What a year, Milwaukee.
I weaseled out of doing a complete list last year because I contributed to the Milwaukee Record list. This list still isn’t complete because I refrained, again, from including Altos-related items. Luckily, those albums’ deserved praises have been sung by writers who aren’t necessarily buddies with the members nor married to any of them. They know they’re awesome. They don’t need me assigning them numbers. Which means I can squeeze more deserving artists into my top twenty for 2015. Huzzah!
There are a couple of tracks on this album that I might skip unless I’m listening to the vinyl. There are also several really good tracks, especially if, like any good American, you enjoy AC/DC and/or .38 Special. And there’s “Platinum Boys” and “Cruisin’ USA” and “Ride Free”, wherein Platinum Boys combine the best aspects of Judas Priest and Sloppy Seconds into a trio of perfect fucking rock and roll songs. Those three songs prevent the year in rock from being a complete failure all by themselves. Side note: their cover of “Born On The Bayou” from the December EP Junior Varsity. It rules.
What can I say, I crunched the numbers hard and there was a tie. The only problem with Tigernite on record is you don’t get the visual spectacle and raw energy of a Tigernite show; luckily, the songs stand on their own. Like on the Platinum Boys album, there are great songs and not-as-great songs, but the best ones (“Empire”, “Witch” and “No Girls Allowed”) ought to prove timeless, and there aren’t any bad ones. I guess you could say it’s unabashed 80s worship, in a power-pop/indie-rock/glam hybrid sort of way; is that supposed to be an insult? If you’re lucky, you hear like a dozen albums a year that aren’t directly derivative of some already-perfected previous fad.
Relentless syncopated flow sets K.Diver apart from most other rappers in town. Rather than slide slang together, he's all about enunciation and punch, somewhat akin to Ghostface Killah or even Twista at times, and while he doesn't exactly pick fights, he doesn't ingratiate himself to any of the city's longstanding hypemongers putting out tracks like "Here Wii Go". The only bona fide hook on this EP is in "Pray x Wait"; otherwise it's a quick blast of moody production and Diver's versatile delivery. The slow deliberation of the last track, "Time's Wasted", felt forced when I first heard it, but after a few spins it seems like a very earnest, vital ending to the record. This third installment of "The Epic" is ostensibly the end, but it indicates great potential for K.Diver's next beginning.
18. VBIV: Control
Riverwest utility player Victor Buell IV came out of nowhere (I mean, um, out of Riverwest) with this awesome dreampop/folk/shoegaze hybrid sound that I couldn't get enough of once I first heard it. I pretty much play "Guassian Blur" every time I sit in for someone on the radio (except Marty); it's this perfectly grand post-rock storm that evokes how you want to feel about life at any given moment. Whether with or without words, Buell tugs at the heartstrings with a dense yearning that you can't misconstrue if you've been there.
I guess he’s made the move to California, so I’m not sure if the Brew City can claim Emmitt James any more, but not knowing when exactly that happened, and considering he’s still affiliated with House Of Renji, I’m counting him in for this album at least. There isn’t a lot of outright humor in Milwaukee’s hip-hop scene, which is part of why James’ stuff is so refreshing. He raps about real issues but he acknowledges the goofy side of the struggle on standout tracks like “Ramen Noodles & Red Wine”, “ATM Fees” and “Left Over Burnt Rice”. I also love the mixture of lo-fi 90s-ish EDM beats, lighthearted R&B hooks, unorthodox horn blasts and various other sonic curios thrown in, courtesy of LA-based “head chef” iNine as well as Sheven Norris and Pizzle for a track each. And the ridiculous sample from an ancient Aunt Jemima ad is priceless. James comes off like a hapless romantic/poet, an anomaly, really, in the broader hip-hop world, and it’s very endearing. This EP is a major step forward from 2014’s entertaining but less memorable Black University full-length, and James has already come out with a three-song follow-up, And Then S H E Was Gone: The Same Love Story, Different Characters, that’s equally compelling. I look forward to whatever he’s got in store next.
