15 Experimental Albums We Loved in 2018
Experimental music, by its nature, resists easily followed narratives. As a genre tag it’s fundamentally clumsy, gathering together artists on the basis of what they don’t do—that is, make commercial, straightforward pop—rather than commonalities of practice or aesthetics. As such, our favorite experimental albums of 2018 come from a raggedy international tribe, migrating in multiple directions at once. Some of the entrants are comfortable among high-minded art institutions; others in crammed DIY venues; still others in darkened dance clubs, or somewhere nearby. In strictly musical terms, Bill Orcutt’s squalls of atonal guitar and Lucrecia Dalt’s tableaux of electronics and spoken word have as little in common with each other as either does with Drake or Ariana Grande. Still, their shared resistance to the status quo is meaningful: each present an alternative to received ideas about the way sound should be constructed, and in the process, a new way of hearing and seeing the world around us.
Below, find 15 experimental albums we loved in 2018. In the spirit of pushing further into the unknown, we’re not presenting this as a definitive list of the year’s “best” experimental albums, and we’ve excluded great records like Kelly Moran’s Ultraviolet and Oneohtrix Point Never’s Age Of that were honored on Spin’s main list.
Find more from Spin’s 2018 Year in Review here.
Much of Cloud Corner hovers in place. Guitarist Marisa Anderson favors clean electric sounds, droning pedal tones, repeated melodic motifs, chords that ring out and then hang like condensation in the air. Occasionally switching to acoustic, or accompanying herself with washes of electric piano, she creates a sense of music as atmosphere rather than linear narrative. Opener “Pulse” hints at chord changes but never quite makes them, setting the tone for an album whose dominant mode is contemplative stillness. When Anderson does venture into more traditional harmonic motion, as on the effervescent title track and wistful “Sant Feliu de Guíxols,” the effect is quietly wondrous, an autumn breeze clearing away the fog. The power of Cloud Corner is subtle, but it will sink into you if you let it.—ANDY CUSH
A viral Medium post from the end of last year explored a nightmarescape of YouTube children’s videos of mysterious origins: innumerable clips of Peppa Pig and other kindergarten favorites, assembled and reassembled endlessly by bot accounts, with sometimes disturbingly gory interpolations. The line between human and the inhuman in this creative process here is beyond fuzzy, the origins of the accounts often impossible to trace. Autechre’s recent music might bring this eerie cottage industry to mind. At any given moment in one of the veteran IDM duo’s sprawling, unpitched avant-techno epics, one wonders if the crumbling groove is being created or tweaked in real time, or if it is the result of total automation. Is that unholy whirring noise the result of a patch on the duo’s favored Max/MSP coding program, running its anarchic course? Or is it a real-time flourish from a human hand on a knob?
The question of human versus computer authorship lives on the surface of NTS Sessions, part of the aesthetic power of their overwhelming new eight-hour, four-part collection, originally broadcast via the internet radio station of the same name. Whatever the origins of these sounds, it is easy to lose yourself in their odd, lurching rhythms, like recognizable dance and hip-hop beats living through a constant state of mutation. Sounds tip out of sync with one another and trip over themselves, eventually rendered into placid waves of static. Listening to an hour or five of this challenging collection could be among the most consciousness-shifting musical experiences of a lifetime, not just of this year.—WINSTON COOK-WILSON
An Exploded View of Time
Baltimore alto saxophonist Andrew Bernstein is best known for his work in Horse Lords, an instrumental band that sets pulsating classical minimalism against a Teutonic art-rock backbeat. An Exploded View of Time, Bernstein’s first solo album, does away with the rhythm section, and everything else, save for his own hypnotic playing. With a mastery of circular breathing, Bernstein begins by using his single instrument to approximate the glacial churn of Steve Reich’s classic ensemble pieces, spinning out patterns that percolate quickly but shift slowly, seemingly according to some grand design. But Bernstein is no rigid formalist, and An Exploded View of Time comes alive when he explores the expressive possibilities of the unaccompanied format, disrupting his own flow with viscerally throaty Pharoah Sanders overtones and increasingly long sustains. On “Broken Arc,” he is like a skipping CD stuck on a John Coltrane arpeggio, shimmering, surging, and whirling on eternally, or at least until the battery dies. Reich himself is a Coltrane fanatic, and if that connection has ever seemed murky to you, An Exploded View of Time elucidates it in riveting fashion.—ANDY CUSH
