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best of wordless (2023)



Welcome to our 5th annual wordless year-in-review! This little covid baby, spawned in 2020’s dark spring, can now run and dance and hop on one foot. 


If you’re new here, or want the TL;DR version: each year we curate a playlist of ~100 songs of wordless music, reflecting the best new additions to our long-running main playlist (often getting inspiration from friends through our collaborative playlist). Then we write a summary about that year’s mix – mostly for our own enjoyment, but we post them here and in our newsletter. This year, we also have


  • two new guest playlists and write-ups

  • a holiday-themed playlist, because we’re insane

  • updated genre mixes

  • something we’re calling the “wordless fund” 


Whew, OK. For the curious: read on!


New playlists


We have two great new wordless playlists, 100 songs each, from guest contributors – a couple old friends who happen to be heavy-hitter music guys:


  • Ty’s mix and write-up is a rock-forward genre-crossing odyssey, going the distance from Debussy and Duke Ellington to ZZ Top and Black Sabbath, with strolls through cumbia, acoustic, ambient, and more. Beyond having had the real-life version of Jack Black’s character’s job in School of Rock, Ty’s a veteran of the Denver music scene, from The Knew to Peruvian rock band Don Chicharrón – who found their way onto our playlist a few years back – to his solo work and recent instrumental music. Check it all out. 


  • Colin’s mix and write-up is a high-concept mélange kicking off with no less than 13 wordless Phish covers of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra. (Have we lost you already?) Then it wanders through classical, jazz, blues, rock – and more Phish. Colin’s a freelance writer and longtime music journalist who’s written for the likes of Rolling Stone and Pitchfork (r.i.p.), whose 2012 piece about instrumental music more or less inspired this project. Go ahead, friends, give it a whirl: let Colin change your mind about Phish. 

 

These collaborator mixes – including Mike’s and Ayla’s last year – have brought us a ton of joy and pumped new lifeblood into this project. So check them out, stay tuned for more, and reach out if you want to make your own! Sharing, as they say, is caring. (And if choosing 100 songs and writing a blogpost is too heavy a lift, consider submitting a wordless song or two anytime on our collaborative playlist.*)


Also: in December we made our first-ever wordless holiday mix, a short and festive-but-not-too-festive playlist of instrumental classics, holiday covers, and some weirder selections. Next time you get a hankering for that holiday spirit, check it out. 


 

Best of wordless 2023 


Now onto our 2023 mix, which is just our favorite 100 songs from everything we added last year to the main playlist.** We'll start with a visual smattering of abstract album art highlights:



Rather than trying to organize by genre – an increasingly slippery task, we’re finding (but still check out our genre mixes, where we dutifully attempt the task for instrumental, electronic, post-rock, our new beats mix, and the lovable "other") – this year we’ll use a straightforward and objective (though surely still deeply imperfect) metric: Spotify’s “monthly listener” numbers. 


  • At the top, there’s what one might call the major leagues of wordless. We’ll pick 500,000+ monthly listeners as a totally arbitrary benchmark. We’ve added “actually new” music (i.e. released in 2023) from obvious stars like Sigur Rós, Andrew Bird, Rodrigo y Gabriela, RJD2, and Yussef Dayes, as well as from some less obvious majors: Balmorhea, ford., Kyle McEvoy, Richard Houghten, and Weval. 


As for “not actually new” music, we added older songs by majors we’ve long enjoyed – including Catching Flies, Hermanos Gutiérrez, and Maribou State – and several who were new to us, like The Field Tapes, Kid Francescoli, Peter Sandberg, Quantic, and xander. (perhaps a grammatical cousin to ford.?). 


  • In the wordless minor leagues, classified arbitrarily as 100,000+ monthly listeners, the acts are niche but still garner large, devoted followings. Some of our all-time favorites in this category released new music in 2023 – like the Album Leaf, Explosions in the Sky, El Ten Eleven, GoGo Penguin, Grandbrothers, Hidden Orchestra, il:lo (complex emoji?), Mammal Hands, Niklas Paschburg, and Tom Day. We also added older music from minor league favorites like Aukai, Deafheaven, and This Will Destroy You.


Our minor league new-to-us discoveries in 2023 included Athletic Progression, Chapelier Four, Fabiano do Nascimento, Greg Spero, Holy Hive, Hovvdy, Koresma, Svaneborg Kardyb, Tom Ashbrook (a new favorite), and Wowflower.


