The 20 Best Experimental Records of 2015

20. Zs – Xe

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It’s pretty insane to think of this record, a continuous 42 minutes of virtuosic playing spiked with cacophonous noise, as a document of real time spent by three men in a room. There’s no laptop line-bending in the record’s production, no fifth-take overdubs dropped in. It’s just a few dudes with insane chemistry and an expansive idea of what guitar, saxophone, and drums can sound like together, attacking their instruments with hands, feet, and lungs. Sometimes, that can sound like a hoedown made of locusts, apparently?

19. SOPHIE – Product

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London’s PC Music collective has always been more cutting edge in sound than philosophy. The vague consumerist critique attached to their stuff has been purposefully ill-defined, while their bare bones construction feels clinical and new. There’s a real, if ultra-specific entertainment value in songs so fake they creep you out. The full-length album format doesn’t cause the same kind of single-serving pleasure achieved by SOPHIE’s singles. Like McNuggets, or uh, double-pronged silicone dildos, you’re probably fine having just a couple? Taking them in as a mass leaves you dizzy, disoriented. He makes minimalism feel like excess.

18. Wolf Eyes – I Am a Problem: Mind in Pieces

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Earlier this year, when the Satanic Temple of Detroit unveiled a controversially public statue of the goat-headed wraith Baphomet, cast in towering bronze, Wolf Eyes were the night’s musical entertainment. It was fitting, as 20 years into their prolific career in bat-shit psych-rock, the band have themselves become an institution of sustainable transgression. They’ve made Baphomet knows how many records in that span, and it’s remarkable that one of their most focused should still be such a poke in the eye of straight society, so locked-in it’s far-out.

17. Foodman – Couldwork

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Footwork, the hyper-kinetic dance battle style originated by a tightknit group of Chicago DJs has increasingly been a global concern. Japanese producer Shokuhin Matsuri, aka Foodman, has an abstract take that goes slower and gets stranger, incorporating sound collage techniques and detours through faded vaporwave. Couldwork is eclectic and bizarre. A grating mosquito’s whine anchors one track, a spitfire rap verse from Taiwanese artist Aristophanes (last heard on Grimes’ Art Angels) another. It might not move a crowd, but it sets the brain reeling.

16. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – A Year With 13 Moons

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A longtime wanderer in international drone and ambient circles, Cantu-Ledesma made the coziest, most pop-adjacent record of his career without compromising the gauzy, twice-removed quality of his previous work. He’s called the work intensely personal, its making spurred by the dissolution of relationship. But its lush, abstract sounds can seem quite sweet. The gorgeous, romantic crackle of it! It’s like sharing a first kiss in a blizzard of analog TV snow.

15. Rabit – Communion

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The debut record from Houston producer Eric Burton isn’t dance music so much as flinch music, using intense sounds and claustrophobic rhythms to provoke physical response. Given the current state of the world, leaning on gunfire blast beats as much as this record does could be considered bad taste. But if any old mundane place could turn to a charnel ground in an instant these days, why should our art be a sheltered oasis?

14. U.S. Girls – Half Free

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Meghan Remy sings most U.S. Girls songs in a girl-group lilt that broadcasts a very familiar, nostalgic glow. But she pointedly curdles that comfort by using it to tell stories of women wronged. “Now, I’m going to hang myself,” sings the dejected narrator of the album’s lead track upon marrying a man who’d previously slept with her three sisters. “Hang myself from my family tree.” That sort of grand tragedy imbues all of her skewed genre workouts, including deconstructions of good-time styles like reggae and disco, with a radical, almost mythic sadness.

13. Blanck Mass – Dumb Flesh

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You can’t dance to Fuck Buttons. Benjamin John Power’s second solo record away from his primary duo is obsessed with manipulating the human lump of its title, getting its ass up out of its chair and out on the floor, warping its voice into something just shy of uncanny. But even though his aims are less obscure, Power’s tones remain meticulously off. Dumb Flesh is too thoughtful to stop at cynical thump.

