Believe it or not (we choose not), 2016 is 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 half-year that was by rounding up the best Milwaukee albums of 2016 (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.
Antler House – Across The Waves
In the spring of 2014, Milwaukee was formally introduced to Antler House by way of Through The Dirt, a 12-pack of tragic, beyond-its-years compilations. Two years later (virtually to the day), the criminally under-appreciated indie-folk trio returned to local semi-consciousness with Across The Waves, a seven-song salvo of sadness, raw expression—there’s a song about failing to nurse a baby rabbit back to health—and stormy atmospherics that occasionally push songs past the seven-minute mark. The formidable follow-up showcases the largely-unheralded act’s improved musicianship, singer Sean Anderson’s lyrical maturation, and Antler House’s immense growth during two years of relative seclusion.
Direct Hit! – Wasted Mind
There’s a reason why most bands don’t make concept albums. It’s really fucking hard. But in 2013, Direct Hit! did just that when it released its glorious and gory apocalyptic record Brainless God, which served to set the band apart from its pop-punk brethren and garner mainstream attention in the process. One person who took notice was NOFX frontman and Fat Wreck Chords co-owner “Fat Mike” Burkett, who inked Direct Hit! to a one-record deal. With the inherent pressure that comes with chasing a well-received concept album with another (this time on a larger scale), Wasted Mind not only meets expectations, it exceeds them. This time around, the record’s theme centers on a protagonist who embarks on a drug trip complete with hallucinations, paranoia, and confusion. Musically, Wasted Mind is Direct Hit!’s most focused release yet, finds the band exploring sonic crevices never visited in previous releases, and features guest accompaniment from members of Something To Do and The Hold Steady. Direct Hit! could go down as “that one band that used to be on Fat,” but with Wasted Mind, it seems like only greater things are in store.
Faux Fiction – Staring At The Sun
Bow before Faux Fiction’s guitars, some of the fuzziest, crunchiest, and catchiest this side of 1996. The fact that frontwoman Gabby Kartz and husband Jason decided to bury their acoustic roots and go electric only a few years ago makes that sound even more impressive. Yes, the ’90s are alive on Faux Fiction’s debut full-length Staring At The Sun, a record that plays like a long-lost comp from the Alternative Nation and 120 Minutes era. Songs like “Between Heartbeats” and “Flows To Nowhwere” are grungy and harmony-flecked triumphs that would have brought Matt Pinfield to tears. “Dig It Deeper” and the lovely “Wasted Time” are flannel-clad ballads just looking to score crucial scenes in flannel-clad movies, and “Racing The Red Lights” and “Ghosts” add a bit of glam-rock strut to the proceedings. On a local level, Faux Fiction has plenty of Tigernite and Body Futures coursing through its veins, but its fun, effortless, and affectionate vibe is all its own.
Heat Death – 9 Steps To A Happier Life
Jokingly dubbed 9 Steps To A Happier Life, the debut full-length by Heat Death is less of a guide to a satisfying existence than it is an acceptance of the opposite. Kenneth Sabbar (The Violet Hour, Dawn Of Man) expertly chronicles the trappings of domestic life (“Obsolescence”), loneliness (“People Person,” “Trauma In The Bounce House”), the cold awkwardness of modern dating (“Ghosted”), and an overriding sense of nihilism throughout in his monotone verses that are submerged beneath a noisy, and at times even danceable, cascade of sythnesizer, bleary guitars, and workmanlike percussion. No, the bleak album is not the key to a happier life, but Heat Death’s succinct score of life’s drudgery won’t leave you any worse for wear.
Hot Coffin – Hot Coffin
Technically, Hot Coffin’s self-titled full-length is its sophomore release, but the follow-up to 2013’s LAW could be considered—and kind of is—the work of another band altogether. This time around, former Disguised As Birds singer Chris Chuzles is at the helm of the band that also added drummer Jon Kraft (Since By Man) to its ranks since the last release. The changes in the band’s makeup bleed into Hot Coffin’s sound, with wonderful returns. Chuzles’ coarse and imposing voice leads the charge on pummeling songs like “Whistle, Hawk & Spit” and “Hammer Throw,” with the sturdy backing of intricate guitars and crushing drums throughout. By Hot Coffin‘s end, the listener is left with a memorable second impression of a band that was already on the short list of good Milwaukee rock bands, and is now something more.
Lorde Fredd33 – Dead Man’s View
To enter the world of Lorde Fredd33’s Dead Man’s View is to sink into a strange underwater labyrinth where beats move on hidden currents and voices reverberate in the dark. We all float down here, they groan. As a member of the ever-dominant hip-hop collective New Age Narcissism, Fredd33 has always marched to the unsteady beat of his own drummer—see 2015’s excellent 33: The Education—but he’s positively supernatural here, boasting and growling on the moody “SOS,” and slashing his way through the chaotic acid trip of “DAN.” Similar to his work with The Education, producer and fellow NAN member Q The Sun gives the record a heavy and idiosyncratic art-rap vibe best suited for late-night headphone sessions. Still, the unexpected and immediately hooky “BS Freestyle” proves Fredd33 can just as easily rule the dance floor.
