I want to kick off some discussion on the vast film music industry in India, with over a billion fans listening to music old and new in over 20 official languages. Hindi film industry (dubbed Bollywood) and Tamil film industry remain the most prolific and popular.
While there is a hundreds-of-years-old Indian classical music tradition that’s still popular and growing, this discussion is not on that. Most music coming out of India continues to be composed for feature films (the vast majority of which have been musicals), and this discussion will be focused on excellent audiophile recordings in the film music industry.
Indian film music ranges from old “evergreen” melodies to heavy metal to electronic to straight up trip-hop. Through the generations, there have been stalwart music composers who have been both transformational and wildly popular. Some of them, in addition to creating some of the best music I have heard in my life, have also put out some of the most immaculately engineered music. Whether they do the mixing / engineering themselves or employ some of the best in the industry (e.g. H. Sridhar), these composers have the final say in how a record sounds.
Today, I wanted to highlight two composers who I feel consistently produce some of the best sounding records, one famous around the world and the other who has only gained popularity in this decade: A.R. Rahman and Santhosh Narayanan.
If you’re from India or know anything about Indian Film music (or really love Slumdog Millionaire), you know about A.R. Rahman. He composes music in all popular languages, with Hindi and Tamil being the most prolific. He had his debut in 1992 with the film Roja (simultaneously released in both Tamil and Hindi), and it remains one of his best and most popular works.
He created some of his best recorded music with sound engineer H. Sridhar (who unfortunately passed away in 2008). Rahman continues to compose to this day, and while I personally feel the quality of his compositions / recordings has waned in the recent years, you can never ignore him.
Here are some of his best sounding and well mixed records to this day (and musical masterpieces, to boot):
Pudhu Vellai Mazhai - Tamil - Roja (1992) — one of the earliest songs that made me realize that good stereo recording was a thing:
Veerapandi Kottayile - Tamil - Thiruda Thiruda (1993) — fantastic dynamic range; he really explores western classical here:
Hai Rama - Hindi - Rangeela (1994) — holy shit, this one is well mastered. Fear the dynamic range on the first drum punch:
Ottagatha Kattikko - Tamil - Gentleman (1995) — one of his best songs and best recordings, period:
Antha Arabic Kadaloram - Tamil (Humma Humma in Hindi) - Bombay (1996) — Another one of his iconic hits, and a great mix again. Every song from this movie is gold:
(or if you prefer the movie version with vocalization layered on top)
Mustafa Mustafa - Tamil - Kadhal Desam (1996):
Dil Se Re - Hindi - Dil Se (1998) — One of his best songs from one of his best albums:
Thaniye - Tamil - Rhythm (2000) — A favorite of mine for the complex layering in the composition:
Evano Oruvan Vaasikkiraan - Alaipayuthey (2000):
Enna Solla Pogirai - Tamil - Kandukkondain Kandukkondain (2000) – yeah, 2000 was an insanely good year for Rahman. One of his best and most complex compositions. Love the instrumentation:
Sanda Kozhi - Tamil - Ayitha Ezhuthu (2004):
Azeem O Shaan Shehenshan - Hindi - Jodhaa Akbar (2009):
Nadaan Parindey Ghar Aaja - Hindi - Rockstar (2011):
Smitaangaran - Tamil - Sarkar (2018) — His latest movie, not his greatest song, but still very well recorded and produced. Very staccato style:
I will stop here with Rahman. There are hundreds of hits, and I’m not going to be able to link them all.
Santosh has been on an absolute tear in recent years, with film after film of incredible music. He almost exclusively composes for the Tamil film industry, but his recording quality is really second to none. He even makes “typical popular beat songs” sound fantastic.
He composes for a lot of off-beat / satirical movies, and his music matches the overall edginess and irreverence of these movies. A lot of his songs really feel like a breath of fresh air and feel really down to earth and accessible, despite being so complex. There is so much space in each of his recordings, with immaculate imaging and instrumentation. He debuted in 2012, and I feel he still has decades of great music to come.
Here are some of his best:
Kaasu Panam Dhuttu - Tamil - Soodhu Kavvum (2013) – one of his earliest hits:
Vaadi Rasathi - Tamil - 36 Vayathinile (2015) — Really folksy song that feels like something you’d hear in a village. But the mixing, production, and instrumentation makes it entirely modern:
Ey Sandakkara - Tamil - Irudhi Suttru (2016) — A song about a girl who grew up as a fish vendor, now learning to be a boxer, falling in love for the first time:
Neruppu Da - Tamil - Kabali (2016) — Basically a mix between rap and heavy metal. Loud, full of distorted guitars, and completely in your face. Still very well produced and imaged. One of a kind song:
Nirkathey - Tamil - Server Sundaram (2017) — A composition that spans multiple genres from Indian classical to Rock. Just really well put together, could do with a bit more dynamic range.
Semma Weightu - Tamil - Kaala (2018) — This is one of the best recorded rap songs I’ve ever heard, in any language. The entire soundtrack and song list from the movie is great:
Gointhammavala - Tamil - Vadachennai (2018) — One of the best audiophile movie soundtracks out there, and every song is incredibly well mixed. This one is my favorite:
Basically, every one of Santhosh Narayanan’s movie albums has been superbly recorded, with Kaala and Vadachennai being the best engineered to date IMO.
This turned into quite a long post, but I wanted to highlight some incredible work being done from the other side of the world and invite others to contribute their favorites as well.
P.S. Apologies for only youtube links. A lot of these are not on spotify or tidal, so Youtube is the best you get outside of CD’s.