The first commercial videogame involved navigating a rocket ship; it was created by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney in 1971. Music has been around for um… a lot longer than that. But the two have been intertwined from the nearly the beginning of gaming, as far back as Atari 2600, which allowed gamers to play alongside background “music,” which was really a series of simple loops.
The quality of the sound wasn’t exactly wonderful. Early systems had a very finite amount of space, which severely limited the options for sound engineers and producers. As technology advanced, sound got more advanced as well. The only constrictions for sound engineers became their imaginations.
But it wasn’t until gaming-system technology sufficiently advanced that games finally began incorporating full songs into games. No longer were the blips and bleeps the only ingredients. Now everything from synthesized violins to bongos can take their rightful places in the gaming pantheon as large contributors to musical scores.
Game developers, producers, and publishers recognized the public’s growing interest in game music. Virtually every gamer knows the Halo theme, and many mainstream people probably do too, even if they don’t know from where the song originates. People can buy gaming soundtracks at places like Amazon.com and Best Buy after such stores realized how much of the public wished to listen to soundtracks on their own time, wherever they liked, instead of being relegated to a television or computer screen.
Gaming’s core demographic includes a substantial percentage of the younger generation and increasingly large parts of the previous generations, so marketing companies began tailoring soundtracks to specific ages. You likely won’t come across too many Frank Sinatra or other big band-era groups unless the songs fit the game’s era (e.g. Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which has music that is a gigantic hit with those who grew up during the ‘80s or even have a recollection of pop music from that time).
The approach of including songs that fit the game as opposed to the demographic has become more popular as time passes, as evidenced by BioShock’s numerous period pieces. And thankfully, some developers and producers have great taste in music; that taste is exhibited in the choices below.
A few stipulations apply to this list: no music games (far too easy) and for the most part, no songs tailor-made specifically for a game, which would make the process of choosing songs way too elaborate. Plus many people will have no idea what the song is when it’s titled “Orchestral Score No. 5.”
So without further ado, 20 of the best songs to appear in videogames. As always, feel free to leave additions in the comment section. We can’t play every game, and we can’t hear every song (but we try).
20. Goldfinger - Superman | Tony Hawk Pro Skater
The original Tony Hawk Pro Skater kicked off a series of skating games that have significantly declined in quality from one iteration to the next; that can happen when you release a game (or two) every year on almost every system for the last decade. But the first was a revelation for gamers, allowing them to skate through empty warehouses and perform impossible aerial feats by randomly pressing buttons while airborne.
While the tricks were going on, Tony Hawk Pro Skater’s soundtrack blasted in the background: song after song of energetic hard rock and punk that granted the game even more of a rebellious personality. While some songs, well, sucked, others made up for it - one of those being Goldfinger’s Superman, an upbeat ska track reminiscent of Reel Big Fish. It greatly suits the high-flying, fun-loving (use clichés much?) tempo of the game. Goldfinger’s cover of “99 Red Balloons” isn’t half bad either.
19. Primus - Jerry Was A Race Car Driver | Tony Hawk Pro Skater
Primus has always long been known for their strange brand of metal - a version of Red Hot Chili Peppers with (more) significant brain damage. Their music still holds up. The quick, high-pitched baseline that intros Jerry Was A Race Car Driver creates an angular flow that propels the song forward, much like the angles of feet on pavement and skateboards against walls.
While their sound isn’t for everyone, their influence cannot be ignored. As one of the crazier live acts of their era, Primus created a niche for themselves that few other bands entered. The developers of Tony Hawk Pro Skater took notice and thought Primus’ sound would be terrific for the game. And they were right.
18. Faunts - M4 (Part II) | Mass Effect 2
Spoiler Alert Well, it’s not a huge spoiler; this song appears at the end of Mass Effect 2, the sequel to the acclaimed space RPG Mass Effect from Bioware. The modified vocals and speedy, plinky electric guitar riffs give the song a futuristic edge perfectly fitting of a game set in 2183.
17. The Bravery - Believe | Madden ‘08
The Madden series continues to be one of the most popular (if not the most popular) videogame franchise on the planet. Way back in 1984, Trip Hawkins approached John Madden (his third choice as the face of the game after Joe Montana and Joe Kapp, both of whom declined for different reasons). Eventually they got past obstacles such as fitting 22 players on screen and letting the computer handle the math, which in turn gave players the freedom to simply play simulated football.
After billions of dollars in revenue, the Madden series has become the standard-bearer for sports games. And given the series’ massive appeal, it’s no surprise some relatively large acts end up on the soundtrack.
The Bravery isn’t as big as Green Day, but they still hit pretty hard. An alternative indie rock act, The Bravery scored big with their hit “Believe,” thanks in large part to the Madden ’08 where people were introduced to the band through a user interface screen. Doesn’t make the song any worse.
16. Snoop Dogg feat. The Doors - Riders On The Storm | Need For Speed Underground 2
This remix by Fredwreck dubs Snoop Dogg’s stanzas over the classic tune “Riders On The Storm” by The Doors. While the original song wasn’t intended to appear alongside a videogame about illegal street racing, Snoop Dogg’s incorporation of street-heavy lyrics befits racing souped-up cars through crowded streets.
