Joël’s favorite instrumental music in 2021

As I mentioned in my list of top albums, a true retrospective of the music I connected with in 2021 wouldn’t be complete without mentioning all the wordless records that have kept me company. Chances are, if I’m writing or editing (two tasks that take up most of the day), I’m listening to instrumental music. Most of the time I’m catching up, exploring the sounds of decades past, but it was the 2021 releases that literally got me through a rough year.


Even though this type of music isn’t usually your thing, you’ve probably heard of Promises, the album of the 81-year-old saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders and British producer floating point, with the assistance of the London Symphony Orchestra. Promises is a patient, rippling nine-movement piece filled with still moments, repetitive patterns, and great crescendos, all anchored by Sanders’ brilliant playing. Notes with attachments, another unlikely and rewarding collaboration, involves a 64-year-old session bassist Pino Palladino (the Who, D’Angelo) with producer and multi-instrumentalist Blake mills, including the 2020 album Mutable set was one of my favorites. Recorded at Sound City in LA in sessions spanning two years, each track on Attachments is a surprise, with West African, Cuban and funk influences anchoring the music. Nala Sinephro‘s Space 1.8 could easily fall into the ambient category, with Sinephro’s pedal harp and a bed of electronics giving the suite a feeling of flowing liquid, as if the band were making the Milky Way soundtrack.


I tend to be meditative when it comes to instrumental music, and the most extreme example would be Jacob David‘s Mursejler, which has become my go-to album for the Sunday nap, and I say that as a compliment to this Danish musician, who plays the hushed piano. The recording is done with a close mic so you can hear the way the hammers strike the felt on the strings (as well as the crackle of the piano bench), transforming the piano into a fascinating percussion instrument. Good headphones are essential for this one. Nils Frahm‘s Old friends new friends is in the same vein, a collection of minimalist pieces for solo piano in which we sometimes hear the pedals of the piano and even the breathing of Frahm.


Guitar is the instrument I understand best, so it’s the genre that appeals to me the most. Big asterisk: I’ve listened to a lot of Powers / Rolin Duos, but more on that in the locals list coming next week. Yasmine williamsUrban driftwood blew my mind. Nothing looks like it. Watch her play and you’ll see why. With 10 pieces covering 24 minutes, Hotel Adeline‘s Good timing is a fairly simple yet solid acoustic guitar record. At the less traditional end of the spectrum, Chuck johnson evokes ambient drones from another world with its steel pedal on The ash grove, “a suite of requiems for lost places.” Multi-instrumentalist from Michigan Laurier promo explores new horizons for solo lap steel on Golden loam (a few voices). Hayden Pedigo native Amarillo, Texas released his best album to date, Let go (Mexican summer), and even ran for city council, which inspired the movie “Kid Candidate”. Excellent reliable guitarist Guillaume Tyler released two fantastic collaborative versions: Lost futures with the guitarist Marisa Anderson and the To understand EP with atmospheric steel pedal Luc Schneider. Another interesting collaboration: Cameron Knowler and Eli Winteris cranky and surprising Anticipation.

Ambient, experimental, etc.

Producer Jon hopkins is probably best known for his work with Coldplay and Purity Ring, but on Music for psychedelic therapy the musician combines slow, buzzing waves of synths with sounds from the natural world, including snippets of Hopkins’ time inside a cave in an Ecuadorian rainforest. In what appears to be a previously untapped vein, Walt mcclements uses his electronically processed accordion to create a new kind of ambient drone music. Earlier this month, Marie lattimore said to me, “The harp is my way of connecting with the world in this emotional way.” His music allowed me to do the same on Coins Collected 2015-2020, an unmissable release from an already impressive catalog.

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