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Music

The 15 Best Experimental Albums of 2020

Image by BUMIPUTRA from Pixabay

To overcome our collective dis-ease and ideological polarization, we must practice pluralism. We must continue to experiment, to oscillate between and beyond poles to find solutions.

2020 was a year for the history books. Fortunately for us, the music world did not take nearly the hit in quality that its film and TV counterparts did.

Before we say any more about 2020, let's review what we had to say about the state of experimental music in past lists. In 2015, we acknowledged the name of the game to be hyper-connectivity in late capitalism. In 2016, that experimentation never means total abandonment of tradition—that pop is immortal. In 2017, we stated the reverse to be equally true: that the avant-garde has thoroughly permeated the mainstream and that experimental music is as wide open and indefinable as ever (2018). In 2019, we pointed out a pattern in the music: that the personal is political, experimentation by no means necessitates alienation of the self or of society.

In 2020, the message is this: all of the above. To overcome this dis-ease, this ideological polarization, we must practice pluralism. We must continue to experiment, to oscillate between and beyond poles to find solutions. Ultimately, we dedicate this list to our creatives out there for dutifully exploring these disparate corners in pursuit of a happier and healthier tomorrow.

As always, we followed our heart with the choices we made. The list includes a broad range of sounds from a diversity of artists, some near-unknown and others highly acclaimed. We know we cannot satisfy all. The important thing is that you walk away both excited and challenged to dive into something new.

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

15. DJ Cactuar - Bolsonaro Obaluaê [Independent]

We naturally take comfort in the familiar. Likewise, we often turn away from forms and concepts we cannot easily identify. But for some, these curiosities just as well may draw us in. It's why Bolsonaro Obaluaê makes for such an enticing package for us global Northerners: familiar sonic landmarks wrapped in a foreign mythos.

Let's parse out what we can. Bolsonaro is Brazil's tyrannical president, while Obaluaê is the spirit of healing for the West African Yoruba people (who have a prominent Brazilian community). The cover depicts an animated figure, sporting a straw costume and other Yoruban ceremonial items, making it rain with a flurry of Ben Franklins. From all this and the spoken word samples—a quarrel on the Brazilian legislative floor and later, a blessing for Obaluaê—we can at best infer some clash of the political and spiritual.

As we listen, we find that Bolsonaro Obaluaê crystallizes its musical influences as much as it shrouds its ideological ones. The album comprises a single, 22-minute suite that unfolds through subtle psychedelic transformation. It cycles through spaced-out synth music of the '70s, pastoral Japanese ambient of the '80s, and grandiose post-rock of the aughts. The product makes for some mellow and wondrous sightseeing.

DJ Cactuar has but a shadow of an online record. But Diego Alves from Recife, Brazil is by no means hiding. The artist posted Bolsonaro Obaluaê to several Reddit communities with the heading: "Favelas artists aren't aprreciated [sic] on favelas [Brazilian slums], maybe they can be appreciated here." So, curious listeners, why not prove Alves right? -- A Noa Harrison

14. Tashi Dorji - Stateless [Drag City]

If there's any record label that can come through with some major under-the-radar releases, it's Drag City. Best known as the label for legends like Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Bill Callahan, and Joanna Newsom, they have a track record of highlighting the guitar music happening at the margins. In 2020, they struck gold twice with Bill Nace's Both and Stateless by the Bhutan-born, North Carolina-based Tashi Dorji.

Stateless is barebones guitar improvisation: no drums, no planned melodies—just messages sent from Dorji's mind to his strumming fingers. It can come across as off, like an untrained kid going to town at Guitar Center for 54 minutes. Even if confounded, give it a proper listen, and you'll soon see that Dorji's got an ear. Take the impactful "End of State – Pt. III", with its steady rhythm, sudden shifts, and unwieldy note-playing that just keeps piling up. It's Ginsberg's "first thought, best thought" theory in practice, the notion that spontaneity yields truth.

