The Best Avant-Garde and Experimental Music of 2017

The personal is political, the local is global, and privacy is passé. Our musical experimenters are mere soldiers, fighting the good fight in the name of a brighter and weirder tomorrow.

What can we say about the state of experimental music in 2017? This year, I won’t pretend I’m equipped to answer such a question. My vague intuition is this: the music world—not to be mistaken for the music business—is as wide open, as conscious and as self-conscious as ever.

Recorded music history has been conveniently digitized and cataloged, available now on your favorite streaming service. The map of musical influence shows arrows going every which direction, circling back on themselves, stretching tautly into the future. Regional scenes have given way to global Internet microgenres, which have in turn dissolved to fill the cracks in our musical past. Music has never been harder to classify, and that is, I think, a good thing.

By the way, since when has “experimental music” been something even remotely definable? The spirit of the avant-garde is so pervasive in today’s art, it’s almost unworthy of mention. No one can deny the place of the avant-garde in pop, and the converse shouldn’t be so hard to swallow.

I want to point out that pure experimentation—the kind of noisemaking most removed from what we consider “music”, with a tune and a pulse—hardly registers on this list. Instead, what we have is a collection of albums that push known conventions to the limits, or redraw said limits. Tape music, electroacoustic, noise—these styles tend to revel in form rather than make cultural or political statements. That’s all well and good, but I’ve tried to narrow this list down to a selection of records that say something relevant to our current climate. It’s my bias to bear, and yours to endure, at least until you click yourself into some .

Well, if I’m unable to answer our initial question, perhaps it’s not my place to pose a much broader one… but I’ll do it anyway. What can we say about the state of media in 2017? Let’s go with this: the personal is political, the local is global, and privacy is passé. And our musical experimenters, the few on this list and the rest, are mere soldiers, fighting the good fight in the name of a brighter and weirder tomorrow.

10. Nmesh – Pharma (Orange Milk)

Don’t Pigeonhole Nmesh as Vaporwave. At least, that’s what the Bandcamp Daily article on the album implores. And the Internet’s most beloved music depot would know, after all, as the primary residence of Pharma‘s label, Orange Milk, and really the majority of (sorry) meta-wave music. In the piece, Nmesh, or Alex Koenig, share his mixed feelings toward the “A E S T H E T I C” and its surrounding community. And that’s understandable. The degree of critical analysis and strong emotion expended on Vaporwave is itself worthy of critical analysis and strong emotion. We revel in its post-irony, its love-hate relationship with capital. But more and more, it’s evident just how elusive and disparate vaporwave’s intentions may be.

So while my gut response to this is, can it, guys, this is vaporwave through and through, my subsequent response is, let’s all just have a day off. It’s tempting with an behemoth like this to unpack the spectrum of cultural attitudes within. But maybe, just this once, can we not?

Perhaps Pharma is about information overload, misplaced nostalgia, and digital decay—if those phrases mean anything. But the fragments are so fleeting, the tone so transient, it’s hard to say if the album embodies this paralytic postmodern ambivalence, or just sidesteps it altogether. Listen to this thing. It’s a goddamn psychedelic album. Yes, it concerns itself with memory, but these memories are indelibly glossed over, redacted, and memed into a higher dimension. This is your brain on drugs in 2017. It doesn’t have to make sense.

9. James Holden & The Animal Spirits – The Animal Spirits (Border Community)

By 2071, civilization faced a global panic. Over a half-century prior, the mighty telecom monopoly Comcastica Ltd. swallowed up first the tech giants, then the regulatory bodies meant to keep their power in check. Following the dissolution of the United States and EU, the corporation in effect stood as a nation. With its massively horizontal integration, Comcastica now exercised total control over not only the media outlets, but also the means of media production. It didn’t help that all digital infrastructure collapsed decades before, and marauders robbed the clouds of all remaining data. What primitive “art” remained served little function to the 99% of humanity in poverty or servitude.

