Last year, we put our annual “25 Best Milwaukee Albums” list to bed and opted for a looser and more personal year-end concept. We think it went well! So, once again, here are some of our favorite Milwaukee LPs, EPs, and songs released in the last 12 months.
MATT’S 5 FAVORITE MILWAUKEE RECORDS OF 2021
Devils Teeth – La Leggenda Di Chong Li
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. For Milwaukee garage-surf outfit Devils Teeth, the current pandemic times 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,” La Leggenda Di Chong Li plays like a fever-dream version of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack crossed with Ennio Morricone. Even better: witnessing Devils Teeth playing much of the album live, while cruising down the Milwaukee River aboard the Vista King, during a wicked thunderstorm this past August.
Johanna Rose – Lunar Eclipse
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.
L’Resorts – Vacation
Released at the tail-end of summer, Vacation is the latest record from the L’Resorts brain trust of Vincent Kircher (Jaill) and Martha Cannon (Lady Cannon). Like previous releases, it’s an irresistible cocktail of sunny instrumentation, droll vocals, and cracker-jack songwriting. Oh, and more than a few clouds: At first listen, the opening title track may sound like a toes-in-the-sand ode to flying to warmer climes, but dig deeper and you’ll find a narrator bemoaning the fact that a vacationing lover has left them behind. “I’m not giving in but I’m not living,” Kircher and Cannon sing. “This cold state has got me shivering.” Things perk up elsewhere, especially on the pleasantly intoxicating “Bubbles” and the loopy “Kiss Me.” The remarkable “Backwards,” meanwhile, shows a refreshingly mature side to L’Resorts. “Don’t go backwards / Let’s be better / Let’s open up our eyes so we can look forward” Kircher and Cannon sing.
WebsterX – 1 Of 1
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Young Deuces – All I Ever Wanted Was An Opportunity
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. “I put my all in this motherfucker” Deuces proclaims in the record’s opening minutes. It shows.
TYLER’S 5 FAVORITE MILWAUKEE RECORDS OF 2021
Avenues – We’re All Doomed
Believe it or not, there was a six-year gap between Avenues releases. After putting out its Creep Show EP in 2015, the veteran Milwaukee punk quartet had an ill-fated attempt to record at Atlas Studios in Chicago (which was shortened when the band’s drummer had to undergo a serious medical procedure) before regrouping a year later at Exchange Recording Complex to finish the album…just in time for the COVID crisis and vinyl delays to push the album’s release date back almost another entire year. Thankfully, the long-awaited record—We’re All Doomed—finally saw the light of day last month and it does’’t disappoint in the slightest. Over the span of 11 tracks, Avenues unleash a torrent of brash Brew City skate punk complete with blistering guitars, snarling vocals, and standout singles like “Lights Out” and “Devious” that showcase the long-running band at its best yet.
Buffalo Nichols – Buffalo Nichols
Formerly one half of Nickel&Rose, Milwaukee native Carl Nichols has struck out on his own and has quickly made a name for himself as Buffalo Nichols. Nichols’ solo endeavor, which has spent much of the year touring the country and sharing the stage with heavy hitters like Drive By Truckers, released a self-titled debut record on Fat Possum Records in October. The legendary label’s first blues release in decades soars by way of Nichols’ virtuosic guitar talent, his velvety voice, and his poignant songwriting perspective in contemplative numbers like “Lost & Lonesome” and album standout “Another Man,” an examination of race in America that’s equally powerful and heartbreaking.
Fox Face – End Of Man
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 sophomore album that exceeds expectations with 12 tracks 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).
Telethon – Swim Out Past The Breakers
Telethon has the unique ability to craft interesting, fun, and palatable material that touches on the decidedly less enjoyable aspects of life. And as existence continues to become markedly worse and more confusing by the day, the Milwaukee/Chicago-based “Hard Pop” band only seems to be getting better with each new release. The band’s latest, Swim Out Past The Breakers, poignantly addresses our ongoing societal decline and the world’s growing indifference with 16 disproportionately lively and upbeat offerings, including stunners like “Selfstarter A.E.” and “Positively Clark Street.” The record finds Telethon’s musicianship and singer Kevin Tully’s lyrical acumen each hitting their stride like never before.
