A few years ago I almost lost the hearing in my left ear. The gory details are best omitted, but I was left with (what the doctors claimed) was 20-30% hearing and only two thirds of the bones I should. For all intents and purposes I was deaf in that ear, a lopsided and mono world where car alarms didn't exist (a boon at 3am) but wearing headphones was painful.
Two years and two operations on I have most of my hearing back. All of this is just context for me to say: my hearing is precious to me and I am precious about it. It is a cliché to say that you don't know what you've got until you've lost it, but when it's personal it really brings it home.
A lot of anime - be that series, OVAs or movies - don't really "get" audio. Whether by budget or by design, often it's a case of slapping some screechy tween rock on the opening and ending and some forgettable instrumentals in between and call it a day. A rare few though tap into that lovely woolly part of the brain, hotwiring the pleasure centres through the ear and leave me turning the lights down and volume up.
This isn't just "great soundtrack" though, if so I may as well just name drop Yoko Kanno, Yuki Kajiura and Kenji Kawai and be done with it. Nor is it about haughty audiophile terms like crossover or audioscapes or tweeter fidelity (I may have made them all up), it's about using sound, be that musical or effects, in the most potent way.
This isn't a definitive, ordered, or best of list, only ones which make me tingle with auditory nostalgia.
There are never enough good things to say about Mushishi and audio is just one. Here it's the judicious rather than overbearing use of sound that matters. Mushishi's composer, Toshio Masuda, crafted a new ending theme for each and every episode, sourcing traditional and sometimes rare, one-of-a-kind instruments for many of the tracks. The result is a score that is hauntingly ethereal and fits with the series perfectly, just as the dialogue - muted and never protracted - serves its purpose without getting in the way.
The sound effects though are where the heart of the series lies, with a permanently natural landscape everything from birdsong to meandering waterways are added to an already soothing score. The moment that never fails to send shivers down my spine comes early in the series. Ginko makes his way through the mountains, snow crunching underfoot and falling silently in the twilight. He comes to a valley with a small village in it, a starfield of lights from windows and Yawarakai Tsuno (lit. Soft angle), the third track from the OST, is left to linger.
Mushishi, more than any other series, is one I can lose myself to completely. Hours can go by and only the regular changing of DVDs marks time. It rejuvenates me when ill, and elevates me when healthy and I can only attribute some of that to story and visuals.
The Chiaki J. Konaka triumvirate
Chiaki J. Konaka is neither a composer nor a musician but while compiling this list, three anime cropped up all of which he was heavily involved with: Serial Experiments Lain, Texhnolyze and Ghost Hound. All feature different sound and music directors as well as a range of different composers and contributors, but their themes and styles bleed almost seamlessly into one another.
It could easily be attributed to the themes CJK favours with collaborator Ryutaro Nakamura - director for both Lain and Ghost Hound, but the musical directors introduce variety surprisingly without disparity. So Yoko Kanno's husband Hajime Mizoguchi provides a great deal of the Texhnolyze soundtrack while guitarist Reichi Nakaido does the same for Lain yet both share a melancholy sound beyond the guitar riffs.
The parallels between the shows are varied, both Lain and Texhnolyze have a technological nihilism running through them, while Lain and Ghost Hound play endlessly with the audio itself, the latter dragging out and distorting sounds. All three feature vocal tracks: Lain with the chilling and iconic Duvet by Bôa, Poem of the Moon by Gackt ends every Texhnolyze episode (let's ignore Juno Reactor's opening effort), while experimental jazz artist Mayumi Kojima lends Poltergeist to Ghost Hound.
This is all academic though when watching the different series. Ghost Hound builds a creeping sense of dread of the unknown with its constant sonic barrage - the mid-episode blast needs to be heard to be believed. Lain meanwhile has the constant background hum of power lines or the whir of computer fans accompanying the belting techno tracks. Texhnolyze on the other hand is mournful, often discordant but builds on the bleak vision of a distopian future with heavy breaths and metal on stone.
It is audio that challenges. Always absorbing - Texhnolyze especially - but a pleasingly eclectic offering from each series while still mostly cohesive as a whole.
