Do end-of-the-year lists matter? Probably not. What purpose do they serve? Who knows! Isn’t it all just subjective? Of course. Still, there’s something incredibly satisfying about immersing yourself in a year’s worth of terrific music, rediscovering past favorites and unearthing new gems, and assembling it all into a handy list. For this year’s best Milwaukee albums list, we—editors Tyler Maas and Matt Wild and contributors Lauren Keene and Cal Roach—once again stuck to records with five or more songs (well, mostly), and once again had a hell of a time figuring out what should go where. The results may not be perfect, but we believe these 25 albums are, quite simply, the very best Milwaukee albums of the year. Enjoy.
25. s.al – Little Man, You’ve Had A Busy Day
Safari Al (Alexander Kollman), mainstay of artist collective/record label Ruby Yacht, shortened his moniker to s.al, and while the change hasn’t necessarily coincided with a dramatic shift in style, Little Man, You’ve Had A Busy Day could be seen as a sharpening of focus both musically and lyrically. The album leads with a pair of infectious Dustin Laurenzi-produced tracks; otherwise, Kollman makes his own far more experimental beats, vocally blurring lines between singing, rapping, and spoken word. From the unshakeable vocal hook of “Soulmender” to the swelling layers of “Phones” and the grating and/or meditative “5 Ideas, Idea 2,” s.al covers a ton of ground with a tenuous balance between accessibility and cacophony.
24. Brief Candles – Retreater
Arriving a full four years after the excellent Newhouse EP, Brief Candles’ Retreater finds wife-and-husband team Jen Boniger and Kevin Dixon helming 10 swirling, effects-laden, bittersweet tracks that could only be crafted by a veteran band going into its 16th year. Opener “A Way Around” barrels ahead with a rolling drum beat before giving way to an ethereal chorus; “Appearances” approximates the sound of Yo La Tengo underwater; “Downstream” crashes and flails around knotty post-punk time changes; and closer “Mourning House” doubles as a summation of everything the band has done to this point. It’s a beautiful, gorgeously rendered album that’s both immediately accessible and tantalizingly out of reach. It was worth the wait.
23. Vincent Kircher – Am I Ghost
Jaill has kept a distressingly low profile since releasing the long-delayed Brain Cream in 2015. The band’s founder and last remaining original member, Vincent Kircher, however, has been plenty busy. Kircher’s first proper solo album, Am I Ghost, is outfitted with a dozen songs that aren’t a far departure from Jaill’s most subdued and down-tempo material—dig the tropical breeze of opener “Dreams From A Laundromat.” Elsewhere, “Mr. Doom” features jutting guitar solos carefully accenting a soothing score that seems like something out of a mid-’80s dream sequence, while “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.”
22. Law/Less – 2017 Demo
Shouldn’t there be furiously political punk bands popping up left and right these days? This invigorating debut release by Law/Less smacks of the impassioned philosophical bile of early Germs as well as acknowledged primary influence The Exploited. Each song is a reverb-drenched thrashing in one to three minutes. Vocalist Bonnie Chandek takes on anarchy, police brutality, toxic masculinity, class warfare, and refugee crises in one song each, somehow finding fresh combinations of words to attack even the most used-up punk causes. The riffs are nothing groundbreaking but not generic, either. The demo is refreshingly free of anything resembling pop music, a caustic blast of anti-everything propaganda that the current state of our country/world demands.
21. 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. Along the way, the band encountered scheduling conflicts and a building realization something was off. Instead of 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 a dark and dreary rhythmic storm of drums and distorted bass.
20. 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 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 frontman Joey Peterson and company. The Boys have grown up a bit since 2015’s Future Hits, adding slicker production and more mid-tempo numbers 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.
19. IshDARR – Four The Better
Twenty-one-year-old IshDARR is one of the very few Milwaukee musicians with their own Wikipedia page, and his slice of the internet encyclopedia is well-deserved. Four The Better is another notable notch in the young rapper’s belt. The release has everything a hip-hop album needs to shine: a chant-worthy chorus on “Ol’ Dirty,” a skillfully employed ’90s sample (Lil’ Troy’s “Wanna Be A Baller”) on “Mucho Mango,” and a reference to a cultural touchstone on “Get It Back (Airmax 95).” Four may only be six tracks, but those tracks’ irresistibility makes it difficult to listen to the release only once. Milwaukee hip-hop is undoubtedly experiencing a renaissance, and IshDARR is spearheading the movement alongside his contemporaries.