12. Prurient – Frozen Niagara Falls

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Dominick Fernow has never been an ear coddler. If you’re the sort who’s blissed by fearsome noise there was pleasure in his early stuff, the metal-on-metal beauty of watching a power grinder throwing off sparks. In comparison, Frozen Niagara Falls is a symphony. The album’s flourishes of still musicality—the acoustic guitar that opens “Greenpoint,” the warm melodic hum that fills the gaps between broken sounds on “Traditional Snowfall”—are somehow more shocking than all the brutality surrounding them. But death, destruction, murder, suicide, and abject loss still dominate, establishing a baseline of bummer so powerful that light can barely break through.

11. Container – LP

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Ren Schofield’s dive-bar techno carries the sound of old, defective gear being pushed past its normal limits, of frayed wires held together with sheer willpower and one more layer of electrical tape. His third full-length sticks to the driving, minimal style of previous records, but barrels forward even faster with the reckless thrill of a careening car chase. He now seems so sure of what he wants to say that he’s become obsessed with completing the thought before everything fritzes out.

10. Sannhet – Revisionist

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At live shows, Brooklyn metal trio Sannhet blind their audience with flashing epilectic strobes. The lights add a point of sensory focus for the band’s strictly instrumental music, helps an audience let itself be overcome. Alone, on earbuds, their music eventually overwhelms on its own. They bury hissing white noise and pretty piano notes, shift from jazz time to heart-racing black metal beats. The sudden shifts give their music the illusion of sweeping breadth, but their compositions tend to relative economy, epic journeys at pocket scale.

9. Jenny Hval – Apocalypse, girl

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“Think big girl. Like a king,” instructs Jenny Hval at the start of her latest record. If it’s meant to pep herself up, it worked. (“Self-doubt, it’s what I do,” she’ll admit later.) With a blunt but evocative language that’s become her signature, the Norwegian songwriter interrogates the material goals that society leads us to internalize, questions motherhood as the end-all, be-all for femininity, explores her relationship to Christianity and her own body. She repeats the words “soft dick” early and often. Apocalypse, girl is a discomfiting record of gentle avant-pop, an overt feminist statement that’s as likely to be delivered in oddly assured murmurs as loosed, church-pew cries.

8. Holly Herndon – Platform

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Culture comes through in bits now, video clips in 2-minute highlights, loops on 6-second repeat, thoughts clicked away before they’re completed. Holly Herndon’s eerie second record seeks to make sense of those fragments. She swallows up sampled Skype conversation and ASMR videos from YouTube as part of her ultra-modern electronic pop. That high-concept disruption, the constant shivers and shudders, is only partly the point. Ultimately, big choral melodies dominate. The purity of human voices proves more than a match for digital glitches, seeking to corrupt them.

7. Arca – Mutant

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After an enchanted run of production work for Kanye, FKA Twigs, and Bjork that’s defined the left-edge of modern pop music possibility, this is Venezualan producer Alejandro Ghersi’s strongest personal statement. It’s a shapeshifting hourlong epic that reflects our evolving ideas on identity, the mutability and possibility that allows. Ghersi’s greatest skill is making his electronic elements seem unpredictable and imperfect, to create synthetic sounds as messy as a ball of guts. Mutant is alternately shy, savage, ashamed, accepting, tender, and triumphant.

6. Jlin – Dark Energy

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The debut record by young Gary, Indiana producer Jerilynn Patton, recorded on her days off from a day job at a local steel mill, is dramatic and assured. It’s of a piece with the Chicago footwork scene nearby. She uses rapid booming beats, specifically calibrated for the intense dancing its clubs demand, in tandem with abstract touches that set her work apart. Single songs incorporate shards of opera, glitched Eastern singing, horror movie snippets, or schoolyard chants. Those far-flung vocal bits are the only samples she uses, atypical in a sample-heavy genre. The rest of Dark Energy is just Jlin finding her voice.

