I couldn't possibly describe 2016's music releases any better then RPGFan Music Editor Ronald did in his own list of favorites: An "embarrassment of riches" sums up my feelings perfectly. The list below grew not only throughout the year, but even as I put it together, I had a string of "Oh, I can't forget this!" moments. In the end, I had to settle for writing about my absolute favorites only, but be sure to also check out my list at the end of everything else that I liked in 2016, but didn't write about in detail.
There are already some resoundingly-solid releases coming in 2017, so I can't wait to see what this year holds, musically.
2015 marked the 20th anniversary of Chrono Trigger's release, and while we didn't get a sexy Final Fantasy VII-caliber remake, there were several tribute albums by a host of musically-talented folks released in 2015 that I praised in 2015's Music of the Year. Imagine my surprise when 2016 brought just as many noteworthy Chrono-related albums!
Chronicles of Time
Composed by Yasunori Mitsuda; Arranged by Literally 200+ People
Released on Valentine's Day 2016, this was the biggest proclamation of love I saw that day. A 75-track collaboration with contributions by over 200 artists, I can't possibly overstate how much effort went into this project. As a companion to the music, the Chronicles of Time website also features 50+ pieces of original artwork created over a span of two years. I'm a diehard fan of Chrono Trigger, and voraciously consume any music and arrangements I can. So when I say this is the most vital album for your collection besides the Chrono Trigger OSV and To Far Away Times Arrangement Album, I speak from experience.
Like this group's previous compilation, Spectrum of Mana, Chronicles of Time is not beholden to any one genre, nor does it mind featuring some songs multiple times in different styles. There's a glorious rock version of "Frog's Theme" in "Rock the Frog", a rap song about how awesome Yasunori Mitsuda is ("Nobody's Badder and Nobody's Cooler"), a trilogy of 8-bit-style demake medleys ("Eons"), and a nine-damn-minute-long epic arrangement of Schala's Theme ("Temporal Eternity") that's so fantastic, the world around me may as well have been frozen in time the first time I heard it. And so much more. Even some of the oft-forgotten music composed for the DS port makes an appearance! Just give it a listen, and you're sure to find something that strikes your fancy.
Who knew that vocaloids would work so well in an RPG soundtrack? Naoaki Jimbo, that's who.
Chronology: A Jazz Tribute to Chrono Trigger
Composed by Yasunori Mitsuda; Arranged by The OC Jazz Collective
Easy listening jazz doesn't get much better than this: Eight jazz arrangements of Chrono Trigger, each focused on one of the game's time periods. I've had days at work where I had this album on repeat for nearly the whole day, and these smooth grooves don't wear out their welcome.
One of my favorite aspects of this album are the track lengths: At 4-7 minutes each, every song gets time to breathe and sink in. You know that feeling of hearing a great song in a game but it's only 2 minutes long on the album? None of that here! The dozen-plus artists who created this album delivered something that's worth sitting down for a long, relaxing listen.
Composed by Yasunori Mitsuda, Nobuo Uematsu; Arranged by Trevor Alan Gomes
Who doesn't love a good piano album? Piano Collection albums have been a mainstay of Final Fantasy for years, though Square Enix doesn't often give that treatment to their other series. Thankfully, we had Trevor Alan Gomes to fill this void for Chrono Trigger in 2016. A short but sweet 10-song collection, this album features some key fan favorites. Frog and Magus' themes are often covered in high-energy rock format, which work really well for those songs, so it's very cool to hear "Magus Confronted" on piano. It gives the song an ominous, yet somehow beautiful presence. On the opposite side of the coin, calming melodies like "A Distant Promise" feel like they were meant to be heard on piano when you listen to Gomes' arrangements of them. All in all, a solid little collection that has me awaiting his next release.
Composed by Yasunori Mitsuda; Arranged by Sam Dillard
With 2015 marking Chrono Trigger's 20th anniversary, that also means it marked Chrono Cross' 15th anniversary. Yes, it's now been 17 years since we last got a Chrono game. Don't think about it too much.
That said, one of my happiest surprises last year was Sam Dillard's fantastic Chrono Cinematica album, which translated Trigger's score to something like that of a movie soundtrack. Sam continued the Chrono love in 2016 with a small release that combined Chrono Cross and Xenogears music to wonderful results, and if you're a fan of Mitsuda's work on those two games, I honestly don't think I have to say much more than that to convince you.
Composed by Masayoshi Soken, Yukiko Takada, Nobuo Uematsu
You can't possibly need — or want — me to say any more about Heavensward than I already do elsewhere on RPGFan, can you? At this point, I've written enough to fill a book.
