Along with the city itself, the Milwaukee music scene has grown by leaps and bounds during the last four-plus years. Local artists have been consistently releasing albums that stand toe-to-toe with national releases. Bands have created an environment where collaboration and friendly competition are welcome, and where the very best music naturally rises to the fore. To say that the Milwaukee music scene is on its way to becoming a force to be reckoned with would be misleading; it already is a force to be reckoned with.
To create this ranked—yes, ranked—list of the 50 best Milwaukee albums of the 2010s (so far), Milwaukee Record staff compiled their own best-of lists and reached out to a handful of local music writers and fans for their choices. Full-length albums or EPs released between 2010 and the present day were considered fair game. The results provide a soundtrack to the last four years, and a glimpse of things to come. (50-31) (30-11)
10. The Delphines, God Help The Delphines (2012)
If brevity is the soul of wit, then The Delphines are the sharpest people in the room. Over the course of two short-burst EPs and a handful of singles, the group has established itself as the finest purveyors of sly, sinewy, and sexy lo-fi garage-rock in town. The lack of a full-length album (for now) makes it hard to pin down just one notable release, so the group’s second EP, God Help The Delphines, will have to do. Bookended by the Kinks-esque “Hit Me Up” and the winking sleaze of “Half Of A Century,” God Help The Delphines sounds instantly familiar, but never reheated or safe. Singer Jami Eaton is just as likely to steal your wallet than let you buy her a beer on “Uptown Lover,” while bandmate Harrison Colby acts as a knowing co-conspirator on the chugging “’71.” It’s a rapid-fire, reverb-drenched album that lingers like smoke on a leather jacket.
9. Volcano Choir, Repave (2013)
Justin Vernon’s cabin-in-the-woods origin story is far from compelling these days (it’s been seven years since the release of the snowbound For Emma, Forever Ago), and his Grammy-award-winning Bon Iver appears to be on permanent hiatus. What, then, has the Eau Claire native done for us lately? That’s easy: Volcano Choir, featuring Vernon and past and present members of Milwaukee’s Collections Of Colonies Of Bees, announces itself as Vernon’s main concern on the thrilling Repave. Bold, booming, and joyously unafraid, it’s an album that finds an unlikely sweet spot between the two sets of collaborators. Nowhere is that synergy more apparent than on the jaw-dropping “Byegone,” which crackles and soars like a barely controlled post-rock explosion. Repave is a huge step up from Volcano Choir’s first album, 2009’s Unmap, and a monument to the power of collaboration, musicianship, and never looking back.
8. Jaill, That’s How We Burn
Revisionist history can be a funny thing. Today, Jaill is a point of local pride. The band is Milwaukee’s connection to Sub Pop Records (!!!), putting the group on par with nationally recognized label mates Iron And Wine, The Postal Service, and The Shins. In 2009, though, Jail—notice the single “L”—was viewed with an overriding sense of “Them? Why not (insert any number of bands here)?” and “They get to be on the same label as Iron And Wine, The Postal Service, and The Shins?!” So what happened to incite such a drastic mutation of public opinion? That’s How We Burn happened. The 2010 Sub Pop debut finds Vinnie Kircher and three (since replaced) band mates quickly making good on the opportunity with 11 now-hallmark installments of Great Lakes surf rock. The summer-y jaunt piles four-chord compositions atop Kircher’s shrill, slacker-poet vocals to easily earn the extra attention (and consonant). From the buzzing “Stroller” to the ratty title-track closer, Jaill’s coming out party was well attended—even if some begrudgingly arrived later than others.
7. Soul Low, UNEASY
Forget that when Soul Low recorded UNEASY, two members of the band couldn’t even legally drink. Discount the fact that virtually nobody outside the Riverwest all-ages basement show scene knew who or what Soul Low was before the summer of 2013. Never mind that the record is the band’s first true attempt at a release. Even without the padding modifiers of Soul Low’s beyond-its-years and out-of-nowhere back stories to further prop up its eight-song debut, UNEASY is a really fucking good album. Even the one criticism that could be registered against the ambitious aural introduction—the genre-jumping inconsistency—actually succeeds in showcasing Soul Low’s strengths. Amidst the unhinged “Sitting By The Fire,” the barren ballad “Son,” and the rowdy rally cry “Cliffs,” innumerable corners of the musical spectrum are occupied by charmingly shaky vocals and classically-trained instrumentation provided by guys who just so happen to be young and previously unheralded.
6. Sat. Nite Duets, Electric Manland (2013)
Humor is a tricky thing in music: take things too far and you risk “novelty-band” status, dial things down and you risk being written off as simply ironic and arch. Sat. Nite Duets have always walked the goofball line—sometimes falling on its less-respected side of that line—but there has always been a sweetness lurking beneath their oft-shambling music, a longing for summers and friends long lost. The front-to-back-excellent Electric Manland is the culmination of Sat. Nite Duets’ pet obsessions: classic rock, junk culture, and, yes, summer. “Stone Free” borrows its title from Hendrix; the title of “Born To Walk” goofs on Springsteen; and “Big Worm,” well, is about a big worm. Still, these gags are all surface: “Stone Free” and “Born To Walk,” in particular, find Sat. Nite Duets at their most sincere and disarming. Musically, Manland stands head and shoulders above the band’s previous Pavement-indebted work, resulting in an accomplished, memorable, and—gasp!—funny record.
