This is the second 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.”
#11 – “Tsuisou” by Ooshima Michiru
While I hold the standing opinion that Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has the better overall soundtrack, the original series has this single trump card over it. “Tsuisou” is one of the most romantically bucolic songs I can think of. This is a “we are on a long road” sort of adventure, which understands life without the need for questions. The slow progression from one landmark to the next, enjoying the fundamental nature of the journey along the way. It also makes me feel nostalgic for a childhood unfulfilled, in a fantastically alternate version of our own world. Listen, and depart.
#12 – “Dragon Rises” by Hiroyuki Sawano
(I told you to get used to that name. This won’t be the last time Sawano shows up on the list.)
Listen to this song. Now listen again, except imagine it as the theme of some really intense medical drama. Kinda fits, doesn’t it? It is from a medical drama. Thanks, Japan. The violins sound like an alarm, or an ambulance siren. The shouting which fades-in half way through the song represents the tense degrees of emergency we so often see in those kinds of settings, with medical professionals relaying information in strict, punctual accuracy. I can’t help but see an epic montage a la Death Note (unrelated series, but if you’re familiar, you know what I mean) in which a team is prepping and executing surgery. The pace is made breakneck by its quick-cutting back and forth between images: filling a syringe, creating an incision, asking for varied medical tools, wiping sweat off the brow. It’s just so, so awesome. And just to clarify, this isn’t from an anime. Japan makes their own television series too, you know.
#13 – “The Burning Bush” by Hans Zimmer
As you might have gathered from the title, this song is a direct reference to the God of the Bible, who spoke to Moses through a bush which had been set aflame, yet did not burn. More specifically, this is from the epic and wonderfully-crafted animated film, The Prince of Egypt. Let this song empty your mind, and top you off with wonder. In my mind, this is what God is supposed to sound like, if humanity could do our best of capturing such an unfathomable essence. This is God without the inevitable bullcrap we inject into our perceptions of him. This is God, unhindered by us. It moves, it captures, it rises. And then it explodes into overpowering, all-consuming might after about two minutes, very briefly, just enough for you to know this is God, an entity of insurmountable power, before it pulls back into something tender and welcoming: a father, resting a reassuring hand on your head when you feel you’ve gone too far. A father in armor, inviting your enemies who feel they’ve bested you, to take a crack at him instead.
#14 – “Opening Stage: Vile” by Undetermined (from Megaman: Maverick Hunter X)
Perhaps the first video game character to ever inspire fear and a personal grudge in my heart, Vile of the Mega Man X franchise has a theme befitting his lethality. Never before had I encountered an enemy in a video game which was literally unbeatable—who was supposed to defeat you. I remember the first time I faced him, and the frustration I felt. He’s the very first boss, and he’s ruthless in how he toys with you, bludgeoning you while you sit there struggling, because this is so unfair, what am I supposed to do? It was David and Goliath, but as it would be without divine intervention.
Eventually salvation comes in the form of your comrade and savior, Zero. Zero is awesome, and way stronger than you are, but even he only manages to force Vile into casual retreat. Later, once Mega Man (you) has overcome many new obstacles and augmented yourself in a dozen different ways, you hunt down Vile, who has by this point battled and enslaved Zero. You fly in, ready to set the record straight.
And he’s still too powerful. You can’t even dent his impenetrable armor. Nothing has changed, you haven’t gotten stronger at all, and your best isn’t good enough. In a final, desperate gambit, Zero sacrifices himself in an attempt to obliterate Vile once and for all. This, too, fails. Zero’s sacrifice does shed Vile’s second layer of shielding and armor, but this is mostly just an inconvenience. It will have to be enough. Vile is no longer invincible. He’s still stronger, better, faster, and more confident in his ability than you are, but Zero has given you a chance. It is one of the hardest battles in the game, and insanely rewarding when, after an inevitable try-fail cycle where you suffer defeat at his hands over and over, you finally put him in the ground.
A demon clad in metal, Vile’s personality and corruption are captured in the beast-like guitar riffs which scream and slaughter their way through his song. They carry the same distortion found in most Mega Man X music, but still manage to be uniquely recognizable as belonging to his character. It is a simple track, and does not last long before looping, but my god if it doesn’t do a good job of punctuating just how traitorous and superior Vile is seen to be.
