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, 2016, and 2017.)
10. Tigernite – Sublunary
There are two sides to Tigernite. There’s the one covered in glitter and confetti, rocking the fuck out while riffs screech through the air like demonic bats. Then there’s the one wearing a rune-covered cloak, taking you by the hand and leading you through a moon-lit field at midnight. Both of those sides get equal face-time in Sublunary, a thrilling and at-times achingly beautiful record shot through with the band’s theatrical glam-rock vamping and classic-rock lighter-hoisting. “Conqueror,” “Summerland,” and the blistering “Ray Gun Queen” all fall into the rock-the-fuck-out category, while opener “Dark Mirror” (along with its reprise) and the stunning, string-soaked “Oracle” play like dark-magic broadcasts from a forgotten civilization.
9. IshDARR – Slow Down, KID
On Slow Down, KID, over chill beats from a myriad of producers, IshDARR exudes a relaxed confidence that never flags. Songs like “Never Ask (Subpar Funk)” and “Obvious” are basically nonstop hooks strung together, and you might find yourself singing along with the choruses of “Slow Down” and “Ya Mans” in the course of a first spin. IshDARR’s wordplay is rarely showy, but when he needs to get aggressive for the last few tunes, he’s got the chops. Equally refreshing is his adherence to anthems of inspiration and positive thought; the bravado you’ll find on Slow Down is communal and never out of step with IshDARR’s talents.
8. Cairns – Entanglement
The 12-song Entanglement brings John Larkin’s careful and restrained vocals together with his admirable musicianship and uncanny knack for arrangement. Cairns’ founder plays almost everything on the record and he presides over artful, atmospheric compositions with complex time signatures and ever-changing moods that rise and fall without warning (best illustrated in the title track). As technically stunning as the album is, Entanglement still manages to somehow cull beauty and emotion throughout the 40-minute effort.
7. Field Report – Summertime Songs
“I woke up blacked out in a snowstorm, with an airbag burn on my cheek / Check the wreckage, walk away okay / I’m gonna change.” That’s Chris Porterfield on “Blind Spot,” the opening track to the big, bold, and ridiculously open-hearted Summertime Songs. The idea of “change” courses through the record: the radio-ready “Never Look Back” puts the past in the rearview mirror, while the title track deals with impending fatherhood (among other life-altering events). But it’s the sound of Field Report on its third full-length record that really jumps out—all ’80s Springsteen synth and bright-eyed production.
6. Amanda Huff – Hemiptera
On Hemiptera, Amanda Huff wastes no time making her presence known by showing her amazing vocal range amid flamenco guitars in opening track “Neighboring Moons.” That’s followed by “Caroline’s,” which is a lounge-y, jazz-infused jaunt that employs a horn section to accompany Huff’s captivating voice. “Cherry Limeade” is a cool and refreshing splash of summer, highlighted by Strehlow’s bustling, beaming production touches. The pair also collaborates on an innovative electronic take on Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” near the end of the eight-song album, before SistaStrings joins in on “Slow Water.”
5. Lex Allen – Table 7: Sinners & Saints
Lex Allen’s full-length debut is pure pop perfection: “Never Look Back” scores big with an anthemic chorus that should be blasting from every car window in the city. “Struck Gold” takes to the dance floor with a dirty beat and lines like “Coulda bought a yacht, but I bought a watch.” The bat-shit “Bitch U Fabulous,” meanwhile, channels U-know-who. Then there are the ballads (“Mama’s Boy,” “Release,” “7th Hour”), which prove Allen is one the most shockingly talented multi-threats working the game today.
4. Dogs In Ecstasy – Dreams And Gripes
“I feed my daughter rice, grain by grain / They say it’s the new economy, but I just feel the same old pain.” So sing the ever-delightful pop smart-asses in Dogs In Ecstasy on “Scale 2 Infinite,” a standout track from the excellent, hilarious, siren-happy, and Extremely Online Dreams And Gripes. It serves as something of a thesis statement: “Rage Against The Dying Of My Phone” is a bright and buzzy ode to the 21st century dread of streaming services and unsent tweets, the bitterly funny “Golden Age” updates Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime” for the smartphone era, and “Loyalty” equates a broken relationship to a restaurant punchcard. And the sirens…so many sirens.
3. Buffalo Gospel – On The First Bell
Change is evident in On The First Bell, an unshakable menagerie of heartfelt numbers in which Ryan Necci and a new cast of collaborators skillfully shift from mournful to hopeful, and trade sadness for resolve over the span of 10 flawless songs. No track cracks the five-minute mark, yet “High Time To Hang Fire,” the deceptively sad “Lonestar,” and the unflinchingly tragic “Homeless” manage to pack loads of emotion into tight, artfully constructed packages. Along the way, the band manages a fun, radio-ready single in “18-Wheeler.” That rare upbeat exception aside, Bell takes time and tragedy and transforms it into an effort that shines, despite being shrouded in darkness and loss.
2. Lorde Fredd33 – NORF: The Legend Of Hotboy Ronald
Lorde Fredd33’s chameleon persona is on full display on NORF: The Legend Of Hotboy Ronald. “Need A Lick,” is a jittery track that bemoans child support one minute, and then breaks into a glitzy dance party the next. “Free (Type Shit)” is all over the map—literally—visiting all corners of Milwaukee and careening from one cartoon-like voice to the next. Elsewhere, Bel Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” makes an appearance in the downbeat (and appropriately titled) “Bel Biv Devotion,” the incredible Zed Kenzo makes her appearance in “True Indeed,” and none other than Kanye gets called out in “Reflections.” NORF is an outsized, complex record from a similarly outsized, complex artist.
1. Collections Of Colonies Of Bees – HAWAII
Throughout their long history, Collections Of Colonies Of Bees have gone through plenty of changes. The addition of singing in 2016 was a first—but perhaps more boldly, vocalists Marielle Allschwang and Dan Spack (both formerly of Group Of The Altos) aren’t exactly known as purveyors of the bubbly, joyous emotions that are CoCoBees’ trademark. HAWAII may have dark undercurrents, but its essence remains true to the overflowing positivity that Bees fans have come to expect, and those familiar with Chris Rosenau’s solo performances will instantly recognize the latest trajectory of his guitar playing. Even aside from the singing, the album is a radical departure from the patient, subtly shifting post-rock of Bees’ past; sometimes angular and aggressive, sometimes dense and dizzying, it’s their most experimental and dynamic work, and quite possibly the best album they’ve ever made.