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Tone Madison’s top 20 Madison records of 2021

A look back at 20 potent albums and EPs released by local artists this year.

Header Image: All 20 of the records featured in this list are displayed, in a slightly spread out, tiled 5×4 presentation. Behind all of the album art is a light lavender background that contains faint echoes of each individual piece of art.

Madison music pretty much always has a weird year. We can do that quite well without help from external forces, thank you very much. Creativity here occupies a bunch of scattered niches, many of them almost improbably fertile. Regardless of whether anyone’s paying attention or not, our local musicians tend to create an unpredictable array of work, across all manner of genres and experiences. One simply does not summarize it with any degree of authority or tidiness. Better to simply try and get immersed in the frequently neglected beauty of it all.

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To start wrapping up the year, our writers and editors narrowed down a list of 20 albums and EPs that made a compelling mark on listeners in Madison and deserve to reach attentive listeners well beyond. The variety here isn’t like last year’s variety and probably won’t be like next year’s variety either: Highlights range from gloriously open-hearted punk to Nigerian dancehall to dizzying synth experiments to affirming queer pop.

This isn’t the only music that made our year, so check back this week for a two-part roundup of tracks from other standout releases, a look at 2021’s musical odds and ends, and more commentary on Madison’s music scene at large.

Able Baker, Spiral Bound Songs

Tim Anderson’s project returned in 2021 with a subdued and surprisingly moving work in Spiral Bound Songs. While previous Able Baker releases targeted immediacy, Anderson’s gift with restraint elevated Spiral Bound Songs‘ impact. Over the course of five tracks, Spiral Bound Songs flits around the edges of Midwestern emo, indie, and punk. Lyrically, Anderson fixates on liminal uncertainty; familial trust, impatience in slow resolution, and the elusiveness of true mutual understanding all play pivotal roles in establishing the EP’s atmosphere.

On “Kata,” Anderson drills into unrest by examining a runner-up complex to startling effect. Clean guitar tones, intuitive drumming, gentle vocal delivery, and a sense of desperation underscore striking lyrics: “Centered on the best of what you could be / Take a hint because no one’s sticking around to see / If your last effort will make the cut.” Exacting, empathetic, and cutting when it needs to be, Spiral Bound Songs stands as a clear high point in Able Baker’s ongoing evolution. —Steven Spoerl

Tony Barba, Blue Plate Special

Saxophonist Tony Barba, drummer Devin Drobka, and bassist John Christensen form a lean, rambunctious trio on Barba’s latest album as a composer/bandleader. The compositions here lend themselves more to rough-and-tumble improvisation than the stately pieces of 2020’s Blood Moon, and the pace feels just plain ferocious compared to the ambient expanses of two other recent Barba albums, Winter’s Arms and Ether. On the opening/title track, “Zig Zags,” and “Three-Legged Race,” the three musicians seem to revel in pushing defined phrases to the edge of gleeful mayhem. But the frenzy never gets the better of them. The harder the push, the more evident the strongly bonded instincts Barba, Christensen, and Drobka have developed through years of playing with each other in various settings. One suspects they could frolic on the head of a pin together and not fall off.

Michael Finnegan’s cover art served as an inspiration for the music, and it exerts an almost physical influence. Finnegan’s digital illustration shows a cascade of multicolored ovoids that suggest dishes or speaker cones. Throughout the album, the playing expertly tumbles and teeters, even on relatively contemplative moments like “Flotunda” and “Make It Fit.” —Scott Gordon

Cicada The Burrower, Corpseflower

Cameron Davis’ one-woman show, Cicada The Burrower, breaks new ground on the pristinely produced Corpseflower. It’s the polarity of life blooming amid death as the title and Sawyer Hildebrandt’s album art render, a metaphor for gender transitioning and being stuck in between the epiphany of who they are and the medical transition.

The term “blackgaze” often gets tossed around in categorizing the past decade’s most popular atmospheric subgenre of post-meta, which is certainly lurkingin Davis’ sound. But there are also deeper resonances of melodic post-hardcore, mid-era Agalloch, and Maudlin Of The Well, as Davis—the architect of Blue Bedroom Records—balances the mellifluously jazzy syncopation of opening track “The Fever Room” with wailing metallic undulations on the album’s heaviest plunge, “Psilocybin Death Spiral.”

