Thursday, January 13, 2011

11 Best Instrumentals: Introduction

The primary function of an instrumental track is to perpetuate an aesthetic or theme through music alone. But its latent function is to let an album breathe. It's not uncommon to hear a nice instrumental after a particularly intense or complex track. On the heels of something like that, an instrumental can lower your pulse, recenter you, massage your ears a bit. At the same time, you'll hear of instrumentals that serve as segues*, lead-ins, and outros. You'll see examples of each on the list.

I want to add that I'm no fan of post rock. Sans-vocals bands like Explosions In the Sky  just don't do it for me. Great, you can step on your delay pedal and downstrum spacey chords for an hour. I know that's unfairly downplaying what they actually do, but my point is that it's nice in small doses, but an albumsworth of material? I don't know. It kind of loses its effect.The exception is Sigur Ros, who is something of a post rock band. While they are rarely in my steady rotation, I enjoy their music--but I'd argue that talent-wise, they're a few steps above your garden variety post-rock outfit.

But post rock bands don't qualify for this list anyway. We'll strictly be dealing with instrumental tracks by predominantly vocal-based bands. Let's look at some honorable mentions.

Two artists who don't shy away from instrumentals are M. Ward and Tom Waits. Both appear in the top 11, but I had to parse through quite a few selections. Ward prides himself on breezy guitar arrangements, which is why you'll hear at least a couple on any given album. "Afterword/Rag" from Post-War and "Duet for Guitars #3" from Transfiguration of Vincent are two to check out. There are plenty more, too.

Waits, as you might guess, gets a bit more out there with his instrumentals. "Rain Birds" is an eerie loungepiece that closes Swordfishtrombones, while "In Shades" from Heartattack and Vine is straight divebar blues. "Midtown" from Rain Dogs is somewhere inbetween--quite fittingly, it conjures the image of midtown Manhattan. Remember what I said about instrumental tracks perpetuating an aesthetic? One other honorable mention that's also by an artist who has another song on the top 11 list: "The Fool" by Neutral Milk Hotel.

Here are some others I enjoy:
On to the list itself! Look for the first five real soon. In the meantime, anyone else got some instrumental tracks to suggest?

*An excellent example of instrumental segues can be found on Dave Matthews Band's masterpiece Before These Crowded Streets. While they aren't actual tracks, there are instrumental segues that appear after the fade-out of several of the album's longer tunes. I'm a little embarrassed to even mention that I'm a fan of 90s DMB--goes to show you how that guy is perceived these days.


Adam J. said...

I always have a hard time recalling good instrumental tracks from recent albums, so I'm looking forward to this list. A few classics always come to mind, from the likes of Van Halen or Rush. Cliffs of Dover by Eric Johnson, for sure. But I'm guessing he wouldn't qualify for the list anyway. Even though I'm not really a fan of Nickel Creek, I love their song Stumptown. It's not really an showcase of skill like Cliffs of Dover, or say, Eruption by Van Halen, but the melody is just so catchy.

George said...

You know, I forgot all about Cliffs of Dover. I remember geeking out back in high school, trying in vain to learn the intro to that tune. I'm with you, too: I'm not a huge fan of virtuoso showcases (often just devolves into wankery) but some are just done right.

Hopefully you'll discover a few new ones...working on the first 5 write-ups right now!