I Still Can’t Believe How Many Great Soundtracks The Spring 2021 Anime Season Had
There was so much, almost too much, great stuff to watch… and better still, a lot of it was great to listen to as well.
2021 has been a crazy year for anime. Seriously, this is the first year where just six months in I already have enough good shows to choose from that I could make a top ten list with five honorable mentions, and still be faced with some tough cuts. 2020 was understandably slim due to a ton of projects being pushed back, so 2021 being overloaded with this many great series already isn’t completely surprising. What did catch me off guard though is how many shows from just the past season have some of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in years.
You expect something with Hiroyuki Sawano attached, or a show about an instrument, to sound great. For series like those to air at the same time, and still have other shows outshine them? That is amazing. So amazing that instead of my usual yearly piece that focuses on just one series, I’m doing a whole article dedicated to five shows, with room for three honorable mentions. And even if some of you might’ve already guessed my pick for the best soundtrack of this past season, and probably the year as a whole…well, just stick with me to the end, and along the way you might find some overlooked OSTs you ought to check out.
Seeing Hiroyuki Sawano here shouldn’t be unexpected, but 86 genuinely shocked me by being what feels like his best work in years. In a long lost article I wrote on an anime site far, far away, I went through his discography and realized that as he finely honed his style during the 2010s, his most recent stuff like Promare felt like he started to reached what I feared might be his limits. This is not to say that I thought Sawano was getting worse, but rather that he just wasn’t surprising me like he used to. 2018’s Re:creators was the last work of his where multiple tracks resonated with me, instead of just one or two songs being highlights. Well, I’m glad to say that I no longer hold that fear of him reaching a boring zenith, because 86 not only continues his bombastic legacy, it also adds some newfound restraint that make this one of his most distinct soundtracks ever.
As you’d expect with a Sawano OST, 86 has its fair share of tracks that get you pumped up to fight a battle alongside the characters in their mechs, but what caught me off guard where the quieter tracks that played during scenes where there’s downtime. Just as having moments where characters can just relax and breathe can improve a story’s pacing, the same philosophy applies to soundtracks. Sure, the Sawano-drop is as infectious as ever, but I’m pretty sure “Voices of the Chord” is the one that’s gonna stick with me as the show heads into its second cour later this year.
I wish that more hip-hop artists and rappers contributed to anime, because when they do, it can culminate in some of the best music in the entire medium. For example, there’s the late and great Nujabes’ now-classic sound in Samurai Champloo, Mabanua’s recent superb work on Megalobox, and now Punpee’s weird yet perfect sound for the equally weird yet perfect Odd Taxi. I wouldn’t say it’s the production itself though that sounds misplaced in Odd Taxi; it is a bit off-kilter, but it’s still superb. Rather, it’s that this isn’t something I would have on my iPod, or in rotation on a playlist.
I’ve played the titular OP single dozens of times since it came out months ago (and my god, the bass drop on that song, watch out for it when you’re playing it in a car), but the rest of the soundtrack is so atmospheric that it might fit the show almost too well. This feels like an odd criticism, and I get that, because I don’t want it to be. It’s just a quality to a soundtrack I don’t hear often; I love it when it’s in the show, but it loses a bit of luster when I listen to the music outside of it. Maybe it simply fits the show’s environment to a fault, and is so distinctive that I can’t imagine it being used in anywhere else. Regardless, great work Punpee; here’s to the next time I hear your banging tunes, wherever that might be.
Godzilla: Singular Point
I’m still thinking about this show’s overall qualities, from its writing, to its animation, to its overall place in the Godzilla franchise; Singular Point might be one of the most divisive pieces of Godzilla media ever made. It’s a show I know isn’t for everyone, and yet I’d recommend it because it somehow just works (especially if you can speed through the whole thing as quickly as possible… funny how this is the one time Netflix’s binging approach makes sense for an anime). As for its music? Well, it’s a bit like how Singular Point utilizes Big G himself: there’s a fair amount of material you wouldn’t expect, and yet there are a ton of moments that are fiendishly familiar. From the inspired Sanskrit lullaby “Alapu Upala”, to a rendition of the classic Godzilla theme that both pays homage to the Heisei era while still edging close to Bear McCreary’s masterwork in King of the Monsters, it earns its place in the pantheon of great Godzilla soundtracks.
Those Snow White Notes
Some weird pushback I got earlier this year was when I described this series as cheap to look at, cause…well, just look at it. You can tell that Shin-Ei Animation was working to a budget on this show, but after seeing a couple of truly depressing cases where studios with much more money still overworked their staff to breaking points, I’m okay with off-model shoes and flat facial expressions if it means that the actual people working on the show did so without keeling over. Besides, you shouldn’t come to Those Snow White Notes for how it looks anyway: for this show, it’s all about how it sounds.
