In 2016, Adam Young of Owl City chose to take a break from his normal music to work on his first love: soundtrack music. From February to December, he released one album a month based on a historical event that inspires him. The project was purely creative for him, and he offered each score completely free. You can read more about the project and his reasons for doing it here. I was really excited when I heard about the project, for a few reasons: 1) I'm already a fan of his, 2) I love history, and 3) I love soundtrack music.
I'll admit that I didn't always get what I was expecting. I write to soundtrack music, and I can't always write to everything Young has put out for this project. But his albums are tied tightly to their inspiration, and I've found that I deeply enjoy hearing an album illustrate the arc of a historical event. I eagerly waited each and every month to see what the new score would be; Adam Young's scores were a highlight of 2016 for me. With that in mind, I'd like to break down my thoughts on the project for you. I hope you enjoy.
Each month brought something different from the project – different stories, different sounds. Young experimented a lot throughout the year; I got to hear things I never have before. First, I'm going to summarize each month's album for you, along with my favorite track off that album. Then I'll add a few other thoughts. Information about the historical events is gathered from Young's own summaries, my personal knowledge, and some outside sources, cited below.
February – Apollo 11 – This album seeks to tell the story of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July of 1969. It is subtitled "One Giant Leap for Mankind," capturing the spirit of the story. The album is a majestic, positive arc that tells of courage, victory, and the American spirit.
Favorite Track: "Re-Entry" – This eleventh track on the album is 2 and a half minutes of drama and victory, orchestrated with drums, bells, and a choral background that makes my heart swell. I really enjoyed the tracks on this album, but I ultimately chose this one as my favorite for the pure feeling of exhilaration it always gives me.
March – RMS Titanic – On this album, Adam Young relives the 1912 journey of the mighty, so-called "unsinkable" Titanic, whose maiden voyage was heralded with such pomp but ended in tragedy after striking in iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean. Over 1500 people died. Subtitled "The Tragedy that Shook the World," Young's score highlights both the wonder of the journey's beginning and the melancholy of the tragedy's end. It's a beautiful soundtrack that always makes me feel deeply.
Favorite Track: "Distress Call" & "Survivors" – Picking a favorite off this album was so hard, and, ultimately, I just couldn't choose between these two. Both, in my mind, encapsulate the heart of the tragedy. "Distress Call," situated in the middle of the album, always makes me think of helplessness. At first, there is a rising, string-driven possibility of hope as the ship calls for help. Then the suspense of waiting. And then the soft piano as realization dawns. No one hears them. No one's coming. "Survivors" is actually quite similar, in length and in composition. The last track on the album, it, too, alternates between strings and piano. There is a cautious relief of surviving, but there is also the guilt – why did I survive when so many did not? This track puts into perspective the enormity of the tragedy, in my mind. Both tracks are breathtakingly beautiful and haunting.
April – The Spirit of St. Louis – In 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, travelling from New York City to Paris in 33.5 hours. Young's score, subtitled simply "New York to Paris," captures the magic and inspiration of making history with an arc that shows both the thrill of victory and the reflection of flying alone.
Favorite Track: "Wheels Up" – I had a really hard time picking this one, but I went with "Wheels Up," the last track on the album, largely because it makes me happy. I actually use it as a ringtone. The track is endlessly positive, driven by piano and accented with percussion and electric guitar. It ends the album with the thrill of success and the magic of flight.
May – The Ascent of Everest – May's soundtrack surprised me when it released, as it is a departure in many ways from the previous three. By using what Young describes as "frozen, wind-burned, sun-bleached instrumentals," the story of the first men to reach the top of Mt. Everest in 1953 unfolds through a series of sometimes peaceful, sometimes slightly erratic tracks. Though not every single one is perfectly pleasant, the album lives up to its subtitle of "29,029 ft," telling a story of marching to great heights, a story of adventure.
Favorite Track: "The Hillary Step" – This track is dangerous, the last moment of drama before the success of reaching "The Summit." It is string and drum-driven moments of driving for the top, alternating with quiet, climbing moments of piano or soft strings. It's a beautiful track that may make the listener's heart speed up just a bit.
June – Omaha Beach – This is the story of D-Day – June 6, 1944 – and one of the bloody battles on the coast of France as Allied troops launched attacks against German entrenchments. Omaha Beach was one of five landing sights on D-Day; the Allies would suffer 2400 casualties there before the day was out. Subtitled "Into the Jaws of Death," this album is not pretty. It is painful at times. But in its arc, you can envision the story it's meant to illustrate, a story that ultimately ended in victory.1
Favorite Track: "The Longest Day" – This track is the album's finale, the cap to a battle hard-fought and territory dearly-won. Its carried largely by strings that convey watchful weariness and knowing sorrow. But in glimpses of bells, there is hope.
July – Miracle in the Andes – This was the first historical event of the project that I wasn't at least slightly familiar with, but it is a fascinating story. In 1972, a plane called, as the subtitle notes, "Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571," crashed in the Andes Mountains, killing roughly half of the 45 passengers. Those who survived, mostly members of a Uruguayan rugby team, banded together, facing an avalanche and the horror of eating dead bodies. Eventually, two young men escaped the mountains and led rescuers back; in all, sixteen people survived 72 days in the mountains. The album is a fascinating journey of highs and lows, despair and triumph. In its sum and total, it's quite beautiful.2
Favorite Track: "Parrado and Canessa" – Named for the two young men who brought back rescue, this track is the first glimmer of real hope. It starts slowly, the acoustic guitar telling of their weary trek through the mountains. But it gains speed, and drums begin to show the nearness of success. It portrays almost a sense of disbelief alongside beautiful relief.