However, if you want a short, to-the-point take on the soundtrack to Final Fantasy XIV's first expansion, it's this:
Believe it or not, Final Fantasy XIV has delivered one of the best Final Fantasy experiences in years, and Masayoshi Soken's musical talents have only grown stronger, resulting in a soundtrack that's on par with the best in the series, up there with the works of Nobuo Uematsu, Masashi Hamauzu, and Hitoshi Sakimoto.
Heavensward in particular is expertly-arranged with familiar motifs making repeat appearances, and two major themes that serve to inspire some of the game's best musical moments.
Honorable Final Fantasy XIV-related mention: Vocalist Susan Calloway's Artist Cut of Answers offers a hauntingly new take on A Realm Reborn's main theme that's well worth a listen (or ten).
Fan of Tenpei Sato (Disgaea series)? Then you won't want to miss out on this gem!
Final Fantasy XIV Duality ~ Arrangement Album ~
Composed by Masayoshi Soken; Performed by Keiko, The Primals
As much as I love Soken and his stage presence at the various FFXIV Fan Fests, I'm a little rocked-out on some of these particular selections, especially since the original versions were already of similar pace, energy, and instrumentation.
But the piano half of the album? Now we're talking. Some of my favorite tranquil themes transition perfectly to piano, and I appreciate the brand new takes on battle themes. "Imagination" in particular makes for a surprisingly great piano song, far removed from the electric energy of the original piece.
But like Caitlin, for me, this album is all about the new arrangement of Shiva's Theme, complete with the tongue-in-cheek name of "Oblivion (Never Let It Go Version)."
Oh yeah, Final Fantasy XV actually came out in 2016! I don't even know where to start with this one. I've long been a fan of Yoko Shimomura, and her compositions for Kingdom Hearts still have a special place in my... uh, heart. When we learned she would be handling the oft-delayed FFXV, I couldn't have been more excited and nervous. My mind was equal parts "This could be one of the best FF soundtracks ever!" and "I may be setting my expectations too high."
Thankfully, I wasn't; FFXV hits all the right notes.
Intensely-epic battle themes:
I still can't believe "Stand Your Ground" is the first battle theme you hear, as its Epic Level is on par with some games' boss themes, and later battle themes up the ante even more, to say nothing of the Astral battle themes which may literally* melt your face.
Try to listen to "Homecoming," "Dewdrops at Dawn," or Noctis' theme without getting a little misty-eyed at their quiet beauty. Even the early and oft-heard "Hammerhead" theme grew to evoke an emotional connection within me: As the adventure progressed, this twangy tune became the theme song to the closest thing my guys had to a home, and it takes me to a warm fuzzy place whenever I hear it.
One of FFXV's greatest treasures is Ardyn himself, and his blessedly atypical presentation as a bad guy who isn't just sitting on a throne making evil proclamations. He's one of my favorite FF villains of all time, and his two theme songs are so great, they deserved their own mention on this list.
Composed by Florence Welch, Emile Haynie, Jeff Bhasker, Ben E. King, Mike Stoller
I'm respectfully stealing borrowing the title of this from Patrick as my feelings are similar to his: Who'd have ever thought Florence + the Machine would feature in a Final Fantasy game? "Flo" instantly became an all-time favorite when my best friend introduced to me to her several years ago, and when it was revealed that her band would be doing Final Fantasy XV's vocal theme, I couldn't formulate a coherent sentence. It was one of the best musical surprises of the year, until this Songs from Final Fantasy XV EP released and we learned they actually created THREE songs for the game. Amazing.
Composed by Toru Minegishi, Asuka Ohta, Koji Kondo, Mahito Yokota
Nintendo has had a spotty track record with soundtracks for years, starting — for me, anyway — in 2006 when they opted not to release a soundtrack for The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Full of great new takes on classic themes, and a ton of atmospheric and moody new themes that fit perfectly well in one of the series' darkest entries, Nintendo's timing to stop putting out soundtracks couldn't have been worse.
Thankfully, The Big N has reversed course in recent years, releasing things like the massive 7-disc Fire Emblem Fates soundtrack, and even updated releases such as Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D. I was overjoyed to learn that, thanks to the Wii U release of Twilight Princess HD, Nintendo saw fit to finally bring us a nearly-complete* soundtrack to Wolf Link's adventure.
I love all of Link's incarnations: The Toon Link games, the realistic ones like Ocarina of Time, and the classically-shaped Link from the NES, up to A Link Between Worlds. But for me, Twilight Princess remains my favorite in the series, so this release was more than welcome.