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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.

Pharmakon, 'Contact'
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Pharmakon, ‘Contact’

On her third and best album, New York noise artist Pharmakon abandons the pound-and-yell power electronics that made her a critical fave, instead favoring a more patient layering of blasts, squelches and harsh drone. Instead of a weaponized bludgeon, it’s more like a harsher, more vein-popping answer to the Midwest brand of Wolf Eyes creep-out: pained and claustrophobic cries from the din (“Nakedness of Need”), trance-like wall-screaming (“Transmission”) or slaughterhouse scrapes (“Sleepwalking Form”).

Nico Niquo, 'In a Silent Way'
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Nico Niquo, ‘In a Silent Way’

Prolific New York/Ohio cassette label Orange Milk is the absolute vanguard of turning the uncanny valley into a halfpipe, a global network of Lawnmower Men and Tank Girls connecting the future-shocked worlds of vaporwave, footwork, hypnogogic pop and New Age. This ambient album from Melbourne, Australia’s Nico Niquo slowly cruises through the hyper-real, creating a stunning gleam like a soundtrack for a vacation with a flying toaster screensaver. “There are only a handful of ‘instruments’ on the album – some clarinet, saxophone and mallet percussion that friends and I recorded,” he told Rolling Stone. “Apart from that, everything else is kind of like a cheap, plastic impression of an instrument or something divorced from reality altogether.”

Ornette Coleman, 'Celebrate Ornette'
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Ornette Coleman, ‘Celebrate Ornette’

Ornette Coleman’s influence squiggles and dances across more than 50 years, as jazzers, composers and punks all found liberation through his unique angles and rule-breaking expression. This recording of a 2014 Brooklyn tribute concert is, naturally, a wellspring of subverted expectations. Heartland rocker Bruce Hornsby blazes through a cascade of out-there sound with formalist Branford Marsalis; Flea funkily holds down the zig-zagging of Henry Threadgill on three Coleman numbers; John Zorn solos madly over a bed of drone provided by Laurie Anderson, Bill Laswell and Lou Reed guitar tech Stewart Hurwood; the frantic “Song X” is turned celebratory by the Master Musicians of Jajouka, James Blood Ulmer and more. Coleman is here too on two tracks that make up the last 19 minutes of his output – both featuring the 84-year-old legend’s lyrical lightning bolts over an ensemble and tapping by Savion Glover.

Diamanda Galas, 'All the Way'
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Diamanda Galás, ‘All the Way’

One of the most visceral, transfixing live performers in any musical medium returns to paint the American songbook like Hieronymus Bosch. With an operatic vocal range, fireworks piano chops, and a new and thrilling fearlessness for long-held notes, Galás skywrites around songs popularized by Frank Sinatra (“All the Way”), B.B. King (“The Thrill Is Gone”), Johnny Paycheck (“Pardon Me I’ve Got Someone to Kill”) and more. The highlight is a must-hear, nearly 11-minute take on nearly century old folk brooder “O Death,” recorded in 2005. “When I finished that performance, there was blood all over the keyboard,” she told Rolling Stone. “I couldn’t imagine why. What I had done is I had broken my nails, all of them, when I was playing. And I never enjoyed a performance so much in my life.”

Bing and Ruth, 'No Home of the Mind'
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Bing and Ruth, ‘No Home of the Mind’

This five-man Brooklyn drone-and-twinkle crew led by pianist David Moore shimmers and fogs, turning the lessons of Charlemagne Palestine, Stars of the Lid, Philip Glass, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Brian Eno into lush, majestic, dreamy works for a small group.

Dean Hurley, 'Anthology Resource Vol. 1: △△'
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Dean Hurley, ‘Anthology Resource Vol. 1: △△’

This collection of drones, hums, fogs, whooshes, slowly sawing melodies and harsh electrical storms represents raw material made for David Lynch’s Twin Peaks relaunch. Concocted by longtime Lynch collaborator Dean Hurley and assembled like a “library record,” they play like a dark ambient journey with a remarkably diverse, developed palette – “Slow One Chord Blues (Interior)” sounds like the parking lot of a lively night at the Bang Bang Bar while “Low Sustained Mystery” is a subterranean rumble. “David has taught me this, totally … I personally need to forget how a lot of this stuff was made,” Hurley told Rolling Stone. “Because once I forget what I’m listening to, then I can appreciate it as purely sound.”

