Do end-of-the-year lists matter? What purpose do they serve? Isn’t it all just subjective? Who knows, but there’s nothing more satisfying than immersing yourself in a year’s worth of terrific music, rediscovering past favorites and unearthing new gems. And goodness knows Milwaukee had plenty of terrific music to go around in 2016. For this year’s list, we once again stuck to records with five or more songs (well, mostly), and once again had a hell of a time figuring out what should go where. The results may not be perfect, but we believe these 25 albums are, quite simply, some of the very best Milwaukee music of the year. Dive in.
25. Sat. Nite Duets – Air Guitar
Nearly a decade into their career, Sat. Nite Duets are practically Milwaukee elder statesmen. And maybe they’re feeling it: On the endlessly delightful Air Guitar, songs like “The Last Beer Of My Music Career” and “Attached To The Lamp” play like transmissions from a band that’s been there, done that. “Maybe we could go back to Cleveland / And play for the sound guy and the other band / The opening act got picked up by his dad / It’s happened before, it’ll happen again” is funny, but the capper, “It’s happening right now,” takes the line to deliriously resigned heights. Happily, Sat. Nite Duets show no signs of slowing down, sound-guy-only shows be damned.
24. Vincent VanGREAT – UnGREATful
On Vincent VanGREAT’s UnGREATful, the longtime SAFS Crew producer calls on a star-studded cast (Dana Coppa, Blizz McFly, SPEAK Easy Klassik, Q The Sun, Yo-Dot, more) and runs them through a thrillingly eclectic set of upbeat and nimble hip-hop. “This Is GREAT Music” is a bright and sparkling intro that’s impossible not to love, “Now You Know” and “On The Floor” are cool-as-ice head-nodders, “Hands Up” and “Cold Ones” score big on the party-anthem vibe, and “Radical” is an angry and bombastic call-to-arms. Lines like “White or black we gotta fight / No matter the skin we gotta fight for what’s right” have never sounded so vital.
23. Honeymooners – Night Beach
If you’re familiar with the music of Phil Elverum (Mount Eerie, The Microphones), you’ll have at least a frame of reference for what Eli Smith is up to with Honeymooners. The project’s debut full-length touches a similar nerve with its mixture of dry musings, sparse ambience, and cacophony. Interspersed among the more conventional songs are bouts of found sound, noise, and blurry atmospherics, all of which adds up to a dynamic, poetic narrative even disregarding the words. There’s a broad sonic spectrum from digital gadgetry to folky organics, recalling the modern tribalism of early Animal Collective or Grizzly Bear on tracks like “campfire” and “night beach,” an atmosphere enhanced by Smith’s lyrical reflections on the tenuous connection between humans and the natural world.
22. Mike Regal – Premonitions
Mike Regal’s Premonitions opens with a skit, “Tales From The Strip,” that includes Milwaukee news coverage of yet another deadly shooting in the city. It’s a bracing and in-your-face introduction to an album that doesn’t shy away from the frustrations many Milwaukeeans (and Americans) face today. Best known for providing beats to just about every hip-hop act in the 414 area code, Regal takes center stage on Premonitions. “One Way” and “Business Man” are highlights that put Regal’s formidable flow front and center, while the killer “3005” goes hard and heavy before breaking for some thoughts from Charles Manson, of all people. “Eyes on the throne, I don’t see a challenge” Regal raps on “One Way.” It’s easy to believe him.
21. Midwest Death Rattle – Post-Apocalypso
Following more than a three-year gap from the release of its 2013 self-titled debut (and a staggering downtick in live outings soon thereafter), Midwest Death Rattle emerged from the studio this year older, wiser, improved, and, well…different with Post-Apocalypso. The long delay yielded a mature quasi-concept record with the tight and theatrical sound Milwaukee has come to know and appreciate from the indie rockers. Only this time, the material comes with a dark and faintly Latin twist, as the record’s name suggests. Apocalyptic overtures aside, there are some lively stops along the way, including Song Of The Year candidate “Tacoma Narrows.”
20. l u x i – astral memories (p a r a d i s e)
The prolific l u x i (Alexandre Maxine Hill) has branched out into plenty of pop and electronic offshoots over the course of at least eight albums and numerous singles and videos. Her latest LP, astral memories (p a r a d i s e), reins in her experimental tendencies in favor of a single-minded, minimalistic approach. Grimes is an obvious touchstone for Hill’s haunting, sparse beats and melodies, and her heavily treated vocals suggest the cryptic influence of vaporwave, although her lyrics are personal rather than satirical. Can slow, hypnotic synth-pop still be considered dance music? Why not.
19. Hot Coffin – Hot Coffin
No band on this list (or in the city in general) saw a more noticeable change in sound between its first and second records than Hot Coffin. Since 2013’s LAW, the outfit added former Disguised As Birds frontman Chris Chuzles and ex-Since By Man drummer Jon Kraft to the mix, with excellent results. The band’s new singer brazenly leads the eight-song onslaught with his gravely roar—best implemented on “Whistle, Hawk, & Spit” and “Hammer Throw”—that pairs perfectly with the punishing meat-and-potatoes rock instrumentation doled out by Kraft and Coffin’s remaining core.