Bacon. Lettuce. Air Force. Marines. These are the four elements that define us as a nation. It is your patriotic duty to listen to this album. But I detest nationalism and all its resultant isms. How can I even feel good about praising this album when it goes against everything I believe in? Maybe there's something buried within me, some deep genetic prompter passed on through untold generations that awakens a surge of undefined emotion when the defiant, hearty voices rise up in glorious melody: "OVER THERE! OVER THERE!" And a thousand pikes were flashing! Whoops, I’m mixing up my nationalisms. What I really meant to say is: This is Scrimshaw’s best album yet, and if you like loopy, dance-inducing weirdness and/or to laugh, I think you should listen to it, because sadly, I doubt their cover of Eddie Rabbit’s “I Love A Rainy Night” is going to make it into the live set.
How do you not feel instantly grabbed by "The Roof"? And from there, the hits keep coming. There's no artifice here; these songs are odes to partying, women and Renji's badass self, but then he surprises you and gets all introspective on the last two tracks, and it all feels very real and natural in a not-entirely-unlike-2Pac way. Every track has a different producer and they’re all top-notch; the Oshi hook in “Cassette Love” is especially irresistible, and as these songs work their way into your psyche it gets increasingly difficult to figure out how Renji stays somewhat under the radar on the local hip-hop scene. Maybe he’s not the most singular MC in town, but the all-around professionalism of this EP puts it on the top shelf. Bonus points for the “Rubbish” single earlier in the year, and the killer CAMB track “B R E A T H E” that he and Emmitt James both guested on. I suck at keeping up with the plethora of individual tracks and videos that pop up daily when the local scene is buzzing like it has been lately, but this was one of my favorite songs of the year for sure.
Move over, Timber Timbre; there’s a new band that demands David Lynch make a new movie in order to be included on the soundtrack. I do not pretend to have deciphered even half of the lyrics that are emitted on this recording. I base my love of this squarely in its magnetic weirdness. I struggle to relate to people who are not transported emotionally by this, though. Ween fans, Butthole Surfers fans, Ariel Pink fans, Scrimshaw fans, at least give this a listen some time. There’s this incredible tug-of-war between yearning, feeling disturbed and unstiflable laughter. It’s clear that Tall Ducks are Milwaukee’s most psychedelic band, and also one of its most underrated, although I don’t know if there is even a live incarnation of Tall Ducks. It appears they’ve been releasing music since 2013. Clearly I’m running with the wrong crowd. I’m going to check out the older stuff, and also the album they just released like a week ago, right after I finish this list nonsense. Oo, they have an album called Songs to make you wish you were hearing the originals, that ought to be entertaining. From what I can glean, it’s the work of one guy, plus a shitload of guests. So surely Zachary Lewis (if indeed that’s the name of a person who is Tall Ducks) could put together a band and play on my radio show some time? Surely.
It was a very slow year for metal in Milwaukee. We had Shroud Of Despondency way early in the year, and then this album at the end, and a whole lotta nuthin in between. It was so good to hear Moon Curse take this big stylistic leap from its old straight retro stoner style into a heavier and more ambitious sound. Spirit Remains is a deep and punishing record but not without its moments of simple beauty. I already said a lot about it here, so I'm going to stop there.
Once you’re onboard the Jon Mueller experience, once something that he’s created in the past ten years or so has clicked in your soul, you feel a great yearning to get back to that particular moment of discovery. With every subsequent recording and performance, you’re at least given the opportunity. The onus is on you, getting yourself into the proper mindset or mood, achieving the openness necessary. Nothing Mueller does is meant as a one-way conduit. Each new creation is meant to foster an exchange of energy between performer and listener. That’s how I take it, anyway. With each listen, I feel like an active part of the experience. Maybe it’s just “up my alley” as they say. If you want something to snap you out of your multitasked hellscape in two sixteen-minutes-plus stretches, and you’re willing to devote those minutes to this single endeavor, you’re going to get a lot out of this music.
