Video Game Songs Deserving of a Grammy February 12, 2016Posted by Maniac in Editorials.
All content in the following article is protected as free speech under the First Amendment.
On Monday night, a farce will take place where a bunch of old people will give meaningless awards to musicians who just happen to be popular this year. You may know this event as the Grammys and whether you’re a music enthusiast or not, you know that the event which claims to award outstanding music achievements is hardly a mark of actual quality. This is compounded by the fact that the event just will not get with the times. Several years ago, a Grammy was awarded to the song “Baba Yetu”, a great song certainly deserving of the award, but how was the song even eligible for the award that year, since it was nominated nearly five years after it was produced for the game Civilization IV?
The Grammys, for some reason which completely escapes logic, does not have a catagory for Best Song Produced for a Video Game, and because of that, “Baba Yetu” did not win its award until the song was eventually released on CD. How can this be? Video game music is far more than just a series of beeps and bloops. Folks like Tommy Tallarico have made their careers composing and performing music for video games. In fact, the budget to score a video game’s music rivals the budget of Hollywood films, and exceeds television production budgets. They deserve an award category!
So, since the Grammys won’t do it, I thought I would award the outstanding songs over the past two decades which were overlooked by that organization. Hypothetically, “Baba Yetu” would have deservingly won that award in 2005, but what about every other year? There were a lot of great songs produced for games over the past twenty years, and I think its time for me to do what the Grammys won’t and award the best video game song of each year!
Before we get started, there are a few rules I need to make clear. First off, we’re only going to name one song per year, and the song MUST have been produced exclusively for a video game. That means licensed tracks of existing songs do not count, but tracks that were produced for a game that later got included on a separate album are okay. That also means the song must contain a vocal track with lyrics, otherwise it could be considered part of the game’s background score, and that would be an entirely different award!
On a side note, If you would like to hear thoughts about The Grammys from someone who has an actual background in music, I recommend watching a review of the song “Walking in Memphis” by Todd in the Shadows. Apparently, even actual musicians think the award show is a joke, and he could explain why better than I certainly can.
So without further ado, let’s get started. We’re going to start this list in the year 1998, with a song that you’re all probably familiar with.
“The Best is Yet to Come” – Rika Muranaka – Metal Gear Solid (1998)
Metal Gear Solid is one of the greatest games ever produced, and the song “The Best is Yet to Come” is the perfect track to close out this amazing game. It’s hard to explain just how this song is as great as it is without spoiling the ending, but depending on which ending you earned in the game, it could either work as a bittersweet symphony of your failure to save the life of someone you care about, or as a triumphant song to cap off a job well done. Regardless, in both cases the song serves as a reminder that the possibilities the future held for these characters, and for the player, were bright. When Metal Gear Solid was remade for the GameCube in 2004 as Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes, almost everything from the original game was replaced, except for this song. “The Best is Yet to Come” remained completely untouched. It’s not hard to imagine why.
“Eyes on Me” – Faye Wong and Nobuo Uematsu – Final Fantasy VIII (1999)
This song would probably not be my own decision to include on this list since as of the time this article is being written I haven’t actually played Final Fantasy VIII (since it hasn’t been ported to PS4 yet), but it’s overwhelming popularity alone merits its inclusion on this list. The hate of the reviewer known as The Spoony One aside, this love song begins after an emotional moment where the game’s hero does something truly stupid to save the woman he loves. It’s a great moment that has a reputation of bringing grown men to tears and that is why it deserves an award.
“Melodies of Life” – Emiko Shiratori and Nobuo Uematsu – Final Fantasy IX (2000)
Square Enix follows up Final Fantasy VIII’s “Eyes on Me” with Final Fantasy IX’s “Melodies of Life”. Whether you prefer the English version of this song or the Japanese version, there’s no denying this song’s impact in popular culture. Final Fantasy IX was intended to be a love letter to fans of the original Final Fantasy, directly from the creator of the franchise. The song perfectly captures the ideals of this game, and this song in particular has become something of a theme to the entire franchise. Now that this game has just been re-released on iOS and Android SmartPhones and Tablets, a new generation finally has the chance to play this game for the first time and hear this wonderful song.
