Does a year-end best-of list really need an introduction? No, no it does not. So, without further ado, here it is, Milwaukee Record‘s list of the 25 best Milwaukee albums (featuring six tracks or more) of 2019. Enjoy.
25. Joseph Huber – Moondog
In 2014, so-called “solitary craftsman” Joseph Huber went it alone on The Hanging Road, the former .357 String Band member’s third solo record and one in which he played every instrument. In the years since, the respected roots singer-songwriter scaled back his self-sufficiency a little. For his latest effort, Moondog, Huber went against his predominately minimalist writing method, bringing in Ryan Knudson to provide pedal steel accompaniment, as well as recorded assistance on fiddle and upright bass from Jason Loveall and Eston Bennett. Huber’s fifth album—which he recorded, produced, and arranged himself—finds the versatile singer-songwriter covering a wide variety of stylistic terrain over the course of Moondog‘s 15-song, 70-plus-minute runtime. The veteran songwriter ably alternates from rollicking and triumphant on standout tracks like “When The Waters Were One” and “Centerline” to emotional and introspective on “Where You Said You Would Be” and the record’s nine-minute penultimate offering, “The Wild Swans At Coole.” Huber has been releasing remarkable albums for some time, but Moondog might be the best illustration of his musical range and lyrical depth.
24. CRLSS – Heroine Swoon
Ryan King has been relatively outspoken about his personal struggles with addiction; his latest album as CRLSS, Heroine Swoon, continues along the lines of last year’s Heartstrings, exploring similar dark, glitchy electronic territory steeped in themes of recovery. His heavily treated vocals occasionally crack through with snatches of discernible words; “Mimpathy” showcases how effective a singer he can be when he wants to, evoking a somewhat more morose Liars vibe. There are shades of shoegaze, industrial, and even melodic pop on the album, although it never breaks through the haze into anything resembling joy. King has spoken of his music as necessary self-help; therein lies the positivity.
23. Trapper Schoepp – Primetime Illusion
Classic rock is becoming more “classic” by the year, with many of the genre’s stalwarts slowly fading away or disappearing altogether. Not that Trapper Schoepp seems fazed. On the hard-working Milwaukee musician’s third studio album, Primetime Illusion (produced by Wilco’s Pat Sansone), songs like the jangly “Shakedown,” the throat-shredding “Freight Train,” and the bouncy “If All My Nines Were X’s” sound like rowdy ’70s and ’80s bar-band anthems in the best way possible. Chalk it up to Schoepp’s impeccable, character-based songwriting—the record also contains quite possibly the most toe-tapping song about sexual assault and toxic masculinity ever recorded (“What You Do To Her”). Oh, and then there’s closer “On, Wisconsin,” a long-lost Bob Dylan song finished and recorded by Schoepp, and approved by the man himself.
22. IfIHadAHiFi – We’re Never Going Home
“Exploitation has become vocation / And I can’t snap out of this rut.” That’s among the opening lines of IfIHadAHiFi’s excellent We’re Never Going Home, an album that doubles as an indictment of a “weird-ass world where people reject science while working wage slave gigs and holing up at night, ranting at right-wing talk radio with the curtains drawn lest any truth get through,” and a personal, anxiety-ridden scream into the void. Nowhere is that duality better exemplified than on apocalyptic jam “Death Van.” (Chorus: “Death Van! / You’re riding in the Death Van!”) Recorded and mixed at Howl Street Recordings, We’re Never Going Home is a wonderfully noisy and chaotic affair (and the veteran band’s first new record in seven years), full of high-tension guitar playing, pissed-off drumming, and bursts of room-clearing shouting. Pile in and buckle up, because this is going to be a bumpy ride.
21. Platinum Boys – Raw Romance
In these troubled and tumultuous times, the city of Milwaukee—nay, the entire world—needs the Platinum Boys. The hard-rocking, hard-partying group has been a fixture of the local scene since 2013, preaching the virtues of, well, hard-rocking and hard-partying. Every time a can of High Life or PBR cracks open, the Platinum Boys will be there. Every time someone steps out in a cowboy hat and cutoff shorts, the Platinum Boys will approve. Every time your week needs a shot of good-natured mischief, the Platinum Boys will do their thing. And so it goes with Raw Romance, a speed- and weed-fueled barn-burner that alternates between manic highs (“Happens All The Time,” “Ain’t It Great? Ain’t It Crazy?”) and lighter-hoisting power ballads (the one-two punch of “I Will Get You High” and “Darlin”). The fact that the album was recorded during the Milwaukee Brewers’ run in the 2018 NLCS only adds to the fun.
