As Stephen said in one of our Music of the Year podcasts, 2015 was "absolutely stupid with good music." Recording Rhythm Encounter is good fun, and also a recurring exercise in restraint. We prepare tracks early for upcoming episodes, and for our next one, I had to whittle down 400 potential songs to my dozen favorites, and from that, remove all but three. Picking favorite albums for the year was just as tough, until I decided not to limit myself to a max of five, because there was just too much this year that I felt deserves recognition.
This year saw the release of the Final Fantasy XIV: Before the Fall album. Collecting all of the new music added to the game for most of the 2.x series of patches, most of its five dozen tracks had yet to see an album release. It was great to be able to hear them properly outside of the game, especially the themes for Ramuh and Shiva, and Soken's version of Terra's Theme.
More importantly, 2015 marked the release of FFXIV: Heavensward. This expansion brought with it a swath of new music which, while up to Soken's high standards, also offered something markedly different. As Heavensward's score backs the northern reaches of XIV's world of Eorzea, it has a different feel than what came before, with different instrumentation and clever uses of several key themes throughout. We've only had 3 digital EPs to tide us over until the proper soundtrack release in February, but it's clear from even that small sample that Soken somehow managed to raise the considerably high bar he already set with A Realm Reborn.
Have you heard...
Telepath Tactics OST
You'll find Ryan Richko's orchestral arrangements both exciting and enchanting.
While I'm no stranger to Zack Parrish's work, who notably brought us the stellar Valdis Story soundtrack, I'm not versed at all in the "Sakura" series. If you've found yourself browsing Steam, you've likely seen a bevy of these titles. While I don't see myself playing the games
unless I get really lonely, I like Zack's work enough that I gave the Sakura Fantasy soundtrack a listen on Bandcamp and quickly picked it up. If Valdis Story wasn't convincing enough, Zack's work on Sakura Fantasy really proves he's a master at introspective and ponderous (often piano-based) themes. I don't know if any one track in particular stands out, as I tend to listen to the whole cohesive album at once. But I found that it's amazing music to work by, and have listened to it dozens of times while doing just that.
"What the heck is this?" was often my refrain when I heard a song from Xenoblade Chronicles X's Japanese release. I was certain I'd be disappointed by the music, which saddened me as the first game has one of my all-time favorite soundtracks, with truly stellar work by Yoko Shimomura and ACE+. Then, a funny thing happened. I wasn't let down at all.
When listening to XCX's music outside the context of the game, some of it seems too bizarre to work in a JRPG. Turns out the wild world of Mira, full of unknown dangers and a race of aliens hoping to eradicate humanity, needs exactly this kind of soundtrack. Surviving is harsh business, so seemingly-bizarre tracks like Black tar fit in better than I would have guessed.
Once I played the game, I realized what the true standout pieces were, however: every single song that plays as you explore the world. Each of the five continents has its own day and night themes, and unlocking flight mode for your Skells offers one of my favorite travel themes ever (Don't worry, below). From the energetic music on the grassy plains of Primordia, to the primal drums of the deserts of Oblivia, the field music is awesome. My favorite is Shiro no Tairiku, the subtlest of the bunch, which backs the white glistening lands of Sylvalum.
Like the game itself, X's soundtrack is not what we expected; rather, it is something wholly different from the norm, and the most delightful musical surprise of 2015 for me.
Also See Our Review:
Xenoblade [Chronicles] X OST Review
It took a while for me to finally sit down with a Gust title, and while I like what I've played of the Atelier games, the darkly stylistic Yoru no Nai Kuni (Nights of Azure in the West) is the most excited I've been for one of the studio's titles yet. The music is far removed from the lighthearted Atelier series, with a harder edge and no shortage of guitar in many tracks. Like with Xenoblade Chronicles X, I think the battles in Nights of Azure are going to benefit greatly from having these high-energy songs backing up the action.
Not that it's all rock — there's some truly moving quieter pieces here, with some great piano work. I'm certain that I'll have more appreciation for the soundtrack once I know the in-game context, but there's some really nice stuff here, all well worth a listen.
I can't possibly overstate how much I love Chrono Trigger and, to a lesser but noteworthy extent, Chrono Cross. Since the sequel's release in 1999, there have been rumblings of a Chrono Cross arrange album. After Mitsuda's stunning Xenogears Creid album, it was hard to not get excited over the idea of CC getting similar treatment. Years passed, with the occasional mention that it may happen one day, but nothing surfaced.
Then, 20 years after Chrono Trigger's 1995 release, it happened. To Far Away Times had a substantial amount of expectations to meet, with many fans waiting well over a decade for it. The album wasn't what I thought — I certainly didn't expect to hear my favorite CT pieces recreated with vocals — but the results are more than I dared hope for. Sarah Àlainn and Laura Shigihara handle most of said vocals, and these women are simply amazing.
