Top 10 Anime Soundtracks of 2014, Part 1

Music is a very important part of how I experience anime, and film media in general. It’s something that I find is often underdiscussed among fans, and as a musicologist who focuses on film scores, I find that a shame. It’s a very key part of any film work’s emotional experience, just one that succeeds too well to the point that it slips under our noses. It’s usually subliminal, and on top of that, a lot of people don’t know how to talk about music. Well, I do, and since I already wrote up a top five favorite series of the year post for ANN, this one covers my favorite TV anime soundtracks of 2014.

I’ve been promising this post for a while, so here it is in the first of two parts. I kept getting delayed partly because choosing my favorite background music is such a difficult endeavor. There’s so much to consider: not only the quality of the music itself, but how it fits with the atmosphere of the show, and how the show uses it. (I should note: this is purely judging on stuff that was in the runtime of the episode, not OPs and EDs.) There were about four shows that I floated that didn’t make the list (that I might discuss in the second post as “honorable mentions”). Here are the ones that did, and why, starting with #10-6:

10. Your Lie in April:

Composer (of original material): Masaru Yokoyama (Arakawa Under the Bridge, Rolling Girls)

As a show about classical music, it’s predictable to put Your Lie in April on here, I suppose. Of course it has good music, with all the classics in its repertoire, and of course it uses them well, since the characters are performing them and usually picked them for highly personal reasons. (One such example in the above clip, where Kaori plays a piece by Beethoven. Both her and Kosei choose Beethoven pieces early on, representing their tortured paths to and forms of artistry.) Yet, the show’s original score also shines brightly, full of ambient minimalism as a backdrop to its many personal and psychological scenes. Even beyond the Beethoven and Chopin, Your Lie in April’s music is worthy of a standing ovation.

9. Mushi-shi: The Next Chapter:

Composer: Toshio Masuda (Naruto)

A lot of Mushi-shi is an exercise in “less is more,” and that’s as true with its music as it is with anything else. Mushi-shi is very minimally scored, preferring to let the sound effects of nature do its talking for it a lot of the time. So when it does have music, it can be quite striking, even if it’s just a quick motif on a solo instrument. The dissonant chimes that come in whenever Ginko starts explaining the mushi-of-the-week are jarring, shaking awake the viewer and the feature character to listen to his explanations for the cosmic-horror-of-the-week. Yet, its music can also gently sing you to sleep again, as in the lullabies that drift into the ending credits. The track I picked is one that falls somewhere in the middle, usually coming in as the mushi works its magic. Mushi-shi’s score is pure leitmotif, only coming out sparingly for a very singular idea or mood, like the shy mushi themselves.

8. Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun:

Composer: Yukari Hashimoto (Penguindrum, Yuri Kuma Arashi, Toradora!)

The slice-of-life comedy genre rarely climbs to the top of OST lists, since so much of it leans toward the predictable. It’s the same gentle piano flourishes with maybe a bit of bouncy pop when things get silly. Nozaki-kun had some of this, but it was always memorable and original in its own way. This was especially true in its choice of instruments. The tuba is the best comedy instrument, and it was the perfect accent for Nozaki, the deep-voiced stoic with a silly streak. Why don’t more comedy anime use the tuba? Why don’t more everything use the tuba?

7. Rage of Bahamut: Genesis:

Composer: Yoshihiro Ike (Ergo Proxy, Tiger & Bunny)

Like everything in Bahamut, its music sounds like a big Hollywood movie: from the frantic strings for rising action to the ominous choruses for big reveals. It’s the sort of epic fantasy scoring you’d expect in your Lord of the Rings and other movies about long journeys to fight CGI dragons or orcs, because that’s the sort of beast that Bahamut is. I think my favorite and most memorable part of the score is all the weird little western flourishes whenever Favaro did something badass, like trumpet fanfares. It’s not as creative as I initially expected it to be, which is why it isn’t higher on this list, but there’s a lot to love about Bahamut’s music anyway.

6. Kill la Kill:

Composer: Hiroyuki Sawano (Attack on TitanAldnoah.ZeroBlue Exorcist)

I didn’t do a 2013 list, so I decided to include shows that started then but continued into the next year–and with those parameters, I couldn’t not include Kill la Kill. It had some of the most memorable and fun OST tracks in a long time, the kind that fans download right along with the OPs and EDs. Personally, I wasn’t always a fan of the way the music was used in the series’ first cour, but it picked up steam by the time January rolled around. The musical styles fit the series like a glove: They could range in mood from silliness to pumping you up, but the score was always as bombastic as what was happening on screen. Like a lot of Kill la Kill viewers, my favorite track by far was Ragyo’s leitmotif, “Blumenkranz” (linked above), the singer’s clumsy German pronunciation aside. Hiroyuki Sawano sure has a knack for bringing the musical energy to battle-centric popular favorites.