Naturally, it came as a great shock when valiant and free-thinking Englishman James of Holden assembled a clandestine faction known as the Animal Spirits to reconstitute electronic dance music from the Free Information Age, using analog instruments in addition to an ancient synth believed to sit deep in a underground temple. According to lore, Holden achieved the EDM sound from partially reconstructed memories of the few remaining elders alive before the Great Wipe. These memories, it seems, had been corrupted with Krautrock, prog, ambient, minimalism, and puzzlingly, spiritual jazz music scripts. The result, named after the shadowy Animal Spirits, produced in these elders states of ecstasy. They found the work even more “real” than the electronic music their youth—though their sense of reality had undergone a recent upgrade for optimum simulation misrecognition. Still, in this automaton’s mind, The Animal Spirits constitutes one of the most daring, and only, electronic music relics of the 2070s.

8. Lovozero – Moroka (Full of Nothing)

“[T]he only songs I can remember are folk songs. When it comes to the necessity to turn to exploring Russianness at the moment, I can only acknowledge the fact that it is happening.” – Анастасия Толчнева

As I listen to the full-length debut Moroka by Lovozero, Russian artist Анастасия Толчнева, there’s an aching urge to understand what she’s saying—to understand the kind of life she’s lived that led her to make these specific songs at this specific time. More than usual, I feel at a loss to convey the essence of this work, which I’m not supposed to say. Recently, I’ve had greater difficulty ascribing poetry to sound—perhaps a personal problem or perhaps something larger in music (but probably the first one). I can only use the words “ethereal” or “expansive” so many times before I start to wonder why I even bother. Biographical information can often be the most potent feature of music journalism, but in Lovozero’s case, it’s scarce, and the language barrier further complicates things. Her Bandcamp does tell us she’s made sound art in the realms of installation and dance, which feels very fitting.

At the last-minute, I actually substituted Moroka for Clark’s Death Peak, an album not so different. They’re both deeply layered melting pots of electronic, pop and classical lineages—both composed of static space ice coating propulsive planetary tumult. Neither is more worthy of a spot on the list from a purely musical perspective, but in the end, a Russian woman for an Anglo man felt like an acceptable trade. I recommend Moroka with my whole heart—it’s adventurous, mysterious, personal and highly tactile. I hope you enjoy it as I much as I do, and maybe you’ll find something to say about it too.

7. Blanck Mass – World Eater (Sacred Bones)

With his latestalbum, Blanck Mass—or, John Benjamin Power of Fuck Buttons—drags us deeper into the terrestrial fissure created by 2015’s Dumb Flesh. The threshold of this World, titled “John Doe’s Carnival of Error”, well foretells what lurks beneath the surface: a funhouse, yes, but one fearsome and faceless. As we enter this subterranean lair, our eyes adjust to the surroundings: industrial instruments of unknown function, shifting holographic forms—a stark contrast to the damp, rocky enclosure. We never glimpse the man directly—he’s already vanished—and we’re left to his devices. It purrs and gulps along, then shudders and screeches violently, then settles once more. At points, are those…? Human voices, moaning a language not so distant from our own. Souls trapped in the machinery, cast as friends and lovers, saints and sinners in this eternal production. We sneer as their cries echo louder and clearer. Sheets of dirt and dross rain from above. Clench our fangs in a grimace, dig our claws into the floor. It feels good to withstand this cascade. It makes us stronger. At once, a sweet vaporous warmth overtakes us, and we become drowsy, eyelids aflutter as if waking from the strangest dream. But before this consciousness escapes us, a powerful chemical surges through our blood, and we gaze upward in formation. Where there was once sheer blackness, a tiny crack now bares a spot of light: the full moon. The “Hive Mind” will carry us back to our leader. We let out a droning, holy howl and ascend as a pack, aware now we too are on the prowl.

6. MIKE – May God Bless Your Hustle (self-release)

Boom bap, hazy half-venues, turning on your phone recorder at the perfect moment, MF DOOM, Tomkins Square Park, spending the day only 85% conscious, 150-year-old poets, some form of weed, collabs on collabs, bathrooms plastered with graffiti, ADHD, Apple computers, breezy faraway beaches, another form of weed, the year 1967 in soul music, kicking back, Africa, waiting for the M train, just phases, feeling alone in a crowd, feeling crowded when alone, Wu-Tang Clan, Queens, an unrestricted entitlement to sample, this whole city, a lone 10-year-old shooting hoops on a fenced-in full-court in December, LSD or something close to it, survivalist swag, those days when everything seems to half-break your heart but you can’t put your finger on why, Zig-Zags, paper, horns, Bandcamp, the looming need for savings, the naysayers, Earl Sweatshirt, Puerto Rico, Momma, GOD, all caps, Papa, reverb, last Christmas, competition from too young an age, growing up too fast, Bon Iver probably, the grind, all kinds of bread, vacant lots full of secrets, some dedicated guy’s music blog, Pitchfork, overlong showers, a national mental health crisis, being out a phone charger, your version of Harlem, US History class, a son’s love.

