This is the third 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.”
#21 – “Space Lion” by Yoko Kanno
I have never in all my life heard a song quite like “Space Lion” from Cowboy Bebop, and won’t even pretend like I can do justice to it with one or two meager paragraphs. While this song makes its debut in a stand-out moment within the series, it holds its place in my top 50 just because it’s so…beautiful. The dreamlike ambiance, the soul-soothing saxophone—and the way they slowly fade together with an African children’s choir and bongos? Outstanding to the nth degree.
#22 – “Carry the Sun” by Glitch Mob
I think of two things when I hear “Carry the Sun.” I imagine a Captain Falcon montage from Super Smash Bros, as that’s where I found the song. But more importantly, I am thrown into a deep desire to go skiing. I discovered this track right before going on my first real skiing trip and so it kind of became the theme song of that week. Now I can’t hear the hook kick in without it being followed by a blast of endorphins, restless fingers, and a need to move around. This is the only electronic song in my top 50, and has one of the most visceral knee-jerk reactions tied to it. Simply thinking about it is urging images of snow-capped mountains into my head space, powder exploding in my wake.
#23 “Beth’s Theme” by Ólafur Arnalds
That first violin note is drowning. This entire song is drowning. This is the song of a drowning girl.
I never had a sister, and always kind of wish I did. It’s a difficult thing to capture in words. I’m not sure what to say about this song, as it often casts all thought from my mind. All I know is it makes me feel. Not sadness, necessarily, though I suspect that’s what the composer was aiming towards. It’s just a sort of…stillness. A bastard of depression and apathy, unwanted. Every time I hear this song, I recognize sad things, but from a sort of observable distance. That piano—as with many minor-key pianos—acts as a sober lens by which to see the fractures—hairline or glaring—in our world.
#24 – “Dragon Rider” by Two Steps From Hell
I’ve never seen a song so perfectly capture the essence of its title. As evidence, I once played it for my college roommate and asked him to imagine what the composer wanted him to feel, without telling him the name of the song. He’d never heard it before.
He answered: “I feel like I’m riding a dragon into battle.”
Short and to the point, the way the song builds to its apex, you can already piece together the film montage of putting on your chain-mail, saddling over your lizard’s scaly back, and diving from the mouth of a cliff-side cave into the ravines of warring soldiers below. The velocity of the song gives credence to the intense, romantic power of the dragon, this most legendary of creatures. Any scene, real or imagined, is made better by having this in the background.
#25 – “Passion” by Yoko Shimomura (performed by the Kingdom Orchestra)
Before we continue, please understand everything from Kingdom Hearts is spectacular and only picking one song was impossible. The Kingdom Hearts soundtrack at large is in my top 3 of all time. I eventually landed on two (second to come later), though getting to that point was like peeling off my own skin. Seriously, I could make a top 50 list of only the Kingdom Hearts gallery and there’d still be some quality material left over.
This brain-child franchise of Disney and Square Enix has created an unconventional game series, beloved far and wide. The music is a heavy influence on the outcome of its popularity, wielding the power of a live orchestra and the triumphant genius of Yoko Shimomura as its helm. “Passion” expands quickly to fill the horizon of your attention, just long enough to know it’s got its hooks in you. Then it slows down into a fragile, criminally delicate progression of notes, which isolates a new instrument every couple of measures. It’s almost vain, as if to say “look how beautiful my music can be.” Cue the transition into a slow march, like brave toy soldiers off to the front lines.
There is perhaps no phrase greater, or which could more accurately depict the core principle of “Passion,” than the one which is most apparent, should you take some time to consider it. That being, this is true ‘Disney Magic.’
#26 – “Shelter” by Porter Robinson and Madeon
(To see the original song in its debut video, rather than the above piano cover, click here. The video is…quite special.)
If my writing can somehow create the feeling this song gives me, in someone else, then I’ll have made it. The unadulterated innocence combines with the up-and-up of the melody, and they materialize into a thing of beauty. Yet, underneath the major key is a subtle, curious sadness, like somebody waiting, but they aren’t sure what they’re waiting on. As mentioned above, this song was originally an electronic track, composed for an animated short video. I hope I can say without hyperbole that the animation is one of the most heart-stirring and contemplative things ever found in the medium, and this song always brings me back to how I felt when I first saw it.
This is the song I hope one day might be characteristic of my daughter’s soul, should I be so fortunate as to have one.
#27 – “Attack on Titan Theme” by Hiroyuki Sawano
Oh hey. Sawano again. That’s three times, now.
Created by recurring favorite composer, Hiroyuki Sawano, there are many things going on with this song in a technical sense, so I will focus less on that and more on the overall feeling, as I don’t want this entry to be an essay.
Basically this is the song of inevitable and unquestionable destruction. It is armored in a sort of demented marching vibe, punctuated by distant church bells and a Gregorian chant. This is appropriate, because it plays when a bunch of gigantic freakazoid monsters who resemble people in only the most horrifying way begin to descend on humanity and eat them like cattle, without discrimination. It is the march anthem of death, trampling innocence and the semblance of safety we build around ourselves.
Plus those discordant noises spread throughout the song. They’re so creepy.
(Btw the entire AoT soundtrack is worth a listen. There were many other contenders for this list.)
#28 – “Mortal Kombat” by The Immortals
Specifically, the metal version by Youtube creator Erock. And no, I don’t count the occasional use of soundboard recordings as “lyrics,” so this still qualifies for the list. Song begins at 0:22 in the video.
I need to be careful not to listen to this song while I’m driving. The adrenaline in my blood gives me a bad case of tunnel vision, which is great for kickboxing and not much else. Most audiences have some level of exposure to the Mortal Kombat theme song, but this cover takes it to a different plane of intensity. This is one of my go-to running tracks. It makes you want to sprint, to fight, to dodge, to ascend. There’s not much to talk about for this one. I just like it a ton and it’s virtually unskippable when it crops up on my playlists. As the name suggests, I consider it one of the ultimate fight songs, and Spotify has a version without most of the gaudy soundbites, but this was the best video I could find for our purposes.
#29 – “To Zanarkand” by Nobuo Uematsu
Regarded as one of the most recognizable songs in the vast Final Fantasy archives, this lone piano captures so much of what made FFX special. You can sense the fiction of the world behind the notes, its fantastical qualities, yet even further down is the story of a heart. “To Zanarkand” captures the importance of its subject matter on multiple levels beyond its role as a simple song: it provides world-building, character development, and tonal improvement, all of which amplify the narrative at large. It is almost ceremonial in its identity, carrying with it a sense of history which does not actually exist. And to create that illusion, to seem like a tradition at first hearing, is a rare and magnificent boast for any song.
#30 – “Reverse Situation” by Toshio Masuda
This is Naruto music at its prime. Naruto has some next-level music, but in terms of raw enthusiasm, this is the peak. I don’t attribute this song to any one moment from the series, mostly because I prefer to read it, but regardless it satisfies many scenes. My imagination sets the track while I turn the pages, allowing me to control the direction and pacing. There are many Naruto songs which almost made the list, but ultimately this was one of the only two which made the cut. It’s just so invigorating. The tables have turned, the situation has flipped. Things are in your favor now.