“Can’t Say Goodbye to Yesterday” – Rika Muranaka – Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001)
We’ve got another track from another Metal Gear Solid game, and one that truly deserves a place on this list. If you were like me and watched the trailer for MGS2 back when it was first announced at E3 2000, you heard the first few seconds of it as the Konami logo faded onto the screen. Like “The Best is Yet to Come” before it, this song served two purposes. The first was to bookend the story of an amazing title, which in my opinion surpassed its predecessor, and the second was to remind the player of all of the possibilities the future held for these characters. What can I say about the song itself? The lyrics are magical, the piano medley was charming, and Rika’s vocals were incredible! Its a great song deserving a spot on this list!
“Simple and Clean” – UTADA – Kingdom Hearts (2002)
On its surface, you would assume a song like “Simple and Clean” does not match well with a video game, and you’d be wrong. This song’s strength is just how flexible it is. Throughout the first Kingdom Hearts game, you’ll hear this song played at several different tempos, with each one setting the mood of each scene its found in. While the first version you hear of the song during the opening sequence is fast paced and sets a mood perfectly for the player to start exploring this exciting new world, the slower tempo of the version played during the game’s ending invokes a sense of wonder and accomplishment, signifying that the player’s difficult journey has ended for the time being, bringing it perfectly in line with the Disney animated classics I remembered from my childhood. In fact the song was so flexible it would go on to get used in several other Kingdom Hearts games including RE: Chain of Memories and Birth by Sleep. Its even woven into portion’s of the game’s orchestral score!
“1000 Words” -SWEETBOX – Final Fantasy X-2 (2003)
I love this song. From its haunting lyrics about two lovers trying to make their relationship work to its powerful vocal performance capable of emoting just as much as singing, this song belongs in every top ten best video game song list. Its melody perfectly matches the in-game location it is being performed in, and it comes at an integral part of the game’s story, setting the stage perfectly for the game’s epic climax. In fact, there’s a controversy over which version of this song is better, the original Japanese version, or the dubbed English version. Personally, I prefer the English version, because the English version was performed as duet and seeing the in-game duet featuring the characters Lenne and Yuna in the English version (opposed to the Japanese version where only Lenne sang) worked better for me.
“Snake Eater” – Cynthia Harrell – Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004)
This song is a great blast from the past, and perfectly sets the stage for the game. Let’s be honest, every James Bond movie can count on having a rocking opening credits sequence featuring a song produced strictly for the film. It sets the tone for the movie and lets the audience know what kind of style they’ll be witnessing. Hideo Kojima chose to open Metal Gear Solid 3‘s main story the exact same way. As a game which serves as a prequel to the previous Metal Gear games, set in an entirely different era, Kojima needed to make the player clear that this was going to have to be a different kind of game, and I think the choice to use this song and its accompanying James Bond-esque credits sequence was the perfect decision! Not only is the title sequence which accompanies the song perfect, but Harrell’s performance is great, and the lyrics fit perfectly with the game’s themes.
“Baba Yetu” -Christopher Tin – Civilization 4 (2005)
“Take Me Home” – After Midnight Project – Prey (2006)
I have a deep soft spot for this song, as I loved the game Prey, and am probably only one of few people who actually remember it. Following up on Max Payne 2‘s decision to end with an original song, the next game to be produced by 3D Realms would also end with an original song, and I think “Take Me Home” was the perfect choice. In Prey, you’re abducted by aliens and must use the powers of your ancestors to free yourself and return to Earth. What better song to embody this than “Take Me Home”? On top of that, the melody is catchy, timed perfectly with the game’s end credits on the Xbox 360 and PC versions, and the lyrics are heartbreaking, fitting perfectly with the heavy personal losses Prey‘s protagonist must endure during his journey to free himself. My only complaint? Personally, I think I did a better job editing a music video for the song than the people who actually were paid to produce a music video did, but that’s not a mark against this song.
