires and romanticizing climate change with anime, Claire Boucher packed fresh creative instincts into a computer. On oft-ridiculed Halfaxa, she channeled cathedrals and haunted medieval heirlooms from what many critics dismiss as the lowest dregs in music-making: Garageband. Albums like this tell me they’re wrong.

These technical limits and her isolation at the time informed these songs to unique results. Like many albums in this formative time for bedroom e-music, she’s alone with her thoughts here. As expected with a creative musical mind, it’s easy for me to get lost in them.

The songs create unique emotional portraits, both vague and pointed. “Devon”, for one, is a raw, rejected love song all the way, but with other highlights like ”Dream Fortress”, I detect so many different feelings at once. It’s sad nostalgia for that once-beautiful abandoned heirloom one minute and ghostly horror the next.

Halfaxa is a mind, a universe and a huge antique house. It thrives in surrealism and history’s shadows, but as other reviews stated before, you find human feelings inside. Her devotion to Mariah Carey helped; she stated Halfaxa was her attempt to capture the spacious, haunting effects of group church singing. I know well these vocals can be a bit much with the echoes and caterwauls everywhere, but I would argue the cowgirl-punk approach on Art Angels is it’s own acquired taste.

Halfaxa is ethereal wave’s digital-age niece; any fan should try it.

Bauhaus – The Sky’s Gone Out, 1982

Bauhaus’ messiness was the main reason I was a ‘casual fan’ rather than worshipper. With that said, Sky’s Gone Out struck me as a glorious, thrilling mess if anything. Beyond “Exquisite Corpse”, the songs don’t lose their footing in shouty jam-outs. They had more ambitious ideas and the experience to pull them off by now. They were maturing from the faux-edgy rambling that filled their debut.

Sky’s Gone Out stands out further as the one Bauhaus album where they could pull a true ‘scare’ on me. For all the hammy drama leftover from Mask, this album allows itself to build a stronger atmosphere, one that belongs in bizarre nightmares out of an arthouse film. Sky’s Gone Out has it’s own black-and-white, surrealist world like the cover art.

Complete with piano and sax from a haunted house, “Spirit” isn’t punk as much as a wild, dancing chorus of ghosts. The “Three Shadows” trio is a journey in itself, going from quiet goth-tar disturbance to an underworld’s fairground waltz.

Despite everything, the album ends on a quiet, solemn note with “All We Ever Wanted”. It’s the gentlest song to the Bauhaus name. Peter’s fittingly spectral highs toward the end whirled around my head for years. Fun as songs like “Spirit” and “Bela Lugosi” get, it makes me wish Peter Murphy showed this vulnerable side more often.

Cocteau Twins – Head Over Heels, 1983

Head Over Heels takes place in the mountains and towering caves of your mind. As the first ’normal’ Cocteau album, this invented ethereal wave as we know it and pioneered the 4AD sound. I’d argue shoegaze’s whole color-wash approach began around here too.

HOH is a thrilling display for Cocteau’s leftover goth roots in the more elemental context that would become their trademark. Liz Fraser’s voice settles a bit, sounding freer than ever as she belts, quivers and hums with equal strength. Her usual non-lyrics add to the enigma but her tone posesses incredible warmth and nobility here. The boldness in her delivery is surprising knowing her famous self-deprecation.

The spacious fuzz-guitar draws curiosity but insists to lurk in shadows. It’s a long, long gaze into said caves, where water drips quietly and huge sun rays peer inside. This is the moody, bewitching edge of nature in it’s full glory. It can be “Sugar Hiccup”’s candyland dream sequence or an intimidating divine beast emerging from it’s lair. What never fails to cast a spell on me is “Tinderbox Of A Heart”, a tie with “Fifty Fifty Clown” for my favorite CT song. it works like a travelogue for HOH’s world, where this mountain-cave turns out huge from the outside and all you can do is glare in awe.

Siouxsie And The Banshees – Peepshow, 1988

As the 33 1/3 book stresses, Peepshow emphasized SATB’s art-film interests. At this point, they were more a ‘goth pop’ group. Far from Juju’s raw impact, then, but resuming the moody elegance that graced Dreamhouse and Tinderbox. For each goth-tar you have ”Carousel”’s haunted circus organ, “Rhapsody”s chilly strings and “Peek-A-Boo”‘s reversed tango.