20. Shroud Of Despondency – Befouled By The Sacred: Love Is A Callus
Rory Heikkila’s main musical project Shroud Of Despondency tends to go through periods of dormancy broken up by binges of manic creativity, and this latest streak finds him in the midst of a trio of albums, each in a totally different genre of music. The first installment in the Befouled By The Sacred series, Love Is A Callus, lands firmly in Shroud’s bread-and-butter—black metal—although it’s not going to win favor with purists. This may be Heikkila’s most progressive mixture of styles yet, and the result is one of the most impressive releases from the band’s 20-plus years of making music. Dynamic and forward-thinking, there’s no reason this album shouldn’t be part of a much larger conversation in the national metal scene aside from maybe a production tweak or two, but there’d be no sense in diluting such a powerful vision for the sake of sonic conformity.
19. Large Print – End Scenery
There’s something totally unique about the mood created in the interplay between Grace Mitchell’s deadpan vocals and the rest of Large Print’s subdued yet askew indie rock. Without ever getting loud, the band knows how to create palpable tension with minimal dissonance on tracks like “Chew,” “Chimney,” and “Thread,” but each of these songs is also beautiful in its way. End Scenery carries on in basically the same vein as last year’s debut, Strength VIII, but it plays almost like a single extended thought, as songs fade into one another with barely a pause, particularly the mini-suite of “Black Ice” and “Dirt Cheap” that closes the album with a sentiment that feels somehow both heartfelt and blasé.
18. Testa Rosa – IV
Continuing a steady every-four-years album streak, Testa Rosa’s fourth full-length racks up more career highlights for one of Milwaukee’s most consistent rock bands. There’s certainly a running theme of looking back, world-weariness but without pessimism; the singing and playing are more vigorous than ever, though. The shimmery jangle-pop of “Alice Anything” and “Play It As It Lays” hearken back to early-’90s R.E.M., owing in part to Shane Hochstetler’s dense, punchy production. Betty Blexrud-Strigens’ ghostly harmonies on “Herring Gull” work amazingly well over the band’s insistent rhythm section, while “7w” and “Great Time To Go Back” take us through alternately sad and sunny nostalgic dreampop. And the album’s centerpiece, “High Horse,” may be the grandest piece of music thus far in the Testa Rosa catalog.
17. Caley Conway – Surrounded Middle
At the tail end of last year, Caley Conway gave listeners the gift of Boleslaus The Cruel. The five-song EP was her second holiday release in as many years, following 2017’s Heart Be Light. Unbeknownst to us, during the stint between those EPs (not to mention a span of time in which she played with Cairns, contributed to OQ’s debut, and earned a well-deserved spot as Field Report’s lead guitarist), the prolific Milwaukee singer-songwriter had recorded another record’s worth of new, decidedly-not-yuletide material. Conway’s incomparable voice and smooth guitar work expertly preside over the six-song release, which is nicely illustrated in “Cold Hymn,” a single the ever-evolving musician calls “a mad and sad song about losing love because the world needs one more.”
16. Genesis Renji – Keefe
Hot off last year’s S.I.N.S: Stories I Never Shared (#18 on our best Milwaukee albums of 2018 list), Genesis Renji returns with the overflowing and deeply personal Keefe. The Milwaukee street in question makes an unfortunate appearance in opening track “The Window,” which features audio from a FOX6 newscast detailing a homicide on 5th and Keefe. It’s a grim beginning for an album that never shies away from trouble both internal and external. Elsewhere, the Milwaukee emcee dreams of escape on the airy “Takemeaway,” fires on all lyrical cylinders on “6 Am,” and does some brutal soul-searching on the incredible “Music 2 Die 2.” Loaded with notable guest features (Nile, Ms. Lotus Fankh, more), the Cade Zube-produced Keefe is a major statement from an artist who was busy in 2019 (playing Summerfest, playing a Milwaukee Bucks halftime show) and who shows no signs of slowing down.
