Believe it or not, 2021 is more than halfway over. Weird! What’s not weird: the return of live music and the continued talent of the Milwaukee music scene. Here are just a few of our favorite 2021 Milwaukee releases—records, songs, videos—so far.
MATT’S FAVORITE MILWAUKEE RECORDS/EPs OF 2021 (SO FAR)
You know that feeling of hearing an artist’s new song and instantly knowing it’s your favorite thing they’ve ever done? With the track-by-track release of Caley Conway‘s three-song Bliss Or Bust EP, that feeling happened exactly three times. World-weary opener “I Love You So Much I Don’t Want To See You” tells the story of a “exasperated person unable to find a more socially acceptable way of saying that they don’t want to be around someone, even though there’s love between them.” The title track is a shuffling, heavy-lidded meditation on love that also happens to feature a wicked guitar solo. “Path Of The Sun,” meanwhile, closes things out with a dreamy exploration of Conway’s “frustration at being a people-pleaser in perpetual fear of letting others down.”
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. For Milwaukee garage-surf outfit Devils Teeth, our current extraordinary times have called for releasing a self-recorded “spaghetti western garage rock operetta inspired by the character Chong Li from the martial arts film Bloodsport.” (You know. The one with Jean-Claude Van Damme.) Opening with the exotica-tinged scene-setter “She Speaks To Coyotes,” barreling into the over-the-top “Chong Li” and “Ride Of The Devils Teeth,” and culminating in the cliffhanging “Shadows Of Chong Li,” the record plays like a fever-dream version of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack crossed with Ennio Morricone.
Young Deuces is one-half of Milwaukee’s long-running Streetz-n-Young Deuces, though All I Ever Wanted Was An Opportunity is his third solo album. “Always Had It Hard” serves as an origin story, detailing Deuces’ childhood and hardscrabble teenage years. “Black Sheep” fast-forwards to the present day and drops listeners directly in a Black Lives Matter march. “My people been on the rise / And they shooting for the sky” Deuces proclaims on the Misha Green- and Jordan Peele-referencing “Black Hollywood Dreams.” Finally, Gloria Gaynor’s disco take on “Never Can Say Goodbye” serves as the foundation for “Say Goodbye,” a sprawling and uplifting love to letter to Deuces’ children, family, friends, and fans.
Johanna Rose knows a thing or two about change. Following the release of a pair of solo albums in early 2020, the Milwaukee musician packed for Vermont and spent the summer building and living in a treehouse. While there, Rose—an upright bass player—picked up new instruments and composed new material. The resulting Lunar Eclipse includes the lilting opener “Loving You,” the earthy and cosmic “Dancing On The Water,” and the warm and expansive “Sweet Fool.” “Shopping Cart” boasts some of Rose’s most plainly poetic lyrics to date (“Drove me to emergency care / Smoked a pack of cigarettes just waiting there,”) while closer “Vincent” wraps its confessional break-up narrative around the cowpoke strum of an acoustic guitar.
Formed in summer 2019, Weird Storm wrote, rehearsed, and recorded some demos before playing its inaugural show in March 2020. And then…well, you know what happened then. Now, in the much-much-better year of 2021, it’s Weird Storm’s time to shine. The five-track Alone On Meat Beach is an impeccable collection of melodic and math-y songs that should appeal to fans of Modest Mouse and Built To Spill. Opener “Brittle Pastimes” is all glistening guitars and shout-along choruses. “Cemetery Gates” doubles down on the groups math-y tendencies. Closer “Meek Knife” is essentially two (or maybe three?) songs in one, alternating between impossibly lovely and wickedly hectic before fading out into, well, a weird storm of noise.
TYLER’S FAVORITE MILWAUKEE RECORDS/EPs OF 2021 (SO FAR)
After emphatically making its presence known in the Milwaukee music world (and beyond) with 2017 standout Spoil + Destroy, Fox Face got to work writing, refining, and recording material for a follow-up album. In January, that sophomore effort emerged in the form of End Of Man, a highly anticipated effort that exceeds expectations with 12 tracks worth of chugging guitars, screeching solos, and infectiously spooky hooks. Standout songs include “Slow Burn” and “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” (a century-old cover the band originally adapted for our Public Domain music video series).
Back in March, hybrid hip-hop duo Guerrilla Ghost released The Trumaine EP. The record—named after Wesley Snipes’ character in the 1986 film Wildcats—is said to serve as “a vehicle to complete loose concepts and material.” Some of those ideas found a spot on last summer’s We Get What We Deserve, with others making their debut on this semi-conceptual collection of songs that impressively combines Tron Jovi’s raw and ominous production and Bad Graphics Ghost’s emotional delivery of personal lyrics in seven songs named after an accomplished actor.
