Albums and EPs that made a lasting impact in our local music landscape.
Madison, like so many other cities, experienced something of a cultural reset throughout 2022 as the city wrestled with the reverberations of Covid’s impact. For better or worse, venues stepped up their bookings consistently, and by the spring, music took a more visible place than it had in the previous two years. Some bands launched, some bands gave a final bow. We gained and lost musicians. A few curious trends emerged throughout Madison’s musical offerings throughout 2022 as well, including a more pronounced emphasis on tenderness, comfort, and understanding (a trait that’s heavily reflected throughout our choices for favorite songs as well). There were less outwardly heavy releases than in past years. Maybe that’s a natural reaction to the state of the world, or maybe it’s sheer coincidence.
What’s not a coincidence is the strength of the records that were released over the past 12 months, which demonstrated a breadth of approach and style that was still suitably representative of Madison’s musical versatility.
Music editor Steven Spoerl and Tone Madison publisher Scott Gordon handled the assembly of this year’s selections and writeups. From at least one bruising hardcore record to jazz, ambient, rap, punk, avant-garde, pop, and folk triumphs, these 20 records served as reminders of Madison’s musical potency.
Avoidancepolicy, Selected Works For Movement v.1
Selected Works For Movement v.1 grew from percussionist Tim Russell’s bountiful collaboration with dancer/choreographer/musician Liz Sexe, but, as the title of the opening track says, “It Makes Space.” Russell’s synth-based instrumentals suggest movement more often than trying to compel it, as they create definite outlines of rhythms that push gently against broad, abstract arcs. When a beat does assert itself a little more, as on “Apt. 11d” and “So Sure Of The Horizon,” the listener can still float away from it into crisply arranged phrases and just a tasteful pinch of reverb. The scratchy edges of “Hügelland” also hint at the vast textural possibilities of modular synth music (which Russell explored further on AMS, an EP released in December). If Russell’s work is rooted in accompaniment and composition for contemporary dance performances, the 11 tracks on this album also work as ambient music on their own serene, enveloping terms. The whole point seems to be that you can move to it, but it’s never dictating exactly how. —Scott Gordon
The Awkward Sleep, Starlight And Doom
Ambient electro-pop duo The Awkward Sleep conjure up something poignant and potent with their full-length debut, Starlight And Doom. Vocalist and sound designer Ru Nataraj and partner Tyler Wood (who handles guitars, bass, synth, and beats) toy with a sultry mid-fi aesthetic that nicely underscores the record’s title. “Fake Is The New Trend,” a memorable mid-record track, also proves the duo can unsettle, as Nataraj talk-sings over some eerie bells and guitar riffs, alternating in the mix to heighten the track’s tension. Moments like those help pace Starlight And Doom, ensuring the record never feels one-note. “Buttery Sort Of Dream” shows the duo’s gentler side, highlighting the inherent romanticism at the heart of the project. Starlight And Doom handles its various artistic modes with ease, blending them into a mesmeric, organic whole. Nataraj and Wood are leaning into a modern strain of glitchy indie-pop that feels like a natural successor to a Madison band of years past, Icarus Himself. Like that band, The Awkward Sleep find fascinating ways to subvert and incorporate an astonishingly wide arsenal of influences into something deeply compelling. —Steven Spoerl
Nino Carter, A Self Gang
A Self Gang is just one piece of what Nino Carter wants to say with his music and visual art. It also holds up on its own terms, capturing his focused intensity as a rapper and packing a lot of thematic weight into 20 bruising minutes. Opening track “Blitz Mode” introduces the listener to an almost tunnel-vision viewpoint: “Lost mind so many times ago, I ain’t got time to spare / Lost my mind too many times ago, I ain’t got time to care.” Within that narrow view, there’s an almost paradoxical level of self-awareness and perspective, to the point that Carter ends up noting that “The world is mine and the Earth is dyin’, but we never mind” on “Carter Beats The Devil.” Carter knows how to stagger out a line and accentuate the stretchy points of the beat—”Look inside my E-Y-E’s, if you spiritually connected, you’d say I’m deranged,” goes one line on “Eels Vs. Snakes”—without breaking the taut, unceasing momentum of the album as a whole. He sets out to accomplish a lot in a short time, and hearing him pull it off is thrilling. —Scott Gordon
