Down the game soundtrack rabbit hole

One of the advantages of working from home – due to one thing and another – has been listening to more music than I have done probably since I was a student. Without the Melody Maker to guide me, I’ve had to turn to new sources of inspiration, one of which has been Sound of Gaming (BBC Radio 3 & BBC Sounds), which was towards the end of a run at the start of lockdown, and is in the middle of another now.

A lot of the music featured is the sort of big orchestral stuff you find in a lot of blockbuster games. That’s all good and well, but some of the more esoteric choices encouraged me to fall down an enjoyable video game soundtrack Spotify rabbit hole.

Where to start

There are some obvious start points. Most of the London Philharmonic Orchestra‘s Greatest Video Game Music is what the cover suggests – a lot of bombast – but there are some bits of fun there too: Zelda, Mario, Tetris and, oddly enjoyably, Angry Birds.

Video Games Live offers more of the same, with – as noted when I wrote about the first album in 2008 – the bonus of a bit of penchant for ludicrous rock. Just ignore the latest releases on their Spotify page – it looks like some fake artist nonsense.

Into the rabbit hole

But it’s playlists that provide the surest route down the rabbit hole. Spotify’s own Video Game Soundtracks, for example, or the PlayStation 25th Anniversary playlist. There’s lots more big booming business, but they also start to point out some interesting artists: Capcom Sound Team, Namco Sounds, Castlevania Sound Team.

Hmm. Search for ‘Sound Team’: Sega Sound Team, SNK Sound Team, and plenty more. You’re in.

I particularly enjoyed revisiting GameCube platformer Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, via the excellently named soundtrack album Music Popped Out of The Egg. The theme tune is as insanely happy as I remember, coming off as something like The Go Team! on a huge sugar rush. And the rest is surprisingly amenable to working from home background music.

The same can’t be said for the Ape Escape soundtrack, which doesn’t really calm down for over two hours. The title – Originape Soundtracks – isn’t as good either, but points for effort.

The best discovery down the rabbit hole, though, was the soundtrack to Hohokum, a game I haven’t thought about since it came out in 2014, when I described it as “abstract and strange”. The same goes for the soundtrack, by established electronic artists, which is a satisfying way to pass a couple of hours of the working day, interesting enough to provide a little stimulation, but without overly distracting.

An honourable mention to Jet Set Radio Future too, the soundtrack for which is as good as I remember, and made me want to play it again – and I’m still convinced that it was better than the original.

Oh and Rez. Obviously Rez.

Some other specifically excellent albums

It’s not just new discoveries though: some soundtrack albums are just outright excellent, completely independent of the game.

My top recommendation is the largely forgotten late original Xbox exclusive Stubbs the Zombie. The soundtrack features covers of ’60s classics by indie royalty: Flaming Lips, Cake, Dandy Warhols, Death Cab for Cutie and so on and so on. They’re excellent covers of excellent songs. The game was entirely forgettable though.

I can’t not bring up Sayonara Wild Hearts, which works as well as an electro-pop album as it does a game. It’s been on regular rotation for the best part of a year now.

And it would be remiss not to mention Cuphead. I’m terrified of the game – the combination of boss battles and punishing difficulty is not for me – so I’ve never played it, but the soundtrack is an absolute jazzy stormer.

And so much more besides

Go on, dig around. Listen to a bit of Alex Kidd. Give Super Mario Land by Ambassadors of Funk another go.

You’ll find some weird stuff, some good stuff, some stuff that’s surprisingly little fun out of the context of the game. You’ll find something different – that, more than anything, is what I needed.

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