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Madison’s musical odds and ends of 2021

A look back at the standalone singles, compilations, covers, and other oddities that made 2021 a vital year for Madison music.

A look back at the standalone singles, compilations, covers, and other oddities that made 2021 a vital year for Madison music.

Header Image: A 5×4 grid displaying the art for 20 releases featured in this piece.

Every year, Tone Madison exhaustively rifles through hundreds of local releases to find records and songs worth showcasing. This year, we split those categories into two distinct groups while retaining a unifier: every single one of the songs featured belonged to a dedicated record. While that will likely be the model we use going forward, it leaves somewhat of a vacuum for songs and releases that were a little harder to neatly categorize. That’s why we’re celebrating them with this piece.

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In terms of records, compilations are always a fascinating prospect—hell, we even released one of our own this year—because of the diversity they encourage. Communication’s Queer Madison Mixtape series unveiled their first two entries, promising “low-effort recordings by local queers” and delivering in abundance. Brian Kohl’s Break Stuff: A Compilation For Black Lives compilation, which acted as a fundraiser for Urban Triage, took a different route and collected nu-metal covers to wildly entertaining effect.

In a similar vein, collaborations came fast and furious and in an array of shapes throughout 2021. Pelt and Luminous Veil both featured Madison-area members who were working across state lines within the confines of their own project and Louise Bock notched another superlative work by collaborating with New York-based PG Six. Composer Kyle Merckx went even further out, collaborating with UK-based Zoë Blade for a score to a video game centered on trans discovery. Acts who once called Madison home like The Voice contestant Raine Stern, electronic stalwart Golden Donna, and Arthur Caplan all had strong singles or records come out this year. Ryley Crowe, a musician connected to Madison via his Dusk bandmate Tyler Ditter, launched a label and released some exceptional music under multiple monikers.

Xerobot got a well-deserved reissue, a recording of KASE’s live debut was ushered out into the world, and Mama Digdown’s Brass Band also offered up a portal to the past through the characteristically rowdy and aptly-titled Live At The Green Mill 2005 (Bootleg Series Vol. 2).

Other forms of collaborations surfaced as well, whether that was in the form of a concept album riffing on American mythology from a local theatre group, Tandem Press’ mixed-media jazz-focused collaborations, producer Dro Cup’s mind-bending mash-ups, Lovely Socialite’s ongoing experimental Quarantine Loops series, or the collection comprising the Madison New Musical Festival Composers Project. All of those projects catered to the idea of communal strength, which was also on full display in DAMA’s artist mural series.

Musician-owned Madison labels like Aesthetic Headache, Loretta, Secret, and Painted Blonde all had relatively busy years as the self-releasing model’s viability continued to expand throughout 2021. A trio of musicians connected to acts formerly based out of Stevens Point (Heavy Looks’ Rosalind Greiert, Good Grief’s Jess Nowaczyk and Colin Bares) teamed up for a faithful cover of ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry,” Baby Tyler went wild across 20 covers, and Daughters Of Saint Crispin let loose a little holiday spirit with an inspired cover of “I Wish It Was Christmas Today.” Both of those covers underscored something that ubiquitous mastering presence Justin Perkins noted in an interview welcoming him back to Madison: singles continued to dominate the release landscape, for several reasons. Rather than getting into the sociopolitical weeds of why that’s the case within this specific showcase, we’ll be focusing on a few more standalone singles that truly stood out.

Honestly, keeping up with the sheer volume of individual tracks was a more time-consuming affair than usual this year, but the bright spots continued to make carving that attention out an extremely rewarding investment. Spy The Night, the project of producer and vocalist J Wilson, made a striking debut in the form of two singles this year. “Ghost Light” (teased as “an intro track to the yet-to-be-named upcoming album”) and “No Bliss” lay out a dark, charismatic, and catchy vision. Spy The Night’s synths, vocal melodies, and crisp drum tracks sound primed to explode into a grander vision, but stay tightly coiled, never giving up too much too soon. 

LINE allowed listeners in on a great song’s evolution, releasing an unmixed instrumental version of career highlight “No Burden” on Queer Madison Mixtape: Summer’s Ends to contextualize an extraordinary finished product, which found the band sticking the landing of an ambitious stylistic leap. Godly The Ruler followed up the release of one of our picks for 2021’s best records with a trio of NBA-inspired singles (“D Rod,” “Olajuwon,” and “Zion“), with each one further solidifying the emergent emcee as a singular talent.

Another emergent force within Madison’s music came by way of Andrea Gonzales-Paul’s project Mickey Sunshine. Since arriving from Detroit, Gonzales-Paul has been putting in serious work, evidenced by a torrential release pace for demos and singles. Mickey Sunshine hit some promising highs via nakedly honest accounts of various types of frustration in the ramshackle, sparse DIY punk tracks “Hot Gurl Summer,” “Repressed,” “Best Dad,” and “Click Clack Bang.

Mickey Sunshine wasn’t the only one with an outpouring of material either. Byan Myrold’s shoegaze-indebted Air Cabin project also teased out a quartet of great singles across the year in “One Less Sweet,” “No Bones,” “Hellbent,” and the genuinely astonishing “Think It Thru.” Richie, a mysterious solo recording project, threw out an emphatic one-two punch with spring releases “Daydreams” and “Apollo,” each of which excelled in cultivating a hazy, laid-back atmosphere. John Praw, as seemingly omnipresent now as he has been over the past few years in Wisconsin’s experimental scene, also got in on the year’s release action with the ridiculously fun and wonderfully blown-out “Princess Energy.”

While a lot of bands were busy releasing singles, a few acts went a step further and pulled out the cameras. LINE’s aforementioned “No Burden” was gifted a suitably intimate music video and Graham Hunt—a musician whose growing local imprint was evident in our Best Records selections—turned in a ridiculously charming hangout clip for “Change Their Mind.” The video for Rest Of The Best selection “Shoestrings (Hold On)” found the prodigious Danielle Crim utilizing strobing effects for mesmeric visuals and Lady Esque delivered a pointedly lo-fi and offbeat visual presentation for the chaotic glitch-pop track “Goth In The Summer.” 

Through it all, a diverse collection of talents, voices, perspectives, and experiences were communicated with honesty and passion, operating in the service of artistic expansion. A lot of what makes Madison’s music scene found intriguing ways to thrive throughout the year, as the city still contended with the restrictions and risks present in live music. Looking back at what our artists were able to accomplish in those circumstances, feeling a bit of pride is inevitable. Let’s keep going.

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