10 years ago, I felt the electric joy of listening to Amit Trivedi for the first time. It is how, apparently, Trivedi felt when he first heard AR Rahman, in Roja (1992), as a boy. I was at a congested pavement in Shyambazar, Kolkata, on a humid afternoon, when I heard "Ha Raham" from Aamir (2008) on the radio. I had my earphones on, as it had to be, for Trivedi has been the most personal of Hindi film composers, more of a private hero than a household name, the alternate to the mainstream, Anurag Kashyap to Mani Ratnam. I was in college. It was a lot like falling in love, as grand, as intimate. "Ha Raham" is a Sufi devotional song, not the more fashionable Sufi-rock, and it's hard to put fingers on what was so magical about it… but that's the essence of Trivedi, he makes uncool things sound cool. Too cool to be not liked by the snobs, but also likeable enough for your mother, also accessible and fun enough to be played in weddings.
Why was Trivedi–Dev D was to release a few months later–the biggest seismic shake up in Bollywood music after Rahman? If the maestro broke the mukhda-antara-antara-mukhda format of the Hindi film song, and used the singer's voice as an instrument, Trivedi makes instruments sing. The arrangement in an Amit Trivedi composition is almost always as interesting as the central melody, featuring little beauties, played by his pool of talented session musicians. In true Rahman tradition, he is an excellent music producer, and that's a big reason why he sounds so good. There are layers upon layers, and you might find something new to discover even when you are listening to a song for the 20th time.
It is true that it has been a while since the composer gave us something truly exhilarating. A lot of his more recent work, worryingly, is at the lower half of this list—which only includes albums which don't feature any other composer other than him, and leaves out the album-stealing single "Iktara" from Wake Up Sid or the lovely "Lagan Lagi" from Trishna. Is the general state of Hindi film music, which is going through one of its worst phases, to blame? Or a champion in middling form? Before we dwell upon that, let's look back at a body of work that's worth all the dissection, all the fanboying and all the disappointments.
25 CHILLAR PARTY (2011)
An item song for a children's film, "Aa Le Ra Apun" cracks like a birthday party confetti popper and yet it has the feel of a visarjan soundtrack. It's the only takeaway from the album. "Behla Do" is a predictably flat rock and roll song with just a kid's voice put in it, while "Ek school banana" hai practically lifts the chorus line of the Udaan title track. Trivedi's shoddiest work till date.
24 BHAVESH JOSHI (2018)
The hip-hop anthem "Insaaf", by rappers Baabu Haabi and Naezy, has got a nice bounce about it, but is too reminiscent of the sound of Udta Punjab. "The Chawanprash song", with its deliberately crude lyric and sleazy singing, recalls the 'Mumbai shady' of Ghanchakkar, but lacks that zing. And "Tafreeh" is cut from the same cloth as the hope-filled rock ballads of Udaan and Queen. Trivedi is a filmmaker's composer, and in Vikramaditya Motwane's vigilante film Bhavesh Joshi Superhero, the director doesn't seem to be in need of music as much as in their previous outings like Udaan and Lootera. It shows; the songs are pleasant enough but they feel derivative of Trivedi's earlier work.
23 PADMAN (2018)
A slick, auspicious shehnai kicks off "Aj Se Teri", a folksy romantic number; Arijit Singh sings with a touch of gentle, and there's some smart writing by Kausar Munir: kandhe ka til is followed by bijli ka bill. "Sayaani" is a clever, festive, all-women traditional song, that takes place in the film during a puberty ceremony. I like these two songs, or maybe two and a half; "Hu Ba Hu" has an inspired chorus-prelude. The two songs work because they are built around ideas specific to the film, the rest play out like standards of a star-vehicle. They could have been by any other composer and you wouldn't be able to tell.
22 QAIDI BAND (2017)
Habib Faisal's film is about the young inmates of a prison forming a rock band and it's remarkable how Trivedi works with Arijit Singh to make him sound different. The singer is practically unrecognisable in "I am India", a patriotic song that doesn't sound like one: upbeat, brilliantly lit up by youth, and alive with the sounds of a live music group. The flavour is there. "Phir Nayi", lyrics by Kausar Munir and sung by Yashita Sharma, is an ode to small-town rebellions, bunking tuition and whistling in single screens. But the album suffers from a lack of a sense of purpose and it doesn't have the bite of the thrilling Ishaqzaade which was by the same composer-lyricist-director team.
