The 10 Best Experimental Albums Of 2023

The 10 Best Experimental Albums Of 2023

In a year where tentpole superhero movies are scored by Haxan Cloak and third-world ambient-jazz woodwind opuses are released by André 3000, does the phrase “experimental music” even remotely carry any weight in 2023? As always, the answer is “Look, I clicked the link, please just tell me about some albums I can listen to at work.” Here are my personal picks for the year’s best in drone suites, improv throwdowns, archival treasures, alien soundscapes, modern classical and more.


Charles Curtis, Alan Licht, & Dean Roberts - May 99 (Blank Forms)

Cellist Charles Curtis and guitarists Alan Licht, and Dean Roberts were contemporary drone ambassadors during the late ’90s wave when Tony Conrad, Charlemagne Palestine, Angus Maclise, and Phill Niblock were quietly, patiently getting their CD rediscoveries. This snapshot recorded at the end of their 1999 European tour finds them attentively improvising to sine waves. This journey of gentle scratches, feedback, strains, squonks, crackles, and shuddering dissonance travels in bliss but still has the familiar indie-rock stink of a skunky beer bottle resting on an amp.


John Luther Adams - Darkness And Scattered Light (Cold Blue)

Like Grieg’s “Morning Mood” on a different R.E.M. cycle, Darkness And Scattered Light spreads cycling dawn melodies into a bleary, heart-tugging, half-dreaming atmosphere. Performed on double bass by Robert Black, notes aren’t so much played as drawn out into the world, resonant peals of such clarity that they sound like trumpets or vocal ensembles. The glowing “Three High Places” suite is played without touching the neck of the double bass — notes Adams, “If I could’ve found a way to make this music without touching the instrument at all, I would have.” The album’s 16-minute centerpiece “Darkness And Scattered Light” multitracks Black into a quintet, with his long frictions twinkling and glistening.


Ruth Anderson/Annea Lockwood - T​ê​te​-​à​-​Tê​te (Ergot)

The sweet and intimate amour concréte of “Conversations” — an archival recording taking up side B of this three-sided treasure — is possibly the most breathtakingly emo song you’ll hear all year in any genre. In 1974, when the esteemed composers were in the courtship phase of a relationship that would last 50 years, Anderson gifted the piece to Lockwood. It’s a collage of private moments over the phone, shards of mostly contextless conversation — ums, ahhs, hmms, ohhs, really?s, bye-bye-darlings, and lots and lots of laughter. You can read the emotions of their evolving relationship like the shifts in Anderson’s searing drone on the A-side. Lockwood’s pastoral companion piece, “For Ruth,” remixes the conversations with field recordings of their Montana home where they spent years before Anderson’s death in 2019.


Mats Gustafsson & Joachim Nordwall - Their Power Reached Across Space And Time — To Defy Them Was Death — Or Worse (Thrill Jockey)

A good chaser if you felt that Khanate record was too upbeat: Veteran sound artist Joachim Nordwall and saxophone’s worst enemy Mats Gustafsson team up for a lurching, desolate piece of dark dub-ambient. Though Gustafsson’s best known for abrasive, Brötzmann-like full-contact honkage, here he plays a wet, glottal, regurgitative alien hissing on the edge of breathing and making notes. His fingers clatter and clack like plinking straws as Nordwall distends reality.


The NID Tapes: Electronic Music From India 1968-1972 (The State51 Conspiracy)

This unheard bounty of bubbles and sizzles from the archives of India’s first electronic studio bring light to a creative community running parallel to late-’60s sound sculptors like France’s Pierre Henry, America’s Morton Subotnick, and the UK’s BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Mostly sparse, chiming, quirky, and occasionally danceable, these finds are most of a piece with early Dutch composers like Dick Raaijmakers, but there are some incredibly dank moments that should resonate with the most brain-blasted noise freaks. S.C. Scharma’s three “Dance Music” pieces glisten and squelch like no-fi house music, Atul Desai’s squishy collage work wouldn’t sound out of place on a Hanson Records cassette, and I.S. Mathur’s absolutely gnarled “Once I Heard A Tanpura” could be pulled straight out of a No Fun Festival set.


Tim Hecker - No Highs (Kranky)

Re-emerging after the brittle, plasticine sound-shaping of 2018’s Konoyo and 2019’s Anoyo, the 11th album from power-ambient pioneer Tim Hecker returns to what he’s known for: monolithic cascades of synthgaze and enveloping blankets of sound. Staking a claim against “false positive corporate ambient,” No Highs uses drones and drifts to create something more anxious and suffocating, a humid fog that feels like something between atmospheric horror, beatless dubstep, and dark ambient on a noise table.


AMM - Last Calls (Matchless)

After 57 years of scraping and howling interplay, AMM, the Black Flag of electroacoustic improvisation, officially called it quits with a 2022 performance at London’s tireless Cafe Oto. A half century later, there’s none of the defiant chaos that made classics of AMM albums like 1967’s AMMMusic and 1968’s The Crypt. Instead the well-seasoned interplay of guitarist/electronics pioneer Keith Rowe and percussionist Eddie Prévost is deliberate and sparse. The mournful, hallucinatory 53-minute epilogue is like Skinamarink for London smog. Prevost scrapes, taps, plays cymbals like windchimes and lets an electric toothbrush vibrate his bass drum. Rowe is a crackling noise storyteller gently interjecting with a snatches of “Dies Irae” or radio transmissions. Third member John Tilbury sat out the gig but, like a melancholy voice emerging from a Philip Jeck record, he was represented with ethereal recordings of his piano. The improv greats leave not with whimper but with a whisper.


Zoh Amba & Chris Corsano & Bill Orcutt - The Flower School (Palilalia)

Exploding with extended techniques, bursts of lyrical post-bop melody, and an unpredictable energy, tenor saxophonist Zoh Amba has been a rising star of the improv skronkaverse for a minute. Here, she joins the wild-eyed, ecstatic loft-punk tangles of Chris Corsano and guitarist Bill Orcutt — the Bailey and Bennink of American noise dudes — who have now survived two recessions and multiple underground micro-economies. Though credited as a trio, in practice The Flower School feels like the Orcutt/Corsano duo serving as a prismatic matte painting of giddy blur, an optimistic surge of clatter and feedback in which Amba can freely dance.


Ryuichi Sakamoto - 12 (Milan)

The final studio album by legendary cross-discipline composer Ryuichi Sakamoto is a stunning, heartbreaking collection of sketches for gentle piano and vulnerable electronic weather systems. A chronological and unembellished “audio diary” of his final years after a cancer diagnosis, it recalls the raindropping work of both Satie and Debussy, two artists on Sakamoto’s self-curated funeral playlist. His austere playing-as-healing is almost invasively intimate — in its sparser moments, you can hear his breathing amid the liquid melodic lines.


Kali Malone - Does Spring Hide Its Joy (Ideologic Organ)

Enveloping drones — the sine wave oscillators of Swedish drone scientist Kali Malone, the steely sawing of cellist Lucy Railton and the familiar hum of SunnO))) guitarist Stephen O’Malley — are the common denominator of the massive, multichromatic Does Spring Hide Its Joy. But “drone” is reductive for something so tangled in the Venn diagram of minimalism, jazz, electroacoustic music and expressionist sound painting. Flowing like lava between shoegaze gush and clinical hum, the trio clashes and embraces, revealing universes of microtone, frisson and ecstasy. The 3xCD set provides three different performances of the roughly hour-long piece — not only a composition, but a glacial piece of live improvisation that shimmers and ripples.

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