11. Kiings: WWYDF
At this point I think to myself, ‘It’s absurd to suggest that there were ten albums made in Milwaukee in 2015 that are better than WWYDF. What are you doing with your life, making these damn lists.’ Not only was this one of the most anticipated albums of the year—Kiings have been releasing sporadic bitchin tracks for years now, but finally, a proper album!—it also serves as a primer for The Stars Of Milwaukee Musicks In 2015. It was sort of the coming-out party for Colin Plant as a lead singer; he’s gone on to take the local pop scene by storm with No No Yeah Okay, and his tracks with Kiings are all great. New Age Narcissism gets represented by WebsterX and Siren, and the city’s reigning lower-case lyrical kings, milo and bliss & alice, each appear on a track. Even resident folk-rock luminary Chris Porterfield shows up, and let’s not forget Pizzle. Actually, let’s not forget Kiings. Sean Foran and Chris Siegel have specialized in remixes for the most part, and if you spliced their past catalog all throughout this album, you’d have the ultimate all-night dance party. As is, though, this album has all the ebb and flow you could want out of a 45-minute late-night DJ set, a naturally cohesive thing in its entirety with nary a stinker of an individual track.
10. Testa Rosa: III
This album is one of the hardest for me to write about because it’s self-evidently great. I feel like Jerry’s mom in the “The Pilot” episode of Seinfeld: “How could anyone not like them?” Especially on this album, Testa Rosa’s most assured, lush production yet, and highlighted by several of the best songs they’ve ever written. I realize “Bad Wolf” actually came out in 2014, but its message hasn’t become irrelevant, nor has its impact softened in musical or lyrical terms. “Leave It On The Side Of The Road” carries a similar bite and urgency, and the ballads are equally moving, especially the haunting “Golden Boat” and the shoegazey “Castaway”, as well as songs like “Window Breaker” and “Irvine”, yearning pop nuggets whose melodies are instantly memorable and never tiresome no matter how long they’re stuck in your head. The kicker: The CD comes with a digital download of the covers 7” they released earlier in the year, which is equally essential. But I don’t need to tell you any of this, right? If you’re reading this post, you already know all this, don’t you? (Okay, I guess it wasn’t that hard to write about.)
Have I mentioned that I've been going through some severe John Zorn binges this year? One of them coincided with my discovery of Max Devereaux, which got weird because I'd be at work with my iPod on shuffle and I'd think 'which of the Zorn projects I haven't heard yet is this?' and I'd look and it would be Devereaux, whoops. That only applies to a few of the tunes on this album: "Blood Brothers", "Blind Man's Bluff" and "Is It Snowing In Space?", I'd say, and this is not by any means a slight on Max. If anything, I'm saying 'hey John Zorn, your next Book Of Angels record, get ahold of this guy'. In and around the conventional song structures found on this album, a myriad of instruments swirl and clatter, creating a very distinctive, cohesive mood, disorienting without ever seeming aimless. For anyone who likes music that's off the cuff and all over the map (and often gorgeous), you should check this out, and it's only one of six albums Devereaux put out in 2015, so keep digging.
The Scarring Party's final album may be its best. Figures! What a journey Dan Bullock and company have undertaken, from the goofy horror-camp chamber-jazz anachronism of the early days to the more earnestly gothic entity they ended up as. Scarring Party doesn't sound old-timey to me any more. This style that Bullock created and honed over the course of a decade or so has become so ingrained in the character of Milwaukee that, well, it’s difficult coming to terms with the reality that it’s not gonna be around any more. Of course, it’s been a very long goodbye, the live shows few and far between over the past few years, but this particular document of the final phase of the band is simply a great listen through and through. Not many bands take the appropriate opportunity to choose a last statement by which to be remembered, and way, way fewer come up with something as fitting and excellent as this. Very Bowie-esque of them as it turns out…
I have no clue who LBN667 is or even how I came across him/her/them, but again, I'm left wondering how many similar artists are lurking out there in Milwaukee bedrooms and basements. This is a crazy-good collection of beats and soundscapes, very minimal for the most part but infused with eclectic flourishes throughout. Burial naturally comes to mind as a primary influence, and Boards Of Canada; from there, you could probably reach out in almost any direction in the electronic sphere and come across something that LBN667 incorporates on rippel. It grew in stature over the course of the year from a great yoga album into something I wanted to pay closer attention to with each listen. If I'm overlooking local artists of similar talent, someone please alert me, because the more I listen to this, the more it stands up with almost any beats-oriented release I’ve heard in the past year.
