It’s become a bit of a cliché to say that 2020 was a tough year for many of us, but well, it was. Luckily, if there was one thing many of us could count on, it was amazing VGM to help us get through it. Whether it’s a new OST from a surprising indie title or yet another reinterpretation of a classic soundtrack that still manages to move us, there was a lot of music to love this year. And we want to share that love with all of you!
So, as we have for the last couple of years, we are bringing you our picks for the best music of the year in two parts. First, several of our editors have made individual picks for some of their favorites. Additionally, we have compiled an unranked list of our top 20 soundtracks of the year based on a staff vote.
I would be remiss if I didn’t shout out the return of our very own VGM podcast: Rhythm Encounter. If you like what you’re reading here, or just want to hear cool people talking about cool music, you should go check it out!
Intro by Zach Wilkerson
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim Original Soundtrack
by Alana Hagues
Basiscape’s work with Vanillaware has long been underappreciated, but even for a game as wild and niche as 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, it’d be criminal if their music once again flew under the radar. Hitoshi Sakimoto and his studio packed literally all that they could (and probably a kitchen sink) into this album. The battle tracks throw everything at the wall, and it mostly all sticks. The result is dynamic music reflecting the pre-battle, some more tense moments, and the victory stages. That’s not even counting “Seaside Vacation,” the idol song that you fight a climactic battle to. This contrasts wonderfully with the lightness of the slice-of-life themes, which feel like sunlight beaming through the window or the memories of after-school hours getting snacks with your friends. Basiscape have matched every mood beat for beat, creating a soundtrack as sweet and loaded as a yakisoba pan.
CHRONO CROSS 20th Anniversary Live Tour 2019 RADICAL DREAMERS Yasunori Mitsuda & Millennial Fair Live Audio at NAKANO SUNPLAZA 2020
by Stephanie Sybydlo
Yasunori Mitsuda has a way with music. The magic, mood, and drama always seem to come naturally through his compositions. And while Chrono Cross may always contend (and, well, lose) with Trigger‘s almost insurmountable “GOAT” status, even those less impressed with the Chrono sequel still won’t deny the power of Cross‘ music.
CHRONO CROSS 20th Anniversary performance is perhaps the best way to tour the El Nido Archipelago this century (at least aurally). It’s quite astounding how complete this Anniversary Album is; it’s not extended/embellished versions of the top 8 most memorable tracks; it’s (almost!) every major game location/theme getting its own gorgeous live concert treatment… and it’s precisely as good and as beautiful as you would hope. Indeed, justice has been done to one of VGM’s most beloved soundtracks.
When “Life – A Distant Promise -” plays, I’m immediately taken in by its gravity, and I can clearly picture the game as I hear it. The magical notes that make up the Chrono Cross element chime faster and faster until the Time Devourer shatters. After five long years between Trigger and Cross, you finally save a special lady whose fate was left uncertain. But now we’re over 20 years into Chrono Cross‘ journey, and it’s a melody made both sweeter and sadder as time drifts on… and we may never hear from this series again. Yet, I’ve only appreciated it more as time goes on, along with the refined talent of its incredible composer and the team who gave this old score some new life.
Final Fantasy III ~Four Souls~
by Hilary Andreff
Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago (in 1990), four souls were charged by the Crystal of Light to restore the world’s balance… but everything changed when Final Fantasy III ~Four Souls~ released in 2020. Many excellent songs were born from their adventures, but here we have a short but mighty compilation to celebrate this installment of the much-beloved series on its landmark 30th anniversary. Four Souls is consistently polished, from the stunning artwork of the Crystal Tower to the mastering on each of the four arrangements they chose to make: “Eternal Wind,” “Elia, the Maiden of Water,” “Battle 2,” and “The Crystal Tower.” The instrumentation and track choices pair with the elemental theme beautifully, and it’s the perfect length to revisit this soundtrack without
the Fire Nation harassing you having to dedicate hours to listening. It is definitely a collector’s item, but if you have a record player and any appreciation for FFIII, it’s well worth it.
Final Fantasy VII Remake Original Soundtrack
by Adam Luhrs
With over 8 hours of music, Final Fantasy VII Remake‘s original soundtrack is a veritable behemoth, a musical smorgasbord of absurd dimensions, a massive enterprise involving nearly a dozen composers and just as many arrangers. Most importantly, it is a loving and deeply respectful take on one of the most beloved soundtracks in video game history. The moment I heard the boisterous orchestration on “Bombing Mission,” I couldn’t help but feel that this was the realization of Nobuo Uematsu’s original vision. That impression held all the way through to the utterly mad 10-minute symphonic suite that is “One-Winged – Rebirth.” The soundtrack also breaks new territory with fresh compositions by Masashi Hamauzu (best known for his work on the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy), Mitsuto Suzuki (known for Mobius Final Fantasy, and many arrangement albums), and several more contributing composers. These new pieces are great, and they slot in perfectly with Nobuo Uematsu’s idiosyncratic blend of cinematic classicism and prog rock eccentricity. I’m relieved to say that Final Fantasy VII fans can rejoice. There has never been a better time to take a musical tour of Midgar.
