1. Bra Bra Final Fantasy VII Brass de Bravo - The previous three albums in the Bra Bra series of Final Fantasy brass-centric arranged albums have been surprisingly solid efforts, but the arrangement and production quality reach a new level in this latest entry, dedicated exclusively to Final Fantasy VII. The three tracks that already had full orchestral arrangements hold up surprisingly well (even a chorus-less "One Winged Angel"), but the nine tracks that had previously lacked dedicated orchestral renditions are the real treat. Themes like the jazzy "Cait Sith's Theme" and march-like "Rufus's Welcome Ceremony" suite the album perfectly, as do lighthearted themes like "Descendant of Shinobi" and "Farm Boy". Newly arranged battle themes "On We Fight", "Jenova Complete", and "Birth of a God" have surprising intensity, and even delicate themes like "Tifa's Theme" and "Words Drowned by Fireworks" sound great. As much as I'd love to hear a full orchestral (strings included) FFVII album with arrangements of this quality, when every one of the album's twelve tracks is a four-star effort I'm content calling it my favorite VGM album of the year as is.
2. The Tomb Raider Suite - Having never heard a second of Tomb Raider music I had zero expectations for this Kickstarted orchestral arranged album dedicated to the original three PlayStation-era titles. It just about floored me on first listen with its arrangement, performance, and recording quality. From the Rey's Theme'esque, track two "Tomb Raider Theme" arrangement onward you very much get the feeling of exploring cavernous, isolated, wondrous environments. It's atmospheric yet at the same time melodic, musical, and beautiful.
3. Moss (Original Game Soundtrack) - A perfect soundtrack to the nature-set adventure of a sword-wielding mouse, with folk-tinged violin, flute, and oboe solos accompanied by acoustic guitar and understated orchestration. It's a mostly quaint and peaceful affair with just a touch of melancholy, along with a couple of eccentric action cues at just at the right moment to liven things up. A full orchestra would have made the thematically rich score even more beautiful, but the combination of live solo instruments with sampled orchestra still makes for one of the most memorable soundtracks of the year.
4. Seiken Densetsu 25th Anniversary Orchestra Concert CD - As with the Legend of Zelda 30th anniversary orchestral album from last year, it's hard to go wrong with an original orchestral best album for a series like the Seiken Densetsu (aka Mana) series, with 25 years of themes from such fan favorites as Secret of Mana and Legend of Mana behind it. I use the "original" here somewhat loosely, as several of the arrangements are quite similar to those in earlier albums like Seiken Densetsu: Let Thoughts Ride on Knowledge, Drammatica, and the Orchestral Game Concert albums, but even fans with the full collection of existing series arrangements will likely enjoy the slight differences here, not to mention the several themes getting orchestral renditions for the very first time.
5. God of War (Playstation Soundtrack) - The orchestral-choral action themes and somber, atmospheric cinematic pieces in Bear McCreary's God of War score are produced at the level of the best game and film scores. Folk-ethnic touches matching the game's Norse mythology separate it further from the standard epic-adventure crowd, while a tragic female solo-led main theme gives the score further emotional resonance. You won't find the same number of standout themes as other top game soundtracks, but those who appreciate serious drama (with its share of action) and expert orchestration should most certainly check it out.
6. RuneScape: The Orchestral Collection - The first orchestral album for the long-running MMORPG, featuring tracks from the orchestral RuneScape 3 soundtrack as well as newly recorded arrangements of other themes from the series, sounds very much like what you would imagine of a Western medieval fantasy RPG. Fortunately the themes are memorable enough (I was sold on first listen, having never heard a singe melody from the game) and the orchestral renditions - which generally favor small instrumental sets with featured solo instruments over a bombastic large-scale orchestrations - are of high enough quality to elevate it well above the level of the many similarly styled soundtracks. It also joins Bra Bra FFVII as one of the most consistently high quality albums of the year - a rare 100 minute-plus soundtrack that I can take in all at once with patience intact.
