Rest of the best: Tone Madison’s 2021 song picks, pt. I

A look back at great songs from records that didn’t appear in our top 20.

A look back at great songs from records that didn’t appear in our top 20.

Header Image: The album art for all 15 featured releases is displayed in a 5×3 line, each slightly spaced from the others. All of the art is displayed on top of a light cream background.

In recent years, Tone Madison has run a top 20 roundup of local artists’ albums and EPs, tried to capture some honorable mentions, and afforded a spotlight to some standout singles. This year, we’re doing things a little differently. To underscore the amount of excellent material that Madison musicians have been producing, we’re expanding and readjusting the parameters of eligibility for songs. Every selection you see here will be from a release that did not appear in our top 20 Madison records of 2021 list.


Even in expanding out to 30 selections, there were a few tracks that wound up being agonizingly painful to leave off this list, a testament to both the resilience and talent of Madison’s musicians. Jazz, rap, experimental music, punk, metal, folk, pop, and pointed demolitions of the barriers between genres are all celebrated between our picks, which will feature across two installments.

Though recent years have been fairly harsh on the way music typically operates, it’s hard not to feel some pangs of pride when it comes to Madison musicians’ collective response. As you’ll be able to hear throughout these picks, our local scene is alive and kicking, obstacles be damned. Help us celebrate some of our favorite tracks from 2021 by scrolling through and listening along.

Without further ado, here are our picks for the songs that helped define the music to come out of Madison this year.


Air Cabin, “Only One”

Towards the tail end of 2020, Bryan Myrold’s Air Cabin project released the superlative I Don’t Wanna Dream, highlighted by standout single “Only One.” Myrold’s deft combination of dream pop, shoegaze, and ’90s alternative influences hit skyscraper heights on “Only One,” evoking the type of awestruck perspective familiar to anyone who’s experienced an above-the-clouds view. While there’s an aura of sweetness central to “Only One,” it’s balanced out by a tenacious bite, providing the track with an atmosphere that’s remarkably compelling. —Steven Spoerl

B-Luv, “Sun Beams” 

Bouncy, vibrant, and hypnotic, the instrumental track “Sun Beams” underscores the allure of producer B-Luv’s Defective Portraits. Bells, atmospheric guitar riffing, a hip-hop backbeat, and ethereal keys work in tandem to conjure up a mysterious, lightly foreboding atmosphere. There’s an intangible depth of emotion to be unearthed on “Sun Beams,” playing directly to the nostalgia encouraged by its title. Melancholic and comforting, B-Luv has crafted an exceedingly graceful track that finds purpose in both ebb and flow. —SS

Baby Tyler, “Wanna Go Away”

Tyler Fassnacht has had a prolific stretch since COVID rearranged the world’s functionality, releasing three EP’s and a covers collection under his Baby Tyler moniker, a full-length under his folk-forward TS Foss guise, Proud Parents’ recent full-length, and offering key contributions to several other records. “Wanna Go Away,” the opener from Baby Tyler’s SweetTooth EP, might just be the strongest Fassnacht-penned track from that wealth of genuinely formidable material. Spry, punchy, direct, and full of sugar-spiked aggression, “Wanna Go Away” is the perfect distillation of the tendencies that make Fassnacht so adept at penning memorable basement pop. —SS

Bad Philosopher, “Sif’s Gift”

Jazz fusion outfit Bad Philosopher creates a gripping narrative while remaining gentle and tender throughout standout track “Sif’s Gift.” Pianist Jason Kutz and saxophonist Tony Barba, respectively begin the piece doubled in thoughtful conversation. Their dialogue builds into a peaceful pentatonicism that slowly encourages the rhythm section to join in full swing. Barba and Kutz take turns weaving between Chris Di Bernardo’s hi-hat texture, slowly building, and ultimately unfolding their initial theme, now bursting in vigor. —Emili Earhart

Dylan Bryne, “95 Red Line”

Producer Dylan Bryne continues to drop top-tier grooves on our heads and hearts with the release of 2021’s Different Name, Same Groove EP. The title references Dylan’s own, actual name change, as well as their commitment to infectious house tracks fit for the dancefloor. Standout track “95 Red Line” is a driving, melodious ode to classic deep house tunes—with its thudding bass line overlaid by a funky bass hook and dreamy synth hits.


Bryne refers to the track as “an ode to the sound of mid-‘90s bassbins and DJs who ignored the screamed pleading of sound engineers” and, well, if you know you know. There’s nothing overly flashy about the track—none of the clipped-out highs or repeated-ad-nauseum-builds-and-drops of much of today’s popular EDM. Instead, Bryne invites the listener to give themselves over to a mood and a groove. “95 Red Line” is a deceptively simple, high-quality bop for both longtime house heads and those yet to be born. —Emily Mills

Chants, “One Note”

Few experimental records to come out of Madison held me in their thrall in a way that was even remotely similar to what I experienced listening to Poly Pointillism, the latest record from Jordan Cohen‘s Chants project. No track is more emblematic of Poly Pointillism‘s mystique than the warped, meditative “One Note,” which tantalizingly dances around a persistent, natural E. There’s a mesmeric quality to the kalimba samples used for “One Note” that guide the listener along a razor’s-edge tightrope from an uncertain start through a dizzying journey to a final, hard-won exhalation. —SS

