The lights are on
No company in games has done more to make an art of the licensed soundtrack than Rockstar Games. The Grand Theft Auto series' in-game radio stations have been a way for the music team at Rockstar to show off its taste in tunes, and – from GTA III all the way through the upcoming GTA V – the results are stunningly varied.
While there are dozens (even hundreds) of amazing songs in the history of Grand Theft Auto, I decided to pick my favorite "deep cuts" – amazing but obscure songs that show Rockstar's vast knowledge of music.
10. Les Savy Fav – "Raging in the Plague Age" (GTA IV)Rhode Island's Les Savy Fav, propelled by the live antics of their bearded, naked frontman Tim Harrington, are one of the best indie rock bands of the last 20 years. Balancing punk energy, angular guitar lines, and Harrington's anthemic melodies, the band made most of the other bands on the early '00s circuit look soft. Rockstar chose one of the band's fan favorites, "Raging in the Plague Age," for the GTA IV soundtrack.
9. Tortoise – "Prepare Your Coffin" (GTA: Chinatown Wars)Tortoise has straddled the line between rock, jazz, and electronic music for over 20 years. Led by Doug McCombs and John McEntire, the adventurous unit were the leaders of the atmospheric, instrumental "post-rock" movement of the mid-1990s. "Prepare Your Coffin" is off the band's latest album, Beacons of Ancestorship, and shows off the band's unique compositional style and impressive musical chops. Oddly, despite being on one an obscure band's most obscure albums, "Prepare Your Coffin" has actually been used on two game soundtracks: Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars and LittleBigPlanet Vita.
8. Sepultura – "Dead Embyronic Cells" (GTA IV)Sepultura came roaring out of the Brazilian metal underground with 1989's Beneath the Remains, a pummeling metal classic that straddled the line between thrash and death metal. It's heavy sound, brilliantly twisted riffs, and uncompromising attitude made it an album that is still considered an all-time classic in extreme metal circles. "Dead Embyronic Cells," which had a video that received significant late -ight play on MTV, was the song that broke them, and it still rages today on GTA IV's Liberty City Hardcore station. [Lyrics May Be NSFW – I'm not entirely sure.]
7. Above the Law – "Murder Rap" (GTA: San Andreas)As one of the groups on the roster of N.W.A.'s Ruthless Records, Above the Law is one of the most underrated west coast rap groups off all time. "Murder Rap" was produced by Dr. Dre, and featured the offbeat gangster lyricism of ATL's leader, Cold 187um. The song's looping sine wave synth and skittering drums provide a nervous tension that exemplifies the gangland 1980s Los Angeles that inspired Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
6. Jerry Reed – "Amos Moses" (GTA: San Andreas)Jerry Reed was a genius. Best known as Burt Reynold's truck-driving sidekick in Smokey and the Bandit (his theme song for the film introduced the phrase "Eastbound and Down" into the popular lexicon), Reed was also a killer guitar player who pedaled a funky, R&B-influenced brand of country. Check out the popping, finger-picked guitar figure that powers "Amos Moses," a story of a Cajun boy who could eat a lot and hit alligators in the head with tree stumps and got his arm bit off and probably killed a Louisiana sheriff. Got it? That's a lot to pack into 2:53, but like I said Jerry (R.I.P.) was a genius.
5. David Axelrod – "Holy Thursday" (GTA IV)David Axelrod began his career as a jazz arranger and producer for artists like Lou Rawls and Cannonball Adderly. However, in the late 1960s he began pioneering a strain of groove-based, cinematic music that fused jazz, R&B, and psychedelic rock influences into something never heard before. "Holy Thursday," off his classic album Songs of Innocence, has been popular in hip-hop, sampled by artists like Lil' Wayne, Pete Rock, The Artifacts, and Joey Bada$$.
4. The Cure – "A Forest" (GTA: Vice City Stories)Here's an example of how Rockstar will include a well-known, popular artist in a GTA soundtrack, but avoid the obvious hits in favor of a more obscure fan favorite. Instead of using The Cure's "Lovesong," "Boys Don't Cry," or "Pictures of You," Rockstar selected "A Forest" off the band's early album, Seventeen Seconds. The song's chilling vibe and ominous lyrics have made it beloved by the band's hardcore goth fans.
3. Fela Kuti – "Zombie" (GTA IV)Imagine a mix of Muhammad Ali and James Brown, and you come close to understanding the impact Fela Kuti had in African culture and politics in the 20th century. One of the pioneers of "afrobeat," a complex mix of traditional African music and American funk, Fela's outspoken, political music made him a target of government oppression and beloved by millions in Africa and beyond. "Zombie" is one of his signature tracks, with 12 minutes of overwhelming groove.
2. Terry Riley – "A Rainbow in Curved Air" (GTA IV)Terry Riley is an American modern classical composer of the minimalist school. Though nominally classical, his work has been popular with more experimental rock, electronic, and dance artists over the years. Riley's undulating arpeggios anticipate the use of sequencers in electronic music, and this song inspired Pete Townsend to write the synth intro to The Who's "Baba O'Riley" (the song's title is a tribute to Riley and Townsend's Indian spiritual guru Meher Baba). In my opinion, it's some of the most gorgeous music ever made by human beings – in 1969 "A Rainbow in Curved Air" must have sounded like a transmission from another planet.
1. Main Source – "Live at the Barbeque" (GTA IV)Main Source's Breaking Atoms is considered an underground hip-hop masterpiece, no small thanks to "Live at the Barbeque," a posse cut that served as rap fans' introduction to Nas, now widely considered one of the greatest MCs of all time. Nas' verse is an attention-getting turn, going for shock value with lines like "When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffin' Jesus." Nas' verse made him an instant star, but it overshadowed strong performances by less-remembered MCs Joe Fatal, Akinyele, and Main Source's Large Professor. "Live at the Barbeque" still rules, and it's like that, y'all. [Lyrics NSFW]