If the sign of a deliriously overstuffed and overwhelming year in local music is the almost paralyzing difficulty in ranking it all come year’s end, then 2014 was one for the books. The number of assured, accomplished, and memorable Milwaukee albums—many of them from newcomers—was staggering, making it especially hard to not only know where to include an album on this list, but what albums to include in the first place. But include and rank we must, not because the Milwaukee music scene is full of cutthroat competition (to the contrary, it’s never been more communal and positive), but because it deserves to be examined with the same critical standards as the national music scene. With that in mind, here are Milwaukee Record’s choices for the 25 best local albums of the year.

25. The Midwest Beat, Free Of Being
If you were to take in The Midwest Beat’s sprawling Free Of Being in one sitting (note: this is highly recommended), you’d be forgiven if you thought you were listening to three or four different records. Expertly rendered stylistic shifts are all over the group’s fourth LP, with detours into bleary-eyed country (“High Life”), straight-ahead power-pop (“Vortex Hole”), and unexpected psychedelia (“Connection To The Dream Lodge”). Holding it all together is the band’s unnerving ability to write near-perfect pop songs, and its obvious joy in performing them. [Matt Wild]

24. Calamity Janes And The Fratney Street Band, Easier, Better
Place Calamity Janes And The Fratney Street Band into whatever “old-timey” genre you like—bluegrass, folk, etc.—but there’s no denying the sheer loveliness of the Riverwest group’s debut album, Easier, Better. Stand-up bass, acoustic guitar, banjo, and violin all make dutiful appearances here, but it’s the voices of Krystal Kuehl, Elizabeth Altman, Johanna Rose, and Allison Gross that give the record its distinctive and heartbreaking sound. Those voices shade dark and mysterious on “Night,” wide-eyed and clear on the title track, and sultry and sly on album standout “Old Oak Tree.” [MW]

23. NO/NO, Drag
Milwaukee music took a big hit this year when The Delphines decided to call it quits. But before anyone had time to sulk, along came NO/NO, featuring former Delphines members (Harrison Colby, Lucas Riddle, and Jeremy Ault) and a new singer (Rio Turbo’s Cat Ries). The band’s excellent debut EP, Drag, contains surface similarities between the old and the new, but it’s the differences that count: The Delphines’ lo-fi sex-and-sleaze gets a glistening synth-pop makeover on songs like “Crooked Faith,” while the stunning “Mistakes” gets untold mileage from Reis’ alternately defiant and bubblegum-smacking vocals. [MW]

22. Bright Kind, Bright Kind
While this self-titled album officially functions as Bright Kind’s first release, three of the quartet’s members filled in the ranks of the Jeanna Salzer Trio from 2008 through 2012. After adding a fourth member, shedding the proper noun, and striking out into new sonic expanses, Bright Kind was born. Namesake or not, Salzer’s formidable pipes still direct the project’s self-titled debut—best expressed while singing over her own vocal loop on “Wait” and belting out verses of a woman scorned in “Bangles.” As dependent as Bright Kind is on Salzer, drummer Alex Bunke, (since-departed) bass player Harrison Dole, and lone non-Trio component Eric Klosterman (synth) come together throughout this Great Lakes lounge record—but never better than on closer “Runaway”—to coat captivating and emotive vocals with a thick layer of sleek, dour instrumentation. [Tyler Maas]

21. Antler House, Through The Dirt
Even if it wasn’t intentional, Antler House’s decision to name its debut Through The Dirt makes a great deal of sense, as the process of making it was a fairly messy affair. Originally recorded in a Barrington, Illinois factory over two nights way back in January 2013, singer/guitarist/perfectionist Sean Anderson took his sweet time to rework the material thereafter. He re-recorded all his acoustic guitar parts, and the band wrote and recorded two more songs in its basement practice space in the year-plus that followed. The little-known indie-folk act’s patience and attention to detail pays off in Dirt, a gorgeous 12-track aural introduction brimming with beyond-their-years lyrics, brooding and beautiful sounds, and an overwhelming aura of abject sadness. Just try to make it through “Where You Can Run” with dry eyes. [TM]

20. Call Me Lightning, Human Hell
Legendary local rockers Call Me Lightning had four years to try and match (if not overtake) the power and significance of When I Am Gone My Blood Will Be Free, which we crowned the best Milwaukee album of the 2010s (so far). After breaking in yet another bassist, and finding enough time to write material amid singer Nathan Lilley’s move to Chicago and Shane Hochstetler’s epic workload at his Howl Street studio, that long-awaited follow-up, Human Hell, was released with literally no notice (band members included) on a Saturday this winter. Not unlike the straight-A student who writes a research paper the night before it’s due, Human Hell seemed more thrown together than the band’s three prior works. Still, even a semi-functional, pre-occupied Call Me Lightning (which hasn’t played a show since before Human Hell came out) is nothing short of great. Standouts like “Live Forever” and “Deep Masoleum” could just as easily have a home on Soft Skeletons, and are polished with top-notch harmonies between Lilley and latest bassist Tyler Chicorel. [TM]

19. Reggie Bonds, The Miseducation
This year felt like a changing-of-the-guard for Milwaukee hip-hop, as a younger generation of MCs took the reins from older, more established artists. Reggie Bonds emerged as one of the most promising new voices, and it’s a testament to his vision that he was able to work with a host of different producers to craft this very cohesive debut LP. The Miseducation is a wide-ranging journey that plays out over a mostly smooth, jazzy (but not smooth-jazzy) vibe. The lyrics are gritty and personal but inclusive, and the beats basically chill in the background. Despite the occasional radio-static interruptions (and ill-timed shout-out to Adrian Peterson at the end of “It’s Possible (Hold On)”), the album paints a vivid picture of what Bonds refers to as a “Beautiful Struggle.” [Cal Roach]