5. Eartheater – RIP Chrysalis

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Every so often on Eartheater’s second album, Alexandra Drewchin emerges from a twinkling new age fog to perform mesmeric folk music with a devil’s tongue. When she holds herself back, her music is strange and pretty. Occupying her songs’ center, she’s utterly hypnotic. Cat Power is a useful comparison, but Drewchin prefers sly surrealism to focused melancholy. She’s at full force on “Wetware,” strumming over a synth pulse copped from an 80s thriller, and singing with herself in separate, schizophrenic voices. “I move through walls like soft, warm water,” she repeats with dire urgency. It sounds like a prophetic warning or a deranged threat. You’re shook either way.

4. Lightning Bolt – Fantasy Empire

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They’ve been happily blasting away from sticky club floors for a couple decades now, but on Lightning Bolt’s seventh LP, drummer Brian Chippendale and bassist Brian Gibson seem suddenly ready for a bigger stage (if only a metaphorical one). Despite their longevity, this is the first Lightning Bolt record made in a pro studio. Its clamor is rendered in sharp HD. Their style of noise rock, containing shades of hardcore and metal without belonging to either, is now quite distinctive and they’re not going for reinvention here. But there’s a clarity of sound and vision that makes them seem like a hibernating monster, finally risen from the deep.

3. Bjork – Vulnicura

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Going in to her 11th studio album, there was a sense that while Björk’s art remained ever ambitious, its personal stakes had grown distant. Her last album, Biophilia, successfully dramatized celestial bodies but felt too obscured from flesh and blood. Vulnicura, a wrenching chronicle that tracks the disintegration of her longtime relationship with artist Matthew Barney, doesn’t have that problem. “Emotional landscapes,” a term she coined early in her career, lingers in mind now as the best description for a mostly indescribable style. Fortified by regal strings and Arca’s amorphous synths, her voice lends almost too much feeling to every word, as if she had to invent syllables that couldn’t be read on a lyric sheet just to get it all in. When applied to lines as heart-rending and unmistakable as “Did I love you too much?” the affect is utterly devastating. It’s a difficult listen, but it should be. For such an iconic performer, Björk displays an incredible amount of vulnerability here. It’s not indulgent. It’s amazingly generous.

2. Julia Holter – Have You in My Wilderness

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In just five years, over four killer records, Julia Holter has graduated from charmed laptop novice to a chamber-pop savant, confidently searching. She’s been too interesting and too consistent in that span to rule out continued growth from here. Still, Have You in My Wilderness feels like a beautiful peak. The music’s so light that you lose track of its complications. Holter’s background in modern and classical composition remains a competitive advantage, but this record also traipses through California’s history of FM radio hits. You can hear faint traces of Brian Wilson looking at the sea on strong acid, overwhelmed by its shimmer, or Christine McVie growing mordant on red wine. Her vocal phrasing has never been better. She regularly chooses high-minded, neglected words and lets them fall into a song like a light rain. She builds characters from a few key details but keeps them mysterious, compelling you to flesh out their full circumstances. She keeps throwing herself into other people’s stories. She keeps sounding like herself.

1. Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden of Delete

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Daniel Lopatin’s work as Oneohtrix Point Never has been constantly respected, but consistently removed. He’s played with the kitsch of obsolete electronic tones, given academic weight to the ways nostalgia makes us misremember sounds. It feels wrong to call an album as deeply weird as Garden of Delete anyone’s big populist statement, but for a guy as elusive as Lopatin, it feels practically universal. This is his heaviest record. “Sludge” and “ooze” have been frequent, apt descriptions of the record’s dense, smushed, sliding sound. But in a strange way, it’s very fun. It’s big and gaudy and physical, packed with shocks and surprises, moments that would once have demanded a hasty cassette rewind and now a cursor scroll backwards to hear them again, immediately. In its ungainly abstraction, the record channels the body horror and emotional wreckage of the teenage experience. He’s using black metal roars, EDM drops, Italian splatter flick soundtracks, and melted car-radio pop vocals here, bits of music loved by young people at very different places and eras, finding common ground between them. Garden of Delete evokes a moment in time when everyone felt like a dumb, gross alien, an age when you’d do anything to have those big messy feelings reflected right back to you.