NME Recommends: the best instrumental albums

No words, no problem

Lyrics can be pure poetry. They’re used to protest, to proclaim romantic feelings or just to take the piss. They can offer a real insight into the artist’s world (or just make you feel incredibly seen). Sometimes, though, we need a respite from words.

Enter the instrumental album. Whether it’s a post-rock epic, an hour of throbbing techno or some effortlessly cool jazz, there’s a whole host of musicians sacking off words and providing banging records.

Here, NME writers go deep on their favourite instrumental albums.


‘The Fall Of Math’ (2004)

Want some glitchy post-rock that sounds like Hans Zimmer jamming with At The Drive In? Then invest some time in this absolute banger from Sheffield’s finest purveyors of mind-altering math-rock. Turn up ‘Retreat! Retreat!’ or the brilliantly titled ‘Install A Beak In The Heart That Clucks Time In Arabic’ and air-drum until the end of days. Oh, and if you won’t take our word for it, they’ve also had the seal of approval from The Cure’s Robert Smith (who later collaborated with them on the epic ‘Come To Me’ from 2010’s ‘We Were Exploding Anyway’).
Listen to it when: When the singularity takes hold and the robot apocalypse begins. Or if you just wanna get shit done with maximum energy.
Andrew Trendell
Listen: Spotify | Apple Music

Aphex Twin

‘Selected Ambient Works 85–92’ (1992)

The term “instrumental” is almost certainly reductive when it comes to Richard D James’ debut album. Despite the lack of vocals on this club-oriented masterpiece – a short sample on ‘We Are The Music Makers aside – the mysterious producer made every other instrument piece of kit sing in glorious harmony, here. Whether it be on the ambient-house slapper ‘Pulsewidth’ or the squelchy ‘Delphium’, everything moves in one singular direction; into a higher place. Few – if any – producers can make such a statement with so little words.
Listen to it when: The next time someone says that electronic music has no heart or soul – shove this emotive masterpiece in their face.
Thomas Smith
Listen: Spotify | Apple Music

J Dilla

‘Donuts’ (2006)

Unveiled on his 23rd birthday – and three days before his death after a long illness – ‘Donuts’ is the greatest, and sadly last, album Dilla released in his lifetime. Stuffed with catchy riffs and samples from lost disco classics, this is a patchwork record made up of the Detroit native’s many musical influences, as well as the killer beats and melodic hooks he crafted from scratch. Some close to Dilla have claimed there are covert messages in the song titles, while others say it’s just one of a series of records he planned to put out (the others remain hidden inside the literal gigabytes of unreleased music he left on hard drives). Whatever your thoughts on this masterpiece of instrumental hip-hop though, it’s unlikely it’ll ever be topped.
Listen to it when: You’re in need of inspiration – if Dilla can come up with one of the best records ever from his deathbed, then you can finish that uni essay.
Alex Flood
Listen: Spotify | Apple Music

Brian Eno

‘Ambient 1: Music For Airports’ (1978)

Brian Eno describes ambient music, the genre he coined and basically invented in the 1970s, to be “as ignorable as it is interesting” in the liner notes of 1978’s ‘Music For Airports’. It might sound like a sleight to some, but Eno’s aim was to make music spacious enough to “induce calm and a space to think,” and ‘Music For Airports’ does this like no other album ever created. The album’s gorgeous, liquidy drones and cyclical pianos melt into your subconscious, creating a softer, clearer headspace away from the hustle and bustle of your day. In times of anxiety and unease, it’s the perfect tonic.
Listen to it when: Your brain is moving at 100mph and you need an escape from the clutter.
Will Richards
Listen: Spotify | Apple Music

Charlie Parker

‘The Happy “Bird”‘ (1961)

OK, so it’s probably a bit Partridge to choose a compilation album, but there’s nothing fusty or safe about this collection of enjoyably chaotic jazz doodles from legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker, the man who gave us bebop. It’s an unruly, smacky and unpredictable round-up of club gigs recorded in 1951 – that’s jazz great Charles Mingus on bass, no less – with so much atmosphere ingrained into every parp and clatter you’ll feel like you’re in the room, louchely smoking a fag and looking cooler than you’ll ever be in real life.
Listen to it when: You’re clacking away at your typewriter, knocking out an impenetrable beat poem.
Jordan Bassett
Listen: Youtube

Explosions in the Sky

‘The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place’ (2003)

Explosions in the Sky‘s third album sees them try their hand at love songs. On ‘The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place’ the Texan post-rock quartet evoke the dizzy feelings of falling head over heels, flashes of yearning and the quiet moments of comfort when you first let your guard down around your partner. With intense crescendos, brooding guitar melodies and roaring climaxes, they conjure up emotions you didn’t know you had, and all without a single lyric.
Listen to it when: You’re falling in love, or to torture yourself after a breakup.
Hannah Mylrea
Listen: Spotify | Apple Music