Martin McCarrick is the one who took the Banshees (further) beyond rock. Adding cello, accordion and other new flavors, he’s one of their most unique members. The result is the band’s last goth album, being a few years before “Kiss Them For Me”. As if predicting this change, they went all-out with it. Peepshow has all the thrill, variety and surrealism to remind you why this band was so vital to the goth scene. Q gave this apt summary: ‘Peepshow takes place in some distorted fairground of the mind where weird and wonderful shapes loom’. In a parallel to Goldfrapp’s debut made in a cottage, they recorded these songs in a 17th century mansion. The kind of album that puts Hot Topic rock to shame.

Siouxsie sounds like the suave and secretive ringleader in a freakshow. Songs like “Scarecrow” and “Rhapsody” showcase her refining flair for drama. As a whole, Peepshow finds this band at a special middle ground. Yet to hit the Top 40 with “Kiss Them For Me” but on their way, with their middle era’s adventurous spirits intact.

List · Underrated Video Game Soundtracks

5 Underrated Game Soundtracks, as selected by Brevyn

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Pictured: Sound Shapes

Criteria: Video game music with little exposure or no release outside the game.

After editing down my behemoth draft for what felt like forever, I have my own VGM list! As I’ve known most of these for 5+ years, doing my own list proved challenging, but I tried. See the entries from my friends Marilyn Roxie and Jan if you haven’t yet!

5. Various – Sound Shapes, 2012

Sound Shapes is a unique PS3 platformer where music is crucial. Finding coins adds new notes and rhythms to what you hear. Visit the level editor to see they’ve merged a sequencer with the side-scrolling grid.

With cute, colorful designs and no plot, SS is a calming experience. The songs match this with an organic downtempo sound. They form simple melody-loops  through synths, e-piano, mallets and other clear-cut sounds. These are refreshing, simple songs with a wide appeal. They could open the gate to enjoying EM for outside listeners and kids. SS makes both music and level design easy to grasp.

In the end, only Jim Guthrie’s Corporeal songs had their own release. I found this odd; what’s a musical game with no full soundtrack? I’d love full versions for Robot And Proud songs like “Aquatica”, similar as his other work gets. As time flies, the SS hype fades and a sequel looks doubtful. A true shame; the PS4 holds so much potential for their concept.

4. Jack Hall – Neopets: The Darkest Faerie, 2005

Yes, Neopets had a video game, and even it had good music. The Darkest Faerie’s sound is pure new age fantasy; flutes and celtic harp twinkle in every corner. Battle themes aside, Hall fills the game with a strong sense of travel and enchanted feather-light ambience. Many songs ramble as a result, but his themes for known Neopets lands are clear peaks. “Meridell” takes every tone a medieval town needs; proud, tender, casual, a tad lonely. “Faerieland” is what you expect; cloudy new age bliss dipped in choir and rosy flute. Both songs recall Enya’s hits to charming effect. A moment I love is the sad little harp heard in Brightvale Outskirts.

While I can’t say ‘play all 101 songs together!’ I can direct you to my playlist of favorites.

3. Spencer Nilsen – Ecco The Dolphin Sega CD, 1993

Oh, Ecco. I didn’t have to play the actual game to admire him. How? Hearing the Sega CD music. The SCD added CD audio to the Genesis, making this live VGM pre-Nintendo 64. The result? A rich, gorgeous new age score with all the right Vangelis-isms. Flutes, mallets, piercing drums, synth shimmers; you name it. You say “Aquatic Ambience” is close as early VGM gets to ambient? Hear “Medusa Bay”. ‘New age about dolphins’ won’t prepare you for something so grim. I’d say the same for the rest, since Nilsen builds it around the high stakes in Ecco’s quest to save his stolen pod. It’s a sad story once you look past the weirdness that aliens took them.

The synths merge space with water perfectly. Their cries and warbles reflect both alien threats and the ocean’s mystery. Familiar as dolphins are, the lack of humans added to the game’s alien aura. Said ‘warbling’ evokes pure water yet shifts pitch like a horde of popping bubbles. It’s vulnerable, it’s flexible, it improves any song. One of the best synth sounds I know.

