It’s tempting to call it a day for “the album.” After all, who has time to sit down and listen to an entire record? Hell, who has time to record one? And yet, year after year, “the album” remains something that so many artists shoot for, and something that so many listeners return to. In Milwaukee, “the album” had a particularly stellar year; never before have so many great records (including ones that made our “best-so-far” list) failed to crack our ranked end-of-year list. A good problem to have, we suppose. So here they are, the 25 best Milwaukee albums—yes, albums—of 2018.
25. The Fainting Room – Dusk
The wry feminism indicated by The Fainting Room as a band name might give you an idea of what to expect from frontwoman Lisa Ridgely’s incisive lyrics, but that’s just one facet of her songwriting talents. Dusk, the group’s first full-length release following a couple of prior EPs, touches on a wide range of interpersonal relationships, including the sometimes troublesome modern live music experience. “If you’re just gonna check your phone / Well you should’ve stayed home / ‘Cause I’m not blind,” Ridgely sings in “Turning Me On,” echoing the frustrations of any serious music fan as well as probably every local musician. The band’s lush twang puts a lovely new spin on Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up,” and the devastating album closer, “Kill A Man,” is perhaps Ridgely’s most potent musical statement yet.
24. Slow Walker – Ah Yes
Since the band’s 2011 start, Slow Walker has averaged one release per year. The group’s ever-expanding catalog is full of fast and energetic tunes that straddle the line between garage rock and psych, and those songs are often on display throughout greater Milwaukee. The band’s admirable output hasn’t impacted the song quality whatsoever. If anything, the extra reps only serve to make Slow Walker sound better with each new record. That trend continues with the hard-working outfit’s Ah Yes—one of two 2018 Slow Walker releases. From the rumbling, distorted bass and pummeling percussion that open the album in “Weed Out The Squares,” to eight-minute album-ending stoner jam “No Drinks,” and the nine predominately boisterous and entrancing songs between them, Ah Yes is far and away Slow Walker’s best work yet.
23. Greatest Lakes – Divisions
Back in 2014, Milwaukee (by way of Kenosha) folk and indie rock hybrid Greatest Lakes released their self-titled debut album they had been working on since their 2010 formation. Other than a select few shows, a well-executed Beach Boys cover, and some collaborative singles, the band had kept and incredibly low profile since 2015. Thankfully, they broke their silence this spring with Divisions. The sophomore record was written and self-recorded by the band over the course of “a couple years.” Despite the homespun approach, the follow-up is rife with dreamy and elevated production that’s on display in offerings that are adventurous and anthemic (“Set Sail”), lush and hopeful (“Everything/Everyone” and lead single “Forest”), and harmonic (“Say What”). It took some time—okay, lots of time—but Greatest Lakes are back and better than ever with Divisions.
22. Hello Death – For Those With Many Hearts
“The baby’s screaming, I guess we have to pay / For all the laughter we had the other day.” Who else but Hello Death could cook up a line so melancholy, so resigned, and—yes, you’re about to see this word in close proximity to Hello Death—so funny? “Take Me With You,” along with the rest of For Those With Many Hearts, is another sepia-toned showcase for Milwaukee’s masters of the macabre. Nathaniel Heuer is back with his booming baritone; Erin Wolf and Marielle Allschwang are back with their haunting altos; life and death are back with their highs, lows, and moments of contemplation in between. For Those With Many Hearts was recorded over one rainy weekend back in 2015 (for evidence of that rain, check out the waterlogged “The Willow Trees”). The years haven’t dulled its power, however; Hello Death has always been—and will likely always remain—timeless.
21. Lost Tribes Of The Moon – s/t
As the dinosaurs of thrash soldier on into oblivion and countless underground revivalists recycle the retro sounds, it’s hard to believe anything new could come out of the genre. Enter Lost Tribes Of The Moon, who draw from doom and stoner traditions as well, but their self-titled debut frequently brings to mind the heyday of Sepultura and even Metallica, both with its icy acoustic interludes and the crush of its most brutal riffage. Vocalist Janine Rohde is a key component to the group’s individuality; her ghostly, almost operatic side casts a gothic shadow at times, but she’s got a more straightforward rocking side as well, perfectly augmenting the band’s throwback ’70s and prog elements. This is one of the freshest local metal releases of the past several years.
