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, 2012, and 2013.)
10. Twin Brother – Swallow The Anchor
Though not a full-fledged concept album, Twin Brother’s Swallow The Anchor seems to be nestled in the overarching theme of fleeting youth. A year after the trio’s perfectly fine self-titled debut album, singer/guitarist Sean Raasch carried Twin Brother’s seamless sound to higher ground by singing from the brutally honest perspective of a protagonist coming to terms with the fact that his best days are behind him and he isn’t living the life he’d imagined for himself all those years ago. From Raasch bellowing “Go, go, go far from here” in “Heart & Soul,” and the weary waltz enacted by drummer Tyler Nelson and multi-instrumentalist Lodewijk “Lodi” Broekhuizen in “Way To Be,” Swallow The Anchor is a soundtrack to the introspection that often accompanies entry into one’s early- to mid-thirties.
9. Greatest Lakes – s/t
With its sweeping vocal harmonies, jangly guitars, and languid tempos, Greatest Lakes’ debut LP embodies the crossroads where psych-folk and dream-pop meet. The most obvious modern touchstone is Fleet Foxes, and some of the more repetitive, drone-y tracks (such as “Looking In” and “In This House”) recall Animal Collective and early Yeasayer. The album eschews any electronic trappings, but with its sleepy sonic haze and blissed-out, faded vocals, it could almost pass for analog chillwave, if such a thing could exist. Greatest Lakes followed up their debut with the equally great Divisions in 2018.
8. Whips – Turn It On
From the first guitar chugs and snare pangs of opener “Switchblade” to the parting scream and wall of distortion that brings ninth and final song “Xoxxx” to completion, Whips’ debut full-length, Turn It On, pulls no punches, minces no words, and gives precisely zero fucks at any point in its blistering half-hour aural assault. Christian Hansen affixes angular guitar licks to the forceful rhythmic wave supplied by bassist Tyler Chicorel and drummer Andy Mrotek. Singer Ashley Smith throws fuel on the flames with raw and commanding vocals along with lyrics about money (“Big”), switchblade knives (“Switchblade”), and Evel Knievel (“Right On”).
7. The Delphines – Hush
Throughout most of their too-brief existence, The Delphines took rock and roll to an almost absurd degree of minimalism, recording vocals, guitars, and a two-piece drum kit directly into a laptop. The simplistic nature of the group’s sole full-length record, Hush, recalls early Motown and the roots of garage rock in that when you strip away nearly everything but the song, the result could only be tarnished by further tampering. Jami Eaton’s stark, passively aggressive lyrics lay out the trials and cheap thrills of love and lust poetically and without filter, and Harrison Colby proves that all the great original guitar riffs might not quite be used up.
6. Sugar Stems – Only Come Out At Night
Sugar Stems once again deliver the goods on their final album, Only Come Out At Night: ringing guitars, ridiculously memorable hooks, and gooey vocals from songwriter Betsy Heibler. “I Know Where I’m Going,” “The One,” “Sun Rise, Sea Change,” and the title track all vie for “catchiest chorus of the decade,” while acoustic album closer “Million Miles” stands as the most heartbreaking and lovely song the band ever recorded. Like “Million Miles,” Only Come Out At Night is instantly memorable, unspeakably pretty, and just the right amount of world-weary. Like the band itself, it’s sweet, sour, and everything in between.
5. Field Report – Marigolden
Recorded in remote Ontario by longtime Feist producer Robbie Lackritz, Field Report’s sophomore effort brings the group down some new strikingly different auditory avenues. Christopher Porterfield’s beautifully narrated folk tales take a woeful turn this time around, as his wavering voice carries messages of loss and admissions regarding his ongoing struggle with sobriety. Musically, crushing piano anti-ballads (“Ambrosia”) and upbeat numbers (“Marigolden”) are offset with a sort of electro-folk hybrid that translates astoundingly well to Porterfield’s penchant for poetics. Marigolden is an absolute success.
4. Bliss & Alice – Poetry Volume One – The Shit Talker Tape
It’s hard to say what’s most impressive about this debut mixtape from Bliss & Alice: the dizzying vocal dexterity, the liquidity of the overall flow, or the impact and craftsmanship of the words themselves. From the very first song, “Apex,” Bliss is methodical and relentless as an MC; he makes you want to keep rewinding the track to see if you can figure out where he takes a breath. His rhythmic precision is no less impressive on laid-back tracks like “Lost” and “Mind Movies,” and he’s more about simmering intensity than barking, evoking doldrums and loss as effectively as energetic bravado. The crusher, though, is “Mademoiselle,” a disturbing, psycho-autobiographical piece that’s pure spoken poetry against a stark, icy piano backdrop, more Gil Scott-Heron than hip-hop, but sonic crack for anyone who appreciates wordplay.
3. Canopies – Maximize Your Faith
Canopies’ first/final/only full-length record, Maximize Your Faith, is a space/synth-rock record of the highest order. Opener “Getting Older” lifts off like a Saturn rocket, “The Plunderers And The Pillagers” soars above the stars, and “Miss You Now” seems to occupy multiple musical dimensions at once. Deeper cuts like “Sparkle And Hum” hew closer to Earth, evoking gloomy goth dance parties and chemically addled head trips. With Faith, what was once a bedroom project evolved into a full-fledged band—a full-fledged band that’s still missed today.
2. Death Blues – Ensemble
Death Blues was not a band—it was a mindset. The philosophy, conceived by Jon Mueller in 2011, was to become more present in each moment through an awareness of the finality and inevitability of death. From this concept, a number of multimedia projects and events sprung forth; Ensemble was the crowning achievement. The initial sonic incarnation of Death Blues consisted of chanting, blunt percussion, and simple rhythmic patterns hammered out on acoustic guitars. Mueller laid down the basic musical kernels on 2012’s Death Blues LP, and over the course of the next two years, worked with multi-instrumentalist William Ryan Fritch to develop these original ideas into the much more varied, expansive compositions found on Ensemble. It’s like a primordial soup of emotion, evoking whatever joys and longings your experience has taught you to value.
1. Space Raft – s/t
On Space Raft’s excellent 2014 debut, big guitars, bigger hooks, and ’70s/’90s power-pop along the lines of Big Star and Matthew Sweet are the order of the day. Opener “Never Is Enough” chugs along like a gritty, long-lost Tom Petty gem; “Evening Glow” cuts a moody figure with a minor-chord swoon in the chorus; and “Rescue Mission” tosses off a textbook power-pop guitar intro as effortlessly as a guitar pick. There’s a sci-fi concept album buried somewhere beneath the record’s surface, but unearthing it isn’t necessary to enjoy the hazy psychedelia and rock-solid craftsmanship found throughout. The great Rubicon followed in 2016, and another record is expected in the near future.