Musical scores and soundtracks for anime are too often taken for granted as just another part of the whole. Break them out on their own, though, and you'll sometimes find music as good as anything created for a Hollywood film or a platinum-selling album. Here's a list of the very best soundtracks created for anime, most available as domestic or sometimes imported CD editions. (Pressings for anime soundtracks are often rather small, so keep your eyes open -- these go fast.)
It seems fitting that one of the greatest anime of all time would also feature one of the greatest musical scores of any anime. Geinoh Yamashirogumi is the name for composer Shōji Yamashiro and his collective of collaborators, who made a name for themselves synthesizing music from around the globe into a unique whole. Given a near-unlimited budget by the filmmakers, they created a mixture of choral chants, thundering drums, microtonal gamelan patterns, and above all else, overwhelming emotion. Even without the film it supports, this is staggering music, with an air of timelessness that will ensure it sounds as fresh in fifty years as it did in 1988.
Susumu Hirasawa's best known for his collaborations with director Satoshi Kon (Paprika, Paranoia Agent) but he also created the throbbing, disturbing score for the ultra-violent fantasy anime Berserk. Some of the synthesizer and sampler techniques used sound a bit primitive today, but they're more than made up for by the haunting composition and songwriting. If the alternately joyful and sorrowful "Guts's Theme" doesn't send chills through you, there's probably not much that could.
Yoko Kanno hits again, this time with jazz, swing and blues-inflected tracks for the show whose atmosphere cries out for a soundtrack of that nature. The amazing opening theme "Tank!" ought to be familiar, but also check out the equally-amazing "Gotta Knock A Little Harder" (why wasn't this released as a single?) or the endlessly sad "No Reply" and "Rain." (And of course the moving show closing theme, "The Real Folk Blues.") Lyrics are in English all around, which makes them all the more accessible for newcomers. Despite the high price tags for these discs, they are vital purchases when you can find them: there's rarely been a more perfect fusion of soundtrack and target material in anime.
An understated but beautiful score, predominantly electronics and beats, that complements the dystopian TV series it was created for: it's not hard to imagine the people in that story listening to this stuff. Ike also created the frenzied score for Dead Leaves and the sunny, cheery, Miyazaki-esque tunes for Kamichu!, but this is nothing like either of those works -- furthe proof he's one of the widest-ranging composers for anime out there. Both CDs were issued domestically by Geneon but are now very difficult to find.
FLCL may have one of the largest music-to-video ratios of any release on this list. For a mere six episodes, they released three whole soundtrack CDs (granted, some of that is padded with audio dramas, but still!). It’s all laden with rough, vibrant electric guitar work and ragged but powerful songwriting, which holds up apart from the surreal allegory of adolescence it was written to support. These discs were briefly issued under a domestic pressing; one assumes that was because their scruff-rock sound had a better chance of crossing over with a broad audience than most anime soundtracks.
As dreamy and ambient as Yoko Kanno's scores are lively and colorful. Kawai's music for both Ghost in the Shell theatrical films—which are markedly unlike their TV-series cousins—drifts between tolling gamelans and wailing female choruses, creating an otherworldly feel that's not what one would expect for a series of movies about a super-wired future. But like Geinoh Yamashirogumi's work for Akira, they have a timelessness and a haunting beauty to them; give this music a chance and it will stick with you in unexpected ways.
Yoko Kanno has always been an outstanding anime soundtrack composer, but her work for the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex has been the absolute pinnacle of her career. There's scarcely been a bad track, let alone a bad album, among all the tracks she waxed for the show, but the soundtrack for the first season of the TV series remains the best. Every single song on it is tuneful, memorable, rich with emotion and invention, and both complements the action and stands above it as its own production. Kanno herself sings on several tracks, credited as "Gabriela Robin," along with collaborators Origa and Scott Matthew.
Composer Masamichi Amano (later known for his score for the live-action Battle Royale) employed no less than the Polish National Symphony Orchestra to produce the gloriously bombastic score for this equally-bombastic anime production. There are no pop songs here, just pure symphonic glory. A domestic pressing was issued and might still be available via overstock / clearance warehouses; the import typically starts at $40 per disc and only gets steeper from there.
There's scarcely a Yoko Kanno soundtrack that isn't worth the effort to find, and her work for the outstanding OVA Macross Plus (from 1994) is among the best in her whole catalog. Symphonic overtures, moody torch-song motifs and amusing incidental snippets (like the fake news jingle) make up most of the record, but the real highlights are the in-universe songs by synthetic pop idol "Sharon Apple." "Info High," in particular, is good enough that it could have been released as a single in English-speaking territories; it still sounds incredible today.
The key word is paranoia, and a lot of what makes Hirasawa's pitter-pat score for Satoshi Kon's groundbreaking TV series so creepy is how it meshes with what's going on up on the screen. The rousing opening themesong, for instance, sounds entirely out of place at first -- but when seen in context it becomes downright nightmarish. Another victim of Geneon's domestic-CD lineup, it was offered in such an edition briefly but can also be found as an import with a slipcase cover and apparently unrelated artwork.