Up until about 10 years ago, the Grammys used to have various categories for instrumental music: Best Rock Instrumental, Best Country Instrumental, Best Pop Instrumental, and so on. As Grammy nerds, we became interested in those less-visible awards that often honored some of the best musicians in the world.
Most of the instrumental categories at the Grammys are now gone. These days, there’s a single award for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album, another for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, and a couple composing and classical awards. It’s still good to keep an ear open for engaging instrumental tracks, even if the Grammys have chosen not to reward them anymore.
From the captivating bluegrass of newcomer Jake Blount to the intense and heavy rock compositions of Nine Inch Nails to the jazzy pop of Kamasi Washington, here’s a collection of some of the instrumental tracks we enjoyed in 2020. Because we are not classical or jazz aficionados, this list skews toward more genres like rock, electronic, and Americana.
The Best Instrumental Songs of 2020
Our favorite instrumental artist of 2020: Jake Blount
Do yourself a favor and listen to Jake Blount’s entire debut album, Spider Tales, which garnered acclaim from NPR, Rolling Stone, and others. Showcasing Appalachian music with Black and Native roots, the album features several instrumental songs mixed in with vocal tracks.
Virtually every publication that has written about the album has chosen to highlight a different track, which is a sign of the record’s consistency. We like the lively fiddle and banjo tune “Old-Timey Grey Eagle.”
Our favorite instrumental song of 2020: “Jeanette,” Kelly Lee Owens
Kelly Lee Owens made a name for herself this year with Inner Song, an acclaimed album that both Pitchfork and Stereogum included on their best of 2020 lists. On “Jeanette,” Owens turns pulsing electronic bloops into something beautiful. And it never gets repetitive despite running for more than six minutes. Make sure to also seek out Owens’ creative instrumental take on Radiohead’s “Arpeggi.”
Our favorite instrumental song from a mainstream pop act: “Having No Head,” The 1975
In a normal year, several mainstream rock and pop artists include the odd instrumental track on their albums. In recent years, Bat for Lashes, Dave Grohl, Sturgill Simpson, M83, and Brad Paisley have all recorded strong instrumental songs.
In 2020, a limited number of mainstream bands released wordless music. The one that jumped out most was the 1975’s “Having No Head,” a track from their sprawling Notes on a Conditional Form album. The Sigur Ros influence is evident on this track, which slowly and quietly builds up until a dance beat takes over halfway through.
Other favorite instrumental tracks of 2020
Which other instrumental tracks captured our attention in 2020? Several electronic songs make the list, including Bicep’s “Atlas,” which sounds as infectious as anything Avicii ever released in his prime. There may be a distant voice in the background, but the song is too good to leave off this list.
Kamasi Washington scored the soundtrack to the Michelle Obama Netflix documentary Becoming. On the title track, Washington blends his skillful sax playing into a cinematic arrangement that ebbs and flows. The score earned Washington his first Grammy nod (finally!)
Kaki King can always be counted on to deliver engaging music. Her album Modern Yesterdays had a number of contenders for this list. We went with the vibrant, acoustic opener “Default Shell,” although the darker “Can’t Touch This or That or You or My Face” would’ve been a strong choice as well.
Trent Reznor has gotten really into instrumental composition over the years, even earning an Oscar for it. His Nine Inch Nails released installments V and VI of the Ghosts series in March. Many of the songs were dark and brooding, including “Run Like Hell,” which builds up to an explosive drum sequence.
Kooky Oklahoma rockers the Flaming Lips have released instrumental tracks on several of their albums. This year’s offering is “When We Die When We’re High,” which blends a dark bass buzz with dogs barking, twinkling keyboards, and active drums.
For the rest of our choices, including Cory Wong, Oneohtrix Point Never, Olafur Arnalds, Bassnectar, STS9, Mogwai, 100 Gecs, Vikingur Olafsson, Kaytranada, Junkie XL, Adrianne Lenker, and the Glitch Mob, see our 2020 instrumental Spotify playlist below. To keeps things simple, we’ve stuck to one song per artist:
Instrumental Grammy Nominees
Just in case you’re curious, here are the current Grammy nominees for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album. Some of these came out in late 2019, which is why they didn’t make our 2020 list. Black Violin actually had our favorite instrumental song of last year (“Showoff.”)
2021 Grammy nominees, Best Contemporary Instrumental Album:
• Axiom, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah
• Chronology of a Dream: Live at the Village Vanguard, Jon Batiste
• Take the Stairs, Black Violin
• Americana, Grégoire Maret, Romain Collin & Bill Frisell
• Live at the Royal Albert Hall, Snarky Puppy
Make sure to check out our complete 2021 Grammy Awards coverage, featuring the latest news and category predictions.
Instrumental music usually isn’t very high-profile, so it’s entirely possible we’ve overlooked some good tunes. Feel free to leave a comment with any of your favorites instrumental songs of 2020 that we missed!