Now five years removed from first coming to local consciousness with the release of Future Friction, Rx Drugs—the project led by The Championship’s Joe Crockett—has returned with a meticulously crafted and pandemic-delayed effort. Broken By Design builds on the somber beauty of its impressive predecessor, as the band’s patently dark folk-rock songs are bolstered by an energetic and organ-infused outlier in “Gimme Some Love” and the unexpected-yet-effective horn accompaniment in “Under The Overpass.” It took a while for the follow-up to arrive, but we’re glad it’s here.
Each and every year without fail, we’ll learn about a local band that has been around for years but, for whatever reason, never landed on our radar. This year, that unsavory honor goes to Versio Curs. Roughly three years, a few dozen shows, and countless mentions from mutual friends removed from the release of How Are You, the band chased that solid debut with another album. Quit shines with catchy melodies, flange-soaked guitar licks, and nine top-notch songs that ably alternate from pop-punk and straightforward rock and roll, with enough all-around awesomeness to make us want to apologize for not hearing them sooner.
This spring, mere months removed from the release of last year’s excellent As The World Turns, Von Alexander treated listeners to even more new material. Though the EP features only two songs, Hemispheres finds the rapper as nimble, confident, and smooth as ever in this short-but-sweet burst. For our money, “Nothing New” might be one of the single best songs a Milwaukee artist has put out in the first half of 2021.
MATT’S FAVORITE MILWAUKEE SONGS OF 2021 (SO FAR)
TYLER’S FAVORITE MILWAUKEE SONGS OF 2021 (SO FAR)
MATT’S FAVORITE MILWAUKEE VIDEOS OF 2021 (SO FAR)
TYLER’S FAVORITE MILWAUKEE VIDEOS OF 2021 (SO FAR)
MATT’S FAVORITE RELEASE BY A MILWAUKEE BAND NO LONGER BASED IN MILWAUKEE OF 2021 (SO FAR)
Big Mother Gig was a staple of the Milwaukee music scene in the ’90s, playing with bands like Alligator Gun at venues like the Globe East. Frontman Richard Jankovich eventually relocated to Los Angeles, however, and reformed Big Mother Gig in 2017. The group’s second LP since that reunion, Gusto, is described as a “recovery record,” and deals with a host of age-appropriate concerns: addiction, sobriety, family, marriage, depression, and hope. Opener “The Underdog” is an anthemic stunner, lead single “My Unveiling” is a sparkling swooner, and “Sober Man’s Test” is an alt-country crooner. Toss in the world-weary “The Doctor Will See You Now” and the driving “High Functioning,” and you have a terrific record that both Milwaukee and L.A. can gladly claim as their own.
TYLER’S FAVORITE RELEASE BY A DUNGEONS & DRAGONS-INSPIRED MILWAUKEE BAND OF 2021 (SO FAR)
They say to write what you know. Well, Fight Dice—an unconventional rock band that boasts direct connections to accomplished bands like The Promise Ring, Braid, Devils Teeth, Maritime, Dramatic Lovers, and Tigernite—knows Dungeons & Dragons. The pandemic-born project put out its debut EP, Roll For Initiative, this spring, and it’s something special. It’s also something strange…but still special nonetheless.
MATT’S FAVORITE MILWAUKEE COVER OF A MILWAUKEE SONG OF 2021 (SO FAR)
Delaware, are you aware that this buzzy, lo-fi cover of The Promise Ring’s “Is This Thing On?” is an absolute delight? The original comes from TPR’s classic 1997 album Nothing Feels Good; the Ope cover (gotta love that band name) is just one of a slew of tracks released by Milwaukee musician Sam Lozoff and company in 2021. Now do a caffeinated take on Wood/Water!
TYLER’S FAVORITE MILWAUKEE COVER OF A MILWAUKEE SONG OF 2021 (SO FAR)
It’s been a huge year for Trixie Mattel. Since the start of 2021, the former RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars champion and host of The Pit Stop inspired a Chipotle burrito, got a reality TV show, and officially became part-owner of This Is It. As if injecting new life and bringing more attention to the city’s oldest (and one of the country’s longest-running) gay bars didn’t earn her enough good will in the city this year, Mattel also decided to pay homage to another Milwaukee icon with this outstanding cover of the Violent Femmes hit, “Blister In The Sun.”