15. Haunter – Please Understand
Milwaukee’s premier slowcore act returned in 2019 with the follow-up to its well-received 2016 full-length, Worm. Please Understand is at once more expansive and refined; the band is unafraid to up the tempo, introducing elements of jazz and Americana as well as some more straightforward indie-rock guitar textures (“Spider Heart,” “Dust”) that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a mid-’90s Radiohead b-side. Tracks like “Opened Space” and “Sensation” echo the lush space-rock of top-tier Deerhunter material, albeit soaked in the explicitly lo-fi atmosphere that permeates the album. Bottom line, Please Understand is a testament to just how far the band has come in the songwriting department in under a decade of existence.
14. Dramatic Lovers – You Talk Loud
After bursting onto the scene in 2017, Dramatic Lovers—the Milwaukee supergroup consisting of current or former members of Decibully, The Promise Ring, Temper Temper, and Maritime—spent much of 2018 in the studio, writing new material for their debut full-length. With singer William Seidel’s unmistakable voice at the helm, that self-recorded effort, You Talk Loud, repeatedly shifts shape. Over the course of its approximately 35-minute runtime, it alternates between upbeat and self-assured efforts like “The Comedown” and “Hard To Hear,” and darkened, dour offerings like “Broken Nose” or destructive ’80s throwback “Danger To Myself.” By record’s end, it’s clear that Dramatic Lovers aren’t just established players killing time together. Instead, they’ve plied their decades of on-stage experience in some of the city’s best-known bands and forged something new, unfamiliar, and impressive.
13. L’Resorts – s/t
Tropical vibes and Milwaukee, Wisconsin may make for unlikely bedfellows, but don’t tell that to L’Resorts. On the band’s debut full-length, the sun is always out and the sand is always hot—even if the songs themselves deal in cloudier topics like heartbreak and loss. Another unlikely pairing: Jaill’s Vincent Kircher and Lady Cannon’s Martha Cannon (she of 2019’s also-excellent Fortune’s Darling), who combine their distinctive voices to create something both world-weary and warm. Opener “Baby Don’t” is all Hawaiian-shirt guitars and tumbling marimbas, while the heavenly “Separate Oceans” is an Instagram sunset set to song (and scored with even more marimbas). “You and me make a perfect team” Kircher and Cannon sing late on the album. Thirteen tracks of perfectly rendered and impossibly catchy tropical pop prove this boast to be true.
12. Von Alexander – I CAN’t DIE
“I’m feelin’ much better now / For a minute a n**** was in a drought,” raps Von Alexander on “Feel Better,” but that drought clearly isn’t in reference to his creativity. His new album, I CAN’t DIE, follows closely on the heels of last year’s excellent Alexander, and he also dropped a captivating single/video, “Solange,” earlier this year. From the hard-bitten but catchy “Anoché” and “Marathon” to the hazy soul-searching of “Skies” and “Worse” to the sensual “Wildfire” and “Reaction,” each track transports us to a different headspace; if there’s a common thread, it’s a continual quest for hope and faith in oneself. As usual, Alexander’s personal tales should be broadly relatable to his expanding fanbase.
11. Telethon – Hard Pop
In 2017, Telethon called into local consciousness with its ambitious and apocalyptic 30-song, 90-minute concept album, The Grand Spontanean: A Tale Told In Five Acts. They quickly followed that with last year’s Modern Abrasive EP that, while frustratingly short, ultimately did an admirable job holding a now-captivate audience in Milwaukee (and far beyond) over as they awaited the band’s next big creative step. Hard Pop is more than just the next step: it’s leaps and bounds beyond their rock opera from two years prior. Better yet, it manages to do so with only a third of the tracks. The 10-song effort is packed with the same winning blend of bouncing instrumentation, thoughtful composition, infectious and insightful lyrics, and, yes, “hard pop” that made Grand Spontanean so special—best stressed with the lively “(I Guess You’d Call It) An Undertone” and the artful angst that poignantly permeates “Time To Lean (The Whole Building Runs On Windows 98).”
10. Fuzzysurf – Fuzzy & The Surfs
Fuzzysurf is a band suited for any era. Since formally introducing themselves to Milwaukee music fans with 2017’s great Me Wocky EP, the quartet has quickly garnered attention with their distinct sound that perfectly blends elements of ’60s-era surf pop with aspects of modern day indie rock. Last year, Fuzzysurf quickly built on that solid first impression with the release of the band’s debut full-length, Hometown Feeling. The winning sound only continues in Fuzzy & The Surfs. Within the span of the half-hour effort, the album’s 11 songs touch on societal division, squandered youth, lost love, and other weighty elements—all while maintaining a fun, generation-jumping sound that’s just as well-received today as it would’ve been 50 years ago.
