The Best Avant-Garde and Experimental Music of 2016

Today's experimental artists tend to locate reference points in the familiar -- or even hyper-familiar in the case of 2016 masterpieces like the Avalanches' Wildflower or Bon Iver's enigmatic 22, A Million.

Let’s face it. Rock ‘n’ roll may never die, but it’s deader than its ever been and with no resurgence in sight. For decades, rock music thrust forward in time with teleological vigor. In the words of art punk David Thomas: “When I was a young man, rock was very clearly a straight line from the beginnings.” But since the dawn of the new millennium, mostly thanks to an ever-accessible Web of boundless information, rock has been all but supplanted by the more protean pop1, which has, in turn, branched wildly into countless microgenres.

While the influence of rock cannot be overstated, the legacy it leaves behind is far-removed from the attitude of its adolescence. The traditions embodied by the likes of Little Richard, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, and Nirvana have little to do with to the corporeal music of the now. On the whole, today’s music feels as much concerned with the progression of experimentation as with the tradition of rock ‘n’ roll.

That’s not to say our list is not encoded from top to bottom with rock. Danny Brown curiously invokes post-punk with Atrocity Exhibition. Nicolas Jaar’s Sirens brings to bear the bygone era psych. Kiran Leonard’s Pink Fruit is nothing if not avant-prog. But the very evocation of these styles speaks to a basic act of experimentation.

Indeed, as long as there have been popular conventions, there have been artists working to subvert and destroy them. That’s the totality of experimenting: trying something and seeing what happens. Though we may consider experimentalism to be fundamentally “anti-pop”, let us recall how pop art arose by way of an experimental gesture — a simultaneous challenge and embrace of consumer culture. True, the origins of pop music do not necessarily reflect this idea, but more and more, experimental and pop seem to coexist in peace and convolution.

Today’s experimental artists tend to locate reference points in the familiar — or even hyper-familiar in the case of 2016 masterpieces like the Avalanches’ Wildflower, proudly robed in psychedelic regalia, or Bon Iver’s enigmatic 22, A Million, an Auto-Tuned brew of indie folk iconography. Just one item on our list exemplifies pure experimentation: American duo Matmos’ Ultimate Care II, which gives credence to the meme-etic notion that the “new generation” of music is “all toilet sounds”… almost. More than before, the momentous works of this year — by Frank Ocean, Nick Cave, Beyoncé, Bowie, the artists listed here — strip back the flesh of rock to reveal a mighty skeleton of pop.

You may wonder: “Why is this a list of all ‘pop’ experimenters? Man, where’s that underground shit?” To this, we respond: so many big names populate the list because so many of this year’s anticipated records lived up to the hype, and then some. Nobody could have predicted the prevailing relevance of veterans like Barwick, Hecker, Brown, the freakin’ Avalanches. It may be trivial to say, but we’ll say it anyway: we’re in a post-pop era. Pop cannot and will not be overtaken by experimentalism. Rather, continuous experiments within and beyond pop serve only to cement its place in our cultural history further.

Given the nature of experimental music, it can be difficult to pick out its salient features. We’ll try to point out a few. One, in the collective vernacular, the catchall “art pop”, a style positively ruled by women, seems to be subsuming last decade’s preferred “art rock”. Other key trends involve the diffusion of the “ambient” sound, a growing veneration for classic minimalism, and most essentially, an intensified oscillation between experimental and pop music. This manifests in part through a post-ironic nostalgia for pop culture, ever apparent in “meta-wave” and the work of hyperreal British collective PC Music. Works in this vein feed our suspicion that, while rock ‘n’ roll is, at the very least, indisposed, pop is almost certainly immortal.


Artist: Matmos

Album: Ultimate Care II

Label: Thrill Jockey


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Ultimate Care II

Generally speaking, talk of “conceptual” art practice in music generally manifests as talk of “concept albums”. But these albums don’t necessarily have to win you over with legends of deaf, dumb, and blind pinball masters. Merely, they necessitate an artist doing something, consistently, the whole time. So while conceptual doesn’t have to look pretty, it does have to look cool. Well, you could say Matmos’ newest record upholds tradition, elevating the execution of idea above aesthetics while still keeping it cool.

My roommate, the most experimental composer I know personally, likes to joke after Hank Hill that my favorite music is “all toilet sounds”. (Though many musical debates will arise, she and I can at least agree on one highlight in the modern Toilet Sounds Songbook.) And while, Ultimate Care II may not technically be all toilet sounds, it’s damn close. With this record, the Frisco duo makes a semi-danceable, 40-minute composition exclusively from recordings of their Whirlpool Ultimate Care II washing machine, which makes Matmos a trio while on tour. What a concept. They truly do embody the “throw shit at the wall to see what sticks” take on experimentalism — and so, in this reviewer’s opinion, have more than earned their spot on our top-10 list.


