Assembling our annual list of the best Milwaukee albums of the year is both a joy and a challenge. A joy because there’s nothing better than immersing yourself in a year’s worth of terrific music and rediscovering past favorites and unearthing new gems; a challenge because, hey, we have to rank these things using a semi-scientific points system and no shortage of bickering and jockeying for position. Yes, it’s all subjective, and yes, our methods may seem arbitrary (only albums of five songs or more were considered), but we believe this list contains, quite simply, some of the very best Milwaukee music of the year. Dive in and experience the joy.
25. RapLords – #RapLords
If you’re going to name your hip-hop collective RapLords, you better have the talent to back it up. That’s no problem for veteran MCs Dana Coppafeel and SPEAK Easy, who assemble a killer lineup for RapLords’ eponymous debut. Von Alexander (formerly Vonny Del Fresco) takes center stage on the cacophonous “Ugly,” Vincent VanGREAT steps in for the hooky and laid-back “Things We Do,” Coppafeel goes gloriously old-school on “Here We Come,” while SPEAK scores big on a sung chorus in “Microphone Philosopher.” Just discovering RapLords? As Coppafeel boasts in opener “CRWN”: “We ain’t new to the game, it just seems that you’re very late.”
24. The Vitrolum Republic – For The Lovespun Ramblings And Ghosts In Our Shoes
With a five-year incubation period, For The Lovespun Ramblings And Ghosts In Our Shoes—the long-awaited second album by The Vitrolum Republic—kind of needed to be good. Fortunately, the 10-pack of meticulously manicured movements, in which the four-piece supplies an abbreviated symphony with 11 different instruments, combines elements of folk, classical, and even a dash of zydeco all projected through an indie-rock lens that proves to be well worth the wait.
23. Surgeons In Heat – Disaster
Surgeons In Heat have long been Milwaukee’s kings of chilled-out neo-soul, effortlessly tossing off songs perfect for after-hours dance parties and their subsequent comedowns. Disaster has plenty of those moments—“She’s Used To It,” “Going Through The Motions,” “Baby You’re Mine”—but there are also some straight-ahead rockers, too. Jaill frontman Vincent Kircher serves as producer on Disaster, and gives songs like “You Never Know” and the title track a glitch-y headlong drive, and “Another Time” a Jaill-esque slide guitar that compliments the forever-smooth croon of Surgeons singer Johnathon Mayer. Disaster may be brief, but it leaves an Armageddon-sized impression.
22. YLLA – YLLA
The little-known side project featuring current or former members of Calliope, Temple, Loup, and Birong broke two years of relative silence with eight incomparable songs on a self-titled tape. YLLA is a co-mingling of styles that’s rife with undeniable elements of math rock, zigzag time signatures, shoegazing distortion-drenched vocals, and slanted guitar work throughout. Within the storm of static, elaborate instrumentation co-exists with a no-nonsense rhythm section and John Larkin’s harsh, droning vocals to forge something cold, complex, and strangely beautiful.
21. Lorde Fredd33 – 33: The Education
The New Age Narcissism collective is one of the biggest things going in Milwaukee music these days, with a deep roster that includes WebsterX, Lex Allen, Bo Triplex, and Siren. Speaking of deep, NAN also includes Lorde Fredd33, whose booming low-register voice gives 33: The Education a texture not found on any other Milwaukee album—hip-hop or otherwise. Fredd33’s album is a loose, jazzy affair, full of flowing art-rap (“Foreign”), instrumental touches from saxophonist Jay Anderson (“100 Miles”), and spiritual-minded production by fellow NAN member Q The Sun. On “LIMB,” Fredd33 drones “I got the Lord in me, I got the Lord in me.” Or should that be “Lorde”?
20. Brat Sounds – Born Loser
Last year, Scott Cary started Brat Sounds, spelling the end of Dinny Bulca, the middling garage rock band he previously fronted. Though the ingredients are largely the same, the results are much more palatable. Born Loser, the second release from Cary’s pet project, sees the songwriter playing every instrument in the mix. The clearing house of dyspeptic basement-born songs manages to have punk appeal—down to the self-recorded effort’s incontestable lo-fi aesthetic—while brimming with infectious hooks best expressed on “I Stutter” and “Nemo.”
19. IshDARR – Old Soul Young Spirit
Special stress should be given to the “Young” in the title of IshDARR’s debut full-length album, as the rising rapper is all of 19 years old. Not that you’d ever know it from the confident, conscious, and current hip-hop beaming directly from IshDARR’s brain to your ears. “Right Now” bounces along as a bold statement of purpose, “Only You” gets surprisingly tender and romantic, “Too Bad” hits the town with an undeniable club stomper, and “Remember” looks inward and grapples with relationships and early success. Highlighted by IshDARR’s mile-a-minute delivery, Old Soul Young Spirit is accurate on all four counts.
