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Music

The 10 best avant-garde albums of all time

The world of the “avant-garde” is a curious one. Easy to dismiss, and easier still to mock, the genre has been pencilled as “high-brow” by its defenders, and “elitist” by its critics. But, the truth is, avant-garde music has infiltrated the very fabric of pop at almost every turn.

Even The Beatles were seduced by the pure artistry of such music. For all his far-reaching qualities, George Harrison could not be sold on the movement either, later pencilling some of the more idiosyncratic works as ‘avant-garde a clue.’

This wasn’t a view shared by the other Beatles, particularly Paul McCartney, who championed the sixties countercultural voices, especially Stockhausen. John Lennon went even further down the road and used The White Album as his way of unveiling an eight-minute sound collage, driven by self-disdain and despair. By 1968, Lennon had committed himself to a relationship with conceptual artist, Yoko Ono. In an attempt to align the rigours of rock with the principles of the burgeoning art movement, Lennon and Ono opted to unite as one voice to create their own artistic continuum, based on free will, free love and character.

Ono’s work continues to measure up, even by the standards of the present day. What she brought wasn’t venom, but vitality, and a visceral identity commonly ignored by members of the trendy music presses. Yet she was always admired by artists, and it’s doubtful any of the other artists on this list would consider her presence unwarranted or unworthy of their attention. Who knows how much The Beatles could have improved under her influence and guiding hand?

In fact, it’s a question almost all mainstream artists could ask themselves. Who knows how many more artists could have prospered, by tuning into the philosophies of their personal environment?

This list demonstrates how important the avant-garde movement is to the world of rock- indeed, one could argue, it is the foundation of rock itself.

Ranking the ten best avant-garde albums

10. Lou Reed – Metal Machine Music (1975)

Free from the constraints of The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed had to bow to nobody’s agenda other than his own. His solo career has held many triumphs, as well as many lows, but Metal Machine Music is arguably the most noteworthy, precisely because it stroked his sense of adventure while disappointing the many fans anxiously waiting for the next ‘Perfect Day.’

But for the more open-minded fans, Metal Machine Music luxuriates in the type of guitar dynamics that makes for an intriguing instrumental work. Divided across four sections, the album focuses on the mechanics of a mid guitar tune. What Reed plays isn’t pretty, but it’s certainly distinct and offers a tasty alternative for budding novices searching for a new way to play their instrument.

The first section is the most accessible, although it does get more elliptical by the second side of the record, diving headfirst into the nightmarish landscapes that cement the work.

9. Yoko Ono – Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (1970)

Caught in the intensity of the work, John and Yoko Lennon produced two albums concurrently. The first was Lennon’s way of distancing himself from the band that made him wealthy, but the other was something much more daring still.

In many ways, this might have been The Beatles album, if they’d followed their experimental leanings to their most natural destinations. Bolstered by the energy, drummer Ringo Starr kicks into ‘Greenfield Morning I Pushed An Empty Baby Carriage All Over The City’ like the howl of a mother clutching the body of her deceased child, while bassist ricochets into ‘Why’ with a series of hypnotic licks.

And then there’s ‘Touch Me’, a barbed retort at an England devaluing the services of the women who had built the country. These days, it’s nothing unusual-largely because the Manic Street Preachers have made an industry out of self-loathing- but in 1970, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band sounded like nothing else on the scene.

8. Frank Zappa – Freak Out! (1966)

In the midst of an artistic movement riding out on the coattails of youthful rebellion and endurance came the sound of a ragtag bunch of iconoclasts, eager to topple the buildings that had given them pleasure, splendour and anxiety.

Led by Frank Zappa, The Mothers of Invention presented a scathing portrait of an America burying itself under the rigours of commerce and conservatism. Bellowing through ‘Hungry Freaks, Daddy’, Zappa’s guitar pushes itself forward in the mix, drenching listeners in reverb. ‘I Ain’t Got No Heart’ is a bit more fun, although the drums come thundering in the background, while the scintillatingly produced ‘Go Cry On Someone Else’s Shoulder’ suggests a changing landscape based on fear and frivolity.

Mocking the very tropes of the sixties, the album exudes a bitterness nowhere to be heard on The Beach Boy albums the Mothers of Invention were supposedly paying homage to. But if audiences were upset by the wagging that was prevalent on Freak Out!, then the We’re Only In It For The Money album must have shaken them to their Beatle loving core.

7. Brian Eno – Another Green World (1975)

Eno’s third album (he had yet to reclaim his first name, Brian,) is a daring exercise in sound, culminating in a soundscape that is both surging and cerebral in its resolve. It wasn’t Eno’s intention to teach listeners about the extremities of rock, but to demonstrate the possibilities that lay beyond the limitations behind pop structures.

It probably helped that Eno surrounded himself with a studio of hot-shot musicians, skirting from the mainstream (Phil Collins) to the abstract. And in a fashion that was becoming more appropriately theatrical, the sonics were growing increasingly more dynamic the more he waded into the album.

‘St. Elmo’s Fire’ opens with a Caribbean style piano; ‘The Big Ship’ highlights the shadings of a disconnected keyboard line; while the richly textured ‘Zawinul/Lava’ salutes the World Music genre of the nineteen-eighties. The album proved that rock could inhabit a more aesthetic coating, which impressed U2, at a time when they were growing more disenfranchised of the trappings of rock. When U2 gathered to record their fourth (and, arguably best) work, Eno was the man they wanted to work with.

