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, 2015, and 2016.)
10. BLAX – Be Well
The Reason-produced Be Well features a diverse mix of guests, including Brooklyn’s G.R.A.M.Z., Milwaukee’s Fivy, and even Brew City veteran Coo Coo Cal. Milwaukee is definitely on BLAX’s mind throughout Be Well—news reports of the 2016 Sherman Park unrest are weaved throughout the record’s 15 politically charged tracks, and hardly a verse goes by without mention of the “414.” Coo Coo Cal’s track, “Maybe,” is Be Well at its most frantic and fevered, while the title track finds BLAX paying tribute to a distressingly long list of murdered black men while reminding listeners to “Be well / Be more than well.”
9. Midwives – No
From the moment vocalist Shaun Stacey’s screaming salvo kicks opener “Northside Blues” into motion, until the slow-moving slurry of distortion permeates every jagged crevice of ninth and final track “(An All Expense Paid) Business Trip,” Midwives’ final album, No, is an admirable sub-18-minute parting shot from one of Milwaukee’s most productive projects of the 2010s.
8. Fox Face – Spoil + Destroy
Punk music can sometimes become pretty generic pretty fast, but Spoil + Destroy is far from run-of-the-mill. Fox Face ensures their feminist politics are the album’s focal point: “Watch out / This pussy will bite you back” Lindsay DeGroot, Mary Hickey, and Lydia Washechek scream in unison on “Nasty Woman,” a track aptly named after Donald Trump’s infamous jab at Hillary Clinton. Elsewhere, “I Believe In Science” is a rallying cry against climate change deniers (unfortunately, they do exist). What makes Fox Face stand out from their contemporaries is their passion—feminist-laced fury has never sounded so fresh.
7. The Fatty Acids – Dogs Of Entertainment
On Dogs Of Entertainment, The Fatty Acids’ psychedelic rock tunes boast brooding pop sensibilities that are often imitated but rarely duplicated. On tracks like “Ghostess” and “I Try Not To Freak Out About It,” Matt Pappas puts his guitar skills on the front burner. Dogs also employs groovy sax riffs on “WG EX BF” and infectious keyboard tickling on “Sequins”—for those who don’t get down with guitar licks. The entire album is lush from start to finish, with some tracks (like single “Strangers”) almost opting for a Phil Spector-reminiscent “wall of sound” production style.
6. Abby Jeanne – Rebel Love
In “Aged Young,” Abby Jeanne says “2016 gave [her] gray hair.” But the incomparable Cream City crooner, songwriter, and producer experienced nothing short of an artistically astounding 2017. Her home-recorded and self-produced Rebel Love not only highlights Jeanne’s incredible vocal chops that could very well be considered the vanguard of Milwaukee voices, but the songwriter coats otherwise somber compositions regarding death, drugs, and an overriding sense of loss and loneliness with smooth and powerful melodies.
5. WebsterX – Daymares
“Wasting hours in bed / All day long in my head / Falling deep so deep I’m fading I’m gone / Will I ever come back again?” That’s WebsterX in the opening moments of “Until I,” an intimate chronicle of the Milwaukee rapper’s battle with depression. That battle hangs over the entirety of the masterful Daymares, but it never drowns it out—after all, “Until I” ends with this: “Make that song, jump along, demons gone.” Is there any better advice than that? Daymares is WebsterX at his most accessible and fan-friendly—dig the glistening electro backdrop of “Lost Ones”—but his incomparable voice, and his frankness paired with his well-earned bravado still make it thrillingly intimate and unique.
4. Whips – The Ride
The cover of Whips’ top-to-bottom excellent The Ride—the follow-up to 2014’s also-excellent Turn It On—depicts a car engulfed in smoke. If there’s a better visual metaphor for the overdriven, overheated, raw-horsepower rock and roll firing away inside the guts of the record, we aren’t aware of it. The opening title track is less a song than a well-oiled machine, full of Ashley Smith’s fuzzed-out hiccup vocals, Christian Hansen’s buzzsaw guitar, and a thrilling climax that eventually blows out just like the cover’s smoking hotrod. Elsewhere, the charging “Goldmine” barrels along at a dangerous clip, the left-field “Ms. Terry” melts a killer bubblegum head-bopper to the scorching asphalt below, and the endlessly awesome “Nobody’s Fool” boasts a classic badass chorus.
3. Soul Low – Cheer Up
Drop the digital and/or physical needle on Soul Low’s third full-length album, Cheer Up, and you’re almost immediately hit with it: La la la la, da da da da, da da da da-la da! The impossibly upbeat “Bad Set Of Moods” kicks in like a Mountain Dew sugar rush, all wide-eyed and frothing at the mouth. But chip away at the chipper veneer and you’ll find a song about navigating the throes of depression. “If I tell you I don’t need sunshine I want you to call out my bluff,” sings Jake Balistreri. “And if I tell you that I don’t feel fine I want you to say I’m enough / I’ve got a bad set of moods and I think it’s gonna be a while ’til they move.” Likewise, the pleasures and anxieties of Cheer Up aren’t likely to leave your head anytime soon.
2. Midnight Reruns – Spectator Sports
Following 2015’s fantastic Force Of Nurture, Midnight Reruns’ Spectator Sports combines the band’s signature, Thin Lizzy-reminiscent dueling guitar riffs with singer/songwriter Graham Hunt’s introspective, self-deprecating lyrics. “I don’t like it / When you hold up the mirror,” he repeatedly wails on “Hold Up The Mirror,” crafting an angsty metaphor that listeners may find a little too relatable. “City Hall” takes an even darker turn, memorializing the eight suicides at Milwaukee City Hall; Hunt certainly did his research—some of the victims (Leo Kraemer, Charles Darling, Harry Kumelski) are mentioned by name in the song.
1. Milo – Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?!
“Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?! is about boundaries and permissions. The artist creating their own license to ill.” So writes Rory Ferreira in the digital linear notes to his best full-length album as Milo. That call for agency reverberates throughout the album’s 15 tracks, which, in true Milo form, also contain references to everything from Maury Povich and Gary Gygax to Ted Danson and Terry Gilliam films. Not that pop culture is the only thing on Ferreira’s mind, of course. “We shouldn’t be complimenting fence-building nihilists,” he raps on standout track “Paging Mr. Bill Nunn.” “Frankly, the frankincense isn’t working.” Recorded in just 24 hours, the follow-up to 2015’s So The Flies Don’t Come is both jazzy and nimble, experimental and assured, vital and devastating. “God bless the soul of whoever you thought you was / ‘Cause it, ’cause it might not be no next time,” Milo raps on “Magician (Suture),” more than living up to his status as one of music’s great thinkers.