21 DEAR ZINDAGI (2016)
The two popular songs are too cutesy; an unplugged version of the title track might have worked better, and seriously, who says things like "Love you zindagi?" and "Just Go To Hell Dil"? But then, these are for a film called "Dear Zindagi". I prefer the silly dance number "Let's Break Up", with Vishal Dadlani, on vocals, appropriately nuts. Or the hummable "Tu Hi Hai". "Taareefo Se", by Arijit, stands out. It has the tone of a ghazal and the spontaneity of a live jazz session.
20 SHAANDAAR (2015)
"Gulabo" was a smash, but it wasn't the best thing the album of this destination-wedding movie. That's "Senti Wali Mental": a Bollywood Battle of the Sexes number that turns on its misogynist head, all the while being a whole lot of fun. Arijit snarks with meanness (later switching to apologetic mode), Neeti Mohan responds with grace as they duel in this quasi-qawwali; Swanand Kirkire and Trivedi make cameos as singers, and the song shines with wit of Amitabh Bhattacharya's words. It's the only redeeming factor in this otherwise underwhelming album which frequency has Trivedi on auto-pilot.
19 BOMBAY TALKIES (2013)
The disastrous, star-studded title song—a hurried medley of sounds and voices of different eras of Hindi film music that clash awkwardly—is awful enough to undo the whole album. But there are pleasures to be found in "Bachchan", a tribute to India's tallest superstar, in which Bhattacharya, among other things, playfully puns his namesake; the joyful "Akkad Bakkad", and the two contrasting "Murabba"s, two completely different songs: the Hindustani folk-rock number by Javed Bashir, and the soothing one by Kavita Seth.
18 EKK MAIN AUR EKK TU (2012)
Overall, better than the average Hindi film album, but why should we set such standards for the best? The EDM title track is infectiously catchy—the ultra-processed voices of Benny Dayal and Anushka Manchanda work just right. The Goan-flavoured Rock and Roll number "Aunty Ji", which dispels any notion of ageism that the title suggests with good spirit—Baalon ki safedi se pheeka kab hua hai romance, writes, who else, but Bhattacharya. "Gubbare" is one of the earliest members of the composer's list of easy-listens: happy, hummable and strummable. "Aahatein" and "Kar Chalna Shuru" sound so dispensable that they can fit into any glossy Dharma Productions rom-com of the time.
17 SECRET SUPERSTAR (2017)
I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the saccharine promos, and not every song works, but Secret Superstar features some winsome ballads. The songs are at the heart of this film about a 16-year-old girl with a guitar and a blessed voice, who against all odds, becomes a famous singer. Young Meghna Mishra's clear, heartfelt singing drives it: whether it is the soaring "Main Kaun Hoon", or "Meri Pyaari Ammi", a song that is unexpectedly affecting. So is "Nachdi Phira", which elevates a crucial scene in the movie in the way only music can. "I'll Miss You", which has the innocence, and heart, of a Valentines Day greeting card purchased with saved-up pocket-money. Sung by 20-year-old boy Kushal Chokshi, whose voice captures the pains of adolescence. Kausar Munir's evocative lyrics are born out of the film's middle class-Baroda milieu. An album that fell through the cracks.
16 FITOOR (2016)
The soundtrack to Great Expectations set in Kashmir is not as compact and consistent as Kai Po Che, the composer's previous outing with director Abhishek Kapoor, but still an album rich with good things. "Pashmina" has a gorgeous central melody. The title track has a familiar Sufi rock feel and lacks the freshness that mark the composer's best work. The freshness that you find, for instance, in the pacy Kashmiri folk "Haminastu", sung by Zeb Bangash with a touch of gypsy from faraway land. Bangash is back with Nandini Shrikar in "Hone Do Batiya", which plays out like a musical equivalent of soul sisters having a heart-to-heart at a poetry convention. The synth-based lounger "Ranga Re" is a potential guilty pleasure.
15 ENGLISH VINGLISH (2012)
Trivedi delivers a smart, enjoyable album for a smart, enjoyable film about a housewife from Pune who feels insecure because she isn't fluent in English. The title track wraps itself around the title's Hinglish mirror-image echo: Coffee voffee, sugar, wugar… The song structure, the lyric, everything is in alignment with this idea. Shilpa Rao begins with the proceedings, but it's Trivedi, singing the catchier, uptempo bits, who livens it up. Aadmi, topi, Dhoop Ki Chhanv, Kirkire breaks down "Manhattan". The wistful "Dhak Dhuk", sung by Trivedi, is something like a cross between a Bhatiyali and a lullaby. And "Navrai Majhi", which has gone on to become a staple in Maharashtrian weddings, is pure joy.
