One of the often-overlooked aspects of a video game is the music. Sometimes it’s an original score, while other times a game uses a licensed soundtrack. Either option has the ability to elevate a game to be something greater. It can spark imagination, evoke reactions, and present the perfect vibe for your play session.
Today, we’re going to take a look at some of the best-licensed soundtracks found in video games.
Of note, I’m going to be lumping specific games into franchises. Otherwise, this list may very well easily be nothing but Grand Theft Auto and Tony Hawk Pro Skater titles. In addition, the list will be presented in no particular order. The only qualifying metrics used were my personal thoughts on the soundtracks chosen.
Grand Theft Auto Franchise
Might as well get this out of the way.
There’s a reason why ever since the release of Vice City, Grand Theft Auto titles have absolutely nailed the look and feel of their settings. Part of the reason is the soundtrack and use of licensed music.
It isn’t just that Vice City looks and feels like a 1980s Miami, or San Andreas like a 1990s Los Angeles, or the Liberty City of IV and Los Santos of V feel like modern-day New York or LA. They sound like it too. It’s nearly impossible to ignore the vibes you get when Hall & Oates, Michael Jackson, and The Outfield are blaring through your speakers. The adrenaline when you hear the opening notes of Welcome to the Jungle or Running Down a Dream. The variety of flipping between Dr. Dre, Jay Rock and Kendrick Lamar, Queen, Stevie Wonder, and Eddie Murphy’s Party All the Time.
The licensed soundtrack found in each Grand Theft Auto is its own character, helping to complete the immersion of the wide-open sandbox that awaits you.’
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City – “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson
There’s a lot to choose from, and as a Patriots fan, I’m a big fan of “Your Love” by The Outfield. Let’s be honest, though. There’s only one right answer here.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas – “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns ‘N Roses
Honestly, the hardest selection to make. Call me a sucker, but everything on K-DST is gold, especially Toto’s “Hold the Line.” Radio Los Santos is pure west coast hip-hop magic. Radio X is the perfect soundtrack for a kid born in 1987 like myself. In the end, though, I have to give it to the iconic anthem that plays during the game’s launch trailer.
Grand Theft Auto IV – “Vagabond” by Greenskeepers
In my opinion, the weakest offering while also being a great sample of musical variety. When playing, I lived on Liberty Rock Radio, but my personal favorite song is, like San Andreas, the one from the launch trailer.
Grand Theft Auto V – “Hood Gone Love It” – Jay Rock feat. Kenrick Lamar
Sensing a theme here? I promise it’s unintentional because here’s yet another song featured from one of the trailers.
Ironically, I almost went with “Sleepwalking” by The Chain Gang of 1974, which was featured in (you guessed it), the launch trailer.
Honestly, there’s no wrong answer here. GTA V’s selection of licensed music is absolute perfection. There is not a single bad radio station or song here and I could spend all day listing my favorite songs from the franchise.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater Franchise
While we’re here, we might as well also get this one out of the way.
Like Grand Theft Auto, the soundtracks of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater are its own character. They’re your sidekick, cheering you on as you skate through each level. Hyping you up as you perform those impossible combos. Helping you discover every hidden VHS tape. Cheering you on from the sidelines as you compete in the competition courses.
To say that these games influenced my taste in music would be a lie, or in the least, a vast understatement. They opened me up to discover more hip hop and help expand my rock and punk horizons.
Now, there are a million Tony Hawk games out there, so I’ll only focus on a handful of favorites.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 – “Superman” by Goldfinger
I don’t see any reason I have to defend myself here. Moving on.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 – “When Worlds Collide” by Powerman 5000
There’s a chance you were expecting Rage Against the Machine here, which I totally understand. But have you ever really lived if you haven’t been working on a combo that starts incorporating your specials the second this song’s chorus gets going?
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 – “Wish” by Alien Ant Farm
This is where the Tony Hawk franchise really started to ramp up their soundtrack quality. In a list filled with absolute bangers and classics, the pop-punk garbage kid in me has to give it to Alien Ant Farm. I would restart levels just to hear that opening riff.
Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 – “Trying To Find A Balance” by Atmosphere
In the eyes of many, this is the last great Tony Hawk game. It also, arguably, is the last great Tony Hawk soundtrack. It’s a shame because the Underground series really started to blend punk, rock, and hip-hop together and create an immersive and atmospheric (pun not intended) experience.