The epic, eponymous closer digs further into the progressive metal tendencies of prior compositions, but heightens the feelings of idyllic beauty in the juxtaposition of performance styles. Amid the clean guitar intonation, the former leg features gorgeous percussive embellishments that complement a birdsong piano melody, placating through its staccato. —Grant Phipps

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Dear Mr. Watterson, Confusion Perfected

Punchy, scrappy, catchy, and sharp as hell, Dear Mr. Watterson’s Confusion Perfected aligned so perfectly with my preferences the first few listens I gave the EP were genuinely disorienting. I’ve played it a lot since and provided it with one of the more effusive reviews I’ve written across my several years at Tone Madison. There’s an unabashed glee at the center of Confusion Perfected‘s chaotic whirlwind of twee-inflected basement punk that’s incredibly endearing, providing the EP with some additional charm.

A torrent of memorably frenzied guitar riffs get unleashed across several of these tracks and each packs a wallop, even when Dear Mr. Watterson opts to temporarily slow the pace (“What Do You Mean?”). While the instruments, attitude, and mid-fi production are the clear draws here, the lyrics also provide Confusion Perfected with some nuance by being thoughtful and subversive. Tongue-in-cheek lines like “I swear this song’s about something” hold actual weight and support Confusion Perfected‘s candidacy as a modern Madison punk classic. —SS

Andrew Fitzpatrick, Belief Diagram

Years of making music with synthesizers and heavily processed guitar have given Andrew Fitzpatrick a dizzying patchwork of sounds to work with, and a startlingly fluid command over it all. On Belief Diagram, Fitzpatrick’s first album under his own name, we hear the accretion of more than a decade of immersive experimentation, long experience compounding with renewed confidence. Like his previous solo work under the name Noxroy, Belief Diagram is a set of experimental electronic pieces that plunge into deep, serene layers (“Meal Story,” “Kine”) and occasionally rattle their way through rugged, almost percussive passages (“New Honduras Daunt”).

On Belief Diagram, Fitzpatrick has figured out how to keep the listener constantly wrapped up in multiple layers of harmony and texture. The album’s sequence might knock you off-balance every so often, but never alienates or overwhelms. The nearly eight-minute “Whispering Jasons” and the brief “The Oven From ‘Barbershop Mirage'” both find Fitzpatrick keeping the most abstract tendencies of his solo work in play alongside the most accessible. The track titles hint that there’s also an inscrutable sense of humor running through this record’s dogged pursuit of sonic and emotional depth. —SG

Gate Check, Places

Madison’s jazz community is full of hard-working musicians who deserve more chances to let their original compositions shine. Trombone player Darren Sterud seizes his opportunity on Places, the debut recording from his quartet Gate Check. Each of the eight pieces here set out to evoke the mood, scenery, and human activity of a different location Sterud has visited, from a medieval Romanian town to Jamaica to nearby Spirit Lake. Along with pianist Chris Rottmayer, bassist Ben Ferris, and drummer Matthew Endres, Sterud moves us around the map by creating a wildly different group dynamic from track to track. Gate Check’s flexibility as an ensemble is key to making these composition’s work.

The four musicians find different ways to approach each other on each track, from the bustling call-and-response of “Bywater” and the bittersweet solitude of “Fjords” to the theatrical dread of “Sighisoara.” They capture the peace of visiting a familiar spot on “South Shore Bluff” and the reflection and growth that can come with going somewhere new on “Highlands.” Travel changes a person, and perhaps the theme of Places is as simple as that. This music vividly illustrates not just changes of scenery, but different ways of relating to the world and oneself. —SG

Godly The Ruler, Work In Progress

Few artists in Madison had a busier first quarter than Godly The Ruler, who released the sterling Work In Progress along with three strong standalone singles. While Work In Progress clocked in at seven tracks, the end result felt towering. There’s an ambitious scope throughout Work In Progress that’s evidenced in every facet of the record. Memorable production, strong lyrics, clever turns of phrase, magnetic flow, and assured pacing offer a lot of enticement on what, to my ears, was the best rap record to come out of Madison in 2021.

From opener “Mortal Kombat”—which slyly integrates the video game’s trademark calls of “Finish him!” and “Brutality!”—to knockout blow “1 Million Degrees,” Work In Progress toys with the gaps between natural progression and genuine surprise. At no point does Godly The Ruler feel content to idle in a specific mode and Work In Progress richly benefits from the emcee’s stylistic hyperactivity. Across the record, Wendigo, Salsa, and Sōsh & Mōsh contributed strong production for Godly The Ruler’s newest high point. —SS

Hardface The Pilot, Behind Closed Doors

At the absolute tail end of 2020, Supa Friends’ Hardface The Pilot released the solo effort Behind Closed Doors, entwining endearing narrative tics and a winsome melodicism. When Tone Madison talked to Tavian Walker about his Hardface The Pilot moniker and Behind Closed Doors‘ inspiration, the producer repeatedly pointed to his diverse musical upbringing. Walker’s formative exposure to that variety coalesces on Behind Closed Doors‘ rethinking of genre barriers and in the wide-eyed realizations of subversion’s net effect.

