If you have been reeling under ‘Beyonse Sharma Jaegi’, desperately need your faith back in Hindi film music and YouTube only suggests T-series remixes that have destroyed your whole childhood and teenage, we are here to ask you to hang in there.
I know, one Bollywood bad song (remember ‘Ice cream khaaonga?’) can go to such lengths of horrible that you’ll forget the good stuff that has come from the industry.
However, with a focus on remixes, original music has been dwindling consistently in the past few years and except a stray Manmarziyaan or Gully Boy, it is almost rare that a Hindi film album has multiple excellent songs.
So, I will try to drag good Bollywood music memories back from the depths they are hiding in. Stay with me as we take a trip down the past 20 years of Bollywood music and pick out the best.
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20. Kaante (2002)
In a remake of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, one wouldn’t necessarily imagine a whole lot of opportunity for Hindi film songs. However, Sanjay Gupta’s Kaante had a surprisingly potent album, where songs never seemed to get in the way of the film’s brisk pacing.
Built around a variety of Indian misfits who plan on robbing an American bank, even the soundtrack has a myriad of influences, and songs for different moods. There’s the quintessential ‘item song’ like Ishq Samandar to capture Ajju’s (Sanjay Dutt) carefree lifestyle, the sad song in Yaar Mangiya Si (sung brilliantly by Sonu Nigam) to highlight Major’s (Amitabh Bachchan) tragic desperation behind taking up this ‘one last job’. There’s Lucky Ali’s Maut, a great song to underline the paranoia the characters develop after a startling revelation in this film.
There’s a training-montage equivalent song, Jaane Kya Hoga Rama Re (whose hook-line sounds eerily similar to Nadeem-Shravan’s Koi Na Koi Chahiye), arguably making the best use of Sanjay Dutt’s unique vocals. There’s the pre-heist song Chhod Na Re (composed by Vishal & Shekhar) which is pure fun, but this album undeniably belongs to Richa Sharma’s Maahi Ve. Featuring Malaika Arora at her most ethereal, we understand the song’s underlying poignancy only in the film’s climax, after we see her waiting for Suniel Shetty’s character at the airport. Kaante is a landmark for composer Anand Raj Anand.
19. Guzaarish (2010)
Many of us (including the writer) scoffed at Sanjay Leela Bhansali turning composer with 2010′s Guzaarish. That’s only until he released the title track of Guzaarish, sung superbly by KK (with backing vocals by Shail Hada). Using extracts from a Romeo & Juliet play, the song’s melody had this unhurried assurance to it, that didn’t seem like the work of a first-timer. The world already knew about Bhansali’s obsession with music, but this title track was a first glimpse at Bhansali’s exquisite taste in music. Something we found again in his future projects like Laal Ishq (in Goliyon Ki Rasleela: Ram-Leela) and Aayat (in Bajirao Mastani).
It has other surprises too, like Udi (sung by Sunidhi Chauhan), where the album lets its hair down... replete with flamenco guitars and a strong gypsy flavour. Shail Hada’s Tera Zikr (with backing vocals by Rakesh Pandit) is an ode to Hrithik Roshan’s deft movements on stage. The other songs too like Kunal Ganjawala’s Sau Gram and Shankar Mahadevan’s Dhundhli Dhundhli, and Harshdeep Kaur’s Chaand Ki Katori, all beautifully arranged, keep up with the album’s mellow mood and make for an excellent debut for Bhansali as a composer.
18. Tum Bin (2001)
Much before T-Series became this behemoth in the Hindi film industry, it used to be a (comparatively) small audio label that produced music videos and supported alternative-pop careers for many of the industry’s playback singers (like Sonu Nigam, Abhijeet Bhattacharya, Anuradha Paudwal). Their foray into film production began with a cast full of fresh-faced debutantes, and a superb soundtrack helmed by Nikhil-Vinay and Ravi Pawar.
The album has its regular fare of the mehendi song in Chhoti Chhoti Raatein, the separation song in Meri Duniya Mein Aake, and the party song in Suru Ru, but the album had its fair share of surprises too. Like Jagjit Singh’s Koi Fariyaad, a contemporary reimagining of a ghazal, fully made the heartbreak at the centre of the film’s love triangle (quadrilateral if you count a ‘dead’ Rakesh Bapat) palpable for its audience.
