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The Essential Milwaukee Albums of 2015

Dec. 8, 2015
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This year’s best Milwaukee albums came from all corners of the local music scene, from distinguished veterans and young upstarts, from artists with designs on being the next big thing and others that couldn’t care less about that prospect. As usual, we’ve rounded up the 15 that hit us the hardest. What’s striking about these picks is how little they have to do with each other. Sure, some of these acts run in the same circles; others share producers and in a few cases even band members—but each of these albums stands alone as its own, self-contained statement. Milwaukee’s music scene is as fragmented as it’s ever been, and it’s never been better off for it.

adoptahighway – A Fault

A sense of isolation pervades Barry Paul Clark’s haunting latest record as adoptahighway, which finds the electronic producer dialing back the beats to explore more subtle forms of expression. An album cast from shadows and creeks, it’s darker, drearier and more ambient than anything Clark’s ever recorded, at times almost gothic in its unrelentingly bleak view of man’s place in the world. 

Marielle Allschwang – Dead Not Done

Marielle Allschwang possesses a voice so expressive and pure that it doesn’t need any accompaniment—if anything, there’s a danger that too much instrumentation could drown it out or overshadow it. On her solo debut Dead Not Done, Allschwang takes that risk anyway, recruiting her bandmates in Group of the Altos to accent her earthy folk songs with post-rock flourishes, and that gambit pays off beautifully. For all its daring ideas and bold arrangements, the record never loses its sense of intimacy.

Estates – It’s Great to Be Alone

Estates have never disguised their debt to the alt-leaning emo bands of the late ’90s, especially Hum. For their latest, they sojourned to Hum guitarist Matt Talbott’s Earth Analog studios in Illinois and emerged with their rawest, most intense record yet: 25 minutes of slashing guitars, crashing drums and unfiltered emotion. It’s a triumph of economy—most of these songs are only about two minutes long, yet they all pay off epically.

Group of the Altos - R U Person or Not

With more than a dozen players in their ranks, Group of the Altos have never lacked for sheer power, but R U Person or Not is the first time they’ve unabashedly flexed that muscle. Trading the intricately composed dirges of their debut LP for raucous, fire-breathing art rock, it’s some of the most immediate music they’ve ever made. While the band’s scope is impressive as always—there just aren’t many other acts making music on this scale—it’s the songs that linger. Underneath all that majestic bombast is a surprisingly grounded song cycle about the illusive nature of forgiveness.

IshDARR – Old Soul, Young Spirit

On his debut full-length, IshDARR splits the difference between ponderous, thinking man’s jazz rap and riotous squad anthems, as this technically gifted young rapper loosens up and escapes his own head a bit. His wordplay is as impressive as ever, but his real gift is his charisma, which he puts front and center. He’s made a rap record equally suited for headphones and house parties.

Jaill – Brain Cream

As always, Jaill’s jangled-up guitar pop is so fun on the surface that it’s easy to miss all the little details they lavish on these songs—the comforting Wurlitzers and twinkling synths, the offbeat percussion, the countless little psychedelic accoutrements casually draped around the record like strings of half-burned-out Christmas lights. Brain Cream may not demand close listens, but it rewards them anyway.

Kiings - WWYDF

With their full-length debut as Kiings, producers Sean Foran and Chris Siegel have essentially made a Milwaukee-centric Handsome Boy Modeling School album, assembling a cast of local singers and rappers that includes WebsterX, Bliss & Alice, Colin Plant, Milo and Field Report’s Christopher Porterfield. It works because Foran and Siegel’s voices come across as clearly as those of their collaborators. Every track is grounded in the duo’s downtempo, distinctly soulful sensibilities.

Light Music – Ocean’s Daughter

Though it’s as good a descriptor of their sound as any, the term “electro-rock” doesn’t do justice to Light Music’s ambitions. The term conveys frivolity, but the band’s debut is anything but frivolous: a loose concept about love, loss and liberation framed around Aphrodite, the Greek goddess born from the ocean, and set to the same kind of vast, luscious arrangement that Radiohead brought to their mid-’00s output.

Maritime – Magnetic Bodies/Maps of Bones

For being one of Milwaukee’s most prominent, accomplished bands, Maritime sure are easy to take for granted. Every few years the group releases another charming, perfectly self-contained guitar-pop album that never professes to be anything greater than what it is: a small document of everyday emotions. Magnetic Bodies/Maps of Bones is their best yet, with some of the catchiest, most relatable songs they’ve ever written. And like its predecessors, it has magnificent staying power. You can listen to these songs dozens of times and still discover new truths in them.

Midnight Reruns – Force of Nurture

Midnight Reruns aren’t a pop-punk band, at least not in the strict sense, but like all great pop-punk bands, they carry themselves with an air of superiority. There’s a slightly snotty tone in singer Graham Hunt’s voice that suggests he’s looking down on anybody who might happen to be listening, lending just the right amount of edge to their candied power-pop. It’s no wonder they caught the ear of one of their primary muses, Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson, who recorded Force of Nurture at his studio. He’s as hands-off of a producer as you’d expect, letting the band’s snappy guitars and buoyant hooks speak for themselves.

Milo – so the flies don’t come

Since his earliest recordings, Milo has rapped in an impressionistic blur of references to pop culture, Greek mythology, philosophy and childhood hopes and fears. On so the flies don’t come, he’s still touching all those subjects, but this time he throws some topical gasoline on the fire, confronting race relations in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and directly calling out white fans who police the opinions of black artists. It’s as angry as any political rap album released this year, yet it resists the aesthetic tropes of so many political rap albums, instead retaining the experimental skew and deeply personal feel of its predecessors. If “we need poems that kill,” as Milo raps, paraphrasing Amiri Baraka, then so the flies don’t come is an ammunition store disguised as a library.

Piles – Planet Skin

Prettiness generally isn’t a quality that most punk bands aspire to, yet there’s something rather beautiful about Planet Skin, the washed-out debut record from the Milwaukee trio Piles. Even the fastest, most sludgy songs here somehow shimmer and glow. Piles may not be the first band to jumble together hardened punk, ’80s underground rock and shoegaze like this, but they’re the first to make the combination sound this radiant.

Platinum Boys – Future Hits

The debut album from Milwaukee jean-jacket enthusiasts Platinum Boys is a love letter to all the debauchery that rockers of modest means can enjoy on a weekend—cheap booze, hard drugs, sleazy sex and joy rides—set to some of the giddiest, most relentless riffs of the year. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of bands playing this exact kind of scuzzy, Old Milwaukee-shotgunning rock ’n’ roll, but Platinum Boys are doing it better than all of them right now.

Testa Rosa - III

Testa Rosa’s Betty Blexrud-Strigens treats songwriting as a form of role playing on her band’s third album, putting herself in the shoes of one sympathetic character after another: a starry-eyed Hawaiian tourist, a wistful record store clerk, an abused woman out for revenge, another woman who finds comfort smashing windows. The band matches each of her tales with a fitting backdrop of tuneful power-pop, riffy ’70s rock and dreamy girl-group melodies. This is a band with a deep playbook.

Vonny Del Fresco - Memoirs

Some rappers show off. Vonny Del Fresco doesn’t need to. Forgoing loud gimmicks, Del Fresco raps with sophistication, eloquence and wisdom—qualities that don’t always guarantee huge numbers on SoundCloud but that do lend themselves to great albums, and with Memoirs, he’s delivered one, an understated record that disguises some sharp wordplay and truly forward-looking production.

Stream a playlist of songs from these albums below.


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