There’s a sense of sardonic self-awareness underpinning the central story of Behind Closed Doors, which revolves around “Softface” playing a dichotomous antagonist hell-bent on eliminating Hardface from existence. While that arc may be a supplementary function of the record’s overall appeal, there’s an inherent understanding of musical history operating as its engine. Behind Closed Doors‘ intuitive, world-bridging beats are more than just a quick skit, but they’re not the whole story, either. Both aspects of Behind Closed Doors work in harmony to create a world that’s memorably entertaining. —SS

Heather The Jerk, Cable Access TV

Heather Sawyer‘s been a constant force in Madison’s punk community for over a decade, appearing in a number of projects and releasing a slew of records. Cable Access TV, Sawyer’s first full-length under the Heather The Jerk moniker, is a sharp reminder that she’s always been more than one of this city’s most reliable punk drummers. “3D Binch” alone is an endlessly hooky burst of hyperactive, punk-laced basement pop; an unapologetically bratty sugar rush that’s given balance by an underlying bite.

Across the record, Sawyer bounces between being laid-back, confrontational, and sardonic, combining all of those modes on the brutally honest “Heather Got A Divorce.” Bouncy keys across Cable Access TV amplify the record’s consistent playfulness, which allows the record to underscore the sincere joy at its heart. Graham Hunt and Sawyer’s Proud Parents bandmate Tyler Fassnacht—who both appear elsewhere on this list—make strong contributions across the record, acting in the service of Sawyer’s vision. While Public Access TV‘s closing lines are “It’s over this time,” one can only hope that there’s much more to come. —SS

Graham Hunt, Painting Over Mold

Over the 2010’s, I’ve been fortunate enough to watch multi-instrumentalist Graham Hunt evolve across several different projects: Midnight Reruns, Sundial Mottos, Midwives, solo, and as a touring member of multiple acts. Over that span, Hunt’s refined his output with an unassuming grace, holding onto an ability to convey urgency while cultivating what’s largely been a more carefree atmosphere. It’s a fascinating dichotomy that becomes the soul of Painting Over Mold, an eight track full-length that’s comfortably in the conversation of Hunt’s best work.

Hunt has always operated with a level of mindfulness when it comes to approaching, contextualizing, and executing his work, a trait that’s dialed to 11 across Painting Over Mold, which includes strong contributions from an enviable supporting cast central to Wisconsin’s DIY punk scene. My estimation of Hunt’s lyrical and instrumental prowess is well-documented but “Lighter Touch” may take both to new heights; “I need a lighter touch / Don’t wanna drive no nails into no cardboard box” strikes unfathomably deep for being, ostensibly, such a simple couplet. Sometimes nothing’s more staggering than vulnerability. —SS

Jimmy Sugarcane, Oya!

Those who’ve seen the off-the-wall charisma of Chinedu James Ejiogu’s live sets under the name Jimmy Sugarcane will appreciate that he’s finally put together an album of his effusive Nigerian dancehall tracks. They also won’t be surprised that the first thing out of his mouth on Oya! is a rousing, nasal cry of “EEENH!” That’s a signal that Ejiogu wants you to get amped along with him, and it often punctuates his vocal melodies and the album’s bright, slick production.

What translates here from the live set is that Jimmy Sugarcane knows how to maintain the tension across his most up-tempo tracks, gamely and gruffly presiding over album opener “Oye!” and the slow-burning “I Get Am.” Ejiogu also gives these tracks a lot of their body by layering a variety of vocal styles in close proximity: On “For You,” he multitracks himself singing one of the album’s many solid vocal hooks, shifting to chanted verses that include the deliriously sweet line “You will be my guitar, we can always rock.” Closing track “Nkem Akolam” gives the album another welcome twist, bringing a loping Afrobeat rhythm to the foreground. —SG

Kat And The Hurricane, The Sorry EP

Kat And The Hurricane’s playfully dubbed queer-emo or “queermo” on The Sorry EP is 2021’s anthemic pop highlight and a radical mission statement on the staid stereotypes of genre and gender. After greeting listeners with a reverb-drenched, dreamy atmosphere, the trio sharply quashes it with the upbeat gleam of “Sorry That I’m Like This,” which features Kat Farnsworth’s soaring vocals and Benjamin Rose’s memorable synth hooks. “Sorry That I’m Like This” is an unapologetic earworm that skims the edges of modern ’80s revivalism but avoids its clichés.

