An album is larger than the sum of its parts. A Hindi film album even more so, where the visceral nature of music meets the visuals, glamour and format of Hindi cinema. The hero’s face. The singer’s association with the hero’s face. A musical narrative all its own. It’s different from non-film music. The director’s contribution to a good album is sometimes almost as important as the composer and the lyricist. It is about imagining how a song will be picturised in a film, before it has released; and after you have seen it it is about lingering in its afterglow. All this is going away. Or at least undergoing a great change — being redefined.
The changing nature of Hindi film music has been one of the big trends of this decade. Standing here, today, now, at the fag end of 2019, the idea of an album itself seems to be on shaky ground, with an uncertain future. The gradual digital takeover that has happened in this decade has meant that the way music is produced, distributed and consumed is more singles-driven. Add to that, a creative bankruptcy in the music industry and a new, corrupted working system that has contributed to it.
The list includes soundtracks that adhere to the more traditional idea of the Hindi film album, an approach that is falling out of fashion, or show a new way of doing it. There were rules that needed to be set up — as all lists must. For example, a cap of maximum two entries for Amit Trivedi, who pretty much dominated the first half of the ‘10s. The Special Mentions at the end don’t include albums which didn’t make it to the main list, but that came up as references.
Here are the 10 best albums of the 2010s, in the chronological order of their release.
1. Udaan (2010)
Composer: Amit Trivedi
Lyricist: Amitabh Bhattacharya
The smell of youth is spread through the songs of Udaan: the story of a boy who broke free from his abusive father. The opening strains of “Kahaani (Aankhon Ke Pardo Mein)”, even before the guitars and the vocal harmonies have kicked in, sound like the awakening of a consciousness. The mint-fresh lyrics of “Geet (Kuchh Naya Toh Zaroor Hai)”, in which Amitabh Bhattacharya turns a song about a night out with friends into something beautiful: Jebo mein hum raatey liye ghooma kare, he writes (We roam around with nights in our pockets). The overall sound of the album, that resembles that of a promising rock band from first year in college. In “Udaan (Nadi Mein Talab Hai)” and “Aazaadiyan (Pairon Ki Beriyan)” we have the earliest examples of what would become a Trivedi speciality: the indie spirited pop-rock anthem ending with well-earned crescendos, a dazzling sitar here, an electric guitar riff there. There is a term we sometimes like to use to describe a new breed of Hindi films: ‘Hindie’. The songs of Udaan feel ‘Hindie’. Despite the ‘rock-band’ sound, it has an earthiness that’s tied to the immediate world of the protagonist, who grows up in Jamshedpur and writes poems in Hindi. “Naav (Chadhti Lehre Laang Na Paye)” is exactly the kind of Indian folk-rock song you’d expect K Mohan to sing. And “Motu Master (Isski Maa Agar Isse), ‘the boarding-school song’, a batchmate is subjected to innocent bullying through inventive wordplay, guest starring a shayari by Anurag Kashyap. The last track is an instrumental: the “Udaan Theme”, with its melancholy piano and violin, which is an example of Trivedi’s talent for theme pieces. Udaan confirmed what Dev D (2009) had signalled: that in Trivedi and Bhattacharya we had found the most original composer-lyricist duo of this era. Choosing it over Lootera, the other Vikramaditya Motwane film, wasn’t easy. But Udaan is more important.
2. Guzaarish (2011)
Composer: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Lyricist: Turaz, Vibhu Puri
Is there another Indian director whose films’ songs bear the stamp of his personality as much as Sanjay Leela Bhansali? Grand, personal productions full of baroque details, steeped in the tradition of Hindi film sangeet. Even when Bhansali had others composing for him — Ismal Darbar in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) and Devdas (2002); Monty Sharma in Black (2005) and Saawariya (2007); if we leave out his first film Khamoshi (1996) — his auteurist traits were out there. But there’s something liberating in the songs of Guzaarish — since which he has taken up the reins of composing — that give the impression of a filmmaker finally unshackling himself from the burden of having to depend on someone else to execute what inner music he had held but couldn’t express all these years. The title track feels like a licence to go all out, indulge, do whatever the hell he wants. He lets a four line verse stretch over four and a half minutes — Bas itni si tumse guzaarish hai, Yeh jo baarish hai dekho na, Usme teri baahon mein mar jaaoon, Bas itni si, chhoti si, khwaahish hai, laid out from the perspective of the protagonist — a once-great magician now reduced to his wheelchair in his mansion in an antediluvian Goa. Is the title track representative of the whole album? There is the popular but generic “Udi”. “Tera Zikr Hai” is great but it falls in a Bhansali template: the ‘spiritual love song’ (“Thode Badmash”, “Laal Ishq”, “Aayat”). But I find myself more drawn to the wistful, dreamy “Jaane Kiske Khwab” and “Kehna Sakoon”, and the melody-filled “Saiba” and “Sau Gram Zindagi”. Bhansali — forever a champion of singers — returns to some of his former collaborators such as KK and Shankar Mahadevan, as well as working with new talents such as Harshdeep Kaur and Vibha Joshi. He lets Shail Hada — another Bhansali discovery and the star-singer of Saawariya — leave imprints of his vocal dexterity all through the album. There is a version of “What a Wonderful World” by Hrithik Roshan. Guzaarish isn’t a perfect album, but it feels special, more idiosyncratic, and closer to his heart than his later works like Raam Leela (2013), Bajirao Mastani (2015) and Padmaavat (2018).
