Dozens of instrumental songs hit No. 1 on the U.S. charts in the 20th Century, yet only one has achieved the same feat in the 21st: “Harlem Shake” by Baauer (which barely classifies as instrumental). Even overplayed techno hits like Darude’s “Sandstorm” and Crazy Frog’s remix of “Axel F” didn’t make the cut. Instrumental music is still being made every day, so it’s a bit confusing why this style has become increasingly unpopular to general audiences.
Despite the abundance of those “Lo-Fi Study and Chill Hip Hop Beats” channels on Youtube, music listeners tend to turn their heads to any music lacking vocals. The common mindset seems to be that vocals are necessary to capture attention and drive the song. But, as lyrics shift further toward simplistic or nonsensical, the less valid this excuse becomes. Crappy lyrics can dilute even the most gorgeous melody, so, if anything, it’s counterintuitive to include them.
Great musicians know this, which is why some of the greatest albums of all time include instrumental songs: “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys, “Kid A” by Radiohead and “Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd, just to name a few. Even Ozzy Osbourne sat a few songs out on “Master of Reality” and let Tommy Iommi play a few folk songs on the guitar.
Now, I’ll be the first one to admit that there is some terrible—and I mean terrible—instrumental music out there. After all, few things in life are more painful than sitting through a Kenny G album. But, here are some modern instrumental albums that are worthy of note:
First off is Four Tet’s 2003 album, “Rounds.” This 10-track album is often labeled as one of the most defining folktronica records of all time, due to its blend of jazz, hip-hop, folk and electronic influences. Four Tet, real name Kieran Hebden, created the album on his home computer by fusing samples of somewhere between 200 and 300 records. The result is both organic and synthetic, taking melodies of acoustic instruments and warping them into glitchy beats. One recommended track is “As Serious As Your Life,” which is exemplary of this, starting with a catchy guitar riff that becomes increasingly warped as the song progresses. Other recommended tracks include “My Angel Rocks Back And Forth” and “She Moves She.”
Up next is Ratatat’s second album, “Classics.” Ratatat had been combining hip-hop, indie rock and electronic music since their first LP, but this is the album that truly perfected their signature psychedelic sound. Produced by Mike Stroud and Evan Mast, this album is widely known for its two singles “Loud Pipes” and “Wildcat.” However, the penultimate song “Nostrand” is one of this album’s hidden gems. Starting slow and mysterious, the song builds to an epic guitar-heavy climax by the two-minute mark that lasts until the end. Other notable tracks include “Lex,” “Tropicana” and “Tacobel Canon.”
Third is Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Replica.” Although OPN is known for his heavy use of synthesizers, his 2011 record marks a departure from his typical sound. “Replica” is comprised of samples of vintage television commercials as well as the occasional synthesizer and piano. Although the album does contain the occasional vocal samples, they are so incomprehensible it cannot be categorized as anything but instrumental. The result is an off-kilter, yet calming ambient album that rivals some of Brian Eno and Aphex Twin’s best work. The titular track and “Sleep Dealer” remain some of OPN’s best works to date, even with his recent collaborations with Iggy Pop and David Byrne.
Last, but not least, is Khruangbin’s 2018 album, “Con Todo El Mundo.” The Thai-funk inspired three-piece from Houston, Texas, have released non-instrumental music in the past, but their latest album discludes all melodic vocals but the faintest oohs and aahs.
The best song on the album, “Maria Tambien,” might include faint chanting of the word “Maria,” but that’s beside the point. This album shines in spite of lyrics because of its blend of world music, breakbeat drums and their excellent guitarist, Mark Speer. Overall, the album could serve as the soundtrack to a film, capturing atmospheres and moods within seconds of each song’s start. Other tracks worthy of a listen are “Shades of Man” and “A Hymn.”
Obviously, there are many more instrumental records worthy of note. Steve Reich’s “Music For 18 Musicians,” Thelonious Monk’s “Solo Monk,” The Meter’s self-titled LP and almost anything ever made by John Coltrane and Miles Davis are masterpieces in their own right. But, the fact that there are still great instrumental records coming out in the 2000s proves that lyricless music still has a place in society, even if the average listener doesn’t believe so.