I unfortunately didn't get a whole lot of CD soundtracks this year because of the pandemic and my job being on hold (temporarily) for awhile, but I did manage to get some. Here are the top favorites.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword Original Soundtrack -- Skyward Sword marked the end of an era for the Zelda franchise in more ways than one. It was the last of the 3D Zelda games to follow a linear plot, and it was the last of the soundtracks (as of now) to follow a traditional formula which had been established since Ocarina of Time. Breath of the Wild would take both the franchise and its music in a new direction. But Skyward Sword was also a first in many ways. Unlike predecessor Twilight Princess, which only used a full orchestra for one track, this one employs this much coveted treatment for a good majority of its score. The main theme, "Ballad of the Goddess", essentially "Zelda's Theme" backwards, is a grand way to open this soundtrack, and the orchestral tracks are very effective, thanks to skillful orchestrations from Mahito Yokota. There are still some tracks which are synthesized, but even those tracks are effective. For anyone who may have been underwhelmed by the boldly minimalistic approach of Breath of the Wild, Skyward Sword should suffice; it's easily one of the series' best. This score had been long overdue for a soundtrack treatment since its debut in 2011, but thanks to the folks at Columbia Records, who have provided excellent treatments for Breath of the Wild and recently, Link's Awakening, this 5-CD set manages to be just that. The sound quality is as crisp as can be expected and the presentation is fantastic. I also give credit to the folks at Columbia for crediting the composers for their work. This is easily among the top five this year. ***** out of *****.
2. Trials of Mana Orchestra Concert CD -- What was supposed to be performed last year for its 25th anniversary was instead delayed until 2021 on account of pandemic circumstances. Luckily, Hiroki Kikuta's glorious score translates very well to the symphonic treatment, with several tracks such as "Sacrifices Part One, Two, and Three" as well as "Whiz Kid" making the transition smoothly. Even some pieces that seem less likely to survive the treatment ("Powell", which was obviously not meant for such a style), does so rather geniously. My only quibble: the three principal highlights, "Where Angels Fear To Tread", "Meridian Child", and "Return to Forever" are all performed at a considerably slower tempo than their soundtrack counterparts (a problem thankfully rectified on the 3CD set release from last year, in which all three can be heard in their full orchestrated glory). But otherwise this album is nothing short of a treat. The three encore tracks, which seamlessly transition from their "Trials" counterparts to "Secret of Mana", are glorious highlights as well. For fans of Kikuta and this game, this is a must. ***** out of *****.
3. BRAVELY DEFAULT II Original Soundtrack -- I don't remember much of this soundtrack to be honest, and I need a second listen, but what I heard sounded great to me.
4. Mother Music Revisted [Deluxe Edition] -- If you already own the 1988 Mother soundtrack CD then the slow, toned-down arrangements of the same contents from that album will be a bit of a disappointment, as they are unfortunately inferior to their original counterparts. What ultimately redeems it is a proper presentation of the original Mother score for the first time on CD. On its predecessor, the tracks for Mother were compiled onto one 21 and a half minute track. Luckily, no such problem exists here. The tracks are accessible, and while the 8-Bit chip music tones may be offputting to today's listeners, there is something to be said about nostalgia. There are a few "jingle" tracks which are unfortunately still missing but as far as a proper treatment for this iconic score goes, this is as close as you're going to get.