Also, another surprise in the album was Ravi Pawar’s Iss Dil Ne Sapne Kya Kya Sajaaye, that accompanies Sonu Nigam’s silky vocals with an Afro-Cuban percussion and liberally adds a middle-eastern interlude... further exoticising it. Add to it Priyanshu Chatterjee’s deft footwork in the song, and it all comes together.
17. Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (2007)
Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s album for this YRF film came with an advisory note saying ‘listen to this album at full volume’. Supposed to be the sound for Shaad Ali’s colourful reinterpretation for ‘new-age’ romance, the trio delivered (arguably) a rich and their most vibrant album.
One that pops not only for its eclectic choice of playback singers (Neeraj Shridhar, Vishal Dadlani, Zubeen Garg - all untouched by Bollywood then), the catchy hook phrases (Ticket To Hollywood, Kiss Of Love), but also the stellar production of each of its songs.
For an album that’s an ode to the dhol, a sound seemingly almost second nature to a majority of the expat Indian audience, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy manages an intriguing amount of variety. Whether it’s the title track sung spectacularly by Shankar Mahadevan, or the intriguing bassline at the start of Ticket to Hollywood, or the more extroverted versions of the title track, all songs seem to have different moods even while belonging to the same family tree of melodies.
The departures come in the form of the film’s only out-and-out ballad, Bol Naa Halke Halke, that uses a fabulous bassline with a ghatam (for percussion), to accompany the vocals of Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Mahalaxmi Iyer. Also, Kiss of Love, that’s a fabulous piece of filmmaking if we only look at the music video, has a James Bond score-like melody accompanied by an intriguing foot-tapping percussion. The unconventional vocals of Vishal Dadlani and Vasundhara Das take it to a whole new level of fun.
16. 7 Khoon Maaf (2011)
Not Vishal Bhardwaj’s most successful outing as a filmmaker, but the 7 Khoon Maaf album has one of Bhardwaj’s most heavenly compositions in Bekaraan. Taking place around the time Susanna (played by Priyanka Chopra) is with her Kashmir-based husband, Wasiullah Khan (Irrfan), also a poet, Bhardwaj sings the whole song as if someone’s humming into their lover’s ears, while they’re still in bed, early in the morning. It’s this intimacy that carries the song over many, many others in auteur’s discography.
There’s also Darling (sung by Usha Uthup and Rekha Bhardwaj) that borrows its melody from a Russian folk classic, Kalinka, a subtle Bhardwaj ode to the Russian character playing Susanna’s husband.
There’s also Master Saleem giving us a masterclass in Awaara, and Suresh Wadkar, who always appears to be in top-form in a Bhardwaj melody, brightening the album with Tere Liye. The western orchestration in Yeshu (phenomenally sung by Rekha Bhardwaj) makes it one of the eeriest songs in Bhardwaj’s oeuvre as a composer.
15. Devdas (2002)
Set to the visuals of dazzling sets, overcrowded frames, and some hammy acting, it would be easy to overlook the magic of Ismail Darbar’s music in Devdas. Having done some of his best work for Bhansali in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Darbar carries forward his good form in the 2002 film, where he comes up with some exquisite old-school Indian melodies.
Whether it is the soul-mates pining for each other in Hamesha Tumko Chaha, or the contrast between the voices of Jaspinder Narula and a teenage Shreya Ghoshal in Morey Piya, the album is full of some of the most complex melodies in a Hindi film since 2000.
Even how Bhansali uses the expression ‘issh’ as a form of metre in Bairi Piya (much to the disapproval of many Bengalis), it’s easy to see how Bhansali is that rare contemporary filmmaker, who understands that a song sequence can often say what dialogue may not.