18. Disguised As Birds, We Buy Gold
Don’t feel bad if you missed this EP: there was no release show, nary a listening party, and Disguised As Birds were technically broken up when they went into the studio to record it. Departed and relocated member Tony Ciske came back to lay down bass parts for the last four songs the band had written, and Shane Hochstetler of Call Me Lightning/Howl Street Recordings agreed to fill in for ex-drummer Ryan Smith. Sure, We Buy Gold was an under-promoted release from a dead band, but the output is loud as fuck and very much alive. The gloom-and-doom rock eulogy for a decade-old band (best heard on the especially brash “Red Matador”) is accented by the gruff and imposing snarl of front man Chris Chuzles and Hochstetler’s unmistakable rhythmic acumen. Short and unheralded as the posthumous January release was, Disguised As Birds absolutely saved its best for last. [TM]

17. Ara, Devourer Of Worlds
Ara’s second release is a punishing death metal album that brings together the unsettling rhythmic meat grinder of Concentric and the unyielding heaviness of Northless (members of these two bands formed Ara in 2012). Its dizzying mathematical beat conundrums are matched only by its blasts of obscene brutality. Devourer Of Worlds can be oppressively dissonant, so that when it occasionally blindsides with a purposefully satisfying riff (the one that dominates “Cadaverlanche,” for instance), it’s like being transported to headbanger heaven. Still, the music rarely dwells on any particular theme for long. The result is possibly the most ambitious and original death metal album since Gorguts’ Colored Sands. [CR]

16. Body Futures, Brand New Silhouettes
What can you say about a band that counts an effects-drenched autoharp among its musical arsenal? If that band is Body Futures, you can say that even a gimmick-y instrument can’t distract from the unexpected pop pleasures of debut LP Brand New Silhouettes. Marked by sweet-and-sour female-male vocals (courtesy of wife-husband duo Dixie Jacobs and D.J. Hostettler), the album gleefully ignores current musical trends and serves up 11 tracks of loud, unpredictable, noise-indebted rock and roll. The alternately soaring and fist-pounding “Save The Clock Tower” is worth the price of admission alone. [MW]

15. Sin Bad, Untitled 2014 Demo
In an era when “album” can mean anything from a physical record to a Bandcamp link, it’s worth asking whether the concept of a “demo” carries much meaning any more, either. In the case of Sin Bad’s untitled demo, the answer would be “nope.” A rollicking and melodic garage-rock record with more than a dash of emo revival tossed in, this debut is just as accomplished (and just as fun) as any “official” release of 2014. Ben Woyak and Audrey Pennings share vocal duties on instantly winning tracks like “Stranger Danger,” while go-to Milwaukee drummer Joe Kirschling throws up a crashing wall of noise behind them. If this is the sound of a dashed-off practice-space recording, we can’t wait for the “real” thing. [MW]

Fact: No Milwaukee band worked harder in 2014 than GGOOLLDD. Clubs, street fests, film fests, and just about anywhere with a sound system found the tireless, polished-to-a-shine synth-pop outfit dazzling crowds with selections from its debut EP, $TANDARD$. Though only four songs long, the record captures the sound of a band effortlessly tapped into the current musical zeitgeist: “Younger Days” dishes up a dreamy electronica celebration of youth, while “Gold” offers a swirling party anthem for the dance-floor set. Fronted by the magnetic Margaret Butler, GGOOLLDD is unabashedly slick, unapologetically ambitious, and impossible not to love. [MW]

13. Greatest Lakes, Greatest Lakes
With its sweeping vocal harmonies, jangly guitars, and languid tempos, Greatest Lakes’ debut LP embodies the crossroads where psych-folk and dream-pop meet. The most obvious modern touchstone is Fleet Foxes, and some of the more repetitive, drone-y tracks (such as “Looking In” and “In This House”) recall Animal Collective and early Yeasayer. The album eschews any electronic trappings, but with its sleepy sonic haze and blissed-out, faded vocals, it could almost pass for analog chillwave, if such a thing could exist. We don’t recommend throwing this on if you’re drowsy and trying to stay awake; it’s beautiful, soul-soothing music for when you’re contentedly relaxed, or wanting to be. [CR]

12. Yo-Dot, A Winter’s Ration
Dropped in the middle of last winter’s polar vortex assault, this EP stuck with us all year round. Yo-Dot’s rhyming skills have sharpened noticeably since his 2012 debut, Red Mist, and there’s an amazing range of different sounds across these six tracks: from the eclectic, moody meditation of “I’m On It” to the warm synths and old-school hyper scratching of “Whatcha Sayin” and the booming, flute-inflected slow jam “Open Eye.” Yo-Dot’s tales are gritty and frequently Milwaukee-specific, and his flow is mostly slow and smooth, not flashy, but the rapper shows off an impressive versatility in a mere 20 minutes. [CR]

11. Heavy Hand, Northwoods Knives
Heavy Hand’s Northwoods Knives, the follow-up to debut album Confusion Is Body Parts, can be succinctly summed up as “more of the same,” so long as emphasis is placed on the “more” part. Not only are there nine songs to the predecessor’s seven, but Northwoods Knives’ nine-pack of sub-three-minute songs shows a more developed and realized rendition of one of the city’s most abrasive-yet-affable acts. Between the catchy and crass “Milwaukee Cum Dumpster,” the comically absurd “Motherfucking Bobcat,” and absolutely radio-rotatable “I Freed All Four Wizards,” Heavy Hand uses the same Confusion Is Body Parts recipe that’s rich in ingredients like high-pitched yelps and unabashedly minimalistic post-hardcore that proved palatable before, but adds additional spices and slightly more appealing flavors to make Northwoods Knives turn out even more enjoyable. [TM]