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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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10. SOPHIE – Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Inside’s (MSMSMSM/Future Classic)
I've tried so often to characterize the PC Music (more accurately, "bubblegum bass") sound that I've erected an automated word-bank. Allow me to open the hatch... British post-pop post-dance post-ironic Internet-age squeaky wonky hyperreal commodified kawaii girl-boy-world. It's not easy to describe, but this cultural moment so totally occupies a certain aesthetic that it just clicks at some point. If you're here, now, reading this article, I'll run the risk that you already know something of SOPHIE and her clan. If you don't, it shouldn't be long before you've formed your own opinion.
What can I say of the artist that hasn't been said scores of times before? She's been nominated for a goddamn Grammy. She's made it, beyond any realistic expectation, and she's earned it, with every ounce. Well, Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Inside's (hear how it kind of sounds like "I love every person's insides?") is probably the most realized, complex and conceptual full-length released in this bubble. (SOPHIE has kept some distance from the PC label, despite being the style's poster-child.)
Though made of what's considered a singles material, I urge you to down Oil in one gulp. Consider the whole thing a transmutation, between plastic and flesh, sexes and genders, self-confidence and self-consciousness, high-art and trash (or recycling). It all works so well if you feel it. Oil is an instant classic whether you like it or not. - A Noah Harrison
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9. Kilchhofer – The Book Room (Marionette)
The Book Room well preserves Swiss composer Benjamin Kilchhofer's image of stone-faced anonymity, merely chalking an outline of the stage-shy musician, leaving few new clues. All we get is a leafy aroma of green-veined mystique.
Kilchhofer must have conceived The Book Room in the trees, likely the towering trees of a daydreamer. Across 20 abstract sketches, forested dance beats are draped with moss in an exotic jaunt of instrumental storytelling. Birds dart above the canopy of "Anzu," buffeted by hollow drums; "Leng" swings from branches with swagger; "Topot" wobbles tipsy on rubber legs in a haze of synthetic flute; "Wron," damp with evening dew, drifts past lightning bug thumb piano; and "Vran" skews the human voice into a beat streaked with tropical bird calls. Infusing modular synthesis with arboreal whimsy, The Book Room is a fun-for-all-ages yet stranger-than-all-get-out wonderworld, made for anyone curious enough to climb upwards for a surreal view. - Todd B. Gruel
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8. serpentwithfeet – soil (Secretly Canadian/Tri Angle)
Finding that midpoint between complexity and immediacy can be a challenge. But with their full-length debut soil, Josiah Wise, the artist behind serepentwithfeet, has struck this chimerical balance, achieving a potent work of great emotional depth.
Introspective poetry and a vast vocal range lie at the center of this challenging and affecting album. At its heart, it's unquestionably R&B, but Wise invokes R&B as a cultural reference point upon which they build their sonic constructions, incorporating, among other sounds, gospel, ambient and bass music. Highlights include the macabre lilt of "seedless" and heartbreaking closer "bless ur heart". With every song, Wise pulls from a place deep down, elevating identity to full mast. Upon hearing soil, we can merely give our thanks to Wise for opening up so wide. - Spyros Stasis
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7. The Caretaker – Everywhere at the end of time - Stage 4 (History Always Favours the Winners)
Since 2016, the Caretaker's Everywhere at the end of time project has sought to provide an aural framework for the experience of dementia. The Caretaker uses increasingly intrusive edits of old jazz tunes to simulate chronic memory deterioration. In 2018, Stage 4 and 5 of six were released. Previous stages focused on concrete musical forms as they gradually dissipated under the weight of crackling, distorted sound. Stage 4 of dementia is the terrifying apex of the project, when "serenity… gives way to confusions and horror".
In this stage—G1, H1, I1 and J1 in the digital anthology—emerges a crisis of perception, where familiar elements scramble into unintelligible ambient space, the horrifying isolation of one's own memory betraying them. Even when tangible passages materialize, they're so buried under blankets of noise that they serve only to underline the panic; see also the penultimate track, a merciful stretch of relief before returning to the desperate void. Everywhere at the end of time is an ambitious musical experiment, and Stage 4 the greatest emblem of its mission yet—an audacious reminder of mortality and the fallibility of the human mind. - Colin Fitzgerald
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6. Niño de Elche – Antología del cante flamenco heterodoxo (Sony)
Discussion of the great Antología del cante flamenco heterodoxo necessitates a degree of art-speak because it's as much a product of conceptual art as one of recorded music.
Niño de Elche—or, "Child of (his Spanish hometown of) Elche"—creates a sound world entirely self-aware and maximally deconstructionist. It engages with and subverts dozens of traditions, blending healthy amounts of "noise" and "sound" into what we consider "music". It references numerous folk and classical traditions of Spain, particularly Andalusia, within structures of Modernist sound art and poetry. We get divine synth-scapes, frenetic rapping, circus music, fragile Spanish guitar, toilet sounds and the kitchen sink. El Niño's abundant theatrics position him as the triumphant troubadour, the sexy songbird and the passionate poet, with a voice so puro y fuerte.
