Music

The Best Avant-Garde and Experimental Music of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.

In spite of the great lull in today’s rock music climate, 2015 proved an astonishing year for experimental music, signifying the simultaneously shrinking and expanding gap between avant-garde and pop traditions. Several of this year’s releases, like Clarence Clarity’s ineffable No Now or new albums by Oneohtrix Point Never and Holly Herndon, tackle heady concepts of global capitalism and hyper-connectivity of the Internet Age. While some albums venture into brutal and immersive territory—Blanck Mass’ Dumb Flesh, Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld’s Never were the way she was, and Prurient’s Frozen Niagara Falls—others are glossy and luminous—for instance, the bubblegum bass of PC Music’s new compilation or the plinking and clinking of Battles’ La Di Da Di. Overall, music of all kinds seems to be tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Just look at recent music from hip-hop greats Kendrick Lamar and Kanye, or even the work of pop stars Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.

 
Artist: Battles

ALBUM: La Di Da Di

LABEL: Warp

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Battles
La Di Da Di

It seems like just yesterday Battles released their striking debut Mirrored. In the mid-2000s, Battles spearheaded a new generation of math rock, highly groovy music that tests the bounds of rhythm and meter using rock instrumentation—while less obsessed with tradition than, say, metal or prog. (They’re actually one of a few “prog” bands the build-a-hipster magazines will touch.) While math forefathers like Slint and Don Caballero pulled from alternative and hardcore of the day, Battles apply contemporary indie sensibilities to their maths, often verging on EDM. La Di Da Di is a pretty good name because Battles aren’t trying to tell us a damn thing (it’s entirely instrumental). Battles just want to show us their chops, and that’s respectable move…la-di-da-di-da. What makes the album exceptional, and by extension the band, are the hooks. “Dot Net” and “Dot Com” are this close to being top-40 hits, while opener “The Yabba” and closer “Luu Le” are almost works of minimalism—a duality that makes Battles so uncool they’re cool. Will the record stand the test of time as well as Mirrored? No. Is it still damn good? You betcha. Battles couldn’t eff up an album if they tried.

 
Artist: Prurient

ALBUM: Frozen Niagara Falls

LABEL: Profound Lore

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Prurient
Frozen Niagara Falls

Prurient’s Frozen Niagara Falls, one of many dozen albums in Dominick Fernow’s decade-spanning catalog, is an intense listening experience—one that deals with desperation, hope, and triumph. It’s also the first album I’ve seen my now almost completely deaf dog walk away from. (I loved it.) It courses through the veins of drone metal, power electronics, and Italo-Disco. Between the death growl, programmed stereo panning, and waves of MIDI, it’s a lot to stomach, but there’s comfort in the decay. By its massive, tumbling, almost “natural” feel, listeners may be reminded of Ben Frost. The songs sound like constructed, industrial field recordings. Nothing can stop Prurient as he takes us from the pensive opener “Myths of Building Bridges” to the melodramatic “Every Relationship Earthrise”; from No Wave with “Wildflower (Long Hair With Stocking Cap)”, to twangy with “Greenpoint.” You may have to retune your listening set and setting a bit with this one.

 
Artist: Hieroglyphic Being & J.I.T.U. Ahn-Sahm-Buhl

ALBUM: We Are Not The First

LABEL: Rvng Intl.

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Hieroglyphic Being & J.I.T.U. Ahn-Sahm-Buhl
We Are Not the First

Behind the heftily named Hieroglyphic Being & J.I.T.U. Ahn-Sahm-Buhl is one of many aliases of an elusive nu jazz producer and a host of musicians and collaborators. Hieroglyphic leads his troops on a spiritual and spacey mission through the world of free improvisation. The ensemble includes members like 91-year-old Sun Ra Arkestra multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Marshall Allen, Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog’s guitarist Shahzad Ismaily, and Liturgy/Zs powerdrummer Greg Fox. All make visible contributions, continually shuffling through moods and styles. “Apes and Ages” contains spoken word over squawking flock of horns and the driving, house-y “Cybernetics is an Old Science” sounds like your friend whose life’s coming apart at the seems but who maintains the illusion of keeping it together. The record concludes with the dazzling, 20-minute opus and title track, combining the best parts of Ornette Coleman and Animal Collective. Though We Are Not the First often sounds like ’70s-era krautrock and Canterbury scene— the stratospheric croons of “Civilization that is Dying” recall in Gilli Smith’s work with Gong—its production is very cutting edge. A week of recording sessions and countless hours of mixing give way to an epic Afro-Futurist journey in an unshaken upholding of the holy cool.

 
Artist: Various Artists

ALBUM: PC Music Volume 1

LABEL: PC Music

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Various Artists
PC Music Volume 1

Please direct your attention to the opening lines of PC Music Volume 1’s eighth track, “Keri Baby (feat. Hannah Diamond)”, one of the best pop songs of last year (rereleased on this year’s compilation): “Oooh / Girl like me / K-b-p-s, be 1-2-3 / Kinda real, kinda oooh” somersaults into Hannah’s verse, “Tell me if you want to see me / Play with my hair on a TV / Give it to the girl / Give it to the girl / Give it to the cutest girl / Oh”. Wow. PC Music Volume 1 is a perfect summary of 90s-born producer and PC Music label owner A. G. Cook’s work, music that lives and breathes intense ambiguity toward commodified kawaii and commercial excess. The PC Music label, for those unaware, is behind the hot sound of bubblegum bass, UK’s new glitch-wonk, saccharine-sinister dance movement. And don’t doubt the influence of A. G.’s zany style. (SOPHIE’s “Lemonade” [not featured here] was in a McDonald’s commercial!) This collection contains instant classic “Beautiful” by A. G. Cook, with its uncanny outro, HYPERfun powerhouses “In My Dreams” by Danny L Harle and “Laplander” by easyFun, and the chunky “USA” by GFOTY, which will leave you literally loling. PC Music’s oscillation between polarized ideological stances is Pure Girl™.

 
Artist: Holly Herndon

ALBUM: Platform

LABEL: 4AD

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Holly Herndon
Platform

Holly Herndon’s third record proves itself a lovely display of the dichotomy between intimacy and alienation in the Digital Age. As a work of sousvellance (subversive self-surveillance), the album utilizes a breadth of sonic vocabulary—hard drive whir recorded with a contact mic, for instance—showcasing the ever-pervasive ways we may monitor ourselves. Platform also marks Herndon’s first forays as vocalist, often as chopped up gasps, croaks, and mews. The album, despite its serendipitous peaks, is stunningly inconsistent, lacking any narrative through line. While “Morning Sun,” initiated by the iPhone unlock sound and the lyric “Wake up, gotta wake up,” is an impeccable pop tune, the unmusical, ASMR-inspired “Lonely at the Top feat. Claire Tolan”, with its breathy come-ons, achieves a level of awkward rarely seen in music. Still, tracks like “Chorus” and “Home”, with their colossal, clunking grooves, more than redeem Herndon as a meticulous yet frustrating composer. It’s fair to say if you’re unfamiliar with her work, you’ve never heard anything like it: EDM-streaked sound collage, at once robotic and deeply personal.

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