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best of wordless (2020)

Like many who might find themselves here, we spent a lot of 2020 inside our headphones. This was partly due to lockdowns, quarantines, and working-from-home… but in a deeper sense, escaping into a pair of great noise-canceling headphones felt like one of the few true respites from a deadly, noisy year.

To hear how we filled our headphones—and perhaps to inspire yours—check out our main wordless playlist. During 2020, via monthly updates, we added 175 songs to the list—nearly double our norm. It now has nearly 600 songs, clocking in at about 47 hours (!) of great wordless music. (To hear our latest additions, sort the playlist by “most recently added.") This spring we also added genre playlists, filtering everything into style buckets: instrumental and "other" are slightly more chill, or check out electronic or post-rock if that’s your jam.

Hearing how you filled your headphones was one of our favorite parts of 2020. Around the start of the pandemic we created an open, public collaborative playlist you can drop songs onto, and it’s been an awesome way to hear what folks are enjoying and expand our wordless horizons. Special shout out to our two highest-volume collaborators, Kings and Ayla. Thank you!

Mercifully, it was a great year for wordless music. Here's our best-of 2020 playlist—a selection of 100 tracks we really dug this year. Like last year’s playlist, it’s a mix of brand new wordless music with older stuff we just discovered (or rediscovered).

A few themes and observations from the year's bounty...

Lots of wordless artists dropped albums in 2020 (thank the gods)

As if they knew we needed it, we got new music from Ambient Jazz Ensemble, El Ten Eleven, GoGo Penguin, Holy Fuck, Mammal Hands, Mogwai, Ólafur Arnalds, RJD2, Tycho, Caspian, and Yppah ("happy" backwards; what's not to love?), among others. Some artists, like Arms and Sleepers or Inf, seemed to release singles on a near-monthly basis. Most of it was great, but frankly we were just glad to cut into some new music while working from home.

If we had to pick, our favorite new wordless albums in 2020 were

During a year that felt a bit like being marooned on a desert island, having these albums alone would've been enough to keep us (relatively) sane.

Some well-known singers put out great wordless, too

There were a number of good wordless tunes on the new album by Sufjan Stevens and his stepfather, Lowell Brams: "Aporia," which marked the retirement of Brams, who's been one of Sufjan's key musical mentors since childhood and ran their record label. An alternately inspiring/foreboding collaboration emerged from Julianna Barwick and Jónsi, the frontman of Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós, who put out an epic wordless album of their own last year—the collaborative "Odin’s Raven Magic," the first studio recording of their 18-year old orchestral work based on an 800-year old poem about a godly banquet hosted by the Norse deity of war and death. We liked the singles "Stendur æva" and "Dvergmál"(Icelandic for "stands alive" and "dwarf-talk"). Speaking of nice voices and Scandinavian roots, the mix also includes a spare, pretty song by Argentinian-Swedish musician José González, from the 2009 film Hälsningar från skogen (Swedish for “Greetings from the woods," which sounds like a perfectly socially-distant way to say hi).

Unsurprisingly, it was a good year for broody instrumentals

Guitarist William Tyler kept busy, scoring "First Cow" (a front-runner for best film) in addition to releasing an ambient-leaning EP. Composer/guitarist Kaki King (who has a fabulous live album at Berklee) delivered "Modern Yesterdays," which was written as part of an experimental theater piece postponed due to the pandemic. Australian instrumentalist (and PhD) Tom Day released "Valerie," as well as "Pensive" via sɹoɹɹᴉɯ, his cleverly-named but onerously-typeset ambient alter ego. Max Cooper (another PhD, who'd've thunk) and pianist Bruce Brubaker recorded "Glassforms" as an onstage "collective artwork" reworking a dozen Philip Glass pieces. Rival Consoles, the British electronic producer, composed "Articulation" using his own hand-drawn sketches to inspire the music (another COVID-friendly quarantine activity). In addition to their full-length album mentioned above, GoGo Penguin's new live album was also manna from heaven.

Getting lost in the maze

More than most years, our heavy listening diets led us down countless rabbit holes, towards sparkling new stuff and dusty old gems we'd never known before—we found songs by B. Fleischman, Frameworks, Kariem Riggins, Neil Cowley, Niklas Paschburg, Penguin Cafe (anyone catching an animal theme in wordless band names?), Phil France, and Portland Cello Project, among dozens of others. (Perhaps now's a good moment to remind you again of our collaborative playlist, where anybody can drop their favorite wordless tunes, so we can all keep the sharing and discoveries growing.)

Comfort-food nostalgia-listening in a pandemic

If there was ever a year for returning to the stuff you've always loved, 2020 was it. For us, that meant dipping back into some wordless classics. Our playlists are now peppered with old greats by some of our all-time wordless favorites, including Boards of Canada, Bonobo, Caribou, Cinematic Orchestra, Explosions in the Sky, Land Observations, and Mogwai, to name a few. We dug out one of the bests ever—Phoenix's "Love Like a Sunset Part 1"—then went fully crazy and exhumed random 20-year old instrumental songs by Cake and the Stone Temple Pilots.

Finally, we found ourselves putting Don Chicharrón on repeat more than a few times last year. Nothing can buoy the quarantine spirit quite like wild Peruvian music made in Denver by your friends from high school. We just hope everyone was lucky enough to have their own personal Don Chicharrón in 2020.

Happy listening. If you like this stuff, you can follow our playlists on Spotify, subscribe to our (very infrequent, non-annoying) newsletter on the homepage, and share with your friends who might like it too.

Thanks for reading, see you next year!

dj and greg


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