Music

The 15 Best Experimental Albums of 2019

Image by BUMIPUTRA from Pixabay

In an age when the personal is political feels as necessary as ever, we identify most with experimenters who transcend the throwing-shit-at-a-wall, banging-on-pots-and-cans approach. These artists occupy the earthly just as much as they occupy the mechanical and the celestial.

Reflecting on experimental music in 2019, the question may arise: Do we really have time to be fucking around right now? We live in volatile times with futures uncertain. Mass problems require mass solutions. And the new, woke group consciousness dictates that first, we have to take care of ourselves. We must look honestly inward before all else.

Well, in 2019, so many songwriters have done just that with highly personal, artistic breakthroughs: Angel Olsen, (Sandy) Alex G, and Lana Del Rey, to name a few. Though far from conformists, these artists are the preservers of forms, the storytellers. And we're the avid listeners, clinging so desperately to the narrative. And rightly so. Narratives keep us alive.

In an age when the personal is political feels as necessary as ever, we identify most with experimenters who transcend the throwing-shit-at-a-wall, banging-on-pots-and-cans approach. These artists occupy the earthly just as much as they occupy the mechanical and the celestial. A class of weirdos as compassionate—or conscientiously cruel—as they are creative. Read: more melody, more harmony, more human voice.

So we return to our question: Should we turn to the subversives, the deconstructionists, to speak for our time? We believe our list makes a solid case for doing just that.

A note on what we do: Culture list-making is a dangerous dance, one readers love and love to hate. As list-makers, we feel compelled to strike an impossible balance of sonic and human diversity. We want to privilege the underdogs but hesitate to skip over the shoo-ins. And we must weigh broader tastes with our own. So let us formally dispel any façade of objectivity in our choices for "best". We could have come up with a half-dozen alternative lists, each equal in merit. So go ahead and say, "Those jerkoffs at PopMatters think they know everything." Trust us. We don't. We simply love the music, just like you.

Light bulb by ColiNOOB (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

15. Laurie Anderson, Tenzin Choegyal, Jesse Paris Smith – Songs from the Bardo [Smithsonian Folkways]

The Bardo Thodol, or The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which explores the nature of consciousness after death, has inspired artists from The Beatles to Flying Lotus. Here, Laurie Anderson (American poet and composer), Tenzin Choegal (Tibetan-Australian musician), and Jesse Paris Smith (multimedia artist and activist) join forces to explore the subject through a delicate and immersive meditation. It's transcendence built from ambient passages, fluttering orchestrations, and otherworldly spoken-word, offering gems of wisdom to guide the way. Songs from the Bardo is a work of profound emotion that radiates warmth and vibrancy. Each listen invites an intimate and fleeting experience, a transference into that state of in-between—the Bardo itself. - Spyros Stasis

14. 100 gecs – 1000 gecs [Dog Show]

Dylan Brady: Hey pissbabies! Wanna hear about deez jamz?

Laura Les: Course they do, honeydew.

DB: Cute. So we're s'pos'ta, like, tell 'em what gecs sound like?

LL: Right? Like, have they even listened? They can just fuckin goog us.

DB: Lol I know. But these nerdlings literally wanna read about this shizfest shizfest shizfest sh sh sh sh sh gecgecgec— Whoa.

LL: What the what??

DB: Dude I think I just glitched in.

LL: …So you want me to start…? Okayyy. So you know when you're having one of those days where your ice cream starts melting, but not downwards—upwards, and it gets in your eyebrows and all over your Ray-Bans and you're like, "What. Thefuck."

DB: And you get home, and your mom's like, "How was school, ice cream face? Did you pick up the 20-pound bag of ZotZ powder for your father?" And you're like "Yoinks, Mom, give me ten nanoseconds to power down—"

LL: But by then it's Sunday and you black in on the playground nunchucking the shit outta the final boss in Hungry Hungry Hippos, and it's all like, ゚*☆ You don't know me like I know you, but it's cool. ☆*゚

DB: That's honestly like the best description I've ever heard of our album.

LL: …Album?

- A Noah Harrison

13. Maral – Mahur Club [Astral Plane]

Welcome, fiends and stranglers, to the Mahur Club, LA's most pitiless dance experience. You may call me Maral, your mistress of ceremonies. At our club, we invite you to subsist on our rich atmosphere of nitrous oxide until food and water sound like repulsive luxuries. Still needing refreshments? Sniff a line of our lemonade mix. But as any of our guests will tell you, the music is what summons you in and fills you with un-death. Here, shaky reggaetón radios emit thrifted Iranian frequencies, lost-soul samples, and smeared slug beats. If you're moved to dance—or should I say "when"?—you will find yourself in an involuntary convulsive episode.

