Shoot the Singer: 20 Great Instrumentals by Non-Instrumental Bands
Instrumentals have been a staple of pop music as long as its existed, and songs without vocals have been hits throughout the years, including surf rock classics like "Pipeline" and "Wipeout," party starters like "Tequila" and "Green Apples," TV theme songs ("Miami Vice," "S.W.A.T."), novelty songs ("Hot Butter," Jive Bunny's "Swing the Mood"), jazz crossovers (Chuck Mangione, Herb Alpert and, um, Kenny G), disco jams (Love Unlimited Orchestra, "The Hustle"), and most recently, Baauer's "The Harlem Shake."
Most of those were by primarily instrumental artists, but bands with singers make instrumental music too, and sometimes those end up rivaling their songs with vocals. Inspired by Depeche Mode's chief songwriter, Martin Gore, who recently released The Third Chimpanzee, a terrific EP of primate-inspired instrumentals, here's a list of great instrumentals by alternative and indie rock groups who have singers. (A Pavement song inspired this post's title, but a different one made this list.) The list includes synthpop, club music, bands who've headlined stadiums and cult groups too. All of them keep their mouths shut here.
Check out our list, and listen to a playlist with all 16 songs, below.
Speaking of Martin Gore's The Third Chimpanzee, we've got it in the BV Shop on limited azure blue vinyl packaged in a debossed sleeve with an art print. The cover art was painted by Pockets Warhol, a very talented capuchin monkey.
Shoot the Singer: 16 Great Instrumentals by Non-Instrumental Bands
The Smiths - "Oscillate Wildly"
Hate what Morrissey's become in the last 20 years but still want to love The Smiths and not hear his voice? It's easy to do both with "Oscillate Wildly," one of only a few instrumentals The Smiths released during their short but prolific existence. Originally a B-side to "How Soon is Now," the track is pretty different for The Smiths in 1984 and not just because Moz doesn't sing on it. The first thing you hear is piano, while airy synths carry much of the melody. "Oscillate Wildly" has got real sweep and has no shortage of hooks. Morrissey's presence is still felt, though, as his love of Oscar Wilde comes through in the title.
Simple Minds - "Theme for Great Cities"
The Breakfast Club turned them into pop stars, but Scotland's Simple Minds got their start as ambitious, arty post-punks with a flair for melodrama. While they have a very charismatic frontman in JIm Kerr, the band were exceptional at instrumentals, which were often the highlights of their early records. That's definitely the case with "Theme for Great Cities" which opens 1981's Sister Feelings Call and brilliantly blends driving rock with the new age atmospherics a la Vangelis or Jean Michel-Jarre.
Phoenix - "Love Like a Sunset Pt. 1"
Smack in the middle of Phoenix's best album, 2009's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, is the two-part "A Love Like Sunset," the first half of which is a slow-building instrumental inspired by the band listening to Steve Reich on the road from Versailles to Paris. While some groups might drop an instrumental onto a record as filler, that is definitely not the case here, as Phoenix said that they spent nearly two years to finish it, trying to recreate the experience of the rhythmic sounds of the road.
Portishead - "Theme From To Kill A Dead Man"
Trip hop icons Portishead got part of their cool from sampling '60s composers like Lalo Schifrin, whose "Danube Incident" from his Mission: Impossible score was the sampled hook for the band's hit single "Sour Times." They made their own little spy movie, To Kill a Dead Man, around the same time. It features a wonderful theme that's as sweeping and tragic as the ending of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. How did they never do an actual Bond theme?
The Wedding Present - "Dan Dare"
This zippy, Steve Albini-produced instrumental b-side is based around the same chords as "Dare" from The Wedding Present's classic 1991 album Seamonsters, hence the similar title which is also a nod to sci-fi comic Dan Dare. Frontman David Gedge is a huge comics fan and has peppered many of their songs with superhero references. "‘Dan Dare’ is actually one of my favourite ever Wedding Present recordings," Gedge tells us. "I’d use it as my theme tune if I was a radio DJ! It’s actually kind of an instrumental version of the song ‘Dare’ - with just some slight rearrangement and the vocal obviously replaced by Peter’s brilliant guitar solo. I think there’s a mash-up of the two tracks on the internet somewhere."
Belle & Sebastian - "Judy is a Dick Slap"
Stuart Murdoch is the epitome of the bookish indie type, and his lyrics with Belle & Sebastian have made many swoon. But this instrumental -- a B-side to 2000 single "Legal Man" -- is pretty transportive too. It's a jaunty little number that you could imagine soundtracking a Vespa ride down to London's Savile Row to pick up a bespoke suit in 1967.
