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 and 2011.)
10. AUTOMatic – Art Imitates Life
Rapper A.P.R.I.M.E. and producer Trellmatic tap the oft-tapped well of golden-age hip-hop on Art Imitates Life, a jazzy, gloriously infectious album that never comes across as mere, well, imitation. Opener “In The Land” embodies the looping and circular logic suggested by the record’s title, while the psychedelic, electro-flavored “Move” (featuring guest vocals from Elle Razberry and Jon Frost) takes the duo even further beyond their Native Tongues influences. A belated follow-up record, Marathon, arrived in late 2016.
9. The Championship – High Feather
Following a near three-year period that saw bandleader Joe Crockett favoring solo outings, members departing, and the longstanding folk-rock staple pushed to the brink of extinction, The Championship recouped and returned one last time with High Feather. The eight-song effort sidesteps the band’s previous take on AM radio and, instead, takes a decidedly more somber approach. With crushing offerings like “Reckless Heart” and “Lonely Stranger,” High Feather doubles as thrilling return and a poignant farewell.
8. Surgeons In Heat – s/t
The self-titled Surgeons In Heat full-length—a follow-up to a previous EP by the same name and with five overlapping songs—was the first proper introduction to one of the city’s most consistently great bands. The excellent Disaster and Bored Immortals followed in 2015 and 2018, respectively; here, the timeless power-pop trio (and possibly reincarnated Soul Train backing band) soars with clean, crisp instrumentation and the smooth falsetto of founding member Johnathon Mayer, whose voice puts his more famous namesake to shame.
7. Head On Electric – Sleep Slaughter Sheep
Head On Electric’s sprawling Dusty Medical debut—and its final release—betrays a garage band in punk’s clothing. Or is it the other way around? Either way, Sleep Slaughter Sheep is a brash, speed-fueled, and tripped-out journey through a weird, paranoid world where the Pixies reign supreme and songs like “Through The Cobwebs” aren’t complete without charmingly cowpoke intros. There’s a little bit of everything in Sleep Slaughter Sheep, and a nasty surprise around every corner.
6. Yo-Dot – Red Mist
There’s nothing radio- or college-crowd-friendly about Yo Dot’s still-stunning Red Mist, an album that grapples with growing up in a one-parent household, fatherhood, and the realties of the streets, among other things. Standout track “I’m Just Trying To Live” subverts society’s perennial obsession with material wealth and instead broods on the struggles of just getting by and enjoying the moment. Flawlessly produced, Red Mist is harrowing at times, but never hopeless.
5. Sugar Stems – Can’t Wait
The search for the perfect pop song is a frustrating and elusive one; strange, then, how easily Sugar Stems stumble across multiple perfect pop songs on the endlessly enjoyable Can’t Wait. “Greatest Pretender,” “Make Up Your Mind,” and “Love You To Pieces” all find the power-pop group firing on all bubblegum-covered cylinders, with singer Betsy Heibler injecting just enough lyrical sourness to keep things from getting too tooth-achingly sweet.
4. Old Earth – A Low Place At The Old Place
After reluctantly leaving San Francisco to help tend to an ailing property that had been in his family before Wisconsin achieved statehood, Todd Umhoefer literally tethered himself (guitar in hand) to an amp in the basement of a Menomonee Falls house shrouded in loss. He emerged from the depths toting something beautiful. In Low Place, Umhoefer’s Old Earth and a cast of collaborators—including Christopher Porterfield—transport listeners to the dank, eroding edifice over the course of 18 chilling minutes. Earlier this year, Umhoefer wrapped up his Old Earth project with a final release, Beast Of Needs.
3. Klassik – In The Making
Album titles can be telling. Take Klassik’s breakthrough debut, In the Making, which hints at the musician’s ever-evolving style—a style that continues to evolve to this day. Cool, funky, and fleet-footed, the deliriously overstuffed 2012 record (17 feature-length tracks in all) effortlessly displays Klassik’s jazz, classical, and hip-hop influences without ever breaking a sweat. One listen to supremely confident tracks like “Running 2” or “Forever Whatever” proves that while Klassik is still a refreshingly restless artist, In The Making is anything but a work in progress.
2. Juniper Tar – Since Before
While seminal folk-rockers Juniper Tar never came out and called their final record, 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.
1. Field Report – s/t
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 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.