You know…I went into starting this post with snippets of ideas for the intro: something snappy, a humorously depressing comment on 2017, and end it with a cheesy flavour of hope. But instead…I ended up with this.
I think I’ve sampled more albums than I ever did in 2017: more varieties of artists both old favourites and new discoveries, an increasingly diverse set of classical repertoires, genres and origins. That comes with good news and bad news, and I think the good news is kinda obvious already. But the bad news: I’ve listened to less albums COMPLETELY than the past two years, since there’s always something I want to jump onto prematurely.
Nevertheless, I think it’s best I keep up this tradition of massive yearly reviews, where I get to highlight the world of background music, and to continue bastardising this idiotic concept that such music ‘shouldn’t be noticed’.
Best Scores of 2017
10. Girls’ Last Tour | Kenichiro Suehiro
Funny enough, the toughest choice for me this year was this ranking: which score; whilst wasn’t able to completely astound me, was admirable enough to at least get a share of the spotlight? I ended up with Girls’ Last Tour, a post-apocalyptic slice of life anime series, whose style of background music runs curiously similar to Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar (with a touch of Vangelis’ brand of swelling synthetic colours and extroverted majesty), both in texture and intention within context.
Kenichiro Suehiro’s first major anime project was 2016’s global hit Re:Zero, where he cited Hollywood influences in his fantasy and action scoring techniques. Back then, his inexperience is painfully apparent in his compositions, which relied on trailer music-esque bombast, and an uncomfortable recording mix that simply doesn’t hold up to whatever potential the compositions held. But here, Suehiro takes the quietly introspective atmosphere of Girls’ Last Tour, and provides it with a melodic heart that is both intimate and effortlessly gut-wrenching.
The most common elements of this soundtrack, namely a chamber strings section, speciality percussion, a selection of solo woodwinds and synthesizers, is elegantly utilised with no small amount of reverb, giving the recording mix a warm and entrancing effect. At its best, the mix of underscored synths, strings, xylophone and a penny whistle solo can achieve an absolutely gorgeous shimmering effect.
But that’s not all. A few tracks went a step beyond and utilised subtly Celtic-inspired female chorals, to magnificent effect: in tracks like ‘Main Titles’ and ‘The Final Song’, the choir’s airy delivery of the lyrics gelled perfectly with the instrumental accompaniment.
Girls’ Last Tour’s best moments are when it took these Celtic inspirations to heart, mixing instrumental, choral and synths work and allowing melody to flow freely across the entire spectrum of what these colours can offer. As it so happens, with the show utilising a fair share of of its character quirks for comedy, Suehiro was forced to pen a fair share of by the numbers mickey-mousing cues, and they are mostly skippable on album.
9. Beauty and the Beast (2017) | Alan Menken
Ah Disney…Thank God I was born in a country where the media giant haven’t COMPLETELY sunk its hands into every child’s heart yet. Disney as a corporation scares me to no end, as its ability to imprint its branding upon entire populations from BIRTH, is going to be nothing but problematic when capitalism is involved. Nostalgia is a powerful tool.
This purely business-centric decision to begin a cycle of remaking every Disney animated classic into live-action films, has served us almost nothing of substance so far, and I seriously doubt it will in its future instalments. However, Beauty and the Beast in this regard, is admittedly a strange…beast.
I have stated before, that if this new slew of Disney remakes has ANYTHING of universal value to me in terms of entertainment, the continued high regard for and quality of the music is still undeniable. Maleficent, Cinderella and The Jungle Book varied highly in their quality as films, but they all share the same high output in their music, courtesy of industry veterans James Newton Howard, Patrick Doyle and John Debney, respectively. And now, we have a curious instance where a composer who has previously worked with and elevated the original animation feature to acclaim, was brought back to once again score the project remake.
Alan Menken’s music for Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid literally blasted him into fame, and almost single-handedly began the studio’s renaissance, with Menken scoring almost every feature film during that period. The director Bill Condon has stated that Menken’s music and Howard Ashman’s songs were the sole reason why he decided to direct the feature. “The music had more to reveal.”
Whatever nostalgia this feature have undoubtedly exploited successfully with the populace, having never seen the original film completely, and only knowing the music through secondary experiences (i.e. hearing the songs on the car radio), my time with this soundtrack was not coloured by the 1991 original, but needless to say, the recording quality upgrade and Menken’s obvious maturation in his orchestrations has made the album a largely enjoyable experience, with all the bombast and extroverted musical majesty that comes with it. Old-fashioned action, shameless symphonic awe and romanticism at its most passionate: this is what the height of cinema sounds like.
