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, 2011, and 2012.)
10. Buffalo Gospel – We Can Be Horses
Half a decade before establishing itself as the vanguard of Milwaukee country music with 2018’s incredible On The First Bell, Buffalo Gospel poignantly announced their presence with its debut full-length. The group’s lovely We Can Be Horses opens with the breezy, rollicking “Song Of The Ox,” though much of the album is spent in quiet rumination: Founding member, bandleader, and only remaining member from this 2013 lineup Ryan Necci is captivating on the lilting “Hoarse As A Crow” and the mournful “When God’s Away On Business” as he leads a cast of collaborators that includes Heidi Spencer, Allen Coté, and Ryan Ogburn in its ranks.
9. WebsterX – Desperate Youth
Sam Ahmed had apprehensions. At 21, the aspiring emcee finally set aside his self-doubt and funneled years of verses into Desperate Youth. Ahmed’s 16-song debut under the WebsterX moniker is an ambitious introduction that meanders between the brooding Odd Future-esque “Blue Dreams” and the airy and upbeat “Drift Off,” with a lyrical lapel of Milwaukee pride proudly displayed throughout. In the years that have followed Ahmed’s local love has been reciprocated. Desperate Youth wasn’t just the outset for one of the city’s most impressive and groundbreaking modern musicians—the debut also was a sign of bigger days for Milwaukee’s hip-hop scene.
8. Vic And Gab – Love Of Mine
Victoria Banuelos and Hannah Gabriela Banuelos polish their deceptively sweet guitar-pop to a high shine on Love Of Mine, an album that nicely distances them from too-easy comparisons to another sister act, Tegan And Sara. From the subdued shimmy of the title track and “Trying To Love You” to the jangly bounce of “Let You Down” and “When You Walk Into The Room,” Love Of Mine captures Vic And Gab—who now write and release music under the name REYNA—at their most dreamy and lyrically sly.
7. 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—and always have been—a serious band. Boléro masterfully hammers home the strange-yet-functional notion of heady indie-pop. Over the span of 10 songs, the established and affable outfit’s third album presents questions and commentary regarding America’s flawed political process, address paradoxes in religion and environmental oversights, and even works in a couple of love songs for good measure. With Boléro, The Fatty Acids somehow managed to make a deceivingly dense, mature, and pointed record remain fun.
6. Painted Caves – Painted Caves
With indie-rock sensibilities projected through an Arabic lens, there’s little else like Painted Caves, here in Milwaukee or anywhere else. In the self-titled debut, bandleader Ali Lubbad affixes elements of his Middle Eastern lineage to modern American musical mainstays that range from folk to material venturing in the vicinity of rock. In “Half-Human” and “The Ocean,” Lubbad’s soothing voice lacquers a sense of calm atop already entrancing hymns of positivity, while rhythmic “Paper Tigers” and “Blood In The Water” bare teeth.
5. Direct Hit! – Brainless God
Today, Direct Hit! is on the Fat Wreck Chords roster and has a well-deserved reputation as one of punk rock’s busiest and most innovative projects. However, the accomplished outfit wasn’t on most people’s radar until 2013’s Brainless God thrust the band—which we erroneously kept off our 50 best Milwaukee albums list in early 2014—into the spotlight. While the apocalyptic concept album treads into abrasive and pointed territory, the loaded and graphic lyrics are countered by infectiously poppy song structures and hooks that make hacksaw dismemberment and the prospect of the world’s end seem like picnics in the park. Direct Hit! would continue the conceptual arc in 2016’s Wasted Mind and last year’s Crown Of Nothing, but it was never executed better than it was in Brainless God.
4. Northless – World Keeps Sinking
Death, decay, and destruction may not be the only things served up on Northless’ aggressively grim World Keeps Sinking, but they’re certainly the main course. As a follow-up to 2011’s equally uncompromising Clandestine Abuse and the precursor to 2017’s heavy Last Bastion Of Cowardice, World succeeds in broadening Northless’ sludge- and doom-metal scope (it could easily be taken for a loose concept album about, well, death, decay, and destruction) without breaking the mold. The playing is technical but never fussy, and the noise is as pummeling as ever.
3. Sat. Nite Duets – Electric Manland
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. Sat. Nite Duets have always walked the goofball 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. Musically, Manland stands head and shoulders above the band’s pre-2013 work, resulting in an accomplished, memorable, and—gasp!—funny record.
2. Volcano Choir – Repave
Justin Vernon’s cabin-in-the-woods origin story is far from compelling these days (it’s been 11 years since the release of the snowbound For Emma, Forever Ago), and his Grammy-award-winning Bon Iver project returned from its brief hiatus with new records and an arena tour. Between the Eau Claire native’s star-making debut and the co-creation of the Eaux Claires festival, Vernon formed Volcano Choir with past and present members of Milwaukee’s Collections Of Colonies Of Bees. Four years after the project put out Unmapped, Volcano Choir announced itself as Vernon’s main concern (albeit temporarily) on the thrilling follow-up, 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, and a monument to the power of collaboration, musicianship, and never looking back.
1. 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 story being used to prop up its eight-song debut, UNEASY is just a really fucking good album. Amidst the unhinged “Sitting By The Fire,” the barren ballad “Son,” and the rowdy rally cry of “Cliffs,” charmingly shaky vocals and classically trained instrumentation are provided by guys who just so happened to be young and previously unheralded. The ambitious and all-around awesome aural introduction—in all its genre-jumping glory—would set the stage for a dominant next five years, which included even better releases (including one album that was released posthumously) as the band matured.