3. Delhi Belly (2011)
Composer: Ram Sampath
Lyricist: Amitabh Bhattacharya, Munna Dhiman, Akshat Verma
How do you make songs for an R-rated, potty mouthed comedy like Delhi Belly? Nearly every song in this album by Ram Sampath is a spoof, poking fun at something. “Switty Tera Pyaar Chaida”, “Nakkadwale Disco”, “Bedardi Raja”, “I Hate You Like I love You”, “Ja Chudail” and “Saigal Blues” are parodies of musical genres, lampooning the template-like slotting of a traditional Hindi film album: the bhangra standard, the qawwali, the item number; the item number featuring a superstar, the heartbreak song, and a KL Saigal song respectively. The parodying extends to the lyrics as well: for instance, aimed at the Delhi-sized male chauvinism (Mundeyaan Wali Ego Chhad Ke, Kudiyaan Waang Main, Khul Ke Roya; written by Dhiman) in “Switty Tera Pyaar Chaida”. And with Aamir Khan as the producer, who also happens to be the uncle of Imran Khan, one of the leads in the film, could it be that “Bhaag DK Bose” (Daddy Mujhse bola tu Galti Hai Meri; lyrics by Bhattacharya) is a riff on Papa kehte hai bada naam karega? Like the film, the album has a great, slightly grown up sense of humour. Of course none of this ‘comedy music’ would’ve worked if it didn’t sound so groovy. Seven years on, the blissed-out vibes of “Sehgal Blues”, with its loopy slide guitars, are still irresistible; and “Bhaag DK Bose” is as tight as ever.
4. Rockstar (2011)
Composer: AR Rahman
Lyricist: Irshad Kamil
Rockstar could be the album I’ve heard the most number of times in my life. Personal reasons aside, I was taken by how ‘cinematic’ it felt. No real-life musician would ever sound like Jordan: a wide-eyed desi from Pitampura, Delhi, who becomes a rock ‘n roll musician blessed by the Sufi saint-poets after he sets out to undergo a heartbreak to become a real artist. It’s a fantasia of AR Rahman, Irshad Kamil and Imtiaz Ali — one of the great composer, lyricist, director partnerships in the past decade (Highway; Tamasha). “Nadaan Parinde” plays out like rock opera with crazy electric guitars and freak-outs, calmed down by lines of the Amir Khusrao. Another big stadium number, the Pink Floyd-tinged “Jo Bhi Main” has an intoxicating loopiness — Maine Yeh Bhi socha hai aksar, tu bhi main bhi sabhi hai sheeshe…Kamil goes. The acoustic guitars arrive like a divine intervention in “Kun Faya Kun” — a naath performed at the Nizamuddin dargah, where Mohit Chauhan reaches singing peak and Jordan tastes nirvana. “Phir Se Ud Chala” plays like a stream-of-consciousness blur in Jordan’s head — it begins with a Pahari folk chorus and goes into a techno trance. Each song is intensely tied to the state of mind of the protagonist. The songs of Rockstar communicated some of the mystical thoughts at the heart of the film better than the film itself. Or you could say without the songs there is no film.
