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Tone Madison’s top 20 Madison records of 2020

The albums and EPs that did local music proud under the worst conditions.

The albums and EPs that did local music proud under the worst conditions. | By Luis Acosta Jr., Scott Gordon, John McCracken, and Steven Spoerl

Madison musicians are used to creating small but energetic pockets of creativity and community without being able to depend on support from the powers that be, the wider music industry, or a solid local music infrastructure. We deserve better conditions but that hurdle, for better or worse, has informed outstanding work from Madison’s music community. In a dreadful, hostile year, that community adapted to myriad challenges and delivered exceptional work. 

As always, the albums and EPs that stood out this year are a messy sprawl, not particularly favoring any one genre or age group or clique. From eager young rappers to grizzled metal veterans to stalwart jazz players, unwieldy variety is our strength. Tone Madison‘s music writers looked back over the year’s local releases and picked 20 to feature in this annual list. Check back later this week for some honorable mentions, odds and ends, and other reflections on the year in local music. —Scott Gordon, editor-in-chief and publisher, and Steven Spoerl, music editor

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90’sdreamboy, I <3 90’sdreamboy (self-released)

Madison’s music community suffered a grievous loss in June when Ash Quinn died at the age of 27. Just a few months earlier, Quinn’s band 90’sdreamboy released its debut EP, which captures the ferocious charisma, playful humor, and broadening musical palette he brought to his busy and all too brief career in punk rock. Quinn (on bass and vocals in this band), guitarist/vocalist Danielle Jordan, and drummer/vocalist Vivian Lin pull together elements of spiky punk and anthemic pop on I <3 90’sdreamboy, piling ample declarations of love and desire into four triumphantly catchy songs. There’s plenty of emotional range here, from the gleefully smart-assed “Macaulay Sulkin'” to the almost shoegaze-like catharsis of “But I’m A Cheerleader.” But the clear standout is closing track “Bound,” a duet in which Quinn and Jordan channel the lesbian romance from the 1996 film of the same title. It’s funny, grimy, blatantly horny, suspenseful, and an absolute blast from a mighty queer-punk trio that refused to be pigeonholed. —Scott Gordon

The August Teens, I’m Selfish And So Is My Cat (self-released)

A power-pop band with a gently comic streak, The August Teens also pack a ton of vulnerability in between Dan Hardgrove and David Esmond’s jangling guitar work. Hardgrove, also the band’s lead singer and songwriter, does bittersweet well: Just listen to the title track from the band’s 2010 debut album, A Kiss In Wisconsin. The long-in-the-works follow-up album, I’m Selfish And So Is My Cat, deepens the approach with a few wallops of genuine sadness, especially the baleful waltz drummer Josh Labbus and bassist Kyle Urban (who also produced the album in his home studio) create on “Old Friend.” But The August Teens mostly thrive in the in-between zones: the punchy “You’re Not Like Me, Baby” pits flirtation and avoidance, while “Strum Echoes” contemplates the experience of local musicians with both fondness and self-deprecating humor. “It’s only rock ‘n’ roll, it’s only one small town,” Hardgrove sings on the latter. He’s probably right, but this town is lucky to have such a relatable, conflicted gem among its rock bands. —SG

Michael Brenneis and Paul Hastil, Bookends (Rattle Tick Buzz)

Percussionist Michael Brenneis and pianist Paul Hastil have played together for years in the always accessible and fun New Breed Jazz jam, but have also spent years exploring more adventurous modes of improvisation. (Brenneis was on this list in 2018 for his more through-composed album Plutonium.) The latest in a series of improvised collaborations Brenneis launched in 2018, Bookends is a set of sparse conversations between Hastil’s Fender Rhodes and Brenneis’ drum kit, with some minimal electronics around the edges. The two aren’t trying to fill up the space here, and with a few exceptions this isn’t a busy release. Brenneis and Hastil focus on letting the elements float together and blossom quietly in the reverb, from the ponderous melodies of “Swept Away” to the skittery cymbals of “Text Of The Conversation.” To borrow the title of another standout on Bookends, the magic of each spontaneous track is that it “Opens Slowly.” In a normal year, Madisonians would have no end of opportunities to see either musician play. Bookends, in its understated way, does justice to their restless curiosity and to their patient intuition as improvisers. —SG