Versio Curs – Quit
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. Until earlier this year, that unsavory honor went 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.
MATT’S 5 FAVORITE MILWAUKEE EPs OF 2021
Bicentennial Drug Lord – BDL
Milwaukee supergroup side project Bicentennial Drug Lord released its first album, The First Hit Is Free, in 1997. Twenty-four years later (!), the group released a self-titled follow-up. Incredibly, the wait was worth it: Opener “Summer’s Coming Down” is a hazy wash of jangly guitars, “The Pulse Of My Friends” is a nostalgic head-nodder, and “Confessed The Sheets” mines a heart-pounding Jesus And Mary Chain vibe. “The Traffic Outside,” meanwhile, eases into starry-eyed country territory to terrific effect. All six tracks on BDL feel like old childhood friends lost to time (20 years or so, perhaps), now rediscovered and re-embraced in the comfort of adulthood.
Caley Conway – Bliss Or Bust
With 2021’s Bliss Or Bust, Caley Conway gifted the world with three of her best songs to date. World-weary opener “I Love You So Much I Don’t Want To See You” is a hazy, perfectly titled ode to letting someone down easy. The title track is a shuffling and heavy-lidded meditation on love, highlighted by some choice lyrics (“I’m on nightmares and all a-jitter at the job / I get home, get loaded and drift off”). “Path Of The Sun” closes things out with a dreamy exploration of Conway’s “frustration at being a people-pleaser in perpetual fear of letting others down.” All throughout, Conway’s exquisite voice paired with James Paul Mitchell’s top-shelf instrumentation put Bliss Or Bust decidedly in the “bliss” column.
Ladybird – Introducing…
Ladybird is the latest project fronted by Milwaukee musician Pete McDermott. Under his previous Pete Freeman moniker, McDermott was best known for his excellent 2020 album Meat & Potatoes, as well as a tongue-in-cheek song about Milwaukee Brewers superfan Front Row Amy. With Ladybird’s Introducing…, however, McDermott (joined by Scott Parker, Sam Szymborski, and Aidan Gouran) serves up four gorgeously sincere country-rock tunes that go down as easy as two (or five) cans of PBR. “Zoomer” is full of images of barreling down two lanes of open road and laughing with friends at a bar, while “Miracle” boasts a lovely refrain in “A dream’s a special thing if you’ve got one.”
Mudy – Ticket
Milwaukee rapper Mudy (pronounced “moody”) has been building up local buzz since 2019. She’s released a handful of singles and EPs in the last few years, only to pull some of those tracks at a later date. The work that remains is fantastic, however, especially the recent Ticket EP. Over the course of four beautifully laid-back and jazzy tracks, Mudy makes her presence known (“Big”), bares her soul (“Broken”), looks for love (“Real One”), and revels in her success (“Fast Life”). Coupled with another EP released in 2021, Land, Mudy’s Ticket is a calm and cohesive calling card for a fantastic Milwaukee artist.
Weird Storm – Alone On Meat Beach
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. Happily, Weird Storm released the five-track Alone On Meat Beach in 2021, and it’s great. 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 5 FAVORITE MILWAUKEE EPs OF 2021
Guerrilla Ghost – The Trumaine EP
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 the duo’s We Get What We Deserve, with others making their debut on this semi-conceptual collection. The Trumaine EP impressively combines Tron Jovi’s raw and ominous production with Bad Graphics Ghost’s emotional delivery of personal lyrics in seven impressive songs that just so happen to be named after an accomplished actor.
Nile – Free Lunch
On last year’s version of our “Favorite Milwaukee music” list, we featured an up-and-coming young rapper named Nile—a.k.a. NilexNile on streaming platforms—and noted his growth between releases as well as his smooth, dynamic lyricism and his prowess as a producer. That artistic evolution continued into 2021, as Nile’s Free Lunch mixtape displays the rapper confidently breaking new creative ground in eight exceptional songs, including collaborations with Milwaukee mainstays like Lafond (“Free Lunch”) and WebsterX (“Know Soo”).
