This is the fourth in a five-part series to be released daily, in which I unpack my favorite instrumental songs in the history of, well, ever. Narrowing this list down was obviously difficult. There were four “waves” needed to thin out the contestants from my library of thousands, and once we got below one-hundred it was like pulling teeth.
Yet, I stayed true to my original goal of fifty, for my own sake, and not compromise that number. I wanted to know for myself what I believed were my favorites among the gallery of songs I so dearly love. This following list is the conclusion of those struggles. They are not in order. Simply getting a pool of them was hard enough. I do wish to leave with my sanity.
Many are favored because of their execution and style, while others, because of a particular attachment or association they have with my personal life. With each entry will be a short blurb, explaining why it belongs. And for a disclaimer: if I couldn’t understand what language they were singing in, I considered the vocals as their own independent instruments, and thus things like Gregorian chants do not disqualify songs from being “instrumentals.”
#31 – “The Huge Tree in the Tsukamori Forest” by Joe Hisaishi
This song could straight-up break me out of a coma. This is the song which holds the most history of any on this list. My Neighbor Totoro was my first exposure to anime, played by my babysitter Patty when I was four-years-old. She said I asked for it constantly. Thus my love of anime was born.
When I hear The Huge Tree, I am brought to imagine the beautiful antiquity of rural Japan, in which My Neighbor Totoro is set. Specifically, I feel the essence of late afternoon, bottled up and hung next to wind chimes. Sunlight calms down as the late afternoon sets in. The world, in spite all its troubles, is for a moment at peace.
And when those chimes or whatever they are start up…there is nothing more nostalgic. That sound has the compounded interest of twenty-two years of memories behind it. Nothing can compare.
#32 – “Otherworld” by Nobuo Uematsu and the Black Mages
Almost objectively the worst song on this list, my appreciation for “Otherworld,” the heavy-metal anthem of Final Fantasy X, relies on a story, and the evidence that it invokes one of the strongest biological reactions of any song I know. Nearly all of my love for this track comes from the first twenty seconds, and that requires some context. I’d first heard it long before it became one of my favorites, when the game first released in my elementary school years and I watched my friend Joey play it. From that young moment, I’d come to associate that song with “Sin,” the immense and unstoppable monster which plagues the world of FFX. When this song is first introduced, it is to the visage of Sin as it obliterates an entire city. Your city.
For years I believed this song only played at the beginning of the game, as I’d never owned the game myself or completed it. But in college I had the opportunity to play FFX to conclusion. Once I reached the end, to the climax against the heart of Sin—my in-game father—I prepared for the worst. I knew from word of mouth by multiple friends who’d gone before me that Sin’s core was an incredibly intimidating boss. I got ready for the typical fare we see in Final Fantasy last boss soundtracks…
But when Sin (aka “Braska’s Final Aeon,” technically) reached its hand over the lip of the arena which was to be the place of the final battle, and slammed it down, that guitar from “Otherworld” kicked in, and I found myself instinctively leaning away from the screen as a massive, flaming demonoid creature heaved itself slowly into the frame, almost too large to be contained by the arena itself. As it glared down at my party, now seeming woefully unprepared, I remembered the words of my friends who warned me of its might. I did not know this song played again for the final boss. I thought it only played at the beginning. Years and years of listening to this song rushed at me all at once as I looked upon the true face of whom it belonged, the core of Sin, a creature of terrible menace.
I’ve never had such an animal response to a video game before. To physically put space between myself and an enemy which could not technically hurt me. I felt intimidation rolling off this moment as if I’d suddenly been caught out by a bear. It was amazing.
If anybody were to tell me that, of the songs in my top 50, this was their least favorite, I would not blame them. It’s special for me independent of its own quality.
#33 – “Drowning in this Fog of Yours” by Cicada
If you haven’t noticed, I am a never-ending sucker for the contrite piano. When it’s part of an ensemble cast, alongside a guitar and strings which share its vision, then we have a classic case of a sum being greater than its parts. “Drowning in this Fog of Yours” has a little something for both sides of the emotional soul. Some melancholy, some tranquility, some encouragement, some love. Such a perfect morning song. A perfect reading song. A perfect living song. There’s nothing special about it musically, nor personally. I just can’t seem to shake its hold on me. It makes my heart smile. I want more of it, as soon as it ends.
Songs like these are my favorite because they are so good at doing what traditional, vocal-driven songs cannot: they speak to you. I am not ignorant to the irony of that statement, nor do I believe lyrics can’t convey amazing things. But there’s an undeniable transparency and individuality with these sorts of tracks. There’s no words to misinterpret, no specific story behind the narrative. It’s just feelings, made semi-material, a gateway into another person. The music is much more honest than we could ever be with our faulted tongues.
