I'm using the adjective instrumental in the sense that the music is (mostly) without lyrics. Years ago I started to notice that the ego of the singers was getting in the way of my appreciation of the music itself - in other words I was tired of hearing how much damned, interesting and cool they were - and without a really conscious decision I started to drift more and more towards music without words because it sounded "truer" to me, less human and more honest - until I was hooked by its peculiar beauty.
I'm writing this list for anyone who is curious about this world and would like to explore it. The albums are the best I found in various genres so far.
Although I'm coming from the assumption that all lyric-less music has certain common qualities, a common power and delicacy, it's also true that I'm drawing from a wide spectrum of genres so it's not very likely that you will like everything on this list (unless you happen to be my secret clone from another dimension) but hopefully it will help you find in what direction you want to dig deeper.
Yanqui U.X.O. This is a life changing band, their songs have the elegance of classical music and the rage of rock. When they went on hiatus I started to listen desperately to many other post rock bands to find something similar, but to this day I think no one has come close to them. That is, in my opinion they haven't any real successor - not even in the many new projects by former members - and we better treasure the few albums they have made. I've chosen this one to insert in the list because it contains my favorite song of them: Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls
Beacons Of Ancestorship Tortoise is almost synonymous with instrumental rock. I don't know if this is my favorite album (other good candidates would be the classic Millions Now Living Will Never Die [more postrockish], and It's All Around You [perfect for floating asleep]), but I put this in the list because aside from being beautiful it's also the proof that this band is still a creative force with a lead role in shaping and expanding rock music after all these years of excellence. Beacons of Ancestorship is a case full of impressions and mental images, and it could be the soundtrack to a movie about a glamorous spy. What most surprised me about Tortoise when I first started listening to them is how such a good band could sound so devoid of pretentiousness, and what surprised me when I first listened to this record is how they could innovate their sound so much while giving you the impression that they are just having fun and sticking to some old and tried formula. I know nothing personally about them, but what I hear in the music is that they are just a band who works hard and enjoys what it's doing. That really says everything in an epoch where artists in every field are more interested in doing something original that something good.
Black Tar Prophecies 1 2 & 3 Grails completes my triad of instrumental rock. The frame of their music is mysterious, introspective post-rock, but they throw a bit of everything in it: jazz, blues, eastern atmospheres, industrial sounds, psychedelia.
First Circle Pat's music means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but all I can tell is that on days where nothing seemed worth, I listened to this album and was happy to be alive just for the privilege of enjoying such delight. This is another case of someone who is in a league all of his own. I tried to look for music similar to what Pat Metheny does on albums like this or American Garage, but found none. Music-discovery sites can give you other guitar virtuosos, knowledgeable friends can suggest some band that mixes guitar-synth rock fusion with world music, but nothing is quite like it. Pat has created a musical language that is extremely personal and original, and that at the same time is immediately understood and enjoyed by everyone. This is the one album that I can listen to with my jazz snob friend, with my relatives that only like 70s italian pop music, or with the occasional guest who never really cared about genres and knows nothing about music and musicians. Other favorites, besides the already mentioned American Garage: Secret Story, Letter From Home
No Mystery No Mistery is the album I think of when I think of fusion, Chick Corea at his most accessible. It's incredibly original but at the same time it sounds simple and delightfully funky. My favorite tracks are Jungle Waterfall and Excerpt From the First Movement of Heavy Metal
Beethoven: The 9 Symphonies I'm specifically suggesting Furtwangler and not any recording of Beethoven Symphonies. I had listened to many versions and I've always liked Beethoven but still couldn't understand how some people could be so fanatic about him. After listening to the 7th and the 3th directed by Furtwangler I became a fanatic myself.
Wave If you like the dreamlike combination of sensuality and nostalgia of bossa nova, Jobim is a must. And this is one of his best albums. It's incredible.
Quiet Kenny I think this master of trumpet is very underrated. This album, the second track in particular ("My Ideal") has a strange magical effect on me: it slows down time, almost in a physical way... everything in the universe seems to move much slower, and even to come to a stop at certain points.
The Legend Of Blind Joe Death While I never liked his successors and could never really stand the "special effects" of virtuoso acoustic guitar playing, I could listen for whole days to the contemplative, melancholic simplicity of John Fahey - your regular crazy man living in the swamp with his guitar and his collection of old blues records. This album is very raw and dark. For something a little brighter I suggest The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, my second favorite.
Solo Piano If just a few years ago someone had foretold me that I would have been fascinated by a piano playing the same few notes over and over I would have considered that person crazy. Philip Glass made me discover the power of essentiality. Other favorites of mine are Aguas de Amazonia (sounds like the spirit of nature itself is expressing its primordial, cruel beauty) and Mishima (you should also watch the movie; it's wonderful and the soundtrack contributes much, perfectly matching the elegance of the images with the elegance of music), but experience has taught me that, whenever I feel the need for some good music I can listen to attentively without getting bored, I can play anything by Philip Glass and it won't disappoint me.
Cabaret Manana I first heard of Esquivel in "John Zorn plays his favourite records", where Zorn talked of him as a master of orchestration. It's very cool, like a combination of latin music, commercial jingles and cartoon soundtracks.
A Handful of Riffs It's incredible to see what Eddie Lang (widely considered the "first" jazz guitarist) could do with the simplest arrangements and the unique sound of his guitar. One would think that a plectrum guitarist playing alone or with a bare minimum accompaniment has little chance to be interesting unless he fills all the space with complex chord solos, but this album is the proof that it isn't so.
Oxygene For me Oxygene is the crowning of "classical" electronic. The first time I listened to it I was so absorbed that my rational mind didn't even attempt to make a critical judgment of it, it was just lost. The second time the only thing I thought was "this must have taken the same effort of a symphony to create", and I wasn't even taking into account that it came out in a year that looks like the stone age from here, in term of the technology available to do electronic music. This music speaks of things that exist in a domain of their own, too important and too frivolous to be expressed in any other way that with music. Like a battle of gods, a love story between ghosts, a joke that the wind tells to the trees.
Music Has The Right To Children The theme of this album seems to be to discover what nostalgia sounds like. BoC set out to capture the feeling of mystery that permeates childhood memories and that makes it such a magical time, mixing electronic beats and distorted sounds of old documentaries
Selected Ambient Works 85-92 Aphex Twin is the star of electronic music and his universe is vast. His style changes much from album to album and even from song to song, but I think this is a good introduction. Despite the title the tunes are still relatively catchy and even somehow danceable - for a "strictly ambient" album you should go with Selected Ambient Works Volume 2 (only be forewarned: that album has the power of making you feel like you are the last human alone in the cold universe. I guess someone may not like that feeling). Other good places to start would be Windowlicker (maybe you already know the title track) or Richard D. James Album (maybe you already know Girl/Boy)
Draft 7.30 In a way Autechre, the other famous name in techno, is the opposite of Aphex Twin. Where Aphex seems to invent a new genre with every song and to use the tunes just to showcase the variety of his ideas, it's like Autechre decided to restrict themselves to a handful of sounds and out of that handful pulled out an impressive number of albums, everyone of them so full of individuality that I felt the necessity to keep almost their entire discography. I fell in love with them when I was listening to Amber one night (I must have found it navigating randomly around amazon lists) while falling asleep and at some point I had the feeling the music was speaking to me in a very menacing and still very hypnotic way. Very often they are described as music made by machines or something similar, and I agree with that as long as it only describes a feeling, not if it implies that it seems automatized or random. Actually the well placed emergence of different, subtle melodic and rhythmic patterns is the most beautiful thing in their songs, and creates a strange feeling of fragility and impermanence under the carpet of menacing noisy rhythm.