Rx Drugs – Broken By Design
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—returned in 2021 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.
Von Alexander – Hemispheres
This past spring, mere months after 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 put out in 2021.
Vincent Van Great and Amanda Huff – Troublemakers
This unexpected collaborative EP between two of Milwaukee’s busiest and most versatile musicians finds Vincent Van Great setting aside his hip-hop chops and, instead, showcasing his smooth singing voice, top-notch songwriting skills, and his flare for production in other genres. Along with his contributions, Amanda Huff offers velvety vocals that elevate the ambitious release to untold levels. The pair each brings their own artistic acumen to Troublemakers, but over the course of seven tracks and 21 minutes, they manage to find common ground that allows them to make beautiful music together. This isn’t just the pairing we never knew we needed, it’s also one of the best releases in Milwaukee music this year.
MATT’S 5 FAVORITE MILWAUKEE SONGS OF 2021
Diet Lite – “Queen”
Diet Lite‘s Seems To Be The Way It Tends To Go is a 10-song master class in hooky indie rock flecked with punk and jam-band tendencies. Of those 10 songs, “Queen” stands out as a perfect synthesis of those influences, a head-bopping two-minute gem that deserves a spot on any and all summer playlists.
Indonesian Junk – “Type Of A Girl”
The glam-rock stalwarts in Indonesian Junk couldn’t have titled their 2021 album any better: Living In A Nightmare. They couldn’t have opened the record any better, either: “Type Of A Girl” is the type of a song that instantly lodges itself in your head and refuses to leave. If we have to live in hell (and we must, apparently), at least we can enjoy a terrific soundtrack.
The LOL – “Laguna”
Lauryl Sulfate + Her Ladies Of Leisure pared down their name to The LOL in 2021; with “Laguna,” they also spiked their glittery dance-pop sound with an ’80s-tinged synth vibe. It’s a welcome, heady mix.
Lady Cannon – “Steal Your Girl”
Not content with releasing an excellent album with L’Resorts in 2021, Martha Cannon also released an excellent solo single under her Lady Cannon moniker. “Steal Your Girl” may be a far cry from the Americana sound of previous Lady Cannon tunes (opting instead for a more woozy and sun-kissed vibe), but it does contain Cannon’s trademark vocals and cut-the-bullshit lyrics.
Murphy Kaye – “Joyride”
Murphy Kaye‘s “Joyride” builds from a simple pulse of guitar and bass into an achingly gorgeous wash of drums and synth and multi-layered vocals. It’s another stunner from Kaye (check out last year’s “Headlong”), who first entered the local scene as lead singer of the indie-pop band ah-ko. After releasing several solo songs under the name Wanderslut, Kaye landed on her current, more radio-friendly moniker in 2020.
TYLER’S 5 FAVORITE MILWAUKEE SONGS OF 2021
B~Free – “Hate 2 Luv U”
Dinner Set Gang – Jellyfish
Garden Home – Ghost
Jabril Yousef – “Boxes”
Slamhaus – “Mesmerized”
MATT’S FAVORITE MILWAUKEE COVER OF A MILWAUKEE SONG OF 2021
Ope – “Is This Thing On?”
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
Trixie Mattel – “Blister In The Sun”
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, had a Mattel-produced doll made in her honor, 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 goodwill 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.”
MATT’S FAVORITE RELEASE BY A MILWAUKEE BAND NO LONGER BASED IN MILWAUKEE OF 2021
Big Mother Gig – Gusto
A fixture of the ’90s Milwaukee music scene, the now Los Angeles-based Big Mother Gig reunited in 2017. The band’s second post-reunion LP, Gusto, is described as a “recovery record,” and it 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 transcends decades.
