Believe it or not (we choose not), 2017 is more than halfway over. Summer may have just begun and winter may seem like a distant nightmare, but the fact remains that the year is currently on the downward slide. It would be depressing if it wasn’t so nice out. With that in mind, we thought it was a perfect time to cheer up, listen to some music, and celebrate the year’s first six months by rounding up the best Milwaukee albums of 2017 (so far).
For our non-ranked mid-year list (which we capped at 13), we considered albums that were released between January and June that contained five tracks or more. There were a lot to choose from (and a lot of singles and EPs that didn’t make the cut). While many of these records will likely appear on our annual “25 best Milwaukee albums” year-end list, some may be bumped. Also, it’s possible that some January-June records that don’t appear here may end up on our final list upon further listening. Putting together a list like this is never easy, but it speaks to the talent and depth of Milwaukee music that we’re kind of glad it isn’t. Enjoy.
Abby Jeanne — Rebel Love
In the single “Aged Young,” Abby Jeanne says “2016 gave [her] gray hair.” But the incomparable Cream City crooner, songwriter, and producer is in the midst of an astounding 2017. On top of a staggering festival schedule, newfound local airplay, and long-overdue attention from Milwaukee media, Abby Jeanne—who previously had but a select few Soundcloud demos in her recorded arsenal—finally cast a full-fledged debut album into the world. Rebel Love not only highlights Jeanne’s incredible vocal chops that could very well be considered the vanguard of Milwaukee voices, but the young songwriter coats otherwise dreary compositions regarding death, drugs, and an overriding sense of loss and loneliness with smooth and powerful melodies unlike anything our city has ever heard before, and may never again.
BLAX — Be Well
Since moving back to Milwaukee from New York in 2013, Fresh Cut Collective co-founder Adebisi Agoro—who raps under the stage name BLAX—has handily regained his footing in the hip-hop scene he’d temporarily left. His latest record, the Reason-produced Be Well, features a diverse mix of guests, including Brooklyn’s G.R.A.M.Z., Milwaukee’s Fivy, and even Brew City veteran Coo Coo Cal. Milwaukee is definitely on BLAX’s mind throughout Be Well—news reports of the 2016 Sherman Park unrest are weaved throughout the record’s 15 politically charged tracks, and hardly a verse goes by without mention of the “414.” Coo Coo Cal’s track, “Maybe,” is Be Well at its most frantic and fevered, while the title track finds BLAX paying tribute to a distressingly long list of murdered black men—Milwaukee’s Dontre Hamilton among them—while reminding listeners to “Be well / Be more than well.”
Blonder — Blender
Since rising from the ashes of Cousins back in 2013, it’s possible—if not probable—Blonder slipped under your radar. Those fortunate enough to stumble onto the band’s limited and obscured output have heard material with genuine emotion and beyond-their-years lyrics. Written and recorded in drummer Eric Risser’s basement studio throughout much of 2015 and 2016, Blonder released its longest, most thoughtfully crafted, and all-around best work yet in early June. Blender is rife with raw instrumentation that drifts from breezy listlessness to momentary jolts of frantic expression, which opener “Lucky” and “Stupor” best illustrate. The quintet’s nine analog-recorded songs tote a barren structure and dual vocals that drive, twist, and turn, before usually landing somewhere between rousing youthful outbursts (“Pot Hobby” and “Home Across The Hoan/Exitlude”) and mournful coming-of-age lamentations (“Fall Leaves” and “Heat And Secrete”).
The Fatty Acids — Dogs Of Entertainment
Recorded over parts of the past three-plus years in the band’s former “Kribber’s Tiny Kingdom” residence in Riverwest, the synth-pop stalwarts’ latest and greatest effort effectively traces the group’s collective maturity and documents the individual growth of its parts. Upbeat and island-adjacent opener “Digested” and rambunctious chaser “Try Not To Freak Out About It” seem to pick up right where preceding singles left off. However, the pace slows and the depleted foursome leaves enough open space for an underlying darkness—expressed both lyrically and musically—to creep in, as best illustrated on “WG EX BF” and the dour singalong “Sequins,” among others. Over the course of 10 songs, this grown-up iteration of The Fatties briefly glances back at the energy of Berries and Boléro, slogs through the downtrodden scenery of Leftover Monsterface, and confidently strikes out into new territory with an aura of experience, wisdom, and quality that can only come with a few years away.
