Note: This is an opinion article by jonny Lupsha. My opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of AIR Entertainment nor any of the mentioned games or musicians.
So, I love a good video game score as much as anyone. But you have to admit, sometimes when you get into that 10th or 50th or 500th hour of play, the music tends to get a little old. Luckily for you, I’ve spent nearly 30 years collecting music and longer than that playing video games, so I’ve decided to compile my knowledge of both into one delicious article for your face. Here, in no particular order, are the scientifically-proven* best albums to listen to while playing some of the most prominent franchises in gaming – or genres at least. So pop open the audio options menu, turn the music volume down to 0 or 1 and listen to this instead.
*Don’t question it.
Red Dead Redemption 1 or 2: In 2006, I drove down to Jacksonville, Florida, to see old-school punk-rockers Against Me! at a tiny venue that only held about 100 people. Aging punks in black leather jackets and mohawks packed the club and did the typical mosh pit, crowd-surfing thing through the first two opening bands. Then some lean, tan, bearded guy in a white tank top and a pair of jeans covered in paint stains sat down at a lone chair with a microphone and started stomping his black worker’s boot heel-first. His gravelly, grizzled, Southern-accented voice – which was straight out of O Brother Where Art Thou – rang out “O sing with me a hymn for the light that has dimmed / For the heart that no longer beats / And even until death, when nothing else is left / And the pain has finally ceased / And the sun will never shine on this cold, dead heart of mine.” It was the lonesome dustbowl Americana folk music that disappeared into the barren earth 90 years previous and it had popped up at a punk show in a piss-hole bar in the Florida panhandle, and for nearly 40 minutes this guy captivated a room full of rioting punks into total silence. You could hear a pin drop through his entire set, except between any one of his a cappella or banjo-twanged songs, at which point the room exploded into the kind of thunderous applause usually reserved for last-minute Hail Mary plays in professional sports that win tournaments. This guy’s name was William Elliott Whitmore and there’s a reason his album covers are generally adorned with bird skeletons and dirt. Next time you’re riding a lonely trail from Valentine to Saint Denis in Red Dead Redemption 2 – or scouting Armadillo in the first title in the series – check out WEW’s brilliant mid-2000s release Song of the Blackbird and you’ll want to start a petition encouraging Rockstar Games to hire him to score the inevitable RDR3.
Fighters: Oh man, how satisfying is it to take suckers to the cleaners with badass combos and special moves? Whether you’re a Street Fighter fanatic or you roll with Mortal Kombat, Injustice, Marvel vs. Capcom, Guilty Gear or any series in between, there’s nothing as sweet as inflicting tasty martial arts damage on a human opponent or an AI. But if you’ve ever watched the speed and flow of a fight, you may have felt the steady groove and comfort and confidence that comes from being in the zone. Something about that concoction of domination lends itself perfectly to hip-hop. I mean real hip-hop, with chunky beats and angry MCs. Next time you fire up a fighter with someone, throw on some Wu-Tang or Nas or Biggie and you’re guaranteed to feel 34% more awesome. The Wu-Tang fighting game might’ve been…uh…troubled, but that soundtrack is spot-on.
Specifically for this post, I’m going with Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… and Madvillain’s Madvillainy, two of the most consistent and fun rides in rap. Rae’s classic RZA-produced record annihilates with songs such as “Knuckleheadz,” “Guillotine (Swordz)” and “Wu Gambinos.” There’s a reason album guests Ghostface Killah and Method Man are in the roster for Def Jam: Fight for New York – hip-hop and brawling go together like gin and tonic. Then there’s the Madlib-produced, DOOM-rapped Madvillainy, a testament to the same kind of yin-yang of cool and dorky that’s accompanied video games for generations. Bangers like “Accordian” and “Great Day” flow perfectly with any shoryuken you can throw. It’s a 2000s classic that’s consistently rated one of the best albums of the genre, and for good reason. DOOM spits some of the smoothest and most intricate rhymes of his career over larger-than-life beats by legendary producer Madlib, and shortly after the release of this album, DOOM landed the gig to write a theme song for the DS and PSP game Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. Spin this album and find out why.
Turn-Based Strategy and 4X: Ok, so there’s no shame in admitting that turn-based strategy and 4x titles – including franchises like X-Com and a lot of the Warhammer 40,000 titles – are slow burns. In fact, movies and music that take their time to come to a head are some of my favorite things on Earth. Nothing about them is “boring” or “too long,” but they clearly have a different rate of progression than, for example, your average first-person shooter or shmup. Fair enough? At the same time, the payoff for the relaxed pacing of these subgenres – especially 4X – is pretty damn big. You wipe out enemy armies, level cities, conquer civilizations and more. So when you’re sitting with a game where one mission tends to be an hour or more – and a full match can last eight to 12 hours – you need music that starts small and takes its time to rip the world to shreds, just like your budding society or platoon of specialized troops.