TYLER’S FAVORITE NEW ALBUM BY A MILWAUKEE BAND THAT BROKE UP MORE THAN 20 YEARS AGO BUT REUNITED DURING THE PANDEMIC OF 2021
Camden – Skeleton Wedding, Wedding Music
While much of the world was isolated and relying on things like Zoom happy hours and FaceTime chats to stay in touch last year, the longtime friends and former bandmates in Camden—some of whom went on to play in The Promise Ring, Decibully, and Eric & Magill—reconnected and decided to remotely write and record a song together for the first time in more than two decades. Once “the floodgates were open,” new music started pouring out. So much new material came, in fact, that this long-disbanded quartet managed to finish an entire album worth of songs in early 2021. That collection of material can be heard on Skeleton Wedding, Wedding Music, Camden’s return album that employs many of the same instruments utilized on the first album. The unexpected follow-up’s 10 songs recapture the band’s original sound, but also brings in new influences while examining topics like “the solitude of lockdown, the fragility of life, death and love, with the burden of a middle age that romanticizes a past that never happened.”
MATT’S FAVORITE MILWAUKEE-MADE TOP GUN SOUNDTRACK TRIBUTE ALBUM OF 2021
Arctic Sleep & Friends – A Tribute To The TOP GUN Motion Picture Soundtrack
Arctic Sleep never does the obvious thing. For roughly 15 years, the Milwaukee atmospheric/progressive metal band has defied expectations with a slew of ambitious records, songs inspired by unicorn-themed comic books, and its own limited-edition coffee. And in 2021, Arctic Sleep (along with some guest vocalists) put together a quarantine-era tribute to the Top Gun soundtrack. “Danger Zone.” “Take My Breath Away.” “Playing With The Boys.” They’re all here. It rules.
TYLER’S FAVORITE RELEASE BY A DUNGEONS & DRAGONS-INSPIRED MILWAUKEE BAND OF 2021
Fight Dice – Roll For Initiative
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 COLLECTION OF FIELD RECORDINGS OF A MILWAUKEE MUSICIAN WORKING OUT AT PLANET FITNESS OF 2021
Peter J. Woods – Live From The No Judgement Zone: Mapping The Sonic Ecologies Of Southeastern Wisconsin’s Planet Fitness Locations
Good workouts, Peter J. Woods. Favorite track: “Milwaukee, East Capitol (1/30/2020): Elliptical, 4 Miles, 27:48, Level 14 Resistance, 430 Calories.”
TYLER’S FAVORITE MILWAUKEE RECORD HE JUST DISCOVERED WHILE PUTTING THIS LIST TOGETHER OF 2021
Snag – Death Doula
Sorry, everyone. It’s been a busy year directly following an absolutely terrifying year. I am but one man who is more overextended and internally beleaguered than anyone will ever know. So, yeah, I miss things. I overlook stuff. My apologies. Anyway, I just got around to listening to this record by Snag for the very first time mere hours before this article went live and, holy fucking shit, it’s just plain awesome.
MATT’S FAVORITE MILWAUKEE RECORD HE JUST DISCOVERED WHILE PUTTING THIS LIST TOGETHER OF 2021
Bug Moment – Bugs
I don’t know why I’ve continually slept on Bug Moment. I see the band’s name everywhere. The songs I’ve heard are great. The videos I’ve seen are great. But it wasn’t until putting this list together that I actually listened to Bug Moment’s excellent 2021 LP Bugs. What a fool I’ve been! This is great, beautiful stuff, a lovely mix of pastoral folk and hushed bedroom indie-pop. Plus, every track is named after a bug! (Shout-out to track 6, “Boxelder.”)
TYLER’S FAVORITE HOLIDAY SONG, MILWAUKEE OR OTHERWISE, OF 2021
Tyler Chicorel and Ashley Smith – “Give It All Away”
Last week, Tyler Chicorel, whom you might know from his work in Call Me Lightning, Space Raft, Whips, or from his amazing 2020 “Christmas At Home” holiday jam, may have outdone himself with another work of winter-y wonder. This time around, he called on a familiar friend to join him on the track as well. The new duet, “Give It All Away,” finds Chicorel collaborating with Ashley Smith of Whips and Red Knife Lottery notoriety. Over the span of four-and-a-half rollicking minutes, the bandmates trade off verses and join together on some lovely harmonies. Before song’s end, Santa himself even makes a cameo.
MATT’S FAVORITE HOLIDAY SONG, MILWAUKEE OR OTHERWISE, OF 2021
Tyler Chicorel and Ashley Smith – “Give It All Away”
Same. Like the song says, it’s been another hell of a year.
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