Wilder Deitz, Y’all (self-released)

Pianist Wilder Deitz and band can deliver raucous, funky live sets. Deitz’s compositions embrace jazz traditions alongside contemporary hip-hop and R&B sounds, and the band’s powerhouse group of vocalists—including Deja Mason, Chakari Woods, Nikeya Bramlett, and Bobbie Briggs—builds powerfully on the grooves of a rhythm section that includes bassist Sam Galligan and drummers Jacob Bicknase and Matt Allen. On the vinyl-only album Y’all, this large and shifting group of collaborators channel their joy through a lens of reflection and restraint. “Spirit’s Lullaby (For Ikal)” threads together graceful, contemplative leads from Mitch Deitz’s electric guitar and Alex Charland’s tenor sax. Mason turns in one of several commanding lead vocal performances on “Sweatin’ The Joneses,” whose lyrics focus on gratitude and domestic bliss. Another thematic thread here is paying tribute to elders and mentors—”Darbo Worthington Davis” pays tribute to jazz-bass giant Richard Davis, and the solo-piano track “Meditation On Compassion (For Rev. John Hicks)” closes the record on a note of bittersweet celebration. —SG

Disq, Collector (Saddle Creek)

Years of build came to a head for Disq in 2020, which saw revered indie mainstay Saddle Creek Records release the band’s breakout full-length, Collector. Bursting with ideas and expanded to a five-person lineup, the band nailed this opportunity to refine its sly but confident strain of guitar-pop, both for the wider world and for an enthusiastic local following. On “Daily Routine,” the band cranks the volume on an attention-getting opener that sets the tone for the ensuing record and showcases an innate understanding of slacker-punk touchpoints. With lyrics ranging from sincere to sardonic, Collector goes a long way in demonstrating Disq’s ability to compel. Songs about old studio microphones (“D19”) coexist with songs about the overbearing nature of the ennui of young adulthood (“Loneliness”), neither taking an inch away from the impact of the other. Unsurprisingly, Collector netted Disq head-turning comparisons to early Weezer, Big Star, and The Beatles. A reasonable reward for creating one of the year’s best power pop records, inside or outside of Madison. —Steven Spoerl

Histo, Asleep In The Firehole (self-released)

Donald Ephraim Curtis’ solo project Histo swung for the fences with November’s Asleep In The Firehole and connected with purpose. A string of music videos, culminating with “Glad You Got Away,” helped usher Asleep In The Firehole into the world while simultaneously underscoring Histo’s appeal. Thoughtful, melancholic-leaning guitar pop in the vein of early Built To Spill provides the record a winsome anchor and Curtis takes it over the top with relatable narratives and a plaintive drawl that suits the material to perfection. “You Got Away” is a perfect encapsulation of this foundation, providing Asleep In The Firehole a twisting, energetic centerpiece. Nearly all of the instrumentation on Asleep In The Firehole came courtesy of Curtis himself, with a trio of guest spots that bring in backing vocals (“Let Me Know”), Wurlitzer (“Glad You Got Away”), and trumpet (“Parent Thesis”) comprising the only outsourced additions. Perplexingly, the record still feels more like the work of a full band than an individual. That speaks to Curtis’ chameleonesque capacity as a multi-instrumentalist, which gives Asleep In The Firehole a sound at once intimate and towering. —SS

Interlay, Cicada (self-released)

Interlay’s Cicada EP is yet another piece of evidence that bands successfully making an artistic leap remains one of the most enthralling sensations in music. “Rot” opens things with clear-eyed confidence, making clear that the band formerly known as Wash is starting to find an even more distinctive voice. Fiery post-punk of the highest order, “Rot” sets an impressively high bar for Cicada, which never falters past that point. Interlay’s work throughout the EP is remarkably consistent and makes this a genuine standout, in or outside of Madison. Guitarist/vocalist Alexandra Ortgiesen leads the band through a raucous, piercing set of songs that bruise as well as they incite, all but guaranteeing a strong reaction. “Spine” is a perfect example of this dynamic, while also providing Cicada its defining characteristic: Gothic-tinged, punk-tipped yearning that opts to surge instead of sulk. Remarkably produced and masterfully composed, Cicada sets a high watermark for a band that appears ready for anything. —SS

LINE, Choosing Sides (self-released)