18. Apollo Vermouth – Crashing Into Nowhere
Apollo Vermouth’s latest album opens with a familiar fade-in of eerie ambient guitar drone, welcoming fans back into Alisa Rodriguez’s distinctive sonic dimension. Later songs, however, take unexpected turns: Travis Johnson (Grooms) provides lyrics and vocals on the haunting “Always There,” and “Reflections Of” is a beautiful co-creation with Eli Smith, whom Rodriguez has previously collaborated with in Honeymooners. Overall, the album lacks some of the aggressive darkness that has characterized much of Rodriguez’s past work; it’s permeated by an uneasy bliss whose dynamic shifts are nebulous and gradual, but even aside from the collaborative pieces, the album showcases more subtle variations in tone within her signature ambience than perhaps any of her prior albums.
17. Northless – Last Bastion Of Cowardice
For a band so driven by pessimism and misanthropy, Northless displays a surprising sense of urgency on Last Bastion Of Cowardice. The album opens with one of the fastest songs Northless has ever recorded: “The Origin Of Flames” splits the difference between muddy throwback hardcore and blistering black metal before downshifting into the thudding sludge more in line with what the band is primarily known for. The creepy chanting in “The Devil In Exile” and “Slave To A Scorched Earth” is riveting new territory for Northless as well. Elsewhere, tracks like “Godsend” and “Last Bastion Of Cowardice” mix a soaring (um, relatively speaking) melodic sense with bursts of thrash and atmospheric interludes, all punctuated with some of Nicholas Elert and Erik Stenglein’s most crushingly memorable riffs ever. It’s the same trademark brutality, just slightly less uniformly oppressive.
16. Jonathan Burks – Getting High
“I asked for a sign / Didn’t like what it said / I kept on keepin’ on instead,” begins “Reboot,” one of many lyrical turns on Getting High that any artist might adopt as a personal creed. Jonathan Burks’ unusual blend of folk, blues, psych-rock and hip-hop got even weirder on 2015’s Getting Low album, which introduced a new lineup for his band: Didier Leplae on guitar, Nathan Kilen on drums, and David Cusma on horns, most prominently tuba, which makes up the entirety of the low end. Getting Low was a bit of a rebuilding album, but the band’s sound gels perfectly on Getting High. Burks has come up with an inspired crop of songs, uniquely uplifting manifestos within the context of life’s unavoidable bullshit.
15. Telethon – The Grand Spontanean: A Tale Told In Five Acts
Telethon’s ambitious 30-track, 90-minute concept album chronicles a screen-sick, electronically addled protagonist’s desperate search for any semblance of comfort and normalcy in a rapidly changing and ever-worsening world. His frantic journey takes him to an unlicensed therapist, finds him reaching strange new levels of paranoia, and eventually stumbling upon “The Page At The End Of The Internet”—where a foreboding message warns of the world’s end in a matter of days. Fortunately, the pop-punk outfit’s elaborate concept is carried to fruition with the able accompaniment of featured players like Less Than Jake singer Roger Lima, The Hold Steady keyboardist Franz Nicolay, Laura Stevenson, and Fake Problems’ Chris Farren. By the end of the graphic and gratifying ride to the edge of existence, you’ll have experienced something you never would’ve thought Telethon was capable of…and not just because you didn’t know who Telethon was before all this.
14. Luxi – Geometric Universe
Layering harmonies, keyboard riffs and bass lines, Geometric Universe transports listeners to an alternate dimension where the sky is lime green and the streets are lined with hot pink palm trees. Luxi’s uncanny ability to craft brooding, whimsical electronica is obvious throughout the entire release. Her sugary sweet vocals are reminiscent of electro-pop princess Grimes, and tracks like “U N W I N D” and “S M I L E” bring back fond memories of vaporwave’s early 2010 emergence. Released via Radiograffiti, Geometric Universe embodies a haunting chillwave sound and aesthetic that was born and raised on the world wide web.
13. Blonder – Blender
It’s possible, if not probable, that 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”).
12. 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. 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.”
11. Sundial Mottos – Sundial Mottos
Midnight Reruns’ Graham Hunt and Apollo Vermouth’s Alisa Rodriguez took very different musical paths before forming Sundial Mottos together; separately, they’d become two of Milwaukee’s most respected songwriters, but their disparate styles didn’t exactly scream “collaboration.” What emerges on the group’s self-titled EP is a surprisingly cohesive blend of Hunt’s bittersweet indie/punk hooks with Rodriguez’s shoegaze/dreampop textures, but their presumed roles are by no means strictly enforced. It’s refreshing to hear Rodriguez’s lead vocals on “Fool” and “Teenage,” and she and Hunt prove harmonious both in terms of singing and the resigned/yearning duality of their lyrics. It’s an assured debut from one of the most exciting new projects in the city.