Enter post-rock. Post-rock is great because it takes the timbre of rock ‘n’ roll (a guitar or two, a bass, a drummer, sometimes keyboards and piano and strings) and throws out the verse-chorus-verse structure of standard rock that limits most songs to four or five minutes – and instead draws them out to these slow-building tsunamis of force. Think of the beauty of indie rock without the pretentiousness, the energy of metal without the growling or insane speed, and the rebellious spirit of rock without the annoying frontmen…then lay it over the epic length of classical music, starting small and ending enormous (sometimes twice per song). Average song lengths are anywhere from 10 minutes to 22, but they’re an experience like no other. There are plenty of great post-rock bands out there, like Mogwai and Pelican and Explosions in the Sky, but for the meticulous nature of turn-based strategy combat and 4X exploration, I’m gonna recommend Japan’s premier post-rock act MONO. Their 2014 two-album project The Last Dawn and Rays of Darkness makes for beautiful accompaniment to limited-view exploration while also offering some of their heaviest material yet. Meanwhile, their 2016 album Requiem for Hell offers a more compacted but just as refined experience. While we’re on that subject…
Ace Combat Series: Ok, I know this seems weirdly specific, but hear me out. 15 years ago, a friend of mine recommended I listen to a specific post-rock band while playing Ace Combat 3. “Why?” I asked. “Just trust me,” he said. That band was Godspeed, You Black Emperor! and I’ve never seen a match-up between two media that fit so well (except maybe Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz). So here’s the deal. GYBE are an exceptional eight- or nine-piece ensemble from Canada whose average song length is about 15 minutes. Generally an instrumental rock band welded to a string quartet, they make intense music a bit more protracted than MONO but also considerably more urgent. And if you’ve ever played any of the Ace Combat games, you know it’s not the same “immediate drop-in” pace of something like, say, After Burner. On the contrary, Ace Combat missions tend to start off at a relaxed pace, your fighter flying in from five or eight minutes away to a battle zone or spending that same amount of time quietly escorting a caravan of vehicles before the fit hits the shan. Then dogfights are rarely instantaneous killfests, with more skilled opponents evading you for minutes on end. By the time you’ve gone from a quiet fly in the friendly skies to the life-changing air terrorist attacks, every mission is an adventure. So put on GYBE’s third release, Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, clocking in at about 80 minutes across four songs, and load up some Ace Combat and have a badass adventure. Lift Yr Skinny Fists may not be as tight a record as Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada, but it’s more than 25 minutes long so you won’t need to get up and change the album every two missions. For this and the previous listing, I’m going to cite the evidence that another post-rock band, 65DaysofStatic, landed the gig to score No Man’s Sky, which – despite its at-launch problems – is a pretty cool flight and exploration game and the music is great.
Space and Flight Simulators: If you’re a fan of the technical side of flight, you’re probably accustomed to the serene sunlit voyages and multi-faceted landing procedures that accompany varying flight sims. Or if you’re more into titles like Elite: Dangerous or EVE Online, you know there’s nothing like the asteroids strewn across a constellation-peppered outer space expanse with a nearby star or two illuminating the scene as your ship mines, trades and fights its way across the galaxy. Whether your skybound journeys are terrestrial or in the far-reaching arms of the Milky Way, these intricate flights call for something ethereal, low-key and beautiful to complement the surrealism of just how tiny you are against your backdrop.
While a lot of musical compositions could fit the bill here, there’s nothing quite like Cliff Martinez’s original score for the Steven Soderbergh’s space drama remake Solaris or the climate change documentary Before the Flood, whose musical score is brought to us by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (Nine Inch Nails, The Social Network), Gustavo Santaolalla (The Last of Us, Babel) and Mogwai (The Fountain). AIR Entertainment isn’t making a political statement here, but consider that these two albums are directly concerned with 1. the humanity of space travel and 2. an awareness of nature and the environment, respectively, and their sounds just make sense. Martinez’s score is chock full of beeping synths and sweeping strings, which are perfect for piloting a Redeye or docking in a space station a thousand light years away from Sol – plus, you can’t say no to an album with song titles like “Is That What Everybody Wants?” and “We Don’t Have to Think Like That Anymore.” Likewise, the Before the Flood score is highlighted by Santaolalla’s arpeggiated guitars (which any The Last of Us fan will recognize), Mogwai’s reverberating keyboards and Nine Inch Nails’ signature solemn-but-lovely piano chords for soaring over mountains and plains or landing on a deserted planet and cruising for salvage in an SRV. Both albums pair beautifully with flight and space sims.
