Is This Music?: 29 terrific instrumentals by bands that usually sing
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1. Teenage Fanclub, "Is This Music?"
"Is This Music?" by Teenage Fanclub
Who knows—besides the members of the Scottish band themselves—what Teenage Fanclub were referring to with the title of the final song on the classic Bandwagonesque. Perhaps they didn't think it was music if it didn't have lyrics, or maybe it was just too cheerful and simple. Whatever the case, "Is This Music?" surely is music, a terrifically soaring way to end an album that holds up years later—if it didn't turn out to be as influential as 1991's other big hype, Nirvana's Nevermind.
2. Pavement, "Heckler Spray"
"Heckler Spray" by Pavement
Pavement had already released a pair of buzz-gathering seven-inch singles when they made the jump to 10 big inches for Perfect Sound Forever. And how to herald their leap into the semi-big-time? With a one-minute EP-opening instrumental in which Gary Young pounds his drums slowly in a modified Bo Diddley beat while guitarists Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg lay down twin riffs: one chugging, one stuttering. "Heckler Spray" is a grinding, spitting indie-rocker designed to shut the crowd up so the band can start the show.
3. Rush, "YYZ"
Instrumental tracks often seem like breathers for bands, but with Rush, nothing is ever that simple. "YYZ" takes its name from the airport code for the band's hometown, Toronto, and the song itself translates the letters into Morse code and uses that as the basis for its rhythms. But if you just want to listen to it rather than do the math, it still rocks pretty hard. (Also, this animated fan video—fanimation?—is amazing.)
4. Cake, "Arco Arena"
Most of Cake's music is about the funky, nerdy white-boy strut and John McCrea's chant-along vocals. McCrea's voice works almost like another instrument, establishing a choppy beat and rhythm fit to get stiff hipsters in '50s glasses pogoing along. Which is why the 91-second "Arco Arena," off the band's breakout album Comfort Eagle, is such a pleasant anomaly. A promo version with vocals was released as a single, but the album cut is an insinuating, creepy, slinky instrumental that sounds about as far off Cake's usual fare as George Harrison's sitar experiments were from The Beatles' early rock.
5. Fugazi, "Brendan #1"
"Brendan #1" by Fugazi
Fugazi dabbled in the occasional instrumental, and much of the Instrument soundtrack is dedicated to lyric-free bits, but the ones they occasionally chose for album inclusion are truly masterful. "Sweet And Low" from In On The Kill Taker is incredible, but it's edged out by the band-defining "Brendan #1," from Repeater, which essentially sums up Fugazi's energy with no yelping or shouting.
6. New Order, "Elegia"
Low-Life is New Order's most danceable, most technopop-informed album, but it also contains one of the band's saddest songs: the instrumental "Elegia," which runs mournful guitar plucking under synthesizers that sound alternately like a funeral mass and the stalker theme from Halloween. It's as powerful, evocative, and emotional a song as New Order ever recorded, and it was put to beautiful use in the Academy Award-nominated animated short More, where the song signifies the persistence of discontent.
7. Led Zeppelin, "Moby Dick"
Led Zeppelin albums featured instrumental tracks ranging from the memorable to the cringe-inducing, but none were mightier than this crushing number from Led Zeppelin II. Although a showcase for John Bonham's brawling drum solo, it's also got a killer blues-funk intro on guitar and bass.
8. The Who, "The Ox"
It didn't take long for The Who's John "The Ox" Entwistle to establish why he was one of the best rock 'n' roll bass players ever: The last track on the band's first album proves it as he cranks out a punishingly heavy bassline while a feedback-drenched guitar, Keith Moon's manic drums, and a crazed boogie piano go absolutely berserk.
9. Elliott Smith, "Kiwi Maddog 20/20"
Elliott Smith is known best as a purveyor of sad-bastard music, a reputation he established right away on his gorgeously downbeat 1994 solo debut Roman Candle. But Smith also had a slyly humorous side, which he exhibits on the closing instrumental "Kiwi Maddog 20/20," a languid surf-y tune that wouldn't be out of place playing over the credits of a Quentin Tarantino film. Which means "Kiwi Maddog 20/20" is totally out of place on a collection of depressing folk-pop songs, though after 30 minutes with Smith's quiet tales of desperation it's practically a lifeline.
10. Paul McCartney, "Momma Miss America"
For his first post-Beatles solo album, Paul McCartney opted for a homemade recording that sacrificed the larger-than-life slickness of his band for demo-like toss-offs like the smoky instrumental "Momma Miss America." It might not be as well crafted as immaculate Beatles tracks like "Eleanor Rigby" or "Hey Jude," but "Momma Miss America" has the disarming rawness of a bootleg, offering a rare inside glimpse at one of the world's biggest rock stars amusing himself in the studio.
