21 Experimental Albums

On another page, we explored 21 Albums Featuring Unusual Time Signatures. Here, it’s 21 works which deploy experimental approaches to surprise the ear and stimulate the brain. 

Inevitably, perhaps, the majority of the titles on this list were commercial failures on release. Some have subsequently come to wider attention, others not. In some cases, notable experimental albums have been produced by artists who previously navigated the mainstream, making them all the more shocking on first listen. Other musicians seem to have been born to undertake voyages of discovery. The spirit of progressive rock lies behind many of these works, a genre that set sail with great ambition but soon became moribund and conservative. I would argue that the albums included here are all progressive in the genuine sense, pushing the boundaries of the possible in popular music. 

The list is purely personal and just a starting point for the curious. So when I’m asked why there’s no Frank Zappa or Van der Graaf Generator, no Ivor Cutler or Cabaret Voltaire, that’ll be the reason. The Wire magazine is filled with reviews and interviews for those wishing further to explore the outer reaches while Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone on BBC 6 Music provides the soundtrack. One feature that does generally unite these albums is their interesting lyrical content. To artists involved in innovative work, words generally matter. And talking of words… there are of course 21 of them in each description. 

  1. Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart – Produced by Zappa – there he got his mention – TMR is proto-everything… punk, heavy metal, prog. Unlistenable or incomparable – you decide. 
  2. The Velvet Underground and Nico by The Velvet UndergroundNo one else sounded like this at the time – strange tuning and instrumentation – or sang like Reed and Nico about those edgy subjects.
  3. Third by Soft Machine – 1970. When one extended composition on each side of a double album, employing jazz and classical influences was still genuinely progressive. 
  4. Kid A by Radiohead – “Saviours of guitar rock” in the nineties, Radiohead ditched them for the noughties, creating weird pieces on synths and ondes martenot…  
  5. Pink Flag by Wire – Innovators from the outset, on their debut Wire delivered 21 micro-blasts of melodic energy, enough for three albums by many artists. 
  6. Spirit of Eden by Talk Talk – Hollis threatened to produce an album akin to Pink Flag, instead producing these long, shifting compositions. It blew The Jellymen’s minds. 
  7. Everybody Wants to Shag… The Teardrop Explodes by The Teardrop Explodes – From John Cope to Julian Cope – this is a very odd collection indeed, anticipating techno and ending in a pscycho-delic frenzy. 
  8. Blemish by David Sylvian – I saw Sylvian and brother perform these bizarre non-songs in London. The audience was shell-shocked, the performance bombed. Then came Manafon… 
  9. Vulnicura by Bjork – Restlessly pursuing new sounds, here it’s aching strings, bursts of dance rhythms and Ms Guðmundsdóttir’s voice, always an experimental work unto itself. 
  10. Peter Gabriel by Peter Gabriel – The fourth album to carry this title, featuring early use of samplers, instrumentation from other cultures and darkly poetic lyrical content.
  11. Low by David Bowie – Always the innovator, Bowie joins forces with fellow sonic aviator, Eno. One side of electrofunkpop, one of radical semi-instrumental electronic improvisation. 
  12. The Idiot by Iggy Pop – Pop and Bowie, allegedly off their faces on various substances in Kurt Weill’s adopted city, playing with synths, repetition and discord. 
  13. Remain in Light by Talking Heads – Add mad scientists Eno and Belew to the mix and things are likely turn out weird in the new wave laboratory. 
  14. Dazzle Ships by OMD – Mixing pure-pop with Stockhausen, OMD serve up an aural feast – snatches of short-wave transmissions, child-like melodies, doleful melancholia and unnerving electronics. 
  15. Tilt by Scott Walker – Or anything by the former heart-throb post-1983… That beautiful croon swoops across complex and sorrowful melodies. Dark, obscure, disconcerting – pristine experimentation. 
  16. The Dreaming by Kate Bush – Her progressive leanings had always been suspected. Here they’re forefront – unusual time signatures, rhythms and instrumentation – without sounding like Gentle Giant. 
  17. 1. Outside by David Bowie – In his 48th year, Bowie employed Eno again and rediscovered the innovative impulse, with a cast of creepy characters set against disturbing soundscapes.
  18. The Miraculous by Anna von Hausswolff – Bring together a church organ, a voice capable of many things and the will to experiment across numerous genres and anything is possible, apparently. 
  19. 2nd Honeymoon by Deaf School – Their debut mixes traditional styles, progressive rock and new wave and ends up sounding like nothing else in the mundane mid-70s.
  20. Odelay by Beck – Here it’s the audacious blending of genres that’s experimental – from rap through to country – sharing the approach of Deaf School and Bowie. 
  21. Spiderland by Slint – Continuing the movement away from R and B as rock’s foundation – chromatic progressions, spoken word, dissonance… the results are beautiful and unsettling. 

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All text and images © PSR 2017

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