Not only are the original compositions retained and beefed up in the new recordings, new materials (including a slew of new songs) fittingly expanded on the film’s tapestry.
One sore point however: the cast’s performances of the songs. While quite a few standouts were there (shoutout to Audra McDonald’s MAGNIFICENT operatic input), I have to question the decision against casting more musical actors who have both film and extensive musical theatre experience, so as to properly accentuate the film’s identity as a musical. And WHAT have they done with Emma Watson’s voice in post?
8. Princess Principal | Yuki Kajiura
Check out the interview translation with OP arranger Ryo Takahashi and series composer Yuki Kajiura
This was supposed to be a massive departure in styles for Yuki Kajiura: she certainly seemed to hope so, if her interview remarks were to be believed.
Like any artist who presence has become integral and iconic to the medium of which they work in, as one of the most popular anime composers of the past two decades, Yuki Kajiura has solidified her voice in the industry, even coining the term ‘Kajiura Sound’ when producers require a certain vibe from their new anime production.
Kajiura is not particularly fond of this distinction: to her, having a voice that keeps getting immediately recognised in new projects means being creatively stagnant. Princess Principal’s subject matter thus provides her with a cinematic framework for her to experiment with a new set of contrasting genres.
At first glance, instances of the ‘Kajiura Sound’ seems to be abound as usual: the female a cappella, strings section and underpinning electronics immediately calls back to the composer’s previous works. However, true to what Kajiura has strove to achieve here: the fusion of her conventional techniques with action music accentuated with energetic Jazz brass and woodwinds gives this score a much appreciated sense of spectacle.
7. Halo Wars 2 | Gordy Haab
So what would an album sound like…if Star Wars got meshed with Halo? This, I would imagine.
Gordy Haab’s previous involvement in writing music for a number of Star Wars video game entries serves as a curious tent pole: Star Wars remained one of the few entities left in the world where the silver age cinema film music sentiment is still being left alive. If you write music for Star Wars that DOESN’T dazzle with fanciful orchestrations and symphonic acrobatics, you might as well anger the entirety of the western nerdom.
Haab has confidently proven that he can write great orchestral music. But Halo is a different beast thematically, whose musical language is just as established and iconic: Gregorian chants by a male choir, contrasted with hallowing electronics, relentless percussion and heavy orchestral colours. As a result, Haab injected his ability with the orchestra into a soundscape that is classic Halo, all the while referencing past entries with motifs and weaving a number of character themes.
This is old school thematic writing, perfected by a master of his craft.
6. Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju | Kana Shibue
Odd that this album wasn’t given a physical CD release, while the previous two entries did…
Odd, and disappointing, because Kana Shibue simply refused to let up on what she has achieved with the series thus far: warm, eventful, dramatic Jazz writing that would humble any fan of the genre.
What we get here acts as a supplement to the first season: the melodies and major themes introduced in the previous two albums were elegantly reprised into new arrangements, mixed seamlessly with new material.
5. Onna Joshu Naotora | Yoko Kanno
You know what…Just listen to the first track. Listen to the first few trumpet chords. Doesn’t it just…transport you back to the 50s Hollywood? Something about the great film scores of that time makes the grandeur timeless.
Yoko Kanno’s versatility may astound even the most experienced scholars of music worldwide: her mastery of dozens of genres, styles, knowledge of past artists and cultural cornerstones is sometimes difficult to properly fathom. Even when just considering her orchestral work, she can turn around and give you the most blatant of Wagner impressions, dazzle with Ravel and finish off with a splash of Stravinsky before you even have a chance to complete a breath cycle.
Which brings me to the glorious TV drama score by Yoko Kanno, which spanned an astounding five album release cycle (although quite a lot of the material were repeated). Following the Ben Hur-esque fanfare and whisking the listeners away with a prolifically Lang Lang piano solo, the album willingly demonstrates a seamless mix of the western orchestra and the Japanese rhythmic and tonal sensibilities, ending with a five-part, two-cue extravaganza of a finale that would belong in any of the world’s best concert halls, played by a world-class orchestra.