6. Tim Buckley – Starsailor (1970)

Ostensibly inspired by the jazz records in his collection, Starsailor finds Tim Buckley in uncompromising form, demonstrating an interest in the mythologies that lay behind the fretboard in his grasp. Sparsely produced, and performed with urgency, the album costs along at a frenzied pace, barely offering the singer a respite to catch his breath before the next tumbling riff comes crashing down.

‘Come Here Woman’ captures the songwriter at his freest, warbling through the cadences, every note pressed for good measure, and every vocal delivered with trembling power and humility. Zappa rocker ‘I Woke Up’ foreshadows an eerie world beyond the rims of his eyes, while the pummelling ‘Jungle Fire’ pivots from serene to cerebral.

It’s not entirely cryptic, as ‘Song for the Siren’ boasts. Although it was later covered by This Mortal Coil, the original exhibits a nakedness that cements the songwriter’s leanings in a world floating outside his head. He doesn’t need to witness the lady’s pain to feel them, just as audiences don’t need to experience the fury, in order to empathise with the anger on this gorgeous tune.

5. Diamanda Galas – The Litanies of Satan (1982)

Before touring with Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, Diamanda Galas was a provocateur par excellence, and her debut album – soaked in admiration for Charles Baudelaire – demonstrates the power in a collection of devastatingly visceral performances.

Challenging the conventions of mainstream indie rock, the American born Galas performs the opening oratorio in crisp, clear French, embodying a fire fuelled by the hell that awaits her beyond the realms of the studio. It wouldn’t be fair to pencil the album as Satanic in its leanings, but the braggadocio and determination to topple religious orders were sure to worry conservative listeners.

American listeners would have to wait until 1989 to hear the cackles, disembodied yelps and penchant for mania, but British listeners were welcome to purchase the album as early as 1982. It’s unlikely that they would have picked up on the French, though!

4. John Lennon and Yoko Ono – Unfinished Music Vol.2: Life With The Lions (1969):

Recorded during a particularly daunting period of her life, Yoko Ono worked with John Lennon for a follow up to Two Virgins. But unlike the whimsy of the first record, Life with the Lions is ripe with agony, angered by both the racism in her public life and the recent bereavement in her personal one.

Driven by blind rage, Ono took this opportunity to unleash a series of guttural roars, each one louder and scarier than the one that preceded it. Lennon responded to the rage with a collection of barbed guitar licks, enveloping the frustration he was feeling for the pop genre he had unintentionally shaped.

The results are really quite extraordinary: ‘No Bed for Beatle John’ demonstrates the two artists mid-scream, ‘Radio Play’ captures the artists in the vortex of the pop world they are escaping, while the devastatingly moving ‘Two Minutes Silence’ offers listeners to join in with the artists at a time of great upheaval.

3. William Basinski – The Disintegration Loops (2002-2003)

Influenced by composers Brian Eno and Steve Reich, composer William Basinski decided to make recordings out of sound sources, shortwave radio, and delay systems. Returning to the tapes decades later, he found that they had deteriorated, so he paid attention to the long gaps and cracks in the music.

Caught in the emotion of the 9/11 attacks, Basinski found greater potency in the album and later refurbished ‘Disintegration Loop 1.1’ as a sound collage to the aftermath. Marking the tenth anniversary of the attacks, Basinski’s work was performed by a live orchestra at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Lingering onto the emotion, Basinski allowed the milieu to slip into the work, invariably released as a four-album set in 2004. Gorgeously constructed and presented with great reverence for the city that survived a terrorist attack, the album exudes a humility that is strangely fitting for a project twenty years in the making.

2. Björk – Medúlla (2004)

Pencilled as a work recorded entirely a capella, Björk anticipated criticism from even her most dedicated of fans. “Everybody was going, ‘Oh she’s making a vocal album, it’ll be a horrible Yoko Ono experience, ” she confided to the Telegraph. “But I wanted to show that a vocal album doesn’t have to be for the chosen few. It was just about working with the instrument I know best, my voice.”

Seemingly, critics had forgotten that 10cc and The Flying Pickets had also issued heavy vocal singles, pivoting focus away from the backing instruments onto the vocals in question. But unlike the men above, Björk used this as an expression of her identity, especially on ‘Pleasure Is All Mine’, a scathing critique on the role of women in suburban society.

‘Show Me Forgiveness’ boasts one of her more detailed performances, bolstered by an icy determination to sing by herself. No one else to guide her, she sings freely, embodying the style of vocals that had once guided cavemen to more enlightened paths.

1. Can – Tago Mago (1971)

We end with Tago Mago, one of the earliest albums recorded on the list, and certainly one of the more interesting, embodying a portal between blues and more experimental forms of creative expression.

‘Paperhouse’opens the album on a solemn note, padded by shimmering guitars, and an ambience, driven by the pulsating percussion. From there, we move onto more samba fused territories, as ‘Mushroom’ pummels along, driven by screaming vocals and fiery splashes of strings.

And then in an almost blinding moment of genius, Can turn the tables on their listeners, and ‘Augmn’ slows things down, focusing on the loops, breaths and beats that make a person’s daily schedule. Dazzlingly inventive, and written with confidence in a genre that wasn’t even twenty years old, Can created a soundscape that must have sounded like the future of rock in 1971. Indeed, even in 2022, it still does!