Feeling fatigued? Worry not. The subterranean bass will rattle you upright long after your body has broken down. Plus, our rare collection of mounted gasping mouths should quash any urge you might have to lean against the walls or rest on the furniture. Do not be afraid if our mouths seem to speak to you in impossible cadence and uncertain terms. Just treat them as you would yourself: a frightened animal shouting mutely into the void. At the Mahur Club, all any of us seek is a refuge for true connection in our traumatized world. - A Noah Harrison

12. Dis Fig – PURGE [PTP]

NYC's PTP label had an amazing run in 2019, with releases from YATTA, City & i.o., and 9T Antiope all figuring highly on my list. But it's PURGE by Dis Fig, aka Felicia Chan, that sits atop the pile. The New Jersey-born, Berlin-based artist and DJ is somewhat of an enigma. Once upon a time, an aspiring jazz vocalist, she now wrangles harsh industrial noises, heavy electronics, and guitar riffs into vessels for her voice of inner turmoil.

While her stories are oblique and loosely defined, her sonic excursions often take form as explicit fury, directed at everyone and no one. Her anguished and empowered vocal delivery is visceral, burning with raw emotion easy to identify within today's broken world. PURGE becomes a model for turning frustrations outwards. It invites us to listen, empathize, and perhaps devise our own purges. - Antonio Poscic

11. CJ Boyd – Kin Ships [Joyful Noise]

The concept of Kin Ships alone demands respect: a great undertaking of unimagined grace. Over ten years, traveling nonstop by trailer on his InfiniTour, CJ Boyd recorded one song in each US state—each a cover of an artist with whom he's shared the stage, each recorded in that artist's home state. That list includes Sharon Van Etten, Why?, and Dirty Projectors.

Boyd works in the style of weird American folk—think the Microphones or early Animal Collective—but with more melancholy and fewer freak-outs. With a vast cohort of collaborators, Boyd weaves in strings, marimba, church organ, and more in his travelogue entries. Listening to the lush landscape, waves of nostalgia wash over you. These 51 songs—he includes US outlying territories—become droned meditations on the act of moving forward as we look back, riding the ever-flowing river of nows. The artist finds ease in the discomfort, a serenity beyond people, places, and things. I recall that Beatles line, "Oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go." Unclear whether the narrator implies there is nowhere he has to go or there is nowhere to go. Maybe one and the same.

Released on Joyful Noise, the package includes four-plus hours of music and a 136-page book. If the prospect of jumping in daunts you, begin with the Kin Ships Sampler: States I've Called Home. It's one of those trips where each moment feels meaningful, even when you're not sure why. Boyd, no doubt, feels the love. (He's hit the maximum 5000 friends on his personal Facebook but has half as many likes on his artist page.) Let's show him what good fan$ do. - A Noah Harrison

10. Fennesz – Agora [Touch]

A pivotal force of electronic composition, Christian Fennesz has had quite a journey through the years, reaching his peak with the monumental Endless Summer. Since, Fennesz seems to have stepped back, mostly opting for collaborations over solo work. Some might have thought the Austrian producer had nothing left to say, but the opposite was true. Agora is a breath of fresh air for Fennesz. It dives headfirst into the textural, awakening an elemental power with his sonic constructs. At times, he leaves behind form, losing himself, as with the drone waves of "In My Room". The glacial progression and ever-changing colorings are trance-inducing, further illustrated by the title track. Other moments bring terrifying grandeur, placing us in the eye of a storm. That can be felt in the finale of "Rainfall" or the all-consuming supernova of "We Trigger the Sun". Agora reveals Fennesz's sustained power to transmit the forces of nature into waves of sound. - Spyros Stasis

9. Black to Comm – Seven Horses For Seven Kings [Thrill Jockey]

With both January's Seven Horses For Seven Kings and its companion, June's Before After, German sound artist and Dekorder label-head Marc Richter invites us into a perverted, hellish world with his dark, enthralling ambient music. He imbues Seven Horses with grimness and dread, crafting infernal soundscapes out of clunking beats, caustic effects, endless drones, and downright terrifying noises of unknown origin.

