The Essential Milwaukee Albums of 2016
From iconoclastic hip-hop to open-hearted rock ’n’ roll, the city delivered this year
At the risk of preemptively deflating this list, you won’t find some of the year’s best Milwaukee music here. In 2016, much of Milwaukee’s most exciting music was scattered across various Soundcloud and Bandcamp pages, or packaged as bite-sized singles, splits or EPs. Especially for younger artists, albums are no longer the priority they were just a decade or even a half decade ago. That’s all the more reason, though, to celebrate the Milwaukee artists who did come through with fully formed, full-length statements this year. The internet may gradually be rendering them obsolete, but no medium offers a purer testament to an artist’s vision than the album, and this year the city produced its share of truly outstanding ones. The following 15 are records we’ll be returning to for years to come.
B~Free – Ode to a Luv Affair
Few styles of music are more difficult to do well than contemporary R&B, which requires a perfect trinity of great songwriting, great vocals and great production to pull off—if even one element comes in a little short, the whole thing falls apart. That challenge explains why Milwaukee has produced so few great R&B albums over the last decade, but B~Free has done her part to end that draught with Ode to a Luv Affair, a sophisticated, masterfully paced neo-soul record that continually reveals new layers to the singer’s sweet, all-too-human voice.
Direct Hit! – Wasted Mind
Direct Hit! are well aware that most people hate this stuff. The pop-punk quartet’s debut album for Fat Wreck Chords opens with a warning that people over 40 are probably going to want to steer clear of the album, and the band is only being half facetious—for older listeners, this sound is always going to be associated with direct-to-DVD American Pie sequels and Sum 41-style “’Bortion! ’Bortion! ’Bortion!” attitude. For anybody with a taste for buzzy guitars and bratty voices, though, Wasted Mind hits the system like a shot of adrenaline. It’s a smarter record than it appears on the surface, too. Direct Hit!’s great trick is smuggling such lofty songs about addiction and oppression into such a seemingly carefree package.
Genesis Renji – I Might Be Home
Cut from a similar cloth as Kendrick Lamar’s recent works, Genesis Renji’s I Might Be Home has all the trappings of a prestige rap album circa 2016: jazzy production, soul singers, dense narratives and lengthy internal monologues loaded with biblical and historical references and dotted with word choices straight from a New York Times crossword puzzle. Don’t mistake it for an academic exercise, though, because there’s a deeply relatable experience at the core of the album—the disconnect of returning home but no longer feeling at home, of seeing your city with fresh eyes and no longer knowing what to make of it. Renji has a gift for making sense of a world that doesn’t often provide easy answers.
IshDARR – Broken Hearts & Bankrolls
With his flashy delivery and precision wordplay, IshDARR has what it takes to be a world-class conscious rapper, and for a while it seemed that seemed like his goal. Instead, though, he reinvented himself as something a little less idealistic and hell of a lot more fun: a party-rocking turn-up god—a sparkplug who ricochets across tracks in a rubbery, cocksure flow, undaunted by the woes of the world. Broken Hearts & Bankrolls pushes him even further into festival-circuit EDM territory, and he’s never sounded better. Let the J. Coles of the world force you to eat your vegetables; this year IshDARR was tossing out unadulterated ear candy.
Lorde Fredd33 – Dead Man’s View
Too many local rappers are done in by their desire to be liked—an unflattering desperation that drives even some of the scene’s top talent to compromise or to sell themselves short with safe music designed for the masses. Lorde Fredd33, however, does not make safe music. Rapping like Tupac’s vengeful corpse, he performs in the service of a single, confrontational vision, burning bridges and making enemies. This isn’t just nihilism for nihilism’s sake, though. Backed by the spectral production of one of the city’s most distinctive beat makers, Q the Sun—the spiritual ying to Lorde Fredd33’s gravedigger yang—Dead Man’s View somehow managed to find beauty amid all that agitation.
Like Grimes in her early years, Milwaukee producer Luxi crafts small-scale electronic tunes that seem to rise out of the speakers like bubbles—they’re gorgeous but fragile, so delicate they seem like they might disintegrate into the air at any moment. As evocative as her production is, though, Luxi’s DIY release astral memories (p a r a d i s e) proves that her real gifts are as a songwriter. Don’t let their smallness fool you: With their R&B-accented hooks and pronounced emotions, these songs are in their own way every bit as catchy and sturdily crafted as those that acts like Purity Ring, Phantogram and similarly styled electro-pop acts are performing with more pizzazz on much larger stages.
