All the acts on this list feature fine singers with admirable talents, but here are the tracks where they decided to let the instruments do the talking. From Foals to Fleetwood Mac, we count down the 30 best instrumentals from normally non-instrumental bands.
30 Belle and Sebastian – ‘Fuck This Shit’
Scottish twee masters Belle and Sebastian have had a fair few instrumentals across their 9 studio LPs to date, but it’s ‘Fuck This Shit’ – taken from soundtrack album ‘Storytelling’ (of the Todd Solonz film of the same name) – that is regularly singled out as one of their finest.
29 M Ward – ‘Rag’
When he’s not goofing about with ’50s pop-rock sounds with her off New Girl, She and Him guitar master M Ward is a talented songwriter in his own right. Take instrumental ‘Rag’ for example. Even without his enchantingly throaty vocals, it’s cast-iron proof of his tremendous ability and interesting throwback influences.
28 Mark Hollis – ‘ARB Section 1’
Erstwhile Talk Talk frontman Mark Hollis resurfaced in 2012 with a haunting track, ‘ARB Section 1’, for short-lived political TV series ‘Boss’. He’d retired from the music industry in 2004 so it was a welcome return that harked back to his magnificent solo album.
27 Fugazi – ‘Sweet And Low’
Hardcore heroes Fugazi have been remembered more for their louder moments than laid-back cuts like ‘Sweet and Low’, but there’s a lot to enjoy in this song’s seamless flow and sunny vibes. The perfect showcase for Guy Picciotto and Ian MacKaye’s electric chemistry and telepathy-like connection, its jam session feel is a brilliant insight into the dynamic behind a band like no other.
26 REM – ‘New Orleans Instrumental No. 1’
Nestled in the middle of ‘Automatic For The People’, REM’s ’92 release, the gentle ‘New Orleans Instrumental No. 1’, named after where it was recorded, provides a double bass-propelled pause in the Georgia band’s classic album.
25 Eels – ‘Going To Your Funeral Part 2’
For such a morbid title, Eels’ ‘Going To Your Funeral Part 2’ is decidedly friendly and perky. Taken from their 1998 release, ‘Electro-Shock Blues’, it’s one of E’s best – but probably not one to play at your Nan’s wake.
24 Broken Social Scene – ‘Pacific Theme’
Broken Social Scene are (were? It’s hard to keep track on whether they’re still operational after several hiatuses and reunion shows) led by husky-voiced indie savant Kevin Drew, and regularly joined by Feist, Emily Haines and other brilliant vocalists. But ‘Pacific Theme’, from the excellent ‘You Forgot It In People’, needs none of those people to stand out. A gorgeous, Rhodes-sprinkled dream.
23 The War On Drugs – ‘The Haunting Idle’
Haven’t heard the latest album from Philadelphia indie sophisticates The War On Drugs, floaty Americana marvel ‘Lost In The Dream’? You should probably get on the case – it’s one of 2014’s most finely nuanced listens. One of the best tracks on it, arguably, is an instrumental, ‘The Haunting Idle’.
22 Real Estate – ‘Kinder Blumen’
Real Estate’s Matt Mondanile – also of Ducktails – wrote ‘Kinder Blumen’ for ‘Days’ (2011). Kinder Blumen translated means ‘children’ and ‘flowers’ in German and as the meandering guitar solo blossoms, the title suddenly seems perfectly fitting. It’s a gorgeous, underrated whorl.
21 Oasis – ‘Fuckin’ In The Bushes’
Oasis’ ‘Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants’ erupts with a motorik-driven blast with no vocals, the amusingly monikered ‘Fuckin’ In The Bushes’. It’s full of old-school Gallagher attitude and shades of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Little Miss Lover’.
20 The Smiths – ‘Oscillate Wildly’
The Smiths’ ‘Oscillate Wildly’, the B-side to ‘How Soon Is Now?’, is a diverting piano-led, almost-jazzy track from 1987’s ‘Louder Than Bombs’. Listen out for Andy Rourke on the cello.
19 Metronomy – ‘You Could Easily Have Me
‘You Could Easily Have Me’ was the first ever Metronomy single, taken from their debut ‘Pip Paine (Pay the £5000 You Owe)’, released in 2005. It’s an underrated gem and harks back to Joe Mount’s days as a laptop artist and DJ. Don’t miss the hilarious music video.
18 kate Bush – ‘Prelude’
The ‘Prelude’ of ‘A Sky Of Honey’, the album played in full at Kate Bush’s 2014 London residency, isn’t technically completely instrumental: spoken word is provided by her son, Bertie. But it’s a euphoric, calming piano-driven piece of music that deserves more attention.
17 Pixies – ‘Cecilia Ann’
Pixies’ ‘Cecilia Ann’ opens 1990’s ‘Bossanova’. It’s an explosive force of a tune with a ‘Misirlou’-esque twang to its fretwork.
16 Sufjan Stevens – ‘The Black Hawk War’
Sufjan Stevens has scored ballets and in 2001 released an entire album of imaginative instrumentals (‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’) so obviously knows a thing or two about creating lyricless spectacles. ‘The Black Hawk War’ is maybe his best – the grandest moment on his grandest album, the unparalleled ‘Come On, Feel The Illinoise’.