4. Land of the Lustrous | Yoshiaki Fujisawa
In one of the most daring productions in recent memory, Land of the Lustrous’ anime adaptation is the brain child of a industry forerunner in CGI, a medium of animation prone to disdain among the international fandom, as well as domestically. The TV series ended up becoming a 2017 highlight, demonstrating wholeheartedly the potential of computer generated animation, as well as handling a fascinating premise and effective existential drama.
To compose music for a production that blends numerous cultures and thematic elements uncommonly found within the same context, composer Yoshiaki Fujisawa’s palette of soundscapes is as vast and varied as they come, without risking fragmentation in the soundtrack’s overall tone: the score stays consistently identifiable as music written for Land of the Lustrous, uniquely so.
Characteristic of a well-intentioned process, Fujisawa is quick to establish musical identities for the show’s major elements, including a set of themes, motifs and rhythmic ideas that gets reprised and explored as the elements and characters attached to them gets reintroduced or referenced as the show goes on. The main theme of the show introduced contrasting ideas in its two main phrases: a melancholic lullaby anchored by solo piano, and a noble eight-note melody introduced by a rich strings section and french horns. These two ideas are scattered across the entire score both in their full forms, or deconstructed and adopted by differing instrumentation.
The main character Phos’ theme is anchored by the tin whistle performing a hopelessly optimistic melody in 6/8, a common time signature used in swing and polkas. As a result, the characteristically excitable Phos was given a musical identity that practically entices the audience to skip and prance to the beat.
The Lunarians, in contrast to Phos, are not characterised by a singular melodic idea. These seemingly mindless entities are instead given an range of cues in the soundtrack that utilises dissonance and percussive urgency to their full advantage. For instance: the action track ‘The Lunarians‘ begins with slashing strings, gliding harps and crashing piano chords. As the Lunarians were met in battle by the gems, the music swells with a heroic theme introduced in the brass; the graceful battle styles of the gems characterised by the swirling woodwinds.
Perhaps the most confronting of the character themes is the one introduced for Cinnabar. Defined by their sense of lonely abandonment, the soundtrack called upon the use of an erhu solo to accentuate the pain felt by them. The melody is sentimental to a fault…a curious marriage of rejection and yearning for the comfort and warmth of companionship.
Along with the rich strings section and the piano solo, the soundtrack’s main elements included the use of a tin whistle solo and an array of percussive textures, which complements the nature of the characters being humanoid minerals. Gongs, anvil strikes, marimbas, xylophones and even bongos are just a few of the extensive percussion section utilised by Fujisawa in creating a rich undercurrent of texture. In the track ‘Winter Trials‘, Fujisawa unleashed an onslaught of bongo drums, guitar, plucked bass, solo piano and violin, which gave the track an infectious sense of forward motion and fun. It wouldn’t be all surprising to find Hawaiian and Bossa nova influences here.
It is without a doubt that Land of the Lustrous was blessed with one of the most inspired soundtrack efforts of the year. Not only does it wholeheartedly define the TV series’ emotional centre, its creative utilisation of instruments and character themes is just as inspired as the animation production itself.
3. Deformers | Austin Wintory
Hidden in the bowels of Austin Wintory’s Bandcamp, there may just be a game score that you never knew you needed…
When we are far away from Journey’s pondering atmosphere, The Banner Saga’s oppressive symphonic drama and Abzû’s brand of Ravel impressionist soundscaping, we get…Deformers, which on album is probably just as wacky as the game it was written for.
Accordions, banjos, penny whistles and a sometimes overtly flirty trumpet, parading around with a concoction which can only be described (by Wintory himself) as “an Italian western on steroids, mixed with psychotic circus music and flamenco”. The amount of charming absurdity that this album can bring out of the collection of soloists and the Macedonia Radio Symphony, is perhaps providing us with a glance of the True Austin Wintory: no one knows what’s happening inside that brain of his. but it’s gotta be a lot of fun up there.
2. Star Wars: The Last Jedi | John Williams
Let’s go on a limb here: The Last Jedi is probably my favourite Star Wars film to date.
I am a teenage migrant, a combination that would only mean a total and utter disconnect with the culture phenomenon of the galaxy far far away.