The debut album from LINE envelops the listener with its tastefully considered folk-pop arrangements, and vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist Maddie Batzli’s lyrics help it exert an even more lasting pull. Batzli’s piano, Esther Chun’s harmony vocals, Will Ault’s drums, and Austin Lynch’s jarring but welcome bursts of slap-and-pop bass gradually turn songs like “Open Wide” and “Kind/Of” into conflicted tempests, then pull back to create an almost eerie clarity on “Monday Morning.” The band creates a deft balance of weariness and tension on “Expectations,” perfectly suited to lines like I flip a coin and grab my coat / Can’t stick around to watch it land.” Batzli’s songwriting is pretty unsparing in its portrayals of heartache and painful life lessons, but their style as a lyricist incorporates a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity. “Bite down, don’t shout / Backhand the sound as it goes again / Hard wired to fight it out,” Batzli sings on “Monday Morning,” at once giving us just fragments of the story and all of its emotional weight. —SG

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Louise Bock, Sketch For Winter VII – Abyss: For Cello (Geographic North)

For years, Atlanta-based label Geographic North has been running a fascinating series that invites musicians to create compositions for the wintry months. Multi-instrumentalist Taralie Peterson, best known for her work in the experimental folk outfit Spires That In The Sunset Rise, contributed the Sketch For Winter series’ seventh edition under her solo moniker, Louise Bock. (Spires, now split between Madison and New York City, also released an excellent new album this year, Psychic Oscillations.) Sketch For Winter VII – Abyss: For Cello is a gripping release that soothes and haunts in near-equal measure. For all of its many pensive moments, Abyss can never shake an underlying sense of frustration, occasionally tipping over into something entirely anxious, discordant, and unnerving. Peterson’s composing and playing throughout is exquisite, introducing layers and depth at a hypnotic clip. “Jute,” the record’s second track, opens with an alarming push-and-pull that’s evocative of harsh, short breathing, gradually coalescing into a movement that stretches the notes out; the tipping over of consciousness. “Actinic Ray” recalls Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ more jittery score work for a handful of neo-Westerns, and closing track “Prithee” unifies the preceding atmospherics into something exceedingly beautiful, even as it hones in on the record’s torment. Peterson has created something here that deserves to outlive the encroaching snow. —SS

Lovely Socialite, Quarantine Loops (self-released)

While Lovely Socialite’s Quarantine Loops wasn’t entirely made in Madison, the EP was emblematic of the artistic allowances people had to make this year. Moreover, Quarantine Loops still carried a heavy Madison imprint, despite the fact that a few of the band’s members live in Milwaukee and Detroit. The Madison connection was further bolstered by the heavy involvement of electronic musician John Kruse (whose projects have also included Nude Human, Pushmi-Pullyu, and running Mine All Mine Records in addition to his solo work as John Praw). Quarantine Loops is made up of four adventurous jazz-adjacent tracks that were built through file-sharing, with each member using the A-minor pentatonic scale as their structural foundation. As a conceptual exercise, it’s interesting, but in its execution, it becomes commanding. Each track plays up the instrumental jazz/rock band’s penchant for introducing the unexpected. A wide range of instruments features across Quarantine Loops’ runtime, which successfully whittles down several hours worth of recordings into 12 cohesive minutes that are worth innumerable revisits. —SS

No Question, Internal Bleeding (To Live A Lie Records)

No Question has been through a few lineup changes in its five-year run, but has steadfastly channeled the most searing elements of hardcore punk, especially early-1980s touchstones like Negative Approach. The band’s second release, Internal Bleeding, sticks to those parameters: 10 songs, most of them clocking in around the 60-second mark. But occasionally No Question slows it down to a sickening crawl, finding the band scraping their way through charred filth, reflecting the rhythmic flexibility and confidence the band’s current lineup (vocalist Lauden Nute, guitarist Mike Berte, bassist Maggie Denman, and drummer Anders Totten) has found together. (Both Denman and Nute have done illustration work for Tone Madison.) Standout tracks like “Inside Voices,” “Control,” and “Seeing Blind” bring a grisly dynamism to No Question’s spasms of effective punishment, and Nute’s vocals prove just as harsh and effective as the stabs of guitar feedback. —SG

Norris Court, Imposter Syndrome (self-released)

