10. Space Raft – Rubicon
As long as there are late-afternoon summer cookouts in need of soundtracks, Space Raft will be in business. Rubicon, the band’s follow-up to its ridiculously great self-titled 2014 debut, finds frontman Jordan Davis and company effortlessly mixing retro-minded psych-rock with just the right amounts of stoner seriousness and pop panache. Opener “Borrowed Time” is every triumphant and beer-buzzed night out somehow put to music and distilled into four minutes, while the hazy and blissed-out “Vacation” floats along at just the right clip. Rubicon doesn’t reinvent the Space Raft wheel so much as polish and refine it, but there are still plenty of surprises to be had: the irresistible power-pop joy of “Hang On Hang On,” the instrumental freak-out of “Disconnection Notice,” and the sweeping social justice howl of “Red Arrow.”
9. Jon Mueller – Tongues
Following Jon Mueller’s career arc can be mystifying. The only thing all of his various musical projects seem to have in common is that they feature, at some point or other, at least one drum. Since the ostensible conclusion of his multi-disciplinary Death Blues project last year, Mueller has released two solo albums which defy categorization; on the most recent, Tongues, he continues to explore the effects of layering wordless chants and phrases on top of each other until the wall of sound almost feels like a physical entity. However, side A in particular (“How You Look When You’re Not Looking”) is rooted in distinct, primordial melodies, lending a meditative structure to what might otherwise come across as chaos. This isn’t mass-consumption music by any stretch, but it might be Mueller’s most infectious experiment yet for listeners who can surrender to the flow of it.
8. Rx Drugs – Future Friction
Just as The Championship was truly hitting its stride with its latest and saddest record, High Feather, in 2012, the decade-old folk outfit started lumbering to an indefinite halt. Fortunately, The Championship’s hiatus made room for another project. Singer Joe Crockett resurfaced this summer with an album’s worth of somber numbers he recorded and self-released under the name Rx Drugs. Boasting a backing band with ties to Dashboard Confessional, Trapper Schoepp And The Shades, and Hugh Bob And The Hustle, Crockett and company managed a dreary and devastating continuation of High Feather in the form of Drugs’ impressive debut, Future Friction. The bandleader’s velvety voice carries mourning, self-reflective, and wistful lyrics that meld with smooth, delicate instrumentation to forge something sorrowful and special.
7. Appleseeds – Lungfish
Way back in May 2015, Appleseeds singer Fly Steffens embarked on a journey that found her hiking part of the Appalachian Trail and spending time in New York and Massachusetts before regrouping in Stevens Point, then biking to Washington D.C.—where she staged a play she wrote. Prior to that six-month sojourn, Steffens and the rest of Appleseeds recorded Lungfish in a Bay View warehouse. Last month, the punk quartet’s record finally saw the light of day with nary a release show and barely even an announcement to mark its arrival. Those who happened upon Lungfish were privy to a lo-fi micro-masterpiece that doles out frenzied, fuzzed-out guitar licks and Steffens’ commanding and incomparable vocals in one- to three-minute analog-recorded chunks. By the time “2 4 10” ends, the latest and greatest from Appleseeds will be planted both in your head and on your playlist for the long haul.
6. Soul Low – Nosebleeds
It’s not every band that opens its long-awaited sophomore album with a six-minute-plus, all-over-the-map epic called “Frenemies.” But not every band is Soul Low. “Sweet and sardonic” is the order of the day on the group’s front-to-back-excellent follow-up to 2013’s UNEASY LP, with songs like the twisty “Tied In Knots” (“You look so good online / But in life you will die”), the hypnotic “Finger Bones” (“I’ve got nothing to say to you / And you to me”), and the jazz-ified “Ritalin Kids” (“It’s the return of the Ritalin kids / With no remorse for whatever they did”). Nosebleeds offers up high-energy indie-rock pop nuggets galore, but there’s more on its mind than just radio-friendly hits: closer “Hard To Gage” is a shape-shifting goof of a song (dig the line about touching one’s “weenie”), while album highlight “Let The Wind Blow” is a sad, haunting, and awe-inspiring story-song that needs to be heard to be believed. On these tracks and more, Soul Low operates on a whole new wavelength, reaching nosebleed-worthy heights few bands ever approach.
