The Essential Milwaukee Albums of 2013
Recent years have been busy ones for the Milwaukee music scene, as local artists have landed major tours, signed to prominent labels and flirted with national recognition. By comparison, 2013 was relatively quiet. Despite its relatively low profile, though, the city didn’t suffer for want of great albums this year. 2013 saw a wave of shockingly confident debuts from new artists and best-yet efforts from veteran mainstays. The following list is by no means a comprehensive tally of the best Milwaukee music released this year, but for those looking to catch up on what was brewing in the local scene this year, these 15 records are a fine place to start.
Blessed Feathers – Order of the Arrow
The country is flooded with folk bands right now, all of which seem to share the same vaguely indie-ish mindset and mawkish fascination with avian iconography, but don’t let Blessed Feathers’ flighty name, cute veneer or abundant banjo scare you away: Their songs land like swift socks to the gut. Order of the Arrow strips away any lingering trace of twee from the duo’s sound, but retains the pointed songwriting and urgent sense of purpose. Even their songs about wasting long days or the monotony of trying to make ends meet are filled with a sense of adventure and unlikely wonder.
Buffalo Gospel – We Can Be Horses
If Buffalo Gospel were a less modest band, they could easily bill themselves as a super group. The lineup is certainly stacked enough: singer-songwriter Ryan Necci, mandolinist Ryan Ogburn and drummer Kyle Keegan, three sharp players who cut their teeth in the bluegrass group Fat Maw Rooney, joined by golden-voiced singer Heidi Spencer and guitarist Allen Coté, a sideman who’s logged time in The Championship and Spencer’s group the Rare Birds. These players could kick up a whole lot of racket if they wanted, but instead of cashing in on the current shout-and-stomp folk craze, they opt for a softer, more elegant kind of Americana. It’s not literally gospel music, but at its best this deeply pretty debut album is every bit as spiritual.
Myles Coyne & The Rusty Nickel Band – Take Things As They Come
Given that Myles Coyne splits his time between several local bands, including bustling indie-rockers Animals in Human Attire and the unrelenting post-hardcore outfit Temple (who released their own ferocious album this year, The Conscience of the King), it’s not too surprising that Coyne’s namesake band is a musically polyamorous affair. Coyne’s Rusty Nickel Band is a folk ensemble first and foremost, but they find a lot wiggle room in that loose classification, skipping from rustic, fingerpicked musings in the Bob Dylan mold to shambolic, Titus Andronicus-esque punk-rock combustions.
The Fatty Acids – Boléro
“I grew up on Weird Al and Michael Jackson, so I think all of my writing is always going to sound like a shitty circus,” Fatty Acids singer Josh Evert told the Shepherd this fall. A shitty circus is still a spectacle, though, and the anemic, early-’80s synths and overstretched falsettos of Boléro can barely conceal the ambitious, proggy vision behind the band’s ADHD-riddled pop. Without abandoning the gleeful amateurishness that’s defined them since the start, The Fatty Acids made a widescreen extravaganza on the budget of a late-night public access show.
Kevin Hayden Trio – Illegal Playlist
Drummer Kevin Hayden is a jazz player by trade, but as he’ll tell anybody who asks, he sees the genre as a sinking ship, and he sure as hell isn’t going down with it. Illegal Playlists charts his trio’s progression away from traditionalist jazz toward a riskier fusion of jazz, hip-hop and R&B, with its sheik opening tracks giving way to gradually funkier sounds and heavier beats. By closers “Enemy/Inner Me” and “Not What You’re Used To,” it’s a full-on rap album, complete with hand-waving verses from Milwaukee rapper Klassik, another artist who, like Hayden, eagerly blurs the lines between genre boundaries.
Hello Death – Hello Death
Hello Death is a sister project of Milwaukee’s post-rock army Altos, but the quartet forgoes that group’s epic sweep in favor of a folkier, more intimate kind of disquietude. True to their name, nearly every song on their debut is about death, and more than a few of them even scan as threats. Yet even when burly crooner Nathaniel Heuer and his angel-voiced counterparts Marielle Allschwang and Erin Wolf sing of slaughter, they do so with chilling matter-of-factness. These aren’t threats at all: They’re parables, cautionary reminders that all things come to an end.
Greg Koch Band – Plays Well With Others
Bluesman Greg Koch has always been a guitarist’s guitarist, and his albums tend to be unapologetically technical affairs, emphasizing his dazzling solos above all else. Those solos remain a highlight on his quartet’s latest album, Plays Well With Others, but this time out there’s a bigger emphasis on songs, courtesy of moonlighting Semi-Twang singer/songwriter John Sieger, who co-wrote the entire album with Koch and lends it a breezy Memphis feel with his lead vocal turns. The result is new territory for both Koch and Sieger, but between Koch’s direct riffs and guest shots from Joe Bonamassa, one-time Miles Davis sideman Robben Ford and Little Feat’s Paul Barrere, it’s still a guitar lover’s paradise.