Midwest Death Rattle – Post-Apocalypso
Midwest Death Rattle’s long-awaited second record, Post-Apocalypso, is the Milwaukee music version of a pre-pubescent boy returning from summer break a foot taller with muscles and a mustache. Not long after releasing its respectable self-titled debut in 2013, Midwest Death Rattle took some time away—only resurfacing for its annual Concert Cruise and a select few other outings—to focus on writing a bigger and better follow-up. Holy shit, did they deliver. Starting with opener (and unofficial Milwaukee song of the year so far) “Tacoma Narrows” and continuing the duration, Midwest Death Rattle turns in an unexpectedly great record, complete with undeniable hooks, off-kilter instrumentation, and a faintly Latin flare that, together, craft a truly special album that should put the band instantly in the upper echelon of Milwaukee music.
NO/NO – Sound And Light
Electro-pop project NO/NO formed from the ashes of The Delphines back in 2014, but the gorgeous, multi-faceted Sound And Light eliminates the need for any further talk of the band’s past. Opener “Waiting For Something To Happen” sets the stage with back-and-forth vocals from singer-guitarist Harrison Colby and singer-keyboardist Cat Ries, precision drum pads from Jeremy Ault, insistent bass from Lucas Riddle, and an overall sensibility that splits the difference between washed-out shoegaze and club-friendly glitz. Stunning closer “Whatever,” meanwhile, goes all in with a glorious, widescreen synth composition enveloping a heartbreaking vocal turn from Ries and a sense of longing, strength, and vulnerability that pulses throughout. It’s easily one of the best pop songs to come out of Milwaukee in years.
Paper Holland – Fast Food
Fast Food is a curious name for an EP that was, in essence, 40 months in the making. After Paper Holland’s 2013 record, Happy Belated, the indie-pop project took some time away to break in new members and, as a result, totally retool its sound—ditching almost an entire album worth of material in the process. The product of Paper Holland’s recasting, waiting, and selective weeding out of material is a quintet of fun, bouncy, and utterly catchy numbers crammed into a killer quarter-hour reintroduction. Between upbeat instrumentation and singer Joe Tomcheck’s smooth voice (and his understated lyrical winks to 30 Rock and Jurassic Park), Fast Food is far more satisfying than its name suggests, and well worth the wait.
Mike Regal – Premonitions
Mike Regal’s Premonitions opens with a skit, “Tales From The Strip,” that includes Milwaukee news coverage of yet another deadly shooting in the city. It’s a bracing and in-your-face introduction to an album that doesn’t shy away from the frustrations many Milwaukeeans (and Americans) face today. As Regal puts it, “World gone one way, people another.” Best known for providing beats to just about every hip-hop act in the 414 area code, Regal takes center stage on Premonitions and turns in a big, bold, and audacious performance. “One Way” and “Business Man” (the latter complete with a “clueless-record-exec” intro skit) are highlights that put Regal’s formidable flow front and center, while the killer “3005” goes hard and heavy before breaking for some thoughts from Charles Manson, of all people. “Eyes on the throne, I don’t see a challenge” Regal raps on “One Way.” It’s easy to believe him.
Slow Walker – Robert Plantain’s Grunge Lords Vol. 1
These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Milwaukee band that falls beneath the catch-all “rock” classification without also employing some type of sound-augmenting prefix. Joining a small guild of local rockers including Hot Coffin, Whips, and (maybe) Midnight Reruns is Slow Walker. With its latest and greatest, Robert Plantain’s Grunge Lords, the five-year-old band eschews any sub-genre distinction and, simply, lets it rip on nine no-frills numbers. With subtle nods to Queens Of The Stone Age (“Wolf At The Door”), Obits (“Clown”), and—as the album’s name would suggest—’90s-era grunge (“Bug Man Blues,” “Lynyrd’s Farm”) along the way, Slow Walker fights against the currents of indie rock standardization, and wins.
Space Raft – Rubicon
As long as there are late-afternoon summer cookouts in need of soundtracks, Space Raft will be in business. Rubicon, the band’s follow-up to its ridiculously great self-titled 2014 debut, finds frontman Jordan Davis and company effortlessly mixing retro-minded psych-rock with just the right amounts of stoner seriousness and pop panache. Opener “Borrowed Time” is every triumphant and beer-buzzed night out somehow put to music and distilled into four minutes, while the hazy and blissed-out “Vacation” floats along at just the right clip. Rubicon doesn’t reinvent the Space Raft wheel so much as polish and refine it, but there are still plenty of surprises to be had: the irresistible power-pop joy of “Hang On Hang On,” the instrumental freak-out of “Disconnection Notice,” and the sweeping social justice howl of “Red Arrow.”
Vincent VanGREAT – UnGREATful
There’s an immediate sense of elation and elasticity reverberating from Vincent VanGREAT’s UnGREATful. The longtime SAFS Crew producer calls on a star-studded cast (Dana Coppa, Blizz McFly, SPEAK Easy Klassik, Q The Sun, Yo-Dot, more) for his debut solo release, and runs them through a thrillingly eclectic set of upbeat and nimble hip-hop. “This Is GREAT Music” is a bright and sparkling intro that’s impossible not to love. “Now You Know” and “On The Floor” are cool-as-ice head-nodders, “Hands Up” and “Cold Ones” score big on the party-anthem vibe, and “Radical” is an angry and bombastic call-to-arms (“White or black we gotta fight / No matter the skin we gotta fight for what’s right”). In the end, VanGREAT’s production prowess is the real star here, bridging the gap between Milwaukee hip-hop new and old.