Clocks In Motion/Jennifer Bellor, Oneira
Oneira, composed by Las Vegas-based Jennifer Mellor for Madison percussion ensemble Clocks In Motion, balances out its delicate atmosphere with the driving pointillism of marimbas and vibraphones. Over the years, the group has performed a wide variety of newly commissioned music and established modern-classical works. On Oneira, the core ensemble of John Corkill, Christopher G. Jones, and Sean Kleve (along with guest percussionists Megan Arns and Kyle Flens) fully inhabit the complex shifts of Bellor’s composition, which yields their most satisfying and approachable work to date. Standout passages like “Quartz Revolution” take their time building up the outlines of melodic themes while leaving a vast space for emotions and textures to work through a whole range of conflicted shades. An accompanying animated short by Christine A. Banna and narrative liner notes by Shawna Pennock both provide listeners extra points of entry into an eerie, wondrous, crystal-studded quest—and the music lives up to the richness of that narrative. —Scott Gordon
Combat Naps, Coalmine Bud
One of the most pronounced artistic leaps in Madison music in 2022 took place on Combat Naps’ latest full-length, Coalmine Bud. Taking what was previously an unapologetically twee, keys-heavy structure, Combat Naps unexpectedly went a guitar-forward route that exists comfortably alongside Exploding In Sound bands like Two Inch Astronaut. Pulling strains from emo, twee pop, math rock, and post-punk, Coalmine Bud sounds fairly removed from the preceding works in Combat Naps’ catalog, yet still manages to come across as a natural extension of those earlier records. A similar jump in lyrical narratives also heightens the effect of Combat Naps’ ongoing evolution. Sections like the one at the end of “Single Action Figure” boast some of the band’s best writing to date: “In a rental shell / but the misery’s still under my bet / and no one’s gonna cure it tonight / no counter-appetite.” While dour at first glance, those lines embody the bone-dry sardonic wit that runs through all of Combat Naps’ discography, dating back to their self-titled album over six years ago. Easily the band’s most inspired album, Coalmine Bud marks an impressive turning point for an increasingly exciting band. —Steven Spoerl
Coordinated Suicides, This Could Be Heaven
Not every band gets a chance to choose how they go out. Coordinated Suicides made sure that their exit was one of memorable impact. From the title to the music itself, This Must Be Heaven takes on an additional layer of meaning. Easily the most vicious-sounding record on this list, the long-gestating album also marks a career high point for Coordinated Suicides. Guitarist/vocalist—and occasional Tone Madison contributor—Mike Noto delivers a series of emphatic vocal deliveries while supplying cutting guitar figures. Drums, courtesy of both Jonathan Brown and Tim Chandler, pummel listeners into a state of numbed awe. Chris Joutras’ distorted, tenor-cranked bass tones add another element of rawness to This Must Be Heaven, consistently pushing the music towards cataclysmic frenzy. Furious, melodic, discordant, and teeth-gnashingly mean, Coordinated Suicides’ final effort leaves a mark. Whether the band is indulging in moments of shoegaze or post-hardcore (and occasionally delivering on both counts, as on “Frankie’s Chrysalis”) they’re tapping into something that evokes frustration and wonder in equal measure. —Steven Spoerl
Cribshitter, Goin’ Soft
Looking back at Cribshitter’s genuinely unhinged history, the fact that the band wound up making a soft-rock masterpiece about divorce and other midlife moments of crisis is both deeply unexpected and, as ever, gut-bustingly funny. What’s perhaps most surprising about Goin’ Soft is that it includes so many moments of genuinely moving tenderness and empathetic warmth, and an abundance of sincerity that heightens the impact of the bit. Cribshitter recently talked with us about emphasizing how confusing the band is, and those elements of confusion have never been as disparate as they are across Goin’ Soft. Conflicting tendencies toward satire, honesty, irony, and a host of stylistically varying influences all coalesce in surprisingly intoxicating ways across the record, most memorably on the interview-assisted “The Scythe (Coming Home).” Unabashedly lush and frequently gorgeous, Goin’ Soft is so much more than a lively take on classic divorce records like Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel Of Love. It’s peak Cribshitter: confusing, fun, funny, risque, weirdly impressive, and inexplicably moving. While the subjects of Goin’ Soft might meet a litany of unfortunate ends, here’s hoping that Cribshitter ultimately winds up with their own happy ending. —Steven Spoerl
