Music

The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Best Experimental Albums

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.

In spite of the great lull in today's rock music climate, 2015 proved an astonishing year for experimental music, signifying the simultaneously shrinking and expanding gap between avant-garde and pop traditions. Several of this year's releases, like Clarence Clarity's ineffable No Now or new albums by Oneohtrix Point Never and Holly Herndon, tackle heady concepts of global capitalism and hyper-connectivity of the Internet Age.

While some albums venture into brutal and immersive territory—Blanck Mass' Dumb Flesh, Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld's Never were the way she was, and Prurient's Frozen Niagara Falls—others are glossy and luminous—for instance, the bubblegum bass of PC Music's new compilation or the plinking and clinking of Battles' La Di Da Di. Overall, music of all kinds seems to be tending toward a consciously experimental direction.

Just look at recent music from hip-hop greats Kendrick Lamar and Kanye, or even the work of pop stars Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus. Maybe we're finally getting through to them.

10. Battles - La Di Da Di [Warp]

It seems like just yesterday Battles released their striking debut Mirrored. In the mid-2000s, Battles spearheaded a new generation of math rock, highly groovy music that tests the bounds of rhythm and meter using rock instrumentation—while less obsessed with tradition than, say, metal or prog. They're actually one of a few "prog" bands the build-a-hipster magazines will touch. While math forefathers like Slint and Don Caballero pulled from alternative and hardcore of the day, Battles apply contemporary indie sensibilities to their maths, often verging on EDM. La Di Da Di is a pretty good name because Battles aren't trying to tell us a damn thing (it's entirely instrumental).

Battles just want to show us their chops, and that's respectable move…la-di-da-di-da. What makes the album exceptional, and by extension the band, are the hooks. "Dot Net" and "Dot Com" are this close to being top-40 hits, while opener "The Yabba" and closer "Luu Le" are almost works of minimalism—a duality that makes Battles so uncool they're cool. Will the record stand the test of time as well as Mirrored? No. Is it still damn good? You betcha. Battles couldn't eff up an album if they tried.

LISTEN | WATCH

9. Prurient - Frozen Niagara Falls [Profound Lore]

Prurient's Frozen Niagara Falls, one of many dozen albums in Dominick Fernow's decade-spanning catalog, is an intense listening experience—one that deals with desperation, hope, and triumph. It's also the first album I've seen my now almost completely deaf dog walk away from. (I loved it.) It courses through the veins of drone metal, power electronics, and Italo-Disco. Between the death growl, programmed stereo panning, and waves of MIDI, it's a lot to stomach, but there's comfort in the decay. By its massive, tumbling, almost "natural" feel, listeners may be reminded of Ben Frost.

The songs sound like constructed, industrial field recordings. Nothing can stop Prurient as he takes us from the pensive opener "Myths of Building Bridges" to the melodramatic "Every Relationship Earthrise"; from No Wave with "Wildflower (Long Hair With Stocking Cap)", to twangy with "Greenpoint." You may have to retune your listening set and setting a bit with this one.

LISTEN | WATCH

8. Hieroglyphic Being & J.I.T.U. Ahn-Sahm-Buhl - We Are Not the First [Rvng Intl.]

Behind the heftily named Hieroglyphic Being & J.I.T.U. Ahn-Sahm-Buhl is one of many aliases of an elusive nu jazz producer and a host of musicians and collaborators. Hieroglyphic leads his troops on a spiritual and spacey mission through the world of free improvisation. The ensemble includes members like 91-year-old Sun Ra Arkestra multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Marshall Allen, Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog's guitarist Shahzad Ismaily, and Liturgy/Zs power drummer Greg Fox. All make visible contributions, continually shuffling through moods and styles.

"Apes and Ages" contains spoken word over squawking flock of horns and the driving, house-y "Cybernetics is an Old Science" sounds like your friend whose life's coming apart at the seems but who maintains the illusion of keeping it together. The record concludes with the dazzling, 20-minute opus and title track, combining the best parts of Ornette Coleman and Animal Collective. Though We Are Not the First often sounds like 1970s-era krautrock and Canterbury scene— the stratospheric croons of "Civilization that is Dying" recall in Gilli Smith's work with Gong—its production is very cutting edge. A week of recording sessions and countless hours of mixing give way to an epic Afro-Futurist journey in an unshaken upholding of the holy cool.