20. Dead Horses – My Mother The Moon
Less than two years after formally announcing their presence—both to their adopted home base of Milwaukee and the world as a whole—with their spectacular Cartoon Moon, Dead Horses took another aural lunar jaunt this April with My Mother The Moon. This time, the pared-down lineup officially consisting of singer-guitarist Sarah Vos and upright bassist Daniel Wolff delights with 10 captivating and emotionally wrought compositions that find the Oshkosh Americana transplants at their finest. “Turntable”—arguably the best Dead Horses song to date—starts things off strong, followed by the socially pointed “American Poor,” along with the powerful and deconstructed “My Many Days” and “On And On” (both of which hinge on Vos’ expressive voice that pushes otherwise standard folk renderings to higher ground). With their perpetual cross-country touring, it’s sometimes easy to forget Dead Horses are a Milwaukee band. Outstanding efforts like My Mother The Moon should make you proud they are.
19. Soup Moat – Harvester Of Likes
The penultimate track of Soup Moat’s Harvester Of Likes is called “Porn In The Woods.” A tribute to the small-town, pre-internet phenomenon of finding a stash of weathered Playboys under a railroad bridge or in a hollowed-out tree or whatever, it’s a song that perfectly sums up the band behind it. It isn’t the only seedy, sludgy, and mischievous moment of the record: Opener “Riff River” is a pummeling, hiccuping engine-starter that eventually gives way to a full-throttled booze cruise; “Combo Throne” gets high and trips balls; “Pocket Full Of Ginger” cracks open some chakras; and “Todd” screams about a dude named, well, Todd. Turn it up, get weird, and smash that “like” button, indeed.
18. Genesis Renji – S.I.N.S: Stories I Never Shared
The prolific Genesis Renji has emerged as one of the city’s most instantly recognizable rappers; his relaxed but cocky drawl is generally playful, although some of his most memorable songs reveal a menacing edge, and he’s also not afraid to bare his soul. S.I.N.S: Stories I Never Shared is his most deeply personal work to date, and also a showcase for some of his most sensuous vocal work. He takes a back seat on the album’s opening track to an infectious guest spot by Ammorelle, setting a sultry mood for the very NSFW album. From then on, it’s all about Renji’s versatile vocalizing. The muted, echo-drenched production adds to the mystique, making for an intoxicating overall journey.
17. Lyric Advisory Board – The Great American Novelty
Allen Coté isn’t one to mince words. Lyric Advisory Board’s first album of original material is a caustic takedown of society set to loose, country-fried rock and roll. “There ain’t no wrong or right / When you’ve got god on your side / Just another asshole down on his knees” is how Coté sets the tone on the opener, “American Carnage,” and the energy rarely lets up from there. Punctuated by some sizzling lead guitar work in songs such as “Drunk On Power” and “Heaven In The Suburbs,” the album is unabashedly political and ramshackle, even obnoxious at times, but not without its tender moments; the mellow interlude of “Chapter XI” and “Death In The Afternoon” provides some of the record’s most memorable melodies before kicking back into high gear with “Little Bourgeois Lice.” Radio-friendly, it ain’t.
16. LUXI – Lost Letters (Of Seraphina)
Fans of LUXI’s extensive back catalog may have been taken aback upon hearing her latest EP, Lost Letters (Of Seraphina). Though elements of her traditional glitchy synth-pop are still here, the addition of organic guitar, bass, and drums on several tracks puts this record in a hybrid stylistic space that’s difficult to pin down. “Patterns Apart” in particular leaves a deep emotional impression with its decidedly jazzy atmosphere, with LUXI’s smoky vocals swirling into and out of the foreground. Her keyboard hooks remain essential as well, especially in songs like “Fly Away” and “Stars Come Out,” terrific examples of how her economical sonic approach can move through a multitude of themes without ever feeling cluttered. Lost Letters is a major rethinking of her sound, but still quintessential LUXI.
15. Paper Holland – Galápagos
Named after a Pacific island chain, the beach vibes in Paper Holland’s long-awaited sophomore album Galápagos are evident from the get-go, as chirping birds and the sound of lapping waves help kick off “Arrival,” an aptly-named instrumental opener. That natural sounds and overriding escapist motif continues into second song, “Sea [Sic],” in which singer Joe Tomcheck’s casually delivered lyrics about “waves to pull you down, to pull you in, to pull you under” join an equally relaxed arrangement of guitars, percussion, keys, and horns. Warm and breezy songs like “Think” and the harmonious, horn-laden “Milpool” tote a prevailing aura of comfort and brightness that are befitting of the record’s archipelago namesake. Meanwhile, the dour “Darwinian Age” serves to both acknowledge evolutionary studies and illustrate the band’s noticeable growth in the six-year span between full-lengths.
