[Two claifications that I couldn’t quite fit elsewhere in this article and though of afterward: when I say soundtrack, I’m not including openings and endings for the purposes of this discussion. They’re different. Also, as a music fan I know that music is subjective.]
A bit of background first. I’ve been really into music since age 5, when my dad played Buddy Holly’s Greatest Hits for me, and music has pretty my been my favorite thing since then, my taste and knowledge expanding greatly every year since I was 13. Anime on the other hand, I hated until I was 14 and my best friend finally convinced me to watch Full Metal Alchemist with him. It still wouldn’t be a real hobby of mine until I was 16 or 17 and watched Samurai Champloo. Even then, it’s only a major use of my time only since entering college. Just some context for my music knowledge compared to my anime knowledge.
Anyway, an opinion I hold that seems to be controversial among other anime fans I talk to is that anime music sucks for the most part. Soundtracks default to a 5/10, and this is because I’m generous, and only take off points if it’s actively bad or doesn’t fit. But before I get too edgy and pretentious, let me explain what I mean.
To me, judging a good soundtrack is not that different from judging good music. All the same elements are there, just certain ones are more in the foreground for a soundtrack. One of the signs of good music is it’s ability to set a scene or mood. I tend to really get into it, so it isn’t hard for me to imagine things when I hear quality music. This is a sign of good music in general, but in soundtracks, it’s critical. Mood is their first job. Though, a good soundtrack should be able not only to fit the mood, it should enhance the mood of the scene, and be able to set the mood on it’s own if need be. Even bad direction can be saved to a degree with a good soundtrack. However, to be truly good soundtracks must also actually sound good to just listen to, the primary goal of regular music. This is especially true, since a song will often be played multiple times throughout a series.
To me, being good implies going above and beyond. “Not failing” isn’t good, it’s good enough. There’s a huge difference. And this may just be because music is so important to me, but a scene loses or gains a lot depending on the music with it. Haibane Renmei wouldn’t have been nearly as emotional if the music weren’t so beautiful and perfectly fitting. It really helped in my mind to establish setting, which the best soundtracks are able to do.
For some examples of mood, let me refer you to some of my favorites, both in regular music, and soundtracks. Spiderland by Slint is widely considered a classic of both post-rock and (real, not shitty modern metal) post-hardcore. It’s an incredibly powerful album with a distinct feel to it as a whole. Just listen to the opening track “Breadcrumb Trail”. I don’t know how to describe the mood, but it is powerful. Approximately 1:24 into the song is one of my favorite moments in all of music. The album also contains “Don, Aman”, one of the most strangely unsettling pieces I’ve ever heard, with lyrics I can relate to far more than I would like to. It’s only guitar chords and vocals, but no song I’ve ever heard conveys that sense of alienation, fear, and paranoia nearly that well. Also, “Good Morning, Captain” is one of the few songs to make me cry the first time I really heard the lyrics.
On the almost opposite end of the mood spectrum, is a band I’ve listened to a lot recently, Zebrahead. Probably one of the douchiest bands ever bands to exist, they’re a pop-punk band with a rapper and a goal to have zero “depth” or “meaning”. They’re fairly inconsistent after their first couple albums, but Waste of Mind and Playmate of the Year are awesome. There’s no deep emotional description I can give, but check out the songs “Someday”, “Playmate of the Year”, “I’m Money”, and “Into You”. Perfect for summer and hanging out and partying with good friends.
Anyway, back to anime soundtracks, very few of them seem to have any emotional impact, or carry a mood well at all. Legend of the Galactic Heroes is an exception, using really great classical music, and not just for the sake of using it; only classical fits the scale and tone of the series. It always comes in at the right times, and always has a mood fitting what’s happening on screen. Whether you’re watching it or hearing the music, you can tell what’s happening. You can tell that a scene is dramatic and tense, or sad, or more rarely, happy. Coming together, it’s clear why Legend of the Galactic Heroes is considered a masterpiece.
Another example of perfect soundtrack is Samurai Champloo. The instrumental hip-hop perfectly complements the whole theme of the series, itself being a combination of hip-hop style and samurai action. One of the things I find incredible about it is that despite being almost entirely one genre, it covers a wide range of moods, and works well for action, comedy, and drama as well, but still maintains a really chill coolness throughout.. The soundtrack was done largely by Nujabes, well respected as one of the foremost instrumental hip-hop artists ever for the great beat with what I consider the best melodies in the genre. Sadly, he died in 2010, but his legacy certainly survives him. Check his stuff out.
Most soundtracks at least do their most basic job of keeping tone and mood to some degree, but I feel that if I’m going to call it good, it has to stand out to me as I watch the show because of at least a few tracks I enjoy as music. This, I think, is the only area where I would say OreImo is better than Kaiji. Furthermore, as much as I really love the stuff from Shaft that Shinbo directed, the soundtracks have never impressed me. I’ve watched Madoka 3 times, and I can’t remember a single song from it, but music from Green Green, an awful show I barely made it through once, still goes through my head. I only remember one track from the Bakemonogatari soundtrack, and that’s because it sounds like a ripoff of “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Hidamari Sketch music I think I only like because I associate it with Hidamari Sketch. Keep in mind that most Shinbo directed stuff I’ve seen I gave an 8 or 9 out of 10.
Basically, most anime music sounds really generic to me, fits the mood, but does nothing to enhance it, and just doesn’t sound good to listen to by itself. It wouldn’t set a mood on it’s own, or be good musically on it’s own. So much of it is just lacking the passion, emotion, and energy I’ve come to expect from music. I’d like to see more anime music succeed not only as a soundtrack, but also as music, but so many seem to forget that part and write it just as a soundtrack, but ignore the fact that as music, first and foremost it should be music.
Good anime soundtracks:
Samurai Champloo (10/10)
Legend of the Galactic Heroes (10/10)
Haibane Renmei (10/10)
OreImo (A lot of it is ska, various style too)
Air Gear (Similar to Jet Set Radio, one of the same people worked on both)
Lupin III (More jazz, what else fits Lupin?)
Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt (I don’t really know what to call this)
FLCL (A bit overrated, but still good)
My criteria for a great soundtrack:
-Sounds like it could be actual music
-Consistently keeps the tone of individual scenes
-Specifically notice the music making a scene more emotional in some way
-At least 2 tracks stand out as good when I watch it
-Plays a role in building the setting, and could do so on its own to some degree