The album saw the emergence of Shreya Ghoshal as a bright young talent for Hindi films, while also allowing Kavita Krishnamurthy the space to assert her genius in songs like Maar Daala and Kaahe Chhede. Ghoshal and Krishnamurthy come together splendidly for Dola Re. However, the best decision of the album is getting Vinod Rathod to sing for Jackie Shroff in Chalak Chalak, who imbues manic energy into the song with just one line – “jhaangh pakhawaj taashe baaje, chalke jab yeh jaam”.
14. Bombay Velvet (2015)
Amit Trivedi’s indie-at-heart soundtrack for Anurag Kashyap’s period film, didn’t make any effort to make jazz ‘palatable’ or ‘catchy’ for the Hindi film audience and suffered the consequences. Not many people made the effort to engage with Bombay Velvet’s songs, which vanished shortly after the film bombed the box office.
Trivedi’s stunning melodies, a homage to OP Nayyar’s style from the 50s and 60s — considering their use of a recreated version of Jaata Kahaan Hai Deewane from 1956′s C.I.D — were strikingly original even if they did retain a vintage flavour. Much of its music takes place inside a jazz club, which allowed the likes of Shefali Alvares, Neeti Mohan, Shalmali Kolghade to rise to the occasion to belt out songs like Ka Kha Ga, Dhadaam Dhadaam, Naak Pe Gussa and Shut Up!
There are a couple of surprises like Darbaan by Papon, that sounds like an ode to Bombay Meri Jaan (also a song from C.I.D), and the only contemporary ballad from the album, Behroopia, sung by Mohit Chauhan and Neeti Mohan. However, the brightest spot in this glitzy album are its themes. Whether it is the jazz drums in Tommy Gun, or the noir flourishes in Conspiracy and the The Main Bombay Velvet theme, Trivedi shows his class as a musician in these three tracks.
13. Oye Lucky Lucky Oye! (2008)
Even though Sneha Khanwalkar debuted in an obscure RGV production called Go, it was only in 2007′s Dibakar Banerjee film that her talents found their way to a mainstream audience.
And it’s visible in how she composed a catchy track (sung effortlessly by Mika) around the protagonist’s unlimited ‘wants’, establishing the storylines of all the primary characters in the film. Khanwalkar’s individuality as a composer shows up in the likes of Tu Raja Ki Raj Dulari, that begins with a hypnotic folk-electronic bit.
There are layers to Banerjee’s film, which is arguably his angriest film till date, and it shows up in the two variations of songs frequenting the use of the word ‘Jugni’. One is the harmless, peppy track called Superchor (sung by Dilbahar), where the protagonist (again) tells us about his voracious appetite for ‘things’ almost as if to fill some void. In another version of Jugni (sung passionately by Des Raj Lakhani’s), all the middle-class frustration against a rigged system, spills out. “Naa jeene tu maine dendi, naa marne tu mainu dendi hai... jugni tap... tap... tap... khoon bahaundi hai” - Lakhani sings at one point. Khanwalkar’s album makes Oye Lucky Lucky Oye a rewarding watch by never letting the audience escape its brimming-with-rage West-Delhi soundscape.
12. Yuva (2004)
Even though AR Rahman’s career can be dubbed as a long series of experiments, the obsessive fans will point out some albums which are less ‘safe’ than the rest.
While there are plenty of brilliant Rahman albums in the (2000-2010) decade like Lagaan, Swades, Jodhaa Akbar, Delhi 6 and Rang De Basanti, there’s just something about Yuva (released as Ayatha Ezhuthu in Tamil) that captured a ‘vibe’ that most conventional soundtracks are too weighed down to try and do.
Whether it’s the club track Fanaa that features a whole verse of rap being whispered into the microphone before turning to the chorus, or whistles serving as a background ‘instrument’ during an extended variation for ‘Oh yuva... yuva...’ in Dhakka Laga Bukka, these are inspired choices even by Rahman’s own high standards.
The album features some stunning melodies too, like Madhushree’s Kabhi Neem Neem where her vocals are accompanied with a khol (percussion) and a mandira, Adnan Sami and Alka Yagnik’s Baadal, which sums up Michael and Radhika’s (Ajay Devgn and Esha Deol’s) blazing love affair. There’s also Lucky Ali and Sunitha Sarathy’s impromptu-sounding harmonies which become an interlude between the chorus and a verse in Khuda Haafiz. The album’s high-point comes in the form Blaaze’s Dola Dola, where Rahman’s stellar ability as a producer takes centre-stage, observing Lallan’s (Abhishek Bachchan) rise from being a petty criminal to a politician’s main muscle.