Michael Darling, Spark EP
Old enough to get restless, young enough not to have all the optimism thwacked out of him, Michael Darling polishes five pop songs to a bittersweet gleam on his debut EP. The singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer—and former MQBS member—makes precise choices with the elements at his disposal. Gentle electronic touches and a guitar solo with welcome Hall & Oates vibes help him see something beyond the dull routine he sings about on “Coffee.” The acoustic guitar arpeggios and layered falsetto vocals of “Straight” bring him a little closer to accepting an obsession that just isn’t gonna work out—”‘Cause I can’t help but think of all the things / That we could never be.” An electric piano on “Too” deepens the vulnerability of his close, intimate vocal performance. Still, the clear peak on Spark is the title track, which builds big, earthy piano chords into a soft-rock triumph. Darling’s clear technical gifts, emotional openness, and tasteful production finesse align powerfully here. The romantic frustration he unpacks in the lyrics (“I guess the lust just don’t last long”) might have been enough to make him literally set a piano on fire, yet the song’s companionable restraint is what really makes it pay off. —Scott Gordon
Every power-pop band worth their salt eventually turns to the genre’s history for inspiration, extending a rich tradition that’s yielded a number of unforgettable triumphs. Disq staked their claim as one of the best power-pop and indie-punk bands currently active—not just in Madison, but anywhere—with 2020’s Collector. Desperately Imagining Someplace Quiet, the band’s follow-up, is a confident step forward for the tireless quintet. Some hard touring has paid dividends for the band, who deliver their tightest, most well-rounded, and most democratic collection to date. There’s a near-equal distribution of songs from the band’s four core singer/songwriters, who complement each other to a degree that’s genuinely rare in punk. Desperately Imagining Someplace Quiet is also the band’s most playful record, swinging from acoustic-driven throwback tracks to moments of searing, uncontrollable metal with little to no notice. For all their scattershot genre targets, Disq hits each one convincingly across the course of a dozen songs. A genuinely great band rarely misses, and Desperately Imagining Someplace Quiet makes a persuasive case that Disq fits the description. —Steven Spoerl
Godly The Ruler, Dog Days
Godwill Oke’s Godly The Ruler project hasn’t stopped expanding its sound or ambition, which has recently netted some hard-won national attention. Dog Days, an exhilarating five-track EP, is a new peak for the artist. Piercing riffs, hyper-pop beats, unmistakably modern production decisions, and confident vocal delivery all blend together across Dog Days, daring its listeners to place it into a single genre or category. Punk? Rap? Pop? Rock? Retro? Futuristic? It doesn’t matter. The whole point is that it doesn’t matter. In summarily demolishing genre conventions and barriers Godly The Ruler hits on something singular, carving out a strong identity in the process. Oke also continues a run of adept lyricism that evokes atmosphere: “It’s midnight / Nightmare, nightmare / It don’t feel right / Come and dance with the devil in the moonlight,” goes a particularly memorable passage in “Off With Your Head,” underscoring a curiously sinister undercurrent that helps propel the song’s jittery energy. Godly The Ruler would keep that type of momentum surging forward throughout 2022 by way of three excellent singles that prove Oke is just getting started. —Steven Spoerl
Good Corners, Corners Bloody Corners
