The 11 Best Experimental Albums of 2022
Music not only has the power to transport but transform. "Experimental" music, a nebulous grouping of difficult-to-classify sounds, provides us lovely, sometimes challenging fractal windows to jump through — to escape, commune, blister and rattle, to try and express our edges and witness the unknown. In 2022, for us, this encompassed microtonal rock jams, tender ambient, woozy nostalgia, Egyptian ghosts and an epic synth symphony.
Below, find an unranked list of the year's most exploratory music, along with some personal favorites, by NPR Music staff and contributors.
Lucrecia Dalt, ¡Ay!
¡Ay! is Lucrecia Dalt's sci-fi missive from space to Earth; or vice versa. The Colombian experimentalist tells an extraterrestrial's story through bolero, salsa, mambo, son and jazz submerged in a colloquial, nostalgic haze. The alien Preta's interpretations of home, love and the limits of having a body resonate exponentially against a textured, acoustic backdrop, a product of human imagination seeking to operate outside of its chains of time, form and grief. Dalt's world-building in sound and theme are jarring in its invention, yet altogether familiar. —Stefanie Fernández
OHYUNG, imagine naked!
Whenever I needed a pacifier this year — in need of something that would bring me down not just to Earth but safely back to the very apartment room I was likely sitting in, imagine naked! was there. It makes sense: Robert Ouyang Rusli, who records tender ambient like this under the name OHYUNG, based its song titles on lines from a poem by t. tran le, titled "Vegetalscape," that summons deep magic from scenes of the everyday. That Rusli also composes for film makes perfect sense; mine might be titled Post-Pandemic Basement Boy. —Andrew Flanagan
Caterina Barbieri, Spirit Exit
The Italian electronic composer Caterina Barbieri thinks deeply about the spiritual impact of her music on the bodies and minds of others. Her intense album Spirit Exit was created in isolation during Milan's strict pandemic lockdown, inspired by hermetic visionaries including the mystic nun St. Teresa of Ávila and Emily Dickinson. Barbieri's layered tracks build and explode massively into moments of bliss, as if to musically recreate Ávila's ecstatic vision of being stabbed in the heart by an angel. —Hazel Cills
Nancy Mounir, Nozhet El Nofous
Nancy Mounir's Nozhet El Nofous is a conversation with the past. The Cairo-based composer and instrumentalist weaves aching arrangements around crackling recordings of 1920s Egyptian singers. In translations provided, we grasp how Mounir's own violin, bass and piano dance seamlessly with beautiful Arabic poetry of love, torment and darkness — characters who express longing and sorrow with the same nostalgic verve of what Brazilians call saudade. The ghostly effect, however, isn't haunting, but an empathetic hand across time. —Lars Gotrich
Evgueni Galperine, Theory of Becoming
Describing his music as an "augmented reality of acoustic instruments," the Paris-based composer masterfully displays his own personal orchestra of sounds derived from, but unheard in, the real world. Trumpet fanfares get twisted, strings shed a kind of rusty patina and who knows what produces that sublime subterranean bellowing. Each of Evgueni Galperine's 10 pieces unspool like soundtracks to fevered dreams. In the final vignette, "Loplop im Wald," we're captive deep in the forests of surrealist painter Max Ernst, complete with ominous drum beats, woozy strings and a disturbing whistler. —Tom Huizenga
Gavilán Rayna Russom, Trans Feminist Symphonic Music
At 1 hour, 11 minutes, Trans Feminist Symphonic Music is maybe the only project on our list that, though wordless, successfully expresses as much information as a novella. The piece's first movement, "Elegy," folds and bounces within itself, bringing to mind, in both its aesthetic and its peacefully anxious rhythm, Manuel Göttsching's monumental modular album E2-E4, from 1984. But unlike Göttsching, tranquility and innovation aren't the aim here; Gavilán Rayna Russom is legibly investigating the futility of binaries through the spooky actions of sound. The discordant meditations in the second movement, "Expansions," slide away for the transfixing and daydreamy "Beauty," before settling into the project's rhetorical core in its final movement, "Truth." The whole is greater than the sum of its already-magnificent parts — its conclusion, which is objectively correct, is that there are no right answers when it comes to the act of human being. —Andrew Flanagan
Joe Rainey, Niineta
Since the age of 8, Joe Rainey — a self-described Ojibwe "urban Indian," raised near Minneapolis' tribal locus of Little Earth — has captured 500 hours of powwow ceremonies, emerging as a powerhouse singer on the competitive circuit himself. Niineta is his debut collaboration with empathetic and attentive producer Andrew Broder; they crosshatch Rainey's archives with his own visceral melismas, turning it into a master storyteller's coat of arms across a ruptured firmament of mauling drums and sculptural squelch. Solemn but funny, vulnerable but aggressive, the messages are gripping, even if the tongue is unfamiliar. Rainey is at the radical edge of a wave of Indigenous experimental expression and acceptance in the United States. Niineta is his undeniable opening statement. —Grayson Haver Currin
Horse Lords, Comradely Objects
