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 brown 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.
Cal Lamore, “Shark Skin”
Multi-instrumentalist Cal Lamore had a hell of a 2021, releasing three excellent—and shockingly varied—solo records, along with Soot’s second full-length. Looking at Lamore’s solo output, nothing is quite as show-stopping as the unabashedly massive “Shark Skin.” Deer Bed‘s third track and unlikely centerpiece swings from frenzied, future-minded shoegaze to melodic punk to post-hardcore to ambient noise with abandon. Unpredictable, sharp as hell, and exactingly precise, “Shark Skin” is as tough as its title and reveals something deadly throughout its madcap run. —Steven Spoerl
Lunar Moth, “Abecedarian”
Madison rock trio Lunar Moth keeps it raw while edging into more lush and saturated sounds, from low-end sludge to glimmers of shoegaze. “Abecedarian,” from this year’s album Honestly, Maybe, starts off with a lean attack but eventually starts trudging its way into fraught doom-metal territory. Guitarist/vocalist Amber Moth, drummer Gage Brunes, and bassist Felckowski shift capably between different rhythmic feels and degrees of heaviness, bringing dynamism to the song’s succinct chorus of “Give it to me, give me some more, I can’t take more.” —Scott Gordon
Moth_OS, “Ctrl Rom”
Fully-fledged chiptune is a relative scarcity in Madison’s music landscape, which is why it’s somewhat surprising Moth_OS’ Mothware is so assured. “Ctrl Rom,” the EP’s whirlwind closer, sounds like it’s the byproduct of several years’ worth of immediate exposure and refinement, not a relative outlier. “Ctrl Rom” finds the duo of Liam McCarty and Will Patton throwing a number of genres through a macro chiptune lens while toying with a surprisingly soulful brand of paranoia in the lyrics. Reality on the fringes can be a terrifying prospect, but “Ctrl Rom” makes it sound like a party. —SS
Penelope’s Thrill, “Lonnie And Chloe”
After being coaxed out of musical retirement by his son, Timothy Walsh set to work on Twilight On Tunnel Road. Rollicking, roots-informed Americana acts as the springboard for a tale of two kids who hit it off and grow up together before parting. “Lonnie And Chloe,” the track that kicks the narrative into motion, is full of tasteful guitar riffing, bright splashes of Cars-esque keys, catchy backing vocals, and endearing references to Wisconsin pastime hallmarks. Both an arresting introduction and a strong standalone track, “Lonnie And Chloe” serves as a potent reminder to seize inspiration. —SS
Vincent Presley, “Two”
From the synth-barricaded lair of Secret Records, longtime Madison musician Vincent Presley (Zebras, Those Poor Bastards) issued two very-late-2020 albums of electronic instrumentals, Music To Die To and Music To Rot And Resurrect. The second track of Music To Die To arranges eerie, sparse phrases across a few different synthesizers, some emitting a guttural pulse and some letting in just a bit of light and color. For all the gear at his disposal, Presley is careful not to layer on too much: Each distinct element has plenty of open, forbidding space to ring out. —SG
Pretty From A Distance, “What’s Up Denny’s”
Few things will catch my attention like titling something “What’s Up Denny’s.” Ben Sholl’s Pretty From A Distance project isn’t quite pulverizing hardcore/metal, the silky, R&B-inflected ambient pop track still stands out on its own individual merits. Four lines comprise the entirety of the song’s narrative, ostensibly recounting a charged slice of romantic tension at a Denny’s. Who knew aggressive mundanity could be at the root of this type of swooning? —SS
The Reptile Fund, “Chip In My Head”
While he’s not Madison-based, it’s still worth noting that everything mixed by Kyle Gilbride (who rose to notoriety as a guitarist/vocalist in Swearin’) seems to be of a ridiculously high standard. It’s no surprise his name crops up on the credits for Reptile Fund’s Cognitive Behavioral Destruction (which was mastered by Justin Perkins, who is Madison-based). Similarly, it’s no surprise that a Graham Hunt and Shannon Connor project would kick out exceptional material. “Chip In My Head” was everyone’s first look at The Reptile Fund and their spiky, jagged strain of basement pop made a lasting impression. A genuine ripper from genuine rippers. —SS
Rocket Bureau, “Not You”
