Music

The 20 Best Avant-Garde and Experimental Albums of 2018

This is no scene or collective. These artists have reached their limit in all directions, back into traditions and forward into uncertain futures. 2018 presented challenges for all of us, and our artists presented challenges right back.

Another year, another fine batch of experimental music. That will never change. This year, with four writers at the helm, we did our best to comb the sonic sea, churning up waves of earthly music, all the way up through sound subjected to the harshest processing—and everything in between. We've dredged up jazz and soul, ambient and new classical, aboriginal and pop music, deconstructed club and everything that seemed like nothing we'd heard before.

Bear in mind, this is no scene or collective; these artists have reached their limit in all directions, back into traditions and forward into uncertain futures. 2018 presented challenges for all of us and our artists presented challenges right back. Let's all relax for a moment and listen now. Let's reward the each other and ourselves for these efforts, for we've worked hard to make sense of all this noise.

20. Félicia Atkinson/Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – Limpid as the Solitudes (Shelter Press)

Both Félicia Atkinson and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma exist at the forefront of today's world of ambient composition, but they operate in very different spheres of the avant-garde. This makes the duo's second collaborative work, Limpid as the Solitudes, a real balancing act. Atkinson provides an aural awareness and diversity of sound, while Cantu-Ledesma gives the work cohesive fiber.

Limpid contains careful orchestrations of understated instrumentation and delicate atmospherics. Through found sounds like trickling water and whispered poetry, and chords of low humming guitar and keyboard, it develops into a titillating ambient environment. There is nothing forced or violent here—only the flow of dreamlike static. In a time of lofty musical statements and concepts, you likely find the gentle touch of this album to be profoundly therapeutic. - Colin Fitzgerald

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify / YouTube

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19. Park Jiha – Communion (tak:til)

And so it was with the 1980 Eno collaboration, Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics, that John Hassell introduced that term: fourth world music. Squint your eyes, grit your teeth, but alas, white men hybridizing western and ethnic tones with a new age spirit did indeed become the "world music" we know and love. Now, early four decades later—making no assumptions about the equality of exchange here—tak:til's formal release of Communion (originally 2016) proves the notion of "fourth world music" oh so possible.

Korean artist Park Jiha invites woodwinds, vibraphones and more to commingle with her vocals, hammered dulcimer, flute-like piri and dexterous saenghwang (a mystical polyphonic reed instrument), creating an orchestra of authentic otherworldliness. The album comes as a series of discrete compositions, sometimes serene, sometimes oblique, that revel in lushness and cacophony, always with elegance. If you welcome minimalism as Communion does, call it a near flawless fusion of folk tradition and new composition. - A Noah Harrison

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: "The Longing of the Yawning Divide" / "Throughout the Night"

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18. The Necks – Body (Northern Spy)

The Necks have been around three decades, and at this point, it seems the experimental jazz trio from Australia can do no wrong. Through the years, they've tried on different jazz hats, such as the minimalist Open and extravagant Vertigo. In their new work, Body, the trio produces what may be their most straightforward piece to date. Through an epic 45-minute track, the Necks navigate a subtle progression of smooth jazz and more energetic Krautrock. The result produces a subliminally mesmerizing effect, both cozy and enlivening. - Spyros Stasis

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify

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17. Aïsha Devi – DNA Feelings (Houndstooth)

DNA Feelings is electronic pop music reformatted for an infinitely fracturing culture. Here, Devi fosters a transcendent atmosphere of stark rave sounds, dismantled into operative units dotting an inky black background of reverb. The Swiss artist of Nepalese-Tibetan heritage pitches, auto-tunes and re-renders vocal phrases into textural tapestries. Buzzing synths serve as intermittent sonic punctuation, and percussive hits sting at arbitrary intervals, teasing a coherent whole that pulses in and out of view.

This music demands attention, minute in scope but celestial in feel. The searing, dark energy of "Dislocation of the Alpha" contrasts the plucky brightness of "Genesis of Ohm". It's a sound universe with a philosophical and spiritual ethos, best embodied in more lyric-centric tracks like "Time Is the Illusion of Solidity". With DNA Feelings, Aïsha Devi provides us a dramatic, out-of-body experience, using the visceral components of pop to question the place of the human mind and spirit in our overwhelmingly digital landscape. - Colin Fitzgerald

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: "Inner State of Alchemy" / "Light Luxury"

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16. Giulio Aldinucci – Disappearing in a Mirror (Karlrecords)

Disappearing in a Mirror ebbs and flows with doe-eyed abandon, gently creeping through a labyrinth of glass. What begins with our own passing reflection leads to total absorption. To call this a work of "drone" would it accurate, but the term hardly conveys the pathos of Aldinucci's latest album. Here, sustained tones drift like milky washes thick enough to swim through. It's so visceral, even visual, that it feels sacred.