18. Platinum Boys – Future Hits
It would be easy to write off Platinum Boys as a goofy gettin’-high-and-gettin’-laid joke if the members didn’t practice what they preached—and if their music wasn’t so much damn fun. The first 30 seconds of the unabashedly sleazy Future Hits contain enough debauchery for a dozen bands: smoking a joint in a bathroom stall, pounding a beer, securing a motel hook-up, scoring some cocaine, etc. Tracks like “Candy, “Creeper,” and “Cruisin’ USA” split the difference between scuzzy garage rock and Mötley Crüe, while “Later Girl” and “In The Back Of A Car” prove Platinum Boys are more than one-trick party ponies.
17. Moon Curse – Spirit Remains
Partway into the pummeling percussion, squealing guitars, and guttural roars of Spirit Remains opener “Beneath The Waves,” it becomes abundantly clear that the stoner-rock, quasi-Sabbath-ian version of Moon Curse we met in 2012 is dead and buried. The band’s latest since that self-titled effort displays increased darkness and a welcomed sonic shift. In the forceful 42-minute follow-up, Moon Curse puts away the organ, eschews any comparisons to Ozzy, and write an incredibly heavy and lyrically dense effort that shows marked growth from one the city’s most respected metal mainstays.
16. Marielle Allschwang – Dead Not Done
To listen to Marielle Allschwang’s haunting solo debut Dead Not Done is to listen to the push and pull between the living and the dead, the earth and the sky. The Hello Death and Group Of The Altos singer roots her stark, moody compositions in the fertile ground of folk (“Dead Not Done”), but often lets them spiral off into the more avant garde territory favored by her other bands (“Monsters”). Dead Not Done is an effortlessly gorgeous album, full of Lynchian beauty and grace, and highlighted by Allschwang’s voice, one of the city’s best, twisting and turning in the wind.
15. Maritime – Magnetic Bodies/Maps Of Bones
Even if Maritime might never escape The Promise Ring’s shadow, the associated act has been around nearly twice as long as its iconic emo predecessor and, with Magnetic Bodies/Maps Of Bones, now has a longer catalog. Maritime’s fifth studio album isn’t just a feat of longevity, though. The band spent close to four years writing and perfecting material and emerged from its southside studio with a record that pushes the indie-rock outfit’s sound to new territory with increased auxiliary electronic implementation and some of Maritime’s best material yet.
14. Vonny Del Fresco – Memoirs
Vonny Del Fresco now goes by Von Alexander, but the album that bears his former moniker transcends the name change. Memoirs is a no-frills and gimmick-free hip-hop album that never breaks a sweat, full of blissed-out head-nodders like “Daylight” and “Paradise,” and cinematic calls-to-arms like “Adult Lessons” and “The City.” “Never Die,” changes things up with a swirling collaboration with Klassik, while “Youth” offers up a hard-won prayer of hope and redemption for the young and oppressed. Tasteful and restrained, Memoirs proves that experience and wisdom—even from a rapper as young as Alexander—can sometimes trump flash and fire.
13. Phylums – Phylum Phyloid
A reporter once asked Beatles manager Brian Epstein what the next big thing would be. “A great tune,” Epstein replied. That song-is-king philosophy permeates Phylum’s giddy debut album Phylum Phyloid, a 12-track wonder filled with bubblegum melodies, ’60s-inspired surf guitars, and glorious three-chord rock and roll. There’s hardly a bum note to be found: “Can’t Get Through” and “Crummy Side Of Town” barrel along at a delirious head-bopping clip, while the swirling “Cold Coffee” adds a dash of psychedelia to the mix. As for Epstein’s next “great tune,” Phylums toss their collective hat in the ring with the impossibly infectious “Stutter Bug.”
12. Jaill – Brain Cream
Jaill’s Brain Cream has plenty of backstory to go around—lineup changes, internal fighting, label woes—but the only thing worth knowing is that it’s the band’s best work since 2010’s That’s How We Burn. The deliriously hooky “Getaway” and “Symptoms” play like stoner surfer anthems, while the tropical goodness of “Slides And Slips” and “Draggin’” goes down sweet and easy like a spiked Ecto-Cooler. Past Jaill albums have dipped their toes in similar sun- and drug-addled production, but Brain Cream goes all in and comes up with a winner—and one that still makes time for a lovely five-minute waltz like “Chocolate Poison Time.”
11. Midwives – Midwives
While just 16 minutes long, Midwives’ self-titled record manages to pack a wallop and leave listeners with a sense of completion over the course of 10 blistering tracks. With only three songs cracking the two-minute mark, Midwives cut the shit, trim the fat, and leave no witnesses from the opening tom thuds of “The Tourist” to the menacing breakdown of “Debonair II.” When combining the self-titled LP with the arguably even-better Cowboy Songs EP the band just released, Midwives have established themselves as the vanguard of Milwaukee hardcore in 30 minutes or less.