by Alex Spencer
You've probably read 1,376 lists of the best whatevers of 2015 by now. If you've got limited free time, it can be intimidating to scan over a set of games or albums that are all apparently must-buys, but which you've never even heard of before.
Luckily, I have a solution: do both at once. Playing the right record over the right game can create something better than the sum of its parts, so I've picked out a few of my favourite albums from the past twelve months, and some equally great games that they pair nicely with.
Chvrches – Every Open Eye with... Metal Gear Solid V
Playing an album over the top of MGS V's stealthy infiltrations might be a bit of a hard sell, given that any extraneous sound can obscure information that would've kept you from getting shot. But the game's collectible cassettes show how music can help squeeze out every last drop of tension, even – especially – when the action is being juxtaposed with '80s pop bangers like “Take On Me” and “Maneater”.
Once you've worn out the tapes provided, Every Open Eye is the ideal replacement. With influences from Depeche Mode to Madonna, Chvrches' synthpop could sneak onto that soundtrack like Snake into a nuclear weapons facility.
The album is packed with climactic moments, where the vocals drop away and the beat speeds up. It instantly raises the stakes, and makes the perfect soundtrack for a desperate end-of-mission sprint to the LZ, the drum machine matching Boss' pounding footsteps beat for beat.
In return, the in-game sounds – the crunch of boots on sand, the wind whipping past, the gunshots over your shoulder – fit nicely into the layered textures of each song, like extra percussion. I had great fun with the helicopter-mounted gatling gun, trying to keep time with the song as I loosed another volley of bullets.
Like this? Try: Grimes' Art Angels does a great job of matching MGS V's weirdness. Alternatively, it makes as a nice substitue for Hotline Miami's woozy pop soundtrack.
Jamie XX – In Colour with... Invisible Inc
In Colour and Invisible Inc's aesthetics are so close that it took a good few minutes of playing to realise that I'd forgotten to turn the game's own audio off. The album manages to make warehouse parties sound like glass-and-steel skyscrapers, the exact kind you'll be sneaking through, and the Blade-Runner-with-asymmetrical-haircuts visual style is exactly on-point. Many of the spies you command look like an extra from one of the music videos. I mean, just look at these guys:
For best results, turn out the lights so you're bathed in the blue glow of your monitor, pull a hoodie tight over your biggest headphones, and push the game to the hardest difficulty setting you can handle. Just let the sound of distant sirens (is that coming from the music or the game?) wash over you as you slip into the zone.
Like this? Try... Combining rap and jazz, Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment's Surf mightn't be most obvious comparison, but it's the second most chill album of 2015. Try it with Mirror's Edge's Time Trial levels.
Dr Dre – Compton with... Grand Theft Auto V (on PC, naturally)
From Franklin's fancy house up in the Vinewood Hills, I plot a course for the streets he started out on, Compton's heavy bass threatening to blow out the car's sound system. The comeback album that the doc has been threatening for the past decade, Compton is preoccupied with that eponymous city, the one that Dre is straight outta.
Pressing down hard on the accelerator as the tempo rises, I scour the mini-map for GTA's equivalents of the LA hoods Dre helped put on the map: Ganton, East Beach, Idlewood. Okay, technically they're not called that any more, but A) San Andreas was my gateway to classic hip hop as a kid, and B) 'Davis, Cypress Flats, Strawberry' just doesn't have the same ring to it.
Just as Dre raps about “Eazy asking for his car back”, Franklin stumbles upon an abandoned Declasse, GTA's answer to the '64 Impala being referenced in the lyrics. It's a sign from D.R.E. himself, and for the duration of the next few tracks I roll through the streets of Ganton, cinematic camera on, Franklin's slow-mo driving ability blooming out the lights. It's like being in my own personal music video, until I manage to crash the Declasse into a lamp-post.
Like this? Try: To Pimp A Butterfly, by Kendrick Lamar, a Dre protégé who makes multiple cameos on Compton. Untangle its dense lyrical content alongside the puzzles of The Talos Principle or Antichamber.
Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion with... Audiosurf 2
Audiosurf is like Guitar Hero mashed up with F Zero X mashed up with an iTunes visualiser, capable of spinning any music track you feed it into a racetrack. Plug Emotion into the level generator, and it will spit out rollercoasters.
Jepsen makes pop with all the dials turned up, reaching for the very highest heights, and Audiosurf is able to translate that into architecture. The key changes become loop-the-loops. The pre-chorus swells become uphill climbs. The drops become literal drops.
Unlike my other recommendations, Audiosurf forces you to split the album into individual tracks, but this actually works nicely for Emotion, which is basically a dozen potential singles back-to-back. There's a real pleasure to guessing which songs will produce the best levels, and which mode you should play each on. (Tip: the 'Dusk' skin, which turns the track into a motorway at night, matches the endless car imagery in Jepsen's lyrics.)
It gives you another way to appreciate the music – kind of like dancing but with a high-score table. Also like dancing, Audiosurfing makes a great communal activity. Pass the controller between songs, and nod in appreciation at the shape of these pop songs as the game's looping psychedelia overwhelms your sense.
Like this? Try... Take to the flashing dancefloors of musical roguelike Crypt of the Necrodancer with Déjà Vu, by disco legend Giorgio Moroder.