Believe it or not, 2020 is more than halfway over. Thank god. With that in mind, we thought it was a perfect time to round up the best Milwaukee albums of 2020 (so far). For our non-ranked mid-year list (which we capped at 12), we considered albums that were released between January and mid-July 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-July records that don’t appear here may end up on our final list upon further listening. Enjoy!
Cashfire Sunset — Age Before Beauty
At eight songs and more than 30 minutes in length, Cashfire Sunset’s Age Before Beauty offers—in the band’s own words—the same “noise, distortion, abstraction, dreams, reality, fatalism, single mic drums, over-driven five-string bass, tubes, solid states, digitals, analogs, analogies, hyperbole, and hope” of previous releases. However, vocalist/guitarist Jason Zbichorski says the shoegaze band’s latest is a “chillcore” effort that eschews much of the enthusiasm displayed in last year’s releases in favor of a sort of tempered heaviness. Another noticeable difference is displayed in the vocals, as new singer-guitarist Amber Parrett takes the lead on some songs (including bleary standout track “Wig”), splits vocals duties with Zbichorski on tracks like “Good Money,” and lends lush harmonies to lo-fi material like “Dog.”
Dead Horses — Birds
In February, just a few months removed from opening for The Who at Alpine Valley, headlining a Pabst Theater show, and a jam-packed tour schedule, Dead Horses found time to quietly release a new EP. Birds—the follow-up to 2018’s My Mother The Moon—finds the dynamic duo of Sarah Vos and Dan Wolff (and a few featured players) bringing their well-established roots stylings to new territory. The stripped-down quintet of songs, which the band recorded at Neenah-based Honeytone Studio and The Refuge in Appleton, is a brief but memorable effort that shines with the entrancing “All I Ever Wanted,” the mesmerizing “Birds Can Write The Chorus,” and the rousing “Family Tapes.”
Field Report — Brake Light Red Tide
“We’ve been falling behind every day for weeks.” So sings Christopher Porterfield on “Peoria,” the opening track of Field Reports’ incredible Brake Light Red Tide. It’s a song that nails the world’s current sense of unmoored helplessness, containing foreboding lines like “It’s been getting darker and the clouds are forming.” Happily, there’s a light on the other side: the song’s jaw-dropping chorus, assisted by singer Caley Conway, zigs where it should zag, opening up and, indeed, parting like clouds after a storm. Brake Light Red Tide is a Field Report record like no other, an album that revels in the familiar yet embraces the unexpected, an album that pulls you in close only to set you adrift. It’s both an expansion and a contraction of Porterfield’s long-running project. It’s his best work yet.
GGOOLLDD — Here We Are
Even though GGOOLLDD has some members who are currently living in Louisiana, the accomplished synth-pop act continues to have a special connection to Milwaukee. The band planned to remind their native city of this at the end of March with an album release show at Turner Hall. Of course, the world had other plans. While that show has been moved to August (for the moment, at least), the album that eventual show will celebrate fortunately saw the light of day back in February. Here We Are, fittingly, announces GGOOLLDD’s return with nine stunning songs, including the smooth and dreamy “Welcome To My House,” an uplifting earworm simply called “Success,” and the plucky and pounding “Money.” Margaret Butler and company have never sounded better.
Genesis Renji — various singles
In a year when some things seem caught in a holding pattern, Milwaukee rapper Genesis Renji has been all over the creative map. Opening 2020 with the moody Midnite Dementia EP, Renji quickly took advantage of the subsequent pandemic by kicking off a series of weekly quarantine releases. Tracks like “Back Back” and “You Should Know” recall Midnite Dementia‘s chilled-out vibe, “Shake The Pressure” and “Cabin Fever Freestyle” find Renji at his most nimble and playful, while “4Play” and “Body” dim the lights and turn up the heat. (Hell, pretty much every track here turns up the heat.) Weighing in at an impressive 16 tracks, Renji’s quarantine playlist is an embarrassment of riches, a melodic and impeccably produced glimpse of an artist who shows no signs of standing still.
Immortal Girlfriend — RIDE
In 2017, siblings Kevin and William Bush came out of relative obscurity to earn a place in Milwaukee music consciousness as Immortal Girlfriend. The duo’s debut EP, Daybreak, was nothing short of outstanding, and it helped land the Bush brothers on a number of high-profile local festivals and garner them some impressive opening opportunities in the two-plus years that followed. Lesser musicians would’ve cracked under the stress of trying match the incredible output of the last EP, but Immortal Girlfriend just went and did it in April. The six-song RIDE isn’t just a continuation of the group’s sleek and futuristic sound, it—propelled by lush and atmospheric standouts like “In Motion” and “Phantasm”—pushes Immortal Girlfriend to even higher ground.