Chris Corsano & Bill Orcutt
Bill Orcutt has long framed his junkyard spirituals for solo guitar in terms of the blues. “Clapton’s Complaint,” the title of a 35-second blast of dissonance from this duo album with virtuosic free improv drummer Chris Corsano, illustrates exactly what he doesn’t mean by that. Old slowhand would surely find lots to gripe about on Brace Up!, an album with the unstoppable energy of a circle pit at a hardcore show, or an 18-wheeler rolling downhill. As Corsano pounds away, Orcutt agglomerates gnarled masses of half-steps and minor thirds, offsetting them with passages of disarming lyricism. The pair conveys tactility above all else: the sense, never lost, of sticks hitting cymbals and four sweaty fingers gripping the fretboard for dear life. Call it what you want, but there’s more raw spirit here than in all the world’s hack Stevie Ray Vaughan imitators combined.—ANDY CUSH
Andrew Cyrille, Wadada Leo Smith, & Bill Frisell
One of the year’s finest ECM Records releases, Lebroba begins like a band sitting down to soundcheck, warming up with a few licks that they pass back and forth playfully. The bass player never shows up, but the trio creates a captivating, full-bodied atmosphere without the low end. Veteran Brooklyn free-jazz drummer Andrew Cyrille creates entropy that is never assaultive. His gentle drumming often feels more melodic than the scattered motives of Wadada Leo Smith’s trumpet and Bill Frisell’s guitar. One could have a fulfilling aesthetic experience simply by listening to the snare drum alone. Smith and Frisell, as a kind of Zen exercise, seem to hold their conversation against Cyrille’s collection of momentary grooves and fantasias, pushing to extremes only occasionally, creating odd and wonderful constellations in the process.—WINSTON COOK-WILSON
Lucrecia Dalt is a geologist by trade. She made the leap from geotechnical engineering to music almost a decade ago, and her scientific training has informed her artistry. Her discography covers a broad stylistic range, from drone to ethereal indie pop, playing with the sorts of difficult philological questions that once defined her work as an earth scientist. Anticlines, Dalt’s sixth full-length album, is a full surrender to those questions, and to the sublime objectivity of geologic time. Like the arched, stratified rock folds for which it’s named, the album is a work in layered fragments: 14 tracks, each with its own sound, and its own cosmology. In sparse spoken-word poetry, Dalt takes on arcane subjects like physical theory and the folklore of her native Colombia. The sounds underneath her words resist easy characterization, and intentionally so. The music never sounds like just one thing—it’s constantly changing, undergoing a kind of chemical metamorphosis as it shifts beneath its own weight. On “Antiform,” what begins as a single, misty drone eventually expands into percussive chaos, then contracts back into itself, sputtering out into a low-frequency ambient hum that closes out the album. For all its strange, earthen majesty, Anticlines sounds almost completely alien.—WILL GOTTSEGEN
Shinya Fukumori Trio
For 2 Akis
This soothing release marks jazz drummer and composer Shinya Fukumori’s debut as a bandleader, and it’s a memorable first salvo. The tracks are uniformly muted, with melodies redolent of folk songs from Japan to Ireland to the U.S., and touches French classical music in the vein of Satie or Poulenc. The collection distinguishes itself from less memorable new age-adjacent jazz releases thanks to Fukumori’s scattered drum patterns, pitted against the regulated time of sax player Matthieu Bordenave and pianist Walter Lang. Fukumori’s trio prizes economical and unabashedly tonal melody over showy chops, but that doesn’t mean there’s a shortage of elements to relish in For 2 Akis. This music is familiar-sounding, but the feeling of comfort is deceptive. Pieces never take the expected formal trajectory, and they never settle for easy resolution or climax.—WINSTON COOK-WILSON
Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume One)