14 LUV SHUV TEY CHICKEN KHURANA (2012)
The atmospheric "Farookha Baadi", the title track and the Theme (Instrumental) bring alive the sights and sounds of the Punjab, complete with chirping of birds, sizzle of the tadka and plucks of the rubab. The album's best, though, is a song that's closer to the film's loonier side. "Motorwada" is what you get when you cross Haryanvi gangsta rap with the soundtrack to a Bond villain's LSD trip, full of shrieks, nasal choruses, and all kinds of weird and wonderful sounds.
13 GHANCHAKKAR (2013)
A delightfully spoofy album guest-starring Altaf Raja. The soundtrack of Ghanchakkar, a film about the comic misadventures of a robbery attempt by a bunch of amateurs, could be double billed in a 'comedy music' category along with Aiyya. Mumbai street lingo, disco beats and faux-Japanese Female Chorus collide in the title song, in which Bhattacharya has fun rhyming nonsense–Nalasopara/Sayonara… Continuous Thukampatti. "Lazy Lad", which revels in its singer Richa Sharma's nasal punjaban-ness. And the Bollywood-Qawwali-meets-80s-Funk "Allah Meherbaan", sung by a brilliant Divya Kumar.
12 AISHA (2010)
It came at a time when everything Trivedi took up sounded fresh and exhilarating. "Suno Aisha" is perfectly frothy, just like its protagonist from the South Delhi high society, accompanied with a capella, horns; Trivedi's vocals are a breeze. The composer funks up the standard Punjabi wedding song in "Gal Mitthi Mitthi Bol". Strip it off its ethnic chic arrangement, shehnai plus groovy beats, and it could be a folk song by a wandering minstrel, sung by a full-throttled Tochi Raina. Then there's "Sham", that has found an afterlife in impromptu performances in private get-togethers of guitar-wielding young people; Nikhil D'Souza and Neuman Pinto sing languorously; the chorus-line—boom, boom, boom para, or something that sounds like that—lulls us into a state of utter bliss.
11 UDTA PUNJAB (2016)
The soundtrack of Abhishek Chaubey's drug-drama captures the dark heart of Punjab; Trivedi taps into the state's hip-hop scene. "Chitta Ve", accompanied by the under throb of electronic music, is like a violent pop-star let loose; it has a quality that is…addictive. Kanika Kapoor gives a robust performance in the trip-hoppish "Da Da Dasse", which drops beats like bombs. Baabu Haabi raps as though on the brink of an overdose, gasping for breath. The self-mocking Bhangra number "Ud Da Punjab"; the soul-numbing flight of "Vadiya"; the surprising tenderness of "Ik Kudi", a simple love song based on the lines by Punjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi. There is the restorative beauty of "Hass Nache Le", featuring claps, harmonium, tabla and Shahid Mallya singing with folk abandon; it acts like a purifying exercise the morning after a night of drug-addled exhaustion. Chaubey (Ishqiya, Dedh Ishqiya) is a director with a good ear, and it's the last time Trivedi gave us something special.
10 QUEEN (2014)
The album begins with the big-hearted, joyous shaadi number "London Thumakda", sung by Labh Janjua. Next is "Badra Bahar", a funky, rebellious reaction to the lies fairytales fed us in childhood; Trivedi sings it slightly grungily and the song's got a great attitude. There is the foot-tapping EDM track "Gujariya". Harjaiyyan plays out like a melodious outburst after a personal tragedy; Nandini Shrikar sounds vulnerable, but it's the stunning Bozouki portions that is the highlight of the song for me. "Kinare" is a winner, a signature Trivedi pop anthem sung by K Mohan and featuring a dreamy sax interlude. The Asha Bhonsle cabaret classic "Hungama Ho Gaya" gets a fun spin, with the Mamas and the Papas "California Dreamin'", Arijit Singh thrown in. A well-rounded album.
9 AAMIR (2008)
"Ha Raham" (Mehfuz) must be Trivedi's only devotional song, and it is also one of his best compositions, filled with ache and Sufi surrender. "Chakkar Ghumiyo Re" free-wheels with inventiveness, making music from the chaos of Mumbai: a ghatam, a human voice mimicking the rhythmic pattern, and one hell of a hook. Mournful violins, a constant hammering sound effect, growling vocals and gunshots converge in "Haara". "Ek Lau", sung by Shilpa Rao, questions god with the earnestness of a schoolgirl praying. Here was Amit Trivedi and Amitabh Bhattacharya's first film, in terms of release: always interesting, never boring, intimately tied with the film but one that also works without it.
