The Best Game Soundtracks of 2016
2016 has been a hard year in uncountable ways, but paradoxically it has been an excellent year for videogame soundtracks. We’ve had a wealth of swelling, orchestral scores, a mountain of pulse-pounding electronica, and a cornucopia of ethereal, ambient soundscapes. We’ve had folksy guitar and not-so-folksy guitar, shredding frets and singing strings.
Basically, we’ve had dozens of amazing albums this year, and we’ve got to find the bright spots in 2016 wherever we can. Declaring an absolute best-of list is always going to be an exercise in subjectivity, but as someone who’s listened to 95% of all the game soundtracks released this year, let me try and sift the cream of the crop to the top of the barrel. (Do you sift cream in a barrel?) Anyway, here are the best game soundtracks of the year.
MOST LIGHT DRIFTED -- Hyper Light Drifter by Disasterpeace
Games have long taken the electronica sound and made it part of their DNA, but in recent years there’s been a special push toward ambient electronica, and nobody has made this sound more compelling and haunting than Rich “Disasterpeace” Vreeland, whose work on Fez and later the film It Follows have cemented him as one of the premier voices of this kind of music. Vreeland’s score for Heart Machine’s brutal sword-swinger Hyper Light Drifter is the perfect complement to the game’s alien aesthetic and beautiful pixel landscapes. Hyper Light Drifter’s soundtrack is one of the many reasons the game has been among 2016’s best. If you’re playing the game, put your headphones on and turn the sound up. If you’re not playing the game, do those things anyway, and get transported to somewhere else entirely.
SOUNDS MOST LIKE A HOLLYWOOD BLOCKBUSTER -- Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End by Henry Jackman
Games have long strived to imitate the technique and impact of Hollywood, and they’ve succeeded and failed in varying degrees over the years. If there’s any series that has managed to pull the best parts of action movies onto the small screen, it’s Uncharted, and the latest installment is no exception. The score for A Thief’s End comes courtesy of Hollywood composer Henry Jackman, responsible for the Captain America films and Wreck-It Ralph, among others. (Will we see Nathan Drake in the next Wreck-It Ralph film? I’m doubtful.) There have been a whole host of excellent cinematic scores of varying tones this year (see a list below), but the Uncharted 4 score is the one I keep coming back to. Have a listen, then fight me in the comments!
BEST TWANG -- The Flame in the Flood, by Chuck Ragan
Between Kentucky Route Zero, Firewatch, and games like The Molasses Flood’s river-riding survival sim The Flame in the Flood, there’s been a push over the last few years toward themes of Americana in games, and I can’t approve of this trend more. I want games about the slow decay of Route 66 (and I don’t mean the Overwatch map). I want games about the Dust Bowl. I want more soundtracks like Chuck Ragan’s countrified score to The Flame in the Flood, which makes me want to hop in my car and drive until I hit a coast--any coast. Please listen to Chuck’s growly voice and think about what it means to be American, and then go do something patriotic like defend somebody who’s being oppressed.
More wilderness guitar: Firewatch
BEST BOY BAND MUSIC -- Final Fantasy XV, by Yoko Shimomura
Look, JRPG soundtracks might just be my favorite soundtracks of them all. When people ask me what my favorite genre of music is, I tell them “final boss music.” And when it comes to JRPG scores, Final Fantasy has long been in a category all its own. When it was announced in the long-long ago that legendary composer Yoko Shimomura would step into the shoes of long-absent Uematsu-san, I knew that we were in for something special with the FFXV score. Shimomura’s responsible from everything from Street Fighter II to Kingdom Hearts to Parasite Eve. And do you know what, dear reader? I was right to be excited. Final Fantasy XV’s soundtrack is amazing, and it’s the best JRPG soundtrack of the year.
Pre-order: Square Enix Store (physical) | iTunes (will be released 12/21)
MOST OTHERWORLDLY -- Samorost 3 by Floex
There are some soundtracks that just take you someplace else. For example, Tomáš “Floex” Dvořák’s score to Amanita Design’s adventure game Samorost 3 takes me back to the dreamworld of my youth, where I was prince of a fledgling kingdom in the mountains and the furred beasts that were my subjects brought me strange candies and gifts in tribute as I protected them from the shadow-creatures that stalked the lowest valleys. What was I talking about? Oh, right: Samorost 3’s score is straight-up alien, with weird rhythms and mystical flutes and a style completely unlike anything else released this year. If you slept on the game or the soundtrack because you didn’t know what the heck a “samorost” was, please remedy that immediately. This album is a gift, laid on your pillow at night by a messenger you thought you saw out of the corner of your eye but who disappeared when you turned to look at them fully.
MOST AUSTIN WINTORY -- Abzû, by Austin Wintory
Now, I know what you’re going to say: Nate, wasn’t The Banner Saga 2 the most Austin Wintory album of the year? That’s a fair point, but if we’re really going to pick an album that is the most Wintory of 2016, I’ve got to give the edge to Abzû, Giant Squid’s diving/exploration/meditation game. Mr. Wintory has become something of a force unto his own in the world of game composition, putting out at least one score each year that deserves consideration for the year’s best. (This year, it’s two.) Abzû’s orchestral sound, like most of Wintory’s work, is at times forceful and at times restrained, and always a joy to listen to. My favorite bit about the Abzû score is how, in Wintory’s strings, you can hear faint echoes of his work on last year’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, which both shows his personal style and also his flexibility. Give it a listen! (Then go listen to The Banner Saga 2.)
