Best Experimental Albums of 2023
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The 20 Best Experimental Albums of 2023

The best experimental albums of the year highlight the breadth of human expression and take listeners to heretofore unknown realms in music, pushing boundaries.

10. Jessica Ackerley, Kevin Cheli, Gahlord DeWald – Submerging Silently (Cacophonous Revival)

The opening track of Submerging Silently, “One”, begins like the sound of a beast awakening. Gahlord DeWald’s bass noodles around, looking for something to attach itself to, while Kevin Cheli’s percussion clatters away and Jessica Ackerley‘s fast, furious picking revs things up. It’s a slow-building introduction to a fascinating experimental project that shows off the improvisational acumen of these three brilliant musicians.

The recording of Submerging Silently took place in March 2022 in Honolulu, where Ackerley and DeWald are based, and Cheli happened to be visiting. Due to the COVID pandemic, it was the first time Ackerley had played with other musicians since moving to Hawaii from New York the previous year, and it’s entirely possible that this long absence from in-person collaboration resulted in such an intense, profoundly inspirational performance. The seven tracks, several stretching past the ten-minute mark, see the three musicians stepping out along seemingly infinite avenues. – Chris Ingalls

9. Deerhoof – Miracle-Level (Joyful Noise)

When DIY stalwarts Deerhoof decided to record an album in a studio for the first time in their 28-year career, it wasn’t the only radical decision they were making with their music. Having released 18 albums of English-language noise pop, the prolific group have switched to Japanese for Miracle-Level, which extols the virtues of escapism through experimental rock songs that don’t ignore the nightmarish severity of the obverse of dreaming. 

Deerhoof have experimented with different styles throughout their career, and drawing inspiration from Japanese culture is nothing new for them. However, Miracle-Level is sung entirely in front person Satomi Matsuzaki’s native tongue. This could feel like the group are challenging the fans they’ve accrued through their English language back catalogue. However, “challenging” is not a word that belongs in a review of Miracle-Level, thanks to uncluttered production, thoughtful songwriting, and compositional immediacy that flit between poppy adult contemporary played with lounge-band indifference and full-throttle math rock. – Jay Honeycomb

8. Radian – Distorted Beams (Thrill Jockey)

Austrian experimentalists Radian have quite a unique specialty. They can take various unmusical elements, process them through different studio toys, and stitch them all together in a way that resembles not only pieces of music but music that can sound simultaneously clinical and suspenseful. Between the smatterings of tape hiss, electronic clicks, struck blunt objects, and a drum kit that can sound like a pile of cardboard boxes tumbling over, the trio of Martin Brandlmayr, Martin Siewert, and John Norman have long known how to mix the perfect combination of ghostly tones and odd noises.

Listen to their latest album, Distorted Rooms, just once, and it will sound too much like a flailing kitchen sink experiment. But if you place just a little faith in Radian, the simple grooves and arcane sounds will start to coalesce into a musical style that, while identifiable, works like hell to avoid categorization. Being on the Thrill Jockey label, comparisons to American post-rock bands are not out of place. But then you’d have to consider the glitch and industrial influences and the small but palatable acknowledgments of Aphex Twin and Paul Lansky. So mash that all together, and that’s the style with Radian. – John Garratt

7. Jessica Pavone – Clamor (Out of Your Head)

Jessica Pavone‘s new string ensemble composition, Clamor, began life as Pavone wondered about the origins of the see-saw after writing a swaying, back-and-forth rhythm. This led her to discover that the see-saw was invented by Korean women – who weren’t allowed to leave their homes – to see the world outside. The inventions of women and how they work around societal barriers and norms became the basis for her latest work, Clamor.

Acting primarily as a composer as well as a solo violist on two of the record’s four movements, Pavone is joined, exclusively and likely not coincidentally, by women and nonbinary musicians on Clamor. The four movements are all named after female inventions that were created to overcome barriers and aid in creating a sense of freedom. “Neolttwigi”, the 17th-century see-saw, represents the first movement, which takes the form of swaying and droning, gradually building in power and majesty, at one point executed as blocks of sound, solid and seemingly impenetrable. The piece eventually ends in an all-consuming, mesmerizing wall of noise. – Chris Ingalls

6. SABIWA – Island no​.​16 – Memories of Future Landscapes (Phantom Limb)

SABIWA, who was born in Taiwan, has an academic musical background and now makes Berlin her home, folds the sounds of her birth country’s various ethnic groups into odd, elastic concréte. Inspired by an imagined Island where spoken word, gender, and species identity are all blurred or non-existent, the music here tugs the traditional into unforeseen places.