5. Gangs of Wasseypur (2012)
Composer: Sneha Khanwalkar
Lyrics: Varun Grover
Give Sneha Khanwalkar anything and she’d turn it into something exciting. In “Jiya Tu Bihar Ke Lala”, the first track of Anurag Kashyap’s two-part gangster epic set in Bihar, she turns the supposedly lowbrow into something irresistibly hip and swaggering, giving Bhojpuri star Manoj Tiwari’s distinctive singing style a whole new musical context by fusing it with shards of electronica. In “Kala Rey”, a track from part II, she turns the sound of metal beating against coal into percussion. It’s a mad album — with 27 songs — that hasn’t lost its power to shock. Songs such as “Womaniya”, “Hunter”, “Keh Ke Lunga” are an integral part of the film’s status as an instant modern classic. Khanwalkar and Varun Grover — who supplies appropriately playful lyrics, tapping into the idiosyncratic phonetics of the Bihari language and creates ingenious phrases (O Womaniya; Frustiyaaon nahi Moora) — travelled extensively in the UP-Bihar belt for two years while working on it; the composer even went to the Caribbeans to get a first-hand experience for the Chutney music-inspired “Hunter”. The current system in the music industry doesn’t seem to be conducive for such a project. And it’s perhaps telling that Khanwalkar didn’t have a proper album since Wasseypur until last year’s Manto.
6. Barfi (2012)
Lyricist: Swanand Kirkire, Sayeed Qadri, Ashish Pandit
Like the warmth of some red wine on a cold christmas night in a hill station that has retained its Colonial character, Pritam’s soundtrack for Anurag Basu’s Barfi is mood. The composer, who had a bit of a reinvention in this decade, comes up with a sound to match Basu’s silent cinema inspired tragicomedy set in a quaint vision of Darjeeling in the 70s — “accordion-backed tunes and lazy-Sunday vocals suggesting French provincial music as performed by Cliff Richards”, said one critic. And the song that’s the closest to the description is perhaps “Main Kya Karoon”, sung by Nikhil Paul George, with its bossa nova percussions and cha-cha rhythms. The title track, sung by Mohit Chauhan and with lyrics by Swanand Kirkire, is a delightful fur ball of nonsense — giving us a glimpse of Pritam’s knack for gibberish we would see later in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani and Jagga Jasoos. There’s change in mood once the action in the film shifts to Calcutta. We have three versions of a ghazal. Arijit Singh’s “Phir Le Aya Dil” is better than the ones by Rekha Bhardwaj and Shafqat Amanat Ali. It has a nice, spacey arrangement and Singh gets close to getting the nuances of the singing style of a ghazal right. Do I have a favourite? Maybe “Aashiyan”, sung with near perfection by Shreya Ghoshal, which is so evocative of Salil Chowdhury that it could be described as Salil Chowdhury, if Salil Chowdhury was a genre.
7. Bombay Velvet (2015)
Composer: Amit Trivedi
Lyricist: Amitabh Bhattacharya
“Aam Hindustani”, the first song of Bombay Velvet, begins with a three-and-a-half minute prelude — a bravura display of each member of the big band jazz ensemble: trumpets, trombones, sax, drums, bass, piano — before the vocals (Shefali Alvares) kick in. Most songs these days don’t even last that long. The 14-song album is that much of an aberration. Bombay Velvet feels timeless, although it is very much a throwback to a Jazz era Bombay. It’s not just ‘authentic’ in terms of the kind of classic jazz that must have played in such nightclubs as Bombay Velvet in the ’50s and ’60s — the venue in the film in which the gangster, Johnny Balraj, falls in love with the singer, Rosie Noronha, it’s also true to the films of the era, the kind of singing and lyric writing that went around in those films; and in imagining a sound that combines these elements, it creates a style of its own. Neeti Mohan, in character as Nina Simone and Geeta Dutt rolled into one, delivers a performance for the ages, injecting as much sensuality as Hindustaniyat in her singing (Just look out for the bits in “Mohabbat Buri Bimari” where she hiccups and hmms and does all these little vocal gestures and you’ll know what I’m talking about). Bhattacharya skilfully weaves together Hindi and Urdu poetry of the era, scandal (“Sylvia”) and hot-blooded romance (“Naak pe Gussa”, “Mohabbat Buri Bimari”), even as he reflects on the social inequities of the time. Angst and pessimism mixes with beauty of language. ‘Ek anaar hai, sau bimaar hai; Is usool pe chalta bazar hai; Tere aage mahal alishaan hai, bas darwaaze pe ek darbaan hai,’ broods Papon in “Darbaan” for the disillusioned hero of the film. This is Trivedi and Bhattacharya’s magnum opus, there is no two ways about that. But its commercial failure seems to have broken something within the composer, none of whose subsequent works has matched up to anything as extraordinary as this.
8. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy (2015)
Composer: Multiple artistes
Dibakar Banerjee assembled the country’s coolest indie acts for his Byomkesh-on-acid take on the Bengali detective story — all under the hallowed banner of Yash Raj Films. The music — five of the seven tracks are smartly reworked versions of already existing songs — is a stylistic choice, less to do with plot than the graphic-novel feel of the film. And yet they are not lazy recreations. Lyrics had been rewritten and the arrangement made more ‘cinematic’. Like the big percussions in the beginning of “Calcutta Kiss” by the electro-funk duo Madboy/Mink, with its swing time, cabaret and slick disco beats; the title holds the clue to a crucial plot point (Hint: it’s the name of a paan masala brand). “Bachke Bakshy” — an original, put together by Sneha Khanwalkar — plays out like the many voices inside the protagonist’s head, flipping from ragged, sweaty hip-hop to Gregorian chant-like chorus to seductive trance. Part of the fun of the soundtrack is the anachronistic nature of it, with funk, rap and nu-metal clashing against the setting of of a pulpy Calcutta during World War II, when dhoti-clad gents rode trams and hand-pulled rickshaws. “Byomkesh in Love” — in which the electro-pop pleasures of BLEK Jam’s earlier track meets a thumri sung by Usri Banerjee — is used in the ultra slo-mo action scene following the big revelation, as though a music video made by a cinephile. Bejoy Nambiar’s Shaitan (2011) can be credited as the album that showed a way to bridge the gap between India’s indie music scene and Bollywood, never the best of bedfellows; but it still had the Malayali composer Prashant Pillai doing some of the main tracks. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy took it a notch higher by going all the way.
9. Mirzya (2016)
Composer: Shankar Ehsaan Loy
One of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s most satisfying, complete albums in the last 10 years. For this modern take on the Mirza-Sahiban legend, the composers : the shared cultural history that binds the Indian subcontinent: the depths of the North West Frontier, from Balochistan to Peshawar to Afghanistan. With Gulzar as the lyricist and guiding light, the composers create a soundtrack that draws from the interconnected, often overlapping, tapestry of Hindustani classical, Bhakti and Sufi and the spiritual music of the nomads of the North West frontier. It’s a melange of singers from both sides of the border: Daler Mehndi, Mame Khan, Nooran sisters, Kaushiki Chakraborty, K Mohan, Mahadevan himself; the Sufi artistes Sain Zahoor and Akhtar Chanal Zahri (who you may have heard and seen in Coke Studio, Pakistan). Zahri does these hypnotic incantations in “Chakora”, a Rajasthani folk number with raunchy undertones that’s given the electronic shock treatment; and Zahoor’s voice-from-the-sky singing begins “Teen Gawah Hain Ishq Ke”, an acoustic guitar based number which has beautiful harmonies by the Salvation Choir; both feature in the stupendous title track — also starring Mehndi and the Noorans — which unfolds like a musical kaleidoscope. Mahadevan himself has sung two, “Aave Re Hitchki” and “Doli Re Doli”, songs I like going back to because of the ambiences they evoke: light Hindustani classical recitals, as though performed under dim lights, sung with a certain ease.
10. Gully Boy (2019)
Composer: Multiple artistes
Music supervisor: Ankur Tewari
No one really listens to albums in order of sequence anymore. But Gully Boy puts some thought behind it. The first track, “Asli Hip Hop”, is both introducing the listener to ‘real hip hop’ and the film’s hero, Murad, taking baby steps as a rapper, his beat easy and rudimentary. Through friendship with mentor MC Sher (“Mere Gully Mein”), lessons from his hard life (“Doori”) and the allure of a new world (“Kab Se Kab Tak”), he reaches his peak in “Apna Time Ayega”, a worthy contender for the anthem of the decade. ‘Shabdo ka Jwala’. By the time we reach “India +91”, the last track, not starring Murad at all, the rhythms have become complex; the languages Gujarati, Punjabi and Marathi, apart from Hindi; the rapping faster; and the listener, hopefully, more in tune with Mumbai’s underground hip-hop scene, which is the backdrop of the Zoya Akhtar film. A lot has been written about Gully Boy’s music and I don’t want to repeat. But I’d like to point out how it brought back lip-sync to the Hindi film screen after a long time, but by making Ranveer Singh rap for himself. And it’s that rare album that had two protest songs. Dub Sharma’s “Jingostan”, which may sound like a dystopian India but really is about the present, uses beatboxing extensively. Sharma and rapper DIVINE ‘s “Azaadi”, a rally-cry against “bhukhmari and bhedbhaav”, uses a sampled — if conveniently selected — version of the slogan by Kanhaiya Kumar from the student protests in Delhi in 2016. I just wish it had more presence in the film, but what a fine album.
Band Baaja Baarat (2010)
Shor in the City (2010)
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016)
Mard ko Dard Nahi hota (2019)