Film and TV soundtracks are often the bastard children of popular music. The best composers in the field, like Jerry Goldsmith or John Williams, are regarded as hacks by the classical community — a rather short-sighted view, given that many of their own favorite composers did many of their best pieces as for-pay hackwork in their time. Fans of more conventional popular music may recognize the names, but rarely seek out the music on its own. The closest most people get to this sort of thing is showtunes, which are fine but terribly limited in scope: it’s a little like narrowing all of rock’n’roll down to only what came from England (or the USA itself).
The choices become all the more esoteric when you leave the United States, or English-speaking territory altogether. Japan has long had one of the most vibrant music scenes of any country, and within the narrow-sounding field of soundtracks for their live-action and animated TV / movie productions there’s a striking amount of activity going on. In that field, one name comes to the fore more than almost any other: Yoko Kanno. Put aside the fact that she’s a woman (even if she’s working in a field that as far as I can tell is predominantly male — in itself no small thing in Japan); put aside the fact that her main forte is soundtracks for animated productions like Cowboy Bebop, Wolf’s Rain, Arjuna, Macross Plus, the anthology film Memories, and many others. The one fact that matters: out of all the other musicians in this space, she is the only one I could describe as a genius without flinching. Her work so comfortably spans so many styles and modes of expression, and so well, that I’m not sure any other word will fit.
I own about ten albums of Kanno’s work, many of which are the soundtracks for the various shows or movies I mentioned. The one I keep coming back to, both because it shows her off at her best and because it’s one of the easiest to get into and find, is the first of many, many soundtracks she has created for the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex TV show. All of them are at least this good, but the first one has many of the very best moments — the best performances, the most diverse approach of styles (although there’s scarcely any shortage of that in any of her other records), the most compelling songwriting, the top of the heap in most every way. Start here, and if you like what you hear, get the rest of them; they follow in the same vein and there’s barely a throwaway track among the bunch of them.
Kanno first came to my attention through the incredible jazz / blues / gospel-inflected soundtrack she created for Cowboy Bebop; I rushed out and snagged one of the last copies I could find, since it hasn’t been in print in over a decade. The most startling thing about the Bebop score and the GitS:SAC soundtrack is how you would scarcely be able to tell they were by the same person — with or without the presence of collaborators. (The Bebop album is credited to a collective named “The Seatbelts”, with Kanno serving as songwriter and bandleader; it’s really her show.) SAC draws more on J-Pop and electronic dance music for its sounds, but always with Kanno’s specific touch: the songwriting’s that much more sophisticated and elaborate without being wholly ostentatious. Some hints of this sound could be heard in her earlier work for Macross Plus, where one of the discs was a fake EP by “Sharon Apple”, the A.I. pop star featured in the show — but there’s clearly a progression of sophistication from that album to SAC.
Most of the songs do not appear in the show in anything like the order they’re programmed here. The first season’s opening song, “Inner Universe”, is fairly late into the record; all of the tracks have been arranged in a way that comes off more like an actual album, with a flow from one track to the next that gives it unity and cohesion. Kanno also sings on several of the tracks here — she credits herself as “Ilaria Grazino” — and two regular collaborators, Origa (who sings in Russian on “Inner Universe”) and Scott Matthew, also alternate singing duties. The results are at least as good as anything you’d hear on the radio, and with more of an exotic whirl — they’re not held down or hemmed in by what else is out there right now, and that’s part of their charm. (The U.S. edition of the CD has two tracks not found on the import, both of which can be heard in other versions elsewhere, but they’re a nice bonus.)
Kanno has recorded at least three other albums for the GitS:SAC TV series (both seasons), and a slew of “tribute” albums have also appeared — most of them mesmerizing techno concoctions that bring to mind the equally propulsive soundtracks created for the Ghost in the Shell video games. The best ones to start with are the other albums that are most directly part of the show’s legacy; the others are interesting but not exactly crucial. One disc, be Human, is more an “inspired by” production than anything else, but there are some fine moments on it, like the title track and the techno-epic “Spotter” (and another Scott Matthew appearance, “Trip City”). But the first GitS:SAC disc has held up the best over time, and remains the most inviting place to start.