The Best Avant-Garde and Experimental Music of 2016

A Noah Harrison

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.

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