Mertles Acres — Mertles Acres
Last spring, Direct Hit!’s rhythm section—drummer Danny Walkowiak and bassist Steve Maury—parted ways with the Fat Wreck Chords punk band and shifted their focus to a new creative endeavor. That project, Mertles Acres, managed a small handful of pre-pandemic performances before releasing its debut album in early April. The self-titled release finds Maury taking on vocal duties (and playing everything except drums on the recording) and leading listeners through a 10-pack of songs that borders on pop-punk, while also letting in an underlying ’80s aura—perhaps best expressed in “It’s Gonna Be OK” and “Last Summer”—with warm guitars, flourishing keyboard work, and a sound that subtly nods to Angels & Airwaves in all the right ways.
Operations — Fog Museum
If you’re looking for a more appropriately titled Milwaukee album this year (so far), look no further than Fog Museum, the debut offering from dreamy shoegaze outfit Operations. There’s a palpable sense of melancholy hanging over this record, creating a hazy pocket universe that invites listeners in while never becoming morose or overbearing. Sepia-toned opener “Perfect Day” nicely encapsulates that world; it shares both its name and its half-remembered nostalgia with a Lou Reed classic. Elsewhere, songs like “Detached” and the title track strike out on a more insistent, Sonic Youth-channeling path. Charles Markowiak and Alisa Rodriguez (the latter of solo project Apollo Vermouth) trade off vocal duties, acting as guides through a gorgeously rendered record that demands complete late-night listens.
Rexxx — Pure Pleasure II
Is “Rock N Roll,” the penultimate track of Rexxx’s nine-song Pure Pleasure II, a shout-along rock and roll song about the power of rock and roll? Yes it is. Is it a song that lodges itself in your brain after just one listen? Yes it is. Is it a song that does its thing in fewer than two minutes? You better believe it. Rexxx is a Milwaukee supergroup of sorts, featuring Zach Otto and Harrison Colby (both of Sex Scenes), Sam Reitman and Ryan Reeve (both of Surgeons In Heat), and Jesse Buskov (King Eye & The Squirts). Hatched by roommates Otto and Colby during a series of “pizza-and-songwriting” nights, the group eschews Sex Scenes’ hardcore sound for a more head-bopping approach. “Hit N Run” is Pleasure‘s darkest/funniest song (“Take your car and run me over / Living with you is some kind of torture”), “4 Miles From Home” slows things down for a slinky and surprisingly soulful respite, while closer “Animal” blows the roof off the dump with a sustained roar. It all adds up to a perfect quick-hit of rock/power-pop goodness.
Will Rose — Wilted
Following a few releases under the “Airo Kwil” hip-hop alias, drummer and emcee Will Rose put considerable time and energy into writing, refining, and recording songs for his debut full-length under his own name. The 10-song Wilted shows the rapper at his most lyrically nimble yet, as he confidently places insightful lyrics, witty wordplay, and catchy melodies atop impressive instrumentation that’s far more elevated than any of Airo Kwil’s previous releases. With a noticeable boost from a skilled cast of collaborators including the likes of Quinten Farr and Elyse Cizek, the final product ably traverses the expanses of funk, traditional hip-hop, R&B, and material with borderline pop sensibilities. It required him to say goodbye to his Airo Kwil identity and reinvent his sound, but Will Rose shows listeners he’s in full bloom on Wilted.
Space Raft — Positively Space Raft
When times are tough and the world seems to be at its worst, Space Raft is here. While the Milwaukee rock quartet won’t solve any of the planet’s countless problems, at least they’ll make a bad time better. Space Raft’s unique knack for picking up the pieces continues in the newly released Positively Space Raft. From the opening salvo of anthemic opener “Tomorrow Today” and the vibrant and uplifting “Please Be Kind” to the criminally catchy “Ups And Downs,” the album—which the band recorded way back in 2017—finally saw the light of day just when the world needed a dash of Space Raft the most.
Yo Dot — Sc2
The follow-up to 2019’s Self Checkout EP, Sc2 finds veteran rapper Yo Dot in prime form, swinging for the fences and delivering some of his most swaggering and self-assured tracks yet. Irresistible opener “YeaMan” is one of those songs that somehow contains references to Red Hot Chili Peppers and David Gruber in the first 30 seconds, “FFV” scores big on space-age synth flourishes and a guest turn from Prophpeezy, while “Too Close” celebrates not giving a fuck about “the stream and view clicks.” Big beats and big attitude are the name of the game here, though Yo Dot saves his most raw sentiments for “Sometimez,” the stunning closer to the six-track Sc2: “They cattled my community then bought us out / Gentrified and dropped us at the slaughterhouse / Police tell me to put my hands up, don’t resist / Then gun me down in bullets ’til I don’t exist.”