In the post-everything world of 2017, there’s probably little distinction left between “albums” and “EPs.” And yet distinguish we do, dedicating our annual 25 best Milwaukee albums list to releases with five or more songs (well, mostly). But damn, that leaves out a lot of great music. Here’s some of it.
Chris DeMay – DEBTS
The once-mighty Juniper Tar disbanded in 2013 when singer-guitarist Jason Mohr moved out of town, leaving Milwaukee down one of its finest bands. Happily, another JTar member, longtime Milwaukee troubadour Chris DeMay, resurfaced in 2017 with some new music. The three-song DEBTS is a sparse, moody EP of old wounds, old regrets, and, yes, old debts. Both “Last Nickels, Last Dimes” and “Mutineer” feature nothing but DeMay and a piano—his voice strong and piercing, with shades of The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn (in a good way). “There’s a hole in me / Where you used to be” sings DeMay along with guest Lisa Ridgely on the opening title track. It’s that kind of simple, direct, and wounded sentiment that makes DeMay such a warm and intimate musical presence, and makes DEBTS pay off.
Direct Hit! – Human Movement
After touring extensively in support of the band’s critically acclaimed Fat Wreck Chords debut last year, Direct Hit! earned a break in 2017. It appears nobody told Direct Hit! that. Following the release of Wasted Mind–a trippy concept album we dubbed the third best Milwaukee album of 2016–the ambitious pop-punk project put out a Record Store Day seven-inch in association with WMSE in April and re-issued 2011’s great Domesplitter on Fat Wreck that same month. As if that wasn’t enough, Direct Hit! also contributed six new songs to Human Movement, a 12-song split with Louisiana-based labelmates and tour fruit experts PEARS. The Milwaukee-made half of the album features three full-fledged hardcore songs that each make their point in under two minute’s time. “Blood On Your Tongue” and “Open Your Mind” counter those coarse compositions with undeniable hooks and synth-y backing that shows the busy band can still touch new creative territory with each release. Oh, and Direct Hit! is already recording another album for 2018.
GGOOLLDD – Teeth
Speaking of local acts who’ve enjoyed productive years both within and outside city limits, GGOOLLDD’s last 12 months have been packed with festivals, U.S. and Canadian shows, writing, recording, and feeding into a building buzz that seems to be nearing its breaking point. Somewhere between all the shows and mileage racked up between impressive opening slots, the Milwaukee-born (currently nomadic) indie-pop project managed to put out an EP. Teeth touts five catchy and layered offerings that find singer Margaret Butler and company hitting their stride with what could arguably be considered the group’s best material yet, at least on a song-by-song basis. From the atmospheric ease of “Undercovers” to the sleek rhythmic bounce of “Secrets” and the enticing distorted haze of “The Way That I Feel,” GGOOLLDD’s sound splays in a number of different directions over the course of Teeth‘s 20-minute run. As different as each song sounds, each will stick with you and will beg to be heard again and again.
Mike Regal – Perfectly Ultimate
Does Mike Regal really need a heat check at this point? Coming off of 2016’s excellent Premonitions, it would seem the Milwaukee rapper could take some time off and bask in his success. But here he is in “Heat Check,” the opening track to the six-song Perfectly Ultimate, proving himself all over again (and dropping some NBA Jam samples along the way). “I see it before it happens / Do it big, don’t break a sweat / Pulling up on them from half court / Wrist hanging, nothing but the net / It’s a heat check.” Elsewhere, Regal makes further moves with “Hunnits,” gets some help from AR Wesley and Rahn Harper on the dance-floor anthem “Hands Up,” lays out his vision on “Twenty/20,” and takes no shit on “Dark Black” (“This black face ain’t no paint / It’s permanent”). Perfectly Ultimate is nothing but net.
Negative/Positive – Dried Spaghetti
Let’s take a moment to recognize that the members of one of Milwaukee’s busiest bands, Negative/Positive, are barely in their teens. Formed at the first Girls Rock camp in 2013, Negative/Positive spent much of 2017 playing oodles of gigs and festivals (just like they did in 2016), as well as releasing a terrific three-song EP, Dried Spaghetti. The record represents a noticeable jump in musicianship from last year’s Lumanescent (dig the twisting four-minute title track), with bassist Lola Flores and drummer Ava Antonie coming into their own as a rhythm section, and singer/guitarist Ava Gessner proving to be a frightfully assured vocalist and songwriter. With Dried Spaghetti, Negative/Positive prove they’re anything but a novelty—they’re three young girls working hard at their craft, preparing us for the future of Milwaukee music.