Pale Saints - "Porpoise"
Shoegaze greats Pale Saints released this wonderful instrumental on their 1991 Flesh Balloon EP. Set free with a gently ticking drum machine and a driving, three-note bassline, "Porpoise" takes its time, adding a mysterious keyboard melody while dreamy guitars circle around. Two minutes in, the drums kick in and the song becomes much more propulsive, with guitarist Graeme Naysmith showing off the kind of funky noodling usually not allowed in shoegaze.
New Order - "Elegia"
An ode to Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western scores, specifically the pocket watch scene from A Few Dollars More, "Elegia" opens side two of 1985's highly underrated Low-Life. While the five-minute instrumental is carefully paced, exploding into full Sergio Leone glory in the last minute, the original 17-minute version is even better. The track was originally commissioned by filmmaker Dylan Jones to use in an upcoming project and the band pulled a marathon all-nighter recording session to make the track. The film never ended up getting made but the band liked it so much they edited it down for the album. "Elegia" did, however, end up getting used in John Hughes' film Pretty in Pink.
The Monochrome set - "The Etc Stroll"
Post-punk group The Monochrome set were known for frontman Bid's arch, droll wordplay, as well as former Adam & The Ants' guitarist Lester Square's inventive playing that referenced everything from Cole Porter to country, punk and surf rock. (Square in turn was a major influence on everyone from The Smiths to Belle & Sebastian, and Franz Ferdinand.) Square takes center stage on this delightful instrumental from The Monochrome Set's 1980 debut album Strange Boutique. A sprightly, bolero-dancing guitar riff leads the charge -- backed by some fill-happy drumming from John D. Haney -- that shifts in tone a couple times, veering into manic cocktail jazz that gets more crazed through multiple key changes and increasing tempos. While ever debonair, you feel wrung-out by the end.
R.E.M. - "White Tornado"
Athens, GA is a four hour drive from the Atlantic Ocean, but R.E.M. had no problem channeling the waves, banging out a killer surf rock instrumental that adds just a splash of their Southern Gothic charm. “We wrote this song the same afternoon we wrote 'Radio Free Europe', I think,” Peter Buck writes in the liner notes of rarities collection Dead Letter Office, where "White Tornado" first surfaced. “This is an unreleased version recorded at Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studio at the same time as our first single on Hibtone.”
The Cleaners from Venus - "This Rainy Decade"
The Cleaners from Venus' Martin Newell is a lot like Guided by Voices' Robert Pollard -- a man who has a seemingly unending supply of catchy songs, a voluminous discography to prove it, and a fondness for low-fi cassette porta-studio recording. Newell's a one-man hit factory and you can get lost for days listening to the Cleaners' many, many albums jam-packed with jangly hooks and harmony laden choruses. Even when he didn't sing, the quality tunes kept coming. "This Rainy Decade" opens 1982's wonderful Midnight Cleaners (one of their best albums), and features a perfectly tinny drum machine, a driving post-punk bassline and a welcoming lead melody played on a cheap keyboard. As usual, Newell and the band make up for lack of budget with undeniable hooks.
Blur - "Supa Shoppa"
In 1994, Blur were firing on all cylinders, having released their third album -- and Britpop classic -- Parklife. They were also not afraid to have a laugh, and many of the B-sides in the Parklife era are fun, silly throwaways that still manage to have more hooks and creativity than a lot of other bands at the time's a-sides. One of the B-sides of the "Parklife" singles, "Supa Shoppa," is a kitschy, groovy '60s cocktail jazz number you could imagine Austin Powers doing The Frug to. While Blur spent serious bank on orchestration for Parklife, B-sides were recorded on the cheap, opting for synth flute over the real thing, which adds to the charm. “You don’t fuck about with a real flautist on a B-side,” said bassist Alex James.
Pavement - "5-4 = Unity"
May the Fourth is best know as Star Wars Day, but some music nerds have also been known to celebrate it as 5/4 day -- as in the jazzy time signature that's best known for Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" (but also the Mission: Impossible theme and more). Indie rock smartasses Pavement threw their hat in the ring on Crooked Rain Crooked Rain with "5-4=Unity," a fun little Brubeck homage that tosses in some sci-fi sound effects for good measure. There's actually a version with lyrics that was included on the 2004 10th anniversary deluxe edition of the album, that pulls the song into The Fall territory, but we prefer the original version that bassist Mark Ibold once called “Dave Brubeck - Skills = Disaster."
Pick up Crooked Rain Crooked Rain on vinyl in the BV Shop.
Saint Etienne - "Railway Jam"
Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs formed Saint Etienne as an outlet that combined all their interests: indiepop, the blooming acid house scene, '60s psychedelia and Swinging London, reggae and dub, and anything else they fancied. They're also cinephiles, peppering their tracks with samples from classic films. "Railway Jam," from 1993's So Tough, combines a lot of those things, opening with sampled dialogue from Michael Powell's 1963 thriller Peeping Tom before melting into this chugging, transportive instrumental that mixes field recordings of train stations with baggy Manchester beats and deep dub.
