Believe it or not (we choose not), 2018 is more than halfway over. With that in mind, we thought it was a perfect time to listen to some music and celebrate the year’s first six months by rounding up the best Milwaukee albums of 2018 (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. Enjoy.
Lex Allen — Table 7: Sinners & Saints
If there has been 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,” and the bat-shit “Bitch U Fabulous” channels you-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 never lets up.
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 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.
Cairns — Cluttered Sky
While Cairns is less renowned than its members’ other projects (Caley Conway, Temple, Calliope, YLLA, and Gauss among them), the band has quietly managed an impressive catalog in roughly three years on the scene. The unsung endeavor started by multi-instrumentalist John Larkin has been gradually adding contributors and splaying out into new, exciting sonic territory with each release. The influence of those members can be clearly heard on the first two songs of Cairns’ splendid Cluttered Sky—namely in the quiet cacophony of splashy percussion, smooth guitar, and soulful sax that envelops Larkin’s hushed vocals that start the release off in “GravGod.” The EP’s second half highlights Larkin’s self-described “bedroom recordings,” a previously unreleased collection of of short, atmospheric efforts that skillfully combine lo-fi sensibility and fragile beauty.
Calliope — Chapel Perilous
Calliope’s third full-length album, Chapel Perilous, finds the psyched-out rock band in a dark mood. Opener “Astral Hands” kicks off with images of “septic suns” and “evil rights.” The thundering “Carry Me Home” finds frontman Al Kraemer howling about the “end of [his] life.” “Creep No More” is an apocalyptic atom bomb, and “Evil As You” opens with a screeching freakout before settling into a mile-wide battle cry. Similarly, the excellent title track layers in some mysterious narration about “lost worlds” before blasting into a smoked-out stomper. It all makes for Calliope’s most complete and cohesive album yet. Forget what you’re doing, the bands says, put on a pair of headphones, dim the lights, and let Chapel wash over you. Some further mood enhancers wouldn’t hurt, either.
Dogs In Ecstasy — Dreams And Gripes
“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, and siren-happy 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. All of this Way-We-Live-Today banality is coated in a relentlessly cheery, head-bopping synth-pop shell, making it go down with a sugar-addled smile.
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. 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.
Gallery Night — Three 7-inches
The altogether “un-Google-able” trio with ties to Centipedes, Cougar Den, Chicago’s equally evasive Football, and Buffalo’s own Baseball Furies has no website, zero Facebook presence, and little concern for self-promotion. Up to this spring, there was no recorded evidence Gallery Night ever existed. That all changed at the end of March, when the reclusive rock band put three 7-inch records out into the world during a triple release show. When combined, the unholy trinity of 45s—a total of nine songs put out by Big Neck Records, Tall Pat Records, and Dusty Medical Records—takes listeners on an erratic 20-minute ride. Singer Jim McCann’s howling vocals on “I Want To Die Here,” the dreary and driving “One By One,” and the chaotic guitars and percussion on “Watching Black And White On The Color TV” are highlights of each individual 7-inch. That said, there’s no filler. There’s no time for it, really.
Amanda Huff — Hemiptera
In last year’s mid-year Best Albums list, we introduced you to Rebel Love, the outstanding debut album that would push Abby Jeanne to widespread local consciousness by bringing her incomparable voice and her penchant for genre-jumping production front and center. Though they sound nothing alike, Amanda Huff seems to be on a similar path with her first true solo effort, 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 requires a horn section to even somewhat distract from 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,” and Huff plays Hemiptera off with her slow-yet-soulful “2nd Last Goodbye.” Amanda Huff didn’t really throw her name out there until late May, but it’s a name you should commit to memory immediately.
Lorde Fredd33 — NORF: The Legend Of HBR
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 HBR, 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,” while 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 an outsized, complex artist. It demands your attention, and rewards it.
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 and 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. It may take Paper Holland a while to write new material, but Galápagos is worth the wait.
Slow Walker — Ah Yes
Since the band’s 2011 start, Slow Walker has averaged one release per year. Their continually expanding catalog is full of fast and energetic tunes that straddle the line between garage rock and psych, and those songs are regularly put on display on stages 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 in full force with the hard-working outfit’s Ah Yes—one of two releases the band put out this year alone. 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 in between them, Ah Yes is far and away Slow Walker’s best work yet…at least until next year’s release likely overtakes it.
Surgeons In Heat — Bored Immortals
It seems that every Surgeons In Heat album is a comeback album. Maybe it’s the three-year gap between projects, beginning with 2012’s self-titled bleary-eyed dance party and culminating in 2015’s hyperactive Disaster. Maybe it’s the ever-shifting lineup, with singer-songwriter Johnathon Mayer serving as the sole constant. Maybe it’s the erratic show schedule. Or maybe, just maybe, every Surgeons In Heat album is an event to be celebrated, another nervy missive from one of the city’s finest bands. And so it goes with Bored Immortals, the group’s most front-to-back satisfying record to date. This time around, Mayer and bandmates Ryan Reeve, Bradley Kruse, and Michael Stewart both tweak and refine Surgeons’ chilled-out-Spoon sound: “Why’d You Start?” is all smoke-filled atmosphere and drum-machine ambience, “Holding On So Loose” floats above a gorgeous wash of noise and sax, and opener “Falling In A Row” scores big on Mayer’s always-welcome falsetto and a a rubbery-as-hell bass line. It all adds up to an album that seems as aloof as its titular bored immortals, but is really anything but.
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 “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 a unexpectedly soothing, reassuring moment, and just one example of Tigernite’s bewitching powers.