Nickel & Rose – Oh Sweet Love
Nickel & Rose, a folk duo made up of guitarist Carl Nichols (Painted Caves, RAS Movement) and upright bass player Johanna Rose (New Boyz Club, Ruth B8r Ginsburg, Thistledown Thunders), spent late 2016 and early 2017 traversing Europe as part of an international sojourn that brought the couple overseas for four months. While there, they played dozens of shows in France, Germany, Romania, Poland, and Ukraine, with stops in Amsterdam and Prague as well. They also recorded an EP during an extended stay in Berlin. That release, Oh Sweet Love, is a sweet-sounding auditory souvenir of Nichols’ and Rose’s European journey and a recorded testament the two-piece’s ability to turn tough times into something vibrant with a little help from a traveling companion.
NO/NO – Twentysomethings
The evolution of Milwaukee’s NO/NO has been a thing to behold. With roots in the lo-fi new wave group The Delphines, the bigger and better NO/NO has quickly morphed into a full-on synth-pop force. That transformation culminated in last year’s endlessly gorgeous Sound And Light, a.k.a. the best Milwaukee album of 2016. The group doubled down on its synth-dappled sound in 2017, bringing in an outside producer for the first time (Dashcam) and releasing the winning Twentysomethings. According to the band, the EP’s five tracks “play on the idea of communication, or lack thereof, in 2017: social media, cellphones, dating apps, etc.” Getting wasted, partying, texting, and FOMO all make lyrical appearances, too. “Take Out” is an instantly catchy single, and pairs perfectly with the glistening title track, the pleading “SMS,” and the delirious “GPS.” Technology-addled alienation never sounded so good.
Rocket Paloma – Rocket Paloma
“I will make my mark and I won’t retreat / Not even if I’m blown to pieces.” So growls Rocket Paloma singer Joanna (Joey) Kerner on “Charlie Foxtrot,” the red-blooded opener to her group’s self-titled debut EP. Kerner began Rocket Paloma as a solo act soon after taking a composition class at Cardinal Stritch, using her self-described “choir geek” tendencies to craft a charming-but-tentative acoustic singer-songwriter EP. But as Kerner’s sound developed, so did her ambitions, and Rocket Paloma casts the newly minted four-piece a full-fledged rock concern. “Zig Zag” ditches its acoustic ditty origins and becomes a driving rocker, “Rx And Shine” gets as jagged and jittery as its title, and the sprawling and manic “Critic’s Choice” shows off Kerner’s gifts as both a songwriter and a take-no-shit classic rock vocalist. It all adds up to a brief-but-fiery ride, and a countdown of things hopefully to come.
Static Eyes – The Thaw
After years of relative inactivity, Static Eyes turned in an especially prolific 2017 with a steady stream of shows and a pair of releases. If packaged together, the nine songs on Traps and The Thaw would’ve surely earned a respectable ranking on our best albums list. Separately, the latter–a seven-inch that spans three songs–is all killer, as singer Lee Olson’s brash snarl leads the charge on the unholy trinity of grimy and energetic instrumentation (compliments of three musicians who are also in Fox Face). Together, the trio accounts for the best top-to-bottom release in the veteran garage band’s arsenal. Think we’re exaggerating? Listen to “Blood Moon” and get back to us.
Twin Brother – Alone In Austin
Following a fruitful 2014 in which Twin Brother released its emotive coming of age record, Swallow The Anchor, the band that began as a folk trio started to move in a different direction. After original drummer Tyler Nelson departed in 2015, frontman Sean Raasch says he flew to Austin alone and spent a few weeks there writing “a few albums worth of material that was heavily inspired by the area he was in”—both geographically and emotionally. He returned to Milwaukee with a chest of new material, along with new ideas of where he wanted to take Twin Brother. The stripped-down trio expanded to a six-piece for Alone In Austin, a full-fledged re-imagining of the songs Raasch wrote in Texas and Twin Brother’s best work yet. Sadly, the four-song EP will be the band’s final release.