9. Kendra Amalie – Intuition
For the past decade or so, Kendra Amalie has been making music under various monikers, perhaps most notably Names Divine, and building a reputation as one of the Midwest’s fiercest 12-string guitarists. Through her associations with Milwaukee’s psych-rock scene, she eventually attracted the attention of Beyond Beyond is Beyond Records; Intuition, her debut for the up-and-coming Brooklyn label, brings together the many sides of Amalie’s electric and acoustic forays into a newly cohesive songwriting vision. Opening with the heavy prog of “Breathe Underwater,” cycling through esoteric folk that recalls the initial heyday of Grizzly Bear (“Boat Ride II,” “Patternmaker”), densely layered post-rock (“Facets Of A Holy Diamond,” “Become The Light”) and atmospheric drone (“Look At The Light”), the album is a mystical, cathartic journey that leaves the listener hungry for more of each of its various idioms. The final track resolves into a serene slide guitar outro, a sense of closure but not resolution. The ethereal mysteries that Amalie explores both lyrically and musically remain open-ended, hopefully to be taken up again on the next album.
8. NO/NO – Diagnostic
Search the stratosphere for stellar Milwaukee music and you’ll find NO/NO. In the past five years, the new wave-y synth-rock outfit has dished out a number of defining moments: a pair of cool and sexy EPs in 2014, a Best Milwaukee Album of the Year in 2016’s Sound And Light, and a delectable Dashcam-produced EP in 2017’s Twentysomethings. This year, the band said its goodbyes with a final release, Diagnostic. The record splits the difference between the towering synths of Sound And Light (“The Tourist,” “Divination”) and the noisier, more guitar-heavy sounds of the group’s origins in the gone-but-not-forgotten Delphines (opener “The Last Thing You Said”). “We’re happy to be saying our goodbyes on a good note and leaving with an album that represents the direction we would’ve kept moving in,” said the band in a press release. New direction aside, Diagnostic is a thrilling, sexy, and effortlessly cool record. It’s classic NO/NO.
7. Rose Of The West – s/t
In recent years, Gina Barrington had her material played in strikingly disparate ways by a variety of people in different ventures before her voice finally found a lasting home in Rose Of The West. With the help of collaborators that have past and current connections to Alanis Morissette, GGOOLLDD, Group Of The Altos, Remy Zero, and Hello Death, the dream-pop project quickly made a name for itself in Milwaukee in 2017 with a two-song release and placement on some lofty local shows. This spring, Rose Of The West echoed its intriguing first impression and showed they’re here to stay with a full-length album. The self-titled debut features 10 songs that, together, forge a shimmering and atmospheric soundscape. The indie-leaning electronic efforts are further accented by Barrington’s lush voice and alluring lyrics that drive first single “Roads,” and carry album standout “Exit Madness,” to higher ground.
6. Graham Hunt – Leaving Silver City
After making some of Milwaukee’s best records in recent years as the singer-guitarist of Midnight Reruns (and moonlighting in Midwives, Sundial Mottos, and Soda Road as well), Graham Hunt apparently needed a change. Before departing from his hometown in favor of a fresh start in Chicago—and now Madison—the longtime Milwaukee music mainstay recorded a goodbye of sorts in the form of a solo album. Leaving Silver City is a tremendous 10-pack of songs that nods to Hunt’s work with the Reruns, pushes into exciting new territory, and even pays homage to Marielle Allschwang along the way. Hopefully Hunt isn’t gone for good, but if he is, he left Milwaukee with one hell of a parting gift.
5. Lauryl Sulfate & Her Ladies Of Leisure – Dance Music Saves Lives
Dance Music Saves Lives isn’t just the title of Lauryl Sulfate & Her Ladies Of Leisure’s ridiculously great debut album—it’s a mission statement. Over the course of eight glittery, disco-indebted tracks, Sulfate and her LOL (lol) preach the life-affirming gospel of shaking your ass and having a good time. “Hard Candy” is a feminist anthem that throws shade at shitty dudes (“Save that sad-sack Kerouac drunk act,”) infectious single “Do You Feel Me” finds joy in dancing by yourself, and opener “I’m Always Like This” is an unapologetic personal flex and a defiant shot at the current political climate (“We ain’t going nowhere / We’re up all night, ’til early light / You fascists all beware”). Dance Music is a glorious, giddy, sometimes silly, sometimes serious record that recognizes the all-inclusive power of losing yourself on the dance floor.