Into polyrhythms lately? Want sounds so mathy that they feel like they're made of fractions? Can't find your old copy of Neu!? Do I have an incredibly specific album for you. Angular Baltimoreans — addicted to the tasty, old-school flavor of the West German avant-garde guitar minimalists — can't help themselves from chugging lavishly with guitars and saxophones for a violently kosmische album that sounds like 40 different looms weaving a tapestry. You would think this whole thing would be fustier per the weight of their admitted influence ("Russian Constructivism," which is to say, a utopian art movement that wants less commodity-fetishism and more utility-fetishism), but this album succeeds for feeling strangely rustic in its human filigree. —Mina Tavakoli
Anna Butterss, Activities
In terms of composition, the bassist Anna Butterss seems to shadow-chop through her songs, finding weak spots in their otherwise sparkling walls to pound a hole for peeking through. What lies beyond is anyone's guess (maybe hers most of all). Activities transitions fluidly and ceaselessly between — literally, between — jazz, classical, pop, avant-dance and nursery rhymes, the work of an artist at near-peak technicality having nothing but fun. —Andrew Flanagan
Ian William Craig, Music for Magnesium_173
Armed with a beautifully trained voice and a bank of custom tape decks that loop, slur and hiss, the Canadian artist has created limitless layers of decaying beauty over the span of 12 tracks. In "Attention For It Radiates," choral flourishes, dressed in William Basinski-like distortion, slowly oscillate, while in "Sprite Percent World Record" a single voice barely surfaces above lovely thickets of drone. Originally composed for a computer game, these expansive, slow-motion canvasses, with their desiccated resplendence, stand completely on their own and remain among the most arresting and immersive music released this year. —Tom Huizenga
The global grief we've shared during the last few years didn't limit, of course, our individual suffering; it merely made those cuts deeper. Björk used the space of the pandemic to consider her mother's 2018 death and how the influence of a mortal may become immortal through others, reaching ever outward like a mushroom's hyphae. The result, fossora, is a riot of new growth after a deluge. Armies of meticulous if vertiginous woodwinds and strings prance around Björk's singular voice, able to command and comfort at once. "Hope is a muscle that allows us to connect," she beams three minutes in, relentless hardcore drums hammering home this point so that we may never again forget it. These love songs, arguably the most audacious of her career, are brilliant blooms at a perceived new dawn. —Grayson Haver Currin
And 10 more, in no particular order:
Patrick Shiroishi, EvergreenPatrick Shiroishi made 18 records in 2022, all compelling; his finale, Evergreen, is the most exquisite. Using field recordings from the Los Angeles cemetery where his ancestors are buried, the saxophonist builds lush meditative spaces for considering the power that past holds over present. —Grayson Haver Currin
Rachika Nayar, Heaven Come Crashing
A mesmerizing album that blends soul-crushing electronica and the Brooklyn composer's gloomy, signature guitar into a cinematic opus. —Hazel Cills
Bill Orcutt, Music for Four GuitarsThis is antechamber music spit like a piping-hot tar-loogie from the punkest guitar player ever. Yet these choppy, euphoric miniatures are somehow beautiful in their psychic bleed-through. —Lars Gotrich
Peter Coccoma, A Place to BeginPeter Coccoma's annual, winterly sojourn to a sparse island on Lake Superior sitting just off the coast of Minnesota's arrowhead was extended indefinitely by a certain global displeasure not too many years ago. The composer enjoyed the trapped time, though, and spent it well, fastidiously outlining the soul of a unique and quiet corner of the world in these sparse, lush pieces. —Andrew Flanagan
Clarice Jensen, EsthesisLighter on the drones this time, the restless cellist and composer explores a broader sound world with help from pianist Timo Andres, in music layered with sensations. —Tom Huizenga
claire rousay, wouldn't have to hurtAt its best, claire rousay's work can function like a poignant film score, with subtle layers of sound — iridescent electronics, spare piano — highlighting the emotional core of seemingly pedestrian moments. This absorbing EP stares down suffering and tries to transmute it into anything tolerable, be it friendship or mere understanding. —Grayson Haver Currin
Marina Herlop, PripyatThe Catalan composer's album is a work of truly alien music, twisting her freaky, high vocals and piano into soundscapes not of this world. —Hazel Cills
Vanessa Rossetto, The Actress
Rossetto layers field recordings and instruments not as a canvas but emotional portraits that you move with your mind. An experience that changes on every listen. —Lars Gotrich
Tanya Tagaq, Tongues"They tried to take our tongues," the Inuk throat singer murmurs on this potent manifesto, demanding to reclaim what colonization has stolen from her culture. —Tom Huizenga
Lamin Fofana, The Open BoatThe Sierra Leonean producer gives us a mysterious map, but there doesn't seem to be a ship capable of navigating its extraterrestrial electronics and submerged beats. —Lars Gotrich
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.