The way his guitar is miked captures the natural texture of fingers lifting off strings to produce something warm and wholesome. The choice of acoustic guitar sometimes seems played-out (think, the infamous "guy that kills the party"), but Tashi Dorji's music will rekindle your love for the instrument. In this way, "Stateless" builds wonderfully on traditions forged Robert Johnson and John Fahey. -- Andrew Cox

13. A. G. Cook - 7G [PC Music]

  1. in 49 subtitles
  2. the listening party for a cultural movement
  3. a true testament to the power of the avant-garde to lead the charge
  4. a moratorium on the album format
  5. the 11th hour for A. G. is the dawn of a new sound
  6. And just like that, a net label birthed a revolution.
  7. The man behind the curtain emerges, to say exactly what his music has said all long.
  1. "a 49-song extravaganza of sketches, covers, and fully realized pop songs that purports to reveal the inner workings of his creative method." —Pitchfork
  2. "ambitious" —Stereogum
  3. "an opus of pop, covers and electronic experimentation" —Resident Advisor
  4. "featuring covers of Smashing Pumpkins, Blur, the Strokes, Charli XCX and more" —NME
  5. "a gateway into the mad hatter's mind" —The Line of Best Fit
  6. "7G peels back even more layers to unveil the workings of that process…. [of] deconstructing pop music's formula." —Our Culture
  7. "It's a lot." —The Needle Drop
  1. "funny" —Cook, Vice
  2. "ridiculous" —Cook, Vice
  3. "The ambiguous and the uncanny is almost the most real space." —Cook, The Fader
  4. "a slightly more utopian version of digital culture because there's no real turning back" —Cook, The Fader
  5. "It actually feels ideal for me to have two debut albums."—Cook, Vulture
  6. "blurriness between whether it's a slick production or if it's a bedroom thing" —Cook, The New York Times
  7. "On a musical level, that binary is completely dissolved" —Cook, The New York Times
  1. Montana's most unexpected release of 2020
  2. the logical endpoint of the PC Music sound
  3. A. G. Cook revealed to be just A thoughtful, hard-working Guy
  4. 40% more dangerous than 4G
  5. a cis-boy's-dream-turned-queer-world's-reality
  6. Self-made popstar actually has a lot of cool friends
  7. the appetizer to Cook's real debut, Apple, released a month later
  1. a complete break from and continuation of the post-ironic framework Cook has built
  2. Sound design extraordinaire plays campfire songs in a closet
  3. pop music and the avant-garde cozy up during the pandemic
  4. The producer who never misplaced a note wastes our time for three-and-a-half hours.
  5. the annihilation and reification of the cult of the popstar
  6. a perfectionist's slap in the face of perfectionism
  7. a satisfying subversion of the subversion that PC Music stands for
  1. an exercise in self-indulgence
  2. a record that, in saying everything, manages to say nothing
  3. the reason PC Music has always been a singles genre
  4. Cook sucks all the fun from a genre that should be nothing but.
  5. the sketchbook of a Charli XCX collaborator
  6. a leak from the posthumous vaults of Alexander Guy Cook
  7. really hard to talk about
  1. nothing short of unbridled genius
  2. a vibrant mural from popular music's greatest innovator of the new millennium
  3. the product of a lockdown collaboration done right
  4. the opus we never knew we needed
  5. definitive proof that A. G. is anything but a one-trick pony
  6. the brochure for a cautiously optimistic, interconnected community of young creators
  7. a gift to the world from the father of hyperpop -- A Noa Harrison

12. Lauren Bousfield - Palimpsest [Deathbomb Arc]

A palimpsest is a piece of writing material, like a parchment or tablet, reused after the previous text has been erased. In the art world, it's evocation suggests the idea of reinvention. Bousfield underwent a most brutal form of forced reinvention, one that inevitably informs her artistic approach.

Bousfield's previous album, 2017's Fire Songs, was inspired by the deadly Ghost Ship art collective fire of 2016 and her own serious injuries from an apartment fire the same year. After devastating fires, people excavate what remains, physically and emotionally. With Palimpsest, these remains, still remaining despite their erasure, to become the objects of her primary study.