NO/NO – Sound and LightNew Wave has been an object of revivalist fascination for nearly two decades now, yet as thoroughly mined as these sounds are, occasionally a band comes along that’s able to make something genuinely new out of them. That’s NO/NO’s great feat on Sound and Light. From the rousing, Echo and the Bunnymen-esque guitars of opener “Waiting for Something to Happen” to the Blondie-styled disco of the single “Television,” these songs glimmer with nods to the ’80s, but generous modern touches and the unique, slithery sensuality of singers Cat Ries and Harrison Colby give the record a feel that’s all its own.
Rx Drugs – Future Friction
There’s always a risk in taking an established songwriter out of their element. Will they lose some of their spark once they’re removed from the sonic trappings that defined their previous work? That was the chance Joe Crockett took moving from his country-inspired band The Championship to the more conventional rock-band setup of his new group Rx Drugs. The gambit paid off, though. Shaded with the stormy undertones of so many post-punk records, Future Friction is a triumph of mood—a record that manages to sound grandiose, even on songs that address defeat. One of these songs is titled “A Drag,” a winking nod to the buzzkill nature of Crockett’s songwriting, but rest assured Future Friction was anything but.
Sat. Nite Duets – Air Guitar
It’s weird to think of a band as young as Sat. Nite Duets as local rock veterans, but they’ve been at this for a while—they started at a time when the scene was a considerably less connected, more thankless place than it is today. Scaling back some of the quirk of their earlier releases, on Air Guitar the band’s many songwriters share their collective wisdom, reflecting on romance, sobriety, career goals and the unexpected ways that a life in rock ’n’ roll can age you, all with a newfound earnestness that flatters them. Even when they’re still joking around a bit, these songs sting.
Trapper Schoepp – Rangers & Valentines
For his latest dispatch of tour diaries and tall tales, Trapper Schoepp looked to the ’80s and the commercial heyday of heartland rock, an era when songwriters like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty packed the studio with as many musicians as their budget would allow to create some of their biggest, brightest records. He’s aided in that quest by producer Brendan Benson of The Raconteurs, who lends an intoxicating polish to Schoepp’s most rollicking, soulful set of tunes yet.
Slow Walker – Robert Plantain's Grunge Lords Vol. 1
Milwaukee riff gods Slow Walker have long been the proverbial bridesmaids of the local rock scene, a dependably great opening act who’ve yet to ascend to headlining status. Robert Plantain’s Grunge Lords Vol. 1’s makes the case for how badly these guys deserve a wider following, though. Dialing down some of the quirk of their self-titled debut and dialing the guitars way, way up, the band rips through nine elephant-heavy stoner rock tracks with gleeful abandon. You’d be hard pressed to find a better drop-mic of a closing track on a rock album this year than “The Reaping.”
Soul Low – Nosebleeds
On their sophomore album Nosebleeds, Soul Low are still providing the soundtrack to every anxiety attack you ever suffered in high school, dialing up the stomach-souring tension with some of their longest, most ambitious songs yet. But as always, they allay some of the queasiness with joyous hooks, therapeutic outbursts, surfy riffs and soaring saxophones that make even Nosebleeds’ most tumultuous numbers here land like a high five from a close friend.
Space Raft – Rubicon
How do you follow up one of the most beloved debut rock albums Milwaukee has produced in years? With a record that’s even brisker, more cheerful and driven than its predecessor. Once again Space Raft have managed to take an esoteric premise—sci-fi-minded power-pop songs about the very nature of existence—and turn it into something universally inviting. Rubicon isn’t all good vibes, though. The band breaks for a hard dose of reality in the form of “Red Arrow,” an account of the sickening 2014 police shooting of Dontre Hamilton in a public park. “Our institutions seem to have failed us one more time,” singer Jordan Davis sneers.
Ugly Brothers – 16 Tiny Mountains
At some point during the nearly two decades since Neutral Milk Hotel released In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, woozy strings and horns and other kitchen-sink indie-pop trappings became a kind of cliché, a way for albums to capture a certain aesthetic feel their songs didn’t always earn. But Ugly Brothers’ 16 Tiny Mountains testifies to how powerful those trappings can still be when they’re put to use in the service of a real vision. These feisty songs about the emotional highs and lows each season brings are loaded with surprising compositional twists and breathtakingly pretty adornments.
Vincent VanGREAT – UnGREATful
From Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book to Kanye West’s Life of Pablo, 2016 will be remembered in part as the year rap went to church. Vincent VanGREAT’s UnGREATful isn’t as openly devotional as those works, but the same spirit of uplift carries through it. Between VanGREAT’s fierce flow and his blunt, speaker-testing production, the album is in constant motion, somersaulting from one musical idea to the next. Some smartly employed guest spots from local heavy hitters like Dana Coppa, Klassik, SPEAK Easy and Yo-Dot complete the package.
Stream selections from these albums with the playlist below.