Artist: Julianna Barwick

Album: Will

Label: Dead Oceans


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Julianna Barwick

My introduction to Julianna Barwick, I think, quite nicely suits the intended atmosphere projected by her elemental, fourth solo record. Through an open window, permeating thick sheets of rain, wafted Will‘s gorgeous closing track “See, Know” — diffused from an astute neighbor’s front porch sound system. As I drew nearer, I realized the ambiance heard in my room had been washed into oblivion by its environment. It was a gentle reminder that music is only, and wholly, what we make of it.

With this record, the Louisianian-gone-Brooklynite draws from the cavernous melting pot of orchestral and folk traditions, a disparate program of haunting melodies. Listening to it feels like being airdropped onto a glacial landscape. You turn your head 365 degrees to reveal infinite directions equally promising in salvation and desolation, where the only improper course of action would be to trudge nowhere. Appropriately, Barwick assembles an Icelandic arsenal for this album — members of Múm and Sigur Rós — in her synthesizing of nature. With each successive turn of Will, the artist constructs a warm wing within the arctic station of the minimalist canon.


Artist: Foodman

Album: En Mizoku

Label: Orange Milk


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En Mizoku

On this Orange Milk release, a label known for hypermodern pastiche pop, Yokohama-based producer 食品まつり accesses an unrestricted and unsettling sonic palette. With its pitch-shifted vocals, retro synths, and floopy snippets of god-knows-what, En Mizoku fits appropriately awkwardly into the meta-wave aesthetic. Not the least bit self-conscious, the record could be considered IDM, if the I stood for insane. Or hip-hop, the way the Avalanches is hip-hop. Or footwork, the way you stumbling and falling in eighth grade science was footwork. In all seriousness, this is a ridiculous record. When the pieces the align, it grooves splendidly, but when it falls back to pieces, it returns a dithering mass of flesh with every pore in high definition. En Mizoku can feel like a crisp, snow-crested morning at 7:05 am, when everything seems grotesque and unmanageable. But once you’ve sat down at the kitchen table and sipped your Joe, you think, “Everything really is grotesque and unmanageable, but I like it.”

Apprehensive listeners: dive in with the most normal(?) tune, “Mid Summer Night (feat. Diskomargauxx)”, and follow with the gorgeous ambient “Ure Pill”. After that, you’re on your own.


Artist: Kiran Leonard

Album: Grapefruit

Label: Moshi Moshi


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Kiran Leonard

Gone are the days of the singer-songwriter-as-Jesus ideal, exemplified by the late Jeff Buckley who drifted into the harbor, never to return. Yet. Thankfully, alive-and-well 21-year-old alt-prog singer-songwriter Kiran Leonard is no Jeff Buckley — maybe something closer to the too-young-to-die Nick Drake: heartfelt, highly literate, almost asking to be misunderstood. The artwork of Leonard’s most recent record, one of over a dozen, is as whimsically upsetting as that of Mr. Drake’s most recent record, Pink Moon from 1972, and its near-title track, “Pink Fruit” (one of my favorite epics of the century), may well tip the hat to Drake’s classic.

On the topic of comparisons, here’s one more: to Drake’s contemporary and Buckley’s father, Tim Buckley. Out of place in any time and thus wonderfully timeless, Grapefruit is equally wistful, offbeat, and unpretentious as can be when championing 16-minute song lengths. What distinguishes Grapefruit‘s intricate compositions are its masterful performances, whether on fiddle, guitar, or Leonard’s weathered vocal tract — which tends to fall on the spectrum between eclectic and lunatic. But it’s the shambling, swaggering, all-purpose strain of lunacy you only see once or twice a decade, and it defies any comparison. Tim would understand.


Artist: Jenny Hval

Album: Blood Bitch

Label: Sacred Bones


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Jenny Hval
Blood Bitch

From the opening lines of this art popstar’s newest record — “I clutch my phone with my sweaty palm / In my hand, I clutch my heart” — listeners must come to terms with how willfully Hval spills her own blood. Literally, Blood Bitch plays on the newfangled idea of the vampire love story and serves as an allegory on menstruation. (Any reviewer who doesn’t use the word “menstruation” is beating around the bush. Period.) To follow the flow of the record, one must set their mind to double entendre mode on the topic we call “that time of the month”, taboo, it seems, even in artistic circles. Those who do take discomfort in the concept should find comfort in its effect: like thick, crimson velvet, Hval’s breathy talk-song and lush synths will warmly envelop you.