The album feels unhinged in atmosphere, cinematic even. It wouldn't feel out of place as the soundtrack to a cosmic horror flick like Baskin or The Void. Within its monstrous womb, it cradles painfully concrete social commentaries too frightening to confront head-on. Imagine the surprise, then, when we discover the nightmare world of Seven Horses to be our own. - Antonio Poscic

8. Holly Herndon – PROTO [4AD]

Holly Herndon builds a kingdom upon fragmentation. Where most artists would try to create cohesive offerings, molding diverse ideas and influence into a solid form, she instead takes comfort within the fissures of her sound. Through the years, Herndon's focus has sharpened. On 2015's Platform, she found more mobility and melody, moving away from her early, techno-tinged noise. She goes even deeper with PROTO, freely employing choral arrangements, awakening a cyber-ceremonial presence, as in "Evening Shades" and "Frontier". The traditional elements of neoclassical and folk sounds provide a fantastic dichotomy with forward-thinking ones.

She takes the same approach to balancing her pop and experimental sensibilities. "Alienation" and "Eternal" allow for the direct and catchy implementation of glitch bliss yet maintain the delicate core of her vision. She dives deep into ambient, spoken-word electronica in "Extreme Love" and "Bridge". And then there's the futuristic AI inhumanity of "Godmother", featuring the incredible Jlin, which simply annihilates everything. On PROTO, Herndon weaves a rich and unsettling tapestry, indelibly intertwining (wo)man and machine. - Spyros Stasis

7. Fire-Toolz – Field Whispers (Into the Crystal Palace) [Orange Milk]

On Field Whispers, her umpteenth record of the past decade, Angel Marcloid, aka Fire-Toolz among so many other monikers, continues to expand the boundaries of post-internet art. Compared with her other excellent 2019 release, the more focused jazz fusion of Bubble Universe! (under the name Nonlocal Forecast), Field Whispers explodes from an even more multicolored genre bomb—glitch, vaporwave, prog rock, fusion, death metal, and pop, among others. The artist began her process by carving out the components on physical instruments. Then, she modified and spliced the recorded samples into glossy alien vistas of our digitally infected world. Less overwhelming an experience than previous Fire-Toolz records, Field Whispers falls among Marcloid's most gorgeous, optimistic outings thus far. - Antonio Poscic

6. Daniel Wohl – État [New Amsterdam/Nonesuch]

1. "Melt": Touchdown on the ice planet. The atmosphere is breathable, almost sweet. Let's test out gravity. …Was that an ornithopter beating overhead?

2. "Ships": The heat from our craft has thawed the surface. Mammalian bodies gush from the cracks by the thousands. The snow blushes.

3. "Orbit": We launch from the atmosphere of this now unlivable world. The system seems to interprets faint radio signals as voices. Maybe they are…

4. "Move Slow": Beyond the ice planet, we tumble into a free-fall. Instruments clatter to the floor, the walls, the ceiling, the walls. The telescope and microscope in infinite(simal) romance.

5. "Angel": A celestial constable suctions the craft back to stillness. She is utterly beautiful. Hold me in your long arms, icy mistress.

6. "Aftermath": As it turns out, the succubus siphoned all the fuel from our craft. We are now deeply, inexorably alone. Through the windows… what's that faint oscillation?

7. "Primal": My God! Glimpses into the very fabric, this vast structure of zeroes and oness. Pulsations of pure data. It's hypnotic, almost—

8. "Dream Sequence": A piano. A dance. Strings and silk and silk and dance. Murmurations of souls from beyond the aether. They are. I just know it. I just…

9. "Subray": We're back on the planet. Did we ever leave? It's so gorgeous. So devastating. Why were we even born? What have we done? We must live on. Over, under, through. We are this melting planet. - A Noah Harrison

5. Kai Whiston – No World As Good As Mine [Lux]

Born just short of the third millennium, Kai Whiston retreated to a cabin in Snowdonia, Wales to construct No World As Good As Mine—trading the keg-stand conceit of his 2018 debut, Kai Whiston Bitch, for a more cosmic one. All I feel comfortable saying about Whiston's world is that it's huge, in space and in time, with over an hour of music. And like 2019 itself, one of the year's best albums happens to be a total mess.

No World is absurdly eclectic, but it's clear Kai isn't trying to punk us or satirize something. His ears are wide open, and for this, his vocabulary is voluminous. Kai uses the language of club and rock music without really inhabiting them. He's a post-club kid and a post-rocker—a chimerical pairing. The record largely lacks that fitful paranoia and claustrophobia so central to today's weird club scene. It's as much narcotic as a dissociative hallucinogen, with the in-breath-out-breath swagger of Swans or These New Puritans. And still, it sounds so much like Kai's longtime pal and collaborator: PopMatters darling Iglooghost.

