Best Game Soundtracks of 2017
It’s pretty much agreed upon at this point that 2017 has been a banner year for games. Nintendo came roaring back into the limelight with its weird, delightful hybrid console, the Switch, along with a stellar lineup of first-party titles. A whole host of other Japanese developers put out stylish, quirky adventures that won our hearts. And the entire year was a deluge of brilliant offerings from smaller teams all around the world.
It is unbecoming how many of these games had excellent soundtracks.
I’m here to bring before you the best of the best, but this list is by no means exhaustive. Please, take a gander at the month-by-month roundups I put together this year if you want even more choice albums. Without further ado, here are the best soundtracks of the year:
I can’t say I think too much of The Game Awards, or awards shows in general (no matter how many anthropomorphic razor blades they feature), but giving the “Best Score” award to NieR: Automata is a choice that’s hard to argue with. Keiichi Okabe’s combination of orchestral, vocal, and electronic music wraps its tendrils around your heart and squeezes until you cry out in agony. If Yoko Taro’s saga about robots, androids, and what it means to be human isn’t enough to make your hands shake as you clutch the controller, that soundtrack sure will be.
More songs to make you question the nature of existence:
Cuphead immediately caught our eyes because of its faithful recreation of the visual aesthetic of the Fleischer cartoons of the 1930s, but it’s every bit as impressive for Kristofer Maddigan’s nearly three-hour score, all of which is original jazz. And what jazz: The horns! The piano! The percussion! Few game soundtracks commit themselves so heavily to a single style and then carry through that style with such flair. It’s not just a technical achievement, either -- these tunes are almost universally toe-tappers, perfectly suited to toss on your turntable if you want to throw a real swingin’ shindig.
More jazzy jives:
Supergiant Games’ composer-in-residence Darren Korb is one of my favorite talents in all of gaming. His soundtracks to Bastion and Transistor are some of my favorite game scores. Needless to say, I was not surprised when Korb’s music for Pyre turned out to be similarly wonderful -- an unlikely mix of the “acoustic frontier trip-hop” that accompanied Bastion and ritual music for harpsichord and lute, Pyre sometimes feels like Jock Jams: Religious Exile Edition, which you should take as a tremendous compliment. Korb’s music always does such an excellent job of making me feel invested in a game’s world, and it says a lot that Pyre takes place in a hellish wasteland called “The Downside” and I still want to go to there. This is good music to listen to if you’re playing some 3-on-3 hoops (with harpies and dog-men) or if you are going on a pilgrimage with your homies.
More songs to accompany ritual combat:
Sometimes you just want some heavy synths, a pulsing beat, and some vocals that make you feel like you’re trapped in a direct-to-VHS action movie from the late 1980s. Nex Machina was one of two arcade shooters released by Finnish developer Housemarque this year (the other being Matterfall), and evidently its sales didn’t quite meet expectations -- Housemarque declared in November that “arcade is dead.” If it means we stop getting intense electronica soundtracks like the one delivered by Ari Pulkkinen and his collaborators, that’s a tragic loss indeed. This is a good album to put on if you’re driving at night amidst the neon lights of a cyberpunk city, or if you live in a timeline in which all companies are quickly being consolidated into a handful of all-powerful megacorporations.
More sounds from a cyberpunk present:
Polybius - Llamasoft Moosicians - Bandcamp
If you had told me, at the beginning of the year, that Tee Lopes’s remixes for Sonic Mania would improve upon the original tracks, I would have called you a darn fool. It is I, however, who would have been the fool: Lopes has tweaked the music from the Genesis Sonics just enough to bring out the funky, poppy beats in their best light, and thrown in a number of original pieces to boot. By remixing tracks from J-Pop mastermind Masato Nakamura and Yakuza 0’s own “Miracle Johnson,” Lopes shows all the haters why some of us loved that speedy hedgehog back in the day. This is a good album to listen to while going fast, thinking about going fast, or advocating the necessity of going fast.
Other superb updates of classic game music:
Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap - Michael Geyre, Shinichi Sakamoto - Bandcamp
Speaking of Yakuza 0 -- I waffled for a little while as to whether or not I wanted to single it out as having one of the best OSTs of the year, but every time I came back to listen to it I was floored at just how hard it wailed. Why Sega asked their sound team to score their game set in the ‘80s with music that sounds like it came out of the best fighting games of the mid-’90s, I have no idea, but after dozens of hours wiping the streets of Kamurocho with the faces of two-bit thugs in seedy suits, I can confidently say that the soundtrack is a smart choice. It seemed like every time I kicked a goon so hard he exploded in a flurry of yen bills there was another awesome guitar lick. Please do not ignore this soundtrack; please do not ignore this game. This is a good album to listen to while you try to avoid having your money stolen by bullies or while you work in real estate.