Oh sure, I did eventually sit down and watch the entire original six-film saga, knowing that for whatever reason it’s a big thing in the west. The original trilogy made decent popcorn munching, beer-slamming fun. I fell asleep watching the first prequel film, rolled my eyes out of their sockets in the second prequel film, but was able to at least sit through the third film, completely expressionless (although that was probably because it was the first Star Wars film I ever saw back in 2005…the lack of context and a still developing knowledge in English certainly didn’t help.)
Fast forward to 2015, a full ten years of indoctrination into western entertainment later, I was able to make my way into The Force Awakens opening day screening, and have an absolute blast with the film, thus deeming it my second favourite film in the series at that time (I recently rewatched the original trilogy before the TFA screening, and deemed Empire to be at least evocative enough to go beyond just being cold dumb fun.)
Which brings me to The Last Jedi: my GOD was this film a dream fulfilled. What has always intrigued me about this whole fictional universe has been the mystical drama behind the action. The mythification of The Force remained that element of intrigue that has kept me engaged with the franchise, however inconsequential it may be, having not consumed much of the extended lore. The Last Jedi is by far the most mystifying Star Wars film to date, carrying with it an entrancing and interwoven parable of loss and change, not to mention the best line in the film, spoken by none other than Yoda: “There is no greater teacher, than failure.”
As the eighth film of main saga, John Williams’ score for The Last Jedi has become a commemorative legacy for the entirety of his contribution to the 40 year old franchise: while this entry introduced the least amount of original musical identities, Williams hardly shied away from utilising every last idea he has introduced in The Force Awakens, reintroduce decades-old ideas to magnificent and seamless effect, and continuing to demonstrate his mastery of the craft, seemingly with a smirk on his face (I may never see his face during production, but I like to think of this humble old man taking at least SOME pride pencilling down these notes).
With all that said, every needle seems to point towards The Last Jedi being this year’s unconditional winner…but quite evidently, something has come and confused the compasses…
1. Close-Knit | Naoko Eto
…This is a 15 minute film score, which never received a physical release. Not only that, the original content of the score barely amounted to ten minutes, as it also included five minutes of Brahms’ violin sonata No. 3. A single main theme was introduced for the entire 130 minute film.
And that main theme was what convinced me this film’s soundtrack should snatch the top spot.
Nothing about this decision was due to a technical observations. Sentiment. Sentiment was all I needed.
Close-Knit is a slice of life film directed by Naoko Ogigami, exploring the warmth and unconditional love between a young girl and her surrogate Mum, who is transgender. The film is beautifully understated, almost effortless in its documentation of a normal suburban family, who finds security in each other’s company. However, calling it ‘understated’ would certainly feel like a lie at times: the film stubbornly refuses to centre its story around the conflicts of discrimination. Instead, as if daring naysayers to start egging the stage, it embraces the gentle, fluffy and nostalgic affect of depicting a child being smothered with love, a couple who decides to spend their life together, in spite of everything. Close-Knit is like a bowl of hot pumpkin soup with blankets and snuggle pillows on a chilly Sunday morning: it’s sentimental, it’s precious and it’s my favourite film in perhaps a decade.
Close-Knit’s documentary-centric style of shooting has resulted in a sparing use of background music, as the camera can sometimes stay stationary for entire minutes, as the on-screen interactions flows seamlessly without a single edit. Nevertheless, Naoko Eto was instructed to musically express the film’s thematic manifesto. What she brought onto the table was a single main theme, anchored by what can only be assumed was what she decided to be the ultimate tear-jerking ensemble: violin, trombone solo and a piano. The resulting multi-phrase theme is unapologetically joyful and harbour a certain unexplainable warmth that can only be felt in passing, when humans embrace the utter contentment in the company of the closest of kin.
Thanks in large to the film’s sparing use of the score, this theme appeared in part or in full for each of the climax moments, to maximum effect: a family ‘pillow’ fight (you will see why it’s in quotations once you watch the film) filmed in slow motion, a beach-side bonfire crackling at night, and the end credits, where the theme received its fullest and most tear-inducing performance, adding a full strings section to the fold.
Star Wars may still have its symphonic mastery, Deformers its sense of unhinged fun, and Land of the Lustrous its creative instrumentation and engaging theatrics. But Close-Knit’s ten minute score to me, is the ultimate statement of the power and bewildering magnificence of film music. Its ability to emote, to express what words and even human expressions cannot, is invaluable to the film medium. And ten short minutes being able to reduce this man to a pathetic sniffling pulp is the perfect testament to that fact.
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