11. Bluffmaster! (2005)
For a film that was partly inspired from Argentine film Nine Queens, David Fincher’s The Game, and Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men, Rohan Sippy’s Bluffmaster! also had a heady cocktail of a soundtrack featuring Swedish-Iranian popstar Arash, Danish popstar Aneela Mirza (Say Na Say Na), a hip-hop original from Vishal-Shekhar, and some pristine recreations from classic Hindi caper films like Do Aur Do Paanch, Baazi and Sabse Bada Rupaiya by Sameeruddin and a London-based band, Trickbaby.
Much like the borrowed influences for the plot, the makers even manage to make these diverse musical influences work into one stunning soundtrack. Bluffmaster! compensates for the plagiarism (in its plot) with a superb ensemble cast, a good understanding of how to adapt its source material into a Bollywood setting, spurred further by such a unique album.
What really dominated the headlines were Vishal-Shekhar turning Abhishek Bachchan into an overnight hip-hop icon for the Hindi film audience, but what’s truly an impressive about this soundtrack is Rohan Sippy’s ability to bring together such obscure pop music to blend with these splendid recreations of old Hindi film songs like Tabdeer Se Bigdi Hui and Do Aur Do Paanch (by Sameeruddin), and Sabse Bada Rupaiya (by Trickbaby). The album features some of Sameeruddin’s themes like Gone Fishing! and The Gateway Theme.
10. Jhankaar Beats (2003)
Vishal-Shekhar’s breakout album will always be remembered as one of the greatest tribute albums in the history of Bollywood. The film centred around two RD Burman devotees (Sanjay Suri and Rahul Bose), who are also amateur musicians with a day job in advertising, and how they go through a whirlwind of a year with a new third member (Shayan Munshi), a guitarist.
The album apart from its theme song, sung superbly by Sudesh Bhosle channelling RD Burman’s gravelly vocals, also has a strong RD Burman influence in Ruk Ruk Rukna Na.
Both these songs sound like worthy tributes by true fans, and not ‘copies’. The rest of the album is some truly fresh-sounding music like Tu Aashiqui Hai (sung by KK) with an overarching gospel influence. Suno Na and Tera Muskurana (both sung by Shaan) are brilliant romantic tracks that have also aged very well. There’s the really fun Boss Kaun Hai? sung by Amit Kumar (son of Kishore Kumar, one of RD Burman’s closest collaborators) and the only Burman remix - Humein Tumse Pyaar Kitna (also sung by Amit Kumar). It was only fitting that Vishal-Shekhar went on to win the Filmfare RD Burman Award For New Music Talent that year.
9. Meenaxi: A Tale Of Three Cities
Releasing in the same year as Yuva and Swades, Rahman composed his year’s most well-rounded album in MF Hussain’s Meenaxi: A Tale Of Three Cities. Starting with Reena Bharadwaj’s Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai, the song features an elegant Tabu singing for a broody Kunal Kapoor.
The song had a minimal arrangement featuring a simple-but-effective dholak to accompany Bharadwaj’s laced-with-honey vocals. There’s Chinamma Chilakkama that has Sukhwinder Singh at his most energetic since Chhaiyya Chhaiyya, Sonu Nigam at the height of his singing prowess in Do Kadam.
The album also witnesses a spiritual successor to Rangeela’s Tanha Tanha, in Dhuaan Dhuaan, featuring a familiar bassline and Asha Bhosle singing with a similar oomph in her voice like she did in Rahman’s 1995 album. The album also had arguably the finest qawwali composed in a Hindi film since 2000, Noor-Un-Allah (sung by Rashid and Murtuza Khan), one that came under severe criticism from certain conservative groups and, therefore got buried and forgotten for many years after its release.
