The Anime Playlist of Fall 2021 — Trapped in the 2021 Labyrinth

Dark Aether
Jan 1 · 13 min read

Welcome to the final edition of The Anime Playlist this year — your short guide into some of the best anime openings, endings, and original soundtracks along with some brief anime impressions! I say final, because I’ve been working on this for the past few days. By the time you read this, it will be January 1 st, 2022. 2021 may be over, but I still have unfinished business! Before I bid farewell to this godforsaken labyrinth of a year, it’s officially awards season! Stay tuned next week for the first of my best of the year lists, starting with the best themes from each of previous four seasons. But first, we’ve got one more round of nominees to wrap up.

MV: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0QNaym0jDI

Song: BOY

Artist: King Gnu

Anime: Ranking of Kings

There are only two possible choices here: you’re either watching Ranking of Kings or you’re not watching Ranking of Kings, and if you’re not watching, stop whatever you are doing right now and go watch it. It’s not very often a show manages to reach near critical acclaim within the short span of a few weeks, but Ranking of Kings is the rare kind of show that not only manages to live up its pedigree, it stands apart from many of its fantasy contemporaries this year — no doubt in part due to Studio Wit’s stunning animation and author Sōsuke Tōka’s unique storytelling. At a time when much of the industry has shifted away from traditional fantasy in favor of isekais and titles with overly complex names, it’s refreshing to see a show that bucks both of these trends, while delivering a provocative and heart-warming tale about a disabled prince who sets out on a journey of self-discovery. Though it pains me that it does not qualify for my annual AOTY awards coming up (it will conclude in 2022), I have very high hopes for the show in the future, with a possible script I am currently mulling over for some time next year.

A relative newcomer in the anisong department, King Gnu (Banana Fish) has been riding a wave of success with the recent Jujutsu Kaisen 0 having served as their most recent contribution. What’s interesting about “BOY,” like the show its covering, is how unorthodox it is both musically and thematically. If I had to make a direct comparison, the closest thing that comes to mind is Super Mario more than any traditional fantasy title I know of. Both of these series are fairly whimsical and lighthearted while also tapping into that nostalgia center of my brain with something uniquely personal — a calling card, if you will. Though the opening channels that classical folklore look and feel, the full song takes it a step further incorporating other instrumentation and beats coupled with the vocalist’s soft-spoken lyrics. As tongue-in-cheek as this will sound, I guess you could say it’s a song fit for a king.

Song: The Sacred Torch

Artist: H-el-ical//

Anime: The Faraway Paladin

As over-saturated as the market is with the glut of isekais seemingly never-ending, this year has been something of a “second wind” for me, with titles like Mushoku Tensei and this season’s The Faraway Paladin giving me a bit more to chew on than most years. While both of these titles follow the familiar route of “dies and gets sent to another world,” it’s the intersection of the fantasy setting and memories of their former lives that becomes a focal point in their execution of their central ideas. In the case of The Faraway Paladin, Will’s former life is left as one of its central mysteries in favor of highlighting his reincarnation when he awakens in the company of three undead figures and a land ravaged by gods. While Will’s past is intentionally left blank with vague references from time to time, it’s enough of a pull for him to take his second life more seriously when presented the opportunity to start over under a new identity. It’s a show that leans more heavily on its fantasy roots than isekai, yet Will’s foreboding knowledge of who he used to be lingers on as doubts and old fears resurface in more ways than one.

In contrast to King Gnu’s modernized touch, The Sacred Torch by H-el-ical// (Gleipnir) takes a much more traditional route opting for an “epic adventure” type of sound. I’m a sucker for classical and symphonic music, but what truly puts it on this list is Hikaru Masai’s vocals, which you might recognize from musical group Kalafina (Fate/stay night). Featuring a brilliant composition and powerful lyrics coupled with Masai’s sharp melodic voice, The Faraway Paladin is not quite the grand return to fantasy stories, but an excellent inspired take nonetheless.