4. Abby Jeanne – Music Box Dancer
Was there a late-2018/early-2019 record more long-awaited than Abby Jeanne’s Music Box Dancer? No, no there was not. Tracks like the scorching “Cosmic Beings” and the jazzy “Be In The Sun” had seemingly been kicking around forever before being collected on this nine-song album. (“Cosmic Beings” was featured in the Milwaukee Film Festival sponsor trailer—in 2017.) Happily, songs this timeless don’t have expiration dates. Ditto for the rest of the album: The title track is a dreamy take on ’50s soda-shop pop, “Pleasures Pain” is a chugging rocker, and “Die Easy” is a heartbreakingly dreamy take on a 2016 Devil Met Contention song. The fact that Jeanne has already moved on to a more new wave sound with recent single “Get You High” only proves that we haven’t heard the last from this restless and formidable talent.
3. Klassik – QUIET
Since the release of Seasons—Milwaukee Record‘s 2015 local album of the year—Klassik (Kellen Abston) had been relatively, er, quiet. In the spring, he dropped a covers EP, American Klassiks: The Live Album, conceptually heavy but an appetizer all the same. QUIET, Klassik’s fourth full-length, shows no signs of overthinking, even though some of this material has been in the hopper for years; there’s a spirit of spontaneity that enlivens the proceedings to the point that it doesn’t even play like a concept album. Musically, it’s a natural progression to a more eclectic sound for the singer/rapper/multi-instrumentalist; hip-hop, jazz, R&B and soul intermingle as Abston’s quest for spiritual stillness unfolds in a manner that’s both confessional and universal. It may dabble in current trends and it yields its share of irresistible hooks (particularly “P&Q,” “Spirit,” and the bizarrely infectious “Lone Ranger”), yet it’s a subtly noncommercial statement; none of Klassik’s many personalities will be denied his say, and the album’s complexities don’t reward a culture of instant gratification and infinite distraction, which is kind of the whole point of QUIET.
2. Zed Kenzo – Baby Swag
If you’re looking for a Milwaukee artist who spent 2019 having an extended Moment, look no further than Zed Kenzo. The double-threat rapper and producer has been consistently crushing it since completing the inaugural Backline program last fall. She was great before that, too, though the program has given her a chance to reboot and start with a clean slate. The results speak for themselves: The six-song Baby Swag is all killer and no filler, stuffed with endlessly confident and creative tracks like the towering “Type,” the summer-perfect “Machete,” and the alt-rock-influenced “Immortal.” Couple it all with Kenzo’s self-described “pedal-to-the-metal and meditative flow,” and you have a record that triples as an evolution, an introduction, and a new beginning. New tracks have followed in Baby Swag‘s wake, and you better believe there’ll be more in 2020.
1. Marielle Allschwang & The Visitations – VISITATIONS IV
The first thing to hit you when cueing up the new Marielle Allschwang record is the noise. A distorted guitar. A rat-a-tat snare. A solitary cymbal. Could this possibly be the same Marielle Allschwang whose 2015 album Dead Not Done rarely rose above a whisper? VISITATIONS IV isn’t exactly a complete sonic overhaul, but it is a record that demonstrates just how much Allschwang and her band (the Visitations, natch) have coalesced and solidified in the past few years. It’s also a record of echoes: The new “312: Year Of The Optical Fire” recalls the melody and sway of Dead Not Done‘s title track, and “Be The Dirt” digs into the same old, weird, and elemental concerns that populated the previous album. This time around, however, the full band (Nathaniel Heuer, Adam Krause, Kavi Laud, Ken Palme) provide each track with a sturdy framework that recalls Allschwang’s other post-rock-minded projects: the shuttered Group Of The Altos and the ever-changing Collections Of Colonies Of Bees. And yet the highlight of the record is, once again, Allschwang herself. Her voice, forever haunting, remains a wonder. And because one jaw-dropping album in 2019 wasn’t enough, Allschwang also released an enigmatic song cycle dedicated to legendary Milwaukee artist Mary Nohl. Both projects show a current Milwaukee artist working at the height of her powers, creating a sound that’s bold, challenging, and utterly uncompromising.