Joseph Huber — The Suffering Stage
In 2014, so-called “solitary craftsman” Joseph Huber went it alone on The Hanging Road, the former .357 String Band member’s third solo record and one in which he played every instrument. In the years since, the respected roots singer-songwriter scaled back his self-sufficiency a little. For his latest, Huber eschewed his predominately minimalist writing and self-recording methods, bringing in Ryan Knudson to provide pedal steel accompaniment, Dustin Dobernig on keys, Andrew Koenig on electric guitar, as well as recorded assistance on fiddle and upright bass from touring players Jason Loveall and Eston Bennett. Huber even packed away his suitcase he uses for percussion for some songs in favor of drums. Sure, the influence of other players can be heard in The Suffering Stage—namely in peppy opener “Playground/Battlefield” and “Sons Of Wandering.” But even with the new ingredients, Huber’s fourth record is wrought with a familiar level of care and an indelible smudge of sadness that can be heard in songs like “Diminished Things” and the seven-minute title track.
Midnight Reruns — Spectator Sports
There simply isn’t a better rock band in Milwaukee than Midnight Reruns. Shit, there might not be a better band in Milwaukee than Midnight Reruns right now. Since officially and emphatically announcing their presence with a debaucherous self-titled debut in 2013, a flawless cassette of B-sides, and the fantastic Tommy Stinson-recorded Force Of Nurture (which we named the second best album of 2015), the band hasn’t eased off in the slightest. Amid tours and a steady diet of local shows, Midnight Reruns found time to head up to Rhinelander for a week to record Spectator Sports. The third full-length is a coming of age effort from a band that’s still fairly young and whose ceiling seems to be nowhere in sight. Between uplifting opening track “Only Child,” song of the year contender “Scorpion,” and the dueling guitar squeals that bring album-ender “Warm Days” to a close, Midnight Reruns dole out 10 songs and 36 minutes worth of rambunctious and guitar-driven tunes with a level of execution and lyrical depth we’ve never heard from them before.
Piles — Expeller
Mere months removed from releasing the locally lauded Planet Skin in 2015, Piles returned to the studio with aspirations of knocking out a new batch of songs for another record. Along the way, the band encountered scheduling conflicts and a building realization something was off. Instead of plowing through the session and making adjustments on the fly, Piles ultimately opted to scrap everything and start from scratch. The second time in the booth proved to be a charm for the post-punk trio, as they blew through an album’s worth of reworked songs in a weekend at Howl Street Recordings. The end product, Expeller, is a hazy and haunting eight-song flurry of dissonant guitars and sparse vocals that are punctuated with dark and dreary rhythmic storm of drums and a slurry of distorted bass.
Platinum Boys — Buzz
If you’re looking for a thesis statement on the life and times of the Platinum Boys, look no further than the third song from the new, ridiculously infectious Buzz: “Everything Is Easy Shit.” Living fast, partying all night, playing shows, and writing one of the best garage-rock records in years—it all comes easy to Joey Peterson, Matt Pappas, Casey Hughes, and new drummer Henry Chern. The Boys have grown up a bit since 2015’s Future Hits, adding slicker production and more mid-tempo lighter-hoisters like “Lord Knows”—but, you know, they’re still searching the town, getting high, and rocking the fuck out. That it all comes off so good-natured and positive is the band’s greatest gift. Cracking open a cold one with the boys ain’t got shit on the Platinum Boys.