Racers (Normal): Maybe you’ve noticed that racing titles seem to have split into a couple different speeds since the days of the PS1. First I want to take a look at more believably-paced racers – Forza, Need for Speed, DriveClub, Project Gotham, Gran Turismo and so on. Drifting around corners, handling better than the competition, drafting and taking advantage of the classic “easy in, hard out” combo for sharp turns feels pretty awesome, but in my opinion less physically combative than fighting games. So this time I’m gonna shelve the hip-hop and recommend breakbeat instead. Specifically, the last two albums by The Prodigy – The Day Is My Enemy and No Tourists. My favorite Prodigy albums will probably always be Music for the Jilted Generation and The Fat of the Land, but they’re a little fast-paced for some of those early races with standard cars like Mini Coopers, right? So don’t be afraid to listen to something a little fatter and less coked-out by the legendary punk-inspired electronic trio.
Racers (Breakneck): Sometimes you need to do some futuristic or otherwise insanely fast racing instead. If you’ve played a WipEout title in the last 10 or 15 years, you know what I’m talking about. Same with a lot of F-Zero, classic Burnout and newcomer titles like TrackMania Turbo and RedOut. If you’re a fan of high-paced split-second driving like these titles have to offer, you may be familiar with one of the world’s best ultra-fast twitchy electronic acts, Aphex Twin. If you aren’t, you should be. Aphex Twin is just one guy, Richard D. James, who makes bizarre and lightning-fast drum-based electronica over humorously slow-paced synths for an experience that helps you feel focused and energized at the same time. His seminal release, the mid-’90s Richard D. James Album, features inhuman drum machines and beautiful chords on songs like “4” and “Girl/Boy Song.” It’s perfectly-paced for any racer that requires a strafe button.
Stealth and Tower Defense: Sometimes you gotta let the fight come to you, watching legions of baddies approach you with interlaced hands in front of your face like Shinji’s dad in Neon Genesis: Evangelion. Other times, you need to sneak up behind bad guys and neck snap ’em or lure them away from a door with a thrown bottle. Whether you’re rocking stealth like the latter-day Deus Ex titles and The Phantom Pain or defending your base with PixelJunk Monsters 2 and They Are Billions, the borderline-vindictive nature of each (killing unsuspecting humans from behind or getting the “ant under the magnifying glass” thrill of passive TD destruction) practically screams out for something cool, confident and just a bit sinister.
And nothing says “cool, confident and sinister” like Ninja Tune and trip-hop. First off, the Ninja Tune label is home to fat drum-and-bass (and big beat) acts like The Herbaliser and Coldcut – you may have heard Ninja Tune’s radio station on Sleeping Dogs – but one of their flagship artists is Amon Tobin, whose first three or four albums blend big drums and catchy bass with smoky, cool jazz. It’s what you’d listen to walking around the cleaner/safer area of your nearest city in the middle of the night or if you walked into a clothing shop specializing in Diesel or Topman in the late 2000s. Tobin’s album Permutation – which samples, among other things, David Lynch’s weirdo existentialist film Eraserhead – is one of the best examples of his trademark jazz-drum-and-bass sound. It’s great pulsating music for the kind of malevolent, sneaky feel of stealth titles and the sadistic, “watch the bad guys walk helplessly into my trap” evil overlord role you take on in tower defense games.
Second, the unfortunately-named but impossibly cool subgenre of trip-hop evokes similar emotions, albeit a little more passively. If you’re familiar with 1990s groups like Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky, you know trip-hop. Influenced by soul, jazz and rap, trip-hop is usually characterized by slow and sexy beats with a hip-hop timbre, curious basslines and moody vocals. There are a lot of great albums and unsung heroes of the style out there – from Unkle’s Psyence Fiction to 12 Rounds’s My Big Hero – but one classic fits like a glove: Portishead’s 1994 debut Dummy. Songs like the subwoofer-busting “Biscuit” and night club favorite “Sour Times” perfectly walk the line between angry and chill, seething and relaxed, determined and calm – perfect for infiltrating enemy territory on the down-low or watching carefully-planned tower setups unfold and thin out parades of enemies.
Conclusion: You may have noticed I didn’t include some seemingly-obvious genres of gaming here – first-person shooters, for example, or JRPG’s. Even though I love those genres and what they have to offer, they tend to vary so much from franchise to franchise that it’s hard to pin down one sound for them. For example, Chris Vrenna’s brilliant “living environment” soundtrack for Doom 3 would clash terribly with Call of Duty or Battlefield. Likewise, even though the dreamy, wintry, Icelandic sounds of Sigur Ros may go great with some Final Fantasy titles, they’d fall flat with a series like Valkyria Chronicles. At any rate, thanks for reading along and feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments! If you try out any of these in your own gaming space and you dig them, leave me a comment and let me know or share this article with your friends. Finally, please obtain these albums legally: be cool and support the artists so they can keep making music. They’re worth it!