This is the only full-length album released by the New Age Narcissism clan this year, and it's also my favorite by a nose. True, Lex Allen's Social Me Duh EP blows away everything he put out prior, and WebsterX's collaboration with Q The Sun, KidX, is terrific (but I still think "Doomsday" is Web's best track so far). 33, though, is a mesmerizing piece of work throughout, shrouded in a doomy haze but not altogether oppressive. Fredd33, again with Q at the helm, has created one of the most unique rap albums of the year, with a worldly, decidedly un-Midwestern sound—unless it develops into a new Milwaukee style thing, who knows? Fredd33’s style is at once intoxicating, imposing and spiritual, and if you’ve ever seen him perform, you know it’s celebratory as well. Meanwhile there are so many NAN releases on the horizon I can hardly sit still in anticipation, including a new one from Fredd33, and I’m on the edge of my seat. As great as 2015 was for NAN, I feel like maybe '16 will really be their year.
Man, number FIVE?? I know. They make this near-perfect rock and roll record and I come along and say it's the FIFTH best album that someone from Milwaukee made this year, EXCLUDING the ones made by people my wife has played with. It's almost as if these numerical assignations have no meaning. Obviously, I love this band. I want them to take over the world one rock show at a time. Whether they're crafting old-school power-pop nuggets ("Canadian Summer", "Note On A Bill"), scratching the Thin Lizzy itch for a new generation ("Where's Ace?") or out-Jailling Jaill ("Ain't Gonna Find"), they're doing it like pros. Probably my favorite moment is the line "If we were old and our friends were all dead we'd be close" from "Richie The Hammer". It's a sentiment that the hack poet in me spent plenty of hours in his early 20s trying to put into words. It’s just one simple line on an album full of them. I loved this band from the moment I heard the opening riff of “Too Tall” from their debut EP, and with each release they’ve gotten way better. Knowing them, they’ve already got the next record written. Can’t effing wait to hear it.
Still waiting for you celebrity radio DJs to start putting this album into the rotation. Probably too late now eh? Sigh. You're telling me there aren't at least a handful of tracks on here that joe q. milwaukee wouldn't fall in love with if only he heard 'em on the airwaves? I can't believe that. I know it's all about promotion. Schmoozing. Sucking up. Maybe they’re no good at hounding you. Hell, they don't even have the whole album on their bandcamp page. I feel their pain. Image is everything. Self-promotion sucks. The work should speak for itself. But it never does. Horseshit! So maybe by writing this I can get one more person to listen to this. If you like sample-based eclectic pop music with a compelling vocalist, I don't see how you could not be turned on by it. My favorite songs are "Be Still" and "Lantern"--the latter because it's built around one of the greatest basslines of all time and I can't believe this is the first time I've heard it sampled. Bravo, Will It Burn.
This album reminds me at different times of some of my favorite dark ambient releases of the past few years—Forest Swords' Engravings and Mondkopf's Hadès come to mind especially—but it also has more upbeat, dare I say accessible material, too, and that's how it grabs you. It's an amazing example of how far our city's experimental electronic scene has come since the advent of the MELT music series, I suppose, and maybe I'm just gravitating to one random release when there are tons more that I haven't come across. I go through phases occasionally when all I want to listen to is sad synthpop, and I remember once a few years ago scouring the internet for suggestions, always feeling like the things I found weren't as depressing as I was hoping. Adoptahighway (along with Stacian and The Demix, among other MKE-based artists) has my back, though. The desolation of tracks like "Qualmness" and "A Fault" and "Despair" and "Split Cage Tuning" is what I truly crave, and these are simply great songs besides. This album, every time I listen to it, is over too quickly.