Palimpsest feels more emotionally-available than her earlier work, much released under her moniker Nero's Day at Disneyland, which was a frenzy of glitchy breakcore. Bousfield still channels this sound but closer approaches art pop, with a heavier melodic presence, as with standouts like "Adraft" and "Crawling into a Fireplace Crackling". With Palimpsest, Bousfield speaks to how we are all palimpsests. We cannot fully erase the scars and traces of our past, but still we write because we are the only parchment we have. -- Andrew Cox

11. Loke Rahbek and Frederik Valentin - Elephant [Posh Isolation]

Two minutes into "Solina", the opener to Elephant, the synths marbleize into a lush soundscape that just soothes the mind. Moments like these happen in every track of Loke Rahbek & Frederik Valentin's second collaborative album. Maybe the prettiest album on our list, it skips across pleasant and melodic pastures, compared to the harsh, forsaken terrains of other albums here. Elephant still has plenty of character and raw emotion, delivered in a gentler manner. Not that the artists hold your hand all the way through; "Call Me by My True Names" features a distant and unsettling alien voice, while "The Heart of Things" foregrounds somber piano with the sounds of children playing. The song titles reflect the songs themselves: grand mood pieces played out in small, subtle gestures.

"Scarlett" is the standout track here. It builds an infectious microhouse intro with vocal loops, and really finds its groove once the steady drums kick in. The synths continuously rise and fall, leaving the listener in an unbroken state of bliss. In its last minute, the vocal loops return, creating a comforting full circle. Elephant succeeds in its most tranquil moments, inspiring us to sprinkle memories like autumn leaves and watch them float downstream. -- Andrew Cox

10. Moor Mother - Circuit City [Don Giovanni]

To merely listen to Circuit City is to miss the picture; that being the visual side of Moor Mother's four-act theater piece of the same name. Set in Circuit City, which uncannily resembles artist-activist Camae Ayewa's hometown of Philadelphia, the piece deals with ownership, technology and the housing crisis, finely articulated in an essay by Rasheedah Phillips.

In truth, Circuit City, the album, leaves us more than enough to grapple with on its own. And it's just one of seven Moor Mother-affiliated albums released in 2020. Circuit City is wonderful expansion of Moor Mother's sound, marking a shift from hip-hop—as with Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes, featured on our 2019 list—to torrential free jazz, her poetry being the main holdover. Ayewa's delivery comes through with bubbling passion as she confronts notions of Blackness and oppression. "[A]nd after they kill me, after they kill all of us", she recites over the frenzied "Act 2 - Circuit Break", "you next, you next, you next, you next—already half-dead, you next."

Each passing moment of these 40-odd minutes contains a density and intensity that makes our hearts race and eyes bulge. With Circuit City, as always, Moor Mother cuts through the bullshit and minutiae with laser-like focus to get at the heart of the matter. -- Andrew Cox

9. Eartheater - Phoenix [PAN]

Phoenix's subtitle—Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin—suggests the artist's ability to weather the elements. Inflamed, Eartheater does not burn but rather transmutes, changing states of matter like a phoenix rising from the ashes. The album forges an afterlife—not the Hadean inferno we might expect, but one overseen by angels and demons alike. Intertwining pain and pleasure, Eartheater luxuriates in the strange, ineffable parts of the human condition. It's fascinating to witness.

Conceived during a residency taken in isolation, Eartheater's fifth record contains her most developed, "songlike" material, more conducive to live performance. It marks an evolution back into the acoustic body while retaining something alien. Harp and fingerpicked guitar glisten as coos and groans seamlessly transform to whirs and drones. Atop, Eartheater's siren song enchants us with piercing, stratospheric falsetto, and satiny low-end.

Lyrically, there's an earthiness of metaphor—folkloric, primordial, geological. In the mighty "Volcano", the artist purrs, "I'm still building mountains underground", suggesting that (her) great power may not manifest in plain sight but stirs beneath the Earth's crust. The cool flush of Phoenix's closer, "Faith Consuming Hope", upholds this process, ancient and timeless, one that came before us and will outlast us all.