8 NO ONE KILLED JESSICA (2011)
Revisiting the headbanger "Dilli", after a long time, felt like the first 20 minutes of Mad Max: Fury Road; we don't have to make the slightest effort to engage with it, for it leaps on to you, grabs you by the collar, and blows your socks off. A lethal hook, brutal riffs, and the jagged-edged voice of Tochi Raina; Tera Kaat Kaleja Dilli… Bhattacharya writes about the city that can get you killed if you refuse to serve someone a drink. Also, quite an anti-thesis to the other Delhi song, by Trivedi's hero Rahman. Nothing else in the album can match up to this, you'd think, till "Aali Re" comes along, a brilliant, rapturous street brawl of a song that salutes women who kick ass and it features a hypnotic pungi (the snake charmer's instrument). There is the angry, gritty "Aitbaar", sung by an angry, gritty Vishal Dadlani. The rest don't hold a candle to the awesomeness of the first two songs.
7 AIYYAA (2012)
A mad soundtrack befitting a surreal movie—about a dreamy Maharashtrian middle class girl, with an uncanny sense of smell, who fantasises about a Malayali man. The spoofy "Dreamum Wakeupum" is a blast, with Soumya Rao, with her faux-South Indian accent, in on the joke. The riotous lavani "Sava Dollar", in which Sunidhi Chauhan does things only Sunidhi Chauhan can, including a Bachchan imitation. "What To Do" is an outrageous love-child of KL Saigal and the Lijjat Papad ad jingle, full of B-movie sleaze sound effects; Sneha Khanwalkar and Amitabh Bhattacharya (donning his caricature voice) give voice to two horny nerds at it. But the one I keep going back to is the Shreya Ghoshal-sung "Mahek Bhi", the only unironic song of the album, and which takes its heroine's superpower seriously. The 1.5 minute stretch of shehnai, piano, accordion and whistles is a beauty that could be an instrumental piece of its own.
6 UDAAN (2010)
One of the films that started the new wave of 'Hindie' cinema, for this coming-of-age tale of a young boy who wants to be a poet, Trivedi and Bhattacharya came up with a soundtrack that meshes prog-rock sound with Hindi poetry. The composer assembles a group of non-film music vocalists like Joi Barua, Neuman Pinto, Bonnie Chakraborty. In the ruminative rock ballad "Kahaani", light-as-a-night-breeze "Geet", or the boarding school hostel song "Motu Master", we taste the pains and pleasures of growing up. "Ek Udaan" and "Azaadiyan" mark the birth of a sub-genre, a Trivedi special, liberating pop anthems that climax with satisfying crescendos. And that piano-violin "Udaan Theme" bleeds with melancholy.
5 KAI PO CHE (2013)
With just 3 songs, 12 minutes 22 seconds, Kai Po Che is an exceptionally short album in Hindi film music standards—a song from the 2000 movie LOC Kargil alone ran 13 minutes. Yet it feels complete. There's the song about the film's main theme of friendship, "Manja", that hinges on a zigzaggy esraj, and handclap percussions, as Trivedi lets out an impassioned shout. Trust Trivedi to take garba, not perceived to be the sexiest of folk music forms, and make it sound cool, in "Shubharambh", the album's 'dance number'. It's a 2.5 minute tour de force, bagpipes and all, and Kirkire's words—with phrases like asha ke moti and saanson ki mala–are mined from the Ahmedabadi mohalla the film is set in. The romantic song "Meethi Boliya" feels like the wind blowing against your face from inside a car on a nice, sunny road-trip; Mili Nair and Trivedi sing, heady with love.
4 ISHAQZAADE (2012)
The album of Habib Faisal's star-crossed love story set in Uttar Pradesh explodes with flavour, melody. Trivedi mixes and matches the harmonium, tabla and bulbul tarang with dubstep, slide guitar and accordions. The soothing title track has a counterpoint in "Aafaton Ke Parindey", that hurtles like a blazing canon ball. "Pareshaan", which won debutante Shalmali Kholgade awards, sounds like a spunky rock ballad performed in a small town single screen. The album also boasts of two fabulous female vocal performances by Sunidhi Chauhan And Shreya Ghoshal. Chauhan (and Vishal Dadlani) throw nakhras at each other, with an undercurrent of sexual energy in "Chhokra Jawaan". And in "Jhallah Wallah", which plays out at a nautch party, Ghoshal gives a performance for the ages, from the throat-clearing beginning, to the filmi adas, to that climactic alaap.
