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, 2013, 2014, and 2015.)
10. Heat Death – 9 Steps To A Happier Life
This nine-pack of nihilistic numbers finds bandleader Ken Sabbar examining decidedly unhappy aspects of existence with lyrics about loneliness, being trapped in the drudgery of work or domestic life, and the cruelty of modern dating. The dour effort unfurls at a post-punk pace, with a generous helping of synth to help warm up one of the coldest, bleakest, and best Milwaukee releases of 2016.
9. B~Free – Ode 2 A Luv Affair
You’d never know it from listening to Ode 2 A Luv Affair, but it’s the work of an artist who completely lost her voice due to a traumatic throat infection, and had to build herself back into a singer from ground zero following vocal cord surgery. B~Free produced the album and performed nearly every note of the music herself, and it’s impressive though understated; the lyrics and beautiful vocal arrangements are really the driving force throughout. Fans of ’90s and early 2000s R&B will get a charge of nostalgia, or else a sense that those elements are timeless.
8. Appleseeds – Lungfish
Those who happened upon Appleseeds’ Lungfish in 2016 were privy to a lo-fi micro-masterpiece that doles out frenzied, fuzzed-out guitar licks and Fly Steffens’ commanding and incomparable vocals in one- to three-minute analog-recorded chunks. By the time “2 4 10” ends, Lungfish is planted both in your head and on your playlist for the long haul.
7. Rx Drugs – Future Friction
Just as The Championship was hitting its stride with High Feather in 2012, the decade-old folk outfit lumbered to a halt. Fortunately, The Championship’s hiatus made room for another project. Singer Joe Crockett resurfaced in 2016 with an album’s worth of somber numbers he recorded and self-released under the name Rx Drugs. The bandleader’s velvety voice carries mourning, self-reflective, and wistful lyrics that meld with smooth, delicate instrumentation to forge something sorrowful and special.
6. Bliss & Alice – Mama Tried
Bliss & Alice set the bar high with his remarkable 2014 debut mixtape, Poetry Volume One – The Shit Talker Tape, and to his credit, he doesn’t attempt to recreate that same rapid-fire highwire vocal act. For one thing, Mama Tried features beats tailor-made for Bliss’ words; the songs are symbiotic pieces. The album also doesn’t feature a whole lot of shit-talking. The pathos, however, remains, and the atmosphere that Bliss creates with words fits eerily with the morose, groggy beats. Mama Tried certainly feels more urgent than Poetry, but also more thoughtfully crafted.
5. Soul Low – Nosebleeds
“Sweet and sardonic” is the order of the day on Soul Low’s excellent follow-up to 2013’s UNEASY, with songs like the twisty “Tied In Knots” (“You look so good online / But in life you will die”), the hypnotic “Finger Bones” (“I’ve got nothing to say to you / And you to me”), and the jazz-ified “Ritalin Kids” (“It’s the return of the Ritalin kids / With no remorse for whatever they did”). On these tracks and more, Soul Low operates on a whole new wavelength, reaching nosebleed-worthy heights few bands ever approach.
4. Gauss – Thalweg
Over the course of three years, Gauss developed rapidly from noise-punk through atmospheric post-rock into a violin-and-horn-infused, progressive…something-or-other. Maybe listeners could’ve anticipated the spastic math-y explosions of “Deeper Than Blue” and the propulsive post-emo of “Stumbling Block” and “The Flicker People,” but how about the funky, keyboard-driven groove of “Stakes Are The Same”? How about the jazzy haze of “Epicenter Of Anomaly”? The soothing, bass-and-brass drone of “Relinquish The Reins”? Did anybody see this coming?
3. Direct Hit! – Wasted Mind
With Wasted Mind—the follow-up to 2013’s Brainless God—Direct Hit! focuses on a protagonist who embarks on a drug trip complete with hallucinations, paranoia, and confusion. With horns, a wall of guitars, and periodic doo-wop harmonies, the record finds the band exploring sonic crevices never visited in previous releases, and enlisting guest accompaniment from members of Something To Do and The Hold Steady.
2. Lorde Fredd33 – Dead Man’s View
Arguably Milwaukee’s most distinctive rapper, Lorde Fredd33 is more interested in creating a mood than showing off verbally, and on Dead Man’s View, he taps into primal and meditative mindsets amidst mocking chuckles and delirious boasting. The record is just as much producer Q The Sun’s show, although his atmospheric beats often function primarily as sonic spotlights. The actual music is generally bleary and spectral, but on certain tracks, particularly the infectious “Trap Jazz” (featuring a magnetic guest appearance by Busdriver), Q overtakes the song by the end, making you wonder what you’ve been failing to notice all along.
1. NO/NO – Sound And Light
On “Whatever,” the stunning closer to NO/NO’s stunning Sound And Light, singer-keyboardist Cat Ries presides over a transcendent, triumphant, and gloriously widescreen electro wash that plays more like a prayer than a song. It’s both aching and vulnerable (“I want to call you up / But I don’t know what I would say”) and defiant and unapologetic (“I’m cool with these battle scars”). Elsewhere, opener “Waiting For Something To Happen” sets the stage with back-and-forth vocals from Ries and singer-guitarist Harrison Colby, “Dark Side” scores big on a bittersweet chorus, “Television” goes hard on the goth-gloom dance club vibe, and “Two-Lane Blacktop” doubles down on everything to produce a bleary-eyed tribute to life on the road. Sound And Light is a cool, sexy, and hook-heavy triumph, bursting at the seams with a sense of longing, strength, and delirious danger.