I didn’t need five “Machine” reprises, but skipping a few makes this a solid album. As VGM it’s truly unique for its time. Hear this if you’re a Tangerine Dream and/or Vangelis fan. “Saint Gabriel’s Mask” from the sequel is unmissable too.

2. Julian Soule – Pajama Sam 2: Thunder And Lightning Aren’t So Frightening, 1998

Before point-and-click fell from grace, Humongous’ ‘edutainment’ games won many awards. Pajama Sam 2 was my favorite. Why? The unique setting: a weather factory in the clouds. At World Wide Weather, talking chairs and living machines plan the weather.

Julian Soule’s music completes this easygoing sky-world. His lively tap-along rhythms and piano chords are a great fit for the factory’s constant motion. A key trait is the sax peering through that motion. Not the usual bold, beefy saxo we know; this one is utopian, almost dreamlike. Someone make sky-jazz happen, please.

To contrast, the offices play it cooler with a lounge accent. The piano softens, joining warm bass to form some of HE’s most relaxing songs. Now I know how I got my knack for easy listening.

I know HE is too niche for a music release, but I hoped for more interest post-vaporwave. After all, the popular Hologram Plaza sampled this game.

1. Kevin Manthei – Nancy Drew: Stay Tuned For Danger, 1999

With such an enormous range, ND’s music could fit many lists. I can’t choose from 30+ soundtracks, but I know STFD’s belongs in my top 5. As the second-ever ND, STFD has many off-putting quirks. Awkward pacing, hammy acting… but the music is a thrilling neo-noir oddity by itself. Noticing it’s depths helped me find more respect for the game.

The persistent gloom is a early-ND quirk. Where the first game had murder, this had death threats. Kevin’s strength for domestic yet secretive piano stays, but a jazz accent takes hold. Plucked strings, vibraphone, flute and double bass create a discreet, sinister aura. The intrigue lies in how it portrays NY at night. Themes like “Dwayne Night” and “Ext Night” dive you into the slow tension of trespassing. Empty parking lots and offices filled my mind. They stress the city’s size so well despite lasting under a minute. The ’99 PC dust only adds to the effect.

Main theme “STFD” perfectly crosses the NYC glamor with a more sensitive mood. Here, the ritzy trumpet meets the Early Nancy Piano at it’s fragile, wistful finest. I guess Manthei meant this to mirror the game’s soap opera theme, but it always sounded extra sad to me.

Guest post · List · Underrated Video Game Soundtracks

5 Underrated Game Soundtracks, as selected by Jan

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Pictured: Riven: The Sequel To Myst

Following Marilyn Roxie’s entry, I’ve sorted out another guest entry for this topic from my friend Jan, who wrote the Genre Primers: Ethereal Wave post. My own list is on the way.

This list is hardly complete of course, as there are dozens of soundtracks I could mention. I’m not the kind of person who plays games so much they know which titles are underrated or not. Still, the VGM canon gets pretty limited. When you think of VGM you think Final Fantasy, Earthbound, Minecraft or Pokemon, but there’s plenty of space for titles like these, many somewhat well-known but not so much in the VGM canon.

This list includes soundtracks that should be heard closer outside of the gaming context, as they actually hold their own as a separate medium.

Ben Houge – Arcanum – Of Steamworks And Magick Obscura

Arcanum is a fascinating game that blends the steampunk of industrial revolution in a fictional world with fantasy elements. Not only you visit Victorian-like cities, but also traverse a magical Elven forest, investigate a lost civilation’s ruins, and do many quests, which are some of the finest quests in any video game in my opinion. The game is like a wet dream of a Victorian writer who was really into fantasy, but wanted to find a way to implement fantasy into the real world.

But enough of that, the music is magnificent here. The composer, Ben Houge, takes influences from romantic and modern classical composers and turns them into a modern masterpiece of string quartet music. Melancholic, at times brooding, sometimes quite epic. For those interested, Houge has a website where he lists all the inspirations for this music, in addition to providing all the sheet music. Arcanum is available on GOG.COM and Steam.

Pierre Estève & Stéphane Picq – Atlantis: The Lost Tales

Atlantis is a new agey game full of great adventure and a beautiful story, and the soundtrack reflects that. It’s really a great journey altogether; if I had more space on this list, I would include the other two soundtracks. They might be not as unique as this one, but they’re great as well. Recommended for every new age fan, trust me, you won’t regret it. The game itself is available on GOG.COM.

