Music

The Best Avant-Garde and Experimental Albums of 2014

Andrew McDonald

With new albums from icons like Swans, the continued proliferation of vaporwave, and a bevy of exciting new acts, 2014 has been a wonderful year for experimental and avant-garde music.

With new albums from icons like Swans, the continued proliferation of vaporwave, and a bevy of exciting new acts in the scene, 2014 was a wonderful year for experimental and avant-garde music. In a landscape where digital distribution is increasingly the norm, and the ongoing success of platforms such as Bandcamp and SoundCloud, it is of little surprise than a significant amount of the finer and more out-there releases from the avant-garde world found themselves available on these new media formats. Yet more than other years, 2014 also saw continued relevance of some of the bigger, more established names in experimental music. So here are ten essential records from the landscape of experiments and challenges; go into them with open ears and reserved judgement. And while no act from the label is present on this list due to never technically releasing any full-length release -- if such a category is even useful in 2014 -- PC Music proved that the avant-garde can be a sugary sweet poppy as anything in the charts and still retain a sense of adventure.

 
Artist: Fennesz

Album: Bécs

Label: Editions Mego

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Fennesz
Bécs

Only Christian Fennesz could open an album with a song called "Static Kings" and have it not be ironic or misplaced in any regard. It's now been 13 years since the man's iconic Endless Summer release, and this may very well be his finest album since that groundbreaking work. Sure, Fennesz is still the same musician he has always been, exhibiting his trademark multilayered compositions built on guitar feedback and droning loops, yet the sounds here display a specific maturity that hasn't been seen on other records. Whilst never one to shy away from evoking another time or place, Bécs seems distinctively preoccupied with evoking a melancholia of middle age or a deconstruction of nostalgia. Highlight "The Liar" treats a brief looping guitar riff as a beat for increasingly bothersome static to interrupt and pollute, before fading away to leave the loop on its own with soft, white noise backing. What we thought was obscuring our pleasure was actually a needed distraction from the absences of ongoing life. It isn't until the title track rolls around, 15 minutes before the record's close, that we finally hear the sounds of what could be positive energy. A static drenched keyboard composition plays a beautiful and honest melody only to be drowned in a wonderful wall of guitar noise. The effect is the kind of thing that Fennesz excels at, and he does this throughout the entire album.

 
Artist: Amnesia Scanner

Album: AS LIVE [][][][][]

Label: self-released

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Amnesia Scanner
AS LIVE [][][][][]

How "live" this release is, or even how much of a release it can be qualified as, is up for debate, yet Amensia Scanner's first proper display of self-driven work is as captivating as any live performance this year. Building on high definition bursts of drum rolls and synths, AS LIVE [][][][][] demands a lot from the listener. The release walks an uneasy line between the accessibility of modern dance music and the obtuse experimentation of artists like Oneohtrix Point Never, yet only ever resembles either camp in passing. Essentially a mix of a number of shorter tracks that come and go, this "set" feels like a nightmare in a dance club from a future we'll always be hypothesising about and never reaching. At times noisy, at times dance hall ready, yet always exhilarating and relentless, we can only hope that this release is the sign of more to come from this exciting new name in experimental electro.

 
Artist: Giant Claw

Album: Dark Web

Label: Orange Milk

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Giant Claw
Dark Web

There's a moment on Giant Claw's "DARK WEB 03" that features an increasingly modulated vocal loop imploring us to "turn the key". It's the kind of sample any electronica tune might employ as a dance hook, yet here it comes across as a haunting and hypnotic aberration of human speech, which is really what Dark Web is all about. For an album built on found samples and plundered sonics, Dark Web never sounds anything but maximalist and, dare it be said, groovy. Pop is never a far leap from these eight songs, even when scattered hi-hat flourishes dancing over obnoxiously deep bass threaten to overpower everything else. Giant Claw knows exactly what is being built here, and "building" is a suitable manner in which to see this record. Each song's layers come in and out naturally and organically, with recurring samples and beats unifying the entirety of the record in a way so many experimental electronic artists do not both to even attempt to do. Dark Web, suitably named, is the next movement in the ongoing narrative of vaporwave and music of the internet age.

 
Artist: Black Pines

Album: Harsh Out

Label: Wood and Wire

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Black Pines
Harsh Out

Australia's Wood and Wire label has been regularly releasing experimental music across multiple genres since 2012, yet this collaborative release from No Anchor and the Rational Academy guitarists has the label truly coming of age. This record is at times a brutally minimalist post-punk exploration of loathing and at others a miserably nostalgic trip through a bad 1960s acid trip. Harsh Out is driven in equal parts by noise rock's harsh guitar, and a sense of sonic adventure and true experimentation. Album highlight "Omens" recalls an early Sonic Youth no wave aesthetic, if they abandoned all pretence of accessibility, and that it is the very core of the album. This doesn't seem like a record intended for anyone at all; songs cut out too soon or go on too long, silence interrupts beautiful passages of dark noise, and the whole thing is over in under 23 minutes. This frustration only adds to album's intrigue though, as it makes us question the ideas of nostalgia and longing so built into the record's lyrics and sounds. Black Pines have released a powerful statement here, and no one summed it up better than themselves, "No jams. No art. This is criticism."

 
Artist: New Dream Ltd

Album: Initiation Tape: Isle of Avalon Edition

Label: self-released

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New Dream Ltd
Initiation Tape: Isle of Avalon Edition

Overwrought cries of "vaporwave is dead, long live vaporwave" notwithstanding, the bevy of loosely assorted artists releasing albums on the Beer on the Rug and Dream Catalogue labels under the vaporwave genre moniker are only becoming more popular. Ramona Xavier, she of Floral Shoppe fame, continues to release some of the more gorgeous and typically exemplary music of the genres under her wide range of pseudonyms. Her sole 2014 release turned out to be an expanded and remixed version of one of her earliest releases under her New Dream Ltd brand, Initiation Tape. This so-called Isle of Avalon Edition expands on the music and themes present in that release, amps up the melancholy and turns it all into a statement on the reflexive nature of the genre itself. For a style of music built on ostensibly minor modifications of existing material, it was inevitable that someone would turn the methods towards themselves, and the result is wonderful. Opener "Forever" builds on a simple vocal and piano loop, slowed down to depressive extreme to wonderful effect, before interrupting the listener with an extended montage of radio commercials and trailers. This is the album in micro, enjoyment and pleasantly melancholic nostalgia being interrupting by capitalist critique. This ongoing form becomes cathartic by the conclusion of the album, which we can read not only an obvious critique of capitalist society, but as a summation of the vaporwave movement as a whole. This is enjoyable and nostalgic, but how much should we allow ourselves to indulge in this in the face of ongoing economic inequality and existential angst?

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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