Song: Hikaru Toki (When the Light Shines)

Artist: Hitsujibungaku

Anime: The Heike Story

I have a very complicated relationship with Science SARU, Masaaki Yuasa and many of their recent anime works. On one hand, I deeply respect what they’ve brought to the industry with titles like Ping Pong The Animation, Devilman Crybaby, and Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! inspiring bold and creative takes for their vision of anime. On the other hand, I’ve come to realize something throughout my tenure here — I’m not really a fan of their work. No, this isn’t a hipster take or some grand statement that I came to me in my sleep. Truth is, I finish most of their shows to completion, I enjoy them for what they are, and I don’t regret my time with them. It’s just that I never find myself going back to them or thinking about them beyond their initial releases. I guess you can say that most of these don’t stick with me the way they do for others, and that’s fine. There is nothing wrong with a satisfactory meal, it just means I filled up sooner than most by the time it was over.

That said, I think Science SARU hit it out of the park this year with their Star Wars Visions episode T0-B1 and this season’s The Heike Story. For reasons that escape me, something about both of these hit me further than some of their previous works. Whether it’s the combination of animation, music, the voice work and the fact that Masaaki Yuasa isn’t credited in either, that missing spark that has often eluded me finally lit up this year. Now, that’s not to say either of these will be on my Top 10 Anime — and that’s an entirely different story I’m not eager to get into yet — but in regards to The Heike Story, I can finally use four words that I thought I’d never get to use here: I like this show.

Speaking of things I like, holy shit, this might be the most polished opening on this list. Despite my reservations on some of their previous works, one thing I can never take away is the quality and detail of their animation, which is saying something when I also have Ranking of Kings on the same list! Making their anisong debut, indie rock band Hitsujibungaku performs the vivid Hikaru Toki (When the Light Shines). Compared to most of the entries here, it’s a straightforward jingle taking a minimalist approach to its instrumentation, yet it complements the wide colorful backgrounds and scenery. Mainly, I just love the rising crescendo just as it reaches its peak at the one minute mark. While I can’t guarantee The Heike Story will appeal to everyone, give it a shot — it may surprise you.

Song: Stone Ocean

Artist: Ichigo from Kishida Kyoudan & The Akeboshi Rockets

Anime: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean

One of my favorite Shonen got a surprise release this year with Netflix acquiring yet another high profile anime in their never-ending quest to ensure I can never unsubscribe (you bastards). The hurt on my wallet aside, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean marks a turning point for the franchise which you can read further in Nior’s glowing summary of the show. I’ve had a chance to view all 12 episodes and shortly finished them in about a week’s time. Suffice to say, I loved it.

Kishida Kyoudan & The Akeboshi Rockets is a band that will be familiar among certain circles ( Alderamin on the Sky, GATE), so it came as a bit of a surprise to find out their lead vocalist had put out a single as I was looking this up. The titular Stone Ocean which doubles as the show’s opener is a bit of a departure from Ichigo’s original band influences, yet it distinctly feels in character for the artist’s style. Eschewing hard rock in favor of a more pop and grunge rock infused-sound, this pares well with the opening’s distinct application of 3D animation courtesy of Kamikaze Douga who makes their return to the franchise with part 6.

Now for the real test: will this finally be the season that surpasses my personal favorite, Diamond is Unbreakable? Who can say, but if your main story is centered around a prison in Florida and stars an unholy priest as the main villain who’s power is named after a legally distinct band name (if you’re watching the dub), well, that’s all you needed to say.

MV: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jBZetpcTSC4

Song: Kokotsu Labyrinth

Artist: Masaaki Endoh

Anime: Sakugan

Continuing the trend of shows I absolutely adored, the underground misadventures of Sakugan’s Gagumber and Memenpu quickly went up to the top of my radar after an impressive display in its first set of episodes. Although the story quickly loses some steam in its overall direction, its characters work and dynamic relationships elevate what would otherwise be a standard labyrinthine sci-fi story. It shares a bit of that special chemistry found in titles like Decadence and (of all things) Garo: Vanishing Line, and while its main plot doesn’t break new ground, it captures the sometimes messy and heartfelt moments of what it is like to be in a family. Sure, it can be a thankless job with too much unpaid overtime and never enough time for other things, but like Sakugan, it’s a rewarding one that I wouldn’t give up anytime soon.

