Image by BUMIPUTRA from Pixabay

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.

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 NEGROprescient”, 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

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay