For those of us who spend most of our waking hours at a keyboard, instrumental music is crucial. My Spotify page finds playlist after playlist designed to propel listeners through the the various moods and assignments that make up our days. Ambient artist Keith Fullerton Whitman recently captured the appeal of his genre, writing: “At its best, it casts enough shade to dampen the extraneous while causing a shift in our perceptions, enough to take us out of time and place, to wherever we need to be.”
While on the internet you’ll often find me hyping swaggy female rappers and all things trap, another less publicized side of me lurks: the introvert whose second most-played track of 2016 was Aphex Twin’s “IZ-US,” a mellow work from the British experimental artist whose music has been called “Braindance.” (My first most-played track: “Needed Me,” duh.)
Aphex Twin told Pitchfork last year after the release of Syro, his first album in 13 years (he’s since returned to proliferation):
I wanted to do gigs where you’ve just got mirrors on the stage, and then you light the crowd so they look at the stage and all they can see is themselves. It’s just like, “There you go, it’s you, you cunts.”
Snarky attitude aside (the British artist once famously said when asked by an interviewer his thoughts on the public: “I hate them.”), Aphex Twin is touching on an important aspect of music and really all art: the mirroring effect, that it confronts us with hidden parts of ourselves. Instrumental music in particular—that is, music without lyrics to tell us what the song means—is a special opportunity for self-reflection. Instrumental artist Crem’e appropriately named his debut album this year, Close Up, explaining when I interviewed him over the summer that the album is meant to be a close up—of him, but also of the listener. “Maybe they can look themselves in the mirror,” he told me. I thought of Anaïs Nin: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
2016 has been awful in many ways, but it’s been great for music, particularly for that of the instrumental variety. Genre icons Aphex Twin, Suzanne Ciani, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, The Field, Gold Panda, Tim Hecker, and The Range all dropped stellar releases this year, which also saw a scattering of beautiful tunes by rising stars like Negative Gemini and Newman Wolf. Below, read about my top 10 instrumental tracks of 2016, and listen here to a more comprehensive mix, perfect for focusing or relaxing your mind for whatever the day demands, taking us, in Fullerton Whitman’s words, to “wherever we need to be.”
“You Can’t Deny” by Jacques Greene
Montreal producer Jacques Greene stole our hearts in 2011 with “Another Girl,” which some say paved the way for the now ubiquitous blend of R&B and electronica (see The Weeknd, James Blake, Sampha). Greene has since collaborated with everyone from Tinashe to Shlohmo to Radiohead, as well as scored an installation at London’s famous Tate Modern. With “You Can’t Deny,” Greene the solo artist is officially back with an enticing melange of Detroit house cuts, intricate loops, and spectral vocal samples. The energetic track hypnotizes from the first second to the last.
“Hey” by Ricky Eat Acid
Ricky Eat Acid is one of three projects by Baltimore artist Sam Ray, who happens to be married to rapper Kitty (formerly Kitty Pryde) of “Okay Cupid” fame. I had the pleasure of grabbing a drink with the couple last month at the end of their first tour performing together. While very different—Sam is introverted and cerebral; Kitty, bubbly and a tad ratchet—the two are have an undeniable chemistry. Together, they make music as 56Colors, which perhaps infiltrates “hey” in what Stereogum described as its “faint hint of a banger.” Sam told The Fader, who debuted the glittering track: “It reminds me of being in the back of a very dark room that’s occasionally pulsing with light and just sort of taking it all in and resigning yourself to it. Like an absolutely emotionless sort of euphoria.”
“CIRKLON3 [Kolkhoznaya mix]” by Aphex Twin
I was beyond lit this morning when my yoga teacher played Aphex Twin’s 1994 stunning Selected Ambient Works to motivate us through chaturanga. Given the wealth of beautiful ambient music, I’m thrown into a soft rage when a yoga teacher plays something as uninspired as Regina Spektor or, god forbid, Keane. One of my life dreams is to DJ a yoga class, mainly for a chance to play all my favorite erudite turndowns for an audience on a nice speaker system, and Aphex Twin—whose recent album Cheetah has been called “spine-tingly rich”—would dominate. Genre pioneer Brian Eno called ambient music “as ignorable as it is interesting,” which makes it perfect for yoga, writing, and meditation. The music sets a tone through which the listener can move through as he or she desires. While Cheetah is filled with gems, CIRKLON3 (named for the sequencer on which it was created) takes my mind on the type of contemplative journey only Richard D. James can score.