  • And yet: sub-minor wordless is where the magic really happens. This is where you’ll find the true stars, who offer up their creations to the streaming gods for pennies in return. It's where you’ll find acts like Blue Lake (33k monthly), whose new album ranked on Pitchfork’s top 50 albums of 2023. And it’s where you’ll find new music from Takénobu (42k), a cellist from Vermont we’ve loved for a decade, and Paris/London multi-instrumentalist Akusmi (30k), one of our favorite discoveries last year. Alas, navigating the sub-minors is almost impossible without Spotify's algorithms (which, paradoxically, also punish lesser-known musicians in today’s streaming economy). But the algorithms can occasionally lead to moments of genuine discovery – the closest thing we have anymore to how digging new music used to feel. 


For us in 2023, that meant diving deeper into sub-minor favorites – like LA jazz composer Sam Wilkes (98k), Japanese electronic artist Lycoriscoris (83k), and German post-rockers Collapse Under the Empire (39k) – and discovering new sub-minor acts like Nashville bluegrass artist Lindsey Lou (99k), Brooklyn guitarist Rachika Nayar (71k), Swedish saxophonist Bear Garden (47k), the UK’s Tara Clerkin Trio (25k), German band Conic Rose*** (16k), Virginia banjoist Adam Hurt (11k), and Pennsylvania musician and visual artist Cumulus Frisbee (8k). 


This may sound like a meaningless list of random band names – which is how it often feels to wade through the algorithms... But 2023 was a fruitful year of discovery for us and we’re excited to share the bounty. If we had to pick, our favorite new wordless albums in 2023 were probably Mammal Hands’s Gift from the Trees and GoGo Penguin’s Everything Is Going to Be OK (two album titles we can get behind). And our favorite “new to us” discoveries were probably Akusmi and Tom Ashbrook – the latter surely a reflection that we’re now both in our 40s, and have thus started wandering ever so slightly but undeniably towards that “gentle piano nocturnes” corner of the club…


Lest we forget, we also added several wordless songs by wordy artists (i.e. acts not known for their wordlessness) – one of our favorite quirks of this project. These included songs by Allen Toussaint, Jamie xx, Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, M. Ward, and Toro y Moi. (Also, though it didn't make it onto our playlists: what did you think of André 3000’s flute album?) For more in this category, check out Ty’s and Colin’s mixes – featuring wordless songs by Oasis, Pink Floyd, Van Halen, The War on Drugs, Yo La Tengo, J Dilla, and more, including Colin’s aforementioned Phish tank... 


The wordless fund


So we got to thinking: Spotify enables this project, which makes us obsessed with Spotify, but there’s a dark side to the streaming economy and Spotify in particular. Our potentially naive hope is that this little project is making some minuscule positive contribution to the makers of this music that we enjoy. But we know the creators realistically aren't seeing much money from our streams. And we fully realize (and feel bad for ignoring so long) that by using Spotify we’re contributing to a much larger and potentially existential problem facing the entire creative universe, which is only getting worse as tech companies' bots and monetization strategies creep ever deeper into our lives and headphones, and into the earnings potential of the humans on whose creativity they rely.


Here’s our initial idea in response – the wordless fund, which is also just a tiny drop in the bucket, but perhaps it’s better than nothing. We’ve started by seeding the fund with a little money, and we'll add more as the months and years roll on. We encourage anyone who enjoys this project to contribute whatever small or large amount they want, however often they want. Each year, we’ll distribute the proceeds: half will go directly to the wordless artists on our playlist (via Bandcamp or similar) and half will go to United Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW), a 501c4 non-profit that is fighting for a more just music industry. Think of it like tipping these musicians and voting with your dollars? Anyway, our hope is that by this time next year we’ll have some funds to distribute, so give it some thought and contribute if you'd like.


Thanks for reading and listening. Happy new year, and happy wordless.****



* We’re excited to say that wordless collaborate has almost cracked the 700-song mark. Thanks to our friends Mike, Ayla, and Fortune Dweller for the bulk of those, but also to Colin, Erick, Jjj, Matt, Ty, and Yashan for contributing! We love everything y’all throw on there, and we hope you see our gratitude and enthusiasm reflected in some of the music highlighted above (in which case there’s a good chance we learned about it from you). Keep ‘em coming! 

 

** Our main playlist just passed 1,000 songs and 75 hours of listening! If you enjoy this stuff, do us a favor and like/favorite/save that playlist – and remember to sort by “recently added” (we update it with a new batch of songs every month or two).


*** The Conic Rose song that hooked us was “Learn To Be Cool,” which features a wordless, earwormy deployment of that catchy riff from Massive Attack’s 1998 hit “Teardrop.”


**** Music without words, though increasingly mistaken, misread, and auto-corrected as the plural of Wordle (6/6).

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