Ogling the incendiary album art, we may note that the flames ambiguously appear to both enter and emit from Eartheater's vagina. Indeed, we are both earth and eater, inseparably the matter and the energy that acts upon it. Neither created nor destroyed, we are but transformed. -- A Noa Harrison

8. Patricia Taxxon - Gelb / Rosa / Schwarz [Independent]

Born this side of the new millennium, Patricia Taxxon lays bare her creative journey through her sheer volume of output. She put out seven full-length records in the first half of 2020, and ten the year before—all available on Bandcamp, pay-what-you-want. Her bio puts it best: "I make music for different moods." Indeed, her work has such emotional dexterity, the most I feel comfortable saying of Taxxon, the person, is that she is, most endearingly, a huge music nerd with an expansive and challenging inner world.

With this entry, we recognize not one album but a trilogy, Das Triadische Ballett, after the eponymous Bauhaus ballet of a century prior. In general, the music of Geld, Rosa and Schwartz is more vibrant and playful than a lot of her work, which explores colder and darker places. (2019's momentous "Foley Artist" showcases her industrial and equally infectious side.) High points include Gelb's starry-eyed title track and opener, as well as the cozy carpet ride of "Fly" that closes Schwartz with its mantra: "Just know, I'll always be there." Really, you just gotta' dive into the deep end of her discography.

Patty's music betrays a winking self-consciousness, but there's something earnest, naive even, to her experimentation—apparent from the outsider-ish way she inhabits style. At times, it's airtight, at others, (forgive me), cringey, but it mostly works to her advantage. Perhaps one day, Taxxon will bless us with a masterpiece, but she's already given us so much to be grateful for. I promise that with each listen, Patty's worlds will expand and envelope. -- A Noa Harrison

7. Arca - KiCk i [XL]

Arca deserves every bit of praise she/it gets, from the nominations to the nods of her/its fans, old and new, as they surrender to her sonic sanctuaries. Like SOPHIE, Arca majestically transitioned from near-faceless girl-behind-the-mixer to international icon, crafting club music for the new order. The artist drafted a host of other badass babes for KiCk i's roster: her visionary pal Bjork ("Afterwards"), post-flamenco goddess Rosalía ("KLK"), and the great SOPHIE ("La Chíqui").

Now, the lead single "Nonbinary" left some fans in a cold sweat. Cavernous and cramped, it's driven by a taunting monologue about her/its worth—righteously rousing, just provocative. The rest of KiCk i demands a deluge of "yass queens"! Arca continues to find strength in her/its voice and lyrics, as in the defiant staccato of "Riquiquí": "Regenerated girl degenerate to generate heat in the light / Love in the face of fear / Fear in the face of god". The rich "Mequetrefe" and closer "No Queda Nada" reliably bring me to tears, as does the vaporous groove of "Time". Meanwhile, banger "KLK", in the Latin club-style neoperreo, is totalmente feroz.

As a diehard experimen-timist, I must admit I found Arca's first two records, Xen and Mutant, too weird, too alien for my ears. And while her 2017 self-titled release had its share of gems, it seemed to over-correct in favor of more palatable pop. With KiCk i, I'm completely sold. She/It hits the sweet spot and rides it 'til the very end. Arca proves herself/itself mistress of both sound design and song-craft. Squirming synths meet clattering percussion and barbed hooks, baited with juicy earworms. In trying times like these, sometimes you need something sweet and sour to snack on. -- A Noa Harrison

Note: Arca's hour-long single, "@@@@@", just as easily could have made our list for entirely different reasons.

6. Elysia Crampton - ORCORARA 2010 [PAN]

Of all the harrowing imagery we've seen this year, that of San Francisco's orange-red skies has stayed with me most. 2020 saw wildfires tear through the American west in yet another dry hot summer season that surely won't be the last. Looking to the past, native tribes of the area lit controlled fires to maintain the landscape for centuries, before disruption by European colonists.

Elysia Crampton Chuquimia's latest, ORCORARA 2010, is dedicated to Paul Sousa, an inmate firefighter, and Sage LaPena, a Native American herbalist. It's fitting for the American artist of Aymara descent (a native people of Bolivia), whose work positions the indigenous beside the postcolonial.