Mario Batkovic, 'Mario Batkovic'
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Mario Batkovic, ‘Mario Batkovic’

Bosnian-born accordion hypnotist Mario Batkovic is a cyclicing minimalist, culling mesmerizing melodies and sounds from a lone squeezebox. Not content to be just another post–Philip Glass loopster, Batkovic uses a close microphone set up, allowing the clicks and clacks of the keys to be part of his sound world, creating delicate (“Restrictus”), frantic (“Machina”) and deep-droning (“Desiderii Patriae”) music with the formal feel of classical but the closeness of indie rock. 

Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition, 'Agrima'
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Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition, ‘Agrima’

Influenced by both Indian folk and American rock, this blazing jazz trio creates an interplay that’s immediate with a texture that’s unique: Mahanthappa on sax, Rez Abassi on guitar and Dan Weiss splitting his time between tabla and drum kit, burning through glistening melodies. Mahanthappa plays in starts and stops, slow winds and bursts of tricky flurries, but he’ll also provide a harmonium-like drone when it’s time for Abassi to solo. With its hard-driving feel and a bit of distortion, the group’s latest record is just as quick to feel like indie-rock moodmakers Morphine (“Showcase”) or punk guitar heroes Television (“Agrima”).

Prurient, 'Rainbow Mirror'
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Prurient, ‘Rainbow Mirror’

Dominick Fernow’s American noise institution savagely sneers into a new direction on nearly three-and-a-half hours of void-gazing, smoke-pluming misery smeared across four CDs or seven pieces of vinyl. He dubs this longform muck “doom electronics,” and the album does indeed play like an expressionist rendering of doom metal: lengthy run times, creaking cryptkeeper textures an overarching gauze of ambient gloom. But the real step forward here is turning his one-man power electronics sweatbomb into a trio, giving this hissing, buzzing, slow-curdling stew an almost jazz-like depth and interplay.

Lee Gamble, 'Mnestic Pressure'
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Lee Gamble, ‘Mnestic Pressure’

On 2014’s Koch, Birmingham memory-hole spelunker Lee Gamble made music that sounded like house music as heard from the bathroom, lobby, cigarette break or walk to your cab. Follow-up Mnestic Pressure is a foggier dream, taking in beatless washes, bass that distends and mutates, and occasionally snatches of conversation or tire squeals. Jungle techno flickers with the arrhythmic patterns of thought.

Vijay Iyer Sextet, 'Far From Over'
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Vijay Iyer Sextet, ‘Far From Over’

With five all-star musicians absolutely bursting with frenetic chops, boundary-pushing pianist Vijay Iyer tumbles through a hard-rocking, head-boggling, weirdly grooving set of tunes. Complete with absolutely shredding sax solos from Steve Lehman and Mark Shim, the album sometimes plays like funk with a broken leg (“Far From Over”), sometimes like electric Miles on an ambient bender (“End of the Tunnel,” “Wake”) and sometimes as Beefheart bop (“Down to the Wire”). Though Iyer’s unique vision bridges this melding of calculus and fiery solos, special note should be given to drummer Tyshawn Sorey – a recent MacArthur Genius Grant recipient ­– somehow keeping everything together with a groove equal parts King Crimson and J. Dilla. 

The Necks, 'Unfold'
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The Necks, ‘Unfold’

After spending decades unspooling long-form pieces of slowly building, meditative, telepathic improv, Australian ambient jazz trio the Necks have made their first masterwork for the new era of 22-minute vinyl sides. Unlabeled (they can be played in any order), some of these four tracks partially eschew the glacial builds and slow-lane cruises they made their name on, instead opting for a more static ambient interplay (“Rise,” “Timepiece”) with drummer Tony Buck treating his seed-shell shakers or snare drum brushes as scenery builders instead of dramatic tools. The other two songs prove they are still the Tarkovskys of jazz ­– “Blue Mountain” hitting a mournful, cymbal-heavy post-rock crescendo and “Overhear” playing like Bernie Worrell jamming with a Williams Sonoma.

Chino Amobi, 'Paradiso'
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Chino Amobi, ‘Paradiso’

The way nightmares play in a wired world. Paradiso, by Virginia producer Chino Amobi, is “noise album” in only the most literal sense, a cinematic collage of ideas creating a decentralized, global, post-Internet, post-digital pile-up of sounds – it works almost like a modern version of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s national anthem–tweaking late Sixties work Hymnen. Amobi’s work is both political and media-aware, so this 71-minute trip into his personal terrordome features not only a marching band and sirens, but mixtape-style drops and samples.

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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