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Some Highly Subjective Retroactive Video Game Grammy Awards

Some Highly Subjective Retroactive Video Game Grammy Awards (photo)

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I’ve always loved instrumental music but there’s something particularly special about video game music. My personal theory is that it’s different from other species of earworms, because it’s soaking into your neurons while your cognitive faculties are flexing to solve some gameplay riddle or another.

With the Grammy powers-that-be reorganizing categories to recognize music appearing in video games, my first thought was “It’s about damn time!” Once my indignation cooled, I wondered about game music that would’ve won Grammys if the new openness had been in place since the earliest days of the medium. Here’s a quick list of killer tracks that I’ve loved over the years.

1. “Creation – The State of Art”
“A Gamer’s Guide to Rez”
Ken Ishii

“Rez” creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi took his inspiration from the rave music scene so the whole soundtrack vibrates with glowstick energy. (An official CD release came out years ago and has become a rare find on the eBay circuit.) Yet the music doesn’t sound hopelessly dated in an oontz-oontz-oontz kind of way. All of the tunes–even the menu and title screens–are great, making it hard to pick just one. Still, for me, the audio for the third level of the game stands out from the rest. Japanese DJ Ishii’s nearly ten-minute track takes players on an odyssey even without the neon-colored vector graphics of the game.

2. “Hyllian Suite”
“Beyond Good & Evil”
Christophe Heral

Planet Hyllis, where beloved game “Beyond Good & Evil” took place, looked where a lot of culture mixing takes place. Michel Ancel and his dev team gave us anthropomorphic animals–pig uncles, rasta hippo mechanics, walrus shopkeepers–peacefully living with funky bohemian humans. The soundtrack from French composer Christophe Heral–who’s also done film, animation and TV work–reflects a polyglot sensibility, too, coming across as symphonic world music with a sense of humor. This mini-overture in particular sets up both the action and the emotional notes of heroine Jade’s story. It doesn’t seem that the music was made available separately from the game, though.

3. “Super Mario Bros Theme”
“Super Mario Bros. Theme”
Koji Kondo

What’s most amazing about this iconic piece of music is how supple it is. The 8-bit version that most gamers originally encountered on the NES always sounded a bit mischievious and portentious, alternately egging you on and advising caution. Played on solo piano as in the video above, it’s got a jazzy swing to it. When done in concert with Tommy Tallarico and his Video Games Live crew, it swells majestically. Any way you play it, Mario’s theme music has become one of the most pervasive and enjoyable pop culture jingles of the last 40 years.

4. “Lighthouse”
Soundtrack for “Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory”
Amon Tobin

You can hear the infleunce of Ennio Morricone, which suddenly gives way to Tobin’s signature frantic drum’n’bass collage. The 10-song soundtrack was recorded in Dolby 5.1 and marked one of the first times British DJ Tobin worked with a full orchestra. The best thing about this track in particular is how it mirrors the gameplay of “Splinter Cell.” The bassline starts off moody and sneaky, creeping along with strings and organ sounds for company, until the whole thing erupts into violence. It sounds like franchise hero Sam Fisher staking his prey, in only in awesome musical form.

5. “Passing Breeze”
“Out Run”
Hiroshi Miyauchi

Like long-running TV shows of the past, video game companies in the 1980s had house bands who’d do music for scores of titles coming out. They’d also do pop rock versions to be sold as tie-in merchandise for the games they accompanied. At Sega, there was the S.S.T. “Out Run” was the first game that let players choose their own accompaniments, a feature which helped make it a big hit. Sega’s classic driving game has seen several remakes and the music’s been updated, too, but I still prefer the synthy percussion of the initial arcade release. One tricky aspect of most video game music is that it has to loop back onto itself, because you’ll never know how long it takes a particular player to finish a stage or a mission. With a track as good as “Passing Breeze,” you can just set it in repeat and bask in its beachy groove. Perfect for top-down driving, even in real life.

6. “Still Alive”
Jonathan Coulton

With its sequel just out, it might be a little hard to remember just how mind-bending the spatial puzzles of the 2007 hit were. Shifting momentum and shunting from one platform to another time after time never got easier, especially with bitchy AI GLaDOS snarking at you all the way. That’s what made this credits song at the game’s end such a special reward. You get begrudging respect from GLaDOS and a hint that her death wasn’t as final as you thought, all done in retro-nerd ASCII style. Coulton’s song launched thousands of internet jokes, partially because it tapped in an awesome shared experience but also because it’s cute and funny, with a touch of loopy aggression, too.

7. “Que Sera, Sera”
“Katamari Damacy”
Written by Asuka Sakai, Performed by Charlie Kosei

A bizarre game needs a bizarre soundtrack and 2004’s “Katamari Damacy” got one in spades. The cult PS2 game has you rolling up stuff onto a giant sticky ball and the music you play alongside spans the range from Brazilian samba to dreamy electro-pop. While fans love the na-na-nahs of the game’s main theme, for me, “Que Sera, Sera” exemplifies the weird-cute vibe offered by Keita Takeshi’s masterpiece. It explains the loopy logic of the game mechanics in absolutely sincere lounge-act Engrish and hints at the beating heart of the game’s hero, the long-suffering Prince of All Cosmos, too.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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