Final Fantasy VII Remake Acoustic Arrangements
by Alana Hagues
What makes Final Fantasy VII Acoustic Arrangements stand out is the variety of arrangers who worked on the album. Names include Kevin Penkin (of Necrobarista, Florence, and the anime Made in Abyss fame), Atsuki Yoshida (violinist on the Final Fantasy XIII-2 Soundtrack and NieR: Automata Arranged & Unreleased Tracks), and Kenta Higashiohji (a frequent staple in Square Enix’s acoustic arrangements). These people came together to create a really refreshing version of Remake‘s music that is so light at times it will sweep you off your feet — the “Expressway Medley” goes from making me feel like a dream to making me want to dance. At other times, it’s simply chilling and powerful, with “One-Winged Angel – Rebirth” capturing the magnitude of the eponymous character. It’s easy to say we’ve been spoiled for Final Fantasy VII music, even if Remake will usher in a new wave, but if it continues to be this good, we welcome it.
Final Fantasy VII Remake Orchestral Arrangement Album
by Greg Delmage
There’s no question the music of Final Fantasy VII Remake already received an outstanding remaster treatment. So while this album may seem superfluous, audiences worldwide were meant to hear these wonderfully robust arrangements live had a global pandemic not shut things down. These pieces have been transformed beautifully, adding small embellishments to beloved themes to make them, somehow, even more punchy and cinematic. However, what stands out the most is the fantastic choral work that enriches the overall tone of many pieces. “The Prelude – Reunion” soars with the soulful chorus carrying it, drawing you in immediately, as does the driving intensity added to “Let the Battle Begin!” Other pieces may lack vocals but have their own subtle differences that set them apart. “Tifa’s Theme – Seventh Heaven” feels stripped down a bit to create more intimacy and draw in listeners. Overall, the entire setlist is fantastically crafted for the live listening experience and will be a true joy to experience when audiences can flock to concert halls once more. In the meantime, this stellar album adequately fills in.
PULSE: Final Fantasy XIV Remix Album
by Audra Bowling
Final Fantasy XIV is filled with iconic melodies, from more orchestral songs to others that deliver a more metal sound. PULSE: Final Fantasy XIV Remix Album takes some of the most well-known tracks from the MMORPG’s lineup and reimagines them through an electronic and techno lens. This might seem like an unnecessary thing to do, and could even be considered blasphemy to some. However, the new song renditions bring fresh perspectives and are not without their charms. “Pulse: Thunder Rolls” and “Pulse: Sunrise” are tracks I listen to constantly, and “Pulse: Rise” is the perfect starting song to the fourteen track remix album. The tracks are certainly different from their in-game presentations, but they’re still amazing songs even with the different interpretations. It is easy to move with this collection, and I think that the FFXIV composers who worked on these remixes did a fantastically creative job of adding more flair and unique nuances to tracks that would have never even been thought of otherwise.
Grandia Complete Soundtrack
by Adam Luhrs
While many JRPGs involve world-spanning quests, very few double down on that sense of globetrotting ADVENTURE like Grandia. This gem only recently dropped on my radar with the release of the Grandia HD Collection, and it’s a darn shame it took this long. I’ve been missing out on a remarkable soundtrack. Noriyuki Iwadare’s music is broad, exotic, and consistently creative. There are enough ideas packed into this score to fill a soundtrack twice its size. He delivers unsettling alien vistas (“Inside Twin Tower”), tender character moments (“Leen’s Love Theme”), and some gnarly battle themes (“Battle 1,” “Four Volley Rounds of Tension”). This is traditional JRPG music at its very best. Grandia’s soundtrack was originally divided into two separate releases, but the good folks at Wayô Records have compiled these two releases and produced a complete soundtrack. This new release features crisp remasters of all the original tracks and even includes Iwadare’s “Vent” arrangement album, which reinterprets some of the game’s themes as chamber pieces. I let this soundtrack slip under my radar for years, and I am so grateful that this new release gave me a reason to finally check it out.
Hades Original Soundtrack
by Alana Hagues
Saying Darren Korb is a wizard of music is like saying coffee tastes great. Still, it’s worth repeating because the Hades Original Soundtrack again showcases just how versatile and inventive Korb is as a composer. Ashley Barrett returns with Korb to perform vocals, and as with their previous works, these tracks (“Good Riddance” and “In the Blood”) are stand-outs, narrating the stories of the characters in a haunting, beautiful way. For the rest of the soundtrack, Korb has dubbed it “Mediterranean Prog Rock Halloween music,” which, honestly, is perfect. Many songs clock in at over six minutes, each capturing the motions as you travel through the Underworld. Electric guitars and bass are used frequently throughout, but the Mediterranean influences come about through the use of a Turkish string instrument called a bağlama, along with softer percussion. Even after 70 escape attempts, I’m not bored of listening to this unique blend of instruments.
Ikenfell Original Game Soundtrack
by Hilary Andreff
Ikenfell is a modern and inclusive take on the magical school genre, and its soundtrack goes a long way to reinforce that. It plays with genre, has a wide variety of guest vocalists, and just a little bit of cartoon flair. It’s also a character-driven soundtrack that takes their themes and applies them to many contexts, including battle. From the opening chiptune sting of “Lullaby for a Witch” on the title screen, Ikenfell draws you in and has you bopping and listening carefully because of the interplay between the chiptunes and instruments throughout. The recent rise of smaller developers and indie titles has had many positive effects, fresh musical scores and talent being one of them. The Ikenfell soundtrack is proof of this; there’s something to enjoy here whether or not you’ve played the game! aivi & surasshu have outdone themselves.
Be sure to check out the rest of our feature!