8. Life In A... Metro (2007)
Anurag Basu’s love letter to the Maximum City included Pritam’s music literally as a plot device. The trio of Pritam, James and Suhail appear at different junctures, to underline the mood in the film. This album helped both Pritam and Anurag Basu break away from the Bhatt camp, and establish their individual brands as musician and director respectively. More focused than Jagga Jasoos, and (somewhat) purer than Barfi, Metro is arguably the finest album of Pritam’s career. Starting with Soham Chakroborty’s Inn Dino, to Alvida and O Meri Jaan (both featuring two versions by KK and Suhail each) and then Baatein Kuch Ankahi Si (sung by Suhail), what’s most satisfying about this album is how the songs sound almost cathartic, thanks to its ‘rock’ elements.
7. Gangs Of Wasseypur I & II (2012)
Sneha Khanwalkar’s hipster two-part soundtrack with 27 songs, quickly became a style statement of sorts. You were either on board with Khanwalkar’s genre-tearing experiments or you weren’t cool enough. Much like the spirit of the two-part crime saga set around two sets of families, even Wasseypur‘s music was committed to being authentic.
Bringing her discoveries of rural folk to light as host of MTV Sound Trippin’, she fused the rustic folk elements with her electronic sensibilities. And while the likes of Keh Ke Lunga (sung by Khanwalkar and Amit Trivedi), Jiya Tu (sung by Manoj Tiwari), O Womaniya (sung by Rekha and Khushboo Raj) and Hunter (sung by Vedesh Sokoo, Rajneesh, Munna) went on to become the famous songs, even others like Soona Kar Ke Gharwa (sung by Sujeet), Kaala Rey (sung by Khanwalkar), Taar Bijli (Sharda Sinha) have their own fan-base.
6. Omkara (2006)
Vishal Bhardwaj’s music in Omkara is some of his life’s best work. The title track sung by Sukhwinder Singh might start off as a run-of-the-mill song introducing the film’s title character, however, it’s in the verses that the song truly makes use of Sukhwinder Singh’s powerful lungs.
Especially in the lines “gully gully mein, bhay baitha hai chowk ka duja funkara... Omkara”. The album also features Gulzar at his naughtiest, coming up with metaphors like “beedi jalayile jigar se piya, jigar ma badi aag hai” and “jabaan pe laaga... laaga re... namak ishq ka”. However, the true greatness of the Omkara album lies in its slow, contemplative songs like O Saathi Re (sung by Bhardwaj and Shreya Ghoshal), Laakad (Rekha Bhardwaj), and Suresh Wadkar’s Jaag Jaa that helps maintain the 100% strike-rate between the Wadkar-Bhardwaj duo. The peak of this absolutely splendid album probably comes when Rahat Fateh Ali Khan opens up a whole new dimension with his final alaap in Naina Thag Lenge.
5. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy (2014)
Dibakar Banerjee’s period thriller set in 1940s Calcutta, around a young Byomkesh Bakshy navigating his way through a Chinese drug cartel and a trail of murders in the city, had one of the most eclectic soundtracks ever.
The sensibility of the film never felt dated, and that probably emerged from the film’s contemporary-sounding album. Featuring artists like Peter Cat Recording, who bleed through the film’s opening sequence in Jaanam, the soundtrack even had the likes of Madboy/Mink, who recreated one of their famous tracks as Calcutta Kiss.
The film’s love ballad Byomkesh In Love was composed by Mumbai-based band Blek and it was unlike anything we had ever heard. While Bangalore-based band ModeAKA composed the track Chase in Chinatown and Akshay De’s Joint Family contributed to the score with a heavy-metal song, Life’s A Bitch. The soundtrack is probably the only soundtrack in a Hindi film that feels like an art work hand-stitched with love.
4. Aamir (2008)
A young man called Amit Trivedi arrived at the doorstep of Hindi cinema in this low-key independent film featuring debutante director Rajkumar Gupta, and was also the film debut of television star Rajeev Khandelwal. No one had any particularly high expectations from the film or the album, and then they both went on to dazzle.