Jon Hassell’s refusal to update his process with the technology of the moment has kept his music sounding like no one else’s for five decades. The trumpeter, electroacoustic tinkerer, musical philosopher, and proud iconoclast rose to visibility through an association with Brian Eno in the 1970s and early ‘80s, and since then, his albums have retained his heavily processed and harmonized trumpet leads as their central element, even as his backdrops have mutated with the sounds of distant countries both real and imagined. On his latest masterpiece, Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Vol. 1), Hassell largely drifts away from Indian, African, and Asian musical influences that colored his most famous work. He revels in phantasmagoric landscapes, heavy on electronics, where the origin of any given sound is a headache-inducing puzzle. Vocals, strings, and keyboards distinguish themselves periodically, as if washing to shore for a moment. Consistent rhythms emerge, from percussion sounds of indeterminate origin, chopped to tiny slivers. Eventually, every IDM-adjacent groove eats itself, the downbeat reveals itself as a delusion, and all clarity is subsumed into waves of stuttering atmosphere. Whenever Hassell wanders into familiar territory, he paints over the canvas and starts again.—WINSTON COOK-WILSON
Keiji Haino & Sumac
American Dollar Bill – Keep Facing Sideways, You’re Too Hideous to Look at Face On
Last year, Aaron Turner of doom metal trio Sumac asked free improv legend Keiji Haino about working together, figuring it probably wouldn’t happen. “Collaborating with us, who are a fairly full-on metal/rock band, wasn’t something I thought he was going to go for,” Turner later told an interviewer. When Haino surprised Turner by saying yes, the guitarist and his bandmates headed to Japan for a daylong recording session that involved no rehearsal, prewritten material, or advance planning of any kind. The music they emerged with is oceanic in both scope and texture. Hardly anyone plays the same thing for two measures in a row, buffeting the shore with crisscrossing whitecaps of feedback and noise rather than hammering away at anything resembling a riff. Songs stretch toward horizon lines 10 and 15 minutes away, traversing multiple crests and canyons in that time. As a guitarist, Haino contributes to the squall; as a vocalist, he flails against it, alternately anguished and frenetic. At times, he is like a stand-in for the listener, fighting to keep his head above water. American Dollar Bill can be an intense listen, almost unbearably so. Maintaining that extremity of feeling for over an hour—even in the album’s quiet passages—is an impressive feat unto itself.—ANDY CUSH
Communion is an album of pristine arrangements, occasionally interrupted by chaos. On Park Jiha’s debut under her own name, the Korean composer and multi-instrumentalist favors sonorities of just two or three voices, giving consideration to the distinctive physical qualities of each, with enough open space to appreciate the percussive force of each attack and fading trail of each decay. Blending Korean and Western instruments, she creates iridescent hues and diamond-cut edges, using purely acoustic sounds to channel the meditative clarity of ambient and new age electronic music. Deftly balancing composition, improvisation, and atmosphere, Communion could easily slot into the ECM catalog. (Originally released in Korea in 2016, it was repressed for an international audience by Glitterbeat Records this year.) Jiha and her small ensemble withhold their considerable intensity as players for key moments, puncturing the serenity of “All Souls Day” with dueling free-jazz solos on saxophone and the double-reed piri, and bringing the minimalist pules of “Accumulation of Time” and “Sounds Heard From the Moon” to electrifying rhythmic climaxes. It’s in moments of tension like these, with unpredictable human energy coursing through environs where every other element is layered just so, that Communion goes from merely impressive to transcendent.—ANDY CUSH
Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto
On Glass, Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto bring abstract composition together with the physicality of architecture. In 2016, the duo behind the original score for Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant united for a 37-minute live performance on the grounds of the Glass House, Philip Johnson’s legendary modernist home in New Canaan, CT. The musicians placed tiny microphones around the interior of the house to capture the ambient sound of the architecture itself—every resonant tone on glass, or rustle of feet on carpet, was recorded and filtered back into the mix. “I liked the idea of playing for the architecture,” said Sakamoto of his process. Alva Noto’s crystalline electronics work to counterbalance Sakamoto’s tendency toward the acoustic. The resulting music is at once considered and meditative, delicate and resolute, taking dictation from the physical space itself. As a conceptual sound experiment and collaborative live album, Glass is singularly entrancing. — WILL GOTTSEGEN