“Out Of My Mind” initially nods to the band’s folkier roots with prominent acoustic guitar, but then undergoes a chameleonic evolution that mirrors its lyrical confrontation of one’s anxiety preempting their every move. Alex Nelson’s surprisingly restrained rim clicks and bass drum kicks anchor the track’s opening minutes before an all-out dynamic explosion. There’s something almost post-rock about it all.

If the preceding songs penetrate the struggles of finding one’s identity, “Resonate” and “Dream Come True” rail against the many solemn lyrical conventions of Midwest emo, as the fog lifts in the solace of positive influence. The impression is musically complemented by the closer’s triumphant surge of tremolo effects and Julia McConahay’s string arrangements. —GP

Louka, Testing Your Patience

“I can’t stand when people say / ‘It is what it is, it’s always been that way,'” Louka Patenaude sings on the chorus of “Long Walk Home,” one of the more downtrodden moments on his solo album Testing Your Patience. It’s such a concise way of capturing what it feels like to push up against the intractable, the ingrained, perhaps the immovable. This is not really an angry record, but it does ask if we can hear things just a bit differently. The veteran guitarist specifically wanted to delve deeper into unadorned acoustic sounds, leaving his own distinct mark on folk and country styles that have always been that way.

Patenaude’s songwriting is all about sly, understated contrasts that can get past you if you’re not paying attention. “Inside Out, Upside Down” pairs chunky, affable rhythms with dark images of tears and sleepwalkers. On the beautiful “Moonrock,” he captures just the right balance of fondness, singing “It takes an ocean to dissolve an island / But you can do it, just keep on crying,” just before delivering one of the album’s many lyrical, cleverly arranged guitar solos. —SG

Proud Parents, At Home With…

Vulnerable and honest, yet bright and spirited, the third full-length from Proud Parents soothes the pangs that come with staying in. Recorded by Amos Pitsch at Crutch of Memory, At Home With offers a solid addition to an already stacked catalogue of Proud Parents songs. Proud Parents deliver the comfort of jangly power-pop, sticking to a core of accessible, catchy songwriting with raw vocal harmonies and “woo-hoo”s and “yah-yah”s sung over lo-fi guitar.

Standout track “It’s Not Enough,” a collaboration between C Nelson-Lifson and Tyler Fassnacht, is one of the most remarkable pieces that this best-friend-songwriter duo has crafted yet. A sultry yet sweet guitar lick from Fassnacht kicks off the song, weaving through Nelson-Lifson’s candid lyrics: “I’ve let you down, at least once before / I’m likely to let you down at least once more.” Drummer/vocalist Heather Sawyer—whose Heather The Jerk solo project also appears on this list—delivers some of the most striking tracks on At Home With, and follows “It’s Not Enough” with the reverential tribute track “Badnight Loving.” Accompanied by lap steel and a chorus of background vocals, Sawyer serves classic country train song vibes, lifting up anyone who may have felt their heartstrings pulled by the previous track.  —Emili Earhart

Aaron Scholz, Third Place

Singer-songwriter Aaron Scholz’s Third Place is filled with left-behindness, which only enhances what these songs were trying to do when Scholz wrote them more than a decade ago. “But things have changed in town / None of my friends’ll come down,” Scholz sings on “Little Bars,” an everyday moment of loss that takes on a nostalgic warmth in the swells of Peter Fatka’s pedal steel.

Scholz doesn’t always favor telling us who or where his characters are, but indelibly captures what it’s like to feel small, forgotten, or just plain bewildered. Scholz has an eye for small details that bring rich shades to the sadness. The narrator of “Dorothy Door” witnesses the booming suburbs and contemplates nuclear annihilation, somehow glancing aside to notice “all the concrete bubbles, all the cracks in the landscape.” The drunken drifter of “St. Paul” is a tragic figure, crying on the train tracks and taking a spill from a jungle gym, but Scholz gives the song one of the more uplifting performances on the album. On “The Place,” another character says, “I never hesitate to get out of the way.” These songs are at their most memorable when their protagonists are trying their hardest to vanish. —SG

Soot, Bad News, Bad Habits

Formed in the thick of the pandemic, Soot––a duo consisting of Cal Lamore (Hex House) and Liam Casey (Treatment, Proud Parents)––gave listeners a reason to yearn even more for a sweaty, thrashing punk show. Upon hearing this sophomore album, I could imagine a night at Mickey’s or the Crystal Corner with familiar showgoers, all of whom have been waiting to witness Soot live.