Aria is many things to many people which is a polite way of saying that many people passionately dislike it. The no-drama approach is not unique (K-On! et. al.) and the soundtrack is forgettable muzak when isolated, the lilting Roundtable feat. Nino endings not withstanding. Taken together though, it represents a ferociously soothing and melodious of scores. Mushishi's may be just as likely to lull you to sleep, but Aria's soundtrack borderlines on providing health benefits, capturing that summer's day feeling so succinctly. Coupled with the cheery setting and careful voice work, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Unlike others on this list which tend towards the overt, Aria's gets out of the way and lets the overall rather than the specific rule. That isn't to say there aren't memorable moments: the silent and imposing Cait Sith or the first time you hear Athena's stunning vocals, it's the subtle changes that really power the emotions. I would be hard pressed to forget any of the final series' denouements thanks largely to the emotional as well as audible crescendo.
Aria proves that audio doesn't have to be unique to be memorable and sometimes it is enough to accompany and enhance rather than overbear and intrude.
Ghost in the Shell
Take your pick from either of the two movies (Kenji Kawai) or the two Standalone Complex series (Yoko Kanno). This is the sound of the future, whether it is the Hong Kong inspired labyrinth of the first movie or the clean, smooth curves of the series. Ghost in the Shell as a franchise has a leg up due to its status as critical and (eventual) financial blockbuster. Not every series can afford to hire two of the most trusted minds in music, nor can they afford to provide such a brilliant surround sound. And fewer still can afford to distribute separate DVDs with the ear pleasing DTS audio format on it.
It's hard to talk about either the movies or series without mentioning the score - both are so overpoweringly brilliant that it would seem like every other sound could be muted to little detriment. Ghost in the Shell though is about the detail, whether it's the mechanical pulse of cybernetics and multipedal tanks, the thrum of cyberspace or the cacophony of gunfire, very little exists in anime that can match this range and fidelity.
Out of the two, the series soundtrack stands out because it straddles what others on this list do well individually: world-building and atmosphere. Aria, Ghost Hound and Mushishi provide atmosphere in spades, while Lain and Texhnolyze really do sound like the future but Yoko Kanno's score is the best of both. Using the operatic vocals of Origa as well as long standing contributors such as Tim Jensen and Chris Mosdell means every track is memorable, but slot so effortlessly into place.
Who could forget "Beauty is within us" at the climax of the second episode as a robot reaches for its parents? Or "Torukia" at the climax of the Individual Eleven storyline as the missiles fall? Few soundtracks have seen such repeated playtime with me as the Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex ones and it's testament to their quality and Yoko Kanno's seemingly boundless talent that so many have been released without a single dip in quality.
The list above is abridged to the ones which resonate with me the most. Were someone to ask me "which are the best anime to listen to?" they would spill out in a heartbeat. Many others though are just as deserving but lack either the boundless brilliance of the above, or perhaps just caught me at the wrong time.
Kara no Kyoukai
Yuki Kajiura's soundtrack is the sound of Kara no Kyoukai, gifting the series a fittingly dreamy, ethereal tone but is let down by a comparatively ho-hum effort in other areas (of course excluding Maaya Sakamoto's voice work).
Another Yoko Kanno effort and one I'm sure many would rate higher than my choice of the Ghost in the Shell soundtracks. Here though is but more proof that a great (nigh stunning) soundtrack doesn't make up for other auditory shortcomings.
Ichiko Hashimoto's score is superbly accomplished, just as the series itself is - memories of episode 19 "Blue Friend" come flooding back - however, ironically it's perhaps because the frequent and fitting discordance that this sits somewhat oddly with me. That said, the effects afforded to the Dolems are brilliant, giants of stone and opera.
Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei
Fitting with the endlessly daft shift in visual styles is a soundtrack that challenges you to pigeon hole it. Switching from the bonkers "Ringo, Mogire, Beam!" to shamisen ditties through to piano medleys, listening to the multiple soundtracks on shuffle is to hear madness distilled. It's telling when even the remixes are stunning (and sadly unreleased by perpetual madman Rappubitto).
Audio is important to me in a way that is difficult to elucidate in words (despite taking at stab with this 1600) but perhaps it's enough to leave a collection of my most favoured and return to pining for the next hit of sonic cocaine.