Another artist best known for their associated musical acts, JAM Project’s Masaaki Endoh has been a frequent entry on The Anime Playlist (One Punch Man, Garo: Vanishing Line [see, I told you there was a connection!]), but this will be the first time I’ve featured the artist individually. Regardless, Kokotsu Labyrinth encompasses everything I’ve come to adore with each subsequent entry. High octane vocals and catchy lyrics, killer guitar work and Endoh’s own flair for showmanship, I dare anyone to listen to this and not have it stuck in your head for a period of time. On that note:

“NO MATTER WHAT THEY SAY! NO MATTER WHAT THEY SAY!”

*Note: couldn’t find an official OP.

Song: Fever Dreamer

Artist: Mia REGINA

Anime: Rumble Garrandoll

I’ve already covered Rumble Garrandoll in our seasonal recommendations, so I won’t reiterate the same points again. I will however, highlight that the show fired on all cylinders nearing its climax, finishing out in the most explosive way possible. While I’m still debating a possible feature article in the near future, Lerche’s anime original made an interesting mark with its bonkers premise of nerds, otherworld invaders, and good old fashioned mech-on-mech action supplemented by its quieter moments of reflection and rekindling old passions. For a story that doesn’t take itself too seriously, it has a surprising amount of depth thanks in large part to its ensemble group of pilot and partners, as well as supporting members of the resistance who make their own unexpected choices as the story progresses.

Speaking of songs that are continuing to live in my head rent free, Mia REGINA (Appare-Ranman!) performs the stylish opener Fever Dreamer. Folks might remember I briefly featured them on last season’s honorable mentions as the hauntingly beautiful closer for The Aquatope of White Sand’s 1st season, but this marks the first time to appear on the main list (I have a lot of entries!). As a unit who specializes in the creation of anisongs, the three member group took the assignment to heart delivering an idol infused three and a half minute banger to match the colorful and wacky aesthetics of Rumble Garrandoll. I don’t know the first thing about idol music, but the fact that I’ve now added two tracks this year from the same artist tells me I’ll be keeping a watchful eye on their future contributions.

*Note: I couldn’t find an official ED.

Song: Replica

Artist: Mol-74

Anime: Blue Period

Blue Period is a story about a high schooler who one day decides to pursue his creative passions and take the plunge by applying for an art school. What follows is a journey of trials and tribulations as he enters the deep cut world of professional art and his own interpersonal struggles. There are no shortcuts or easy wins with the rising pressure and exceedingly high failure rate of previous applicants constantly at the foreground of Blue Period’s Yatora and his fellow artists in training. Even if you have zero interest in art, its overarching narrative about pursuing one’s passions and the real world price of actually going for it — whether it be financial, personal, or obligatory — will ring all too familiar to anyone who has worked, failed, and/or achieved something they once thought impossible.

Mol-74 (Boruto) captures this aesthetic with their ending contribution Replica. It’s a remarkably calm song that escalates quickly in intensity, almost mirroring the series’ penchant for highlighting both triumphs and desperation. I love the small touches of piano in between transitions and the way the song harmonizes with the lead’s sudden shifts in tempo throughout. While the series final two episodes should be dropping soon, I can say this with no hesitation now:

Netflix, you magnificent bastards, you did it again. After the masterclass that was last year’s Dorohedoro and Great Pretender, once again I find myself with another AOTY contender. You are now officially redeemed for Godzilla: Singular Point. At least until they decide to renew- seriously, again?

Song: Kyokaisen

Artist: Amazarashi

Anime: 86 EIGHTY-SIX

First off, let me just say I really enjoy 86. Great visuals, strong writing, excellent music, you know the drill. Yet, there’s been something that’s been bugging me since season 1. Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the central plot and the banter between Nouzen, Lena, and the rest of the squadron along with some of the new faces introduced in season 2. Taken together, they inform a lot of the main story beats as well as some of the show’s more soft-spoken moments.