Crampton's most tender record to date stitches together Latin electronic, industrial, ambient, classical, and Andean folk music. Piano cascades over "Homeless (Q'ara)"; crackling fire permeates "Abolition (Infrared)"; indigenous percussion simmers and stomps throughout. With ORCORARA 2010, Crampton exposes both beauty and desolation as she delicately peels back the skin around history's connective tissues. -- Andrew Cox

5. Lyra Pramuk - Fountain [Bedroom Community]

Listening to Lyra Pramuk's debut album, I think about the importance of creative limitations. They go against the usual platitudes about imagination and direction in life: 'The possibilities are endless', 'Just Do It', etc. The idea of limitless possibilities is daunting—pushing us to exhaustion just to feel as if we're doing enough with our lives. It's legitimately dangerous to our mental health to continually test the uncharted waters of our imagination. The vastness of the universe and its infinite possibilities are just…too much.

On Fountain, Pramuk exercises one major creative limitation: her voice as the sole choice of instrument. A classically-trained vocalist, the artist contorts her vocals and processes it into snippets and drones to fill the soundscapes. Some might dismiss the concept as simplistic or gimmicky, but that would be a mistake. The wonder lies in how Pramuk tests the limits of her voice—unbound to words, traditional melodies, or other instruments. She creates great sonic and emotional complexity through laborious craftsmanship. Fountain is the sound of synapses healthily firing at full capacity. -- Andrew Cox

4. NNAMDÏ - BRAT [Sooper]

If you began a therapy session the way NNAMDÏ begins Brat—"Pick my naps in public, I'm a happy tree / I'm a Ross-painted pretty bitch, shout out Lil B….I don't know what this feeling means, my reflection screams / 'I don't like you, uninvite you, you're my allergy'/ Achoo!"—you'd probably get a concerned look, as would any honest therapy-goer in 2020. The song's title, "Flowers to My Demons", mirrors Rumi's poem, "The Guest House", which advises to accept gratefully every part of yourself, even the darkest ones. The song's mantra—"I need you, need something new"—is a recurring motif of Brat that typifies the album's central paradox, one of change and acceptance.

On Brat, jittery math pop meets cool crooner rap/R&B, often in pitched-up baby-boy falsetto (see cover). Throughout, the artist wrestles with identification and alienation from the self and the other—both, a faceless figure NNAMDÏ calls "you". While the album's mellow vibes merely soften the squirming discomfort within, at Brat's core can be found a deep and unshakeable okay-ness. The penultimate track, "It's OK" rides another mantra, itself a core therapeutic tenet: "There's no need to pretend / you're okay if you're not." It's a self-care anthem as potent as Ariana Grande's "Breathin".

Closer "Salut" begins as a surrender to the forces of nature but soon becomes a third mantra—"If it's meant to be, then it will be / So why won't you visit me". I accept this, but I don't accept this, ad nauseam. Of course, there's no happy resolution for the millennial. As with this year, we find ourselves left in the same bind we began in. -- A Noa Harrison

3. Desire Marea - Desire [Independent]

It starts with a distorted horn intro—epic, eerie, regal: a good summation of South African Desire Marea's debut album, which pushes the boundaries of club music to the limit. "Tavern Kween" resides in disco territory but lacks the easy melodic payoff. "Thokozani" drifts at first and then is propelled into an utterly euphoric breakbeat percussion blitz. Desire is marked by these stylistic shifts from song to song. Few albums cover as much ground across nine tracks as this record does. It's high art emboldened by the grimy underbellies of electronic and experimental styles. When Desire sings, it's as serene as Moses Sumney and as emphatic as ANOHNI. And the production only amplifies Marea's might.

