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 that sad little harp heard in the plains.

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 Ent. 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. Not Jeremy Soule famed for Skyrim, but his brother! (Though he made great HE songs elsewhere…) 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 a wide 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 intrigue lies in how it portrays NY at night. 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. 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.

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Playlist

Favorite Songs of 2019 – ½

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Listen on Youtube here

Here are (most of) my favorite 2019 songs at the halfway mark. I’ve ordered them by their mood, style and/or tempo to make the transitions semi-fitting despite the variety. I’ve limited all but one artist to one song each.

Look out for my favorite albums list coming very soon!

Track list

1. Rainbow Chan – Oblivion
2. Weyes Blood – A Lot’s Gonna Change
3. Tamaryn – Angels of Sweat
4. Adonis – Z Chmur
5. Glass Candy – Naked City
6. Noname – Song 31
7. DAWN – Spaces
8. Kelsey Lu – Due West
9. Kelsey Lu – KINDRED I
10. Elsa Hewitt – Pop Tuna
11. Solange – Beltway
12. Helado Negro – Fantasma Vaga
13. Bibio – Curls
14. Nonlocal Forecast – Triangular Format
15. Ioanna Gika – New Geometry
16. ioannalee – Some Body
17. Hello Seahorse! – Incendio
18. Jai Paul – He
19. Carly Rae Jepsen – Happy Not Knowing
20. Bananarama – It’s Gonna Be Alright
21. Lizzo ft. Missy Elliott – Tempo
22. MC Tha – Clima Quente
23. Brothertiger – Prideland
24. Karen O & Danger Mouse – Nox Lumina

 

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

daf

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)

List · Year-end

My Top Albums/EPs of 2018

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I’m pleased to report that I found quite a few enjoyable new releases this year.

It’s hard to have a ‘definitive’ outlook as there remains so much for me to catch up with, but here are the highlights from what I’ve heard so far.

(To keep things from getting redundant here, my 2018 halfway list’s honorable mentions won’t be featured here. Read that list here if you’re curious about them.)

Top 8 Albums

8. Steve Hauschildt – Dissolvi

ambient techno / progressive electronic / ambient

Hauschildt is known for his role in the defunct drone/ambient group Emeralds. I’m yet to ‘get’ the appeal of Emeralds, but I’ve enjoyed a great deal of songs from Steve’s solo career, which veered away from his droney roots into more melodic territory. Dissolvi is more transparent/airy in texture than his last few albums, and often less inconsistent. This is great knowing how one of my main issues with his other albums was the lack of consistency. There’s a mild techno element here through the subtle use of rhythms, which gives the songs an interesting aquatic pulse.

Dissolvi may be my favorite album of his besides the popular Tragedy And Geometry from 2011. While some songs loop or repeat too much, most of them have plenty of evolving layers to keep this a fluid and hypnotizing listen. This is most apparent on the 7-minute “Alienself”, which goes on about 1-1.5 minutes too long but also contains some of Dissolvi’s most impressive textures and atmosphere. Also notable is the title song, by far the most rhythmic and tense but retaining some needed subtlety through soft synth hums. A promising step up.

Listen to “Lyngr”

7. Tess Roby – Beacon

art pop / gothic / synth pop / dream pop

Balancing folksy vocals, synths and Durutti-like guitar, Tess Roby is like a lost 4AD/This Mortal Coil collaborator. It’s not the most surprising she’s on Italians Do It Better, but at the same time it’s a bit different from what I expect from the label. These songs are moody and elusive, with a semi-gothic tone save for one or two more tender moments like “Ballad 5”. They drift along subtly, but not without shifts in tone or instrumentation. At eight songs long it ends pretty quick but at the same time this keeps it digestible and interesting. My favorite has to be the sinister folk/synth combination of “Borders”.

Listen to “Borders”

6. Noname – Room 25

jazz rap / hip hop / neo-soul

Noname is someone I’ve been meaning to listen to for some time now. And my first thought, of course, is ‘why didn’t I listen to this sooner?’ Room 25 is full of blissful jazz groove, even subtler in execution than the likes of Nujabes and Digable Planets (check this out if you like either one). The excellent live band she assembled for the album enhances this effect with it’s free-flowing style, one that tends to disobey common verse-chorus structure. The smooth keyboards (piano, e-piano) and Noname’s own unique delivery are sure to lull you into a peaceful daze.

