Our picks for the best albums, EPs and mixtapes Madison artists released this year.
Let’s get right to it: Here are my picks for the best Madison albums, EPs and mixtapes of the year. As usual, you jerks didn’t make it easy. There’s good stuff everyone was talking about, good stuff almost no one was talking about, great debut albums, bands that broke up, bands that recorded their debut albums and then broke up, and worthy efforts at everything from accessible folk to far-flung avant-garde music. As usual, it’s all based on what I enjoyed listening to this year, especially the stuff that surprised and challenged me, and what I’ll want to keep listening to in the future. Go see music and buy records and stuff. A few dumb housekeeping notes: It’s in alphabetical order, my usual writing pal Joel Shanahan had to bow out from contributing due to several whopping conflicts of interest (yay writing about music in a small city), and I’ll be posting a bunch of honorable mentions and other odds and ends tomorrow.
Merch is the second mixtape from this young hip-hop crew, and it’s easy to forgive the youthful heavy-handedness that inevitably comes through here, because 3rd Dimension spend most of it in a stylistically shifting, quick-moving exchange among MCs Probz, Spaz, Rico, and HalfBreed. In other words, just about every track centers on the contrasts among the MCs, jumping between cocky, laconic flows and choppy, internal-rhyme-laden passages. Producer Burn$ampson works with a varied palette too—steamy street-rap synths on “High Knees,” warm piano samples on “I Love It,” woozy horns on “Money In The Street.”
Auscultation is one of many electronic projects by Joel Shanahan, who writes for this site and is a close friend of mine. I always err on the side of covering Joel’s music very little, and so have other writers in town who are friends with Joel. It feels right on that journalism ethics 101 level of not letting your coverage come off as a favor to your buddies, but it feels unsatisfying on the level of basically ignoring someone who makes good music and contributes a lot to the local music community. Well, this once I have to say fuck it. Just fuck it. In my years of hearing Joel’s music, this tape for the Vancouver-based 1080p Collection label is my favorite single release of his. Auscultation tends to be a bit more loose and frizzy than Joel’s best-known thing, Golden Donna (which also released an album this year). Where Golden Donna songs tend to be taut and elaborately layered, Auscultation tracks like “Automated Jade” and “Found By The Gate” embrace a misty sprawl, with chords ringing out at funky intervals and even the percussion sounding a bit distant and scratchy. There’s still a sense of melody here, especially in the conversational synth lines of “Laces,” but it’s more spontaneous, and more likely to give way to ambient influences.
Madison metal band Bereft’s first album has the pain-laced grandeur of post-metal, but even the 8-minute title track is pretty focused and compact as these things go. On the standout tracks “Unwelcome” and “For Nothing,” Bereft balance complex song structures with raw, black-metal-retch vocals that obscure the words but lay the emotions bare. Lost Ages’ playing and production are also accomplished for a lineup that has only been together for about a year and a half: It’s got lots of sonic breathing room, but isn’t too awash and reverb or delay or sludge-y low end, which is always a hard balance to achieve in heavy music. Next show: Feb. 7 at The Wisco. Further reading: An interview with guitarists/vocalists Alex Linden and Zach Johnson.
What a spirited, punchy, well-loved band we’ve lost in Bes Monde. The band existed for just three years, but at least that was long enough for singer Michelle Schinker to build up a ton of confidence as a vocalist and create a stage presence that balanced toughness with vulnerability. Bes Monde’s first and last album, Party Cut, shows the whole band cohering in a warm and catchy take on punk rock, from the playful capers of “Blindsided” and “Hot Probs” to the ominous charge of “Sparkle.”