5. bliss & alice – Mama Tried
Who said, “You have your whole life to write your first album, and six months to write your second?” (Wrong! It was Abraham Lincoln.) It’s safe to say bliss & alice set the bar high with his remarkable 2014 debut mixtape, Poetry Volume One – The Shit Talker Tape, and to his credit, he doesn’t attempt to recreate that same rapid-fire highwire vocal act. For one thing, Mama Tried features beats tailor-made for bliss’s words; the songs are symbiotic pieces. The new album also doesn’t feature a whole lot of shit-talking. The pathos, however, remains, and the atmosphere that bliss creates with words fits eerily with the morose, groggy beats. Mama Tried certainly feels more urgent than Poetry, but also more thoughtfully crafted. It’s more wisdom in fewer words, and it doesn’t sacrifice the warped humor, either. Bliss has a unique knack for musing on death from every possible angle, and there’s a potent potential for healing in his words.
4. Gauss – Thalweg
Evolution is supposed to be a slow process, which means Gauss must be the exception that proves the rule. Over the course of three years, the band has developed rapidly from noise-punk through atmospheric post-rock into a violin-and-horn-infused, progressive…something-or-other. Maybe we could’ve anticipated the spastic math-y explosions of “Deeper Than Blue” and the propulsive post-emo of “Stumbling Block” and “The Flicker People,” but how about the funky, keyboard-driven groove of “Stakes Are The Same”? How about the jazzy haze of “Epicenter Of Anomaly”? The soothing, bass-and-brass drone of “Relinquish The Reins”? Did anybody see this coming? Would anyone hazard a guess as to what Gauss’s next release will sound like? Space won’t permit extolment of Thalweg‘s myriad virtues; Gauss covers so much ground so dizzyingly that 21 minutes feels like an epic LP.
3. Direct Hit! – Wasted Mind
There’s a reason why most bands don’t make concept albums. It’s really fucking hard. But in 2013, Direct Hit! did just that when it released its glorious and gory apocalyptic record Brainless God, which served to set the band apart from its pop-punk brethren and garner mainstream attention in the process. With the inherent pressure that comes with chasing a well-received concept album with another (especially as part of a one-record deal with Fat Wreck Chords), Wasted Mind not only meets expectations, it exceeds them. This time around, the record’s theme centers on a protagonist who embarks on a drug trip complete with hallucinations, paranoia, and confusion. Musically, Wasted Mind is Direct Hit!’s most focused release yet. With horns, a wall of guitars, and periodic doo-wop harmonies, the record finds the band exploring sonic crevices never visited in previous releases, and enlisting guest accompaniment from members of Something To Do and The Hold Steady. Direct Hit! could go down as “that one band that used to be on Fat,” but with Wasted Mind, it seems like only greater things are in store.
2. Lorde Fredd33 – Dead Man’s View
The prolific local collective known as New Age Narcissism has been stingy with full albums thus far, but Lorde Fredd33 continues to be the group’s leading light in terms of recordings. Arguably Milwaukee’s most distinctive rapper, Fredd33 is more interested in creating a mood than showing off verbally, and he taps into primal and meditative mindsets amidst mocking chuckles and delirious boasting. Even at his most abstruse, Fredd33 exudes an almost nihilistic calm—except when he’s being belligerently maniacal, which is as much fun as it is disorienting. Dead Man’s View is just as much producer Q The Sun’s show, although his atmospheric beats often function primarily as sonic spotlights. The actual music is generally bleary and spectral, but on certain tracks, particularly the infectious “Trap Jazz” (featuring a magnetic guest appearance by Busdriver), Q overtakes the song by the end, making you wonder what you’ve been failing to notice all along. Even in a year overflowing with great local rap albums, Dead Man’s View is easily the most singular and memorable one.
1. NO/NO – Sound And Light
It’s only fitting that the best Milwaukee album of the year should feature the best Milwaukee song of the year. On “Whatever,” the stunning closer to NO/NO’s stunning Sound And Light, singer-keyboardist Cat Ries presides over a transcendent, triumphant, and gloriously widescreen electro wash that plays more like a prayer than a song. It’s both aching and vulnerable (“I want to call you up / But I don’t know what I would say”) and defiant and unapologetic (“I’m cool with these battle scars”). Elsewhere, opener “Waiting For Something To Happen” sets the stage with back-and-forth vocals from Ries and singer-guitarist Harrison Colby, “Dark Side” scores big on a bittersweet chorus, “Television” goes hard on the goth-gloom dance club vibe, and “Two-Lane Blacktop” doubles down on everything to produce a bleary-eyed tribute to life on the road. Sound And Light is a cool, sexy, and hook-heavy triumph, bursting at the seams with a sense of longing, strength, and delirious danger. The title of “Whatever” sounds indifferent; everything NO/NO does here is anything but.