I do think Noname tends to mutter a little too much, which can obscure the lyrics, but she has a great flow that blends in very well with the music. She includes plenty of guests and sung sections for these songs, but they don’t disrupt the album’s flow. They’re fitting and natural rather than thrown-in. One great example of this is the way “no name” begins with one brief rap verse before 2.5 whole minutes of singing. If someone else tried that, it could’ve wound up boring, but this may be the loveliest moment on an already rich album. ‘Your life is your life / Don’t let it pass you by’, the voices repeat over strings and piano until it (and thus the album) ends. I’ll be very interested in Noname’s next move.

Listen to “no name”

5. Music House/Various – Scandi Disco

electro-disco / synth pop / electropop / synthwave

‘If you’re bored of the sheer quantity of 80s retro music out there, maybe don’t listen to this. But if you’re like me and love this music enough to still give the continuous new releases a chance, I recommend this recent library album. I enjoyed almost every song on this one, a bit surprising seeing how there’s no hype at all surrounding it. I found it only because I was looking through other, older releases by this label, Music House, and this happened to be their most recent album. Everything about this album is shiny, stylish and fun with plenty of energy and melody. The production is impressive as expected from a stock music label, and while it has a prominent modern polish they tap into the huge potential and legacy of electro-disco very well.’

Listen to “I Can Feel The Fire”

4. Reni Jusis – Ćma

dance-pop / electropop

If you’ve followed me for long enough you may know I’ve become a big fan of this semi-obscure Polish singer/producer. However, her ’16 album BANG! was a let-down. It hopped on all of the worst mid-10’s mechanical bass-drop trends I hoped she would evade. I sighed and moved on. But that’s when a single (“Tyyyle Milosci”) popped up in May. A GOOD one, too, a reflective ballad-like song lacking BANG!’s pitfalls. A great surprise, but I didn’t know what to expect from an album. The following press release claims the album is Reni’s return to dance music after the ‘experiment’ of BANG!

And like I hoped, the album is much more uptempo than BANG!. Shimmering pop anthems, hypnotic melodies, and of course, the abundant synths are all here. All kinds of pleasant textures pop up, forming some great transitions and grooves. Even in more ‘experimental’ moments (e.g. “Ćma”’s dizzy end cool-down; tracks #6 and #9) there’s the kind of spacey atmospheric touches that popped up in her 2000’s heyday. It would’ve been fine if she didn’t bring that part back. I thought it was too much to ask for – but there it is!

Ćma has plenty of flaws. A few songs are inconsistent, the huge repetition lowers replay value, and her delivery gets bombastic at times. Many areas would benefit from some tweaking. But I finished Ćma feeling relieved. She did come through with some jams, and she revived the sound she does best. It’s a big step up from BANG!, and for that I’m grateful. I recommend this to anyone looking for good modern electro-pop this year.

Listen to “To Tylko Podróż”

3. U.S. Girls – In A Poem Unlimited

art pop / psychedelic pop

As I wrote in the 2018 halfway list:

While I did find the previous U.S. Girls album Half Free a bit inconsistent, In A Poem Unlimited feels like a step up. There were only about 2 or 3 tracks that I didn’t enjoy here. The album has a warm semi-70s feel thanks to the band put together for it. There’s also a sense of eclecticism that’s executed better than on a lot of other albums with similar ambitions. The voice of Meg Remy, the one true ‘member’ of U.S. Girls, can be quite twangy and takes a bit of getting used to at first, but it’s somewhat grown on me since then, and it got some time to shine here. This is most often when she does a kind of nervous falsetto like in two of my favorites, “Rosebud” and “L-Over”. While the many styles that Remy explores here aren’t much new (70s funk, jazzy rock, general quivering psych weirdness, a bit of synth pop), the variation of it all and the will to experiment helps keep things interesting, and most of them evade the boring cliches that tend to pop up in so much music lately.