Cowboy Amazing, “Don’t Spook The Horses”

Bone-crushing intensity has always held a place in my heart when it comes to music, no matter the genre. Post-hardcore that has no qualms about amplifying this trait has always been striking for its full-throated commitment on that front. Cowboy Amazing’s “Don’t Spook The Horses” is an exhilarating testament to the end results of what that decision can accomplish. Brutal, no-holds-barred fury sends this track hurtling forwards and the band has the wherewithal to lean in with no reservations, leading a whole-gale charge that has no intention of turning back. —SS

Danielle Crim, “Shoestrings (Hold On)”

Light bells and an enchanting hum open Danielle Crim’s “Shoestrings (Hold On),” setting up a silky modern pop track that unfolds in deliberate increments, incorporating industrial and experimental elements in well-paced turns. Ancillary guitar, mix-dominating blasts of programmed percussion, and small flourishes act as an anchor to Crim’s soaring vocals, tying “Shoestrings (Hold On)” together. Crim’s sure-handed touch as both a musician and producer are on full display here and point to an extremely bright future both on either side of the boards. —SS

Daughters Of Saint Crispin, “What You Own, Owns You”

Daughters Of Saint Crispin creates heavy slowcore, thickened with sludgy dissonance, stripped down to a sustained sparseness that marches into oblivion. “What You Own, Owns You” opens with a seemingly undisturbed guitar riff, reminiscent of Slint’s Spiderland. As the guitar peels off into sharp, dissonant stabs, the bass forges on in undisturbed spirit, as if purposefully ignoring the unsettling lyrics: “things you own, end up owning you.” The lyrics repeat, almost robotically as a mantra, before ultimately detonating and doubling the guitar’s melody, closing the track and the duo’s self-titled debut full-length. —EE

Devour Every Star, “Low Income Cell Destroyer”

Cameron Davis of Cicada The Burrower—an act that cracked our top 20 records list—followed up one adventurous 2021 effort with another. Davis’ other ambitiously genre-blurring solo project, Devour Every Star, finds graceful ways to blend crackly trip-hop with elements of metal. On “Low Income Cell Destroyer,” Davis uses insistent, haunting synths and refreshingly raw percussion, building up to dark, heavy guitar parts that deepen rather than disrupt the ethereal groove. —Scott Gordon

DLO, “Millz”

Producer and rapper DLO started putting out instrumental albums in 2008 (most are currently only available via Bandcamp subscription). Throughout that body of work, he’s favored short pieces, often running under two minutes, that feel more like complete, tightly contained statements than potential sketches for something else. “Millz,” from this summer’s

Definite Chops Vol. II, fades in as if we’re catching DLO mid-process, in the zone, in a whirl of ideas. Through most of the track, a single melodic phrase bounces across multiple instruments, creating a pleasant momentum that makes for a very immersive one minute and 50 seconds. —SG

Hannah Edlén, “Butterfly Funeral”

A twinkling Rhodes piano figure, woozy melodica, and wordless vocals come into focus over a background of squiggly, squirming electronics to coax the listener into “Butterfly Funeral,” from multi-instrumentalist Hannah Edlén’s debut album, Somersault. Even as “one person playing everything plus loopers” projects go, this one is ambitious: Edlén plays clarinet, keys, baritone sax, percussion, melodica, guitar, bass, in addition to singing, programming a drum machine, and gathering field recordings. Each of the 10 songs has its own plan of attack, and the best ones combine off-kilter mischief with gentle charm. —SG

EMTN, “Keep On Dancing”

An early October roundup highlighted EMTN’s “Keep On Dancing” for its tender, thoughtful take on indie pop. While that same observation can be applied to the quartet’s Brainstem EP, “Keep On Dancing” remains a clear highlight. Using calm, restraint, and a knack for ornate flourishes, the young band flashes serious promise on a track that’s both commercially and artistically agreeable. While the lyrics gnaw away at inner turmoil, the music of “Keep On Dancing” makes it easy to keep in step with the title’s direction. —SS

Exandroid, “The Way It Was”

Sasha Rosser’s Exandroid project has been extremely prolific as of late, accounting for no less than 10 releases since April 2019. Most recently, Rosser unveiled Haves Of A Hole, which featured a breathtaking moment of repose via “The Way It Was.” Subdued, eloquent piano figures are heightened by restrained beatmaking, effectively drumming up a sense of embattled wonderment. Echoing the reverential nature of Aphex Twin’s landmark “Avril 14th,” “The Way It Was” is arresting for its simplicity and the ease with which it communicates genuine longing. —SS

Jane Hobson, “Talk Back To Me”

Jane Hobson begins her seven-song release Early College singing about the powerful pull someone can exert in their absence. “Talk Back To Me” brings this delicious agony to life through Hobson and Christian A. Grooms’ ringing guitar figures and Dan Hobson’s tense, restrained drums. Jane Hobson addresses the song to someone who might have just stepped away for a bit or might not reciprocate her powerful sense of a connection—”Can’t you see what you do?”—and brings it all across with a vocal performance that burns somewhere between ecstasy and despair. —SG

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