We’ve got a music-themed Top 7 list to close off 2022. These are some of the most fun to make and some of the easiest to compile since I don’t have to rely so much on pictures for this one. It’s fun talking about favorite theme songs and insert songs, but I realized I never did a list based on instrumental music. That’s an overlooked one when it comes to anime. I thought I would try a list based on overlooked anime instrumentals because if I didn’t put underrated on there then I know I would be spammed with comments as to why “Tank” from Cowboy Bebop wasn’t on there or several Joe Hisaishi’s musical picks from the Ghibli library. You know that would happen. For this list, I’m going to focus on instrumental themes that don’t get much attention from most anime fans or any fan of animation.
Here are the guidelines for my list:
-I have to have seen this anime at some point in my life.
-One example per series.
-Any vocals used must either be used in an instrumental way or spoken word passages. Those are my only exceptions to the rules.
-One composer per example (I had to make a VERY painful cut with this rule).
Let’s take a listen to what I feel are some of the best anime theme songs that are without lyrics that most people may not know about.
7: Kiotoshi by Kitaro (Ending theme from the English dubbed version of Monkey Magic)
Before I get started, I was shocked to find out that Monkey Magic was a Japanese production the whole time because I swear I thought it was an American production even if I barely knew anything about anime when I was a kid. I remember this show playing on UPN back in the day (wow, I partially dated myself) and I still remember the ending theme used in the dubbed version of that series. The melody came to my head despite not watching that series in several years and it partially inspired this list. I didn’t even know the original cut was over 9 and a half minutes long. Kiotoshi has a great mix of dynamics where it has quiet moments, but knows when to get epic with the ambient synths, Japanese instrumentation, electric guitars, and occasional chanting. Toyohashi-born multi-instrumentalist Kitaro put a ton of effort into this instrumental work and this sounds too good for that bizarre Journey of the West adaptation. The version they play during the credits doesn’t do this justice, so this full version has a huge amount of breadth with the sweeping instrumentation. I’d argue that this is one example of a dubbed theme actually being good and should be in the same conversation as other dubbed musical choices like the English version of “Believe” from One Piece, the English versions of the Yu Yu Hakusho themes, and even the Pokemon theme song (yeah, I went there). Seriously, Kiotoshi is the real deal and needs to be listened to be experienced. It might make you want to get a flying cloud and a magical red staff.
6: Theme of Gunsmith Cats by Peter Erskine
Yoko Kanno, with all due respect, you’re not the first or only composer to make a butt-kicking jazz opening theme to an anime. Gunsmith Cats had an absolute banger of an opening theme that really makes you want to go to Chicago and cruise in a Shelby Mustang. Interestingly enough, this is a rare example of a non-Japanese person composing for an anime with the New Jersey-born drummer for Weather Report and Steps Ahead known as Peter Erskine. He actually scored the whole anime. Outside of scoring Gunsmith Cats, he has also been a sideman for Queen Latifah, Michael Buble, and Kate Bush among several other musicians. The horn section is immaculate, the drum work is dynamic, and there’s a lot of playful piano work there. It’s an overall fun song that really fits this OVA so well. This theme song is a treat to listen to and it’s better than a lot of other theme songs in the “Girls with Guns” anime subgenre. How is Erskine not scoring more anime or even movies? I’d like to hear more of his work if he’s able to make something like this. Also, this is not the only example of a jazzy theme song that is on this list.
5: Guardian Angel by Juno Reactor (Opening theme to Texhnolyze)
Did you seriously think I wouldn’t put anything involving a Yoshitoshi ABe creation on this list? If that’s the case, then you really haven’t followed my blog for that long. Some of you may have thought this would rank a LOT higher given that I gave this anime a 10/10, but I like other musical examples more than this one. British electronic group Juno Reactor really crafted this wonderful piece of music that matches the grit, tension, and cybernetic feel of Texhnolyze with Guardian Angel. Yes, I put the full version instead of the Xavier’s Edit adaptation as heard in the anime, but it’s still the same song at the end of the day and there’s more to it in the full version. Not many post-apocalyptic musical pieces can be this intense while also worthy of the clubs. Juno Reactor is no stranger to scoring, but this was their first foray into anime music. They used their skills for the first two Mortal Kombat movies, Jackpot, but they are most famous for their music featured in The Matrix franchise (Reloaded and The Animatrix). The full version is heavy on the electronics, but it’s not as repetitive as one would expect. There are progressive elements and actual parts used instead of one continuous beat. Even though it’s not my favorite theme used in an ABe work, this still needs to be mentioned in quality anime themes instrumental or vocal.
