Much like the classic mixtape, Tracklisted presents a collection of songs under a selected theme, which you can check out below. Click on the provided Spotify playlist and listen to this week’s arrangement while you read a few words about the selections.
There’s a science behind all music, but video game music seems to deserve its own experimentation and analysis. Think of any title imaginable — their scores are designed to help players focus and remain engaged with the action, so much so that it’s been repurposed to run in the background of work routines. That being said, like movie soundtracks, there are two major subdivisions of ancillary audio: original (usually orchestral) cuts and licensed selections. This playlist focuses on the latter, popularized by the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater franchise and EA Sports BIG, a subsidiary of the entertainment giant dedicated to aggressively blurring the line between ESPN and Hot Topic. (The trademark “BIG” advertisement, which delivers the word from something that sounds like a kraken, was performed by Rahzel, formerly of The Roots.)
There’s no science to this sequencing to follow, simply a celebration of the time when video games launched (or carried) the careers of several artists, roughly spanning from somewhere in the mid-to-late 1990s to the mid-2000s, right around the peak of PlayStation 2.
The Sleeping — Don’t Hold Back (Madden NFL 07)
This track perfectly encapsulates the world of video game music licensing, as it’s not only been in the background of dated gridiron glory, but also under the bonus track section of Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. (Many tracks featured here share similar fates, especially across the EA Sports BIG library of games.) This also envelopes the strange bedfellows of these track groupings — rage-filled, erratic guitar rock seems at odds with the NFL in 2017, but 10 years ago, this former Victory Records band shared screen time with The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus and Underoath.
The F-Ups — Lazy Generation (Burnout 3: Takedown)
The F-Ups formed in 1999 as Mister Completely (a much better name), signed to Capitol Records in 2003, and released their self-titled debut LP. “Lazy Generation” was their flagship single, received a goofy, black-and-white music video, and served as menu music for Burnout 3: Takedown, a game featuring the same high-octane energy and plenty of pop-punk tracks to accompany the meat-and-potatoes formula on display here. Nevertheless, have you heard of this band outside of their sync deals? (“Lazy Generation” also hit the ice via NHL 2005, prolonging the 15 minutes of fame.)
Busdriver — Imaginary Places (Tony Hawk’s Underground)
As previously mentioned, the Tony Hawk’s series set a standard for not only the possibilities of a “sports” game, but the role music played in its presentation. Tony Hawk’s Underground presented a different side to the series — “freestyle” goal completion, a robust story mode (with the most annoying antagonist of the 2000s) and the longest, deepest playlist in the series’ history up to that point. With a recurring flute motif, an orchestral sample break, and spitfire lines, this hip-hop cut introduced wannabe skaters to a side of alternative hip-hop not previously explored by the music supervision team at Activision.
Dashboard Confessional — Reason to Believe (Brooktown High: Senior Year)
Brooktown High is an interesting entry in our survey of digital playgrounds, simply because it’s a PSP-exclusive dating sim that was critically panned (but for a hormonal teen with a hacked console, it was welcome). There were only a few licensed songs underlining the uneven melodrama, but this Dusk and Summer cut is a pretty telling example of what a player could expect: teen drama, turned to the maximum notch.
The Main Drag — A Jagged Gorgeous Winter (Rock Band 2)
This list would be lacking without a lens into Rock Band, the party game developed by the original Guitar Hero team that launched a revolution in how generations discovered music, and ultimately destroyed it with plastic button-mashing. Like its spiritual predecessor, Rock Band (and its sequels) had a series of indie-rock cuts performed by lesser-known acts — a feat compounded by the Rock Band Network developer platform. The Main Drag’s catalog is more subdued than say, Molly Hatchet, but the programmed drums challenge at least one virtual bandmate, and its inclusion in the main setlist paid off. The band’s excellent Yours As Fast As Mine was fully downloadable in the game via Rock Band Network.
The Offspring — All I Want (Crazy Taxi)
The Offspring were the first group to send Epitaph Records into the stratosphere, issuing the best-selling independent label release of all time with 1994’s Smash. Ixnay on the Hombre followed via Columbia Records, and the sync money started rolling in. Arcades across the world still have original Crazy Taxi racing cabinets, a testament to irreverent speed, hip cabbies, and of course, righteous tunes. (If by coincidence or some smirking Victory power move, A Day to Remember’s song of the same time appeared in Crazy Taxi‘s freemium mobile game, City Rush.) Like Brooktown High, however (or due to the SEGA game’s limited memory), you’d be hearing the same “ya, ya, ya, ya, ya” opening at least twice on one handful of quarters.
Slick Rick — Children’s Story (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas)
If you don’t think you’ve heard of Slick Rick, you’ve heard of one of the best known sampled versions of “Children’s Story.” But instead of reminding you of that, this is how we do it: Slick Rick’s Def Jam debut became perfect to archive in the second era of influential licensed soundtracks: Grand Theft Auto‘s open-world entries. Playback FM blasted open San Andreas with classic hip-hop and R&B, peppering shooting sprees with some hefty mood music. (If you grew up not being allowed to mow down pedestrians in M-rated cityscapes, you may have heard “Children’s Story” in Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground.)
Basement Jaxx — Where’s Your Head At (Tap Tap Dance)
When the iPhone upgraded to iOS 2.0, it came bundled with the App Store, which seems like no big deal, but games were finally available on that expensive brick. Tap Tap Revenge was one of the first quality “free” apps available for download, and eventually grew in popularity enough to create paid spin-offs. Dance was one of the first installments, and while not as palatable as controller-using rhythm games, this 2001 Gary Numan-sampling club hit created a more interactive experience than its first appearance in Disney’s Extreme Skate Adventure, of all things.
Shawnna — Let’s Go (Def Jam: Fight for NY)
Surprisingly, the Def Jam-branded fighting games never were published through EA Sports BIG, despite carrying similar attitude and swagger. As the title suggests, this franchise served as a vehicle for the label’s R&B and hip hop stars, including Shawnna, who is one of only six female rappers to chart with a #1 single on Billboard. The NBA Street franchise, published under BIG, could’ve benefitted from Shawnna’s electric delivery, but the stern story of Fight for NY matches it in grit rather than ginormous stunts.
Theory of a Deadman — Santa Monica (Fahrenheit / Indigo Prophecy)
Any good single worth its salt is universal in its storytelling, and while Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy as it’s known in North America) was barred from mass consumption, it still universally expanded the possibilities for video games as storytelling vehicles. For a game built on as much drama as full frontal nudity (enough to be initially rated Adults Only), Indigo Prophecy was more an interactive story than an action title. “Santa Monica” played during the game’s climatic sex scene and over the end credits (while also being purchasable in the game’s virtual environment). For a track that presaged Theory of a Deadman’s descent into syrupy radio rock, it’s an interesting inclusion. Quantic Dream — the game’s developer — would go on to release Heavy Rain, a similar interactive story with 100% less butt rock, and significantly less butt.