I Started Wearing Black
It’s true that Sonia Güttler was wearing black when she made this album. Per the album’s lengthy Bandcamp description, her reasons for this were more personal than artistic, having to do with “lovesickness,” “gaining weight,” and “feeling ugly.” There’s a dimension of personal blackness in the music, as Güttler mines ambient darkness for sound art that’s at once gloomy and cathartic. Opener “Majority Vote” is the most conventionally “electronic” track here, with warping atmospheres and a pulsing bass note throughout. But as beats sink away, lo-fi house and techno transforms into something more sinister, and less easily categorized. Highlights “Rust” and “White Trash Rouge Noir,” with persistent rattles of digital percussion, capture anxiety without sounding hopeless or depressive. In Sonae’s ghostly compositions, black is the medium and the message.—WILL GOTTSEGEN
Aequa, a collection of chamber and solo works by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, is an excellent survey of the Icelandic composer’s artistry. Her music tends to evoke landscapes and natural processes, with cathartic moments that arrive by sheer instinct, breaking up windswept stretches of open space. Aequa begins with the elemental “Scape,” a solo work in which pianist Cory Smythe exploits every textural possibility of the instrument, using silence and pure noise in ways that would have made John Cage proud. But Thorvaldsdottir’s string writing is the highlight, blending eerie textural effects with languid, mournful melodic passages, as on the dazzling “Illumine.” Across Aequa, Thorvaldsdottir and the ICE make the most of only one or two tones, dwelling on them at length as the listener’s innate sense of time and urge for progression slips away. Different instruments revoicing the same note begin to sound like they are changing pitches—one of the many aural illusions Thorvaldsdottir achieves in this collection. Dissonant orchestral whirligigs dance across these sustained backgrounds like passing hallucinations. Moments of sweeter tonality are fleeting, and thus especially meaningful—beautiful hues on the horizon at dusk.—WINSTON COOK-WILSON
(West Mineral Ltd.)
On the vinyl pressing for Ryan Fall’s second release as uon, there’s an inscription that reads, “Love is the eternal mood.” In the dense textures of this untitled project, uon traces emotion with music that’s meant to envelop, and to surround. “Solaris” is an immersive, 17-minute epic in soft focus. No single element of the instrumental palette is ever quite clear, and there’s a constant sense of some intangible churning beneath the surface. “Bus” is a more chaotic take on the slow viscosity of “Solaris,” while “J” turns like fan blades pushing out short bursts of air. These are evocations, not clear images—three distinct emotional impressions, all with an ear toward love.—WILL GOTTSEGEN
Nothing Is Still
Leon Vynehall came up in the world of club music, and has all but perfected his particular blend of bouncy downtempo house in the six years since his debut EP. Nothing Is Still marks a stylistic shift for the British producer, dealing more in neoclassical ambient composition than anything else. It is his most fully realized work to date. The album’s concept centers around Vynehall’s grandparents, who made a seven-day emigration from the southeastern U.K. to New York City in the 1960s. Inspired by that family history, the music reflects all the uncertainty, apprehension, and hopeful expectation of a single week in the life of two travelers. More like a storybook than a conventional album, Nothing Is Still unfolds in a series of nine “chapters,” with attached “footnotes” that comprise a rich diversity of electronic sounds and styles. Warping, metronomic slow-claps form the backbone of “Envelopes (Chapter VI),” while the garbled vocal samples and static fuzz of “Julia (Footnote IV)” make for one of the album’s most compelling meditations. With Nothing Is Still, Vynehall turns his attention from the ecstatic highs of the club to the inevitable crash of the train ride home—something less Berghain, more baroque.—WILL GOTTSEGEN