With Antología del cante flamenco heterodoxo, Niño de Elche has created a comprehensive sonic manual as intimidating as it is eclectic. At twenty-seven tracks, it's an unwieldy beast of an album. One Rate Your Music user designated it the "final boss of 2018". Let's call it the flamenco White Album. - A Noah Harrison
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5. Klara Lewis and Simon Fisher Turner – Care (Editions Mego)
What's black and blue and wears a pink wig? Nothing? How about this: What tickles underfoot while pummeling overhead? If you guessed Care, Klara Lewis and Simon Fischer Turner's debut collaboration, then you guessed correctly. The startlingly dynamic Care juggles delicate atmospheres with rib-rattling beats. The two artists journey a great distance, gathering sounds from their environment and threading them into electronic scapes. The compositions resemble movie scenes from a gritty documentary: a violin player bartering songs for spare change; an empty park fluttering with hungry birds; gunshots booming outside mosques in worship; bullet shells clattering in the gutter.
The directors' dystopian future sounds all the more frightening because it portrays our present condition, one plagued by the fear and intolerance that ravages the global spirit. Shifting between blitzkrieg rhythms and cosmic synth swells, the music thrashes like a volatile child. We're reminded that the world is that child, prone to aging without growing.
Far from despair, Care ends with a hopeful coda to buoy us through these hard times; we're left afloat on synthesizer waves drifting through an ambiance of peace, as if to say: the world can break our backs but not our hearts. - Todd B. Gruel
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4. Tim Hecker – Konoyo (Kranky)
Many art forms use negative space to highlight qualities of a composition that are not really there. It's an intrinsic "fault" of the human brain to detect these nonexistent elements, something crucial in our making sense of things. Tim Hecker understands this concept, and while he played with this idea on previous records, he explores its implications more fully with Konoyo. Using a gagaku ensemble—an ancient form of music meant for Japanese imperial courts—Hecker creates ambient negative spaces dappled with disfigured sounds and samples. Creating novel sonic artifacts and dimensions, he achieves one of his strongest works to date. - Spyros Stasis
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3. Gurrumul – Djarimirri: Child of the Rainbow (Skinnyfish)
Nine months after the untimely death of this Australian Aboriginal musician came the release of his magnificent swansong, Djarimirri: Child of the Rainbow, one of the most uplifting albums of these times. Born blind, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu became a virtuoso early in life, earning world renown despite remaining largely unsung. Here, he performs arrangements of Aboriginal songs with natural themes—"Crow", "Tuna Swimming" and "Sunset"—their lyrics in various languages of the Yolŋu people of northern Australia.
Djarimirri takes on a Steve Reich-like minimalism, presented as bite-sized near-pop songs that are relentlessly triumphant. Whatever the resounding mood of his songs—be it mournful, pensive, desperate—Gurrumul casts ecstatic rejoice over them all. He favors consonance, pentatonic harmony, layered horns and strings, momentous percussion and raspy, penetrating vocals. The title of each song includes its key, and unsurprisingly, all are in major. Truly, each song could come at the climax of a hero's journey.
The artist gives us something we crave but rarely receive in music: resolution on every scale. Each phrase, passage and composition resolves with such grace—his ensemble rides that sweet groove unswervingly to the finish line. Long after his death, Gurrumul will continue radiate warmth, in his home and around the world. - A Noah Harrison
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2. Julia Holter – Aviary (Domino)
It's almost impossible to put Julia Holter's Aviary into words, with such a confounding syntax of music and lyrics. The record culminates a decade of musical expansion and splintering—the luscious atmospherics of Ekstasis (2012), the baroque and literary spirit Loud City Song (2013), the chamber pop formalism of Have You in My Wilderness (2015). All this flies free in the chaotic and intuitive Aviary.
From the sublime anarchy of "Turn the Light On" and "Everyday is an Emergency" to the shimmering elegance of "I Shall Love 2", "Les Jeux to You," and "Words I Heard", Aviary is a heavyweight assemblage of beautiful and disordered sounds tied to a rich cultural history. It's music to be picked apart, yet also experienced instinctually—in the same way the world around us is so simultaneously disorienting, dazzling and challenging. - Colin Fitzgerald
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1. Lonnie Holley – MITH (Jagjaguwar)
Perhaps it's a myth that MITH was most important release of this millennium, perhaps not. But it's a fact that our fabled minstrel has created one of the most honest and powerful albums of these over-datified times.
Indeed, the story of Lonnie Holley feels mythical. I encourage you to read his biography and promise you'll be stirred. A black Alabamian born in the Jim Crow era, without financial or familial support, Holley turned himself into a world-renowned folk artist based in Atlanta, and in the last decade, a recording artist to boot. On his third album, he brews a potent cauldron of soul, psychedelia and spiritual jazz, seasoned with everlasting Eastern energy. It's music to move and move to, to heal and heal with.
Lonnie Holley is as much an embodiment of Afrofuturism as are Sun Ra or George Clinton, if a shade more terrestrial. He's invented his own mythology, his own terminology even, to tell fantastical tales so fucking pertinent to our present condition. When he's not speaking directly from the heart, he speaks in thinly-veiled allegory about our world as he sees it.
No song does so better than the disquieting cacophony of "I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America". Other notable hymns include opener "I'm a Suspect" ("in Americaaaaaa…" the song goes on), which peacefully assumes the collective the identity of a living, breathing, moving target, as well as the clamorous, calamitous 18-minute epic "I Snuck Off the Slave Ship", with its heart-rending twist-ending. Lonnie compels us put our trust in him to fix the prefix of this technological topia, and few options seem more promising than his. - A Noah Harrison
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