“Please Keep Talking” by Newman Wolf
Instrumental music need not eschew the human voice entirely. Chopping up vocal samples into something less lyrical and more fractured and disembodied, these artists turn the voice itself into an instrument whose meaning cannot be clearly deciphered. LA-based Newman Wolf, whose debut solo album Body High dropped this year, understands this concept well. On “Please Keep Talking,” the album’s highlight, Wolf pairs ghostly vocal and breath samples with shimmering synths to create five and a half minutes of ominous nostalgia. Newman told Resident Advisor of Body High, which Wolf recorded in his twenties while living as an outsider in the suburban San Fernando Valley: “It’s about loss and pain, and wanting to stay in contact with things from your past.”
“iI” by Jean-Michel Blais
I was pleasantly surprised when writer/tastemaker and Future-devotee Meaghan Garvey cited a minimalist piano album as one of 2016’s most underappreciated projects for MTV, deeming Jean-Michel Blais’s Il a “sanity-saving counterpoint to the rest of my daily music intake.” On his fantastic debut album, the 31-year-old Montreal-based artist recalls the likes of piano icons Erik Satie and Philip Glass. If your life involves writing in any capacity, I highly recommend listening to Il in its entirety. But if an entire album of cinematic piano music isn’t your jam, I recommend you at least check out the title track, which makes me feel as though I’m living inside a stunning film.
“Oubliette” by Fatima Al Qadiri
Qadiri began writing her second project with Hyperdub, Brute, last year while recovering from a knee injury in her home country of Kuwait. Her injury coincided the peak of a harrowing news cycle of American police killings. Brute emerged as the celebration of the right to protest, beginning with “Endzone” sampling live recordings from the aftermath of Ferguson. “Oubliette,” the project’s strongest track, takes its name from a French dungeon accessible only via trap door. The track’s twisting echoes evoke the surveillance nature of the police state; listening, one feels the claustrophobia of being trapped in a secret dungeon, the paranoia of feeling followed. In the wake of this frightening new political era, Brute feels more haunting than ever.
“Closed Circuit” by Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Suzanne Ciani
With a 40-year age gap between the two, Suzanne Ciani and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith may not resemble obvious collaborators. The two bonded in the small town of Bolinas, California, after discovering their shared love for the Buchla 100, a machine credited along with the Moog Synthesizer as the first of its kind (Don Buchla, Suzanne’s former friend and colleague, sadly passed away shortly after the album’s release). The artists improvised and recorded Sunergy over days in Suzanne’s studio that overlooks the ocean, a pristine and organic setup that translates into the album’s sound.
During our phone interview for The Hundreds, shortly before the release of Sunergy, Suzanne tells me that the Buchla synthesizers have “a wonderful propulsion and energy built into them [...] I think it’s kind of a primal energy, the machine energy.” On “Closed Circuit,” the nearly 13 minute track that feels like a gorgeous trek through nature, that energy is palpable. Appropriately, LA-based Kaitlyn (who I lost during the phone interview because her service dropped while entering the woods) told me her ideal listening conditions would be underwater while swimming.
“Real Virtual Unison (Fake Edit)” – Negative Gemini
When I spoke to Lindsay French on the phone this summer, I could hardly hear her; her voice sounded as though she was speaking though a weird filter or communicating from a faraway place. The 29-year-old’s dreamy electronica, which she makes under the name Negative Gemini and describes to me as “future pop,” feels similarly hazy and distant. I am reminded of something that came up in my recent interview of synth-rocker Black Marble for The Hundreds, who told me he aims to make a sound “you can’t quite hear, [...] and the fact that you can’t is part of why it’s so good.” Appropriately, French (who is neither negative nor a gemini) tells me she is more interested in the “visuals and syncopation of words” than in their meaning. A true electronic artist, French creates “future pop” for a post-language world.
“The Bells” by Kornél Kovács
As Swedes have slayed the art of crafting ear candy since Abba, a Swedish take on ambient is particularly delightful. While the British and American varieties can tend towards bleakness, Kovács is pure ecstasy. His buoyant meld of Italo Disco, samba, and pop recall Gothenburg acts Studio, The Tough Alliance, Air France, and CEO, who charmed electronic music fans throughout the aughts. And as Tough Alliance started the label Sincerely Yours in 2005 with CEO and jj; Kovács, who began DJing at 13, founded an imprint with Peter Nordkvist and Axel Bowman (if you haven’t already, check out 2013’s Family Vacation). I look forward to more sparkly gems from Studio Barnaus in the future.
“Love’s Refrain” by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma
If Washed Out’s “Feel It All Around” was dipped in an icy whirlpool, we’d get “Love’s Refrain” by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, in which frigid synths envelop us in oscillating waves. Like several other members of this list, Cantu-Ledesma founded his own label, Root Strata, which includes fellow ambient geniuses Grouper and Oneohtrix Point Never. Pitchfork writes of genre-melding nature of Cantu-Ledesma’s recent single: “Cantu-Ledesma finds a moody sweet spot between the VHS decay of hypnagogic pop and the swirling feedback of shoegaze.” Drift away to “Love’s Refrain.”