Broken Social Scene - "Pacific Theme"
Broken Social Scene's 2002 breakthrough You Forgot It In People is a modern classic overflowing with talent, creativity and great song after great song. It's also got a stellar lineup of amazing voices, including Feist, Metric's Emily Haines and BSS frontman Kevin Drew. Even with all that vocal talent, the album makes room for an instrumental that more than holds its own with the rest of the album (and continues to make regular setlist appearances). "Pacific Theme" sounds like twilight on the beach, with gentle drum machines that sound like crickets, and waves of guitars and electric piano lapping at the shore. When the horns kick in halfway though the song really takes off, setting sail into a gorgeous sunset.
Primal Scream - "Trainspotting"
Danny Boyle's 1996 big screen adaptation of Irvine Welsh's gritty, darkly funny novel Trainspotting featured a soundtrack with a Who's Who of mid-'90s Britpop and dance, including Blur, Underworld, Elastica, Pulp, Leftfield, New Order and more. Primal Scream provided the Trainspotting's atmospheric, groovy, noirish 10-minute title theme, but it wasn't originally written for the film. The track began as a collaboration with Screamadelica producer Andrew Weatherall but when frontman Bobby Gillespie heard who else was on the soundtrack, he got in touch with Welsh and Boyle demanding they be included. "We were like, 'Wait a minute, man, we’re the junkie fuckking band!," Gillespie told SPIN in 2016. "And we’re working class!” Primal Scream liked "Trainspotting" so much they also put it on 1997's great Vanishing Point which includes another killer instrumental, "Get Duffy."
The Cure - "Another Journey by Train"
The B-side to 1980 single "A Forest," The Cure's "Another Journey by Train" sounds like a mashup of a few of their well-known singles from the era ("Play for Today," "A Forest," "Primary") with the band's distinctive sound -- dark, driving basslines, twangy guitar, lots of reverb -- making for an immediate, if familiar, sound. "Another Journey by Train," of course, also echoes "Jumping Someone Else's Train" and The Cure often merge them together live, making for an extended midnight rail excursion.
"A Forest" comes from the album Seventeen Seconds. Pick that up on vinyl and other albums by the Cure in the BV Shop.
Silicon Teens - "Red River Rock"
Silicon Teens, one of the pseudonyms of Mute Records founder Daniel Miller (who was also The Normal), made synthpop covers of early rock n' roll singles, including "Do You Love Me?," "Judy in Disguise" and "Memphis, Tennessee" and more, which were collected on 1980's Music for Parties -- which was the first full-length album Mute ever released. Novelty for sure, but the album's still a lot of fun, and one of the standout cuts in this instrumental version of "Red River Valley" with the melody played on bright, beeby keyboard lead and featuring what sounds like synthesizer kazoos. "Red River Rock" makes a very memorable appearance in John Hughes' 1987 comedy Planes, Trains & Automobiles which is why you'll probably say "Oh, I know this" when you hit play.
Depeche Mode - "Nothing to Fear"
Depeche Mode were in a state of massive transition when they made 1982's A Broken Frame. Vince Clarke, who wrote all but one song on the band's 1981 hit debut album, Speak & Spell, had left the group to start Yazoo with Alison Moyet, leaving Martin Gore to take the lead as the band's chief composer. Gore proved to be an able successor, giving the band a darker edge with his own distinct flair for melody. He also had a way with instrumentals. "Nothing to Fear" sounds like flying through a futuristic, foreign city, shimmering, exotic, mysterious. And prophetic. "I remember Martin was reading some weird book during the making of the record, a book of prophecies or something," producer (and Mute founder) Daniel Miller told Electronic Beats. "He looked up his birthdate and it said, 'Nothing to fear.' So that actually ended up being a track title, and it made him very optimistic about the future."
Martin Gore - "Vervet"
Martin Gore still has a way with instrumentals, as his 2020 EP The Third Chimpanzee shows. “The first track I recorded had a sound that wasn’t human," he says, regarding the EP's title. "It sounded primate-like...when it came time to name the EP, I remembered reading the book ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee.’ It all made sense to call it that, as the EP was made by one of the third chimpanzees." There's definitely a primal vibe to the EP, though much of it feels urban, industrial, like neon reflected in polished steel. "Vervet" is the highlight of the the record, eight pulsing, prowling minutes of throbbing bass lines and gleaming synths.
You can get The Third Chimpanzee in the BV Shop on limited azure blue vinyl packaged in a debossed sleeve with an art print.