People of Earth: You are SO dumb for not obsessing over Dogs In Ecstasy en masse. Seriously, I don't GET it. Wait, I mean you don't get it. Have you no sense of humor? Do you not recognize indelible pop hooks as brilliance? Can you not fathom the genius of the progressively demented Steely Dan tributes/mockeries? DiE are all about dichotomies like this, the conflict between sincere soul-searching, social commentary and wry humor, to the point where their time-sensitive pop-culture stew may prove to be timeless. I'm just glad they included a couple of their best old songs because I was still crushing on "Celebrity Friends" (the new version is so much better too) and "I'm A Man" from before. BUT SERIOUSLY THE KEYBOARD SOLO AT THE END OF "NILS LOFGREN'S HAT", GIMME A BREAK! Or is it a guitar solo made to sound like a keyboard solo? I’ve decided to stop puzzling over it. The funny thing about this band is that their songs are so catchy and superficially stunning that you might not notice how impressive they are as musicians on your first few listens to the album. Now I sound like I’m belittling you as a listener. Shit, I started this paragraph by calling you dumb. This strategy for getting you to listen to Dogs In Ecstasy is totally going to work.
I had to work at becoming a milo fan. I know at first I thought he was a bit too much of an Open Mike Eagle disciple, but that might’ve been just because Eagle was my favorite rapper in the world at the time, and in any case, milo has since broken free from that potential criticism. Another problem I had was that he seemed so detached, almost condescending. I realized eventually that that was me not being able to grok what he was up to. It’s weird, because there’s all this focus, by me and most other music writers in Milwaukee, on how the local rap scene is blowing up, and somehow it seems like milo succeeds without regard to what we say. There are all these various hip-hop factions that we keep touting, and milo is on his own. In some ways, he’s in a class of his own, I suppose. As a lyricist, he definitely is. He confronts race in the most literal and abstract ways of any wordsmith working today, confrontational yet daring you to say so. Some of his work is confessional, but his more impressive skill is exposing your insecurities, and if he makes you uncomfortable you’re forced to question whether it’s society or something inside you that makes you feel that way. In the end, so the flies don’t come is an amazing document of 2015 America in a way that pessimists can’t understand it and optimists refuse to see it. And it’s hilarious at times. Above all it’s a crazy expressionist buffet for people who enjoy language. It’s the kind of record I reject dissecting completely for fear that there’ll be nothing left for me to discover within its layers. I’ve gone back and forth on the root meaning of the song “an encyclopedia” so many times already that I get twisted every time I hear the beginning of it almost like I’m heading into an acid trip. I pull back and steady myself. I’ve learned a lot about myself with this album, and I’m excited to learn more, but I plan to keep taking it slow.
OTHER ALBUMS THAT COULD EASILY BE IN THE LIST ABOVE BUT I HAD TO DRAW THE LINE SOMEWHERE
Don’t tell Michael Jantz I said this, but there are a lot of extended themes on Playing that sound an awful lot like Phish jams. Some Phish fans would just as soon forego all the silly lyrics and proggy exercises of the band’s actual songs and just get to the improvisation already. Phish sometimes slip into blissful and/or uneasy stretches of subdued, ambient music that contrast atmosphere and melody and create tension in the push and pull of beauty and sadness. On their best nights, they craft passages of music that sound kind of like “Beach Life” or “Saturday” or “By Moonlight” (this last one especially). Of course, some of the tracks on this album are more traditionally compositional. Some are Buckethead-esque in their combination of mesmerizing loops and beautiful guitar solos, and sometimes similarly-structured songs are more reminiscent of Old Earth. I found myself drawn to every track on here for various reasons, but there’s no point in denying that Phish is a touchstone, though probably not intentional. I just hope Michael can forgive me for pointing this out.
This album ends up in limbo for two lame reasons: one, it's technically Altos-related since one of its principle members, Brendan Benham, was an Alto until a couple years ago, but I think the statute of limitations is up by now. Secondly, I've been listening to this album for like a year and a half now, and I have trouble thinking of it as a 2015 album. All that said, it's a killer album unlike anything else being made in Milwaukee these days, and if you like poetic, earnest, complex, dramatic pop music, don't delay! Go listen to and/or buy this.
