Best Experimental Albums of 2023
Image by BUMIPUTRA from Pixabay

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.

Editor’s Note: Click on the album covers to listen to the music.

20. Mats Gustafsson and Joachim Nordwall – THEIR POWER REACHED ACROSS SPACE AND TIME-TO DEFY THEM WAS DEATH-OR WORSE (Thrill Jockey)

Mats Gustafsson and Joachim Nordwall‘s THEIR POWER REACHED ACROSS SPACE AND TIME-TO DEFY THEM WAS DEATH-OR WORSE may look like a pretentiously bookish title, but it’s also a strangely appropriate one. Sure, the music occupies a certain amount of “space”. What form of recorded music doesn’t? It also has a runtime of a little over 39 minutes. But apart from being broken into eight tracks, the music is not measured in any identifiable way. When listening to the album, one can easily entertain the notion that time is not passing in any recognizable way. As the two musicians spur one another along with strange sounds and clicks that could be used for vamps under other more normal circumstances, you’ll hear something outside the usual confines of avant-garde free-jazz. If that strikes you as odd, then that should give you at least a starting idea of just how naked and impressionistic THEIR POWER REACHED ACROSS SPACE AND TIME-TO DEFY THEM WAS DEATH-OR WORSE truly is. – John Garratt

19. Colleen – Le Jour et la Nuit du Ré​el (Thrill Jockey)

Colleen‘s Le Jour et la Nuit du Ré​el, a double LP of solo instrumental suites composed on a Moog synth and all manner of analog delay. At times relentlessly dense and at others wistful, her back catalog at least hints at what’s on display here. All three movements of opener “Subterranean” feature sometimes frantic flicks of the keys, a soundtrack to a panicked escape on foot, becoming lighter with each pass. The two movements of “The Long Wait” seem to shed colors as the tracks pass.

Schlott’s winks in pop’s general direction find a place here as well. “To Hold and be Held’s” second movement sounds almost like an Auto-Tuned voice, while “Mon Coeur” repeats an ascending, then descending melody that, with some tweaks, might underpin some synthetic Kylie Minogue track fit for a boutique clothing store PA. Not only does Schlott re-imagine each track movement by movement, but over the course of the album, the day becomes night; tracks become lullabies for drifting away. The five movements of “Les Parenthèses Enchantées” feel like gentle nudges or whispers. – Bruce Miller

18. Grails – Anches En Maat (Temporary Residence)

In many ways, Anches En Maat is a bold new step for Grails, nearly 25 years into their career. In many others, it’s a return to form despite being sonically very different. Grails do what they want when they want. They are essentially guys in a room full of musical tools, grabbing whatever strikes their fancy and stitching sounds together in any way that strikes their fancy. They bring together an unusual palette of 1970s progressive rock, instrumental soundtracks, and visionary music from all over the world to create a unique psychedelic stew that is strictly their own.

While Anches en Maat owes a philosophical allegiance to the earliest Grails’ records, it borrows even more heavily from Emil Amos’ side projects – Lilacs & Champagne, the Holy Sons, and, most recently, under his own name. In terms of sound, style, and overall vibe, Anches en Maat is more in keeping with Amos’ exquisite Zone Black from this year, with him recreating the strange, beyond-obscure world of 1970s library music and exploitation soundtracks. There’s a similar thematic quality to Anches en Maat’s melodic elements, which is made surreal and evocative with artful production. – J. Simpson

17. Animal Hospital – Shelf Life (Sipsman)

I would start with calling it a rock record,” says Kevin Micka of his latest project under the moniker Animal Hospital. Nobody would disagree with that. Keyboards and samples were more of the focus on previous albums, but this time around, Micka takes a more aggressive, guitar-heavy swagger on Shelf Life, his first full-length album since 2020. The opening track, “Fuselage”, bears that out. Opening with the thumping of toms, distorted electronics, acoustic guitar fingerpicking, and wordless crooning, there’s plenty for the listener to grab onto, but it packs a more powerful punch than Shelf Life’s predecessors.