The film, a breathless thriller taking place in some of the busiest ghettos of Mumbai, made exceptional use of Trivedi’s score. Like how Gupta uses the qawwali, Haa Reham (sung by Murtuza-Qadir, Amit Trivedi and Amitabh Bhattacharya), as the titular character is forced to take up violence out of desperation. The visual is of a man so broken, that he fights with nothing to lose.
It’s a powerful way to utilise a song asking God to have mercy on humankind. While Chakkar Ghumyo (sung by Trivedi) is used to showcase the city’s buzzing lifestyle, Phas Gaya (sung by Neuman Pinto), released as a promotional song for the film, is an excellent song with noir influences, something Trivedi also uses expertly in the Climax theme - which plays during a tense, exhilarating 11-minute final sequence.
3. Dil Chahta Hai (2001)
The sound of a ‘new’ Bollywood changed with four bass notes in the first teaser for Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s album still sounds fresh even after nearly two decades. The use of an indigenous Aussie instrument, the didgeridoo in the song Jaane Kyun (Udit Narayan and Alka Yagnik), with its conversational lyrics (thanks to Javed Akhtar) made it refreshingly relatable.
The Celtic influences in Woh Ladki Hai Kahaan (Kavita Krishnamurthy and Shaan), the pensive melody of Kaisi Hai Yeh Ruth (Srinivas) doing right by Sid’s escapist fantasies are iconic. And of course, the best song of the album is the heartbreak song Tanhayee sung beautifully by Sonu Nigam. The Dil Chahta Hai album had something for everyone, and yet it’s the themes Rockin’ Goa (Ehsaan Noorani’s guitar doing some heavy lifting) and Mick Harvey’s Akash Love Theme, that are the most overlooked tracks in the album. This explosion of an album was only a marker for what was to come from the stable of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy.
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s idea of reinterpreting folklore into an archaic contemporary love story, while also force-fitting a gypsy musical perhaps to distract from Harshvardhan Kapoor’s lack of charisma, meant that one of the finest albums of the 2010-2020 decade went completely unnoticed.
However, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy reaffirmed themselves as one of Bollywood’s greats given how craftily they put together this 9-track album. Featuring influences from EDM, jazz, blues, retro fused with Rajasthani folk, the album boasts of voices with varying textures.
The names range from Sain Zahoor (Pakistan), Akhtar Chanal (Balochistan), Nooran Sisters and Daler Mehendi (Punjab) to Kaushiki Chakraborty (West Bengal) along with the familiar Bollywood names like Shankar Mahadevan, Mohan Kannan and Mame Khan.
The raw passion in Daler Mehendi’s title track, the jazz elements in Shankar Mahadevan’s Doli Re, the bluesy Ek Nadi Thi featuring Mohan Kannan, to Kaushiki Chakraborty’s superbly-calibrated sargams in Kaaga Re, it’s impossible to not shower praise on all songs. Mirzya showcases Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy at their most evolved. It’s not surprising that the trio went on to do Bandish Bandits.
Amit Trivedi’s magnum opus soundtrack for Anurag Kashyap and Abhay Deol’s 2010 reinterpretation of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas in the neon-lit bylanes of Paharganj, is hands down the finest Bollywood album in the last 20 years. Fusing a complex variety of genres, Emosanal Atyachaar from the album was almost a phenomenon after it released. The song, thanks to its peculiar nasal vocals (by Amitabh Bhattacharya and Amit Trivedi) and brass band arrangement, became an anthem for Jilted Lovers Inc., even as it critiqued them.
However, Amit Trivedi takes flight in the songs that follow - Nayan Tarse captures a downward spiral where the bottom is nowhere in sight. Pardesi is Dev’s introduction to the underground ‘funny’ business when he meets Chunnilal (Dibyendu Bhattacharya). And then, there’s the masterfully crafted Saali Khushi. Trivedi begins the song — about a pothead — with the sizzling sound of a matchstick being lit. Enough said.
There are other brilliant tracks in the album too, Paayaliya, Aankh Micholi, Mahi Mennu, Dil Mein Jaagi. But the tracks that really take the cake are the late improvs - Bonnie Chakraborty’s rock version of Emotional Atyachaar and Dev-Chanda (Theme 2), whose whistles eventually become the soul of the album.