I must confess, when it comes to music, I usually stick to tunes with lyrics. It’s definitely a flaw in my music nerd credentials, but probably one that’s quite understandable given my affection for the written word.
This week, I’m aiming to rectify that balance, with ten instrumentals that prove you don’t need a vocal track to move people. From classical masters to more modern moods, from the littlest dance halls to the biggest of screens, this playlist aims to celebrate those musicians who manage to say it best without saying a word.
1. Gunnamatta – Paul Kelly
The opening track to Kelly’s 2004 double album Ways & Means, is a regal surf-guitar piece, with a video to match. Named after either Gunnamatta Bay in Sydney, or a beach of the same name on the Mornington Peninsula, it’s a soundtrack for the more casual surfer, lacking the urgency often found in this style. This tune’s lazy, flowing sound took a little while to wriggle its way into my heart, but my recent education in the genre, care of Mikelangelo and the Tin Star, has led to this track being the first one to jump into my head upon commencing the compilation of this list.
2. Pepper Snake – The Cactus Channel
Finalists in the 2011 triple j Unearthed High competition, The Cactus Channel have had a busy couple of years, what with graduating from high school, releasing a debut album and making everybody that comes into contact with them feel like complete and utter failures at life, before making us feel better with their joyous jams. With a rhythm that has you tapping your toe from the opening bar, this little number will have you happily bopping in your seat before you know it.
3. Little Brown Jug – Glenn Miller
When I started making this playlist, I decided that I wasn’t going to include instrumental versions of songs that started their lives with lyrics. Oops.
I’m a bit of a fan of vintage swing dance numbers, and this is a particular favourite, harking back to my childhood days, when it was used on a segment on Sesame Street about a school circus troupe. If I could find the video, I would link it, but it seems to be one of those little pieces of television history that has been lost to the ether. Which is a shame, because even though I was three, I totally had a crush on one of those clowns.
4. The Romp – My Friend The Chocolate Cake
My Friend The Chocolate Cake easily have one of the best names in show business. They also happen to make some pretty sweet, folk-pop tunes, with and without lyrics. Granted, this one was tarnished somewhat by its use in ANZ advertising campaigns a few years back, but I don’t care. I still love it. It’s jaunty, light and cheerful and fills my heart with a special kind of happiness.
5. Villain (Stage Left) – The Barons of Tang
I first had the pleasure of seeing this band live at the Winter Magic festival in Katoomba a few years back with a couple of (unrelated) friends. The social situation was slightly awkward and the weather was pretty abysmal, but the sheer energy of this group’s performance quickly erased those facts from my mind. The incredible amount of character in their music is intoxicating and invigorating, and their stage presence is mesmerising. Make sure that if you ever get the chance to see them live, you take it, and let yourself be taken to a time and place a little more rough and tumble (and far more exciting!) than the one you live in.
6. Für Elise – Beethoven
I have vivid memories of my mother playing this song from when I was a tyke, the opening bars firmly entrenched in my brain. She had learned it when she was a little girl, and I would watch her in fascination, perplexed by her ability to play something from memory, and something that looked so tricky too! Twenty years on, I still can’t play “Für Elise” (although I do have the ability to bash out a couple of pop songs off the top of my head), but as soon as I hear it, I can see my mum’s fingers flickering across the keys of our old, slightly out-of-tune piano.
7. Ursa Major – Floex
This piece was brought to my attention by my friend Fin, whose knowledge of electronica and the life of bugs far outstrips my own, and once again, I have been surprised and greatly impressed by his latest suggestion.
A track that seems to combine the natural and the mechanical, “Ursa Major” aurally reflects on the conflict involved in space travel (hence the fact that it is named after the Great Bear constellation). It is delicate and soft, yet has an element of cold, hard crunch to it; perfectly summing up the contrast of the peaceful existence of the natural universe and the sudden invasion of human technology into what had previously been a vacuum. Delightful and thoughtful.
8. Moanin’ – Charles Mingus
This track was another suggestion, from a source who shall not be named, because let’s be honest, a playlist of instrumentals without a jazz track really isn’t doing its job right. While the Mysterious Source was a little sceptical as to whether this track would work, I quickly fell in love with it, mostly because it lends itself to the pulling of funny faces and slightly ridiculous dancing. While I’m sure that wasn’t the intention of the suggester, it was certainly a better response than the one I gave when he suggested “Blue Train” by John Coltrane. Unfortunately, because I am a bad person with no class whatsoever, that just made me think of this.
There is a special place in hell for people like me, I am sure of it.
9. Peaches En Regalia – Frank Zappa
Ever since I saw his interview with Norman Gunston, I have been convinced that Frank Zappa was probably the coolest dude to ever have spent time on this planet. That said, it was only while constructing this playlist that I finally got around to listening to some of his music, because as I mentioned before, I am a bad person.
Sure, my choice in this case is clichéd, but in my searching of his back catalogue, this was the first track I really latched on to. It’s a pretty cool tune, with enough shifting phases to make sure that you’re never bored, but it’s also pretty cheesy, so I’m still not sure if it’s taking the piss or not.
It’s just kind of… weird. Then again, I don’t know why I expected anything less.
10. Star Wars Theme – John Williams
I really wanted to put a piece from the Doctor Who soundtrack in this list, but I did that last month, so instead I went for something from my favourite of the great film score composers: John Williams. This is the man that gave us the soundtrack to Jurassic Park, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Home Alone, the Indiana Jones series, the Harry Potter series, Schindler’s List, Jaws, and many more, including the Star Wars series.
This is the piece that I would argue will always be his best known work. Immediately, you’re hit with the notion of exactly what movie franchise you’re watching, all the grandeur of the piece forcing you to sit up and take notice. It is a real hero’s theme, one that builds you up ten feet tall and lets you know that this is one that will be remembered for generations. It will be a long time before somebody beats this for the title of “Most Iconic Movie Theme”.
Which instrumentals speak to you? Do they get your toes tapping, or do they take you back down memory lane? Let us know below, or get in touch on Twitter or Facebook. And don’t forget, you can find the whole list on Spotify.