#34 – “Death Image” by Yoshihisa Hirano
This song is morbidly simple. It is the swaying footsteps of the man on his last dredges of vitality, ready to surrender to his own weight. The way the strings make drawn, flat notes provide a perfect foundation for the eventual raindrop sound of the piano, as well as the organ and slight percussion which give a sort of ticking clock sound. If I must capture this word in a scene, it is that of somebody taking their final steps as the world melts away around them. It’s a good deathbed song, extracted from the anime “Death Note,” something which says “yes, it’s over.”
I once listened to this song on repeat for an entire 8-hour overnight shift.
#35 – “Creator of Worlds” by Epic Score (I think?)
Three things: drums, ominous choir, and the angriest violins on this side of existence. That’s 90% of this song, and it’s one of the most intense things ever. Objectively. I’m allowed to say that, I’m the writer.
It really does give an impression while you inhale the music of a divine act of terraforming taking place somewhere in the universe. Can’t you feel it? Tectonic plates, freshly birthed from the magma of a fledgling planet, sliding together, mashing into mountains and earthquakes and underwater ravines. The oceans stir into place, a devastation contained only by gravity, drowning tens of thousands of miles in unstoppable nature. Storms of lightning war with themselves as layers of atmosphere begin to form around the soft meat of the globe, tender from its chaos. And then, somewhere in this miasma of ancient power, life rapidly expands beyond its natural elements. I can imagine a body coming together just as easily. Muscle sinews stretching and reaching for each other, forming elastic bridges between the still solidifying frame of bone and cartilage which will eventually have the power to raise itself up. Eyes, for a moment mush, round out into something which is firm, and then complex, swallowing the world in the birth of perception.
This is the song, as the name implies, of a great god-hand sewing together the many fabrics of the universe.
#36 – “Fantasia alla Marcia” by Yoko Shimomura
There is something intrinsically important about this song. It’s hard to quite land a finger on. I mean, it’s obviously beautiful and dramatic, but that’s typical fare for Kingdom Hearts. What I think sets this song apart, aside from it having like seven different melodies, is the nebulous sense of inheritance it provides. As if I’m being entrusted with the responsibility to refine and pass along virtues of worth, in the hopes of breeding new caretakers of this strange truth: that humanity, in spite of ourselves, can imagine, and wonder, and create. We make art, and music, and those things are worth maintaining. You inherit a sense of protection towards that, such an insane and honest and worthwhile campaign.
#37 – “Goodbye” by Jared Emerson-Johnson
This is the saddest song from the saddest game I’ve ever played, and if I’m not careful, it can ruin my entire day. I make this one of my favorite songs almost ironically, as it encapsulates an experience which plunged me into a thick, four day depression after exposure. What I said is dramatic, yes, but not without cause. To unpack all the reasoning behind that now would take too long, but in short, I associate this song intrinsically with a sense of unforgivable failure. And as crudely categorized as that is, I love this song because, despite its simplicity and sorrowful grade, anything which makes me feel so deeply deserves to be considered a favorite.
That game broke me a little.
#38 – “Into the Wild Chapter II” by Axl Rosenberg
A slow, but glorious burn. You need to stick with this one for a bit, because the first couple minutes are preemptive—steadily building in strength and tone. The true character of ItWC2 resurrects around the 1:45 second mark. Then opens the anthem to the long journey, an adventure to find an unknown something, a place not yet seen. Being lost, and finding. When I hear this track, I imagine a grand voyage or pilgrimage, either alone or with companions. It is the quintessential self-discovery arc every person and character must endure to find themselves.
#39 – “Little Fugue in G Minor” by Johann Sebastian Bach
For full-disclosure, I care less about the more traditional renditions of Bach’s famous “Little Fugue in G Minor,” and prefer it in several recent incarnations. For example, this excellent metal take on the classic. Or this one from a game called Catherine which I’ve never played but has a great soundtrack.
But I obviously have one which stands out, as it’s the one posted above. The version which plays to the final adversary of Mega Man Legends, one of my favorite games.
Bach’s masterpiece has such a delicious, aristocratic horror, as if dancing at a masquerade on a night filled with secrets, lies, and betrayal. There’s a scope of history about the song, nestled deep into the public psyche. The almost universal familiarity of it somehow emphasizes the dread it creates. A shadow hiding in our minds, wearing a mask, polite until your guard has fallen.
#40 – “Unfinished Battle” by Yoko Shimomura
Shimomura has now shown up just as many times as Sawano.
For some reason this song was only played once through the entire 80-hour game of Xenoblade Chronicles, which is practically a sin., because it’s one of the most raw soundtracks in recent memory. It’s hard to point at any one part of the song and tell you “that, that is what makes it amazing.” It is simply a perfectly rounded battle fanfare, with chasing strings running the course of its length, and a mounting synth-piano which explodes into prominence at the end. As the name implies, it encourages a tremendous sense of pushing through adversity towards a final resolution. An excellent workout song, “Unfinished Battle” has a home in many, many of my playlists.