Well-written lyrics can make a great song even better, but there are a ton of songs that work perfectly without any words at all, even from bands that don't normally write instrumentals. Here are eight incredible instrumental songs from alt-rock bands.
1. Cleaners from Venus - "This Rainy Decade" (1982)
Has there ever been a more accurate description of the '80s than "This Rainy Decade"? Not that the '80s were literally rainier than any other decade, but the British alt-rock of the time (The Smiths, the Cure, New Order) has an undeniably drizzly atmosphere, and this opening track to the Cleaners from Venus album Midnight Cleaners doesn't need any lyrics to set the scene of a rainy day.
2. R.E.M. - "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1" (1992)
During the writing process for its eighth album Automatic for the People, R.E.M. often rehearsed without drums, instead configuring itself as a trio (without singer Michael Stipe) of guitar, bass, and keyboards. Though most of the songs on the album ended up featuring drums, one song that came straight from these initial rehearsals was "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1," a simple, somber piece with just electric piano, lap steel guitar, and stand-up bass.
3. Yo La Tengo - "Green Arrow" (1997)
There are three instrumentals on Yo La Tengo's 1997 album I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One: the opener "Return to Hot Chicken," the noise-rock jam "Spec Bebop," and the best of the three, "Green Arrow," a sleepy, ambient track that would be a perfect song for summer nights (the crickets in the background definitely help).
4. Radiohead - "Meeting in the Aisle" (1998)
Thom Yorke may be Radiohead's primary songwriter, but guitarist Ed O'Brien has made some outstanding contributions to the band's catalogue, including the devastating ballad "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" and the trippy instrumental "Meeting in the Aisle," from 1998's Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP, which anticipates Radiohead's turn to electronic music.
5. Neutral Milk Hotel - "(Untitled)" (1998)
The typically verbose Neutral Milk Hotel had three instrumental tracks on its debut album On Avery Island, including the 13-minute free-improv closer "Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey's Eye." However, the band's classic follow-up In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has just one instrumental, the penultimate untitled closing track featuring Jeff Mangum's girlfriend Michelle Anderson on Uilleann pipes, which is the Irish equivalent of bag pipes.
6. The Flaming Lips - "The Observer" (1999)
Most of the songs on the Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin are majestic psych-pop classics, but the instrumental track "The Observer" briefly brings the album down to a more meditative place, serving as a sort of ambient intermission.
7. Belle & Sebastian - "Judy is a Dick Slap" (2000)
Stuart Murdoch is arguably the greatest lyricist in all of UK indie music, but when I saw Belle & Sebastian in Brooklyn last summer, the band briefly set aside the lyrics and opened with its first instrumental track, "Judy is a Dick Slap," a punchy, synth-heavy dance party for shy kids in cardigans.
8. Cloud Nothings - "Separation" (2012)
Dylan Baldi's decision to start recording Cloud Nothings with a live band rather than all on his own resulted in music that was rougher, faster, and more complex than his old songs. This instrumental track from 2012's Attack On Memory is the punkiest on the album, and demonstrates just how furious Cloud Nothings can get, even without words.
What are some of your favorite instrumental songs? Let us know in the comments section!