I’ll be honest: After hearing the horrible “Milwaukee” song they put out earlier this year, I was almost completely uninterested in hearing the new album. I thought I’d found my excuse to stop paying attention to Maritime. But then I heard “Roaming Empire” and I knew I couldn’t. And then “Satellite Love”, despite its robbery of the drumbeat from “Close To Me”, also pretty much vintage Maritime. Running circles around all the rock bands in Milwaukee in the anthemic pop hook department. Overall, the album isn’t as memorable as Heresy And The Hotel Choir, but it sounds significantly more vital than Human Hearts, which now seems like somewhat of a trying-too-hard comeback album while MB/MoB is the confident we-are-back album. But not rest-easy confident; it sounds like a band with something left to prove, in the process of proving it.
If you include this sixteen-minute record in your list, then you have to consider every sixteen-minute local release for possible contention. Otherwise it’s not fair. Where do you draw the line? Well, it’s a twelve-inch record, so there. You cough up the dough to press twelve inches, then sixteen minutes gets you into contention for my fucking list. I’m sorry to not have clarified this in the past. I know I feel a lot better now. But y’know what? No number. Yes, that’s set in stone. Anyway, this record kicks ass.
I’m making this one exception and allowing this album onto the list even though it’s listed as having been released in 1945. It’s that good. (Ha. Ha. Ha.) Murderhorse lists two members on its Facebook, so evidently there won’t be any live shows on the horizon…OR WILL THERE? Is it lame if I say Murderhorse is like a new-century Milwaukee At The Drive-In? They list The Mars Volta as an Artist We Also Like, but they don’t do the extreme noiseprog wankery thing (not that there’s anything wrong with that). They’re more about focused heaviness in between the conceptual lyrics and spoken interludes, which at times might make you react with an ‘oh come on’, but what the duo lack in subtlety they make up for in impressive instrumental composition and execution. There are many styles that creep in, yet they never stray far from the post-hardcore domain for long. This album is insanely ambitious, at times absurd, but even at its most shambolic it maintains an air of suspense. It plays like a document of 1990s sci-fi as it’s becoming modern-day reality. Think for a second about the paranoid horrors of the past that are today’s truths. Then about the beautiful things of now that past civilizations couldn’t dream of. The latter, probably not while listening to this album.
It's hard to come up with new things to say about Piles, I have to admit. They're like The Whiz from Seinfeld; I hear ten seconds of a song and I'm just like yyeeaaaaaaah and I have no solid reason why. I love their guitar tone, I love their energy. Despite most of their songs sounding awfully similar to each other, I love all of them. They don't sound like other bands, though, not really. Punk/psych/shoegaze all rolled into one sonic barrage. Yyeeaaaaaaah.
This was supposed to be where I say a fond farewell to Shroud Of Despondency, because Family Tomb was announced as the final Shroud album. Lo and behold, a new one, The Beast’s Desire To Sacrifice, appeared on Christmas day, accompanied by a lengthy disclaimer. I haven’t gotten around to listening to that one yet, but I will say that Family Tomb would’ve been a great swan song, a straightforward black metal testimonial without the prog elements or separate acoustic bits (not that that was a bad thing; I really enjoyed 2014’s eclectic Tied To A Dying Animal as well). Maybe it’s sad that the world is so saturated in black metal at this point that a really good album like this goes largely unnoticed for not being made on a coast or overseas, but then again, suffering is an essential part of the process, no?
Here’s another dubious line drawn: not including “mixtapes” as official albums. So okay, I’m not giving it a number, but I got a shitload of enjoyment out of this thing all spring and summer, especially “Miller Brewed” and “Smack Tape” and “Old Plair” and “Modest Menace”. There’s a great flow throughout, and the relaxed Tay/Haz vibe is hard not to surrender to. It’s nothing innovative but it’s endlessly listenable.