11. The Commodores "Machine Gun"
The Commodores are remembered today for silky smooth ballads like "Easy" and "Three Times A Lady," but the Motown group's first hit was the instrumental "Machine Gun" off the 1974 album of the same name. Later Commodores songs were made for the dentist's office, but "Machine Gun" is a proto-disco dance floor scorcher, with clinking synths and an infectious wah-wah guitar forcefully rocking every booty in the house.
12. Uncle Tupelo, "Sandusky"
Uncle Tupelo's third album, March 16-20, 1992 (a dateline that reflects the recording sessions with producer Peter Buck), was in essence a back-to-basics acoustic record intended to affirm the band's country-folk bonafides, mixing Jay Farrar/Jeff Tweedy originals with standards like "Moonshiner" and "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come" and covers like the Louvin Brothers' "Atomic Power." The penultimate song, "Sandusky," serves not only as a pleasing bridge to the mournful Farrar closer "Wipe The Clock," but a delicate, evocative statement all its own. The simple interweaving of guitar and banjo seizes on a gorgeous musical phrase and keeps building on it until your imagination kicks up whatever "on the road" clichés it can conjure.
13. Eagles, "Journey Of The Sorcerer"
With so many vocalists (and egos) vying for attention in the Eagles, it's a wonder the group ever shut up long enough to record an instrumental, let alone one as full of as many atmospheric twists and turns as "Journey Of The Sorcerer" off of One Of These Nights. The album marked a transition from the group's earlier country-folk incarnation towards the slick rock sound that would dominate its career in the '70s, an evolution that would eventually cause founding member Bernie Leadon to leave the band. Perhaps that's why Leadon went for broke with this ambitious instrumental on his way out, a banjo-driven space odyssey full of synthesizer whooshes and orchestral bombast that most listeners probably skip on their way to less heady L.A.-malaise ballads "Lyin' Eyes" and "Take It To The Limit." Years later, the song would take on a second life when it was chosen by Douglas Adams as the theme for both the radio and television incarnations of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, where its odd, travelin'-the-backroads-of-the-universe vibe fit right in.
14. The Smiths, "Money Changes Everything"
"Money Changes Everything" by The Smiths
Considering how important Morrissey was to The Smiths, it's not surprising that he was rarely left out of the picture, but for the B-side to "Bigmouth Strikes Again," Johnny Marr, Mike Joyce, and Andy Rourke crafted an excellent mid-tempo instrumental that gets its groove on while traveling down a dark and mysterious path. Neither Morrissey nor Marr—without question one of the best songwriting teams of all time—have matched the old greatness since their split, but the latter came close when he retooled "Money Changes Everything" with Bryan Ferry to create "The Right Stuff" and proved that the music would still sound great with words.
15. Minutemen, "Cohesion"
Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime showed the world (or at least the small, punk corner of it) just how accomplished and all-over-the-map the band truly was. "Cohesion" is one of the album's most shocking moments—simply because it's so hushed. Taking a breather from his poetic rants and deconstructed funk, singer-guitarist D. Boon fingerpicks the delicate acoustic instrumental without the slightest regard for the fact that it couldn't be less punk.
16. Genesis, "The Brazilian"
By the time Genesis made 1986's Invisible Touch, the English act had undergone a massive transformation from its Peter Gabriel-fronted, prog-rock experimentalism into a vehicle for Phil Collins' far more mainstream songcraft, which had just netted him a hit solo album in No Jacket Required. But Genesis never let its proggier side fade away, and at the end of an album featuring a slate of slick pop tunes like "In Too Deep" came "The Brazilian," a synth-driven and sleek but dangerous-sounding instrumental that would have made a perfect theme song for a drug-lord villain in Miami Vice. And in fact, it was later used on Magnum, P.I. to show the detective's dark obsession in an episode where he was tempted to commit a revenge-motivated murder.
17. Buzzcocks, "Walking Distance"
As great as "Walking Distance"—Buzzcocks' ringing, anthemic instrumental—is, it's also slightly frustrating. True, the dueling melodies of guitarists Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle propel the song beautifully, and it's the type of track that would have made a great TV theme or incidental piece in a film. But it could just as easily have been a full-on, vocal Buzzcocks song—in which case it wouldn't be so criminally overlooked.
18. Iron Maiden, "Transylvania"
Iron Maiden fans can debate the merits of singer Paul Di'Anno versus those of his more famous replacement, Bruce Dickinson, all they want. The fact remains: "Transylvania," the instrumental track off the band's Di'Anno-led debut from 1980, is a knife-sharp, laser-precise, and viciously melodic example of classic British heavy metal.