While this wasn’t the only show from the past season with an emphasis on music, Those Snow White Notes edges out other series like Vivy and Zombie Land Saga Revenge, because not only does it focus in on the instrument at the center of the story, it’s also a showcase for just how much variation there is within the shamisen. The notes that came out from the hurried hitting of strings are familiar enough to make me recall any number of classic anime (or other media with a Japanese setting or influence), but Those Snow White Notes showed that while there’s always a sensation of speed to shamisen performances, there are also a variety to the depth and styles that unfortunately don’t get as much attention as they should when the instrument is called for. I really hope that a continuation does get greenlit somehow, because sound design this good deserves more than just one season.
And before I list my pick for best anime soundtrack of the season that was spring 2021, here are three Honorable Mentions:
To Your Eternity: I won’t say this has the most diverse soundtrack of the shows listed here, but damn if it isn’t effective. The rest of Eternity’s music might’ve been overshadowed earlier this year by the Utada Hikaru single it has for its OP, but thanks to Ryo Kawasaki’s deft production, the actual score has been essential to helping the show’s heavier moments land with the weight they deserve. Like the series itself, it can be argued that the music here is a bit heavy-handed, bordering on emotional manipulation, but I would argue that it comes just close enough without being overbearing. Even if the animation is starting to take a dip, its musical score is showing no signs of degradation.
Fruits Basket: Fruba ended on a high note, and its score… dang it, I wish I had a good pun for this word play. Anyhoo, the main reason it’s an honorable mention is that most of the tracks have been heard previously over the past couple of years, so there aren’t many surprises, and I do have to knock points off for its ED that week after week caused tonal whiplash due to its poppy-ness juxtaposing some of the most serious cliffhangers in the entire series. Not an awful song on its own mind you, just annoyingly mismatched. Still though, a great soundtrack to send off a great series to.
Super Cub: This doesn’t have an original soundtrack per se, but Super Cub still deserves credit for how wonderfully it utilizes pre-existing music in order to give the show its distinct feel. The trailer that came out last year got immediate attention for not having any dialogue and just letting the visuals and classical pieces be all that was necessary to create the show’s unique tone, and when it came out earlier this year I was delighted to hear how the rest of the show stuck to this creative choice. I know orchestral soundtracks can be a warning sign in some anime, since it can foreshadow a show’s descent into pretension, but here it suits Super Cub’s superbly relaxing nature.
Megalobox 2: Nomad
Of course Nomad had the best soundtrack of the season, this should be as surprising as Billie Eilish winning a boatload of Grammys. What is truly surprising though is that this is somehow one of the more underrated shows of the season. Sure, it has a higher ranking on MAL than its predecessor, but it did so with less than a third of the previous season’s viewer-base. This is a crying shame, since Nomad is to the first season of Megalobox what Empire Strikes Back was to Star Wars: it isn’t just better than what came before, it outclasses it. It’s an improvement in ways you didn’t expect, simultaneously making the older show look worse and better in retrospect, and even though Nomad’s OST has a shorter track count than what came before, Mabanua completely and utterly outdoes himself here.
I fear that I could easily write a thousand words on just this one soundtrack (and who knows, maybe I will sometime later), but I do want to keep it relatively brief for now considering I just went through seven other soundtracks, and it would feel unfair devoting half of what’s already close to 2000 words to just one entry. Like the original Megalobox, Nomad has not only some of the best production in the entire medium, but diversity that makes it distinctive in a way that keeps on surprising you, featuring a variety of different genres and styles. Where you can really hear the improvement in the new album though is that there’s a new sense of both pain and warmth to the music. It can be haunting and feel like it’s foreshadowing tragedy, but there are also oases where it takes a breather, gets back on its feet, and even breaks down in tears of joy. While Megalobox had style for days, Nomad (just like Joe himself) feels like its gone through a painful rehab, and successfully come out the other side as something on par with the greats such as the aforementioned Nujabes, and even Yoko Kanno.
I went into this show not expecting much since the first season of Megalobox wrapped up pretty nicely, to the point where you could argue that a sequel wasn’t necessary. After Nomad however, not only am I amazed at how the sequel surpasses the original, I’m now down for one more series. Not just to follow Joe and company on what their next road takes them, but also to hear where Mabanua and his collaborators would go next as well (quick shoutout to Lyn Inaizumi for her work on the show’s final note “Rise Up/Diamond in the Sky”). Even if that’s too much of a pipedream, I hope this isn’t the last time the man works magic on an anime soundtrack, cause everything he touches just shines on through.
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