LISTEN

7. Various Artists - PC Music Volume 1 [PC Music]

Please direct your attention to the opening lines of PC Music Volume 1's eighth track, "Keri Baby (feat. Hannah Diamond)", one of the best pop songs of last year (re-released on this year's compilation): "Oooh / Girl like me / K-b-p-s, be 1-2-3 / Kinda real, kinda oooh" somersaults into Hannah's verse, "Tell me if you want to see me / Play with my hair on a TV / Give it to the girl / Give it to the girl / Give it to the cutest girl / Oh". Wow. PC Music Volume 1 is a perfect summary of 1990s-born producer and PC Music label owner A. G. Cook's work, music that lives and breathes intense ambiguity toward commodified kawaii and commercial excess.

The PC Music label, for those unaware, is behind the hot sound of bubblegum bass, UK's new glitch-wonk, saccharine-sinister dance movement. And don't doubt the influence of A. G.'s zany style. (SOPHIE's "Lemonade" [not featured here] was in a McDonald's commercial!) This collection contains instant classic "Beautiful" by A. G. Cook, with its uncanny outro, HYPERfun powerhouses "In My Dreams" by Danny L Harle and "Laplander" by easyFun, and the chunky "USA" by GFOTY, which will leave you literally loling. PC Music's oscillation between polarized ideological stances is Pure Girl™.

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6. Holly Herndon - Platform [4AD]

Holly Herndon's third record proves itself a lovely display of the dichotomy between intimacy and alienation in the Digital Age. As a work of sousvellance (subversive self-surveillance), the album utilizes a breadth of sonic vocabulary—hard drive whir recorded with a contact mic, for instance—showcasing the ever-pervasive ways we may monitor ourselves. Platform also marks Herndon's first forays as vocalist, often as chopped up gasps, croaks, and mews. The album, despite its serendipitous peaks, is stunningly inconsistent, lacking any narrative through line.

While "Morning Sun", initiated by the iPhone unlock sound and the lyric "Wake up, gotta wake up" is an impeccable pop tune, the unmusical, ASMR-inspired "Lonely at the Top feat. Claire Tolan", with its breathy come-ons, achieves a level of awkward rarely seen in music. Still, tracks like "Chorus" and "Home", with their colossal, clunking grooves, more than redeem Herndon as a meticulous yet frustrating composer. It's fair to say if you're unfamiliar with her work, you've never heard anything like it: EDM-streaked sound collage, at once robotic and deeply personal.

LISTEN | WATCH

5. Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld - Never were the way she was [Constellation]

In April, a couple of Constellation instrumentalists—Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld—got together to produce the craggy shambler Never were the way she was. The two have occupied close quarters in the past (in Arcade Fire, Stetson was a collaborator and Neufeld a core member). Here, the two position themselves outside the formal constraints of classical and jazz, though the traditions inform their work as much as any others. Never were the way she was tells the story of a girl "who ages slow as mountains; excited, exalted, and ultimately exiled in her search for a world that resembles her experience".

"The sun roars into view" roars into view from a ghostly wisp into a Lovecraftian beast, and "In the vespers" is a jubilant breaking free from a wildwood enclosure. And few song titles more adequately describe their own effect than "With the dark hug of time". Between Stetson's torrential blasts and clacks of bass clarinet and contrabass sax—waves smashing ceaselessly on the shore—and Neufeld's relentless flourishes of string—an epic weaving of linen tapestry—Never were the way she was implores us to contemplate our journey rather than plow through it. To adequately hum these tunes, your entire lymphatic and digestive systems must hum as well.

LISTEN | WATCH

4. Oneohtrix Point Never - Garden of Delete [Warp]

The influence of Oneohtrix Point Never, aka vaporwave godfather Daniel Lopatin, is difficult overstate. Amidst a decade of music often described (though somewhat inadequately) as progressive electronic, Garden of Delete stands out as one of Lopatin's finest records, a famously polarizing body of work. Some will recoil at the dated synths and hairpin excursions; others will find them irresistible. This album could provide an excellent starting point for those willing to take the plunge.