Almost certainly, you’ll at least enjoy this work for its sonic breadth and beauty, whether you take issue with its crass or uncanny moments — the Attenborough-esque narration of “Untamed Region” or the field recordings of “The Great Undressing”, in which Hval describes the theme to a friend: “It’s about vampires”, she gushes, to which her friend cries, “No! What? It’s so basic.” Well, it is about vampires, but it’s also about the forced seduction of late capitalist society, a breaking free from the shackles of conformity to social expectation. But yeah, Blood Bitch is about vampires. Vampires and period blood.

5 – 1 + Mixtapes

Artist: Bon Iver

Album: 22, A Million

Label: Jagjaguwar


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Bon Iver
22, A Million

I really do love this record. I just don’t know what to make of it. In fifth grade, I met my first Emma. The real Emma. The Emma who made all my secrets truths. Emma read books about the Velvets behind her math textbook. Emma was splendid at math. The summer before seventh grade, Bon Iver released For Emma, and I soon met another Emma, also really Emma, and pretty like the real Emma, but different in every other way. The summer before ninth grade, I re-met an Emma I’d known before grades, before Emmas, but this Emma remembered me differently than I did her. The summer before 11th grade, I met a new Emma, and she made me love For Emma. Every time this Emma and I made love, we listened to For Emma, and we never listened to “For Emma” unless we made love. I clung to this Emma until 13th grade Emma, who I clung to into 15th grade and beyond. But one day I realized I never really loved Emma because I never really loved Bon Iver. Bon Iver didn’t love Emma the way I loved Emma, and I wasn’t so sure Bon Iver loved Emma at all. But one day, I realized I really did love Emma because I really did love Bon Iver because Bon Iver really did love Emma. So listen to Bon Iver, listen to Emma. Now I’m in 17th grade, and I listen to 22, a Million because I know it really is for Emma, forever ago.


Artist: Tim Hecker

Album: Love Streams

Label: 4AD


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Tim Hecker
Love Streams

Seeing as Hecker seems to drop an enchanted piece of wonder every year or two since the new millennium, it should a bore to critique his new album. But nahhh. The wizardly Canadian may be likened to your friendly neighborhood Brian Eno — the kind of flick-the-lighter, stare-at-your-winter-boots-for-half-an-hour, make-you-go-“huh” kind of composer. Album after album, Hecker manages to feed a generation of indie-heads his flavor-of-the-month sonic cereal. His immersive live performances have robbed many a-Mumford & Son of their ego and given dads across the Western Hemisphere astral projection headaches. Like, really though.

And with Love Streams, Hecker manages to go ever further off the deep end. We got this omnidirectional transmission going on, this cross-cultural exchange of mass media slurry and plush ambient soundscape. Every year, it’s like Superman takes on Mr. Mytzlplk as Tim Hecker and vaportron progwave feather duster Daniel Lopatin come closer to body-swapping. It was only a matter of time before ambient music shed its apolitical, acultural headdress to tackle the simultaneously meme-iest and sincerest reflection of our burgeoning metamodernist, post-pop landscape. Fifty years, people shoved crumpled up handfuls of dollar bills at the face of every carburetor- and leaky-faucet-recording wizard to play on television. But sooner or later, the cat had to come out of the bag. Ambient music is pop music, and it’s beautiful. Listen to Love Streams, and you’ll see what I mean.

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Artist: Nicolas Jaar

Album: Sirens

Label: Other People


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Nicolas Jaar

If Jaar’s 2013 project DARKSIDE begged the question “Pink Floyd?,” Jaar’s second proper solo project doubles down on his answer: “Yes, Pink Floyd.” We’re not fooling ourselves when we admit our favorite Chilean-American, Brown alumnus DJ has found more common ground with these space rock troubadours than with his cousins in the house circuit. With this organic transference, he’s supplanted the driving mm-ch-mm-ch-mm-ch with a warm, orange-colored liquid that coheres his unfolding collection of sonic visions. He kills time with the album opener, following 45 seconds of cataclysmic silence with torrential ambiance. Audience members nervously check their ticket stubs and glance at their watches, but Jaar feels no such urgency. He looks backward, not only through spacetime passed but through his past, producing a personal statement rooted in childhood. This crazy diamond reminds us electronic music can and has always been a platform for self-expression, and he plays on these tropes: Can-ian Krautrock, Suicide-al synths, he even unclasps the case of his bass clarinet and wails sirens over the city streets.

These Ivy League kids have done their homework. They’ve researched the drugs, dough, and drama that made “Time” tick. But just as Floyd never abandoned rock & roll when they broke rock convention, Jaar doesn’t abandon dance music when he breaks EDM convention. The life of a producer may be a solitary one, but Jaar is quickly discovering he’s got the whole galaxy behind him.