Listen to “Rosebud”

½. Suiyoubi No Campanella – Galapagos

j-pop / electronic / art pop / downtempo

Cult J-pop group Suiyobi no Campanella released this ‘EP’ in June, though I don’t get why it’s considered an EP, since it’s the length of an album. It did receive some deserved acclaim upon release but since then, I’ve heard little about it – seems it didn’t stick. I’m wondering if the promotion as a mere ‘EP’ is part of it – were they wanting to keep a lower profile for this? If so, why, when it’s this elaborate?

The first thing I noticed was how much these songs morph and change, often in unexpected ways. “Bamboo Princess” sets the scene. It begins wistful and hushed but soon evolves into a thrilling chorus of strings and horns. The song also seems to reference an ancient Japanese folk tale. “Matryoshka” relaxed mallet groove mutates and evolves many times through it’s duration. Despite all this, the last two songs calm things down. “A Cat Called Yellow” is a gorgeous end to the album that sounds like both a farewell and a lullaby, covered in this blanket of thoughtful ambience.

Matching the creative song structures is a wide-ranging palette of sounds. There’s percussion, sampling, aquatic keyboards, mallets, clean guitar, synth bells, some kind of keening violin (“Bamboo Princess”) and even hang (a recent creation similar to the steel drum). It’s cold and tropical all at once. Listening is like dipping into the water at a beach resort, watching all these colors blur into the water.

Galapagos has some of the most impressive production I’ve heard all year. These are more tapestries than songs, and I mean that in the best way possible. This album is an ideal summer-evening mood piece. It may be winter now, but you should listen to it ASAP anyway.

Listen to “Matryoshka”

½. Fishdoll – Noonsense

wonky / dream pop / electronic / downtempo

‘Fishdoll, an exciting new artist from China, manages to recall everything I miss about electronic music of the earlier 10′s. First I thought of ‘wonky’ producers like FlyLo and Teebs who had such interesting and creative taste in electronic production and samples. Take a gander at the amazing operatic vocal/harp sample that ends “Beijing Well” or the spacey fluttering chords on most of the songs, for example. Secondly, Fishdoll adds subtle effects to her own voice that say, Grimes or Washed Out became popular for, creating a similar kind of airy surrealism.

It doesn’t do enough justice to Fishdoll to make so many comparisons, though, since this album really does feel unique. Which is exactly why it’s one of my favorites of the year – it’s an electronic artist doing something unique and doing it well.

I’m looking forward to Fishdoll’s next musical move, and I’m convinced Noonsense deserves more than a bit of Bandcamp popularity, which seems to be all it got upon release.’

Since writing this in the first halfway list, I was also asked to write a brief review of Noonsense for the Rateyourmusic front page in October, which you can find here.

Listen to “Bubbling Bop”

Continue reading “My Top Albums/EPs of 2018”

Playlist · Year-end

My favorite songs of 2018, part 2 / 2

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Listen on Youtube

To go along with my upcoming list of favorite 2018 releases, here’s part 2 of my favorite 2018 songs! To keep this from getting redundant, you won’t found what was on the first halfway playlist here, but do take a look at that one too if you’re interested in my other picks.

  1. Adonis – Candy Flip
  2. Little Dragon – Lover Chanting
  3. Mariah Carey – GTFO
  4. Reni Jusis – So Far
  5. Mitski – Geyser
  6. NONONO – Hymn
  7. Tess Roby – Beacon
  8. Elysia Crampton – Oscollo
  9. Pastel Ghost – Sakura
  10. George Clanton – Slide
  11. Rina Sawayama – Cherry
  12. Roisin Murphy – The Rumble
  13. Tesla Boy – Compromise
  14. Suiyoubi No Campanella – Matryoshka
  15. RNR – Contemplation
  16. Steve Hauschildt – Syncope
  17. Kimbra – Past Love
  18. Tesla Boy – U
  19. Robyn – Send To Robin Immediately
  20. Empress Of – When I’m With Him
  21. Mitski – Blue Light
  22. Reni Jusis – To Tylko Podroz
  23. Lapalux – Opili
  24. Tess Roby – Borders
  25. Glasser & Roll The Dice – Elevate
  26. Mylene Farmer – Reteneir L’Eau
  27. Karen O + Danger Mouse – Lux Prima
  28. Suiyoubi No Campanella – A Cat Called Yellow
  29. Noname – no name ft. Adam Ness