10. Whips, Turn It On
Whips’ arrival in the Milwaukee music scene came pretty quietly, or at least as quietly as can be expected from a project whose members have past or current roots in beloved local bands like Call Me Lightning, Red Knife Lottery, Space Raft, Hot Coffin, and Last Place Champs—not to mention a member of (once) nationally regarded Chicago pop-punk outfit The Academy Is… The all-star cast’s five-song debut EP (2013’s Year One) was an altogether awesome but painfully brief introduction to a band that has all the makings of a group capable of taking Milwaukee over by force. Turn It On—which the group will berth at Cactus Club December 20—won’t quite accomplish the coup on its own, but it isn’t exactly preventing Whips’ ongoing ascent toward the throne, either. From the first guitar chugs and snare pangs of opener “Switchblade” to the parting scream and wall of distortion that brings ninth and final song “Xoxxx” to completion, Turn It On pulls no punches, minces no words, and gives precisely zero fucks at any point in its blistering half-hour aural assault. Christian Hansen affixes angular guitar licks to the forceful rhythmic wave supplied by bassist Tyler Chicorel and drummer Andy Mrotek. Singer Ashley Smith (née Chapman, for the Red Knife Lottery fans out there) throws fuel on the flames with raw and commanding vocals along with lyrics about money (“Big”), switchblade knives (“Switchblade”), and Evel Knievel (“Right On”). [TM]

9. Twin Brother, Swallow The Anchor
Though not a full-fledged concept album, Twin Brother’s second record, Swallow The Anchor, seems to be nestled in the overarching theme of fleeting youth. A year after the trio’s perfectly fine self-titled debut album, singer/guitarist Sean Raasch carried Twin Brother’s seamless sound to higher ground by singing from the brutally honest perspective of a protagonist coming to terms with the fact that his best days are behind him and he isn’t living the life he’d imagined for himself all those years ago. From Raasch bellowing “Go, go, go far from here” in “Heart & Soul,” and the weary waltz enacted by drummer Tyler Nelson and multi-instrumentalist Lodewijk “Lodi” Broekhuizen in “Way To Be,” Swallow The Anchor is a soundtrack to the introspection that often accompanies entry into one’s early- to mid-thirties. As exposed and vulnerable as the emotionally wrought album is, it’s projected through a lens of begrudging endurance with title track “Swallow The Anchor” and album-ender “Stand Up Straight.” The cruel march of time won’t stop, so what choice is there but to trudge along with it and try to pull beauty from the decay? [TM]

8. The Delphines, Hush
Throughout most of their too-brief existence, The Delphines took rock and roll to an almost absurd degree of minimalism, recording vocals, guitars, and a two-piece drum kit directly into a laptop. The results were surprisingly un-gimmicky, and when the time came to record a full-length, the increased production values didn’t sacrifice a bit of immediacy. The simplistic nature of Hush recalls early Motown and the roots of garage rock in that when you strip away nearly everything but the song, the result could only be tarnished by further tampering. Jami Eaton’s stark, passively aggressive lyrics lay out the trials and cheap thrills of love and lust poetically and without filter, and Harrison Colby proves that all the great original guitar riffs might not quite be used up. While most modern indie-rock bands are busy combining stylistic elements for their multitasking target audience, Hush succeeds on old-fashioned songwriting, reducing rock to its naked essence and making it exciting again. [CR]