Mark Morgan – Planescape: Torment

Planescape is one of the most interesting settings in roleplay gaming. The unusual feel of an ancient civilization mixed with low sci-fi was more than sufficient for the game’s deep story. The composer was working on music for Fallout and Fallout 2 before, although those are rather popular so I am not including them here.

The music for Torment is uplifting, yet brooding and soul-wrecking at times. It doesn’t give you hope in a weird world per se, but gives you reason to live there. Planescape: Torment – Enhanced Edition is available on GOG.COM and Steam.

Robyn Miller – Riven: The Sequel To Myst

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Playlist

Ah, Myst. The game that stormed the sales, the game that (possibly) started the whole adventure game craze. Riven is the better game, and you might guess the new age-tinged ambient soundtrack is better than the first installment’s music too. It’s a difficult game full of weird riddles, but I recommend it to everyone who wants an otherworldly experience. If you took out the music it probably wouldn’t be the same.

Rik Schaffer – Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines

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Playlist

V:tMB is a textbook example of a cult game with a Cinderella story: rushed at launch, messy and buggy in it’s first few months, then almost forgotten because of the studio’s downfall… Yet thanks to fan patches a devoted fanbase, Bloodlines is regarded as one of the best RPGs of all time today.

I don’t think many have paid attention to the awesome music; it’s an excellent mix of gothic and trip hop sounds. The original music is a great slice of dark trip hop that could put you in a good mood while going through Los Angeles, and the licensed tracks from goth artists like Ministry or Lacuna Coil are a great change of pace. Vampire: The Masquearde – Bloodlines is available on GOG.COM and Steam, but install the Unofficial Patch before playing!

Listen to Jan’s music (including a great “Song To The Siren” cover!) here.

 

 

Guest post · List · Underrated Video Game Soundtracks

5 Underrated Game Soundtracks, as selected by Marilyn Roxie

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Pictured: Viridi

For this post I’ve enlisted musician, Vulpiano Records founder and Rate Your Music/Sonemic social manager Marilyn Roxie. As you’d expect, Marilyn’s has a flexible taste that includes both leftfield electronic experiments and kitschy sixties pop, so I’m sure this won’t be their only post for MAM.

Knowing their roots in playing Nintendo 64, I asked Marilyn to list some favorite video game OSTs with lower exposure and/or undeserved obscurity. Being a fellow VGM fan, I know I’ve had my share of examples. I haven’t gotten to the writing yet, but I plan to post my own top 5 in the near-future as well.

Norio HanzawaYuke Yuke!! Trouble Makers Original Soundtrack (Mischief Makers)

The game (also known as Mischief Makers) is a cult 2D platformer for the Nintendo 64 and a childhood favorite of mine. It holds up as challenging and unique to this day. I think the soundtrack gets overlooked by those who haven’t played the game and decide to dip into it for one big reason: it starts with orchestral versions of a couple of the game’s tracks (“Esperance” and “Adieux”) very different to the rest. If you don’t dig such grandiose sounds, you may not go on, and you’ll miss out on some incredible music.

This reminds me most of Stewart Copeland’s soundtrack The Equalizer & Other Cliff Hangers (Spotify); they share a frantic, robotic energy crossed with quirkiness. Even the textures are similar.. The music does a fantastic job of evoking and enhancing the game’s futuristic atmosphere; “Mischief Makers is the story of Professor Theo, a space-travelling Mad Scientist, and Marina Liteyears, his robot creation and assistant, marooned on the strange planet of Clancer. Agents of a mysterious “empire” kidnap the Professor for unknown reasons, and it’s up to Marina to rescue him.“ (TV Tropes) However, you don’t need to play the game to appreciate the industrial thumping of “Volcanic” and the creepy “Obakesong” (a bit of a departure from the usual sound), and lots more. Highly recommended.