The sum of these things fails to capture this fresh voice—but it’s an OK approximation.

5. Luiza Lian – Oyá Tempo (Selo Risco)

The combination of high and low culture in music is no longer anything remarkable. “Art pop” would seem to reflect this fact, though few oscillate between extremes as high and low as Luiza Lian does in Oyá Tempo. The contradiction is evident even from the album cover, an 8-bit image of an urban landscape foregrounded by a Greek marble statue. Likewise, mixed in the complex compositional web are traces of more disposable musics, vitally, vaporwave—perhaps the style most committed to its own disintegration. But Oyá Tempo was made to last, evolving from a poetry collection to a multimedia project, complete with an album, a movie and an animated site. The São Paulo artist told Noisey that the lyrics of her second album contemplate the spirits of our online past, decision trails burned into electronic record.

A great rift exists between the vocals and the rhythms that support it. Lian’s voice, clear as crystal, seems angelic (and a little demonic), while the contributions of producer Charles Tixier sound sloppy and artfully aloof. This mixture creates a unique and disturbing beauty. Even in its lighter moments is an oppressive darkness, ghosts lurking just out of sight.

Only 25 minutes and eight songs in total, Oyá Tempo should be heard/seen in a single sitting to appreciate the extent of its eclecticism. But an analysis of its complexion or the contents of its stomach shouldn’t be necessary. You don’t need to know art pop or vaporwave or Vanguarda paulista or funk carioca to enjoy this album… though a little Portuguese might help.

4. Iglooghost – Neō Wax Bloom (Brainfeeder)

“It’s weird that a lot of journalists are saying that this is a concept album because all this stuff actually happened.”.
Seamus Malliagh

Ch. 1: Pale Eyes – Seamus is tending to his tomato plants when he spots the gelatinous worm, Xiangjiao, perched upon a stalk. “It’s happening again,” the worm communicates to him.
Ch. 2: Super Ink Burst – The portal opens up before Seamus, and all the invisible colors begin to spill out into his garden. He can see inside, and all the way around. The crater left by the giant eyeball crash-landing is even vaster than the blind witch Lummo let on.
Ch. 3: Bug Thief – Ahh, Uso—a trickster in disguise. Yet this time he reveals himself in full. The tune whistles down from the swirling heavens. Seamus can sense the scarabs changing colors and forms..
Ch. 4: Sōlar Blade – Starlight reflects off the gathering pink clouds, casting a fiery glow across the plains and valleys. All life forms are now buzzing to this new frequency.
Ch. 5: White Gum – Mamu is in trouble without a doubt, the handiwork of an all-knowing, chaotic overseer. The vibrations fold in on themselves, and Seamus is blinded by their force. The watering can falls from his hand.
Ch. 6: Purity Shards – A deafening silence overtakes Mamu, sucking vibrations even from beyond the opening of the portal to Earth. Time has been shocked into a standstill. The kaleidoscopic scarabs begin to pitter-patter for the mountain with a collective urgency.
Ch. 7: Zen Champ – Even the angels atop the mountain cannot believe their eyes. The chaotic force of vision has infected the balance with total uncertainty. The angels disperse upward into the mist. They’re lucky.
Ch. 8: Infinite Mint (feat. Cuushe) – Won’t somebody, anybody, flatten out this expanded dimension? O mighty Eyes, return us! A voice softer than the stillest wind hums the tune deep beneath the crust. It can be felt, and the bugs scatter with explosive energy.
Ch. 9: Teal Yomi / Olivine (feat. Mr. Yote) – “It’s so strange. Can’t you see?” it asks. The pink mist burns away as Yomi descends from high. For the first time, the eyes swivel in their immovable sockets.
Ch. 10: Peanut Choker – Seamus still cannot see, but he can feel, stronger than before. He grits his teeth and a powerful grinding resounds through Mamu. The crust begins to tremble. The tune is deafening now.
Ch. 11: Göd Grid – The eyes lift off the ground, pause, and beam through the portal with a flash that chars Mamu in bright white. Seamus regains his sight as the portal seals. Xiangjiao lies motionless and eyeless atop the flowerbed.

