Nearly eight months of godless agony later, I’ve finally completed a project I’ve been gearing up to do for years. This is the first 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. Click the name of the song to open a link for listening. 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.”
#1 – “The Beginning” by Factor Eight
As much as I’d like to not start with an eight-minute song, let’s open with a splash of happiness and victory. It’s nearly impossible to listen to “The Beginning” and not feel hope pervade every atom of your body. Nothing about this song is complicated, and for the best. We are introduced by way of orchestral strings, dancing on melting snow. Sunlight comes in as an angelic piano comes baring its gifts. The drums dive in with a stomping cadence, bringing with it the claps of soldiers who have come home. That’s a good way of thinking about “The Beginning.” It is a rebuilding song, a restarting song. Post-destruction and pain. This is the spiritual anthem for recovery and renewal, having survived the long night and sown the way for good things to come in the morning. It’s men and women seeing their families again. It’s a child leaving a hospital from whence hope was momentarily fleeting. It’s not only survival, it’s ascension in spite of whatever wreckage or tragedy lay behind.
#2 – “Unravel” by TK from Ling Toshite Sigure
While I can and have listened to the instrumental versions for hours (there’s plenty to choose from, such as the sexy piano cover I linked above), the soul of this track’s appeal comes from the original version. Unravel is the opening to season 1 of a popular anime called Tokyo Ghoul. It is famous for having some of the most immediately recognizable opening notes in anime, so much so that my brother, who has not watched the series and only heard the song once, was able to tell me it was the Tokyo Ghoul theme after only a couple seconds, long after hearing it his one time.
I am trying to make a point of not discussing lyrics in any of these posts, but for Unravel, I’m making an exception. I believe one of the largest parts of the song’s appeal is that it was specifically written and composed to capture the mentality of the series protagonist, Ken Kaneki, and it does so perfectly. In any of the song’s iterations, both sentimental and intense, the music synergizes with the feeling you get while watching Kaneki develop as a character. Matched by deeply introspective and existential lyrics, Unravel succeeds in being a catch-all of cerebral, contemplative, violent, haunting, and heartbreaking all at once.
#3 – “Requiem For a Dream” by Lux Aeterna
This song was the catalyst by which my campaign for instrumental music was founded, when I was a fledgling high-schooler just discovering the wonder of high-speed internet. It wasn’t until I heard “Requiem for a Dream” that I ever sought out more music of its kind, and the deviations which naturally followed. My imagination shifted under the weight of these new strains of music, epic battles waging, worlds taking shape. My music library has never been the same.
#4 – “Rylynn” by Andy McKee
I think this may be the only song on my entire list which is exclusively composed of acoustic guitar. Rylynn earns its place among my top 50 not only for its stature as a song itself, but for the ties it holds to my personal life. Specifically, this was the theme I associated to my longest-standing crush and unrequited romantic interest, spanning almost three years during my college career. In my mind, this was her song, and while I don’t much listen to the song anymore, I can’t deny it is a sonic masterpiece, and she is still uniquely tied to the dream-like strums contained within.
#5 – “Dream Big” by Mark Petrie
If the phrase “crushing amounts of joy” makes any sense, I’d like to employ it now. This song is immediately and intrinsically filled with hope and overcoming, and for me, is inevitably associated with my favorite series, Naruto. Now, this song isn’t from Naruto, but it reminds me of one pivotal moment in the story: when our scrappy little hero is finally accepted by the people of the village after his harrowing battle against Pain. This song is how that series makes me feel, which is why, despite any arguments against Naruto’s quality which might arise (and being the fan I am, I’m more aware than most regarding its shortcomings) the series means so much to me. No amount of argumentation could divorce that narrative from the feeling “Dream Big” provides. This song is like walking into a pole, but a pole made of buoyancy and tranquility and victory. It makes you stop and be thankful to simply exist.
#6 – “I Could Have Done More” by John Williams
John Williams is so masterful in so many ways. There’s an almost trans-existential ache behind this one. One heart speaking directly to another, confiding about little demons hidden for years on end. It’s somebody telling a best friend they want to die. You can feel it, behind the strings. How that harping violin files down your ribs into chains? Your sternum into a lock?
I mean, it IS a song about the Holocaust.
#7 – “Blumenkranz” by Hiroyuki Sawano
(Get used to seeing the name Hiroyuki Sawano. He shows up a lot on this list.)
Beautiful evil. This is a theme which both perfectly captures the villainess of its series, and transcends her. When I hear “Blumenkranz,” I can only imagine a fallen angel, glorious and lithe and bathed in colors. But even while shining for all to see, that angel maintains an essence of absolute cruelty. “Blumenkranz” is the modest seductress, the scheming man with the world’s best smile. It is power, proud and terrible. Honestly, most of this is credited to the choir, which really sells the song on merit of its divine, alien sound.
#8 – “One-Winged Angel” by Nobuo Uematsu (The Black Mages Version)
If the spirit of menace could have its own soundtrack…
This song is one of the most well-known video game tracks ever made, and inspires both terror and awe in many a veteran player. It is the theme to Final Fantasy VII’s nightmare pretty-boy villain, Sephiroth. When those staccato strings and slamming drums break in, you need to prepare for the worst. And after about a minute, this childish foreshadowing settles into the ashes, throwing wide the gates for a sound pulled from the belly of hell itself, full of darkness insurmountable and infinite.
#9 – “Spring’s Melody” by Masaru Yokoyama
“She is the journey with no destination.”
There’s a wonderful anime of world-class caliber called Your Lie In April, which plays your heartstrings like a violin (ha). Whenever this song begins, you want to soar. It rounds out the narrative beats perfectly, breathing life into the tone of the story and the animation. This track might be simple, but from the first note it jars me back into that same zeitgeist of joy and sadness I experienced through every poetic second of YLiA.
#10 – “Seigi Shikkou” by Makoto Miyazaki and various others
From the anime “One Punch Man,” this song is, for lack of a more appropriate phrase, heroic as hell. Now, unlike many entries on this list, my love of Seigi Shikkou exists independently of the source material (which I am infamously known to dislike among my social circles). I am enamored by this kickass, pulse-pounding song for two particular reasons (outside the obvious one of it being a mega-dope song in its own right). First, it works wonders at breaking through mental barriers, and as such it is commonly played every time I go to the gym. Few things cast my inhibitions to the curb as violently as when those strings break into the song hook, like a superhero taking flight. Second, I keep the track on hand during the writing of my current and most ambitious story ever. It is the end game—how I want the conclusion of this story to feel when people read it. All of my work and creative labors are aiming to inevitably land upon the feeling Seigi Shikkou generates. It is impressively, almost impossibly cool.