August – Project Excelsior – Another event that I didn't know anything about, this album is nonetheless very enjoyable. Subtitled "The Highest Step in the World," it's about a parachute test in 1960 – what's remarkable about that test is that it was made from what Young calls "the edge of space." It was a record-setting project tested by Joe Kittinger, and the album is a meandering journey of breathing deeply and falling freely. I have to be in a particular mood to listen to it, as it sometimes feels rather repetitive, but I've still enjoyed it.
Favorite Track: "The Jump" – Electric guitar drives the sensation of freefall in this track, sending the listener from safety through the heart-racing danger of jumping.
September – Corduroy Road – This album is fun, ya'll. Super, super fun. Like Young, I really love learning about the Civil War, and this album is devoted to one part of it, Union General Sherman's famous march through the South in 1864. Sherman's campaign brought havoc to the Confederacy and helped bring about the end of the war. The album is subtitled "The Final March of the Civil War" for that reason. Young used a lot of nature sounds for this score, and I really enjoyed hearing the different ways he implemented them. It also uses a lot more vocals than his previous albums, though the music is still largely instrumental. It's a beautiful, fun, thoughtful listen all the way through.
Favorite Track: "Kennesaw Mountain" & "March to the Sea" – Once again, I couldn't just pick one. "Kennesaw Mountain" sounds much like a music box, soft and almost whimsical. It includes the sounds of rain and the playing of "Taps," which always gets me. "March to the Sea" is near the end of the album, a soft piece of guitar and piano, crickets and campfire noises. It sounds, more than any other track, like something off the trail. And there's just something about it that I love.
October – Voyager 1 – In 1977, NASA sent out a space probe called Voyager 1 to explore the universe, and it's out there still. It is actually one of two probes launched as part of the project, and they have sent back all kinds of information about our solar system and interstellar space. Young's score gives an almost whimsical aura to the journey, indicated by its subtitle, "Wandering the Solar System," but it's still clearly a space story. It incorporates static to impressive effect, resulting in an album that is a bit of an acquired taste but one that I came to enjoy pretty quickly.3
Favorite Track: "Interstellar Space" – There's an uncertainty to this, the last track on the album. It's meant to illustrate the jump into the unknown of interstellar space, the so-called "space between the stars." It's a drawn-out piece that utilizes background static, soft strings, and some kind of electronic percussion. Ultimately, it instills the sense of wonder that the album was meant to give in the first place.
November – Mount Rushmore – Mount Rushmore, in South Dakota, was a project that took roughly 13 years and 400 men to complete, eventually resulting in the faces of four U.S. presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. It was a dangerous project but one that created one of the most interesting monuments in America, known, as the subtitle says, as a "Shrine of Democracy." The album depicts both the dangers and joys of the project, embarking on a relatively short journey filled with enjoyable pieces. I fell in love with this album instantly.
Favorite Track: "Half a Million Tons of Granite" – I was really tempted to go with the last track on the album, which is much more grand and heroic. But it is this track, the second to last, that gets to me time and time again. I'm drawn in by nostalgia and the bittersweet, and this is the track that fulfills those things. It is soft, piano and muted percussion that tells a story of all the work completed, all the dangers overcome. It looks back at where the journey started and how far it has come. It is beautiful.
December – The Endurance – This last album is the story of Ernest Shackleton, who sought to sail to Antarctica in 1914. 200 miles out, however, the ship was trapped by ice and completely crushed. Though Shackleton didn't reach his destination, he did lead his men hundreds of miles to safety. "Shackleton's Journey," as Young subtitled it, is a story of victory against incredible odds, of hope that never gives up, and of sheer guts. It's a really fun album, too, in which he used accordion for the first time (as far as I can tell). I fell in love with it from the moment I first heard it.
Favorite Track: "South Georgia" – I could put just about any track here and gush about it, but there's something really satisfying about the last track of the album. It's a stirring march of victory, heralded by drums, strings, and xylophone (or maybe bells?). But in the midst are quiet, reflective moments of piano. It is victorious, but it is the victory of relief, of survival. It's short, sweet, and a fitting end to the album and project (at least as far as 2016 is concerned).
Favorite Album: Corduroy Road. Though I had a really hard time choosing between this and The Endurance, I ultimately chose Corduroy Road for some not-entirely-explainable reason. It just makes me really, really happy. And it was such a unique album, too, with its incorporation of sounds like birds, rain, and campfire noises. I have listened to this album more times than I can count, and I'm sure I will continue to do so in the future.
All-Time Favorite Track: "Distress Call" from RMS Titanic. This was ridiculously hard for me to choose, but there's something about this track that I really love. Yes, it's sad, but it's so emotionally deep, in my opinion. And I have listened to it a lot.
Favorite Cover: Hands down, The Endurance. This cover is so gorgeous – the colors magic, the ship beckoning. It captured the story so perfectly, and I instantly fell in love with it. All the covers for this project were done by artist James R. Eads, and there is something in his style that I really like. But this was, in my opinion, his very finest work.
1Additional information about Omaha Beach drawn from https://www.britannica.com/place/Omaha-Beach
2Additional information about the Andes Flight Disaster drawn from http://www.alpineexpeditions.net/the-story-of-the-andes-survivors.html
3Additional information about the Voyager expedition drawn from http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/index.html
Did you take part in the Adam Young Scores Project? If so, what were your favorite albums and tracks? If not, I encourage you to check it out. And, if you do, let me know!