7. Old Earth, A Wake In The Wells
It wasn’t a hard choice to put Old Earth on this list; choosing which of the three outstanding releases Todd Umhoefer’s artistic vehicle put into the world this calendar year proved a bit more difficult. While Old Earth’s 13-minute opus All Kill is probably the project’s best rendering minute-to-minute, Umhoefer’s five-track (11-movement) A Wake In The Wells is the best illustration of his swift development and versatility as a composer. The standard punctuation of harsh palm-muted guitar loops and shrill, deliberately sparse vocals are all still prominently featured. However, the experimental folk album, which is meant to be fully digested in one sitting, is more reserved and inviting than past Old Earth works—as is apparent within seconds of “Some Gates’ll Swing Wide, For Us.” Umhoefer calls on an eclectic cast of Milwaukee musicians to help flesh out his skeleton songs, including Christopher Porterfield (Field Report), Jon Mueller (Volcano Choir, Collections Of Colonies Of Bees, Pele), Erin Wolf (Altos), Sean Raasch (Twin Brother), Michael Brooks, and Nick Berg (Great Lake Drifters). Sadly, the sound the Oak Creek native painstakingly sired in Milwaukee didn’t seem to have a home here, which sent him westward to northern California in November. Though the effort went predominately wasted on disinterested single-digit audiences during its brief stay in Milwaukee, A Wake In The Wells was one of the city’s best albums of 2014, even if nobody was around to hear it. [TM]

6. Sugar Stems, Only Come Out At Night
Even casual fans of Milwaukee power-pop purveyors Sugar Stems should know what to expect from a new album: ringing guitars, ridiculously memorable hooks, and gooey vocals from songwriter Betsy Heibler. All those things are present on Only Come Out At Night, of course, as are the band’s alternately sweet and sour come-ons. The addition of Andy Harris (ex-Goodnight Loving/Jaill) on organ, however, gives songs like “Tell The Truth” a new and welcome flavor. But it all still comes down to Sugar Stems’ flawless pop songwriting and delivery: “I Know Where I’m Going,” “The One,” “Sun Rise, Sea Change,” and the album title track as vie for “catchiest chorus of the year,” while acoustic album closer “Million Miles” is without a doubt the most heartbreaking and lovely song the band has ever recorded. Like “Million Miles,” Only Come Out At Night is instantly memorable, unspeakably pretty, and just the right amount of world-weary. Like the band itself, it’s sweet, sour, and everything in between. [MW]

5. Bliss & Alice, Poetry Volume One – The Shit Talker Tape
It’s hard to say what’s most impressive about this debut mixtape from newcomer Bliss & Alice: the dizzying vocal dexterity, the liquidity of the overall flow, or the impact and craftsmanship of the words themselves. From the very first song, “Apex,” Bliss is methodical and relentless as an MC; he makes you want to keep rewinding the track to see if you can figure out where he takes a breath. His rhythmic precision is no less impressive on laid-back tracks like “Lost” and “Mind Movies,” and he’s more about simmering intensity than barking, evoking doldrums and loss as effectively as energetic bravado. The crusher, though, is “Mademoiselle,” a disturbing, psycho-autobiographical piece that’s pure spoken poetry against a stark, icy piano backdrop, more Gil Scott-Heron than hip-hop, but sonic crack for anyone who appreciates wordplay. Bliss has burst onto the scene with an album so enjoyable and distinctive that it’s going to be hard to follow up, but we can hardly wait for the next chapter. [CR]

4. Canopies, Maximize Your Faith
It’s been over three years since Canopies came out of nowhere with their jaw-dropping self-titled debut EP. In that time, bands have come and gone and styles have faded in and out of fashion, but the synth-pop sounds of 2011’s Canopies have continued to resonate throughout the Milwaukee music scene. (It landed at #4 on our list of the 50 best Milwaukee albums of the 2010s.) What a thrill, then, to discover that the new 10-song Maximize Your Faith not only makes good on the promise of Canopies’ debut, but tops it in nearly every regard. This is a space/synth-rock record of the highest order: Opener “Getting Older” lifts off like a Saturn rocket, “The Plunderers And The Pillagers” soars above the stars, and “Miss You Now” seems to occupy multiple musical dimensions at once. Deeper cuts like “Sparkle And Hum” hew closer to Earth, evoking gloomy goth dance parties and chemically addled head trips. With Faith, what was once a bedroom project has gracefully evolved into a full-fledged band, making Canopies one of the city’s best acts on record and on stage. [MW]

