English language theme songs are rare in anime, but it recently occurred to me that some of them rank among the best I’ve heard used in the medium. If there’s a tendency in the use of songs sung by native English speakers, especially those that appear on this list, it’s that they’re more somber and subdued, and appear in more serious anime. Whether this is a coincidence, or there’s a train of logic underlying this, I’m not sure, but there’s an admirable quality to the songs in this list, a level of sophistication well above the average anime tune. All of them are, in my opinion, underloved, and the type of which I’d have no complaint about hearing in anime more often. (Image found on oreno.imouto.org. Link mildly NSFW.)
English by birth, but French by ethnicity, Jean-Jacques Burnel wrote “We Were Lovers” as a song that tells a story, a song made specifically for the anime it opens, Gankutsuou. It pours the feelings of love, revenge and regret that make up the anime’s story into the open, leaving nothing concealed. Each time it threatens to build to something intense, it quickly dissipates into a trickle of tender romantic sentiments and a deluded sense of optimism with the lyrics “nothing can go wrong”.
It’s a pity Scottish indie group The Delgados broke up, and after hearing Gunslinger Girl‘s OP song “The Light Before We Land”, you’ll probably agree. The song undergoes two very eclectic transitions right at the beginning, starting as an angelic hymn then exploding into a melody carried by violins and a heavily distorted bass before finally settling on an acoustic guitar riff with an off-kilter beat. Lead vocalist Emma Pollock’s singing is dreamlike and relaxing, but the lyrics are troubled at times, but also emphasize a sense of purpose.
Ally Kerr, also Scottish, is known in anime circles for the determined song that blessed the brilliant Mushishi, “The Sore Feet Song”. Mushishi is an anime about a journey, so it’s fitting that this is also true of its OP. Ally Kerr’s wondering love-struck pariah who “stole ten thousand pounds, ten thousand pounds to see you” and “robbed convenient stores ‘cos I thought they’d make it easier” is a far cry from Mushishi‘s noble, but analytical Ginko, but the subdued tone of the song is the perfect opener for the sentimental and tender drama that appears in all of Mushishi‘s stories.
English artist David Sylvian’s “For The Love Of Life” is an incredibly haunting song, which evolves into something disturbing and ironic when it complements Monster’s ED sequence and its images of a terrible creature who devours a kingdom. In many ways “For The Love Of Life” is a song about acceptance of one’s place in life, but it’s simultaneously anti-complacent, challenging its listeners with lines like “we could lose it all but we’ll go down fighting… And what of the children? Surely they can’t be blamed for our mistakes.” It’s a slow song, but it never meanders… every note and every lyric has a staid intensity.
London is home of some of the best music makers in the world, and that’s true even when it comes to anime, with its residents, Boa, responsible for what I consider one of anime’s all-time best theme songs, Serial Experiments Lain’s OP song, “Duvet”. A much more sprightly song than the others on this list, Boa’s lead vocalist Jasmine Rodgers sings with an almost Celtic inflection. The song’s verses vindictively point outwards, but the choruses become noticeably introverted with lines like “I am hurting, I have lost it all, I am losing, help me to breathe”. At every moment, Rodger’s emotions permeate the right mood. Everything is carried by a delightfully melodic baseline, especially the uplifting guitar instrumental through the middle of the song.
I don’t want to write too much about The Seatbelts’ triumphant song, “Blue” because I feel like every word I write could unwittingly demean it. What’s the right word to describe it? Sublime? Iconic? It is instantly evocative of and just as heavy as the unforgettable scene in Cowboy Bebop that it connects to. It’s a masterpiece song fitting of the masterpiece anime that it closes. The Seatbelts are a vastly different band from the others mentioned in this list. Lead by one of anime’s most accomplished musicians, Kanno Yoko, The Seatbelts was a vast composition of Japanese, New Yorker and Parisian jazz and blues musicians, including Yamane Mai, who, with her strong singing voice, provides the vocals for “Blue”.
These songs are all amazing in their own way, and often accompany anime that tend to be more serious, more mature. The commonality between them kinda suggests that something underlies this trend. What that “something” is, I’ve got no idea, but I’m interested in hearing theories. There are plenty of other impressive English lyric songs that are most notable for their appearance in anime, and if you have some favourites I haven’t listed here, I’d like to know about them. If there’s one trait these songs share, it’s that they don’t get the love they deserve.