With time, Norris Court’s debut release has earned a special place in the consciousness of Madison music this year. On Imposter Syndrome, self-released in June, vocalist/guitarist Grace Olson writes songs that are richly bound up in moments and scenes, packed with personal touchstones and confessions. Like everything else released this year, this album wasn’t able to live its best live musical life. We should have been able to hear punchy and tight songs like “Honey” and “Tool” during a smoke break outside of Mickey’s at 1 a.m., breathing in the warm summer air. The blissfully crafted indie-pop hooks and cell phone speaker-shattering leads on “My Case” seemed prime to carry us into autumn. The song sways back and forth until it falls to the ground, drained of its color. As the year ends and the sun sets at an unreasonable time, we can turn to “Cataloochee,” a reflective and observant confessional about a car full of friends on a trip to somewhere. Moments like this are hard to feel after a year that starved people of physical contact and socialization, but Norris Court’s poignant songwriting has the ability to dredge up timeless memories just when we need them the most. —John McCracken

Red The Bully, Juice 4 Your Soul (self-released)

A young but essential fixture in Madison’s rap community, Red The Bully went all out on Juice 4 Your Soul. Beautifully produced and constructed, the record stands out as the most complete release the MC has offered yet. The high-energy, volatile “Cheap” kicks off the proceedings with an insistent piano loop and head-turning flow. Confrontational but smart in its execution, Juice 4 Your Soul is as suited for an introspective solo listen as it is a party soundtrack. Across the record’s 10 tracks, there are only three features: Ted Park’s quick-witted run on “Always,” Ryan McCrumb’s groove-setting spot on “Down Bad,” and 2dr Coop’s breathtaking contribution to the melancholic, penultimate album highlight “On Me.” All three of those guests blend in seamlessly with Juice 4 Your Soul’s aesthetic and vision, each playing up peculiar aspects of the record’s appeal, whether it be the overall thoughtfulness or an awareness of how to maximize the impact of rests. “RIP Tammy” ends the record on a note of familial pride that gifts a very clever record enough emotional punch to be truly memorable. —SS

Ari Smith And Tim Russell, Junct (Avoidance Policy)

Bassist Ari Smith and percussionist Tim Russell recorded the austere improvisational collaboration Junct at Common Sage, the house space where Russell and dancer Liz Sexe began hosting shows and livestreams earlier this year. Though this documents Russell and Smith’s first time improvising together as a duo, they were clearly quick to pick up on a shared tendency for free but tautly controlled playing. On opening track “Inter-ion,” the two edge sideways toward each other, creating ominous scratches and growls of bowed bass and tense stutters from Russell’s drumkit. There isn’t much familiarity to grab onto across these four tracks, unless you count the closer “Til There Was You,” a slightly abstracted rendition of the 1950 show tune. Mostly, Smith and Russell draw you in with an exacting exploration of the sounds two acoustic instruments can make in a room together. —SG

Soot, self-titled (self-released)

After impressing via their respective roles in Hex House and Treatment (which both ended up on this list last year), Cal Lamore and Liam Casey joined forces to make good on an idea for a project that the pair had been kicking around for a while. The result of that promise is Soot, a grimy battering ram of a record that exists somewhere between the spaces of post-punk, psychedelia, and hardcore. While one of Soot’s defining characteristics is its unflinching aggression, the duo never entirely abandons a sense of discernible melody, making the impact as immediate as the playing across the record. Short and frantic, the record hits some staggering highs in tracks like the infectious, riff-forward “Deprivation Center” and sludge-friendly closer “Bring Me The Head Of Art Paul Schlosser,” which deserves some kind of award for its title alone. Lean and mean, Soot promises a strong future for one of Madison’s most exciting new acts. —SS

Supa Friends, Super? No, Supa (self-released)

The six-member hip-hop crew Supa Friends put out nine different releases in 2020, including a series of beat tapes from producer Hardface The Pilot and a handful of duo collaborations (like breakout rooms in this year’s never-ending Zoom call, if you will). But first, Supa Friends put out an impressively compact debut EP that somehow allows each of the group’s artistic voices to introduce themselves, as if they thrive on being all scrunched in together. The richly contrasting vocal timbres and rhythmic quirks of five rappers—SooDoNiM, Maruchan Chef, Soup The Fifth, Tyrel the Well Treated, and Al D—work with and against each other here like a set of perfectly tensed springs. The contemplative slow burn of “Blackheart” offers a welcome break in the middle of an otherwise boisterous record, but even the most off-the-wall moments here find these MCs enraptured with the intricacies of writing and rapping. —SG

