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20 Best Avant Albums of 2016

The year’s best in ambient, noise, out-jazz, synth music, contemporary composition and more

Tanya Tagaq, Wadada Leo Smith and Mats Gustafsson made some of the year's best avant-garde releases.

Courtesy of Six Shooter Records, Jack Vartoogian/Getty, Brian Rasic/Getty

The year's best avant-garde and experimental music includes both Merzbow, the biggest name in noise, and Moor Mother, its most exciting new star. There's artists that sculpt with cassette tapes, overtones, generative software and field recordings of Icelandic geothermal activity. And a pair of Grammy-nominated albums, soundtracking one of 2016's most popular TV shows, may be a gateway to experimental music for years. Here's 2016 in the off-center and exploratory.

Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith, 'A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke'
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Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith, ‘A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke’

This landmark collaboration between a genre-hopping modern MacArthur Fellow and a veteran avant-jazz icon quietly launches two busy players into something minimal, cinematic and eerily ambient. Though certainly understandable as a part of ECM Records' 40-year lineage, A Cosmic Rhythm is less like labelmates Keith Jarrett or Don Cherry, and a more like an electronics-indebted companion to the ice-cold Raster Norton micro-jazz of Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Iyer's piano is more textural than anything, a tender subsonic Satie burble of reserved patterns and gentle cascades. Smith, conversely, has a perfectly clear and ringing trumpet, taking long expressive cries and huge equally expressive pauses. Beautiful and austere: Think Miles Davis' Ascenseur Pour l'Échafaud soundtrack for the age of artificial-intelligence flicks.

Brian Eno, 'The Ship'
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Brian Eno, ‘The Ship’

The germ for Brian Eno's latest project, he told Rolling Stone, was, "What about making a song that you could walk around inside?" The Ship's long, immersive, vocal-melody-heavy pieces are certainly songlike – catchy even – but without being tethered to rhythm. More than any Eno album, this combines all of his disciplinary muses: The gorgeous drifts of his tectonic-shifting ambient music, the generative logic of his addictive iPhone app, the dead-eyed vocals of his art-rock Seventies and the big vision of his museum installations. Plus, his long obsession with taffy-stretching tweaks on the human voice puts him in a current contextual conversation with Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Bon Iver and Oneohtrix Point Never, among others. Still, following 42 minutes of nautical ping and celestial float, a straightforward cover of the Velvet Underground's "I'm Set Free" feels like arriving at a familiar harbor.                        

Fox/Soper Duo, 'Magenta Line'
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Fox/Soper Duo, ‘Magenta Line’

The drumming of New York City machine gun Greg Fox (Liturgy, Zs, Ben Frost) is a radioactive link between extreme metal excess and spiritual-jazz improv. On this 44-minute cassette he teams with modular synth tweaker Ryan Soper in a noise-punk antler-knot of gnashing noise. They're sometime locked together like a rock band, occasionally dueling like beasts, but usually sounding like Naked City drummer Joey Baron in a slaughterhouse. The scuzz-meets-sweat sound is reminiscent of Aughties loftcore crews like Mindflayer and Sightings, but the warm effect pedals have been updated for our harsh new digital reality. And when Fox plays psychedelic eighth notes against the void in "N," it sounds like Oneida meets harsh-noiser Kevin Drumm meets the chord progression from INXS' "The One Thing."

Autechre, 'Elseq 3'
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Autechre, ‘Elseq 3’

Though it's hard not to think of the four hours of new music simultaneously released by Autechre in 2016 as one jittery binge-listen cycle, its longest and most monolithic piece stands alone as a sizzling, wildly modern blur of electronic music, dark ambient and 20th Century composition, sounding like a virtual-reality version of Alvin Lucier's Music on a Long Thin Wire. With swarms of dissonance, the 22-minute "Eastre" heaves and convulses and snaps like a pit of digital snakes, and the 24-minute "Mesh Cinereal" boils like a shoegaze song sputtering and coughing its way out of an industrial slurry. Save the comparatively tiny "TBM2," an interlude that plinks and booms like a corroded version of the Mantronix beats Autechre were weaned on in the Eighties, Elseq 3 is deconstructed club music in the vein of Oneohtrix Point Never, Roly Porter and Lee Gamble. Here, the textures of lost, strobe-flickered nights are spread out into an expressionist tapestry.

Esperanza Spalding, 'Emily's D+Evolution'
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Esperanza Spalding, ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’

After a Best New Artist Grammy and the well-received Radio Music Society, bassist-composer Esperanza Spalding could have certainly carved out a perfectly mellow career as America's virtuosic ambassador between contemporary jazz, neo-soul and pop music. Instead, on her first album in four years, she bravely and brilliantly machetes through thornier paths, including math-metal shredding ("Good Lava"), Laurie Anderson–style vocalizing ("Rest in Pleasure," "Ebony and Ivy") and brain-boggling progressive-rock majesty ("Elevate and Operate"). This unclassifiable art-funk-prog-bop concept opus is about identity, an unflinching look at love as theater, simmering rage over dreams deferred and class privilege. "Farewell Dolly" yearns for a piece of the pie, but by album's end she's doing a dissonant yet enthusiastic cover of Veruca Salt's Willy Wonka lament "I Want It All" and taking the whole thing.

Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, Stranger Things Vol. 1 and 2
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Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, ‘Stranger Things, Volume One and Two’

The uncanny 1983 of Netflix series Stranger Things was a communicable virus of national nostalgia; and much of the heavy lifting was done via the vintage synthesizers of composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of Austin band Survive. Their warm, pulsating music gave the John Williams era a John Carpenter makeover, tapping playful and romantic melodies with the surging wash of analog keys. Seventy-four brief cues and atmospheres sprawled across four vinyl discs made this the feel-good avant-garde event of the year. More than two hours of vocal-free burbles, drones, gulps and splashes, the albums run the gauntlet from achingly wistful innocence ("Biking to School," "First Kiss") to menacing ambience ("The Upside Down," "No Weapons"), minimalist propulsion ("Gearing Up," "Breaking and Entering") and the absolute panic of 65-second heart-attack "Lights Out." The cassette and CD-R underground has been mining the knob-twiddling era of Tangerine Dream and Vangelis for more than a decade now, but the wildly popular series mixed with Dixon and Stein's diverse emotional palette will likely make this a gateway to the experimental music upside-down for years.

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