More Austin Wintory: The Banner Saga 2
MOST FACES MELTED -- DOOM, by Mick Gordon
Is your face still stubbornly attached in its usual configuration at the front of your skull? Then you must not have spent any time with Mick Gordon’s thrashing soundtrack to this year’s revival of DOOM. This time last year, I would have scoffed at the notion that a new DOOM could recapture the simple, pure run-and-gun intensity of its predecessors--or that there could ever be a proper sonic update to the game’s metal-as-Hell soundtrack. Wrong on both counts. Bethesda took id Software’s template and brought it screaming into the modern day, and Mick Gordon took an entire fleet of electric guitars and decided to shred everything in sight. Listening to DOOM feels like being attacked. In the best way possible.
ANGRIEST DANCE BEATS -- Furi, by various artists
The Game Bakers’ duel game Furi appeared on my radar from out of nowhere in the middle of the summer, bringing along one of the most intense and exciting soundtracks of the year. The score is the work of several different electronica artists, such as Carpenter Brut (whose work also featured prominently in Hotline Miami), Waveshaper, Lorn, and The Toxic Avenger, among others. Furi is a game that wants you dead, and the game’s music makes that clear from the get-go. Heavy synths, deep percussion, and an omnipresent sense of dread characterize this excellent album.
SADDEST PIANO -- I Am Setsuna, by Tomoki Miyoshi
The decision to score a JRPG entirely with piano is a bold one, doubly so given I Am Setsuna’s otherwise strict adherence to the game design philosophies of the mid-’90s. The result, however, is a superb album of piano pieces that wonderfully evoke the somber, snow-swept world in which I Am Setsuna takes place and which sound quite distinct from almost any other game score this year. Tomoki Miyoshi’s score at times carries hints of the work of veteran Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi, giving Setsuna an emotional weight that a traditional score might not manage. Though the game itself might not have done enough to distinguish itself from its storied predecessors, Miyoshi’s score is unique and worthwhile.
Even more sad piano: That Dragon, Cancer
BEST LICENSED SOUNDTRACK (TO STAB TO) -- Mafia III, by various artists
Mafia III got called on the carpet for a couple things when it was released, such as a repetitive core gameplay loop and game-breaking bugs, but one thing no one--no one--could find fault with was the game’s licensed soundtrack. Featuring everyone from The Rolling Stones to Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye to Johnny Cash, and featuring more Creedence Clearwater Revival than any other game soundtrack in the history of ever, Mafia III created a perfect hit list for cruising around 1968 New Orleans. Rolling up to a moonshine still in the bayou, combat knife at the ready to kill some white supremacists, while “Bad Moon Rising” blares over the car stereo might well be my highlight of 2016. The game’s score, by Jesse Harlin and Jim Bonney, is quite good--but it’s the licensed soundtrack that’s truly exceptional.
MOST FOLKING AROUND -- Planet Coaster, by Jim Guthrie and JJ Ipsen
Game scores as a whole are widely more varied than people generally give them credit for, and yet folk, as a genre, doesn’t get utilized as often as I’d like. Jim Guthrie, the musician responsible for the soundtrack to Sword & Sworcery, teamed up with fellow artist JJ Ipsen to create the acoustic-heavy score for Planet Coaster, the theme park simulator with a heart of gold. The album, called “You, Me & Gravity,” is by turns mellow and uplifting (I described it in November’s roundup as “a little like somebody gave The Lumineers some Ambien and asked them to record an album in a field of wildflowers,” if that helps). I’ve basically had this one on repeat for the last month as a way of mitigating the general awfulness of this year, and can confidently declare it one of 2016’s most essential soundtracks.
CRUNCHIEST CHIPS -- HoPiKo, by Rob Allison
A good chiptune soundtrack is a soundtrack with a lot of crunch, and when I highlighted Rob Allison’s soundtrack to indie platformer HoPiKo in October, I said that his music would definitely cut the roof of your mouth. I’ve been listening to the HoPiKo soundtrack for a couple months now and it still hasn’t gotten old, so I feel pretty comfortable putting it here on the list of best game music of 2016. Allison’s use of the original Game Boy sound is a huge draw for me, and the dense, energetic songs that populate this album are a joy to listen to.
And that wraps it up for 2016! What a year! Twelve albums (plus twenty-six other suggestions) isn’t nearly enough to cover all the musical excellence that this year provided--remember that time CHVRCHES did a song for Mirror’s Edge? Or that Florence and the Machine cover of “Stand By Me” for FFXV? Remember when Christopher Tin knocked it out of the park with another Civilization opener?
I’d like to thank you for joining me on this journey this year--and let us hope that 2017 provides the same aural bounty! If you want to share awesome soundtrack finds or berate me for my preferences, jump into the comments or come find me on Twitter to let me know what you think. In the meantime, happy listening--until we meet again!