"Studies in Black Trauma" ends the album and occupies a fourth of its running time. It's one of the most impressive experimental works I've heard in a long time—the climax everything else builds to. For several minutes, a demented voice overlays a brutal sonic assault, while the second half is the most calming, bubbly portion on the album. It's not so much a duality as it is 17 different modes of creative thought battling each other. These expressions of trauma hit so hard simply because they're so raw, so scattershot, and still so intentional. Desire is the perfect starting point to Marea's musical journey. -- Andrew Cox

2. Oneohtrix Point Never - Magic Oneohtrix Point Never [Warp]

You are now entering the ░ on 106.∞ ░ your host Daniel Lopatin ░ riding the carousel into a hypnogogic ░ cartwheels of color against checkerboard 'til the ░ oozing down ░ turn to hexagons and ░ SPLAT ░░ breathing room than ever before ░░ onslaught that is Garden of Delete ░ the slanted and precious Age Of ░░ cues from ░░ two film scores ░░ planes more dynamic and spatial ░░ pastoral if i do say so mys- ░░ jewel-encrusted dolphins riding the tsunami ░░ -cuse me, I ░░ of the pastoral ░░░ this "new age" ░░ so progressive ░░░ retro ░░ taking "The Long Road Home" ░░░ number three on the meta-pop hot 100 ░░ your trusty DJ ░░ spaces both cozy and ominous ░░ modesty hat ░░ influential and important and in- ░░ and in- ░░░ pfffftsk ░░░ -spired composers today ░░ just a regular guy ░░░ to say collaborating with The Weeknd constitutes "making it" ░░░ started from the bottom ░░░ -scapes on tape labels ░░ when I came up with vaporwave ░░░ very ether we breathe ░░ the song of your literal dreams ░░░ "No More Nightmares" ░░ -thing more than dreams ░░ anxieties manifest ░░░ not as something dangerous ░░ neutral grounds ░░ somewhere new ░░░ flipping through the stations ░░ "The Whether Channel" ░░ "N***as get froze, they all statues / She gon' get nutty for the cashew" ░░ misplaced ░░ severed holographic heads ░░ nostalgia without memory ░░ into the wishing well ░░ some serious interf- ░░ apologies ░░ inescapably personal experience ░░ I mean ░░ surfing the internet ░░ -ternet ░░ -rnet ░ intimately merge inner landscapes with our liminal ░░ digital ░░ it collage ░░ something vis- ░ -stallation ░░ nostalg- ░ so much a warning ░ even detect a glimmer of hope. -- A Noa Harrison

1. Pink Siifu - NEGRO [Independent]

Black artists have a long history of using the American flag in album art—Sly and the Family Stone, Ice Cube, OutKast—sparking conversation on the dire position of black people in the United States. In May of 2020, this conversation erupted in full force as the world watched in horror as a police officer knelt on a Black man's neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, killing him in broad daylight. George Floyd's murder, along with Breonna Taylor's, ignited protests in every major city in the US and many around the world, defined by police brutality, bold political action, and dialog at every level.

It may be a stretch to call Pink Siifu's NEGRO "prescient", but the record, which dropped two months before the inflammatory summer of protest, feels almost bound to soundtrack the revolution. Lines like "tell the police he can eat a dick" from "SMD" shows Pink Siifu echoing a tradition of artists like N.W.A, whose notorious "Fuck Tha Police" shaped a generation thirty years prior. Indeed, history repeats itself: cops kill black people. America systemically oppresses black people. NEGRO makes it abundantly clear that Pink Siifu, along with so many others, is fucking fuming.

NEGRO expresses this anger as a collage of almost unbearable noise. Pink Siifu delivers endlessly-quotable declarations and near-indecipherable verses over lo-fi beats that merge industrial music, hip-hop, and hardcore punk — each significant anti-establishment traditions. The album is punctuated by news clips, Blaxploitation film bytes, crushing distortion, jazzy flourishes, and occasional quietude. Its force simply cannot be reduced to individual tracks—20 in its < 40-minute runtime. In NEGRO resides powerful dissonance—there's a philosophy to its brashness, complexity to its simplicity, and loving to its venom.

Turned off by the album's sound? That's the point. You're not supposed to be comfortable in 2020. NEGRO speaks to a cultural moment characterized by hatred and fear, feelings that will forever boil over until Black trauma has been healed. And those who experience it know painfully well the magnitude of the work ahead—for anti-Blackness is woven into the very fabric of our nation's flag. -- Andrew Cox

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