As much as I’ve greatly enjoyed the direction the new season has taken in reexamining the battlefield through another lens, it also highlights my only real criticism of the show — most of these characters are kind of vanilla on their own. That’s not to say they don’t have their moments, backstory, and personality, but it almost feels cookie-cutter. You have the veteran with a death wish, the idealist officer, the older sister type, the sniper with a crush, the guy with few words, the trickster, and so on. Aside from the main leads and Frederica who is introduced this season, I have a very hard time keeping track of some of these people, and the current season seemingly reinforces this given how much the story shifts away from Lena and the individual members of the squadron to focus on Nouzen, Frederica, and the internal politics of the Federacy — a change I very much welcome having said all that.

While we are on the subject of new and improved, Amazarashi (My Hero Academia, Dororo) also injects an adrenaline filled shot of an opening. I don’t know who in charge was listening, but Kyokaisen goes in harder than it needed to with a burst of rock fueled drops and one hell of a visual cleanser to accompany it. Having listened to the full song, it’s hard for me to pinpoint where exactly the song got its hooks in me. From the buildup at the beginning, to the intense chorus and blazing guitar solo at the three and a half minute mark before winding back down, 86 delivers hands down one of the best openings this season. While the show itself doesn’t consistently reach the critical masterpiece criteria and the show’s ongoing production issues continue to make the rounds, it’s a title that manages to persevere in spite of its circumstances. In a year driven by uncertainty, that deserves… eh, I’ll give it an 8.6 out of 10.

MV: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gczd382QxEU

Song: Shine

Artist: MindaRyn

Anime: Sakugan

This list ended up going longer than expected, so I’m wrapping things up with two closers. First up is YouTuber and singer MindaRyn (That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime, By the Grace of the Gods) performing the ending theme for Sakugan. A vibrant blend of Jpop and rock, Shine is an optimistic and feverish dream befitting its main lead’s journey into the unknown. I love the anime’s crayon and checkerboard aesthetics, and while the series doesn’t shy away from less playful themes, Shine is a brilliant example of how to streamline the story from one character’s perspective and having a bit of fun with it.

Song: Oz.

Artist: yama

Anime: Ranking of Kings

Not content to just dominate the top of my list, Ranking of Kings’s ending theme earns the final slot of the fall playlist. I couldn’t find much info on yama, but her passionate performance rings clearly, even greater in the show’s overarching narrative. Episode 2, in particular, benefits greatly after a story of tragedy and redemption regarding a specific character that I won’t even name as doing so would be a great disservice. A musical ballad and a wonderful tribute to the storybook setting, Oz isn’t just the best anime ending of the season — it’s one of the best of the year.

Honorable Mentions:

MV: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvSswpIvLEg

Song: Kibō no Uta (Song of Hope)

Artist: KALMA

Anime: Muteking: The Dancing Hero

MV: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aul9RWoyJY0

Song: Treasure Pleasure

Artist: GRANRODEO

Anime: Baki Hanma

MV: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWN6iOFjm9U

Song: Sense

Artist: BAND-MAID

Anime: Platinum End

Completed Playlist:

  1. BOY — King Gnu (Ranking of Kings)
  2. The Sacred Torch — H-el-ical// (The Faraway Paladin)
  3. Hikaru Toki (When the Light Shines) — Hitsujibungaku (The Heike Story)
  4. Stone Ocean — Ichigo from Kishida Kyoudan & The Akeboshi Rockets (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean)
  5. Kokotsu Labyrinth — Masaaki Endoh (Sakugan) [Best OP]
  6. Fever Dreamer — Mia REGINA (Rumble Garrandoll)
  7. Replica — Mol-74 (Blue Period)
  8. Kyokaisen — Amazarashi (86 EIGHTY-SIX)
  9. Shine — MindaRyn (Sakugan)
  10. Oz. — yama (Ranking of Kings) [Best ED]
  11. Reverse-Rebirth — Aina Susuki (Rumble Garrandoll)

Credits:

Song: Reverse-Rebirth| Artist: Aina Susuki | Anime: Rumble Garrandoll

Dark Aether is a writer/contributor for TAY and AniTAY. You can check his previous writings on TAY2, Medium, or follow him on Twitter @TheGrimAether. Not Dead Yet.

Originally published at https://www.tay2.org on December 31, 2021.

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Dark Aether

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Writer, contributor, critic for TAY, AniTAY. Video Games, Anime and other assorted musings. Not Dead Yet. @TheGrimAether

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