“Still Alive” – Ellen McClain and Jonathan Coulton – Portal (The Orange Box) (2007)
I’m sure this song’s inclusion will not surprise anyone, everyone loves this song! This song is a perfect combination of everything just going right. It plays at the best possible moment, serving as the end credits song for the game. Its lyrics are hilarious, in fact, game journalist Geoff Keighly actually called it the “best song ever written for a video game”. The vocal performance is incredible, sung masterfully by the actress who plays the game’s antagonist. Her deadpan delivery of the threatening lyrics just works so well. Now, you can debate which version of the song you like best, but personally, I prefer Coulton’s version (which he will frequently perform live in concert), but the original version cannot be ignored. In fact, Coulton was asked to perform the song on national television at the end of 2007, it was that popular and was a great way to cap off the year.
“Still Alive (Theme to Mirror’s Edge)” – Lisa Miskovski – Mirror’s Edge (2008)
In Mirror’s Edge, a city of glass is your playground. Inspired by just a single screenshot from the game, this song was produced and its melody is just perfect. Like “Simple and Clean” this is another one of those kinds of songs that is very flexible. In fact, a whole album was published just for this one song…and remixes of the song in every different way imaginable! On top of that, the song had an epic music video featuring vocalist Lisa Miskovski which literally shattered the wall between our world and the game’s. When Mirror’s Edge was eventually released on iPhone and iPad a few years ago, “Still Alive” was still in the game, and remixes would play in the game menu and during levels, giving me hope that this song would become the theme song of the entire franchise. I have no idea if it’ll be included in the next Mirror’s Edge game, but here’s to hoping! If you haven’t heard it yet, you might still be able to download this song on MP3 or WAV on your PS3 from the PlayStation Store.
“Girlfriend” – Kabbage Boy – Brutal Legend (2009)
Roadies can typically fix anything…except this song. “Girlfriend” was created to parody the overwhelming deluge of “bands” designed by corporate overlords to appeal to certain younger demographics. It steals elements from other great genres like heavy metal in order to instantly appeal to today’s consumer market trends. Then it goes on to pander to the cheering girls listening to it by offering them promises of friendship and love. This song plays at the beginning of Brutal Legend with the intention to show the player what is wrong with music today, and that the music which actually inspired this game was in fact…inspiring. That all said I love this song because of how freaking absurd it is, and once I unlocked the track in-game I had it in my soundtrack rotation as I drove around the game’s world in my hot rod. If you want to hear more, I’m afraid I don’t have much to tell you. Don’t worry about looking up other songs from Kabbage Boy, they don’t exist, although I think Richard Steven Horvitz (Invader Zim, Psychonauts) may have voiced one of the band members.
“Poet and the Muse” – Old Gods of Asgard – Alan Wake (2010)
I could seriously dedicate an entire essay to this song all on its own, it’s just that important. The song was “inspired” by the love story which brewed between Tom the Poet and his girlfriend Barbara Jagger, and tells the story of their tragic downfall, but its lyrics and melody could just as easily be applied to the game’s protagonist Alan Wake and his wife Alice. The song is not only beautiful, its integral to the game’s plot. Alan and the player spend much of the game seeking answers, and after an exhaustive search they find this song. I’m hesitant to say more, because a lot of players may get the chance to play Alan Wake for the first time through Backwards Compatibility if they buy a copy of Quantum Break on the Xbox One, so you’ll just have to play the game to hear it for yourselves. If you want to hear more from Old Gods of Asgard, I’m afraid they don’t really exist…but Poets of the Fall does, and they are the band who actually performed this song.
“Want You Gone” – Jonathan Coulton and Ellen McClain – Portal 2 (2011)
Another Coulton classic. While I admit I don’t enjoy this song as much as I enjoyed “Still Alive”, this song is still a hilarious romp which deserves a spot on this list. Jonathan Coulton and Ellen McClain returned for another song to end another Portal game, and while it is performed in a different style than “Still Alive” was, it’s still a hilarious song which meshes threatening lyrics with deadpan seriousness. While it took a while for me to get into this song, once the tempo began to pick up, it had me. No question about it, I prefer Ellen’s version of this song!
