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20 Best Avant Albums of 2017

The year’s best in ambient, noise, out-jazz, experimental electronic and more

In 2017, a generation of electronic musicians continued to distend and distort, Lee Gamble seeming to plumb our past and Chino Amobi navigating our nightmare present. The two-disc Celebrate Ornette closed the nearly 60-year career of an experimental jazz icon, but artists like Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa proved that a future of rule-breakers is assured. And while Prurient released a somewhat imposing four CDs of gloom, Dean Hurley helped provide noise for one of the most acclaimed TV shows of the year.

Blanck Mass, 'World Eater'
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Blanck Mass, ‘World Eater’

Half of analog joy-screamers Fuck Buttons, Benjamin John Power imbues his hissing, tension-filled dystopian technoise with optimism, ecstasy and a blown-out sound. “Please” is like a house music handbag designed by Chris Cunningham, the screams in “Resus Negative” are like Blade Runner hardcore, and “Silent Treatment” and “Hive Mind” are like trap for the uncanny valley. A Ben Frost–y world of hot laptops and sensory overload, but with a tenuous memory of what was once Earth’s dance floors.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, 'The Kid'
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Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, ‘The Kid’

The gorgeous sixth album from California landscapist Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith reclaims the avant-garde from noiseniks, dronesters, moaners, skronkers, mathletes and art-punks: challenging but beautiful, pastoral but hyperactive. Recorded with early-Seventies analog synth the Buchla Music Easel, her rainbow-bursting arpeggios follow in the transcendent tradition of artists like Terry Riley or Laurie Spiegel, but her music is far removed from the repetition and simplicity of minimalism. Instead she creates pastoral soundworlds stuffed with a prismatic array of bubbles, gurgles and bloops – part Jackson Pollock, part Lisa Frank – sometimes working in tandem and sometimes creating tension. “I​ ​was​ ​curious​ ​where​ ​our​ ​hearing​ ​would​ ​evolve​ ​to​ ​next,​ ​and​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​play around​ ​with​ ​the​ ​idea​ ​that​ ​our​ ​hearing​ ​would​ ​be​ ​able​ ​to​ ​split ​so​ ​​we​ ​could​ ​hear​ ​two different​ ​conversations​ ​at​ ​once,” she told Rolling Stone.​ “​And​ ​so,​ ​I​ ​played​ ​with​ ​that​ ​a​ ​lot​ ​on​ ​the​ ​album …​ ​of​ ​having the​ ​left​ ​side​ ​and​ ​the​ ​right​ ​side​ ​feel​ ​like​ ​they’re​ ​pulling​ ​for​ ​your​ ​attention​ ​in​ ​different ways.” And more than her breakthrough LP, 2016’s Ears, Smith imbues everything with her highly processed voice, The Kid playing like alien indie rock for an album with a “sub-theme” no less ambitious than the human life cycle.

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