Our little wordless music project – hatched in 2013, shared with y’all in the dark days of spring 2020 – made it through another year of remote-work quarantunes. In monthly installments, we added 8 hours of music to the main playlist (which now stands at 55 hours and 700 songs – sort by "date added" to see the latest stuff), updated our genre playlists (instrumental, electronic, post-rock, & other), and put our favorite 100 songs into a best of 2021 playlist.
If anything, we valued the project more during pandemic year #2. Especially during summer and now winter, as new variants sent us back into our holes, having this little hobby to fall back on was a comfort. Just like this dumb meme, only emotionally inverted: as we surf the seas of wordless music, 2021 brought us another welcome wave.
Like always, this year’s playlist is an eclectic mix of new and old, but a few new albums stood out for us in 2021. All make multiple appearances on the playlist and fall somewhere along the increasingly fluid spectrum of instrumental/electronic/jazz:
“Monument” by Portico Quartet, a British band that makes electronically-inflected instrumental music and is known for its use of the hang;
“Juno” by Parra for Cuva, a German electronic artist who might just make you dance a little in your office chair; and
“All the Unknown” by Grandbrothers, a Swiss and German-Turkish duo who hacked a grand piano – and who had one of their new songs remixed by Mogwai, the post-rock legends, which was a real cherry on top for us.
We also liked the 20th anniversary “rework” album “One Day XX” by longtime instrumental band The Album Leaf, with help from James McAlister – who’s made music with Sufjan Stevens, toured with The National, and contributed to Taylor Swift’s recent indie turns. We liked “Quarantine Sessions'' by one of our absolute favorite wordfull musicians: Tom Misch, who (in his words) “fuses low-slung hip–hop beats, glittering disco, and noodling jazz instrumentation.” We maaaay have snuck a track from all-time wordless greats Bonobo’s barely-2022 album onto our 2021 playlist. We couldn’t help ourselves.
An album cover says a thousand wordless
New-music honorable mentions from our 2021 playlist: some bluegrass glory from banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck and mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, jamming together; good good not bad jazz from BADBADNOTGOOD; fun electronic from one-half of Ratatat (as E.VAX now), Tor, and Japanese producer Lycoriscoris; new post-rock albums from Scottish & Texan legends Mogwai & Explosions in the Sky (the latter a soundtrack, and better than a lot of their previous soundtracks); a soothing and relatively low-key album from Ólafur Arnalds; a nice Emancipator collaboration; and a brooding joint album from guitar heroes William Tyler and Marisa Anderson. The new album from Tom Day might’ve had 2021’s best pandemic-themed wordless song name: “Arpeggios in Lockdown.”
Not on our playlist but notable, new, and wordless-ish in 2021: albums from Arms and Sleepers, Balmorhea, Clams Casino, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Floating Points, Jose Gonzalez, Richard Houghten, Little People, Nils Frahm, Photay, Rival Consoles, Tommy Guerrero, and probably lots of others. We also enjoyed Mdou Moctar's "Afrique Victime" and Yasmin Williams's "Urban Driftwood," which we missed in 2021 but popped onto our playlist this month. Sufjan Stevens released his own 49-song ambient opus and The Westerlies put out a lovely Christmas album, but neither made our playlist. (Small peek inside our process: in 2021 our “good but not good enough” playlist – a cumulative leftovers/table scraps receptacle – grew by 6 hours; after ~8 years of doing this together, that list has 800 songs and 70 hours of music we liked-but-didn’t-love.)
Old stuff, new(ish) to us
Music that finally hit our radars in 2021: Blue States, who despite the name is British, and who put out a string of great wordless albums in the 2000s; Message to Bears, who’s been doing the same since the late aughts; Etran de L'Aïr, a Tuareg “desert blues” band from northern Niger (which technically has words, but they’re Tamashek words); and Mulatu Astatke, the father of Ethio-jazz. We’ve known of Flying Lotus but didn’t dig in until last year, sparked by his soundtrack for the samurai anime Yasuke, which he also produced. We also dug into the spare bellows of The Vernon Spring, the drowsy pluckings of Sean Angus Watson, and the jazzy beats of Robohands and Kinkajous (the French musicians, not the honey bear). We happened onto old wordless tracks from wordy albums by the Fleet Foxes and Punch Brothers. Our friend Chris intro’d us to Khruangbin and the Dinner Album, and we’re forever grateful. In a moment of boredom and nostalgia, we threw an old favorite by El Ten Eleven onto the playlist.
Who’d we miss? Let us know at our collaborative playlist, where you can drop any wordless tune that catches your ear: ADD HERE! Shoutout to our collaborators so far, who’ve shared a lot of great music, much of which has made a mark on our playlist in some form or another: Mike, Ayla, Ty, Colin, and Matt aka “Mixtape McMoosington.” Stay tuned for guest playlists and blog posts in 2022 from our loyal collabbors.
Don’t like techno or loud post-rock? Don’t worry! We maintain 4 genre playlists:
Instrumental - classical, neo-classical, and essentially anything without (much) percussion
Electronic - the name says it all - if it has a computery-sounding beat, it goes here
Post-rock - a testament to our mutual love of epically-long guitar-heavy jams
And… Other - an eclectic mix of lovely tracks that defy tidy categorization
Beyond (and behind) the music, here’s wishing all you lyric-less listeners a healthy and happy 2022. Third year of the pandemic has to go… better? No matter what happens, we’ll see you a year from now with another dispatch from wordlessland. Fingers crossed no monsters.
--> Greg and DJ