7. Super Mario Odyssey Original Sound Track - I'm not sure which impresses me more, how great Super Mario Odyssey sounds as a Mario soundtrack, or how great it would sound as a non-Mario soundtrack. On the one hand you've got excellently arranged classic Mario themes, Galaxy'esque new themes like "Fossil Falls", and lively big band pieces (including a surprisingly good English vocal) that fall right in line with the sound of the series. On the other hand you've got ethnic-accented town themes, atmospheric environment themes, and dramatic orchestral pieces that could easily pass for a JRPG soundtrack - and a very good one at that. There's even some hard electric guitars and traditional Japanese instrumentation and chanting thrown into the mix for the boss battles. Whatever the sound, the musicianship of an expert live ensemble (and quality sound design on the synth side) permeates the score with an energy rarely found with such consistency in OSTs of this length.
8. Prescription for Sleep: Celeste - The sixth album in the Prescription for Sleep arranged album series takes the melodies of the indie synth OST Celeste and gives them the series' staple piano and sax treatment, along with an extra element new to this installment - violin. That extra addition is huge - whereas saxophone and piano alone is hard not to associate by default to jazz lounge music, the violin adds a new range of moods that suit Celeste's themes very nicely (and that I venture will hold more appeal to many game music fans). Despite the title I find the album best suited to background music when working at the PC or otherwise trying to focus - there are plenty of less interesting albums to fall asleep to.
9. Monster Hunter Orchestra Concert ~Hunting Music Festival 2018~ - Monster Hunter World has gotten a fair amount of attention for its soundtrack (available as a three-disc OST), but I much prefer the higher hit ratio of this single disc (but meaty 75 minute) orchestral concert album. Thanks to the track selection and quality arrangements and performance, just about every track is a keeper. With only a couple of exceptions they're all battle themes, and heavy, intense battle themes at that. In that sense it's reminiscent of the same studio's Dragon's Dogma, albeit with a more primal, Monster Hunter sound (both titles include Tadayoshi Makino among their composers). For anyone looking for an orchestral action music fix, this is a good place to get it.
10. Fallout 76 (Original Game Score) - This Fallout series prequel score is a good example of an action/sci-fi soundtrack in the modern cinematic style done right. The string swells, the low brass tones, the rhythmic percussion, even the often understated melodies are similar to what you might hear in so many bland and uninspired modern film and game scores, but Fallout 76 is anything but, thanks to excellent orchestration, emotive solo violin (given just a slight folk quality to match the game's Appalachian setting), and modestly used but extremely effective themes (particularly the album opening main theme). Even many of the heavily atmospheric, nearly ambient pieces are well worth listening.
I've yet to listen to Symphonic Suite Suikoden, which was released late in December. Red Dead Redemption 2, Tetris Effect, Super Smash Brothers Ultimate, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider are all noteworthy titles that didn't receive a separate soundtrack album release during the year (maybe 2019).
And for comparison's sake, here's a list of other major releases from the year I've listened to. Several among them are still recommended, just not to the level of my top ten.
Assassin's Creed Odyssey / Beat Saber (Original Game Soundtrack) / Beat Saber (Original Game Soundtrack), Vol. II / Caravan Stories OST Vol.1 / Celeste OST / Detroit: Become Human OST / Dragon Quest XI Symphonic Suite / Far Cry 5 (Original Game Soundtrack) / Final Fantasy XV OST Vol. 2 / Guacamelee! 2 OST / Into the Breach Soundtrack / Marvel's Spider-man / Metal Slug Attack OST / Monster Hunter: World OST / NieR Gestalt & Replicant Orchestral Arrangement Album / NieR: Automata Orchestral Arrangement Album / NieR: Automata Piano Collections / Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom OST / Octopath Traveler OST / Pode / Rockman 11 OST / Tangledeep / Under Night In-birth Exe:Late [st] OST / Vampyr / Video Games Live Level 6 / World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth / Xenoblade2 OST / Xenoblade2: Torna ~ The Golden Country OST / Yoku's Island Express