3. Field Report, Marigolden
Choose a narrative. Field Report’s Marigolden is the highly anticipated follow-up to the band’s tremendous self-titled debut that yielded nine months of touring in support of mainstream artists. It’s the latest attempt by an ex-Justin Vernon collaborator to attract the notoriety of Bon Iver and the influence of Volcano Choir. It’s a sobriety record. It’s the vessel where Milwaukee is piling its collective hope for the next locally sourced musical guest on a late night talk show or movie trailer overture. It’s the band’s last chance to push the conversation of Milwaukee music beyond state lines or risk enshrinement amongst the menagerie of “Milwaukee big” bands like BoDeans and Citizen King that we so love to collect. No matter which of these storylines you apply to Marigolden, you’re right. When taking away all expectation, setting aside the backstory, and removing any speculation about the album’s importance, though, Marigolden is just a great goddamn record. Recorded in remote Ontario by longtime Feist producer Robbie Lackritz last December, the sophomore effort brings Field Report down some new strikingly different auditory avenues. Bandleader—and, now, only remaining original member—Christopher Porterfield’s beautifully narrated folk tales have taken a woeful turn this time around, as his wavering voice carries messages of loss and admissions regarding his ongoing struggle with sobriety. Musically, crushing piano anti-ballads (“Ambrosia”) and upbeat numbers (“Marigolden”) are offset with a sort of electro-folk hybrid that translates astoundingly well to Porterfield’s penchant for poetics. Marigolden is an absolute success. Forget the narrative. [TM]

2. Death Blues, Ensemble
Death Blues is not a band: it’s a mindset. The philosophy, conceived by Jon Mueller in 2011, is to become more present in each moment through an awareness of the finality and inevitability of death. From this concept, a growing number of multimedia projects and events have sprung forth, of which Ensemble is, so far, the crowning achievement. The initial sonic incarnation of Death Blues consisted of chanting, blunt percussion, and simple rhythmic patterns hammered out on acoustic guitars. Mueller laid down the basic musical kernels on 2012’s Death Blues LP, and over the course of the next two years, worked with multi-instrumentalist William Ryan Fritch to develop these original ideas into the much more varied, expansive compositions found on Ensemble. Their skeletal origins are only occasionally recognizable; it’s as if Fritch used strings, horns, keys, and whatever else he had at his disposal to sculpt the swirls and swells of emotion that the bare-bones Death Blues pieces conjured within him. Melodies and themes emerge, solidify, convolute and disperse within each track in a very stream-of-consciousness manner. The combination of instruments and motifs defies categorization and stymies comparisons to other artists, although Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Sigur Rós occasionally come to mind. It’s like a primordial soup of emotion, evoking whatever joys and longings your experience has taught you to value. The essays that accompany the record are powerful examples of what Death Blues can inspire and/or be inspired by, but the music, by itself, demands that the listener be an active participant. [CR]

1. Space Raft, Space Raft
It was a year of debuts for Milwaukee music, and no other debut had more pre-release hype than Space Raft’s. There were plenty of reasons for that: The band’s (since-reconfigured) résumé was tantalizing (former and present members of Call Me Lightning, Whips, Mystery Girls, Circles, and Temper Temper); and the record’s first single, “We Are Not Alone,” was the kind of song that seemed destined to score countless beer-soaked summer parties. Happily, the full album not only met the buzz, it exceeded it. Big guitars, bigger hooks, and ’70s/’90s power-pop along the lines of Big Star and Matthew Sweet are the order of Space Raft’s day. Opener “Never Is Enough” chugs along like a gritty, long-lost Tom Petty gem; “Evening Glow” cuts a moody figure with a minor-chord swoon in the chorus; and “Rescue Mission” tosses off a textbook power-pop guitar intro as effortlessly as a guitar pick. There’s a sci-fi concept album buried somewhere beneath the record’s surface, but unearthing it isn’t necessary to enjoy the hazy psychedelia and rock-solid craftsmanship found throughout. If there’s one album that all of Milwaukee can get behind in 2014, and one album that sums up the continued promise and populist pleasures of Milwaukee music as a whole, Space Raft is it. [MW]