Sonically, Bad News, Bad Habits is a strikingly cohesive release that displays two excellent musicians breaking through a wall of psychedelic effects and a whole lot of reverb. But structurally, the album is wonderfully varied. Bad News, Bad Habits‘ lead-off single, “Quill Pig,” is sticky, sweltering, and sounds absolutely wasted, as if the only thing keeping the track in line behind the distorted vocals and guitar is Casey’s warbling bass loop against Lamore’s unwavering drums. “Dark Powder” is a perpetual, Suicide-esque trip that recalls a broken sequencer more than bass guitar and drums. On the other side of Soot’s sound is solid emo post-rock that is as melodic as it is heavy. “Sus Gang” offers the most enormous example of this facet of the album, keeping listeners enticed to see how the duo can pull off a sound that big in a live setting.  —EE

Fred Stonehouse, Accident Prone

The only ghosts in Fred Stonehouse’s Halloween-release album Accident Prone are a pair of bouncing testicles (as featured in the aptly named “Scrotum House”), and the lingering echoes of stories from Stonehouse’s “accident prone” childhood in Milwaukee. But the improvised music that backs artist and UW-Madison art professor Stonehouse’s storytelling album lends it eerie suspense. At times, the suck and spiral of the synthesizer feels like you’re sliding down a portal as Stonehouse’s voice, in smooth contrast to the punctuation of bass, lap steel, and guitar, draws you into otherworldly memories.

The first track, “Dink’s Stinks,” opens with Stonehouse recounting the rite of “checking the mirror daily” for any meager amount of facial hair: the golden ticket for underage teens to enter neighborhood biker bar Dink’s, to drink 25 cent taps among characters like fearsome owner Dink, and Booger, “a hugely fat and tall outlaw, [who] sold weed, speed and acid in the bathroom on Friday nights.” Woven between musical interludes, Stonehouse’s memory twangs into a story of teenage angst and anger.

The album is both surreal and marked by a firm imprint of place and time. And for all its personal nostalgia, a sense of the familiar pockmarks each tale. Stonehouse captures the magic of the stories all around us—if only we can figure out how to harness them. The combination of storytelling from Stonehouse, and music from Derrick Buisch, John Hitchcock, Dan Fitch, and Jason Bank, transforms the tales from the stuff of art class stories into something else entirely. —Oona Mackesey-Green

Johannes Wallman, Elegy For An Undiscovered Species

Johannes Wallman, currently the Director of Jazz Studies for the fortunate students at UW-Madison, deftly weaves his way through multiple genres and feelings throughout Elegy For An Undiscovered Species. He’s helped by the excellent work and collaboration of a 19-piece ensemble that includes Madison bassist Nick Moran and New York drummer Allison Miller, both accomplished composers and educators in their own rights. Fronting the ensemble are trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and tenor saxophonist Dayne Stephens, both longtime contributors to Wallman’s previous efforts. They each offer bold, creative additions to music that is everything from reflective and anxious, to exuberant and worldly. On “Two Ears Old” Moran’s bass and Jensen’s trumpet engage in a gorgeous, complex dance while the string ensemble and Wallman’s own deft fingerings provide a lush backing landscape.

The opening title track builds into a tension that it never entirely resolves, allowing the music to lean into a subtle uncertainty and sense of exploration that infuses the rest of the record. From spaced-out jazz (“In Three”) to soft blues (“Longing”) and smooth funk/blues (“Expeditor”), the album showcases Wallman’s talent for continued innovation and creativity, as well as his commitment to sharing equal space with his collaborators.—Emily Mills

Thomas Wincek, The Desert Of The Real Itself

Thomas Wincek operates in a number of disparate projects, usually behind a keyboard with any number of synthesizers and effects alongside him. As a member of indie projects Field Report and Volcano Choirboth of which boast several standout Wisconsin musiciansWincek might contribute a melodic keyboard line, often adding electronic textures and sonic intricacies that push these projects beyond songwriting and musicianship. Under the moniker Emotional Joystick, Wincek has recorded a catalogue of breakbeat-centered electronic musican erratic, unhinged take on EBM. But on his latest self-titled release, The Desert Of The Real Itself, Wincek stretches his compositional plane into two thirty-minute sides, centering Korg Wavestations, sequencers, and vocal processors reminiscent of kosmische minimalism mixed in with ’80s synth programming.

The lush layering of reedy synth pads and bell-like timbres sing above percussive sequencing, quilting each side of the record into a multi-dimensional blanket of sound. It’s easy to follow the perpetual, pointillistic sequencing patterns that oscillate through most of the album, luring the listener into a trance. Wincek does keep a narrative, often modulating through harmonic territories, and suddenly ceasing one texture, as if unlocking another dimension that stretches and disperses the sound into new colors. —EE


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