The opening track, "The Eternal Transition", buzzes like an orchestra tuning its instruments, strings ricocheting into eternity. The closing track, "Mute Serenade", crafted from choral loops and quivering bells, ascends the listener into a state of grace. These songs belong in a cathedral, floating beneath vaulted ceilings. Blurred with subtle sound processing, solemn notes nod in place. The only sensible response is to kneel, close our eyes and nod our head. - Todd B. Gruel

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify / YouTube

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15. Clau Aniz – Filha de mil mulheres (Mercúrio)

This year, Brazilian artist Clau Aniz released her debut, Filha de mil mulheres—or, Daughter of One-Thousand Women—and it's simply gorgeous. Aniz reaches back in musical time and space, selecting ingredients for a stew of styles gone-by. The result is anything but derivative, and quite hard to put a finger on. It sounds like Sade trapped listlessly in the Lynch-O-Verse. At moments, the music gets positively sultry, and at others, rather proggy—the sort-of musical antithesis to sultry. Yet they coexist beautifully. "Voyage roset" puts such dexterity on full display, and the tranquilizing slow-burn-turned-colossal-crescendo of the nine-minute "Romana" simply can't be missed. But do yourself a favor, and start at the top. - A Noah Harrison

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify / YouTube

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14. Kelly Moran – Ultraviolet (Warp)

In past releases, Kelly Moran has proven her ability to merge different musical schools of thought. Neoclassical leanings and modern composition work alongside electronic motifs and jazzy improvisations, centered around Moran's prepared-piano—the weaving of sundry objects into piano strings to produce interesting sounds. With her new record Ultraviolet, she reaches a new peak.

Ultraviolet is a colorful album that revels in the creative wisdom of John Cage, with the extravagant atmospherics of ambient music. Her naming the record after ultraviolet, a radiation on the light spectrum invisible to the human eye, is spot on. It represents the plethora of elements working beneath the surface, producing a rich yet subtle work of art. - Spyros Stasis

LISTEN: Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: "Helix (Edit)" / "In Parallel"

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13. Lucrecia Dalt – Anticlines (RVNG Intl.)

This decade has been one of technological violence and the conversion of everything physical into digital artifact. In response, certain artists have preoccupied themselves with the tangibility of human existence. The syrupy electronic colors of Dalt's Anticlines are one such take on the subject.

The sensibility of Anticlines is rooted equally in science and subjectivity, as if etched from some carnal impulse to explore obscure molecular worlds. Dalt's percussive synthesizers provide the album's skeleton, with the energy industrial music and abstraction of minimal techno. Meanwhile, her lyrics—"Passing from air into water into honey into tar" (from "Tar") and "I'm gathering up skins and blowing them up like balloons" (from "Edge"), for example—confront the listener with imagery of blood and bone, an uncomfortable reminder of our impermanence. Anticlines' power lies in its revelation of humanity's alienation from itself. It works to pull us back into the corporeal world we continue to fear and neglect - Colin Fitzgerald

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: "Edge" / "Tar"

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12. Trevor Powers – Mulberry Violence (Baby Halo)

You may know Trevor Powers for his Youth Lagoon project, under which he released an excellent series of swirly, mellow synth albums. With his newest project, Powers has permanently shed (in his words, "murdered") the Youth Lagoon moniker to release music under his own name. This brings us to Mulberry Violence. With his new work, Powers distances himself further from the rock paradigm and dives into a more abstract realm, packing his music with a plethora of modern electronic tropes, glitch and ambience. In deviating from the Youth Lagoon sound, he opens up a new space of infinite possibility while retaining the stunning beauty of his earlier compositions. - Spyros Stasis

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: "Film It All" / "Playwright"

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11. Amnesia Scanner – Another Life (PAN)

Berlin-based Amnesia Scanner comprises two people, Ville Haimala and Martti Kalliala… but maybe I've said too much. In keeping with a prominent trend of the modern electronic, they work to keep identities out of the equation. Sure we know their names and credentials, but personalities aren't the focus here. If you need a mental image, picture the duo in hazmat suits with bondage gear beneath. Even more so than their "woke" peers, the duo works within contemporary theory, manufacturing objects as social interventions.

Ok, but what about the music? Amnesia Scanner has a special kind of sonic branding—spacious soundscapes with a visceral pallet, straddling the line between cute and menacing. Haimala and Kalliala weld together myriad new industrial and dance styles, narrated by their omniscient alien envoy named the Oracle. They craft cheeky and unapologetic pop-up sonic spaces of a certain simulated NOW. They treat symbols like playthings, forging post-Internet iconography to be owned and twisted to their liking, strapping us in for some sort of half-broken VR rave experience.

As the title track reminds us: "There's this life, and there's another life… and there's another life…" as if to say, the possibilities for this technological future are infinite, rendering us lifeforms immortal. - A Noah Harrison

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: "AS A.W.O.L." / "AS Too Wrong"

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