As much of an optimist as I am, after 10+ years, even I was worried that this album couldn't be what I wanted. I've never been so happy to be wrong, because we ended up with some of the most amazing treatments this music has ever received. I only wish the album were longer.
The first Multiplayer album in 2014 was a welcome surprise, with 30 arrangements of everything from Mario and Final Fantasy to 999 and Donkey Kong, as well as a staggering 15-minute Kingdom Hearts II mix. 2015 brought that album's sequel, and it's just as good, with 26 tracks covering classics like the Mario series and Zelda, but also featuring some lesser-arranged titles like Gauntlet, Pokémon X/Y, and more.
While I encourage you to check out the full album, at least check out the samples here; they include some of my favorite tracks from Final Fantasy VI and IX, and possibly my all-time favorite Zelda song. The Ballad of the Windfish is not often arranged, and even more rarely does an arrangement capture the tragic undertones of the piece. I'd honestly have bought the album for this song alone, but there's really something here for everyone.
Check out Multiplayer II: Co-Op on Loudr!
Have you heard...
The ETHEReal String Project
Josh Barron's brilliant string arrangements take center stage in this entrancing album.
MATERIA is one of the most amazing achievements I've yet seen in the fan arrangement community: Started on a whim in June, with contributions by nearly 200 artists, and released not four months later, the five "disc," 87-track collaboration offers an eclectic and extensive selection of Final Fantasy VII remixes. Each artist used their own style, so for every bubbly jazz piece, there's a hardcore rock song around the corner. Several important songs make multiple appearances by different artists in different styles, and the variety is just delightful.
Final Fantasy VII has one of the best soundtracks in the series, and for hundreds of people to produce something of this scope shows just how beloved it is to so many. And with the just-released follow-up, Successor: Final Fantasy VIII Remixed, the mind boggles at how far these talented folks plan to take this concept.
Check out MATERIA: Final Fantasy VII Remixed on Loudr!
Chrono Cinematica has my vote for "most overlooked album" in 2015. I don't feel like a lot of people heard it, or perhaps they just didn't care for it. The album is exactly what it sounds like: Chrono Trigger's music arranged in a style that would befit a cinematic version of the game, be it an actual live-action film or a modern-day JRPG with cinematic cutscenes. The result is an album that's absolutely true to Mitsuda's original work, with modern instrumentation and a symphonic score that's now commonplace in some games. If Chrono Trigger were ever to get an HD remake, this should be its soundtrack.
Check out Chrono Cinematica on Loudr!
This was a surprising little treat: a brass tribute to Final Fantasy, chock-full of medleys such as airships, moogles, battles, and more. Like Zack Parrish's Sakura Fantasy, I found myself playing this album often while I worked away on projects in 2015. Its upbeat and chill nature serves to really energize oneself, without getting in the way.
At under an hour, this album isn't overly long, but I think it's a concise little package of classic themes with a fun new treatment, and I eagerly anticipate the upcoming followup.
Also See Our Review:
BRA☆BRA FINAL FANTASY BRASS de BRAVO Review
Brave Wave is a record label that describes itself as "a place for good music." You can't go wrong with any of their albums — the World 1-2 series offers some awesome game remixes, for example. Heart Beat Circuit is one of their 2015 releases, and while it's not related to any game, if you're into the game remix and arrangement community, there's a chance you'll dig what's here. I think by this time next year, I'll have given in and bought everything Brave Wave offers, but if they keep helping artists put out albums like this, we'll all be richer for the experience.
While Square Enix's Ikenie to Yuki no Setsuna seems to have some aesthetic similarities to Chrono Trigger, it's not that third game we've been hoping to see for 15 years. Luckily, musicians and arrangers everywhere saw fit to acknowledge Chrono Trigger's 20th anniversary in 2015 with several albums, the most noteworthy being:
Through Time & Space
A short but sweet piano album by several people from the Video Games Live concert series.
To Far Away Times: Chrono Trigger & Chrono Cross Arrangement Album
See above for my thoughts on the Chrono arrange album of my dreams made real.
The End of Time: A Melancholy Tribute to Chrono Trigger
TPR worked more of that melancholy magic he's known for with this one.
See above for my thoughts on Cinematica as well, a lovely surprise that I'm glad I stumbled across.
Chronicles of Time
Originally planned for release in December, this album got slightly delayed and was just released! A teaser was released in the fall, and it is quite promising. Given this is a project by the immensely talented folks behind Spectrum of Mana, there's basically no chance of this album being anything but great.
Xenoblade Studio Live came out of nowhere this March, and made for one exciting random night when a few of us here discovered it and gushed about it over Skype as we listened.