Whenever it’s the least bit warm in Madison, you’ll probably encounter Boo Bradley playing on a sidewalk downtown, looking almost like Americana’s answer to a Dr. Suess contraption—Scott Mullarky with his guitar, kazoo, bass drum, and bicycle horn, and Bradley Selz with his washboard and assorted metal percussion doo-dads. Behind all that, the two have great ears for many folk and blues styles and the murky points at which they cross paths and blend together. Their playful but disarming approach turns out to be a great way to open up festive, yelping blues songs (“Dirty B’ness”), swampy slide-guitar numbers (“Somebody”), popular folk songs (“Freight Train”), and a even Spanish-guitar instrumental (“Sevillana”). There’s a lot of history wrapped up in Rub Rub Rub, and it’s delivered with a self-effacing, fun-loving attitude that makes the record all the more engaging and edifying. Next show: Every 4th Wednesday at the Weary Traveler.
Building On Buildings’ first album shows that mild-mannered rock can say a lot about becoming a sadder, wiser grown-up. On “Wheel,” Erin Fuller’s vocals and Connie Ward’s conversational guitar phrases channel a great weariness. There’s a bit more optimism in songs like “The Fall” and “Ghost Of A Friend,” but even those come with the unmistakable feeling of leaving things behind. Although Fuller and Ward still feel like the center of the band, all five members contribute here to shaping a variety of really cool arrangements, from the electronic beats of “Sharpshooters” to the stormy dynamics of “I Suppose” and “If/Then.” Next show: Thursday at the High Noon, opening for The Sea And Cake. Further reading: Our recent interview with the whole band.
Clay Ruby’s long-running Burial Hex project is the product of a mercurial talent: Ruby shifts vividly through styles and moods, from harsh power-electronics to magisterial string arrangements, and you could probably listen to his entire output and still not feel quite sure just what he’s about. The Hierophant, released as Ruby works on a triple album that will conclude the Burial Hex cycle, might be the most diversity he’s ever put into a single album. The title track begins with guttural, metal-influenced vocals but eventually bursts into one crescendo after another of tender melody. The 15-minute closer “The Most Foolish Son Is Always The Oldest One” incorporates austere techno, eerily funky bass parts, field recordings, and dramatic baritone vocals. So yes, The Hierophant is a tough nut to crack, but Ruby matches his sonic eclecticism with a dark and gorgeous range of feeling. Further reading: Our recent interview with Ruby.
On this collaboration with producer *hitmayng, rapper CRASHprez unleashes frustration and alienation in a way that resists being co-opted or simplified. CRASHprez certainly doesn’t let the listener take comfort in simply nodding along and agreeing, even on “Do Somethin’,” when he talks about America’s habit of murdering unarmed black people in the street. The duo released Fear Itself on Martin Luther King. Jr Day 2014, with a cover depicting a crucified MLK, and clearly don’t expect everyone to be interpret that as intended: The EP ends with a skit in which CRASHprez gets shot by someone outraged by the gesture, then an announcer named DJ Farrakhan comes on and plugs a tacky club night in memoriam. CRASHprez and *hitmayng prove adept at jumping across styles and moods together, starting off with the earnest “Kill Me Dead” and ending with the the smart-assed manifesto “Aaron McGruder.” The EP is never easy to latch on to or sum up, but instead finds its strength in raw and restless creativity.
Double Ewes’ first full-length album recalls the genre-smearing beauty of Califone and Akron/Family. The Madison/Janesville band draws on both folk-rooted songwriting and a dense mix of of synths, samples, and electronic beats. But instead of playing off the potential contrast of those elements, Whilden Hughes and bandmates Jeremy Nealis and Max Jewer let it all slowly bleed together. This process happens with such finesse and gradualness that Double Ewes never comes off as simply a gimmicky hybrid. On “Deck Echoes,” glimmering drones sneak around piano and percussion. On “Leave The Dance (With The Girl You Brought),” a blues-y phrase gets chopped up into a sample, but gels calmly with Hughes’ vocal melody. And on just about all the songs, Double Ewes sounds wholly contemporary, and equally at ease with all of its inspirations. Further reading: Our July interview with Whilden Hughes.
