Throughout November, Milwaukee Record is revisiting a full decade of Milwaukee music, assembling (and ranking) the 10 best Milwaukee albums of each year. The retrospective will wrap up in December with our list of the 25 Best Milwaukee Records of 2019. (Here are the 10 best Milwaukee albums of 2010.)
10. Testa Rosa – II
Testa Rosa has never been in a hurry. The group released its debut full-length, I, in 2007, and didn’t release a follow-up (II, natch) until 2011. But we’re happy to indulge the band’s apparent four-year plan (III came out in 2015, and IV is scheduled for 2019) when the results are this good. Opener “Big Girl” is a winking update of classic girl-group pop, while closer “The Window” is a gorgeous ballad that rises to almost impossible heights. All throughout, the record’s sonic beauty is pumped in through the pipes of vocalist Betty Blexrud-Strigens.
9. Brief Candles – Fractured Days
Let’s take a moment to recognize the longstanding greatness of Brief Candles. The Milwaukee-by-way-of-Peoria-Illinois shoegaze/dream-pop outfit has been at it for nearly 17 years, playing an untold number of shows and releasing an untold number of…well, okay, the band only has a handful of albums and EPs to its name. But that just makes each Brief Candles release all the more precious. On 2011’s excellent Fractured Days, the group sculpts its unabashedly My Bloody Valentine-indebted sound around a solid pop mold. Moody sonic washes like “10 Weeks” and “Knock ‘Em Dead” set the tone, but it’s the more bouncy (“Sink Or Swim”) or bittersweet (“The Sentiment”) tracks that make Fractured Days complete.
8. Gerald Walker – The Other Half Of Letting Go
Prolific rapper Gerald Walker is a New Yorker these days, having found more success on the East Coast than he did in Milwaukee. (“I’m Milwaukee’s most hated,” he said on 2015’s Target.) Yet the 2011 mixtape The Other Half Of Letting Go was still one of the year’s best, a soulful and endlessly surprising collection of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony-esque hip-hop that calls out everything from actors Jason Schwartzman and Jonah Hill (“Please Shut The Fuck Up”) to Walker’s soon-to-be former hometown (“What Made Milwaukee Famous”).
7. Decibully – s/t
Had it been released three weeks later, Decibully’s meticulous, long-delayed 2009 LP World Travels Fast would have surely showed up on our list of the 10 best Milwaukee albums of 2010. Still, the local legend’s self-titled parting shot—hastily released online the day after Decibully’s under-publicized final show—is that of a band with many more great songs left in the tank. Even in its unmastered form, Decibully is a fitting outro, with bustling falsetto-slathered indie-pop numbers like “Blood We Bleed” and “Forever.”
6. The Celebrated Workingman – Content Content
If someone were to make an all-time list of Milwaukee music MVPs, Mark Waldoch would be near the top. The nattily dressed musician has long been a familiar presence on local bills, forever lending his unmistakable and unpredictable voice to seemingly any venue, show, or event that needs it. In 2011, The Celebrated Workingman’s deliriously great Content Content was the beneficiary of Waldoch’s talents. The album is stuffed with plenty of full-band rock and roll—all swirling around Waldoch’s full-throated voice, of course—but the record’s quieter moments (“A Lover’s Waltz,” for instance) are just as vital.
5. Heidi Spencer And The Rare Birds – Under Streetlight Glow
Even five years after Heidi Spencer’s last release (2014’s Things I Remember Golden), it’s hard to overstate the power of her voice. At turns vulnerable, withering, and playful, it’s an instrument brewed in coffee shops and open mic nights, but clearly intended for a larger stage. Spencer’s third album (and first with her Rare Birds backing band), the consistently lovely Under Streetlight Glow, was written during her days as a film student. It shows: Standout tracks like “Alibi” and “Hibernation” conjure up hushed, sepia-toned romances and widescreen, golden-hour regrets.
4. The Fatty Acids – Leftover Monsterface
Currently quiet but formerly ubiquitous “scramble-pop” group The Fatty Acids made their debut with 2010’s curiously titled Stop Berries, Berries And Berries, Berries. A year later, Leftover Monsterface cemented their reputation as one of Milwaukee’s best bands. Swirling opener “Creature” is all pent-up energy and eventual release. “Oven Mitts” is both celebratory and deeply weird. “Memory Banks,” meanwhile, finds The Fatties at their most manic and boisterous. Boléro and Dogs Of Entertainment would follow in 2013 and 2017, respectively. Here’s hoping for at least one more party.
3. Maritime – Human Hearts
Maritime had risen from the ashes of The Promise Ring way back in 2003, but it wasn’t until 2011’s Human Hearts that the group made a clean break from its storied past. From tumultuous table-setter “It’s Casual” to sage and optimistic ender “Apple Of My Irony,” Human Hearts is some of Davey von Bohlen and Dan Didier’s best work. The equally excellent Magnetic Bodies/Maps Of Bones followed four years later; these days, Didier and Maritime guitarist Justin Klug spend their time with Dramatic Lovers.
2. Catacombz – s/t
A year and a half after Soul Beats, and bookended by Mother Tongue One and Mother Tongue 2, the self-titled Catacombz stands as the band’s best work. While relegated to just five songs, the snack-sized portion of palatable psych grants the most apt and concise description possible for the altogether incalculable band. From driving opener “Russia” to slow-percolating rocker “Moon Dawg,” listeners are locked in for something special. The band’s final release, II, arrived in 2014.
1. Altos – s/t
Milwaukee’s once-mighty “surly high school orchestra” was sometimes known as Group Of The Altos, and sometimes known as just plain Altos. Name aside, the 12-person group was never better than on its 2010 self-titled debut. Over the course of just three super-sized tracks (the third, “Him vs. Hymn,” clocks in at nearly 15 minutes), Altos borrow the scale and instrumental post-rock DNA of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but soften the edges with melancholy strings and haunting, ethereal vocals. Not that Altos is easy listening—it’s an emotionally fraught, ultimately cathartic journey that leaves listeners off-balance and forever rewired.