18. Antler House – Across The Waves
In the spring of 2014, Milwaukee was formally introduced to Antler House by way of Through The Dirt, a 12-pack of tragic, beyond-its-years compositions. Two years later, the indie-folk trio returned with Across The Waves, a seven-song salvo of sadness, raw expression—there’s a song about failing to nurse a baby rabbit back to health—and stormy atmospherics that occasionally push songs past the seven-minute mark. The follow-up showcases the largely-unheralded act’s improved musicianship, singer Sean Anderson’s lyrical maturation, and Antler House’s immense growth during two years of relative seclusion.
17. Northless – Cold Migration
We’re still anxious as hell for a proper follow-up to 2013’s massive World Keeps Sinking, but in the meantime, Northless has kept the home fires burning with a smattering of shorter releases. Chief among them: Cold Migration, a cinematic 24-minute EP whose title track is probably the closest thing yet to a Northless ballad. Those clean vocals are buried under glaciers of Neurosis-caliber riffage, but they’re in there! Don’t skip the band’s split with Primitive Man, either. “The 10,000 Year Wound” is a punishing blast of progressive hardcore, while the other two tracks are more traditional Northless plodding sludge, albeit with some striking guitar melodies. All in all, the more Northless has pushed the boundaries of its sound, the better the songs themselves have gotten.
16. AUTOMatic – Marathon
AUTOMatic’s APRIME and Trellmatic have been fixtures of Milwaukee hip-hop since 2007, releasing three full-length albums, a handful of EPs and mixtapes, and the occasional solo offshoot. Marathon is AUTOMatic’s first LP since 2012’s Art Imitates Life; happily, the four-year hiatus hasn’t dulled the group’s focus. “This is AUTOMatic in its purest form / Crystalized, rhyme-spitting,” raps APRIME on mission statement “Pure AUTOMatic,” dubbing the duo’s work “soundtrack of the last-of-the-dying-breed music.” From there, it’s a cascade of insanely catchy and lushly produced jazz- and R&B-inflected tracks that never waver in their optimism.
15. Heat Death – 9 Steps To A Happier Life
This nine-pack of nihilistic numbers finds bandleader Ken Sabbar (The Violet Hour, Dawn Of Man) examining decidedly unhappy aspects of existence with lyrics about loneliness, being trapped in the drudgery of work or domestic life, and the cruelty of modern dating. The dour effort unfurls at a post-punk pace, with a generous helping of synth to help warm up one of the coldest, bleakest, and best releases Milwaukee has seen this year.
14. Scallops Hotel – Too Much Of Life Is Mood
Rory Ferreira (a.k.a. milo, as well as Scallops Hotel) pulled an Old Earth with his latest full-length: a single 40-plus-minute track that you can’t quite separate satisfactorily into individual songs. It’s an intentional tactic to get you to listen to the album as a whole, and the initially cassette-only release eventually appeared in digital form on Bandcamp a few months after its unveiling. Scallops Hotel has always showcased Ferreira’s less formal side, and this rambling, eclectic piece is his most overtly weird and psychedelic work yet. Too Much Of Life Is Mood is far more acidic than Acid Rap, in whichever sense you prefer.
13. B~Free – Ode 2 A Luv Affair
You’d never know it from listening to Ode 2 A Luv Affair, but it’s the work of an artist who completely lost her voice due to a traumatic throat infection, and had to build herself back into a singer from ground zero following vocal cord surgery. B~Free (Britney Freeman) makes it sound like a breeze on this sophomore release. It’s an album whose concept is obvious from its title, but several of the songs can be heard as laments either about a lost love or a lost voice. Freeman produced the album and performed nearly every note of the music herself, and it’s impressive though understated; the lyrics and beautiful vocal arrangements are really the driving force throughout. Fans of ’90s and early 2000s R&B will get a charge of nostalgia, or else a sense that those elements are timeless.
12. The Pukes – The Revenge Of The Pukes
Doesn’t it seem like The Pukes have been a band forever? Amazingly, the accomplished horror-punk trio was first thrown up on stage in spring of last year, and had only managed a self-titled demo and a two-song 45 prior to this summer. The band’s curiously named debut, The Revenge Of The Pukes, sounds like a surf-rock band’s take on the Misfits, with peppy songs like “Murder” and “Execution” softened by Jules Frank’s grated voice sneering catchy melodies.
11. IshDARR – Broken Hearts & Bankrolls
There’s little question that Milwaukee’s biggest breakout artist of the last few years is IshDARR. Millions of streams, world tours, and high-profile fashion gigs have become the norm for the 20-year-old (!) rapper, perhaps making him the biggest thing to come out of town in decades. On Broken Hearts & Bankrolls—the follow-up to 2015’s Old Soul Young Spirit—IshDARR lives up to the hype with a collection of sly, devil-may-care hip-hop that sounds thrillingly of-the-moment while remaining undeniably distinctive. Song like the unstoppable “Sugar” and “Locals” should be heard by millions; luckily for IshDARR, they are.