I’ve been a huge Atmosphere fan for a long time, which makes this an easy decision.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 – “Sedona” by JunkBunny
Last year the remaster brought along some new songs to go with it. One of which is JunkBunny’s “Sedona.” It’s a song that fits the theme of the vibe of late 90s early 2000s punk so well that I was shocked to learn the song was released in 2019.
If you’re looking for a reason to smile, countless YouTube comments on their video are thanking THPS for introducing them to this instant classic.
SSX: On Tour
Taking a break from franchises, let’s focus on some singular games.
The SSX franchise had slowly but surely been working its way to focus on insane style and an over-the-top presentation. It’s always had the substance to back it up as well. With On Tour, the game turns it up to 11 (pun intended).
This was no longer a game about snowboarding or skiing. This was an experience. It was Forza Horizon before either one of those games were even a thing. A perfect blend of sports, style, music, and culture.
Like others on this list, everything falls apart if the soundtrack can’t hold its weight. Thankfully for SSX: On Tour, it does.
Personal Favorite – “Nü Rock” by Morningwood
It’s hard to say no to Iron Maiden, but there’s something about Morningwood’s rock anthem that resonated with me. It helped evoke memories of waking up early to head to the mountain, feel the cold fresh air, and hit the slopes.
If you’re ever looking to play a heavy metal action-adventure RTS hybrid starring Jack Black, then Brutal Legend is just the game for you.
Jack Black plays roadie Eddie Riggs as the game takes you on a who’s who tour of all things Metal, cameos included. The game is absolutely dripping with rock ‘n roll prowess throughout, ranging from the characters, environments, and even the combat itself.
While an original soundtrack was created for the game, you’re able to unlock a wide variety of heavy metal songs as you progress through. The songs range from all-time classics to modern metal hits.
Personal Favorite – “Painkiller” by Judas Priest
In a library full of deep cuts and classics, there’s one metal anthem that stands above the rest. Judas Priest’s six-minute tour-de-force is a blazing metal anthem that’s a perfect marriage for Brutal Legend’s gameplay and themes.
While many may point at Burnout 3: Takedown as a superior game in terms of gameplay and soundtrack, may I make a case for Burnout Revenge?
The fast, high-octane action the series is known for is on full display here, as well as another robust offering in crash mode. It’s accompanied by an absolutely killer soundtrack that matches the racing. It was a perfect blend of mainstream rock, underground punk, and adrenaline-pumping tunes.
In EA Trax fashion, there were some cross-releases in terms of songs appearing elsewhere. Morningwood, who was on the SSX: On Tour soundtrack for example, also makes an appearance here.
Personal Favorite – “Wake the Dead” by Comeback Kid
A song that was love at first listen. There was nothing that got me more hyped for a destructive race than a loud punk rock ballad. Comeback Kid’s loud, in-your-face vocals is not just a perfect match for the Burnout franchise, but also a great way to get pumped up for virtually any task at hand.
Guitar Hero Franchise
Headed back to the world of franchise, there is arguably none more iconic when it comes to licensed music than Guitar Hero. The entire game is based around living your biggest rock star dreams while shredding iconic guitar solos and riffs.
Since the game was originally based around the idea of playing guitar, most songs chosen on the soundtrack led to active and lively guitar performances. While this meant some iconic songs were left off the docket, there’s still no shortage of killer songs for you to play through.
With the release of the third game, the gameplay felt more designed for difficulty than actual musical accuracy. There was the launch of another music-based game too that drew a massive audience away from Guitar Hero. Anyway, let’s talk about some personal favorites from the original trilogy.
Guitar Hero – “Bark at the Moon” by Ozzy Osbourne
The Guitar Hero franchise worked its best magic when it delivered some of the deeper cuts from well-known bands. While that strategy eventually fell to the wayside when the game became more mainstream, the original title’s Ozzy selection, “Bark at the Moon,” is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Everyone knows “Iron Man,” the Black Sabbath song on the list. If you’re asking me, though, “Bark at the Moon” is a far superior track.
Guitar Hero II – “Who Was in My Room Last Night?” by The Butthole Surfers
Guitar Hero II started to see the original, master recordings creep their way into the soundtrack. I’m sticking with a cover here, though, because the song is an absolute blast to play. An addictive hook that’s the definition of an earworm combined with memorable solo interludes. The song’s an absolute blast to listen to and an even bigger blast to play.
Man, some of these songs would be awesome to sing or play drums on.
Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock – “Cult of Personality” by Living Colour
It’s clobberin’ time.
Rock Band Franchise
Rock Band was more than just a game.
It was an event. It was a party. It was our silly dreams come true.
Everyone I knew in college had plastic instruments in their living room. Everyone was proud to display them. Everyone wanted to play Rock Band.
There’s no other game on this list that relies on its soundtrack. You could make the argument for Guitar Hero, but that needs to simply focus on guitar. Rock Band needed to deliver songs that were enjoyable for everyone to play, not just lead guitar. It not only did it in spades but also did it continuously throughout DLC during its heyday.
Rock Band DLC – “Charlene (I’m Right Behind You) by Stephen and the Colberts
I couldn’t wait to talk about this absolute masterpiece. Stephen and Colbert manage to make me feel literally every human emotion in only 75 seconds. It’s a master class of musical composition that was robbed of every award known to man.
Okay, on a serious note…
Rock Band DLC – “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” by Meat Loaf
Here’s the song that really makes you feel every range of human emotion across a nearly epic eight and a half minutes. Meat Loaf’s iconic anthem was already a karaoke legend of a song. Being able to live out the instrument of our choice in the comfort of our own homes? Say no more.
Rock Band – “Welcome Home” by Coheed and Cambria
I played “Welcome Home” so much that I memorized the entire guitar chart.
That was over a decade ago and I can comfortably say I still know at least half of it.
Rock Band 2 – “Painkiller” by Judas Priest
See my prior comments, but replace Brutal Legend with Rock Band.
Rock Band 3 – “One Armed Scissor” by At The Drive-In
There are few bands, if any, that are comparable to At The Drive-In. Every instrument gets the ability to shine throughout the song. Plus, it’s an absolute blast to even attempt to match the band’s energy when playing.
Rock Band 4 – “Toys in the Attic” by Aerosmith
Rock Band’s return with its fourth installment was a pleasant surprise, even if the height of music games was long gone.
The game’s soundtrack was not just a pleasant surprise in terms of quality, but also deep cuts as well. None are as comparable as the title track from Aerosmith’s 1975 album.
Or maybe I’m just heavily influenced by my Dad’s constant playing of Aerosmith albums.
Forza Horizon Franchise
This list simply wouldn’t be complete without the franchise that blends cars, racing, culture, and music all in one.
Forza Horizon works because it’s a sum of all its parts. The joy of exploring new and exciting locations while listening to memorable tunes and driving larger-than-life cars is a dream.
Horizon’s biggest strength when it comes to music is its ability to adapt to the times. Earlier song selections are absolutely representative of the times. The recently released Forza Horizon 5 is a fantastic combination of locally inspired artists, remixes, drum and bass, and mainstream hits.
Forza Horizon – “Me And You” by Nero
I wasn’t kidding when I said earlier Horizon soundtracks were a product of their time. While the rock stations offer a strong selection of some of the best songs of the year, I can’t deny the fact that I’m an absolute sucker for Nero. I’ve desperately been waiting for new music from the band.
Forza Horizon 2 – “The Mother We Share” by Chvrches
Discovering Chvrches through Forza Horizon 2 was one of the best parts of the game. One of my all-time favorite bands, I recall countless conversations between friends as we talked about the absolute ear-worm of a song that is “The Mother We Share.”
I’m literally singing along with the song as I type this out. It holds up well and you better believe I sang along when I saw them live recently.
Forza Horizon 3 – “Clearest Blue” by Chvrches
Forza Horizon 4 – “Never Say Die” by Chvrches
See above again. But if that’s not good enough for you…
Forza Horizon 4 – “The Man” by The Killers
Technically, this is a remix by Jacques Lu Cont. I wanted to link the original because it’s the song me and my wife were introduced to. It’s an absolute banger that proves that The Killers are able to stick with their roots while continuing to evolve.
Forza Horizon 5 – “???” by Chvrches
Wait, why is there no Chvrches in this game? Hold on.
Forza Horizon 5 – “INDUSTRY BABY” by Lil Nas X feat Jack Harlow
The hook to this song is so good that I don’t care that Horizon’s silly looping algorithm cuts off half the song.
Lil Nas X has perfected the ability to create a mainstream hit. His short and sweet tracks not only know how to satisfy the listener but also leave them wanting more.
It’s a testament to how good this song is that in a franchise that contains a large number of great electronic/synth/D&B songs that I’m picking a Top 40 hit here.