10. Uhtcearu – For Darkness To Subside
Black metal may have finally reached subgenre critical mass, as bands like Uhtcearu emerge with little concern for well-defined stylistic divisions. The bold, crisp production (courtesy of Shane Hochstetler) of For Darkness To Subside is almost heresy, but it’s essential in bringing out the various fringe elements that converge in Uhtcearu’s sophomore release. Tracks like “May Spirits Guide Us Through” and “As Witching Hours Wane” compare favorably to the modern pagan metal sounds of Primordial, while shades of AC/DC and even Rush color cleaner anthemic pieces like “Burning Effigy,” and Zach Ostrowski’s powerfully ragged vocals tie everything back to the genre’s primal, noisy roots. Perhaps the album’s centerpiece, “The Depth Of Gloom” begins with a striking piano solo that embodies the sentiment of the song’s title, eventually adding in clean guitar and then exploding in a Randy Rhoads-inspired riff. From here it becomes a clanging series of doom and post-hardcore motifs, culminating in a rapid-fire guitar/drum assault that would work in virtually any extreme genre. All headbangers will find something to love on this album.
9. Midwives – No
If Midwives aren’t already through being a band, their production will at least slow significantly going forward on account of members moving, and others shifting focus to different bands and exciting new endeavors. With four releases in the hardcore quartet’s catalog before its second year as a band, that was probably bound to happen anyway, though. If a premature end or lengthy hiatus are inevitable, at least Midwives left one hell of a parting gift. From the moment vocalist Shaun Stacey’s screaming salvo kicks opener “Northside Blues” into motion, until the slow-moving slurry of distortion permeates every jagged crevice of ninth and final track “(An All Expense Paid) Business Trip,” No—referred to as the “last Midwives album” on Bandcamp—is an admirable sub-18-minute parting shot from one of Milwaukee’s most productive projects of the past four years.
8. Abby Jeanne – Rebel Love
In “Aged Young,” Abby Jeanne says “2016 gave [her] gray hair.” But the incomparable Cream City crooner, songwriter, and producer experienced nothing short of an artistically 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. Her home-recorded and self-produced 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 somber 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.
7. Fox Face – Spoil + Destroy
We’ll be straightforward here: for a debut album full-length, Spoil + Destroy is really fucking good. Released on Madison’s Dirtnap Records, the LP packs a powerful punch with every single track. Vocalist and guitarist Lindsay DeGroot’s piercing snarl commands attention and is damn-near impossible to ignore. Oftentimes, punk music can become pretty generic pretty fast, but Spoil + Destroy is far from run-of-the-mill. Fox Face ensures their feminist politics are the album’s focal point. “Watch out / This pussy will bite you back” DeGroot, Mary Hickey and Lydia Washechek scream in unison on “Nasty Woman,” a track aptly named after Donald Trump’s now-infamous jab at Hillary Clinton. “I Believe In Science” is a rallying cry against climate change deniers (unfortunately, they do exist). What makes Fox Face stand out from their contemporaries is their apparent passion. Three out of the band’s four members are women, and it goes without saying that each has a lifetime’s worth of sexism to be pissed off about. Feminist-laced fury has never sounded so fresh.
6. The Fatty Acids – Dogs Of Entertainment
When the Fatty Acids dropped Dogs Of Entertainment back in February, the band hosted not one, but two release shows for the album. Both shows were packed with fans eager to hear the five-piece’s first album since 2013. It’s obvious that the Fatties are universally cherished in Milwaukee, and Dogs reminds us why the band is regarded so highly. Their psychedelic rock tunes boast brooding pop sensibilities that are often imitated but rarely duplicated. On tracks like “Ghostess” and “I Try Not To Freak Out About It,” Matt Pappas puts his guitar skills on the front burner. Dogs also employs groovy sax riffs on “WG EX BF” and infectious keyboard tickling on “Sequins”—for those who don’t get down with guitar licks. The entire album is lush from start to finish, with some tracks (like single “Strangers”) almost opting for a Phil Spector-reminiscent “wall of sound” production style. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another four years for Dogs‘ successor, but knowing the Fatty Acids, the wait will certainly be worth it.
5. 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.” Is there any better advice than that? Later, 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. “All I have to do is use my intuition,” WebsterX says on the latter song, “My soul was in the mud and now it’s running through the finish.” 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, his frankness paired with his well-earned bravado, and, yes, his lofty vantage point, still make it thrillingly intimate and unique.
