Published Dec 11, 2015Our Best of 2015 album lists by genre end today with our staff picks for the 10 best improv and avant-garde albums released this year. Unlike our other lists, this list is not ranked; these are simply 10 of the best experimental albums released in 2015, arranged in no particular order.
Click next to read through the albums one by one, or use the list below to skip ahead to your favourites.
On Monday (December 14), our year-end coverage will continue with Exclaim!'s Top 10 Most Underrated Albums.
In the meantime, head here to see more of Exclaim!'s Best of 2015 lists.
Top 10 Improv & Avant-Garde Albums:
- Benoît Pioulard - Sonnet
- Emika - Klavírní
- Kreng - The Summoner
- Christina Vantzou - No. 3
- Erik Griswold - Pain Avoidance Machine
- Christian Scott - Stretch Music
- Esmerine - Lost Voices
- Christian Wallumrød - Pianokammer
- Lee Bannon - Pattern of Excel
- Max Richter - Sleep
Sometimes — and this happens to be the case with Benoit Pioulard's Sonnet — an album is magically improved by the vinyl pressing. There's something about the hazy textures and daydream drones here that seek the needle of a turntable. The nostalgic production of Sonnet lends itself nicely to crackling static, and the record practically begs for minor surface wear. These beautiful imperfections are fully realized in the absence of vocals.
There is almost no point in describing the individual songs on this album; they are hopelessly tangled in branches of reverb. Sonnet doesn't build any landmarks for the listener, so it passes through the consciousness with subtlety, allowing one to lose themselves along the way. "A Shade of Celadon" is the only piece that resembles the lyrical Pioulard, and even that song is muffled with thick distortion. Wordless and otherworldly, Sonnet seems less of an album and more like a memory recalled in beautiful fragments.
Ema Jolly earned her notoriety as Emika with a leftfield vocal dubstep sound that led to her self-titled debut being released by Ninja Tune in 2011. Following 2013's Dva, she struck out on her own label, and immediately returned to her roots as a classically trained pianist and composer. This year's Klavírní followed up a bonus EP that was included with the download of Dva, which contained the first three movements of the piano suite. Hence, this album starts at "Dilo 4" and goes to "Dilo 16" over its 35-minute runtime.
Written, performed and produced by Jolly herself, Klavírní was captured on a Zoom H4n field recorder placed behind Jolly as she played a Karl Müller piano. The sound is so intimate you can hear the faint squeaking of the sustain pedals, yet there are light electronic touches that accentuate the otherworldly gravity of the compositions, like the stutters on "Dilo 4," the surreal delays on "Dilo 5" and the trailing double-tracking on "Dilo 6." Throughout, she manages to coax as much emotional resonance out of her piano as she did with her soul-searching vocals previously. Klavírní might just be one of the most moving piano albums ever made.
Helmed by Pepijn Caudron, Kreng went deeper than they ever had before on The Summoner. The album sheds much of the heavily sampled dark ambient craft that marked his earlier recordings, circa 2007-2011, replaced by the use of 12-string players with a more improvisatory classical focus. Orchestral swells in a Krzysztof Penderecki vein rise out of minimal, organic textures, at once visceral and cinematic.
Written in the wake of a terrible year during which Caudron lost several close friends, the album was forged to evoke the five stages of grief, hence the track titles: "Denial," "Anger," "Bargaining," "Depression" and "Acceptance." The lone exception to that Kübler-Ross concept is the title track, which also happens to contain the album's most mind-blowing moment. Aided by Belgian doom band Amenra, the organs and distorted metal guitars on "The Summoner" give way to screamed vocals and digital distortion that underscore the magnitude of its dynamic catharsis. Mastered by Nils Frahm, The Summoner is as ominous as it is compelling.
Belgian composer Christina Vantzou's third full-length album is an arresting conjuration of spectral beauty. Over the course of its nearly 71 minutes, the straightforwardly titled No. 3 takes the listener on anything but a straightforward journey, navigating a murky path through dense vistas of fastidiously purposed sounds that evoke a myriad of subconscious emotions seemingly channelled from spiritus mundi.
Much of the experience is permeated by droning undertones traded between slow, deep cello bowings and simmering synth pads, which creates a perpetual state of minor tension that pays off in supporting both haunting minor key melody turns and, in its absences, moments of catharsis. While her work is clearly designed with the patient, attentive listener in mind, and never intended to be flashy or traditionally catchy, No. 3 is of such distinct compositional character that every swell, throb, gurgle and swooning string sears the memory banks.
In displaying this level of artistry and craftsmanship, Christina Vantzou has cemented herself as a major new voice in the evolution of ambient and classical music.
Scott A. Gray
Pain Avoidance Machine
Since the late '80s, American-born, Australian-based composer Erik Griswold has quietly risen as a master of the prepared piano. While Hauschka tends to imbue his prepared piano pieces with a certain whimsy, Pain Avoidance Machine gathers the expected plinks and buzzing string distortions into a collection of driving meditations seething with rawness.
As opposed to his sprawling Wallpaper Music triptych from 2007, which was Griswold's last release for Room40, this album is broken into 15 tracks that average just over three minutes each, punchy stabs of bell-like percussive timbres arpeggiating in contrast to warbling lower keys and resonant mid-keyboard melodies.