15 Foals – ‘Prelude’
Make no mistake, Foals’ Yannis is a commanding frontman with a unique, growly shout recognisable a mile off. The odd occasion when he steps back from the microphone, however, allows for some of the Oxford crew’s most spine-tingling moments. Take the simmering ‘Prelude’ from last year’s ‘Holy Fire’, which puts the group’s fizzing chemistry to the fore.
14 Led Zeppelin – ‘Moby Dick’
From the off, Led Zep’s ‘Moby Dick’ is an unforgiving guitar battle between Jimmy Page and bassist John Paul Jones, duelling in expertly-deployed, razorwire riffs. Once you hit the 1-minute mark, all you hear is silence – a moment to catch your breath before a John Bonham solo that cemented his reputation as a behemoth of the drums.
13 Pavement – ‘5-4=Unity’
Bluesy bass and a clinky piano make up the body of Pavement’s ‘5-4 = Unity’ – a whimsical space-age cut that wobbles deliriously between slacker rock and oddball piano folk. God bless you, Stephen Malkmus.
12 Radiohead – ‘Meeting in the Aisle’
Their 1998 track from the ‘Airbag/How Am I Driving’ EP is a trippy groove based around three sliding chords. It enjoyed a welcome renaissance over ‘The King Of Limbs’ tour in 2011 as one of the only older songs the band brought out of the magic hat.
11 Elliott Smith – ‘Kiwi Maddog 20/20’
Prepare to be whisked back to a bygone era where you’re sitting in a smokey bar drinking whisky with the lights down low – that’s the transformative power of Elliott Smith’s heart-bruising ‘Kiwi Maddog 20/20’. He had quite a few instrumentals, our Elliott, but this one tops the lot for us.
10 Neil Young – ‘Dead Man’
The Godfather Of Grunge Neil Young wrote the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 western ‘Dead Man’, and the main theme, played over the opening and end credits, is a magnificently moving symphony that stands high in the Young canon.
9 Beastie Boys – ‘Sabrosa’
You’ve gotta love Beastie Boys’ ‘Sabrosa’. You know the one: a “whachow-bam!” of electric guitars kicks into life a parade of funk riffs and basslines that groove so hard even Marvin Gaye would grow green with envy. An instrumental party, and what a party it is.
8 Link Wray – ‘Rumble’
Behold, the lyric-less gem that inspired some of the greatest musicians of our time: we’re talking Pete Townshend of The Who fame, John Lennon and Paul McCartney AND Bob Dylan, who called it ‘the best instrumental ever’. Link Wray’s 1958 classic is highly regarded for good reason. Wray created the power chord with this song, which in turn provided inspiration for many a musician for years to come.
7 The Beatles – ‘Flying’
‘Flying’ was the first instrumental written by The Beatles and one of the rare examples of a track written by all four members – it also features all four on non-lyrics vocals. From the 1967 Magical Mystery Tour release, it’s to thank for many other instrumentals on this list.
6 Fleetwood Mac – ‘Albatross’
Having a stressful day? Put ‘Albatross’ on and you’ll be immediately sailing out to sea without a care in the world. Amazingly, it was Fleetwood Mac’s only Number 1 hit in the UK Singles Chart (1968).
5 The XX – ‘Intro’
The xx’s sumptuous ‘Intro’ was something of a defining moment for the XL Recordings heroes – a brooding, echoing slice of indie darkness that threatens to explode but is never let fully off the leash by the London masters of restraint. The track was sampled by Rihanna on ‘Drunk On Love’ so its influence has been felt far and wide.
4 Jack White – ‘High Ball Stepper’
Jack White’s 2014 album ‘Lazaretto’ includes pure instrumental firecracker ‘High Ball Stepper’. With its propulsive bass drum and wonky guitars making way for keys that sounds like they’re tripping over each other, it’s one of White’s best works.
3 David Bowie – ‘Speed Of Life’
No list of great instrumentals is complete without David Bowie’s brilliant ‘Speed Of Life’ (1977) – although there are plenty of options from ‘Low’ and other releases from Bowie’s Berlin period. It was the first instrumental the Dame ever wrote but quickly became one of his most iconic pieces.
2 Booker T and the MGs – ‘Green Onions’
Booker T’s ‘Green Onions’ is one of those that if you don’t recognise the title, you will almost definitely know it when you hear it. Featured in adverts and TV shows aplenty, this bluesy-funk 1960s classic has more than stood the test of time. The song was originally to be called ‘Funky Onions’ but Booker T deemed ‘Green Onions’ better.
1 The Beach Boys – ‘Pet Sounds’
Sun-kissed vocal harmonies may be their calling card, but arguably the Beach Boys’ most tender, nuanced moment on record is entirely vocal-less. Brian Wilson originally wrote ‘Pet Sounds’, the stirring, sepia-hued title track to their 1966 classic album, for use in a James Bond film before it became a Beach Boys instrumental. Fun fact – that strange production you can hear? Coke cans.