Assessing instrumental music can be an especially challenging endeavor for some reason. Seems more difficult to wrap our heads around this stuff, perhaps because we’ve been trained to rely on labels and descriptions and an overt “this is what it’s about”-ness that is often provided by the lyric as well as the vocal performance of those lyrics.
One might try to argue that it’s “easier” to write/record great instrumental records, because you don’t have to finish it. You don’t need to write words or find a good singer. But the flip side (there’s always a flip side) is the challenge of holding a listener’s attention with just instrumentals. And nothing here sounds “unfinished” by any means. I’m a fan of the kinds of albums flexible enough for a roadtrip or for sitting around a fire, indoors or out. And many instrumental albums fit that bill, the kind of records that are welcome company on both Saturday nights and Sunday mornings. We’ve not included jazz or classical for the purposes of this list, only because they are obviously major genres of their own and their most famous works would easily fill several Top 10’s before we got to any of the other “instrumental albums” we’ll be listing here. And, with apologies to Jeff Beck and King Crimson and Dick Dale, this is not a comprehensive list of the most important or influential instrumental recordings, simply my favorites.
Peter Gabriel – Passion: Music from The Last Temptation of Christ
One impetus for making this list was Peter Gabriel’s Passion, the music he did for Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ. At the time (and since), Gabriel was known as the man who made hits with his “Sledgehammer,” the former Genesis singer who’d given us quirky modern pop gems like “Games Without Frontiers” and “Shock the Monkey.” By the time John Cusak lifted that boom box above his head and blasted Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” in the movie Say Anything, it was obvious that Peter Gabriel was capable of being a goose-bump giver. [And yes, Cusak’s character lifted a boom box over his head with intentions of impressing and winning over a girl.]
Enter Scorsese and his bold new film project based on the book by Nikos Kazantzakis. The subject matter and hype around the movie passed for controversial at the time (portraying Christ as a human man I guess? Is that what the fuss was?), but the film itself turned out to be a beauty, for those of us not offended. And the ebbs and flows of the film are not only captured and accentuated by Gabriel’s rustic, tribal score, Passion can stand on it’s own as a musical work, it’s pacing and dynamics worthy of repeated listenings whether you’ve ever seen the film or not. Interestingly enough, Passion managed to not only further popularize world music, it also landed a Best New Age Album Grammy award. Continue reading →