SIN BAD — It’s Fine
You may remember SIN BAD from their excellent Untitled 2014 Demo, which we included on our list of the best Milwaukee albums of 2014. If you loved the bright, insanely catchy pop-punk nuggets found on that album, you’re in luck, because, well, the new It’s Fine is pretty much the same album, albeit recorded and mixed all professional like. All seven tracks from the 2014 demo are here, better than ever (“Stranger Danger” and “Anxiety” remain unstoppable), along with three new tracks that fit right in with their older siblings. Old, new, already listed three years ago, who cares? The timelessness of It’s Fine proves its title is a massive understatement.
Vincent Kircher — Am I Ghost
After finally releasing the long-delayed Brain Cream in 2015, Jaill has kept a relatively low profile. The band’s founder and last remaining original member, Vincent Kircher, has been plenty busy, however, releasing a self-recorded album under Jaill’s name (Whatever It Be) and now a proper solo album under his own. Am I Ghost is outfitted with a dozen songs that aren’t a far departure from Jaill’s most subdued and down-tempo material. However, this release has a much more electronic bent than anything Kircher has managed to date: “Mr. Doom” features the familiar voice and jutting guitar solos carefully accenting a soothing score that seems like something out of a mid-’80s dream sequence, while closer “The Sad 80s” goes all in on the sound and bittersweet nostalgia of the decade. But it’s songs like the heartbreaking “Hello Lonesomeness” that find Kircher at his best, saying goodbye to “all inklings of loved things,” while noting he’s “not aiming for a target / There’s no target to be aimed for.”
WebsterX — Daymares
“Wasting hours in bed / All day long in my head / Falling deep so deep I’m fading I’m gone / Will I ever come back again?” That’s WebsterX in the opening moments of “Until I,” an intimate chronicle of the unstoppable Milwaukee rapper’s recent battle with depression. That battle hangs over the entirety of the masterful Daymares, but it never drowns it out—after all, “Until I” ends with this: “Make that song, jump along, demons gone.” The chant-along “Blue Streak” finds WebsterX at the height of his powers (“gazing down from higher clouds,”) while “Intuition” is simply one of the best Milwaukee anthems of the year. Daymares is undoubtedly WebsterX’s most accessible and fan-friendly work to date—dig the glistening electro backdrop of “Lost Ones”—but his incomparable voice, as well as his lofty vantage point, still make it thrillingly unique.
Whips — The Ride
The cover of Whips’ top-to-bottom excellent The Ride—the follow-up to 2014’s Turn It On—shows a car engulfed in smoke. If there’s a better visual metaphor for the overdriven, overheated, raw-horsepower rock and roll firing away inside the guts of the record, we aren’t aware of it. The Ride is covered in sweat, sex, dirt, and danger, but it’s the hooks that make it hum: “Goldmine” barrels along at a dangerous clip but takes time for some catchy “ooh-ooh”s, “Ms. Terry” melts a bubblegum head-bopper to the scorching asphalt below, and “Nobody’s Fool” contains the city’s best bad-ass chorus of the year. Singer Ashley Smith, guitarist Christian Hansen, bassist Tyler Chicorel, and drummer Andy Mrotek have created a possessed muscle car of a record—one part Christine, one part Duel.
The Zach Pietrini Band — Holding Onto Ghosts
Zach Pietrini is a work in progress. That]s not an indictment of his talent as much as it is an acknowledgement of the Americana troubadour’s unwillingness to spend too much time in any single creative territory. Since his 2007 outset as bandleader and namesake of Zach Pietrini & The Broken Bones, he’s released four records under two different project names, while displaying noticeable evolution as a musician and lyricist with each new album. His fifth album, Holding Onto Ghosts, is an examination of age, wisdom, disappointment, and coming to terms with what life has thrown at him. Over the course of nine songs, Pietrini seizes the day (“Dance”), feels sorry for himself (“One Shot For My Heart”), and wards off personal demons (“There For You”) before emerging older, wiser, and markedly closer to the hallowed artistic ground he’s been seeking all along.