14. Body Futures – Maybe It’s Just The Weather
On Body Futures’ second full-length album, Maybe It’s Just The Weather, hooks are tossed off like confetti, sci-fi sound effects ring out like party favors, and shit just gets big and loud. Similar to 2014’s Brand New Silhouettes, Weather‘s draw is twofold. There’s the band’s noisy sound, full of big guitars, big drums, knotty rhythms, and a single-minded disdain for current trends. Then there’s the sometimes sweet, sometimes shout-y vocal interplay between singer/autoharpist Dixie Jacobs and singer/drummer (and occasional Milwaukee Record contributor) DJ Hostettler. Jacobs’ voice is one of the best in town; Hostettler, meanwhile, shouts along with (and sometimes against) Jacobs on tracks like the geeky “Heliopause” and the Scott Walker protest song “Right To Work.” Hey, remember that guy?
13. Von Alexander – ALEXANDER
Von Alexander’s sound is very now, or at least very-recent-past—neo-soul and jazzy beats permeate his new ALEXANDER album, and his alternating sing-song and rapid-fire raps bring to mind plenty of today’s leading lights of hip-hop without resorting to mimicry. The album’s judicious bits of auto-tune don’t amount to a gimmick, and none of the sparse technological flourishes disrupt the album’s cohesion. In terms of strict wordplay and vocal gymnastics, Alexander’s work on tracks like “Friends With Benefits” and “Paradise” elevates him high up the local ladder, although that’s nothing new; ALEXANDER is less about breaking new ground and more about solidifying Alexander’s reputation as one of the city’s most consistently satisfying MCs.
12. Absolutely – Plays Pillory Crown Shyness
It seems like a lifetime since the release of 2011’s Learns To Love Mistakes, the jaw-dropping debut from Absolutely. That record summoned the ghosts of ’90s Midwest emo and hardcore; its follow-up, 2014’s Cannot Find, staked out more introspective territory. Now, four years later, comes Plays Pillory Crown Shyness, an altogether knottier, moodier, and more instrumental collection of math-y post-punk that demands your attention—and repeat listens. Everything sounds incredible (dig the glowering roller coaster that is “Stone”) and unexpected instrumental flourishes appear throughout: a lovely piano outro here (“Son”), a haunting melodica stab there (“Pipeline Lament”). There’s even time for a gorgeous wash of sound (“Crown Shyness”) before a five-minute descent into musical madness (“Deep Web Noir”). Even if Absolutely takes another four years to release a record, there’s plenty to chew on here.
11. Tigernite – Sublunary
There are two sides to Tigernite. There’s the one covered in glitter and confetti, rocking the fuck out while riffs screech through the air like demonic bats. Then there’s the one wearing a rune-covered cloak, taking you by the hand and leading you through a moon-lit field at midnight. Both of those sides get equal face-time in Sublunary, a thrilling and at-times achingly beautiful record shot through with the band’s theatrical glam-rock vamping and classic-rock lighter-hoisting. “Conqueror,” “Summerland,” and the blistering “Ray Gun Queen” all fall into the rock-the-fuck-out category, while opener “Dark Mirror” (along with its reprise) and the stunning, string-soaked “Oracle” play like dark-magic broadcasts from a forgotten civilization. “When you feel like nobody cares, remember that I do” sings Molly Roberts on the latter song. It’s an unexpectedly soothing, reassuring moment, and just one example of Tigernite’s bewitching powers.
10. Direct Hit! – Crown Of Nothing
In 2013, Direct Hit! ushered in the apocalypse with the excellent Brainless God, which ultimately landed the tireless punk project a slot on the Fat Wreck Chords roster. In 2016, the group took listeners on a vivid and enthralling drug trip with Wasted Mind. Along the way, the state’s premier pop-punk outfit reissued an out-of-print album, put out a split with PEARS, toured the world, and announced plans to open an all-ages venue in Cudahy—all in preparation for the release of the band’s most focused Fat Wreck release so far, Crown Of Nothing. The latest entrant in Direct Hit!’s burgeoning catalog is the band’s most musically impressive and altogether grown-up effort yet. Over the course of 14 songs, the veteran outfit effortlessly incorporates electronic elements into opener “Different Universe” and late-album highlight “The Problem,” applies unfamiliar depth to single “Welcome To Heaven,” and delves into the hardcore realm with “Perfect Black” and “Bliss Addiction.” Whether navigating listeners through the end times, a narcotic-conveyed hallucination, or the afterlife, you’ll want to listen to whatever Direct Hit! has to say.
