best-experimental-albums-2020

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The 15 Best Experimental Albums of 2020

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.

10. Moor Mother – Circuit City [Don Giovanni]

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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]

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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]

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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]

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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]

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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

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