19. Metallica, "Orion"
Metallica proved its instrumental mettle in 1984 with Ride The Lightning's 9-minute "The Call Of Ktulu." The band followed it up two years later with Master Of Puppets' "Orion," an equally epic instrumental that managed to be simultaneously more brutal and more complex than "Ktulu." Moving from searing thrash to sparse atmospherics that almost hint at Pink Floyd, "Orion" screams without a word.
20. Public Image Ltd., "Graveyard"
Rather than fill up the glaring absence of John Lydon's voice on the instrumental track "Graveyard," Public Image Ltd. Guitarist Keith Levene and bassist Jah Wobble used the empty space to its full potential. While Levene pokes the void with pointillist noise, Wobble bobs through it with a throbbing rumble that resembles nervous, inverted disco.
21. Blue Cheer, "Magnolia Caboose Babyfinger"
Mudhoney borrowed Blue Cheer's Hendrix-with-a-head-wound sound for its self-titled 1989 album—and also lifted, nearly note for note, Blue Cheer's 1968 instrumental, "Magnolia Caboose Babyfinger." Renamed "Magnolia Caboose Babyshit," Mudhoney's version, while decent, pales before Blue Cheer's original—a minute-and-a-half blast of coarse, crude, demented psychedelics.
22. Archers Of Loaf, "Smokin' Pot In The Hot City"
"Smokin' Pot In The Hot City" by Archers Of Loaf
Though seemingly a throwaway track on the Archers Of Loaf odds-and-ends collection The Speed Of Cattle, "Smokin' Pot In The Hot City" is still a winning song, with Eric Bachmann and Eric Johnson's guitars twisting playfully around each other instead of doing their usual snarling roar. As for the title, the liner notes claim the song is about "nothing in particular."
23. Galaxie 500, "Instrumental"
"Instrumental" by Galaxie 500
Well, there's no arguing with that title. The band famous for its sad, slow sound proved that even without lyrics, it could produce a gorgeous song that combined melancholy and triumph. Years later, it was used in an Acura commercial and touched off an argument over selling out that was as productive as such arguments always are.
24. Pink Floyd, "Interstellar Overdrive"
A ten-minute psychedelic epic that almost single-handedly kicked off the space-rock movement, "Interstellar Overdrive" may be the most widely covered instrumental song by a non-instrumental band. Supposedly, its memorable guitar hook was inspired by an attempt to remember Love's version of "My Little Red Book."
25. Meat Puppets, "I'm A Mindless Idiot"
A lot of instrumentals are little more than afterthoughts—good riffs that the band didn't know what else to do with—but "I'm A Mindless Idiot," one of three songs on the terrific Meat Puppets II without vocals, is essential to the album. Its rambling, relaxed feel perfectly conjures the sunny, wandering mood and distinct sound of the whole.
26. The Police, "The Other Way Of Stopping"
It didn't take long for Sting to dominate The Police with his rock-star poses and grad-school-dropout lyrics, but from time to time drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers got to contribute a song of their own—or at least demonstrate their chops. "The Other Way Of Stopping," off 1980's Zenyatta Mondatta, was written by Copeland, and though Summers' spare guitar provides the song's dominant sound, this instrumental is really all about giving Copeland a chance to bang out complicated patterns in the background, and give hope to frustrated drummers everywhere that someday they might be the star of the show for three minutes.
27. Elton John, "Carla/Etude/Fanfare"
"Carla/Etude/Fanfare" by Elton John
Elton John's 1981 album The Fox is a fairly forgotten item in his catalog, but every now and then, the lush orchestral instrumental "Carla/Etude" makes its way into one of Sir Elton's concerts, or as the backing music to some uplifting TV news montage. On The Fox, "Carla/Etude" fades directly into the peppy synthesizer instrumental "Fanfare," in a direct contrast of keyboard styles: from the dreamy and romantic to the minimal and electronic.
28. Red House Painters, "Cabezon"
"Cabezon" by Red House Painters
Following 1993's twin self-titled Red House Painters LPs (known by fans as "Rollercoaster" and "Bridge"), bandleader Mark Kozelek took a step back from the epic with the slighter Ocean Beach. Kozelek signaled the simpler touch by opening the record with "Cabezon," an acoustic instrumental far lighter and jauntier than anything in the prior RHP repertoire. Ocean Beach has its share of depressing, harrowing Kozelek songs, but "Cabezon" is not among them. It's a gentle breeze, not a full-force gale.
29. Pixies, "Cecilia Ann"
The epic, surf-inspired "Cecilia Ann" opens Bossanova with a superhero vibe, setting the pace for the rest of the record perfectly. It's two minutes of charging, reverb-y guitar—and probably the kind of song Black Francis would make 500 of, if his fans would let him.