My only real critique about No World—its messiness—may be its greatest virtue. Kai could have spent half a decade reworking this album, and thank God he didn't. To try and tame such a disorder would be a dangerous undertaking. He overcame perfectionism, moving on to the next thing again and again until reaching an arbitrary end. That's perfection in itself. - A Noah Harrison

4. Mabe Fratti – Pies sobre la tierra [Hole]

Born into Guatemalan unrest, Mabe Fratti relocated to Mexico City in 2016 to at last immerse herself in a safer, more colorful music scene. With a cello for a heart and an electronic skeleton, Fratti simulates her surroundings with a kind of magical realism. Misty and mystical, spacy and ancient. Pies sobre la tierra (translated: "feet on the ground") walks within the triangle of Tim Hecker's ozoned-out earths, Julia Holter's anxious assemblages and Enya's utopia chambers. Picture the album art zoomed out by a factor of 10. Now, through the vaporous tufts, you see park benches and baseball diamonds and animated color specks of friends and neighbors. The artist told XLR8R, "[W]hen I write, most of my lyrics are quite existential, but I never want them to sound solemn." To Mabe Fratti, I say, "No hay nada malo con solemne." The constant tremolo of existence should be explored and arted about with the utmost care. - A Noah Harrison

3. Moor Mother – Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes [Don Giovanni]

Within artist-activist Moor Mother live many voices. In this way, she is no different than any of us. But her superpower is the refusal, or inability, to silence these voices. All at once Moor Mother will channel grief and wrath and serenity. We may regard these voices as many expressions of the one fundamental will: the will to survive.

One half of collective Black Quantum Futurism, the poet poses ideas on Analog Fluids that draw as much from Afro-pessimism as from Afrofuturism—that is, the sober recognition that black survival itself be incompatible with life as we know it. From "After Images": I don't believe they lies, don't believe they truths / I need they head as proof / 'cause after they come for me, they gon' come for you / 5-4-3-2, yo.

Much like Matana Roberts [see below], Moor Mother is a medium for black experience, past, present, and future. She embodies fear and becomes fearsome; she embodies love and becomes lovable. She spits husky verses over hissing, desolate beats. She speaks from within and speaks from beyond. Like a prophet.

Moor Mother lives the truth that only through acceptance of our voices comes change. To wrestle with or shun them is to regard them as foes, but they are not. They comprise the very toolkit of survival, vital in an exponentially complexifying world: the era of MAGA-church Kanye and quantum disproof of objective reality. I advise you: just as Moor Mother listens to her voices, so should you. - A Noah Harrison

2. Matana Roberts – COIN COIN Chapter Four: Memphis [Constellation]

With each new installment of the planned 12-chapter COIN COIN series, vocalist, saxophonist, and composer Matana Roberts reveals more of the project's splendid breadth. She digs deeper and deeper into the bleakest, most rotten parts of America. She shines a blazing light on its ugliness and rare beauty, informed by personal and universally Black experience.

Unlike with COIN COIN Chapter Three: River Run Thee, Roberts is backed by a band on Memphis. Yet here, the material feels starkly direct, its flow and focus defined by storytelling. The narration is brisk and repeating, a timeless oral history sketched out and reenacted before our eyes. Within these scenes, evocations of African-American music traditions—free jazz, blues, and spirituals—collage memories of liberation, bringing us closer to the role of witness. The composition makes Memphis a majestic and affective album as much about the future as it is about the past and present. - Antonio Poscic

1. Lingua Ignota – CALIGULA [Profound Lore]

Few musicians have the power to send you to such dark realms as Lingua Ignota does. Lingua Ignota (Latin for "unknown language") channels personal experience—of violence, trauma, rape—to transmit all this darkness into our ears. CALIGULA, her challenging third album, spreads far and wide across the experimental music spectrum. Neoclassical inclinations of the artist's background give the work its winged, ethereal form, while extreme applications of harsh noise drag it to the pits of hell.

We enter her chthonic world with "FAITHFUL SERVANT FRIEND OF CHRIST", where clear vocals soar through the endless corridors. As we descend deeper, she bellows and screams through the blackened power electronics of "BUTCHER OF THE WORLD" and the funeral death-doom of "I AM THE BEAST". No matter what form Lingua Ignota takes, CALIGULA yields a sense of awe and wonder by connecting with the darkest of places. To listen is to stare straight into the abyss. - Spyros Stasis

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