#15 – “Osiris” by Valentin Wiest
In my head canon, I call this the “wedding song,” which might not be immediately apparent upon listening. Let’s put it this way, in an ideal and highly unlikely world, this is the song which would play when my eventual bride walks down the aisle. More specifically, it would play out like this:
We’d have to use an edited cut, otherwise it’d be too long, but the wedding party would start to approach the stage, slowly (so we can hear the song of course, as that’s clearly the most important part), around 2:40. As they fill in the altar and all appropriate individuals take their seats, we allow the song to bleed into the violins and chants for a little bit. Anticipation builds. The walls begin to whisper their excitement. Hushed conversation floats beneath the orchestra.
Then it happens. Four minutes in, everybody stands to welcome the bride, and boom, 4:05, she makes her way down the aisle. The world bends around her and time surrenders.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve played this out in my mind. I get chills just thinking about it.
#16 – “Lit” by Kensuki Ushio
While I enjoyed the original version of this song and its function within the film A Silent Voice, I am particularly enthralled by this piano rendition of the song by Youtube creator PianoPrinceofAnime. PianoPrince takes the inherent beauty and simplicity of the original track and transfuses it with an extra layer of emotion and majesty. The added cello gave the final product some much needed synergy which was missing from the original track. While this cover stands on its own, I admit part of my admiration is rooted in the source material, which inspired me to start learning some American Sign Language, as well as piano, as a result of its influence.
#17 – “Gourmet Race” by Jun Ishikawa & Dan Miyakawa
No matter its incarnation (of which I love many), “Gourmet Race” never fails to get the heart pumping. In its original context, Kirby is in a mighty dash against King Dedede through a treacherous obstacle course. The original song maintains a lot of the retro charm of the 90’s, and the sound often associated with Kirby games in general. In its inevitable hundreds of covers and remixes which have since spawned from its popularity, I have several favorites, especially the rendition found in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, an a capella, a dubstep, and an epic metal version. I love this song for its duality of adrenaline and pop-fantastical qualities (the latter being aforementioned characteristic of Kirby soundtracks). “Gourmet Race” could be appropriately labelled a “light-hearted battle to the death,” being both incredibly fierce, yet undeniably upbeat in style.
#18 – “Kiss the Rain” by Yiruma
If somebody asked me to present a song which captured the essence of ‘healing,’ I’d be hard-pressed to choose anything other than Yiruma’s masterful “Kiss the Rain.” It generates its own imagery and has its own beating heart. The human soul is rarely captured so purely, least of all by a single piano. That piano strips away your walls, your infection, leaving you vulnerable and clean, ready to start again.
#19 – “Sadness & Sorrow” by Toshiro Masuda
Oh my god, the feels this song has made me feel. I distinctly remember the first time I heard “Sadness & Sorrow.” I was watching the first arc of Naruto, which I’d recorded on VHS in 7th grade. When the deepest narrative I’d seen in my young life to that point took the form of Teen Titans, this song, and the scene of Sasuke ostensibly dying in Naruto’s arms…well, it took my standards to a new level. This song forged that scene into something excellent, and gave birth to my love for that entire series, which now stands atop my pantheon of pop-culture familiarities as the reigning king.
This is that addicting kind of sadness. It is works like this which made me crave to learn piano.
#20 – “You Say Run/Jet Set Run” by Yuki Hayashi
BOOOOOIIIIIIII THIS SONG.
The national motto of Spain is “Plus Ultra” or “further beyond.” We can give more, do more, be more—our limitations are what we make of them. “You Say Run” is a song I’ve probably heard no less than 500 times in the last year and a half since first discovery, and my god does it go plus ultra. It is the most memorable track from the sensational new anime My Hero Academia, and has played no small hand in its meteoric growth in the industry. Championed by one of my favorite new composers (the same brilliant mind as behind the Haikyuu! soundtrack, which isn’t on this top 50 list, killing my soul a little), this song is a whirlwind of heroic energy. Seriously, do you feel like a single thing in the entire universe could stand in your way?
Didn’t think so. You could probably flip a tractor-trailer. Go try it. I’ll wait.
Not only is this song noteworthy in its own stature, but the musical director of My Hero Academia uses it marvelously to punctuate scenes and moments with the precision and lethality of a sniper rifle. As soon as that echoing note fades in, you know something insane is about to go down, and with each successive hearing of the song, it builds momentum from the last, until you inevitably have it on repeat. You want it as the background of your life.
You want to be a hero, too.