SPIN's 20 Best Avant Albums of 2011

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Colin Stetson / Cultus Sabbati [Photo: Rebecca Smeyne (Stetson)]

Suffocating drones, feverish out jazz, bucolic fingerpicking, audacious shredding, gothic soundscapes, transcendent guitar armadas, and at least one dead salamander. In short, the best of the rest.

SPIN's Best of 2011:
-- One Fucked Up Year: SPIN's Best of 2011 Issue
-- SPIN's 50 Best Albums of 2011
-- SPIN's 20 Best Songs of 2011
-- SPIN's 40 Best Rap Albums of 2011
-- SPIN's 10 Best Reissues of 2011
--
SPIN's 25 Best Live Photos of 2011
-- Endless Bummer: 30 Ways 2011 Was a Drag

20. The Necks, Mindset
The Australian ambient-jazz legends etch deep into their first piece of vinyl in a 22-year, 16-album career. Snail-paced trance-outs are replaced with the furious motion of a bustling commute, but they lose none of their mesmerizing hues.

19. Mark Fell, Periodic Orbits of a Dynamic System Related to a Knot
Periodic Orbits is a sort-of-live album wherein Mark Fell's jarringly precise, rhythmically unpredictable electronic stuttergrind stretches out into a longform robot slaughterhouse. Every note is a stab, so it's essentially an antidote to washed-out chillzone reverb fever: DVDs skip for eternity and negative space induces multiple migraines.

18. Oneohtrix Point Never, Replica
Retrofuture synth ooze'n'wooze recollections of dystopias past -- all made more tangible by actually sampling the '80s commercials we're supposed to be misremembering.

17. Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson, Horpma
A pointillist st-st-st-st-stroke from an Icelandic composer whose Autechresque sense of rhythm blurs the lines between organized, random, and sheer madness. He makes a 27-instrument ensemble sound like rain falling on a Guitar Center.

16. Shinji Masuko, Woven Music
Originally conceived as backing tracks for the perpetually transcendence-bound Boadrum project, the Boredoms guitarist imagines a thousand-string orchestra that roils, sparkles, intertwines, wrestles, and shimmers in wave after heavenly wave.

15. Mika Vainio, Life (...It Eats You Up)
One half of Finnish electronic scuzz-constructors Pan Sonic makes his "guitar record." Naturally it vacillates from digitally enhanced feedback experiments, steam-gushing industrial doom, Southern Lord-ready churn and even a dubsludge cover of the Stooges' "Open Up and Bleed."

14. Winter Family, Red Sugar
Confrontationally fragile, wildly unsettling, always seconds from falling apart, Israeli vocalist Ruth Rosenthal and Parisian pianist Xavier Klaine muse on war and religious zealotry in English, French, and Hebrew. Spectral whispers nestle with colossal harmonium hum, metronomes click, drones haunt, and field recordings cover everything from chirping birds to an Apocalypse pep rally in Jerusalem.

13. Hauschka, Salon Des Amateurs
Usually a meditative master of prepared piano pieces, German composer Volker Bertelmann plays mad scientist for this noble attempt at a "dance" record. He plucks, pokes, prods, and otherwise molests his instrument's 88 keys and the guts housed within, ultimately landing at the spot where Philip Glass folds into minimalist techno.

12. Glenn Jones, The Wanting
Heads, shoulders, and fingers above this year's impressive crop of post-Fahey pickery (Ryley Walker, Black Eagle Child, the decidedly aggro Bill Orcutt, lutist Josef van Wissem), Glenn Jones' pastoral collection of acoustic meditations is especially beaming and resonant thanks to the Massachusetts plucker's predilection for chiming open-tuned chords, slow-paced bluegrass licks, and long-distance run times.

11. Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto, summvs
The fifth and final collaboration between two titans of feather-soft improv, summvs stands as masterful as any of the previous four: Drowsy pulses, languid glitch-clicks, one-finger riffs, digital fuzz, and rainy-day drones intertwine into something as gentle as ambient music but as intensely focused as the best jazz.