4. Whips – The Ride
The cover of Whips’ top-to-bottom excellent The Ride—the follow-up to 2014’s also-excellent Turn It On—depicts 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. The opening title track is less a song than a well-oiled machine, full of Ashley Smith’s fuzzed-out hiccup vocals, Christian Hansen’s buzzsaw guitar, and a thrilling climax that eventually blows out just like the cover’s smoking hotrod. Elsewhere, the charging “Goldmine” barrels along at a dangerous clip but takes time for some catchy “ooh-ooh”s, the left-field “Ms. Terry” melts a killer bubblegum head-bopper to the scorching asphalt below, and the endlessly awesome “Nobody’s Fool” boasts the city’s best bad-ass chorus of the year (“I ain’t no fool / Nobody’s fool / But I’d be, I’d be a fool for you”). Smith, Hansen, bassist Tyler Chicorel, and drummer Andy Mrotek have created a possessed muscle car of a record—one part Christine, one part Duel.
3. Midnight Reruns – Spectator Sports
Right now, it looks like Spectator Sports may be Midnight Reruns’ final bow. Even though the band’s future is uncertain, the album is a memorable effort that absolutely solidifies the Reruns’ place in Milwaukee music history. Following 2015’s fantastic Force Of Nurture, Spectator Sports combines the band’s signature, Thin Lizzy-reminiscent dueling guitar riffs with singer/songwriter Graham Hunt’s introspective, self-deprecating lyrics. “I don’t like it / When you hold up the mirror,” he repeatedly wails on “Hold Up The Mirror,” crafting an angsty metaphor that listeners may find a little too relatable. “City Hall” takes an even darker turn, memorializing the eight suicides at Milwaukee City Hall; Hunt certainly did his research—some of the victims (Leo Kraemer, Charles Darling, Harry Kumelski) are mentioned by name in the song. Since the band’s indefinite dissolution, almost every member has dipped their toes into another project or two (in drummer Sam Reitman’s case) or, uh, three (in Hunt’s case). In hindsight, it feels like Sports is an album crafted by a Milwaukee supergroup instead of a group of super-talented Milwaukee musicians.
2. Soul Low – Cheer Up
Drop the digital and/or physical needle on Soul Low’s third full-length album, Cheer Up, and you’re almost immediately hit with it: La la la la, da da da da, da da da da-la da! The impossibly upbeat “Bad Set Of Moods” kicks in like a Mountain Dew sugar rush, all wide-eyed and frothing at the mouth. But chip away at the chipper veneer and you’ll find a song about navigating the throes of depression. “If I tell you I don’t need sunshine I want you to call out my bluff” sings Jake Balistreri. “And if I tell you that I don’t feel fine I want you to say I’m enough.” That push-and-pull reverberates throughout the ebullient, endlessly creative indie found on Cheer Up. “Tired of the life I know / Raining with no rainbow” sings Balistreri on “Chancin’ It.” It’s a song that laments life’s “ebbs and flows” and the drudgery of “[driving] to another show,” but cloaks it all in a head-bopping barn-burner that grows more manic as it goes along. (The title track is even more direct: “Do you wanna die? So do I,” Balistreri croons, before offering a resigned “cheer up, everything is fine” capper.) “I’ve got a bad set of moods and I think it’s gonna be a while ’til they move,” goes the chorus of “Bad Set Of Moods.” Likewise, the pleasures and anxieties of Cheer Up aren’t likely to leave your head anytime soon.
1. Milo – Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?!
“Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?! is about boundaries and permissions. The artist creating their own license to ill.” So writes Rory Ferreira in the digital linear notes to his third, and best, full-length album as Milo. That call for agency reverberates throughout the album’s 15 tracks, which, in true Milo form, also contain references to everything from Maury Povich and Gary Gygax to Ted Danson and Terry Gilliam films. Not that pop culture is the only thing on Ferreira’s mind, of course. “We shouldn’t be complimenting fence-building nihilists,” he raps on standout track “Paging Mr. Bill Nunn.” Frankly, the frankincense isn’t working.” Recorded in just 24 hours, the follow-up to 2015’s So The Flies Don’t Come is both jazzy and nimble, experimental and assured, vital and devastating. “God bless the soul of whoever you thought you was / ‘Cause it, ’cause it might not be no next time,” Milo raps on “Magician (Suture),” more than living up to his status as one of current music’s great thinkers. Elsewhere, Milwaukee’s Lorde Fredd33 guests on the winning “Yet Another,” scoring points with pointed lines like “And yet another tragic scene / Killed over Skittles? / No wonder they take magic beans.” About that Milwaukee connection: Ferreira relocated to Maine this past summer, yet Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?! remains a truly great Milwaukee album—and a truly great album, period.