9. IshDARR – Slow Down, KID
Hype is always a double-edged sword, and IshDARR has certainly dealt with his share of next-big-thing talk since his 2015 breakout album Old Soul, Young Spirit. As promising as that release was, it sounds like kids’ stuff in the wake of his new Slow Down, KID. Over chill beats from a myriad of producers, IshDARR exudes a relaxed confidence that never flags. His melodic sensibility has truly come into its own on this album; songs like “Never Ask (Subpar Funk)” and “Obvious” are basically nonstop hooks strung together, and you might find yourself singing along with the choruses of “Slow Down” and “Ya Mans” in the course of a first spin. IshDARR’s wordplay is rarely showy, but when he needs to get aggressive for the last few tunes, he’s got the chops. Equally refreshing is his adherence to anthems of inspiration and positive thought; the bravado you’ll find on Slow Down is communal and never out of step with IshDARR’s talents. The question is, now that his songwriting and flow have caught up, which side of the hype will his career path land on?
8. Cairns – Entanglement
In March, Cairns released Cluttered Sky, a splendid sextet of songs that ranged from some previously unreleased “bedroom recordings” to intricate new material with bandleader John Larkin (currently in Gauss, Caley Conway Band, and formerly of YYLA, Temple, and Calliope) being joined by an impressive new cast of collaborators. Nine months after clearing out untouched material, Larkin followed up that outstanding EP with an even more remarkable full-length. Entanglement is the project’s first true album. The 12-song release brings Larkin’s careful and restrained vocals together with his admirable musicianship and uncanny knack for arrangement. The project’s founder played almost everything on the record and he presides over artful, atmospheric compositions with complex time signatures and ever-changing moods that rise and fall without warning (best illustrated in the title track). As technically stunning as the album is, Entanglement still manages to somehow cull beauty and emotion throughout the 40-minute effort.
7. Field Report – Summertime Songs
“I woke up blacked out in a snowstorm, with an airbag burn on my cheek / Check the wreckage, walk away okay / I’m gonna change.” That’s Chris Porterfield on “Blind Spot,” the opening track to the big, bold, and ridiculously open-hearted Summertime Songs. The idea of “change” courses through the record: the radio-ready “Never Look Back” puts the past in the rearview mirror, while the title track deals with impending fatherhood (among other life-altering events). But it’s the sound of Field Report on its third full-length record that really jumps out—all ’80s Springsteen synth and bright-eyed production. “They were embarrassed by sincerity back then,” sings Porterfield on “If I Knew.” Indeed, there’s no room for anything but sincerity these days. Summertime Songs is unembarrassed and warm, a gift from an artist searching—and perhaps even finding—a better tomorrow.
6. Amanda Huff – Hemiptera
Amanda Huff came to local consciousness this year with her first true solo effort, the genre-jumping Hemiptera. The Strangelander member wastes no time making her presence known by showing her amazing vocal range amid flamenco guitars in opening track “Neighboring Moons.” That’s followed by “Caroline’s,” which is a lounge-y, jazz-infused jaunt that employs a horn section to accompany Huff’s captivating voice. “Cherry Limeade” is a cool and refreshing splash of summer, highlighted by Strehlow’s bustling, beaming production touches. The pair also collaborates on an innovative electronic take on Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” near the end of the eight-song album, before SistaStrings joins in on “Slow Water.” Amanda Huff didn’t really throw her name out there until late May, but it’s a name you should commit to memory immediately—if you haven’t done so already.
5. Buffalo Gospel – On The First Bell
A lot has changed since the last time Buffalo Gospel put out an album. Since the bluegrass-tinged country outfit released We Can Be Horses in 2013, bandleader Ryan Necci has witnessed a complete overhaul in the project’s lineup, he’s significantly adjusted his songwriting approach, and he lost one of his oldest and dearest friends to brain cancer. Those noticeable changes are all evident in On The First Bell, an unshakable menagerie of heartfelt numbers in which Necci and his new cast of collaborators skillfully shift from mournful to hopeful and trade sadness for resolve over the span of 10 flawless songs. Though Bell‘s overriding themes carry more weight than Horses‘, Necci’s arrangements are much more efficient and direct. No song cracks the five-minute mark, yet “High Time To Hang Fire,” the deceptively sad “Lonestar,” and the unflinchingly tragic “Homeless” manage to pack loads of emotion into tight, artfully constructed packages. Along the way, the band manages a fun, radio-ready single in “18-Wheeler” (the video for which features Ted Perry). That rare upbeat exception aside, Buffalo Gospel’s latest takes time and tragedy and transforms it into an effort that shines, despite being shrouded in darkness and loss.
