What if instrumental-based music had its own Top Ten? We’ve often wished this were true, before realizing we could make our own. Consider this feature the Fantasy Football section of ACL, an alternate universe in which the music we enjoy is popular worldwide. It’s not a complete stretch, as instrumental-based music has enjoyed many times in the sun, from the surf-pop singles of the sixties to the disco nuggets of the seventies to the acid trax of the eighties. Last November, Martin Garrix hit #1 in the U.K. with “Animals”, the first (mostly) instrumental chart topper there since “Flat Beat” in 1999. Meanwhile in the U.S., a yearly series called Complete Pop Instrumentals of the Sixties has begun to make a sales dent. The time is right to start recognizing (again) the crossover appeal offered by many of the artists we cover.
First, a few rules on methodology ~ what to include, what not to include. In order to be eligible, we established a few simple rules. In general, the music had to be short enough to fit on a 45 (yes, we’re old school like that). Lyrics would only be allowed if used as samples or as a small part of the track (this leaves out Hammock’s “Tres Domine”, the most commercially viable track from Oblivion Hymns). Only tracks from the albums covered by A Closer Listen or scheduled to be covered in the near future would be included. And most importantly, the music had to sound like it might become a hit, given a creative programmer and a higher profile. These are the tracks one might share with a friend in order to introduce them to the wider world of instrumental-based music. We hope that you enjoy this chart and that it leads to some fun discoveries!
Our lovely cover image is by Paula Villanova, and is taken from Boston blog Girls Just Wanna Paint, a collective site for local female artists.
1) Zebrat ~ Imagination
“The purpose of this record is to show you how to use your imagination to achieve your every desire.” These words introduce Zebrat’s debut album, released a week before Christmas, and their inspiration is perfect for the new year. The theme makes it our #1 pick for our inaugural chart, but it’s also an incredibly catchy piece, bursting through at 2:04 with the bassline of M.I.A.’s “Planes”.
2) Kurt Friedrich ~ White Fields
Here’s another song perfect for the new year, as the echoes of Christmas begin to fade and holiday parties begin to wind down. “White Fields” is taken from Flannelgraph’s The Holidays Don’t Have To Be So Rotten Volume Four. Its melancholic piano is backed with the sounds of light conversation – hope for a better year, time spent with friends, the glow of the holidays burning still.
3) woodworkings ~ slept the whole way home
The closing track on one of December’s finest albums, Own Records’ day breaks the morning shapes we speak, “slept the whole way home” conjures images of children asleep in the back seat, returning from a holiday visit with distant relatives. It may be the most sedate track on our chart, but it’s also the most evocative, graced with gentle glockenspiel and strings, a soft goodnight to the album, the trip and the year.
4) Water of Life ~ Sources and Springs
This December release, the A side of a supremely packaged 7″ set, is an actual single, which makes it a clear choice for our January list. It’s also the rare track that begins with an actual field recording. But when the 1960s transistor organ enters, the track turns into something decidedly retro and chic. We highly recommend the physical package, a beautiful collection of essay, art and music!
5) Jilk ~ I Put Your Tape On
Retreat to Sleep was released this past fall, preceded by three free EPs, a wonderful marketing tactic that created good will for the full album. At the time, “I Put Your Tape On”, a tender, fragile piece similar in subject to Björk’s wintry “Headphones”, seemed a season too early; now it’s just right, the whispery voice and melancholic violins a perfect accompaniment to the winter months.
6) The Echelon Effect ~ Hidden Rocks (feat. Torsten Kinsella)
The music of David Walters (The Echelon Effect) seems tailor-made for both summers and snowfalls. With its ebullient mix of guitar and glockenspiel, Walters’ music is instantly recognizable. “Hidden Rocks” is taken from The Echelon Effect’s new album Atlantic, and features multiple bursts of snare, along with very light “oo”s from guest vocalist Torsten Kinsella (God Is an Astronaut). If the Winter Olympics need an advert theme, this is a worthy candidate.
7) Le Pelican Noir ~ …et les arbres déserteront les champs
It may not have the catchiest title (the English translation is “And the trees will desert the fields”), but the song makes a perfect single, with uplifting chords, a soft breakdown, a slow build and a rush of piano and strings. The track comes from Montreal collective Le Pelican Noir’s debut album, which was released in mid-December and looks to make a dent in the new year.
8) Public Service Broadcasting ~ Night Mail
Boasting a drumbeat straight from “Running Up That Hill”, a guitar line worthy of New Order and a sample about U.K. mail delivery, “Night Mail” is a perfect storm of intersecting fronts. And it’s an actual single! (No fantasies here!) A host of remixes accompanied the release, but it’s the original that still has our offices grooving.
9) Fold ~ Passing Strangers (Instrumental)
Fold’s Salvation EP first came to our attention as a vocal release, but when the instrumental version joined it in the stacks, we really took notice. Closing track “Passing Strangers” is the highlight of the set, an Aim-like groove track graced by snatches of a sampled choir. Cruising along at a comfortable 88 b.p.m., the piece creates a nostalgia for trip-hop while nudging it into the new century.
10) Moor Hound ~ Blizzard of ’95
This lovely guitar track is the second single on our list lifted from The Holidays Don’t Have To Be So Rotten Volume Four. It’s catchy, comforting, and winter-related, a perfect combination. Electric and acoustic elements are both at home in the piece, which throws in some “ah”s to imply a happy band jamming around the hearth.