While SABIWA has certainly included hints of her birth country’s music into some of her other recordings, unlike releases such as DaBa, with its pop leanings, or her self-titled debut from 2018, an album that focuses on brief, jittery impulses, Island no​.​16 – Memories of Future Landscapes relies on Taiwan’s natural beauty as well as its traditions for an album that defies comfortable categorization and demands repeated listening. Crucially, it is also music created by someone who hears unknown physical realms in sounds with which she grew up. It’s the familiar dressed up as the imagined. – Bruce Miller

5. JOBS – Soft Sounds (Ramp Local)

Brooklyn-based quartet JOBS craft an intense, fascinating, and unpredictable sound. It’s rare to encounter this particular brand of lightning in a bottle, and with Soft Sounds, JOBS have done it. Again. Soft Sounds is their fourth LP and the first since Endless Birthdays (2020). While they don’t seem to be doing anything remarkably different this time, they are doing it much better and with much more conviction. All of their albums deserve attention and a large fan base, but JOBS are getting better with every new record, and as a result, Soft Sounds may be their best work yet. Time away from each other may have helped, and time with other musicians, including solo projects, has likely ignited creative juices.

“Give audiences a way into the bizarre and a way out of the normal.” This is written on JOBS’ Bandcamp site and could easily be an overarching ethos for the foursome as they continue to create music that rattles the listener out of complacency, but never in a way that seems threatening or harmful. With Soft Sounds, JOBS guide us out of predictability and into previously unknown musical avenues, lush with possibilities. – Chris Ingalls

4. Explosions in the Sky – End (Temporary Residence)

End was promoted as the conclusion to a sequence starting with Explosions in the Sky’s debut, How Strange, Innocence (2000). Or is it merely a meditation on endings? Ambiguity aside, this is not their final album. If anything, End displays the enduring strengths of Explosions in the Sky in peak form. Post-rock has always been a capacious genre, and Explosions have largely occupied a category of one, being both minimalist (no vocals) and maximalist (three guitars) at once. Miraculously, they have managed to legitimate the rock soundtrack as an art form. Against this backdrop, End represents a culmination, blending the electronica of their recent work (The Wilderness) with the intricate guitar interplay of their best albums (The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place). The urgent, militant drumming of Chris Hrasky, like a heartbeat, also stands out. Their first album in 7 years, End is predictable in a good way – epic, cathartic, conclusive. – Christopher J. Lee

3. Youth Lagoon – Heaven Is a Junkyard (Fat Possum)

Given the location and the stories told, there is a tintype mythmaking quality to some of the tracks on Youth Lagoon‘s Heaven Is a Junkyard in the manner of Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. This album is also about the American West, as written by Annie Proulx. Powers has been compared to the late Daniel Johnston, and this analogy makes sense given the mutual traits of sincerity and vulnerability heard in their vocals. From a musical standpoint, I would further nominate Kurt Wagner of Lambchop as another comparison – another regional artist who has consistently experimented with his sound to reinvent how his hometown’s musical traditions are understood, in his case, Nashville. Both Powers and Wagner demonstrate a strong identification with their respective geographies while resisting established conformities that could impair their artistic visions. – Christopher J. Lee

2. Liturgy – 93696 (Thrill Jockey)

Already noted for their determination to challenge themselves and their listeners, Liturgy’s 93696 shows them refusing to settle for less when more is possible. The LP weighs in at nearly 80 minutes, and its numerological conceit does make one suspect even the song lengths might be perfectly poised elements in some delicately balanced scheme. In the same way that Origin of the Alimonies was divided into formal acts, this record is topped and tailed by instrumentals, with six other instrumentals dividing the songs with lyrics into pairs, except “Antigone II” which stands alone. The sections of 93696 are further demarcated by instrumentals christened to represent Hunt-Hendrix’s four laws: “Angel of Sovereignty”, “Angel of Hierarchy”, “Angel of Emancipation”, and “Angel of Individuation”.

Faced with music so singular and unique, my dearest hope is that Liturgy’s Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix continues to reject comfortable acceptance and to share these missives from whatever wild land she is traversing. Here’s to life as a permanent revolution. – Nick Soulsby

1. Water From Your Eyes – Everyone’s Crushed (Matador)

Young bands can do anything, so why not try everything? It’s a waste of career position to do otherwise. Rachel Brown and Nate Amos understand this opportunity intuitively or self-consciously (it’s hard to say), but the result is a compelling set of compositional experiments on Everyone’s Crushed, their debut on Matador. The unpredictable range on this LP will not be to everyone’s taste. The lovely slow jam of “Remember Not My Name” and the melancholia of “14” sharply contrast with the stressful electronica of “Barley” and the anxiety-driven title track “Everyone’s Crushed”.

Somehow, it all works. There is an element of “low theory” – a concept that privileges “failure” as a means of resisting mainstream forms of “success” – to the proceedings. Regardless, it’s inspiring to hear a duo embrace a bricolage ethos with abandon to create neo-Dadaist collages of sound and attitude. Everyone’s Crushed reflects our frenzied times. It feels singular. – Christopher J. Lee