4. Lex Allen – Table 7: Sinners & Saints
If there was a more crowd-pleasing, swinging-for-the-fences 2018 Milwaukee album than Lex Allen’s Table 7: Sinners & Saints, we’d love to hear it. Allen’s long-awaited full-length debut is pure pop perfection: “Never Look Back” scores big with an anthemic chorus that should be blasting from every car window in the city. “Struck Gold” takes to the dance floor with a dirty beat and lines like “Coulda bought a yacht, but I bought a watch.” (Attendees of the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival likely still have this song, which scored the ubiquitous sponsor trailer, stuck in their heads.) The bat-shit “Bitch U Fabulous,” meanwhile, channels U-know-who. Then there are the ballads (“Mama’s Boy,” “Release,” “7th Hour”), which prove Allen is one the most shockingly talented multi-threats working the game today. He’s got his shit on track, all right, and Sinners & Saints hits the ground running and, well, never looks back.
3. Dogs In Ecstasy – Dreams And Gripes
Are you enjoying the new “gig” economy? Are you enjoying the relentless blurring of “online” and “real life”? Of course you’re not! “I feed my daughter rice, grain by grain / They say it’s the new economy, but I just feel the same old pain.” So sing the ever-delightful pop smart-asses in Dogs In Ecstasy on “Scale 2 Infinite,” a standout track from the excellent, hilarious, siren-happy, and Extremely Online Dreams And Gripes. It serves as something of a thesis statement: “Rage Against The Dying Of My Phone” is a bright and buzzy ode to the 21st century dread of streaming services and unsent tweets, the bitterly funny “Golden Age” updates Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime” for the smartphone era, and “Loyalty” equates a broken relationship to a restaurant punchcard. And the sirens…so many sirens. All of this Way-We-Live-Today banality—clocking in at a mere 20 minutes—is coated in a relentlessly cheery, head-bopping synth-pop shell, making it go down with a sugar-addled smile.
2. Lorde Fredd33 – NORF: The Legend Of Hotboy Ronald
Is it possible to pin down Lorde Fredd33? Answer: no. The tireless Milwaukee rapper has been kicking around for years, but from album to album—hell, from track to track—he has taken on different voices, different flows, and different styles. Enter NORF: The Legend Of Hotboy Ronald, a highly personal yet entirely accessible album that ranks as the musician’s best yet. Fredd33’s chameleon persona is on full display on “Need A Lick,” a jittery track that bemoans child support one minute, and then breaks into a glitzy dance party the next. “Free (Type Shit)” is all over the map—literally—visiting all corners of Milwaukee and careening from one cartoon-like voice to the next. Elsewhere, Bel Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” makes an appearance in the downbeat (and appropriately titled) “Bel Biv Devotion,” the incredible Zed Kenzo makes her appearance in “True Indeed,” and none other than Kanye gets called out in “Reflections” (“We the new slaves? That’s a damn lie / Just rocking Yeezys instead of shackles, damn right”). NORF is an outsized, complex record from a similarly outsized, complex artist.
1. Collections Of Colonies Of Bees – HAWAII
Throughout their 20-year history, Collections Of Colonies Of Bees have gone through plenty of changes, both in terms of personnel and musical styles. In 2016, they took perhaps their biggest risk yet, though: adding words. In creating a special set of music for the Eaux Claires festival that year, founding guitarist Chris Rosenau completely changed the direction of his band yet again. The addition of singing in itself was a first, but perhaps more boldly, vocalists Marielle Allschwang and Dan Spack (both formerly of Group Of The Altos) haven’t exactly been known as purveyors of the bubbly, joyous emotions that are CoCoBees’ trademark. HAWAII may have the darkest undercurrents of anything Rosenau has created yet, but its essence remains true to the overflowing positivity that Bees fans have come to expect, and those familiar with Rosenau’s solo performances of the past few years will instantly recognize the latest trajectory of his guitar playing. Even aside from the singing, the album is a radical departure from the patient, subtly shifting post-rock of Bees’ past; sometimes angular and aggressive, sometimes dense and dizzying, it’s their most experimental and dynamic work to date, and quite possibly the best album they’ve ever made.