Joel's favorite instrumental music of 2021

From to jazz to solo guitar and experimental, these are the wordless albums this writer played most

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Yasmin Williams

As I mentioned in my top albums list, a true retrospective of the music I connected with in 2021 wouldn't be complete without mentioning all the wordless records that have kept me company. Chances are, if I'm writing or editing (two tasks that take up the majority of each day), I'm listening to instrumental music. Much of the time I'm playing catch-up, exploring sounds from past decades, but these are the 2021 releases that quite literally helped me get through a challenging year. 


Even if this type of music isn't typically your thing, you likely heard about Promises, the album from 81-year-old saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders and British producer Floating Points, with an assist from the London Symphony Orchestra. Promises is a patient, undulating, nine-movement piece filled with quiet moments, repeating patterns and big crescendos, all anchored by Sanders' brilliant playing. Notes with Attachments, another unlikely and rewarding collaboration, pairs 64-year-old session bassist Pino Palladino (the Who, D'Angelo) with producer and multi-instrumentalist Blake Mills, whose 2020 album Mutable Set was one of my favorites. Recorded at LA's Sound City in sessions spanning two years, every track on Attachments is a surprise, with West African, Cuban and funk influences anchoring the music. Nala Sinephro's Space 1.8 could easily fall under the ambient category, with Sinephro's pedal harp and a bed of electronics giving the suite a feeling of flowing liquid, like the band is soundtracking the Milky Way.


I lean toward the meditative when it comes to instrumental music, and the most extreme example of this would be Jacob David's Mursejler, which has become my go-to Sunday nap album, and I mean that as a compliment to this Danish musician, who plays a felted piano. The recording is close-mic'd so that you can hear the way the hammers hit the felt on the strings (along with the creaks of the piano bench), turning the piano into a fascinating percussive instrument. Good headphones are key for this one. Nils Frahm's Old Friends New Friends is in the same vein, a collection of minimalist solo piano pieces in which you can sometimes hear the piano pedals and even Frahm's breathing.


Guitar is the instrument I understand best, so this is the genre to which I'm most drawn. One big asterisk: I listened to a lot of Powers/Rolin Duo, but more on that in the Locals list coming next week. Yasmin WilliamsUrban Driftwood blew my mind. Nothing sounds like it. Watch her perform and you'll understand why. With 10 tracks spanning 24 minutes, Adeline Hotel's Good Timing is a fairly straightforward but solid acoustic guitar record. On the less-traditional end of the spectrum, Chuck Johnson conjures otherworldly, ambient drones with his pedal steel on The Cinder Grove, "a suite of requiems for lost places." Michigan multi-instrumentalist Laurel Promo explores new horizons for solo lap steel on Golden Loam (some vocals). Amarillo, Texas, native Hayden Pedigo made his best album yet, Letting Go (Mexican Summer), and even made a run for city council, which inspired the film "Kid Candidate." Reliably excellent guitarist William Tyler issued two fantastic collaborative releases: Lost Futures with guitarist Marisa Anderson and the Understand EP with atmospheric pedal steel player Luke Schneider. Another worthwhile collab: Cameron Knowler and Eli Winter's moody and surprising Anticipation.

Ambient, experimental, etc.

Producer Jon Hopkins is probably best known for his work with Coldplay and Purity Ring, but on Music for Psychedelic Therapy the musician combines slow, droning waves of synths with sounds from the natural world, including excerpts from Hopkins' time inside a cave in an Ecuadorian rain forest. In what seems like a previously untapped vein, Walt McClements uses his electronically processed accordion to create a new kind of ambient drone music. Earlier this month, Mary Lattimore told me, "The harp is my way of connecting with the world in this emotional way." Her music allowed me to do the same on Collected Pieces 2015-2020, a don't-miss release from an already impressive catalog.