Like Like The The The Death – Cave Jenny
Like nearly every other noise-rock act on Milwaukee’s Latest Flame Records, Like Like The The The Death harken back to an earlier, wilder, louder era of indie-rock, but they aren’t completely grounded in the past. A heavy whiff of Japandroids’ amped-up, shot-gunning rock ’n’ roll runs through Cave Jenny, an album seemingly designed to make listeners want to high-five the nearest person, while bassist Kyle Scheuer and guitarist Anthony Weber’s dueling yelps lend an art-punk edge to an otherwise joyously direct party record.
Midnight Reruns – Midnight Reruns
Replacements-inspired garage rock isn’t exactly a scarcity in Milwaukee’s crowded music scene, but there’s always room for more, especially when it’s done with the irresistible, nonchalant glee of Midnight Reruns’ self-titled debut, a parade of ringing guitar riffs and slightly snotty pop-punk hooks. The album’s most impressive feat? “King of Pop,” a tribute to power-pop great Paul Collins that’s improbably as catchy as anything Collins actually wrote himself.
Northless – World Keeps Sinking
Northless’s bruising 2011 breakthrough Clandestine Abuse introduced the Milwaukee metal act to an audience outside of the city’s tightknit metal scene, but it also made for a tough act to follow. Topping the sheer intensity of that album’s doomy downpour would have been a mammoth feat, so instead the band opted for a different direction for their follow-up World Keeps Sinking, opening themselves up to more melodic muses. Ironically, despite its greater immediacy, World Keeps Sinking might be an even bleaker listen than Clandestine Abuse. The group’s accounts of societal self-destruction are more chillingly vivid than ever.
Ragelife – Ragelife
Some rappers set out to speak hard truths; others are content just to move crowds and have a good time. Ragelife rappers ¡OYÉ! and P/1 try to have it both ways on their group’s self-titled debut, a meditation on vices and values set against the party backdrop of a college town where long, carefree nights of binge drinking are the norm. The relentless pace of the record’s chest-beating opening run makes the contemplative, soulful turn of its closing stretch hit that much harder.
Soul Low – Uneasy
Few albums were more aptly titled this year than Uneasy, the infectiously nervy debut from Soul Low, a trio in the squirmy, fingernail-gnawing tradition of indie-rock bands like Wolf Parade, Modest Mouse and Shakey Graves. Like those groups, Soul Low are more than the sum of their anxieties, though—they play their antsy, little anthems loud and proud, building them to cheerful sing-alongs as they find solidarity in shared insecurity. They’ve got serious songwriting chops, too: Just one listen and these songs will ring in your head for days.
Vic and Gab – Love of Mine
Any songwriter worth his or her salt can capture the sting of heartbreak, but sisters Vic and Gab perform the far trickier feat of making it feel like a genuinely comforting experience on Love of Mine, a prolonged sigh of an album. Last year’s Bridges and Guns EP showed the Banuelos siblings were onto something special, but the restraint that runs through their debut full length’s achy guitar-pop is truly a wonder to behold. The sisters handle even the highest emotional stakes with understated wisdom and acceptance while their songs shuffle along agreeably, undeterred by distant lovers and broken promises. If only all of life’s disappointments went down this easy.
Volcano Choir – Repave
Already in his young career Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has made several truly remarkable records, but none of them radiate with anywhere near the sheer, unmitigated joy of Repave, his second pairing with Milwaukee’s Collections of Colonies of Bees as Volcano Choir. Trading the cold experimentation of the project’s debut album for immediate, rousing crowd-pleasers—without losing any of the complex, beatific textures that are Colonies of Bees’ stock and trade—the record was bigger, grander and more majestic than any other indie-rock release this year. What a joy it was to hear six masters of their craft abandon their inhibitions and just go for the kill.
Yo-Dot – Sherman Park Memoirs
Milwaukee rap’s most eloquent hardhead, Yo-Dot showed signs of outgrowing the white-knuckled rhymes of his youth on last year’s Red Mist, an eclectic record that flirted with the kind of bridge-building, conscious hip-hop his frequent collaborator Prophetic has long specialized in. A conflicted tribute to the North Side neighborhood that shaped him, Sherman Park Memoirs returns him to the gutter rap of his prior releases, but even at its grittiest, it’s a smart, soulful listen, one that’s far too savvy to play Yo-Dot’s breathless, in-the-moment corner tales for simple exploitation.