Believe it or not (we choose not), 2019 is more than halfway over. With that in mind, we thought it was a perfect time to listen to some music and celebrate the year’s first six months by rounding up the best Milwaukee albums of 2019 (so far).
For our non-ranked mid-year list (which we capped at 12), we considered albums that were released between January and June that contained five tracks or more. There were oodles to choose from, and a lot of singles and EPs that didn’t qualify. While many of these records will likely appear on our annual 25 best Milwaukee albums year-end list, some may be bumped. Also, it’s possible that some January-June records that don’t appear here may end up on our final list upon further listening. Enjoy!
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 last album, 2015’s Dead Not Done, rarely rose above a whisper? It is indeed. And while the incredible post-rock love letter VISITATIONS IV isn’t exactly a complete sonic overhaul, 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 will all return to the center,” the singer chants on opener “Every Name.” This is a record of extreme focus, performed and realized by equally focused players.
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.
Chicken Wire Empire — What Moves Mountains
Even though Chicken Wire Empire—a bluegrass band featured in an hour-long film and who have shared the stage with the likes of Yonder Mountain String Band and The Big Wu—have little left to prove, the group didn’t waste any time before making good on their New Year’s resolution when they released their long-awaited follow-up, What Moves Mountains, on January 1. Over the course of 11 songs and close to 49 minutes, the local mainstay traverses new territory, gives exciting new life to a few songs from other artists, and mixes impressive musicianship and compelling narratives to forge a release that was well worth the four-plus-year wait.
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 EP’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.”
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—went fairly quiet last year. As it turns out, the band spent much of 2018 in the studio, writing new material and meticulously recording tracks for their debut full-length. With singer William Seidel’s unmistakable voice at the helm, that self-recorded effort, You Talk Loud, 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 the destructive ’80s throwback “Danger To Myself.” By record’s end, it’s clear that Dramatic Lovers isn’t a case of 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 ultimately quite impressive.
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 bolstered 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. Over the course 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.
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 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 apparently now Madison, it appears?—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 Graham Hunt isn’t gone for good, but if he is, he left Milwaukee with one hell of a parting gift.
MT Twins — Voice Of The Youth
Few—if any—Milwaukee artists can touch MT Twins’ numbers. The hip-hop duo’s 2017 track “All Stars” has more than 1.5 million views on YouTube, and dozens upon dozens of their other tracks have been streamed hundreds of thousands of times. A recent opening gig for A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie at Summerfest, meanwhile, drew a massive crowd that may as well have been there to witness brothers Donno and Dexxx in action. But numbers don’t tell the entire story: MT Twins’ Voice Of The Youth is a knotty, emotional rollercoaster of an album, filled with personal stories of beefs and fallen comrades (“223” and “Hood Superstars”), chilled-out meditations on self-medication and new horizons (“No Love Song” and “New Illuminati”), and somber anthems for a new generation (“Voice Of The Youth”). Only in their early 20s, the Milwaukee brothers are already living up to the name of their record.
Rose Of The West — Rose Of The West
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, Hello Death, and more, the dream-pop project quickly made a name for itself in Milwaukee in 2017 with a two-song release and impressive opening slots for touring talent like Warpaint, as well as spots on 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 come together to forge a sleek 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.
Telethon — Hard Pop
In 2017, Telethon dialed their way into local consciousness with the outstanding, apocalyptic 30-song and 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—which Telethon dropped less than a month ago—is more than just the next step: it’s leaps and bounds beyond their rock opera from two years ago…and 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 “[Untitled].” Plain and simple: Hard Pop is Telethon’s best album…at least until 2021, when they’ll likely find a way to craft something even more impressive.
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 (“What You Do To Her”) ever recorded. 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.
Zed Kenzo — Baby Swag
If you’re looking for a Milwaukee artist who’s currently having a 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 EP is all killer and no filler, stuffed with endlessly confident and creative tracks like the towering “Type,” the summer-ready “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.