Crafted at his home in Brisbane on an 1887 R. Lipp & Sohn piano as a retreat from a harsh Australian summer, rife with conservative politics and unhealthy heat, Pain Avoidance Machine has an impertinent drive throughout that cannot be ignored or quantized, inviting action rather than introspection.
Regarded as one of jazz music's brightest young talents since his emergence in 2002, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah has not only proven himself as an incredibly skilled brass player, but a key figure in pushing the genre's boundaries and customs to places previously unheard. As an artist who has worked with the likes of Thom Yorke, Thomas Pridgen and Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), among others, it shouldn't come as a surprise that his approach to making Stretch Music was no different.
Scott has succeeded in his goal to "stretch — not replace — jazz's rhythmic, melodic and harmonic conventions to encompass as many musical forms/languages/cultures" as possible, as audible in the worldly rhythms of "TWIN," the hip-hop-leaning drums of "The Horizon" and "Of a New Cool," as well as on the rocking intro and outro of "West of the West," which features grittier guitar than genre purists may anticipate. In supporting his own horn playing, Scott has also found welcome complements in flautist Elena Pinderhughes and alto saxophone player Braxton Cook, who helped make Stretch Music one of 2015's most intriguing records.
Given their pedigree, it shouldn't be surprising that Esmerine would create such an electrifying kind of orchestral chamber music. Founders Bruce Cawdron and Rebecca Foon made names for themselves in Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Silver Mt. Zion, respectively, and are thus no strangers to intense, sprawling and moody musical arrangements.
But up until now, Esmerine have primarily traded in acoustic sounds, with Cawdron swapping his drum kit for a marimba and Foon conjuring dark-hued tones on her cello. On Lost Voices, a record that implicitly deals with rising water, climate change and how neighbourhoods might rally to combat the impact of such crises, there's a greater emphasis on distortion, synthesized sound and rhythms.
There's an immediacy here that makes for a more visceral and empathetic listening experience than their past work. So while they've been compelling for years, on Lost Voices, Esmerine unequivocally command our attention.
What makes this release stand out over and above others is purely a matter of narrative and the attention to style in that context. Christian Wallumrød's thoughtful attention to detail carries Pianokammer forward piece by piece, touching on some stylistic landmarks with a feel and emotional weight unmarred by cleverness or artifice.
"Boyd 70" is not merely a nod to the African piano oeuvre articulated by Abdullah Ibrahim and Randy Weston, but sits beautifully in its own place with nothing to question its strength of purpose. "Fahrkunst" (and "Fahrkunst Second") are equally strong, though they're working in the realm of ambient/electroacoustic sound manipulation, wresting the piano's resonant qualities out of it. These are by no means the only stylistic variants in the release.
Most notable is Pianokammer's calm insistence on the listener paying attention to detail, which, if you let it, draws you into the whole as a complete story. Every piece is an integral part of the novella and leaves the listener with the rare satisfaction that a simple and clear story can give.
This music has more to do with turning pages than scrolling down a screen, and that's what made it a singularity this year.
Pattern of Excel
After proving himself as a top-notch hip-hop beatsmith for Joey Bada$$, Bishop Nehru and others, dabbling in jungle and weaving soul, lounge and drum & bass into compelling half-hour DJ mixes, Sacramento producer Lee Bannon embraced ambient composition on his 2015 LP, Pattern of Excel. Turns out he's good at that, too.
Where many composers and producers try their hand at ambient music with little or no regard for the form, Bannon demonstrates a masterful balance of space and emotion here, scaling everything back to white noise and static-y guitar (or is it piano?) on "DAW in the Sky for Pigs"; employing a subtle, skittering hi-hat beat on the rumbling "Memory 6"; and, on "Suffer Gene," using a vocal sample to create the compelling remnants of what might once have been a melody. Perhaps most beguiling here is "Artificial Stasis," a slow-rolling wave of gentle ambient tones, pitch-shifted vocal touches and, near the end, a man's voice and camera shutter-click.
That the rattling, washed-out production makes it all sound as though you're hearing it through a wall adds a sense of urgency to the proceedings, making Pattern of Excel stand out, even amongst the other compelling drone releases of 2015.
Post-minimalist composer Max Richter's latest work, Sleep, is an eight-hour song cycle created — with the help of input from sleep therapists and scientists — to mimic and aid sleep patterns; you're to fall asleep somewhere among the 25 minutes of opener "Return 16 (time capsule)" and awaken near the end of "Dream 17 (Alpha)." It's a gorgeous listen, all sparse piano, voice, strings and drones; for those who want to enjoy it awake, there's From Sleep, a 50-minute, condensed version of similar thematic compositions.
If it sounds gimmicky, consider the state of music consumption today: we make playlists for dancing, for the gym, for dinner parties, for hangovers, for work; ours is, increasingly, a world in which music provides a specific function and complements our already crammed routines, wherein finding an hour to enjoy a full album has become increasingly difficult. That Richter has composed an album purposely to slow us down, to calm us and lull us to sleep, is almost political in its aims; it critiques, harnesses and subverts the way we listen to music, and still finds a way to make it beautiful.
Sleep is genre-less, timeless music. But more importantly, yes: this album will put you to sleep.