4: Main Theme from The Place Promised In Our Early Days by Tenmon
It’s about time I put something from Makoto Shinkai on a Top 7 list! This has been a very long time coming, so why not put the theme song from my favorite movie from his filmography. The Place Promised In Our Early Days doesn’t get the respect it deserves compared to Your Name which is just sad to me. Also, I wish Tenmon would go back to collaborating with Shinkai again (no disrespect to Radwimps) since he made such wonderful musical contributions to the early days of the animator’s career if one pardons the pun. The violin melody is beautiful and gets stuck in your head. I like how they use that as a recurring coda throughout the movie without resorting to overplay. The fact that the violin is a core instrument really plays into Hiroki and Sayuri playing that instrument at different points of the film. Tenmon’s piano work is also a treat to listen to and I wish he would’ve gotten his flowers from different fans although people don’t pay attention to older Shinkai films. It has a gentle, yet sweeping feel with the instrumentation and it is easily memorable even before the end credits play. The Place Promised had majestic musical pieces, but I wish more people would care about it even though it wasn’t as mainstream-friendly as Shinkai’s later works.
3: Kami to Nare by Kuniaki Haishima (2nd OP to Neo Ranga)
Holy Hezekiah! I have put BOTH Neo Ranga theme songs in my Top 7 lists. For an anime that I thought had a great start before squandering potential in the 2nd season, I certainly liked the music in that series. I guess after reviewing Gasaraki, I have started to gain more of an appreciation of Kuniaki Haishima’s musical works. Anyone who has seen Neo Ranga may realize that part of the melody is based on the 1st opening theme Kaze no Nemuru Shima, but is that a bad thing? That song was incredible in its own right and I like how it extends some of the musical motifs into different paths. The ceremonial chanting, Indonesian gamelan rhythms, and airy synths go to otherworldly levels while having clearly epic parts. Kami to Nare feels even grander than Kaze no Nemuru Shima which is saying something and it has the feeling of the titular Ranga character being summoned and empowered to take on whatever monster is destroying the city. Seriously, why doesn’t Haishima get more work as a composer? Remember how I said that I had to make a painful cut for this list? I put this over Grain from Monster which Haishima also composed. OUCH! Monster may have been objectively the better anime than Neo Ranga, but this 90s Pierrot anime had epic opening theme songs that one can enjoy even without being a fan of that series. Kami to Nare is that good of an instrumental track.
2: Free Bird by Ko Otani (Opening to Haibane Renmei)
The only thing that should be surprising about this pick is that it’s not #1. If you’ve followed me for years, then you should’ve expected Haibane Renmei to get a spot on a Top 7 list. What can I say that hasn’t been said about Yoshitoshi ABe’s magnum opus? This has one of the best anime soundtracks and the opening theme is no exception. The acoustic atmosphere with symphonic backing and a hint of Celtic undertones really make the music shine. Free Bird really fits the world of Haibane Renmei. If Guardian Angel embodies the intensity and dangerous environment of Texhnolyze then, Free Bird represents the peacefulness and the mystery involving the walled town of Glie. Ko Otani deserves all the awards for his musical work in Haibane Renmei. You would never be able to tell that this is the same guy who scored Eyeshield 21, Outlaw Star, or the Gundam Wing franchise. Why is Otani not in the same discussion as Yoko Kanno, Joe Hisaishi, or Yuki Kajiura? His work on ABe’s anime ALONE should put him in the upper echelon of anime composers. Now keep in mind, I only put Free Bird at #2 and this involves the first thing I gave a 10/10 to and from the first anime soundtrack I ever bought when I was a teenager at Suncoast. What could possibly outrank this piece from Ko Otani?
Also, you can miss me with your Lynyrd Skynrd jokes with the title of the track.
1: Theme of Read or Die by Taku Iwasaki
Here’s another anime I reviewed from a long time ago that hasn’t been on a Top 7 list until now! Read or Die has such an amazing theme and this was the right list to talk about it. Taku Iwasaki is an underrated composer and the ROD series has some of his best work in his discography. This theme song goes so hard with the jazzy overtones, quirky instrumental voices, and has an air of intensity with the playful usage of several instruments. The theme was so good that it was even used occasionally in ROD: The TV and the opening of that anime has a good extension of the original piece’s motifs liked of like Neo Ranga’s Kami to Nare was to Kaze no Nemuru Shima. I would still like this number even if it wasn’t associated with this anime involving a nerdy bookworm with the power to turn paper into weapons. I’d even argue that the apt jazz instrumentation and magnificent musical elements would put so many spy or action movies to shame. I know I’m going to sound like that guy, but if the Read or Die theme was used in a 007 movie or was in The Incredibles instead, then you know everyone would lap it up and you’d hear school orchestras cover this work. Even though I like some of the anime choices lower on the list more than Read or Die, this anime series has one of the best instrumental theme songs of all time. Not just anime or animation.
In all seriousness, you should watch the original OVA and the TV sequel. Thank me later.
So what did you think? What are some other good anime instrumental theme songs that don’t get enough attention?
All photos and videos are property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. The music note picture is from Pinterest.