15. The Walkmen - There Goes My Baby | Stubbs The Zombie
An indie game at heart, Stubbs the Zombie appropriately licensed a bunch of indie music for their soundtrack. The developers knew their audience and musical tastes, or maybe the developers just naturally have great taste. Either way, the soundtrack on its own is an entertaining listen. But when paired with a game that revolves around throwing brains at unsuspecting citizens, the songs take an even greater connotation.
The Walkmen’s cover of the classic “There Goes My Baby” by The Drifters, released in 1958, works exceptionally well on Stubbs The Zombie because of the game’s fun approach to zombie stereotypes. The Walkmen took a similar approach to the cover, still incorporating a bit of sadness along with the traditional major tones in the original song.
14. TV On The Radio - Golden Age | MLB ’09 The Show
MLB ’09 The Show didn’t meet wonderful sales but it did receive a fair amount of critical acclaim for its extremely accurate baseball simulation. It received even more attention from the indie crowd for its great soundtrack full of recognizable indie bands like The Blue Van and Hockey.
TV On The Radio’s album Dear Science landed on nearly every credible publication’s list of the top albums of 2008, and rightfully so. The collaboration between Tunde Adebimpe, David Andrew Sitek, Kyp Malone, Jaleel Bunton and Gerard Smith has yielded wonderful results. Such results can be heard on “Golden Age,” a track whose beats and flowing vocals build into a chorus of trumpets, buzzes, and TOTR’s unmistakable blend of soulful and falsetto-heavy vocals.
13. Spoon - Don’t You Evah | MLB ’09 The Show
Of course, if MLB ’09 was going for recognizable indie bands, they couldn’t overlook Spoon, arguably one of the most popular indie acts in recent memory. It helps that the developers over at SCE San Diego chose the track well, too. “Don’t You Evah” off the album Ga Ga Ga Ga Gais a jaunty, rhythm and hand-clap-heavy track that will have gamers bouncing from side to side on their couches, gearing them up for the opening pitch.
12. Blur - Song 2 | FIFA ‘98
No one could escape this song in 1998. No one. It was everywhere - including a soccer game, FIFA ’98. The simple chorus of “Woo-hoo!” followed by raunchy guitars feels rather off for a game as steady as soccer, especially when the song primarily appears while staring at an interface, but there’s no denying the wondrous energy Song 2 produces. Take a listen and try not to feel your heart rate increase; I dare you. You won’t get anything if you win, but try it anyway.
11. Run-D.M.C. - My Adidas | Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4
Another entry from the Tony Hawk Pro Skater series, oldschool rap legends Run-D.M.C. come in with “My Adidas.” Not too many current rappers would try creating an entire song based on their shoes, let alone make it good. But Run-D.M.C. is a different story.
Even though the song was written nearly three decades ago, the influence of Run’s beats can be heard on nearly every current hip-hop record, from the tip-tapping hi-hats to the sharp snares and well-timed record scratches.
10. The Ramones - Blitzkrieg Bop | Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3
You’ve heard this song everywhere, although you might not have known it’s called “Blitzkrieg Bop” from The Ramones. The legendary “Hey ho! Lets go!” gets played at virtually every sports stadium in existence, and countless movies and television shows have used it for action sequences.
Again, ubiquity does not have a correlation with low quality. Just because acts like The Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears were (and in Spears’ case, are) at the top of the charts for years doesn’t mean generations before them had no taste.
The rhythm and energy of “Blitzkrieg Bop” lends itself very well to a skating game, which is primarily based on those same characteristics. But to pull a song from the 1970s takes courage when marketing a game to a generation full of kids whose fathers love the music of that decade.
The jovial punk-rock group is a terrific addition to the Tony Hawk series. If only they added some more terrific games to the lineup.
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9. Miles Davis - Move | Grand Theft Auto 4
While jazz doesn’t suit most games perfectly, the developers over at Rockstar Games once again created a radio station for the underplayed genre. Davis’s famous staccato trumpet can be heard on JNR Jazz Nation Radio 108.5 , hosted by DJ Roy Haynes. Other artists include John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and Dizzie Gillespie, but Davis’s name is arguably the most recognizable and songs the most accessible.
Driving around the grimy streets of Liberty City, running over pedestrians and clubbing cops with baseball bats while Davis’s laid-back succession of notes plays in the background feels… strange… but fun.
The track comes off the album The Complete Birth of the Cool. Can’t think of a better name.
8. Johnny Cash - Ring of Fire | Tony Hawk’s Underground 2
Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” co-written by his wife June Carter, is known by most everyone familiar with the iconic country artist. Most of the Tony Hawk series steers toward a rock/punk sound, but they diverged a bit to include such a renowned track.
Johnny Cash’s work has an ability to cross genres and ages, even drawing in people who normally listen to only one type of music. “Ring of Fire” has been covered by the likes of Frank Zappa, Alan Jackson, Dwight Yoakam and Social Distortion. While not exactly an “underground” song, “Ring of Fire” nonetheless feels somehow acceptable in a game populated by a younger crowd and located in a city dwelling, two aspects one wouldn’t immediately tie to a country song recorded in 1963.