The songs and characters in Paul Otteson’s songs are engrossing even when they’re obscured by his writing style and distinctive vocals, which is most of the time. On Lonesome Loon, Otteson’s band Faux Fawn does its best work yet, each piece in somber harmony with the next from the lyrics to Jeremiah Nelson’s lead guitar. The narrator of “Marguerite” is “still reared and pulled astray/ by something darker by design,” and the band matches his frail, resigned state with faintly tapping percussion and sparse piano chords. The band accompanies the tragic, hedonistic “Poor Babbitt with shuddering violin and a dissonant guitar solo. Lonesome Loon tells many stories of heartbreak and disillusionment, but the band finds almost as many subtle variations on all that darkness. Next show: This Saturday’s Wintersong charity concert at the Barrymore. Further reading: A recent interview with Paul Otteson.
In just a couple years, Madison garage-punks Fire Retarded went from charmingly scrappy demos and 7-inches to an album that’s vastly more fleshed-out in both its sound and its songwriting. Yes, there’s plenty of bashing rhythm from drummer Alex Ross and snarled screaming from guitarist Tyler Fassnacht at the center of Scroggz Manor, but the band also shows a lot of dimension, swinging queasily on “Meat Stairs,” thrashing angrily on “A Mess” and “High Horse,” and settling into jangly power-pop on closer “Overrated Kayak.” Guitarists Tyler Fassnacht and Bobby Hussy let us have a bit of distorted, lo-fi claustrophobia, but mostly spread their sounds out, letting us have a diverse dynamic range as well. Next show: December 20 at The Frequency.
David Libert likes to write soulful folk songs and he likes to tinker around with lo-fi dub-psych production. Before leaving his native Madison earlier this year to travel around the country for a while, he released this pile of 25 tracks under the name Kola Gong. Great Moments In Rhythm Music has a lot of sketched-out and spontaneous moments, but luckily his big-hearted outsider persona still comes through, especially on the playful but still dead-earnest “Barry Gibb” and the disco-inspired “Master Of Soul.” Further reading: An interview with David Libert.
More than anything else I’ve heard from a Madison artist this year, Mr. Jackson’s debut album is just determined to cheer the listener up, and it succeeds. Singer/synth player/beatmaker Ethan Jackson’s approach to R&B is often flamboyant and goofy—for instance, the swoopy funk of “Synth Bride” and the jittery sampling of “Groove Meal”—but what really comes through is an effusive sincerity, and a love for the sheer healing pleasures of pop. And especially on “Ms. L,” Jackson leaves little doubt that he can write great hooks and power them along with sultry arrangements. Next show: December 18 at The Frequency. Further reading: Our interview with Ethan Jackson.
Andrew Fitzpatrick is nothing if not versatile. He contributes sleek, heavily processed guitar work to All Tiny Creatures and Volcano Choir, and his solo work as Noxroy has spanned from gorgeous ambient music to abstract, skronky synth work. On Anverloss, Fitzpatrick heads full on into gritty, fractured synthesis, stepping away from melody in favor of pieces that feel like living experiments in texture. The results are often abrasive, especially the ungodly, squashing “Reliable Sketch,” while tracks like “Calculus Almond” and “Manuscript” offer some moments of droning, gentle respite, but there’s always a sense that Fitzpatrick is in command of this primordial sonic landscape. (Full disclosure: This was released on Tone Madison contributor Joel Shanahan’s label, Signal Dreams; Joel did not have a role in selecting records for this year’s list.)
Yes, that is the sound of a bandwagon’s axel giving out, but listen: When Phox got a chance at success, they came through with this poised and lovingly crafted album. Their first album for a national label feels a lot more focused than their self-released 2012 album Friendship (as heard on the now-blank Phox Bandcamp page), and in a way that feels like the next natural step. There’s still plenty of gentle whimsy in the mix—”hold your tongue, we’re having all the fun,” Monica Martin sings on “Leisure”—and the band reins in its elaborate arrangements but not too much (cue fantasy of big-shot producer bursting into the studio and snapping someone’s clarinet over his knee). Other standout tracks, including “Kingfisher” and “Noble Heart,” stay rooted in solid and graceful melodies. If you were rooting from them a couple years back, I don’t see how you could be disappointed with this record; and if you weren’t yet won over, it may well help you pick up on what people love about this band.