Tatsuhiko Asano –  In the Wake of Doshin, the Giant

This is a case of a great OST for a game that I actually haven’t played yet. Doshin the Giant was a Japan and Europe-only ‘god game’, where you play “Doshin…an embodiment of the sun, a giant who oversees the inhabitants on Barudo Island, a tropical paradise not found on any maps. The player is given a choice of helping the inhabitants expand their villages and found new ones as Doshin, the love giant; or they can also become the hate giant, Jashin, and rain down death and destruction.” (TV Tropes)

I wound up listening because a Vinesauce video used “Paradise Zone” was as background music. The OST is chock-full of the tropical chill-out you’d expect from the premise. At turns soothing or more free-wheeling and veering into colorful exotica territory, Asano stirs up a great range of emotions throughout. “The Island Of Memory” is my personal favorite. A stunning and sweet OST that makes me want to play the game.

VariousGanbare Goemon ~Neo Momoyama / Mystical Ninja: Starring Goemon

Mystical Ninja: Starring Goemon is another N64 game that sometimes falls by the wayside, though it has gotten much more attention than Mischief Makers due to it’s part in a long-running series and an English-localized sequel (Goemon’s Great Adventure).

This one may start on an awkward note for someone who hasn’t played the game, with a wacky vocal theme song (a rarity for N64 titles). What you get in the bulk of the soundtrack are several tunes inspired by Japanese traditional music, inflected with a touch of surrealism and electronic weirdness when appropriate, fitting the setting of the game: “The story follows Goemon’s struggles to prevent the Peach Mountain Shoguns gang from turning Japan into a Westernized fine arts theater.” (Wikipedia; really, I’m amazed this was translated into English at all).

As a bonus, Mystical Ninja included playback of game tracks on its menu screen, meaning that as a kid I would just sit there with “Theme of the Fortune Teller Plasma Man” or “Theme of The Flake Gang Weirdos Baron Colon Sharon An” blaring out of the TV for as long as I liked. There are also a number of tracks with ambient nature sounds (such as “Ambient Kii Awaji Island”, with water, wind, and bird calls) that help make this a unique OST for an N64 platformer.

Michael BellViridi OST

Viridi (available on Steam) is a calming life sim game where you grow and care for beautiful succulent plants. Full of soft keyboards and chimes, each music track blends into the next and form a totality of cute, delicate melodies that mesh perfectly with the game’s theme. “Cucurbita” is my fave.

Ghost Monkey Rebound

Zen Bound 2 (available on Steam) is a relaxing puzzle game requiring the player to use string of a limited length to wrap differently shaped objects to the best of their ability. The music by Ghost Monkey is far from obtrusive, merging seamlessly with the game with it’s downtempo rhythms and organic effects that emulate tumbling rocks, falling water, or rapping on wood. “Unpaint My Skin” is the stand-out for me.

For more of Marilyn’s intriguing music lists, see their Rate Your Music profile.

List

8 (more) interesting lesser-known instruments

To continue from my 6 interesting lesser-known instruments list from a couple of years ago, here are 8 more!

1. Laser harp

Laser harp must be one of the most unusual and far-out electronic instruments. It’s played by moving one’s hands over bright laser-shaped lights to trigger MIDI commands; protective glasses and gloves are required to play it. Jean-Michel Jarre is known to use it in most of his concerts post-1981. (Clip)

2. Fairground organ

Fairground organ (or band organ) is an automatic mechanical organ that plays songs from music rolls, which is paper with holes punched in specific spots to indicate the music’s notation, similar to a player piano. They most often provide music for carousels.

They imitate a full band in addition to the lead organ – together with the music rolls, this makes it comparable to MIDI keyboards’ capacity to emulate other instruments. In fact, many modern fairground organs use a MIDI interface instead! (Clip)

3. Qanun

Qanun is a Middle Eastern zither instrument with a somewhat haunting tone and a total of 78 (!!!) strings. (Clip)

4. Hammered dulcimer

Hammered dulcimer is a percussive string instrument played by hitting the strings with mallets; the resulting sound is often sinister and medieval. (Clip)

5. Marxophone

Marxophone is a fretless zither with similarities to piano and hammered dulcimer. The player presses the small grey levers to make them rapidly strike the strings. (Clip)

6. Tonbak

Tonbak is a prominent drum in Persian music. It can be played through direct full-handed hits, knocks, hitting the sides or edges and rapid finger-tapping. (Clip)

7. Clavichord

Clavichord is a European keyboard similar to harpsichord and closely predating the clavinet. (Clip)

8. Daff

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Daff is a large Middle Eastern frame drum capable of very intense rhythms. It’s played with one hand holding it and another hitting it both on the rims and at the center. (Clip)