Punk-indebted power pop that operates with a historical and contextual knowledge of the genre may be a predictable development, but the results remain incredibly satisfying. Rocket Bureau’s “Not You” recalls a number of great power pop acts that operated in a similar vein—The Figgs definitely come to mind—and proves, again, that Kyle Urban is a musical force. An ode to lost youth, “Not You” sits comfortably alongside tracks that have made power pop such an enduring genre. Sharp riffs, punchy structure, and a last-ditch vocal delivery lend themselves to leaving this one on repeat. —SS
Sigra, “Samhain, Under The Blue Moon”
An air of mystery permeates the closing track on Sigra‘s Bad Faith EP, as the singer-songwriter sinks into a personal tale of love and longing, using religious iconography that connects to the Gaelic festival and natural world of its title. Sigra’s intimately mixed vocal vibrato, paired with the rhythmic pace of chilly Moog figures, feel like the product of a genuine goth going simultaneously through a Scandinavian ethereal wave and bedroom pop phase. —Grant Phipps
Indigo Smith Oles, “November”
Indigo Smith Oles, guitarist for stormy post-punk outfit Interlay, retreats into a lonelier, sweeter zone on his eight-song solo release Nothing About This Is Beautiful. On “November,” acoustic guitar and twinkling pockets of reverb help Smith Oles capture moments where beauty and monotony get all wrapped up in one another. “Laying down my skin at tomorrow’s door / Watching the sun turn to dust,” begins the second verse of the song’s subdued vocal performance, which finds Smith Oles both wallowing in a dreary day and tenuously hinting at brighter ones ahead. —SG
Terran, “Capgras Delusion”
Myriad elements of electronic music and heavy psych-rock collide in strange, shattering layers in Terrance Barrett’s solo work, released under the name Terran. Like 2019’s Dead Leaves On A Cool Breeze, this year’s Psychic Weight envelops you in a space both intimate and alien. “Capgras Delusion,” named for a disorder that makes the sufferer think an imposter has replaced a person in their lives, does that primarily through a couple of looped guitar figures and a taut, warbling solo. The instrumental track already feels full before drums and bass kick in toward the end, shifting the vantage point and warping the listener’s sense of calm and familiarity. —SG
Tollbooth, “Nothing Happens”
Sheridan Connor and Benjamin Kissick teamed up to form Tollbooth, releasing a Wilco cover before revealing a self-titled EP. While Tollbooth is largely a muted affair, the mid-tempo power pop-indebted “Nothing Happens” offers a clear spark. There’s an underlying intensity to preemptive kiss-off lines like “I promise you won’t stay” that betray a self-loathing that heightens both structural and emotional dramatics. “Nothing Happens” is a slow-motion collision of desperation and ennui that unfurls in the open, making it difficult to turn away while openly encouraging self-reflection. —SS
Treatment, “Annunaki’s Blues”
The opener to Treatment‘s latest EP, Weeping House, is an ambitious art-punk tone-setter, leading with Liam Casey’s dark, angular guitar riff and Adam Grunder’s doomy drum fills. But, just 30 seconds in, the band then folds in a psychedelic melody that alludes to the ancient gods of its title. With Derek Anderson’s distant shouts and Joe Darcy’s bold, prog rock-leaning bassline, Treatment finds creative inspiration and thrashing thrills in the same corner as Protomartyr and The Drones. —GP
Jess Waggoner, “Bonnie”
There were several notable compilations to come out of Madison this year but only one dedicated compilation series: Communication’s Queer Madison Mixtape. Between its two current entries, the series totals 29 songs and counting. Many of them could have been featured here, but Jess Waggoner’s elegiac, ethereal “Bonnie”, taken from Summer’s Ends, feels like the appropriate representative. In a guitar-organ-and-vocals ballad that recalls Waxahatchee’s quietest work, Waggoner takes on faith, shame, sobriety, queerness, love, and impermanence with astonishing tenderness and a depth of feeling. “Bonnie” is a sublime show of understated strength from an extremely promising songwriter. —SS
Yuka Zolo, “Dissector”
Yuka Zolo’s Bleed was full of superlative post-punk, but “Dissector” stood out among the EP’s 6 tracks, demonstrating the band’s ability to bridge a darker tonality with melodic and structural tendencies that have effectively defined—and rarely been found outside of—a recent wave of brash Swedish power pop. Soaring vocals, octave-hopping bass figures, wall-of-sound guitars, and powerful drumming provide the song with both a sense of unbridled momentum and an additional us-versus-them bite. Immediate and immediately winsome, “Dissector” was a perfect opener for a tenacious record. —SS
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