Artist: Danny Brown

Album: Atrocity Exhibition

Label: Warp


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Danny Brown
Atrocity Exhibition

To mention only one hip-hop record on an experimental list may feel like an exhibition in atrocity. But shit… it’s the best we got! Ain’t it funny how it happens? Frankly, Mr. Brown’s been down to clown since day one, and not one motherfucker’s gonna change that. This record’s like a Tarantino film. Vulgar. Confusing. Rife with symbolism. We’re laughing cause it’s funny, right? But suddenly, we’re not sure if we’re laughing with him or at him. Like a champagne glass filled with rattlesnake venom. Shit gets serious, but he cracks a joke and we all bust up laughing again. Keep on your toes, bobbing to the beat. One minute you’re deep in it — next minute you’re bobbing to the beat of a dead ass homie. It’s like shooting a hole through the floor of the car. Funny how it happens. Makes for a good picture, but there’s more to the story. Sometimes you just gotta celebrate and forget the rest. Smoke so much you can’t remember where you started. Can’t remember if the floor’s covered with glass and venom or a shattered Grammy.


Artist: The Avalanches

Album: Wildflower

Label: Modular


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The Avalanches

It would take more than one lobotomy to forget the magic of the 1960s, but fortunately for us, the Avalanches aim to expand, not contract our minds. A probable portmanteau of the Wilsonian Wild Honey (1967) and Sunflower (1970), the prescient Wildflower was no accident of the collective unconscious. In fact, this sophomore effort, a decade-and-a-half after they left us with their Y2K debut, was the deliberate product of hundreds of thousands of hours of studio snipping, clipping, and tripping. And if they somehow did not answer our question then, they sure answer it now: What do a pair of white Aussies have to say about black America? Evidently, a lot. While fans bit their 15-year-long fingernails — awaiting the inevitably disappointing follow-up to one of music history’s greatest music histories — crate-diving, cranium-driving Robbie Chater and his arsenal of able musicians lost their minds, riding the hype-train down the intercontinental railroad of sound. I had the distinct pleasure of first listening to Wildflower through kaleidoscopic goggles, and I remember thinking, “This really does feel like a trip through urban modernity.” I soon realized Chater said it best: You “start in a kind of hyper-realistic urban environment… then go on a road trip to the sea or the desert or the countryside…and over the course of the record you end up somewhere far away from there, high as a kite.”




Artist: Impossible Nothing

Album: Phenomenomicon

Label: Self-released


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Impossible Nothing

If, in a smoky haze, you pressed Phenomenomicon‘s Bandcamp play button at noon, you would finish at exactly 4:20pm. And in one fell swoop, you can double the size of your music library with this pay-what-you-will mixtape reel. The cool thing about this record is you can start anywhere, stop anywhere, and still feel like you got your money’s worth. If you do listen to this record from top to bottom, I’d encourage you to contact the artist, as that’s no simple feat. (Even Basinski couldn’t make it through his four-hour opus without toppling the American dream.) With 26 tracks — each ten-minutes long and titled with a letter of the Latin alphabet — calling this record instrumental hip-hop would like calling Guernica expressionist painting: accurate, but pointless. It effortlessly calls Lil Ugly Mane’s epic pseudo-retirement bid Third Side of Tape in its longevity — no bluff. So play it by ear: start with “M”, skip to “O”, hop back to “F”, and round out with another listen to “O”. Phoneme? Phenom? Icon? Impossible Nothing doesn’t give a fuck.


Artist: Iglooghost

Album: ᴗ ˳ ᴗ Snoring (Music to Sleep To)

Label: Self-released


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ᴗ ˳ ᴗ Snoring (Music to Sleep To)

Hopefully one of our biggest musical regrets of the proto-Trump era will be the lack of attention given to young genius Iglooghost. If his earlier work was left-field, this album is, er, the dugout. Formerly known for his blend of meta-wäv — wonky hip-hop beats, UK bass, and bubblegum bass as well as his kawaii, net art aesthetic — the untypably-titled ᴗ ˳ ᴗ Snoring sounds exactly like the product of a George Winston–Steve Reich marriage. Something you’d expect to be playing over great-grandma’s old phonograph.

Comprised of three movements, the work opens with a legato, chamber section that safaris through a tropical rainforest 12 minutes in and segues into the real gem: a movement quite frankly on par with the opuses of the ’70s minimalists, save the fact that a 20-something made this in his basement in 2016. The spotless watermark of software instruments is the only giveaway that a symphony of fleshy automatons wasn’t responsible for this creation. Reliant on the infinite, repeat-and-vary trope of classic minimalism — not to mention the buzzsaw bass clarinet and stratospheric flute drizzle — ᴗ ˳ ᴗ Snoring almost verges into rip-off territory of the 1976 masterpiece Music for 18 Musicians. And the title may well be a boldfaced gag as, to me, plinky piano pitter-patter is one of the most rousing forms of music. Regardless, the work is, from top to bottom, impeccably palatable. And did I mention genius?

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