“Balance Slays the Demon” – Old Gods of Asgard – Alan Wake’s American Nightmare (2012)
This hard rock song perfectly meshes with the grindhouse feel of the second game in the Alan Wake franchise. Once again performed by The Old Gods of Asgard, a fictional in-game band responsible for some of the tracks from the first Alan Wake game, this single perfectly captures a battle between darkness and light, which serves as the theme for the downloadable title. I’m hoping this game may get a resurgence now that Alan Wake’s American Nightmare has just been brought to the Xbox One through Backwards Compatibility. If you do plan to play the game on your Xbox One, either because you’re buying it as a digital download or because you’re getting it with a preorder of the Xbox One version of Quantum Break, don’t forget to check out the song’s official music video in the game’s bonus section. It’s awesome!
We couldn’t just end the article there, could we? Here’s some songs that just could not make the cut.
“The Late Goodbye” – Poets of the Fall – Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (2003)
“The Late Goodbye” is the song that revealed the band Poets of the Fall to the entire world. Based on a poem written by Sam Lake, “The Late Goodbye” is the ultimate tragic love song perfectly suited for a game touting itself as “A Film Noir Love Story”. The song is occasionally teased throughout Max Payne 2. A janitor will be listening to it on his headphones, and someone else could be heard singing it in another room before you enter, but you won’t hear the song in its entirety until the game’s credits start to roll. That makes this song, in a way, a reward for completing the game.
“You’re Not Here” – Akria Yamaoka and Mary Elizabeth McGlynn – Silent Hill 3 (2003)
Whether you know this track from the opening cutscene in Silent Hill 3 or as an unlockable track in Dance Dance Revolution Extreme, this is a great song. It has a great vocal performance backed up by the legendary musical stylings of Akira Yamaoka. Unfortunatly, 2003 was a very competitive year for songs with at least two other songs up for nomination, and because of that, we had to choose a different one.
“Blow Me Away” – Breaking Benjamin – Halo 2 (2004)
This song’s inclusion on the list is a little iffy. While the song was included in its entirety with vocals on Halo 2‘s Official Soundtrack (Vol 1), only the instrumental version played during the game, and it is still considered a little iffy if this song was intended for Halo 2 or if it had already been produced prior to it.
“Sanctuary” – UTADA – Kingdom Hearts II (2005)
Since “Baba Yetu” claimed 2005’s Grammy, I felt the year didn’t need to be included in this list. Sadly that meant the elimination of “Sancturary”, the opening theme to Kingdom Hearts II. On first glance, the song was used in the exact same way “Simple and Clean” was in the first Kingdom Hearts game, it was a song which played through the opening cutscene, but there was a big difference between the opening cutscene of the first Kingdom Hearts and the second one. While the first Kingdom Hearts game only had to set the mood, establish the game’s setting, and foreshadow future events in its opening cutscene, Kingdom Hearts II‘s introduction had to do a lot more than that. It had to establish the earlier game’s history for new players, and as a player going into it who hadn’t played the (then) GBA-exclusive game Chain of Memories yet, there was a lot I needed to know. The song did a great job helping me understand what I missed, without having me get bogged down in endless backstory.
“My Hands” – Leona Lewis – Final Fantasy XIII (2010)
This one was hard not to include. While the song was used, vocals and all, at the end of Final Fantasy XIII, this song was a pre existing recording licensed by Square Enix to use for the western versions of Final Fantasy XIII. It was not produced exclusively for this game, and is not included in the original Japanese version. That having been said, this song is so fitting I am shocked that it wasn’t made specifically for the game! I applaud Square Enix’s Western branches for choosing to license it.
“Children of the Elder God” – Old Gods of Asgard – Alan Wake (2010)
I’m going to be honest, this song didn’t win because “Poet and the Muse” did. While this song came up at an awesome moment, (I mean who doesn’t love the idea of a gun battle on a rock stage -ed), “Poet and the Muse” was integral to Alan Wake‘s biggest story reveal, and that is why that song was chosen instead.
And that is the end of our list. In case you’re wondering why we did not include any songs produced in the past three years, it’s because we decided that it is far too soon to make those decisions. Time will tell what could end up winning, but I feel the benefit of some perspective is important to the selection process. Feel free to post your thoughts below!