3. Circuit des Yeux – Reaching for Indigo (Drag City)

Much has been made of this remarkable album’s backstory: how it was inspired by a mysterious moment of physically debilitating epiphany in Haley Fohr’s life which, among other things, left her seeing colours with a painful intensity for several months. [The Quietus] Fohr, a powerful baritone with four octave range, is a great singer: a torrential force which can potentially overtake anyone in the vicinity. [Drowned in Sound] Several songs fold her voice into repetitive string and keyboard figures and swinging rhythms played by members of Bitchin Bajas, Natural Information Society, Matchess and Spires That In The Sunset Rise. [Dusted] The musicians excel at creating a grand, expressive sound from a seemingly limited palette—early highlight “Black Fly” is a mini spaghetti Western-esque epic that begins with stately mandolin strumming and gradually builds up squirming synths and crashing drums, and ends up with strings that buzz exactly like insects. [Allmusic] Every chapter is fast-paced fantasy, with every song transition coming at the apex of highest tension. [The Skinny] “Philo” is overtly minimalist, resembling Terry Riley or La Monte Young piano works, whereas “A Story Of This World Part II” (referring back to Part I, on Fohr’s 2015 album In Plain Speech) is pure post-punk, a jam with a propulsion that makes it feel longer than it is. [Tiny Mixtapes] Even when Fohr steps away from the microphone—as she does through most of “A Story Of This World Part II”‘s psychedelic storm—the world she crafts feels entirely based around the slow, heady cadence of her baritone. [Pitchfork] Fohr details her cathartic experience with a smothering array of droning textures and clashing orchestral elements, where she succeeds at making sense out of her cosmic encounter. [No Ripcord]

2. Colin Stetson – All This I Do for Glory (52HZ)

Colin hums and wails songs of the ancients

Forging human pattern recognition

Death and devotion our entertainment

Religious practice Colin’s affliction

The man whittles twigs to line the trenches

Elephantine murmurs hush mousy might

Overtones knotted into the clinches

One man in the ring creates that much light

His spindrift programmed, a cache to refresh

His fires reminders we’re not alone

Brazen woodwinds screaming sear hair from flesh

Dance floor high beams streaming strip flesh from bone

Hum and wail, Colin, tell us the story

Breathe once more all that you’ve done for glory

1. Kirin J Callinan – Bravado (Terrible )

Nobody gotta leave tonight

Just another song about drugs

Everybody can believe tonight

Just another song about drugs

…thus begins the avant-garde party anthem of the year, “S. A. D.” by Aussie artist Kirin J Callinan. It’s a walking contradiction, depicting the dark side of the druggie lifestyle while sincerely embracing it. It mocks EDM artifice while gleefully appropriating it. With its squeaky-clean production, pitch-up vocals, swells and drops, “S. A. D” is undeniable rock candy. Yet the regular key changes and exaggerated energy shifts make it, well, really strange.

Track after track, Callinan makes a sport out of reconciling these contradictions. The artist carries pop tropes to their logical conclusion, which should result in flimsy satire—were Callinan not an impossibly earnest and expressive songwriter. Believe it or not, his persona—a calculated sum of, say, Mike Patton, Bruce Springsteen and Riff Raff—oozes of sincerity, of a commitment to a life of conscientious audacity. Call it “an act”, but Bravado comes closer to universal truth than much of the introverted soul-excavation music concerned with its “own truth”.

With Bravado, Callinan is clearly unafraid to ask for help, enlisting a full ensemble of collaborators: major players on the Australian circuit, Alex Cameron and Connan Mockasin, as well as North Americans Owen Pallett, Mac DeMarco and Weyes Blood on “Friend of Lindy Morrison” alone.