5. Juniper Tar, Since Before
With the “concept album” tag, a record is automatically subjected to a staggering increase in scrutiny. It’s no longer just a cluster of songs sporadically organized to populate a release: it’s suddenly a weighty and ambitious undertaking, often blindly regarded with an immediate sense of distaste due to its overwrought high-art perceptions. While seminal folk-rockers Juniper Tar never come out and call Since Before a concept album, it is, and it’s a great one at that. The rousing dyad of “Twin Comet” and “The Dullest Cleaver” lull listeners into a state of toe-tapping contentment, just to be cut deep (the record is not for want in the cutlery reference department) by the emotive blows of “Canting” and “Black Pain Tea,” among others. The cycle repeats, with instrumental between-song vignettes stitched in intermittently. Since Before finds beauty in pain, as well as in the rebuilding process that occurs between the inevitable pangs of existence.
4. Canopies, Canopies (2011)
Some albums arrive with great fanfare, only to disappoint. Others come out of nowhere and leave a scene reeling. Canopies’ stunningly accomplished self-titled debut EP is a case of the latter, a record that announces itself on its merits alone, no introduction needed. Splitting the difference between dreamy ’80s dance music and 21st century electro-pop, the five-song album is an outrageously hook-laden collection of arena-ready bedroom-synth. “Rebels” swoons in a gauzy haze of smoke while “Born To Your Device” channels the insistent electro pulse of Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s “Love Missile F1-11.” All throughout, Canopies never forgets that the hook is the thing, keeping melody front and center amidst the swirling din. With just one EP to their name (an out-of-nowhere single arrived in 2014), Canopies prove that it’s sometimes best to simply let the music do the talking—no hype or hurried follow-up necessary.
3. The Fatty Acids, Boléro
Don’t let the opening album chirps of “Girls And Gods,” the sarcastically sloppy guitar solo in “Little Brother Syndrome,” or an overriding affinity for goofy green screen videos fool you: The Fatty Acids are a serious band. It’s been hinted at in portions of their previous efforts—the near-seven-minute crawl of Leftover Monsterface opener “Creature” and the subdued, murky synth enacted in “Pissing Into Flames” off Stop Berries, Berries, and Berries, Berries come to mind—yet Boléro hammers home the strange-yet-functional notion of heady indie-pop. The established and affable outfit’s third album doesn’t simply get by on the heaps of well-deserved love; it utilizes The Fatties’ earned platform as beloved festival fixtures and local music gateway drug to sprinkle in questions and commentary regarding America’s flawed political process, paradoxes in religion, environmental oversights, and even a couple of love songs for good measure. With Boléro, The Fatty Acids somehow manage to make a deceivingly dense, mature, and pointed record remain fun.
2. Field Report, Field Report
After making a name in western Wisconsin as part of Bon Iver- and Megafaun-precursor DeYarmond Edison, and in Milwaukee as frontman of Conrad Plymouth, Christopher Porterfield rearranged the letters in his last name and reset his sights on a project with reach well beyond state lines. Field Report was born. Before there was an album, there was the buzz, the single-song streams on widely read indie music blogs, along with the tours with the likes of Counting Crows and Aimee Mann. Before there was even an album to purchase, Porterfield’s pet project was already too big to fail. But could Field Report’s now-highly anticipated self-titled debut record even land in the vicinity of sating the lofty expectations? Moments into the first verse of heartbreaking opener “Fergus Falls,” an assured answer arrives: hell yes. In Field Report, Porterfield has never been better. His profound and crushing lyrical etchings about a pregnant woman trapped in rural Minnesota with the wrong man, an absentee prison protester, and even the self-aware and Milwaukee-panning “Route 18” are tremendous. Throw in a cast of supporting members from Conrad Plymouth, Testa Rosa, and S. Carey to carefully lay music beneath Porterfield’s unparalleled songwriting, and Field Report borders on perfection.
1. Call Me Lightning, When I Am Gone My Blood Will Be Free (2010)
An angry mob of guitars, drums, and feedback appears out of nowhere, kicking and flailing until finally retreating. Then, just as it returns, a single trumpet sounds in the distance, triumphantly announcing either the Battle of Helm’s Deep or the start of Call Me Lightning’s undisputed masterpiece, When I Am Gone My Blood Will Be Free. It’s an audacious, over-the-top beginning to the most audacious, over-the-top record Milwaukee has ever produced.
Like many great albums (hell, like many Call Me Lightning albums), the backstory to Blood is filled with tales of label disputes and production delays. But the album that finally emerged on Milwaukee’s Dusty Medical Records in 2010 bears no sign of internal strife. It boldly casts the group as a sweaty, screaming, beer-soaked version of The Who, a stadium band shoved inside a sweltering basement. The first three songs (“Called To The Throne,” “Beyond The Beasts,” “Bronze Hell”) bleed and smash into each other; the title track opens with its heart on its sleeve before spinning into a full-blown assault; “Old Cactus” raises (and then smashes) its glass to one of the city’s most enduring clubs. It’s classic, outsized rock and roll. All throughout, singer Nathan Lilley’s raw declarations of pain and doomed love slash through the din, never better than on the chorus of the opening track: “Even if I’m called to the throne / Even if I cannot stand to be alone / I will not take you when I go.”
When I Am Gone My Blood Will Be Free is the best Milwaukee album of the decade (so far). It stands alone, daring someone to dethrone it.