Syneva, Star Taker (Healing Sound Propagandist)

An eerie arpeggiation opens up ambient project Syneva’s superlative Star Taker on a track (“Skyllas”) that seamlessly marries several sensibilities of various composers. John Carpenter’s grasp of atmosphere, David Wingo’s innate ability to conjure up slow-burning anxiety, and The Caretaker’s penchant for fraying, whether it be on an emotional level or through the actual decaying of the music. Ambient, intuitive, and punishing, Hendrix Gullixson’s project revels in dark shadows and flickering lights. For every moment of harshness, there’s a counterbalance, a light touch to keep Star Taker grounded. “Gentle Acid” is a perfect example of Star Taker’s knack for overall balance, offering a beautiful reprieve from the unforgiving nature of “Whatever It Takes” and “Lavalette.” Whether Star Taker is awash in piercing feedback and unrelenting static or clinging onto melancholic drones for a semblance of tranquility, Gullixson finds a way to make the work land with force.  —SS

Telechrome, Figure And Ground (Variable Shadows)

Telechrome seems ready to embrace the oncoming post-human era. Tarek Sabbar and Terrance Barrett mold tracks around icy synthesizer sequences and monotone vocals on their debut EP, Figure and Ground, bridging electronic constraints with the dread and anxiety of post-punk. Songs like “Mirror Stage” function at a level of near-mechanical perfection, but elsewhere, Sabbar’s electric guitar provides an element of volatility. For all the EP’s industrial lore and automated menace, Barrett’s use of wooden sticks on actual drum-heads comes off as frantic and humanistic throughout the project, especially on “Mind The Wall,” and serves as a rebuttal that grounds the EP in a bit of fallible vulnerability. In a soon-to-be entirely digitized world, where evading projected hues of technicolor madness will be near impossible, Telechrome’s first is a prophecy for an arid future and forceful enough to keep you plugged in. Both members had solo releases on this list in 2019, and Sabbar released another solo record, Outside Frame, in 2020. —Luis Acosta Jr. 

Tubal Cain, Summon The Mist (self-released)

While Tubal Cain takes a stripped-down approach to black metal, the band’s first record as a trio, Summon The Mist, packs enough weight to yank a Nordic god down from a mountaintop. “Welcome To Gehenna” sums up the approach: throwing in a few new production flourishes and trippy synth parts, they otherwise stick to their guttural tones of morbid awesomeness. Songs like “Mountain Of Sunset” and “Rebirth” play out like sonic weapons, and the fluidity bassist Bo Chrome Bones brings to “In The Tall Corn” is refreshing in a genre that often sticks to rigid parameters. The founding duo of the group, guitarist Alex Drake and drummer Kristine Drake, trade throat-scorching vocals on “Lycanthropix,” with low harmonies underscoring Kristine’s high-pitched wolfish yowls on the chorus. The glorious, energetic strands of tremolo horror from Alex’s guitar on “Lets Go To The Sabbath” seal this grisly coffin of an album shut. Summon The Mist offers a contemporary path for Tubal Cain to follow, with its eerie, layered intro track and heightened sense of drama, but mostly captures the elemental strengths that have made the band a crowd favorite in Madison. —Luis Acosta Jr. 

Woke Up Crying, 3:27 a.m. (self-released)

“End Of The World” makes it clear from the outset that 3:27 a.m. has a lot on its mind. Woke Up Crying comes right out of the gate with strong songwriting on its debut EP, offering queer-punk that’s as tough as it is tender. 3:27 a.m. is thoughtful with the specifics of its sharply-realized narratives, even when vocalist/guitarist Doug Rowe is exploring the nature of transparent ambiguities, as is the case with “Sycamore.” While much of the EP’s run-time is spent devoted to exploring an inescapable sense of competing against largely predetermined scales (economically, romantically, mentally, or otherwise), the project’s sense of resolve finds Woke Up Crying occasionally tipping over into a hard-won righteousness; when the just side is plainly evident, some form of victory is all but inevitable. By the end of 3:27 a.m. it’s hard not to feel galvanized. —SS

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