10. Deaf Center, Owl Splinters
Norway's Deaf Center are a pair of shadow-perched sound surgeons who have mastered the line where horror transforms into beauty. A majestic fusion of acoustic instruments, ghostly rattles, and uneasy hums, Owl Splinters is like a languid shot from Robert Wiene or Dario Argento painted in bowel-rumbling bass tones and brittle melodies.

9. Colin Stetson, In Concert: ATP Festival
New History Warfare Vol. 2, the actual studio album by the avant-garde crossover story of the year, is far too bloated with glossy production tricks and tacky neighbor Laurie Anderson peeking over the fence. Better to cop the saxophonist on this uncooked live bootleg from NPR's All Tomorrow's Parties recordings where you can truly hear this human asthma inhaler sweating bullets, gasping for air, and maniacally playing three notes at once.

8. Mick Barr; Hubble, Coiled Malescence
Hubble Drums

Mick Barr has been the Steve Vai of Steve Reich for more than a decade and on Coiled Malescence, his fingertip-frying fretwork lays completely naked and unaccompanied, a bleak gaze into a rubbed-raw void of repetition. Meanwhile, Brooklyn upstart Ben Greenberg of Hubble (full disclosure: Ben is such a close friend that I actually named one of the tracks on this album) uses the same tools, but with an ear for the blissful, earnest, and spacebound.

7. Burning Tree, Stinger
Full-contact drummer Dag Erik Knedal Andersen and pyrotechnic saxophonist Dag Stiberg, twin powerhouses of Norwegian free jazz, show absolutely no mercy on a rapturous 35-minute cassette of blown-out, high-velocity, ultimate-fighting improvisation.

6. Blanck Mass, Blanck Mass
As one-half of Fuck Buttons, Benjamin John Power is no stranger to heart-stopping, neon-saturated, Crayola-scribbed joynoize. Here, he abandons the beats entirely for the familiar ooze of his sublime, goosebumpy drones.

5. Cultus Sabbati, Garden Of Forking Ways
A wooshing, immersive, screeching, heaving, feedback-soaked black magick ritual that has all the haunted textures of doom metal, black metal, power electronics, and dark ambient -- but good luck filing this passionate blast with any of them. The liner notes include instructions for a ritual that involves sacrificing a salamander.

4. Israel Martínez, El Hombre Que Se Sofoca
Mexican sound artist Israel Martínez plays architect of a blustery universe of his own creation, cobbled from highly synthesized and distended field recordings. Construction work turns into a digital hellscape, playing children are swallowed by monster drones, a subway pulling into a station is distended into a earth-shaking roar.

3. Horseback, Forbidden Planet
On Forbidden Planet, Chapel Hill metal deconstructionist Jenks Miller sets the arctic churn of black metal against the glacially paced churn of subterranean sludge and the bloodiest parts of My Bloody Valentine -- ultimately expelling itself as one gorgeous, white-hot ecstasy cloud. Originally a 100-run cassette release, this 37-minute Branca-goes-to-hell implosion was mercifully re-released this year by extreme metal powerhouse Relapse.

2. Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres
Deeply spiritual, sadistically dissonant, and evocative as any novel, New York composer Matana Roberts uses numerous jazz disciplines to concoct this arresting patchwork of "compositional sound language": tortured "scream sing," post-rock improv, saxophone flurries, and spacepressionist Sun Ra mayhem. The album is an hourlong suite about the 18th Century African experience in America, part fact and part fiction, with Roberts taking harrowing roles as orphans and slave auctioneers in between hailstorm sax workouts.

1. Tim Hecker, Ravedeath, 1972
The best drone alchemists of 2011 picked an emotion and rode it forever, from Blanck Mass'melted-crayon fervor to Deaf Center's Lynchian skin-crawl to Stephan Mathieu's floaty space walks. But Montreal fuzzmaster Tim Hecker sought more primeval drama: rippling one-note dive-bombs, delicate piano motifs clawing through prismatic feedback, and witched-out bass rumbles dropping like 808s. But throughout the bleary blare and blown-out miasma, his human core was always present.

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