Shelf Life shows us that Kevin Micka is highly skilled at creating a variety of moods but also doing so in an eclectic and seemingly natural way. The record works as compelling, brilliant post-rock but also an exercise in how to effectively break all the rules. – Chris Ingalls

16. Faten Kanaan – Afterpoem (Fire)

Faten Kanaan’s musical molting feels more organic than the repetition found in Reich or Glass; her music doesn’t rely upon an unwavering framework for effect, as Tony Conrad and LaMonte Young have done. Instead, her’s is a minimalism that channels a not-so-odd combination of Hildegard von Bingen’s angelic choral compositions, Polish film composer Zbigniew Preisner’s drones, and the space Ryuichi Sakamoto so purposefully leaves in his piano playing. In general, Kanaan drops her listeners off down the street from where she’s picked us up. We may recognize the surroundings, but something feels different about where we find ourselves by the time her music’s ritual magic has achieved silence. – Bruce Miller

15. Stephanie Lamprea – 14 R​é​citations (New Focus Recordings)

Stephanie Lamprea has nowhere to hide. In early 2022, she released Quaking Aspen, a stunning collection that featured her vocals accompanied by electronics, percussion, and spoken recitations by other artists. With her new album, she tackles a thorny piece for solo vocal and nobody else. What makes it even more challenging is that 14 R​é​citations – a concert-length avant-garde song cycle for unaccompanied female voice – abandons traditional use of text and, to quote the press materials, “set phonemes and vocal sounds with atonality, extended vocal techniques, puzzles, and repetitions”.

Composed in 1977 and 1978 by Georges Aperghis, 14 R​é​citations shows a woman attempting to speak but is not understood. The performer must demonstrate this frustrating trauma. The recording, performed in Glasgow, where Lamprea is partly based, is absolutely pristine, unadorned by any accompaniment. The listener can hear Lamprea as clearly as a bell, and her interpretation of the trauma is perfect. This is not simply music; it’s performance art of the highest caliber. There is singing, shouting, screaming, laughing, all manner of vocal emotion. – Chris Ingalls

14. Requiem – Populist Agendas (Mutineer)

POPulist Agendas sees Requiem experimenting beyond the usual post-rock drones, as is in the gorgeous “Accelerated Dreaming”, where clipped guitars and off-kilter percussion give off an air of dreamy, experimental progressive rock. The urgent “Humane Technology” is reminiscent of Music For the Masses-era Depeche Mode, with its doom-laden dance beats. “Our Common Welfare”, which closes the album, seems almost dreamily hopeful, with chimes and synths offering an almost hymn-like atmosphere, and even when the drums come crashing in – as they always seem to do – the result is a bit of droning, post-rock with a touch of soulful optimism. – Chris Ingalls

13. Natural Information Society – Since Time Is Gravity (eremite)

The music Joshua Abrams makes with his Natural Information Society is at once inviting, spell-inducing, and consciousness-provoking. It’s a kind of legitimate “world” music with connections to Don Cherry’s sonic globetrotting, Khahil El’Zabar’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, and other musicians who might have jazz impulses but ultimately pull listeners towards a 21st-century throb as much indebted to funk, trance, or the Black church as it is swing. Think Makaya McCraven or Jeff Parker’s Mondays at the Enfield Tennis Academy.

Since Time Is Gravity, Natural Information Society’s latest, splits the ground between 2019’s Mandatory Reality, easily the ensemble’s most meditative release, and 2021’s Descension (Out of Our Constrictions), perhaps their most chaotic record, thanks in no small part to the snake-charmer-on-meth soprano sax playing of guest Evan Parker. But like every album they drop, there’s the kind of growth that creates subtle changes in the music without anything remotely jarring. – Bruce Miller

12. Pakasteet – Taas kerran, äkkiä (Bafe’s Factory)

In the hands of Hannu Saha, the kantele–a five-stringed lap harp from Finland with a history that may span millennia–is as contemporary an instrument as it is traditional, whether in one of his solo compositions or in collaboration with other artists. Electronic duo Pakasteet, meanwhile, does work that spans both genres and media. Made up of musician and producer Jussi Lehtisalo and film director and visual artist Mika Taanila, Pakasteet make avant-garde sound art with synths, tapes, and the odd zither, among other things. On Taas kerran, äkkiäSaha and Pakasteet bring their complementary styles of innovation together in making five electrifying tracks, each one a unique permutation of elements old and new. The results are dazzling. – Adriane Pontecorvo

11. Richard Sears – Appear to Fade (figureight)

American-born, Paris-based pianist Richard Sears isn’t happy with simply creating arresting jazz and classical-inspired melodies. For him, processed-based music can also yield stunning and satisfying results. Collaboration also plays a hand in the process, as is the case with his fantastic new album, Appear to Fade.

Sears performed a series of compositions and improvisations on solo piano over a period, recorded and processed by producer Ari Chersky. Over several months, the piano recordings were edited down by Sears and Chersky using magnetic tape loops and analog production tools. This resulted in collages and soundscapes, which gives Appear to Fade its unique sound. – Chris Ingalls