It's a striking union of compositional complexity and wonderfully simple hooks, proving an expressly maximalist direction for the artist. It's crushingly heavy yet intensely purifying, as if you commissioned Tim Hecker to create a work using only air horns and unlimited digital processing. Highlights include "Sticky Drama", with its blissful, pitched-up vocal line, and the closer, "No Good", which could strip parts off the International Space Station. Garden of Delete is guaranteed to leave you asking, "What the hell is that sound?" once every few seconds, and in the best way possible.

LISTEN | WATCH

3. Blanck Mass - Dumb Flesh [Sacred Bones]

Blanck Mass, aka John Benjamin Power and one half of esteemed psych-mammoth-drone duo Fuck Buttons, released his second record in May of massive scale—with a cover that looks like…we'll leave that up to you. (The duo's "Sundowner" was the theme of the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, so if the Olympic committee liked it…) Dumb Flesh could be described as industrial, EDM, and noise—it's brooding, all-encompassing, and will swallow you up. At points, it sounds like music by HEALTH, though is perhaps closer to Tim Hecker.

Enter the tantalizing abyss via "Loam", with the haunting beauty of its slowed vocals, then move into "Dead Format", which compacts you into the second dimension. And you couldn't avoid the monstrosity of "Atrophies" if you tried—perhaps the best dance song of the year. Although the album does not flow perfectly, the experienced is best consumed in full. Just make sure you have a glass of water and a potty nearby.

LISTEN | WATCH

2. Lil Ugly Mane - Third Side of Tape [Independent]

The six-track, two-hour Third Side of Tape is the culmination of what sent esteemed 20-year-old Floridian hip-hop producer into retirement. It starts out like something by the legendary J Dilla or DJ Shadow but quickly becomes a catastrophic and exquisite jumble of sounds, a literal "I'm out" retrospective of Lil Ugly Mane's short but mind-boggling career, and it will go down as one of the most eclectic hip-hop albums in history. The massively varied record races down alleys between Memphis rap, cloud rap, indie, trap, hardcore, house, nu metal, plunderphonics, and noise. You can see straight through to the haunted, lean-ed out soul, the prolific shadow, the extraordinary collaborator known as Lil Ugly Mane, aka Travis Miller, aka Shawn Kemp, aka Lordmaster DJ SK the Subterranean Suspect, etc.

Take in the wonders of the climactic, 1990s-style swansong roughly 16 minutes into SIDE ONE-A, the feely slowcore roughly 16 minutes into SIDE ONE-B, or the beautiful, Oval-esque glitch pop that immediately follows. It's a horribly cumbersome album that obsessive types should probably just chop into its component parts. But for three bucks, you can have years of unreleased gold at your eardrums: sometimes gorgeous, sometimes unlistenable, always Travis.

LISTEN

1. Clarence Clarity - No Now [Independent]

On his masterful 20-song debut, London-based musician Clarence Clarity poses sleek and sexy R&B hooks alongside demented noise to the point where all genre confinements fly out the window. The music oscillates rapidly between unabashedly pop melodies of *NSYNC and progressive compositions of Oneohtrix Point Never. His repeated chanting of "oops!" in "Those Who Can't, Cheat" evokes a pig-tailed Britney Spears, circa 2000, while its South Asian-tinged breakdown affirms the ease of musical appropriation in the Internet Age.

Likewise, the visual style of his videos—the gouged out eyes of Justin Timberlake on a magazine cover in "Bloodbarf"—speaks to his love-hate relationship with mass-produced excess. In an implosion of bytes and latex, he foists upon us the oppressive weight of information readily available to anyone with a Wi-Fi connection. In a strange resurrection of cultural detritus, No Now effectively bridges the worlds of the avant-garde and corporate pop music, reminding us that the same sound systems that spill chrome-plated R&B into our urban malls also amplify the tradition of Western art music.

LISTEN | WATCH

* * *

This article originally published on 9 December 2015.


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