For most of my teenage years, I’ve been following what I consider to be an underrated facet of the music industry: anime soundtracks. With the rising popularity of the genre in the West, there have been signs of Japanese anime music breaking through cultural divides, such as SiM’s “The Rumbling” recently topping Billboard’s Hard Rock list. The subliminal and cerebral world of anime soundtracks remains under the radar but is excellent regardless, with the soundtrack to Makoto Shinkai’s latest anime movie “Suzume” being a recent example. Shinkai is an auteur invested in his work’s auditory experiences (see the incredible soundtracks of “Weathering With You” and “Your Name”). Accordingly, hearing the vibrancy and craft of “Suzume”’s soundtrack, composed by Kazuma Jinnouchi and the band Radwimps, was so infectious that it prompted me to re-explore my favorite music from anime media. The animation style’s deeply-emotive quality stems from its definitive soundtracks, which conjure heartbreak, hatred and hype in equal measure. Below are my front-runner anime soundtracks and why I love them!
“Neon Genesis Evangelion” (1994–2013 TV series, original soundtrack composed by Shirō Sagisu)
Oh, Evangelion. You are weird. As an anime (in)famous for its subversion of the male gaze, arthouse character studies and images of Christian angels metaphorizing depression, the music throughout the franchise sure is strangely cheery. The danceable “Peaceful Times” has the upbeat lilt of a workout song, replete with lush strings and lute blushes. “Misato” could very well be a rejected sitcom intro. Even “Komm Süsser Tod,” a seven-minute vocal opus that scores a literal Biblical apocalypse in “End of Evangelion,” has a battered sort of joy. Of course, this tonal mismatch is an intentional sleight of hand. Encroaching dread suffuses all moments of soaring joy and perennial anime optimism on the soundtrack. Despondence turns to sedate calm and primal terror to contentment. Brutality is more visceral when set to the classical orchestra of “Air” or the Portishead-inspired jazz fusion of “Thanatos–If I Can’t Be Yours.” (Also, shoutout to “A Cruel Angel’s Thesis” and “Fly Me To The Moon” for being the definitive power duo of anime opening and ending themes.)
“FLCL” (2000–01 original video animation, original soundtrack composed by The Pillows and Shinkichi Mitsumune)
“FLCL” is a quintessential product of the turn of the millennium—vibrant, edgy, stylized, kinetic and utterly bizarre. It is anime at its most paradigmatic, and its accompanying soundtrack by the indie rock band The Pillows is inseparable from the OVA’s deluge of chaotic delights. The overwhelming fuzz of the grimy lead bass in “sleepy head” underpins explosions into action and neon animation. Scenes of misspent youth shirk responsibility to the tune of “i think i can,” featuring grungy guitar riffage and an anthemic hook dripping with teenage immortality. Want to get your heart pulled out of your chest? “Bran-new Lovesong” is your ticket, instantly transporting you back to doomed first romances. “Last Dinosaur,” an elegy to fleeting moments, conveys a similar ache. “FLCL” is about being young, stupid and in love (and about aliens, too). Its soundtrack spans vitality and yearning, perfectly capturing that saturated nostalgia.
“Initial D” (1998–2014 TV series, original soundtrack composed by various artists on the Japanese label Avex Trax)
Undoubtedly the anime soundtrack that has caused the most speeding tickets, “Initial D”’s animated history has seen a revolving door of Eurobeat bangers extolling the need for speed. Its prestigious lineage has popularized the mega-meme songs “Deja Vu,” “Gas Gas Gas” and “Running in The 90’s,” which you either know and love or are ashamed to admit you know and love. Digging into the soundtrack backlog unearths the lesser-known, deeply underrated “Killing My Love” and “Remember Me.” Embrace the kitschy, overproduced adrenaline rush and the late-’90s cheese. Embrace the need to abandon all financial sense and go into debt, kitting out a boxy Japanese sedan. Embrace becoming one with the machine and assimilating into the car itself. You are speed—pure energy—and the road ahead is all that exists.
“Samurai Champloo” (2004–05 TV series, original soundtrack composed by Shinji “Tsutchie” Tsuchida, Fat Jon, Nujabes, Force of Nature and Shing02)
Nujabes and Fat Jon’s contribution to music with this score is indelible. The chilled-out downtempo hip-hop rhythms of “Samurai Champloo” pairs perfectly with a series fusing badass bushido action with wistful philosophical musings. Nujabes is rightfully considered the forerunner of low-fidelity hip-hop (also known as “chill-hop” to those who study with the Lofi Girl stream), and his sonic vision has, without hyperbole, formed the musical subconscious of a generation. “Battlecry” is the song that woke bleary-eyed millennials up on the couch at 3 a.m. as “Champloo” played on Adult Swim. Shing02’s off-beat rapping, a pillowy synth and shaker breakbeat, and fragmentary piano chords staggering over the rhythm infuse “Battlecry” with the transcendent peace of a hazily-remembered dream. “The Space Between Worlds” is the metaphysics of time transcribed into sonic form—steady, impassive, melancholic. “Just Forget” is the perfect companion to reminiscence. “Aruarian Dance” is a legitimate masterpiece, more life-affirming than any other composition I’ve heard. The final track, “Shiki No Uta,” sees Minmi’s angelic vocals soar over a piano-lead beat that feels like sand between your toes and complete freedom.
“Welcome to the N.H.K.” (2006 TV series, original soundtrack composed by Pāru Kyōdai, also known as The Pearl Brothers)
“Welcome to the N.H.K.” is a crushing wave of social truths, a masterstroke on spectatorship, adulthood, lethargy, depression, sensationalization and late-stage capitalist reality. Its music oscillates between out-of-body moodiness and manic corporeality. “Yousokou! Hitori Bocchi” exists in the former camp, slowly building into catharsis before monotone vocals fade away, dueling synths wail in desperation, and electronic clangor screeches across the track like tires ripping across the asphalt. The low-key “Gosui ni Tarasu Tsuri Ito” prolongs the soundtrack’s abject misery; the track uses dynamics with a faint buzz barely heard, and watery synths wavering in stereo evoke a calm resignation to defeat. “Ikasuze! Positive Thinking” is a stark contrast, with twee vocals by Shibuya-Kei that raise the pulse with polyrhythmic guitar spinning twinkling melodic lattice. “The Journey After The Storm” is beautifully light, letting the listener inhabit the world through a new, musical form; humdrum life gains poetic humility, grayscale vistas flood with color, and sudden rainstorms are joyous; disjointed daily vignettes stitch together and gain meaning. (If you can’t already tell, I love this track.)
For online readers, here is a playlist of the soundtracks mentioned in the article, plus an extra playlist containing other miscellaneous anime soundtracks that have stuck with me. Let’s all enjoy the beauty of music and animation!