Despite the many voices and liberal stylistic shifts, the album achieves strong thematic consistency, tackling the notion of ego at the smallest and largest scale. It’s so packed regional name-drops and multicultural optimism, the whole thing feels like an ode to globalization. The title track and finale, with its hook “it was all bravado,” encapsulates the Bravado‘s prevailing message: Bold self-discovery is earned in the face of fragile masculinity. And if the lads can’t get down with that, they can bugger right off.

Mixtape 1: Horse Lords – Mixtape IV (Northern Spy)

Side 1: “Stay on It” – Did you know the composer of “Stay on It” was Julius Eastman? Did you know Eastman was a gay black man with ties to the avant-garde classical, minimalist and New York underground scenes of the 1970s? Did you know Eastman has experienced a notable revival in recent years? Does this revival signify a celebration of a unique lived experience or a fetishization of the Other, or both? Did you know Horse Lords covers “Stay on It” on their new mixtape? Did you know Horse Lords is a virtuosic experimental quartet of white guys from Baltimore? Does it matter that Julius Eastman was black, or that the Horse Lords are white? Does Horse Lords effectively embody the spirit of this work? Does the work even have a spirit? Does it make sense for Horse Lords to take the rock and free jazz latent in Eastman’s composition and crank it up a few notches? Does the soulful spoken word intro by what sounds a black man in Horse Lords’ version grant it greater authenticity? Does authenticity even matter here? Do these questions affect how we should listen to this piece?

Side 2: “Remember the Future” – Are the Horse Lords for sport? And what kind of cock-a-doodle do they do? Well, they put the pun in punk, and the punk in spelunking. They put the petal to the kettle, a sick mix of drip-drop hip-hop licks and drunk funk. Horse Lords skronk up, down and sideways, then pause for tit for tat chit-chat, the proverbial dilly-dally with Silly sally. Call it flim-flam, but this flibbertigibbet riff-raff produce some serious whatchamacallit thingamajigs. At the intersection of hubbub, hoopla and hullabaloo, they 22 skidoo and leave the last one standing. Meant to bamboozle, Remember the Future” is a perusal of the poodle piddle puddle—the whole kitten caboodle, no need for Metamucil. At their mortal core, their portal door, the Horse Lords accord porn mores. With their vorpal sword, they chortle many a morsel. In other words… bang bang bing bong thump tsk tsk tsk honk bump tsk clunk beep beep beeeeep burble clink whir boop rumble rattle ding ding ding Hooooorse Looooords!

Mixtape 2: More ?Sugar – Greatest Summer Ever (andtime)

After gorging myself for months on this candy mountain of a mixtape, I made a public plea: “Who’s behind this madness, and where do you come from?” A day later, a message sat in my inbox, subject line “lol hey”. It read:

hi im the one making all the more?sugar stuff
it’s whatever really

…That clears things up. I asked about the concept, and for any biographical info they felt comfortable sharing. She began:

GSE was me taking the whole concept of m?s to an extreme
so basically nightcore clicked w me due to the “art nightcore” scene (nxc) that’s been a thing on soundcloud for a while and as a giant fuck you to everyone who just considers nightcore “sped up music”

Gotcha. Oh, she threw in a bio—hi i’m claudia i’m russian i’m 15one of the things people know me for is having like 100 fuckin aliases and just releasing shit lowkey on random pages scattered across the net so i really can’t say i identify w a concrete scene. Though she did mention she’s one of 30-some parents to the “glorious mess” of a music collective andtime, based in Utah (?).

Claudia’s message set my imagination alight. One of my favorite new releases had been created by some Gen-Z teen from a nation actively engaged in icy war with my own. That’s pretty damn cool. I can’t help but reminisce on my early internet upbringing, the wonder of discovery as unimagined communities open up wide. More ?Sugar is a reminder that the web is still a place for just being random and expressive and still kinda faceless. But make no mistake—Greatest Summer Ever is no “whatever really” amateur sonic sandbox. It’s passionate, complex, and downright euphoric. Snack on GSE for fifteen seconds and your teeth will start to rot. And that’s ok—you’re all grow up now. You make the rules: сладости на завтрак, обед и ужин.