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Twelve Days of Anime #5: Streaming Anime and “Power Hours”

In the spring season, the two far-and-away best series (by most viewers’ estimations, anyway) were Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders and the new season of Mushi-shi. The latter’s new season was vastly superior to even the excellent first, and a lot of people felt the same way about Jojo’s (as I make my way through the first two arcs, I’m not entirely sure I agree with this). Since just about everyone was watching and enjoying both of these shows and they aired on the same day (Friday), they gained their own nickname on Twitter: the “Jojoshi Power Hour.” A lot of it was a joke about what completely opposite shows they were (as I briefly detail here), and how jarring it was sometimes to watch them back-to-back. Yet, a surprising number of us started doing that, including me. Those Fridays in spring were some of the best hours I’ve had in anime-viewing this year.

JJBA Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 5.33.39 PM

“Power hours” as a concept, if I’m not mistaken, come from children’s programming blocs (or channels, like Toon Disney or Cartoon Network) that would air two episodes of the same show “back-to-back,” or ones of separate shows that were linked in some way. (At least, I remember those channels describing stuff that way when I was a toon-watching kid.) As an adult, where you’re voluntarily watching these series whenever you want, it’s a fun way to organize your viewing habits. A lot of us grown-up anime viewers also watch a lot of live-action American TV dramas, whose episodes are usually an hour rather than half-hour long. It can be a fun way to keep our attention spans stable across the two media. And when a bunch of people were doing this, it helped ensure you were watching along with everyone else—one of the best things about the proliferation of legal anime streaming. Anyway, 2014 gave us a lot of opportunities for “Power Hours.”

In the summer, there was the Fujoshi Power Hour on Wednesdays, with fangirl-bait Free! Eternal Summer and actual BL title Love Stage both airing that day. I loved both those shows and, with the exception of Free!’s weird (but excellent) streak of more psychological episodes in the middle, they usually hit the same tonal notes for me. So I could easily mix and match them, though Free! coming out a few hours earlier meant it was usually what I watched first. But not always. Sometimes, I just need to wake up my senses on Wednesdays with the clueless baby-gays.

No, not these two.

No, not these two.

This season’s “power hour” is the ART Hour on Thursday, when we have Shirobako and Your Lie in April. Both deal with the struggles of young people trying to make it in artistic fields, with a mixture of comedy and drama. (The latter is considerably more dramatic than the former.) This is one I can’t really “break,” per se, because I have to review both shows for ANN. It still makes it kind of difficult to watch them back to back considering their overlapping subject matter, and how much both resonate with my life as a writer and musician. I kind of have to put a few hours’ distance between my viewings of each just to make sure my impressions don’t bleed into each other. I envy some of my friends who can watch them days apart, and not have to go through an existential crisis about their career every Thursday.

With this pair, I’ve been pretty strict about watching Shirobako first, since it airs first and therefore my “deadline” for it comes up first. I’m starting to wonder, though, if that’s really the best decision, especially since I usually turn these guys in with ample time to spare. Your Lie in April’s last few episodes have been very emotionally draining, and now it’s hard to look forward to doing more work with that show if I’ve just been perked up by Shirobako. (At least, that’s how it makes me feel most of the time. It’s pretty good at laying on the pathos when it wants to, but rarely with the devastation that Your Lie in April achieves. Shirobako hasn’t broached child abuse yet, after all.)

Still, it can hurt when it wants to.

One of Shirobako’s more hurtful moments…

There were less “powerful” hours, too, this year. Saturdays in the summer, Aldnoah Zero and Captain Earth formed my “mecha” hour, and both ended up failures to various degrees. (Aldnoah Zero was at least like watching a trainwreck in slow-motion. Captain Earth was just boring.) That was a slog, and if I got through it, it was just that the “hour” gave me the chance to burn it out of my system really quickly. The things I do for you, anime, and my desire to be a well-rounded anime watcher who’s seen both the good and the bad.

I’m interested to see if the next year will bring with it any oddly similar (or in the Jojoshi case, strikingly dissimilar) shows that happen to be airing the same day, that we can organize these ways. Bring on the winter season and its own power hours!

(P.S. In case you’re wondering why this is so behind, I had a lot of work to do yesterday that left me unable to blog on here. I’m planning to write two posts today to make up for this.)