7. Grandmaster Flash - The Message | Scarface: The World Is Yours
Scarface: The World Is Yoursis a pretty mediocre game by most anyone’s standards. Its soundtrack, on the other hand, is not. With entries like Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” which has been sampled a ridiculous amount of times (Puff Daddy and Ma$e anybody?), how can you not want to play the game with the sound maxed out?
“The Message”’s, well, message is still relevant today — and even more relevant to game/film about the underground drug world and being constantly surrounded by enemies but never letting them get to you. In related news, Flash’s clothes in the video are not relevant today (thank God).
6. Tom Petty - Runnin’ Down A Dream | Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
It’s not too surprising that so many songs from the Grand Theft Auto series appear on this list. As previously mentioned, the variety of radio stations allows the developers to insert a song from any genre and any time they please. Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down A Dream” from his solo album Full Moon Fever is one of the last great songs of the ‘80s, so Rockstar made a great decision putting it on K-DST “The Dust.”
Petty might be runnin’ down a dream, but players run down a lot of other things in the game; at least the title’s first two words apply well. Well, players are runnin’ down the dream of runnin’ people down, so I guess the whole thing fits.
5. Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Dogg - Ain’t Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang | Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Immediately following an east-coast rocker comes two west-coast rappers, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Dre released “Ain’t Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang” from his debut album, The Chronic to immediate acclaim and massive popularity, being MTV’s third-most-requested video in 1993 (back when people actually cared about music videos on television).
In San Andreas, players assume the role of C.J. Johnson, who lives in the fictional state of San Andreas, loosely based on California and Nevada. Every type of vehicle one can imagine is operable, from boats to tanks. Driving a tank and shooting down police helicopters with “Ain’t Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” blaring was one of the highlights of the game for me, not least of which because I’ll never drive a tank, shoot down a helicopter, or be a gangster. But thanks to GTA, Dre and Snoop, at least I can imagine it.
4. Bobby Darin - Beyond The Sea | BioShock
The original BioShocklanded on everyone’s lap with massive critical and commercial success. Its story, which has a great-if-somewhat-predictable twist, puts the main character in the once-utopian-now-dystopian world of Rapture, an underwater city with a very 1940s-50s aesthetic.
BioShock’s music is full of the big-band, trumpet-full swinging sound akin to 1950s. Its instrumental version fits incredibly well when players take down gene-spliced enemies by shooting lightning from their hands, and then bearing down on electrocuted enemies with wrenches. “Beyond The Sea” feels appropriate because of the irony that emerges when performing such a gruesome act while a charming love song sways in the background.
3. A Flock of Seagulls - I Ran (So Far Away) | GTA: Vice City
The haircut gets a bad rap. The band does too, especially from those who have a fundamental dislike of ‘80s music. But a song from that era that has an easy time pulling people together is “I Ran (So Far Away)” by A Flock of Seagulls.
The ‘80s music clichés, mainly synthesizers and modified vocals, are constant in the song, but it’s so undeniably catchy that few ‘80s-music detractors even care.
When a song keeps appearing in commercials, TV shows, movies, etc., after 29 years, you know it did something right. So did Rockstar—again—when they chose this for the station, Wave 103.
2. Jose Gonzalez - Far Away | Red Dead Redemption
Red Dead Redemption earned numerous Game of the Year awards and nominations for its Grand-Theft-Auto style of sandbox gameplay set in the Old West.
Jose Gonzalez’s “Far Away,” an acoustic-guitar laden song complete with Gonzalez’s soft delivery, similar to Sam Beam of Iron & Wine, cannot be ignored even though it’s on the quiet side. The guitar stylings sound exactly as they should for an old-west game: heavy with a bit of twang. “Stand in front of a runaway train / just to feel alive again,” the lyrics state, and what better kind of game to incorporate such a line than one set that follows a former-outlaw-turned-bounty hunter intent on getting his family back?
The song fits perfectly as the sun sets and players watch their character ride through the dim lighting, creating the feeling of being a true cowboy. Without having to smell a horse.
1. Jonathan Coulton - Still Alive | Portal
Okay, I know I said that we’d stay songs created specifically for the game, but did you really think there would be a list of the best songs in videogames that doesn’t include “Still Alive?” Plus, I believe it fits the parameters in a way because it can be entirely self-contained; the song doesn’t need the backdrop of the game to be great, and that’s the corollary between all great songs: at any time, in any location, they’re still great.
Portal received countless Game of the Year awards in 2007, and a huge percentage of those voters mentioned the ending song, “Still Alive,” a little ditty ostensibly sung by the villain in the game, GLaDOS, a robot with a huge level of artificial intelligence.
Humor never takes a backseat for the crew at Valve Software, as most every game they create has bits of brevity thrown in. Portal has more than bits. It has a ton, which helps considering the tax the game takes on players’ minds.
Oh, and the cake is a lie.