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20 Best Avant Albums of 2014

The year’s best in noise, out-jazz, contemporary classical, ambient, drone and more

Best Avant Albums

On the fringes of 2014, Ben Frost made suffocating electronic noise that was greeted like an expressionist rock records, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith continued his role as jazz's longform boundary pusher and Stine Janvin Motland made electric improv without holding an instrument in her hands. 

Vicky Chow, 'Tristan Perich: Surface Image'
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Vicky Chow, ‘Tristan Perich: Surface Image’

New York blip wrangler Tristan Perich composed this dizzying, disorienting 63-minute symphony for piano and 1-bit pixels blooping and chirping from 40 individual speakers. Pianist Vicky Chow interacts with these manic chiptune lightning bugs in fascinating ways — first by matching them, playing in sharply defined Philip Glass rectangles; then by playing against their alarm clock relentlessness for a cool darkjazz coda. Imagine Terry Riley's Rainbow in Curved Air played by an orchestra of digital watches and cooing calculators.

Richard Dawson, 'Nothing Important'
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Richard Dawson, ‘Nothing Important’

Purging his 16-minute fever dreams as he pokes and prods on a busted guitar, this 33-year-old Newcastle yarn-spiller makes abrasive, buzzing, in-the-red, distortion-clad folk music that stumbles and squawks to its own beat. Somewhere between the twisted ankle rhythms of Captain Beefheart, the freewheeling melodies of British folk weirdos like the Incredible String Band, and the choked, caustic guitar strangle of Eugene Chadbourne, Richard Dawson is a songwriter without peer or precedent. His voice ricochets between a sensitive croon, a demented throat-shredding gurgle and long drone like the pubstool version of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Lyrically, Dawson speaks in faded Polaroids and misremembered details ("A toby jug filled to the brim with curtain hooks/A sheepskin rug discolored with tobacco smoke") giving his exaggerated tales unexpected weight and depth.

Craig Leon, 'Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music, Vol. 1: Nommos/Visiting'
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Craig Leon, ‘Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music, Vol. 1: Nommos/Visiting’

A beautiful work of fan fiction in which synthesizer bliss-crafter Craig Leon imagines the music of extraterrestrials believed to have communication with a Malian tribe. It was recorded between 1980 and 1982, but was partially re-recorded and remastered for this edition. So what is this record exactly when it re-lands in 2014 with its bubbling, talkative textures, sky-filling drones and primitive drum machines? A lost incubation moment for minimal techno? An ambient record with sharp edges? A peak release for the unexpected new age revival? A cosmic response to John Fahey-style ecstatic country blues? Suicide having a Tangerine Dream?

Ben Frost, 'A U R O R A'
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Ben Frost, ‘A U R O R A’

Composer Ben Frost — who has built a decade-long career on Swans-indebted deep drone and brittle orchestral mutterings — launched himself into a noisy, chaotic, deeply layered sound world for his Mute debut. A U R O R A, an album of melancholy, future-shocked robo-noise, thrusts nostalgic textures into bold, overwhelming, future-minded arrangements. There's a VHS familiarity in the industrial crunches, hissing steam, radar pings, sizzling static and slurping slurps. But the sounds collide and explode in suffocating blasts that alternate between heart-warming (the orchestral-bell-pounding astro-shoegaze of "Nolan") and the heartbeat-raising (the 91-second "Diphenyl Oxilate" can only be described as "Tim Hecker grindcore"). Existing on its own plain between noise album, ambient boundary push and cinematic foley work, A U R O R A is like a flickering TV wall from Blade Runner blasting a scrambled signal, a float through Alien's Nostromo or a subterranean sewer dancehall record for C.H.U.D.s.

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