More guitar licks:
2017 is going to be remembered, among other things, as the year that Japanese developers came roaring back into the limelight in the West: This year gave us NieR, Yakuza, Nintendo’s entire output, and Atlus’s culmination of its teenage angst simulation series: Persona 5. This one is my personal game of the year -- it has visual style unlike anything I’ve ever seen, a cast of teenage numbskulls who fully endeared themselves to me, and Shoji Meguro’s unbelievably hip score, which blends jazz, funk, and J-Pop to create a soundscape that captures both the mundanity of everyday life in the city and the electric hijinx of a cadre of supernatural cat burglars. This is an album to listen to while hanging out with your friends, smashing the oppressive society of corrupt adults, or visiting a maid cafe.
More J-Pop goodness:
Splatoon 2 - Toru Minegishi, Ryo Nagamatsu, Shiho Fujii - CDJapan (CD, import)
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Sometimes a game’s soundtrack is better when it shows a little restraint -- Breath of the Wild’s score, by Manaka Kataoka and Yasuaki Iwata, emphasizes the game’s open spaces and exploratory gameplay by getting out of the way, sticking to simple arrangements and punctuating its tracks with pauses filled with expectation. With heavy emphasis on piano, Breath of the Wild’s soundtrack sometimes echoes Joe Hisaishi’s work with Studio Ghibli, which is surely a comparison than any composer would be pleased to see applied to their work. The only slight I can bring against this game’s soundtrack is that, like most Nintendo scores, it’s painfully unavailable outside of the game itself. This is a good album to listen to if you’re cooking, climbing a mountain, or thinking about how cute sharks are.
Other superb Nintendo scores from this year:
Super Mario Odyssey - Koji Kondo - YouTube
ARMS - Atsuko Asahi & Yasuaki Iwata - YouTube
Horizon Zero Dawn
Despite releasing almost on top of Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn found a wide audience and plenty of accolades this year -- no small feat! Probably the robot dinosaurs helped. The game’s score, by Joris de Man and The Flight, mixes traditional orchestral arrangements with electronic elements and vocals to create perhaps the best “cinematic” score of the year. The recently-released “Frozen Wilds” DLC also got a soundtrack release, so if you found yourself hunkering down with protagonist Aloy for some robo-dino hunting this year, you’ve got plenty of music to help you relive those memories. This is good music to listen to if you are having problems with technology or if you sort of wish the apocalypse would hurry up and get here already.
More cinematic scores:
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice - Andy LaPlegua & David Garcia Diaz - YouTube
Night in the Woods
The realest game of 2017 starred a cast of anthropomorphic animals. Night in the Woods spoke in familiar tones to those of us who grew up walking beneath a bright moon as the baleful horn of a passing train summoned cascades of autumn leaves to slither their way through the empty town square. For me, at least, no game this year struck closer to home. At least part of that was due to Alec Holowka’s score, alternately welcoming and unsettling (as trips home are wont to be). The music that accompanies hanging out in Possum Springs is often mellow and homey, and the music that accompanies Mae’s (maybe prophetic?) fever-nightmares is another thing entirely. This is good music to listen to if you’re crashing with your parents, shoplifting, or trying to wrest your fate free of the iron grip of baby boomers.
More music for coming home:
Oἶκoςpiel Book I
Yeah, that’s right. I’m closing out with the dog opera -- David Kanaga’s surrealist animal-centric meditation on play, labor, software development, global warming, and… dogs. This, you may recall, is the project that asks you to estimate your household income in order to determine a fair price for admission. There are always a number of games each year that are scored with eccentric, even bizarre variety (I’ll list a couple more below), but Oἶκoςpiel takes the cake for sheer ambition of its weirdness. More than one track on this soundtrack samples Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” for instance. Look, you’ve -- you’ve just got to listen to it for yourself. No words of mine will make you hear it. This is a good album to listen to while playing the game Oἶκoςpiel, by David Kanaga.
More delightful weirdness:
Dujanah - Jack King-Spooner - Bandcamp
And that’s it for me for 2017! I hope that you found something to tickle your fancy in this wild assortment of albums. If you did, consider reaching out to the composers on Twitter -- I’m sure that they’d love to hear about how their music improved your year! I hope that in 2018 we can all make a habit of telling people how much we like their work. I’ll see you in the new year -- and in the meantime, happy listening!