Beau Devereaux’s last album under the name Samantha Glass, 2012’s Mysteries From The Palomino Skyliner, offered hazy synth-pop comforts that are nowhere to be found on the electronic project’s latest EP. Instead Surface Water Perception roams the fringes of industrial and techno, leading with percussive burbles, bleak atmospherics, and often the most distant, eerie shreds of melody. But even here there’s a great deal of variety and surprise: The standout track “Creator’s Balance” starts off ominously, but then in comes an almost cheerful synth hook, like a brave little ray of sunshine cutting through and overcast day.
Sure, plenty of noise-rock bands have a capably lurching rhythm section and burly vocals, but Sinking Suns have learned to use those elements with a great deal of suspense and flexibility. The six tracks on Songs Of Revenge find the band really harnessing what makes it distinctive, and not in a repetitive way, either. Each track puts something different at the forefront: The wriggling, bent-all-to-hell guitar lines on “Drown In Black,” the menacing, plodding drums of “A Song Of Revenge,” the vertiginous bass lines of “Fathoms Deep.” It’s definitely one of the most addictive listens on this year’s list. Next show: Friday at the Inferno.
Tiny Daggers is another band gone to soon, as its sole album, released post-breakup, makes clear. Heavy Levitation comprises 11 quick-and-dirty punk songs that rely on just three monstrous sounds: Nikki Shackleford’s bellowing vocals, Ben Brooks’ pile-driving drums, and Anthony Moraga’s crunchy distorted bass. There are plenty of hooks on songs like “New Wave Itch,” “Vacations,” and “Turn You Out,” but mostly the pleasure of Heavy Levitation is in hearing Shackleford unapologetically blow off steam and tell people to fuck off, over her bandmates’ raw and ferocious attack.
It’s been good to see Trin Tran, AKA Madison’s Steve Coombs, gain some wider notice lately, with Ty Segall’s God? label releasing the Dark Radar retrospective in 2012 and Bay Area garage-punk powerhouse Castle Face Record picking him up for this year’s Far Reaches EP. Coombs has spent years crafting his synth-heavy post-punk, often performing as a one-man band and only recently branching out into a full-band format for live sets (full D’s, Joel sometimes plays bass in that band). This EP, especially the title track and “Hearts Are Serious,” shows Coombs’ gift for combing twitchy rhythms and jabbering vocals with euphoric synth hooks. It’s one of the catchiest things Coombs has done, and it’s got an unexpected bit of rock ’n’ roll bite to it, but it’s just as lovably demented as we’d expect a Trin Tran release to be. Next show: New Year’s Eve at Mickey’s Tavern. Further reading: Our interview with Steve Coombs from earlier this year.
The Madison-based label and music collective Catch Wreck has had a busy year of releases and shows that highlighted young, bold voices in electronic music and hip hop. (See CRASHprez and *hitmayng’s Fear Itself, above.) On Sleepers, *hitmayng and fellow Madison artist Kiazma (along with Colorado’s FOANS and UK artist iglooghost) step away from the beats and explore brittle, beautiful ambient music, each turning in a few untitled tracks. For *hitmayng that means creating eerie landscapes of white noise, dissonant tones, and distant voices. Kiazma’s contributions here are a bit more stately and melodic, but no less intriguing for that. Both producers spend a lot of time in other territory—*hitmayng in hip hop, Kiazma with techno. So it’s exciting that, along with throwing shows that feature free pizza and free pancakes, Catch Wreck artists also make it a point to experiment with a broad range of sounds.
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