3 DEV D (2009)
With 18 songs, running for an hour, this massive, dense album launched Trivedi and Bhattacharya in Bollywood with a disruptive force. Where do we begin? The brass band song "Emosanal Attachar" turns personal tragedy, that comes from a place of entitlement and patriarchy, into a joke. A radical 'item number'. The shock of the extreme punk version which launches into a full-blown scream. The seductive, trippy "Pardesi". The soul-gnawing cry of "Nayan Tarse";"Dhol Yaara Dhol", a Punjabi folk song that talks about feminine longing and sexual hunger — khushiyon ki khatiya hogi, sang honge hum yum yaara… writes the other lyricist of the album, Shellee—with the calm of a gurbaani. The disorienting, nihilistic "Saali Khushi" and "Duniya", tracks that sound as though they were composed in miserable, groggy hungover mornings. The grainy texture of an old radio in the early portions of "Payaalia". The nursery rhyme-naïveté of "Dil Mein Jaagi". The ghostly whistle in the instrumental "Dev Chanda Theme 2". Angry, beautiful, fucked up, difficult to put a label on, and dazzlingly original, with Dev D, Bollywood music grew up a little.
2 LOOTERA (2013)
The album for Vikramaditya Motwane's period romance begins with "Sawaar Loon", that sounds like a lost SD Burman song, swaying to the steady rhythms of Assamese folk, and sung with an old-fashioned coyness by Monali Thakur. In the soft, romantic song "Ankahee", lush melody, a sweep of orchestra, and a gentle Bhattacharya in vocals signal the storm raging in the heart."Shikayatein" is the signature Trivedi pop anthem, in which Bhattacharya finds the simplest words to say the most profound things. Swanand Kirkire, accompanied by the dotara and timely dhitanas (Trivedi in backing vocals), sings about the Baul's ascetic life in "Monta Re; topped off by Bhattacharya's distant voice floating like a boatman's last song of the day. Then comes the rousing "Zinda". Bhattacharya writes some first-rate melodramatic elegy… Kabr par mere, sar utha ke khadi ho zindagi, waise marna hai mujhe; when Trivedi delivers it with a deadpan, the song bursts with feeling. There is the haunting, sombre "Manmarziyan". Note how the melody goes on a whim every time Shilpa Rao utters the word, which means 'the will of the heart'. Trivedi's backing vocals evoke the harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel, and the santoor strains sound like pearls dripping. Lootera has that timeless quality they talk about when they talk about old songs.
1 BOMBAY VELVET (2015)
Anurag Kashyap's love story of a gangster and a jazz singer in 50s Bombay set a tricky task for Trivedi and Bhattacharya. The challenge was not only to create a kickass album, but to do it within the confines of a specific sound, one that marries two genres, not very unlikely, but not very easy: the New Orleans school of big band jazz, and the OP Nayyar, Geeta Dutt-inspired old Hindi film music. It's exactly the kind of creative challenges that the composer-lyricist thrive on. This is a film that centres around, and is named after, a fictional jazz night club, and what's a jazz night club without mood? The album kicks off with a 3.5 minutes long instrumental prelude in "Aam Hindustani", complete with trumpets, trombones, sax, piano, drums and bass, as though giving us a tour of the symphony orchestra family, until a foxy Shefali Alvares comes in. Dhobi Ka Kutta na ghar ka na ghaat ka… Bhattacharya's words seem to be less influenced by the Bombay of that era than the Bombay cinema of that era: whether it is "Mohabbat Buri Bimari"… Ghar se khuda ko hatake, mehboob ki tasveer taange, or "Darbaan"… Daakhila, unche makaano mein, kuchh thekedaaro ki jagir hai... Neeti Mohan, who is Anushka Sharma's voice in the film, sings sexily, passionately. She chuckles, hiccups, hmms and oohs and aahs in the drunk-in-love "Mohabbat Buri Bimari", she sounds devastated in the pain-soaked "Dhadam Dhadam", in "Naak Pe Gussa" she sings with a lover's tease and a mother's affection, and in "Sylvia", a song about a real-life high-society scandal and murder that shook Bombay, she sounds betrayed, suspicious. Papon is appropriately brooding and tragic in "Darbaan"… which begins with a line that goes Sab vyapar hai… (Everything is business).
It was always going to be a hard sell, amid the cloud of negativity around Kashyap's doomed project, to survive the ruthless cutting and chopping on the FM radio. The film's commercial failure killed the music of Bombay Velvet; of all the things that went wrong in it, it did one thing right. It is Trivedi and Bhattacharya's (and Kashyap's) masterpiece. Many would keep the revolutionary Dev D at the top, or the near-perfect Lootera. But the heart wants what the heart wants.