John Hitchcock and Ryan Lansing pile a lot of elements into their duo Good Corners—pedal steel, baritone guitar, tape loops, synths, more electronics, more guitars!—only to let them all drift toward a distant, frayed horizon. Part ambient music, part cosmic Americana, Corners Bloody Corners unfolds like a long sigh. Whether it’s a sigh of relief, sadness, gratitude, joy, or doubt—well, there’s time to weigh all those things in various combinations. Especially on a track like “Poor Lightning,” as a sturdy low-end rumble of a guitar figure cuts across crackly drums, shimmering pedal-steel bends, and accretions of ghostly harmonics. Like Hitchcock’s Bury The Hatchet project (which also features contributions from Lansing), Good Corners’ debut album has the patience to match the truly massive scope of its ambitions. From the eerie warp of “Into The Sky” to the uplifting grandeur of “We Have Always Been Here,” Lansing and Hitchcock go about their sonic wanderings with a sense of intention and care. —Scott Gordon
Heavy Looks, Apathy
Heavy Looks has been making sly, lovelorn power-pop for 10 years. Apathy retains that sensibility but it also wants to leave a bruise. Recorded several years ago at the now-defunct Williamson Magnetic Recording Company, the album’s production makes the band sound huge. “Gaslight” opens the record with force by way of descending power chords and bashed cymbals. Guitarist/vocalist Rosalind Greiert’s lead vocal takes on just as much weight and dimension as the propulsive music, while also delivering a deceptively bright melody. For all the romance that comes embedded in this kind of music, Greiert and fellow guitarist/vocalist Dirk Gunderson fill the lyrics with the wear and tear of life, all of it every bit as pronounced as the hooks. “I keep going down this rabbit hole / It gets harder the further I go,” Greiert sings on “Gaslight.” The cheerful punch that begins “Grin & Bear It” breaks apart a bit with Gunderson singing about a whole hairball of anxiety and guilt: “Why do you feel you need to atone for things you have not done? / Can someone see you trying?” It’s great fun, but it really fucking hurts. —Scott Gordon
Graham Hunt, If You Knew Would You Believe It
The latest in the bountiful career of Graham Hunt just might convince a person to keep pushing forward, if only out of sheer spite, when the repetition of life is at its most tedious. Stagnant moments become improbably vivid when Hunt combines a wistful vocal melody with a line like this, from “Weedleafbitcoinflag”: “In the four block radius of your house / Or when you’re on vacation I’m not sure if I’d even call it that / You just drink in different places.” Or on this beautifully unfolding hook on “Stripes”: “Every night it’s always the same thing / Nowhere to go out to / Stuck inside my 300 square foot box where all my money goes to.” Lyrically, If You Knew Would You Believe It might be the ultimate stuck-in-a-rut in Madison album. But the music is an inspired patchwork of the collaborations Hunt has struck up here, in Milwaukee, and beyond: Disq’s Shannon Connor and Isaac deBroux-Slone (both of whom have become members of Hunt’s rotating live band lineup) recorded the album and each contribute multiple instrumental parts across most of its tracks, Bully’s Alicia Bognanno sings achingly bright harmonies on “Atwood,” and Sahan Jayasuriya and Randal Bravery each supply drum loops that deepen the album’s bristling warmth. —Scott Gordon
Ryan Liams, Scavenger + Home + Hauntology Ave.
No record from a Madison-based act moved me more in 2022 than Ryan Liam’s Story EP, which showcases Liam’s—who is now releasing music under the moniker Ryans Liams—continuing growth as a songwriter. Opener “Home” is a painfully beautiful reverie about searching for something, or someone, to call home. Layered, chorus-like backing vocals provide “Home” with an abundance of soul, allowing the track to transcend its Southern Americana trappings. All six tracks on Story are profoundly absorbing and are easily distinguishable, marking out Liam as an unlikely force within Madison’s DIY music circuit. Before Story, Liam put out another exceptional EP in Scavenger, further evidencing Liam’s enormous talent for both composition and production.
“Scavenger,” the EP’s title track, also distinguishes Liam as an acutely perceptive narrative talent, as he contemplates an ex-flame’s new relationship with compassion instead of resentment (“You’re far away / too far to say / But you look like you’re happy with her.”). In late December, Liam quietly released a surprisingly moving album, closing 2022 with an impressive flourish. Hauntology Ave.—a record dedicated to the memory of Liam’s family dog—takes risks (most memorably on the one-two punch of the Alex G-esque “Bobby Pt. 2” and the Tom Waits-esque “Creepy Creepy Crawly”) that pay off in unexpected, jaw-dropping moments. Nothing in Madison sounds quite like this at the moment, and Liam’s hitting harder than just about anyone else. —Steven Spoerl
Lovely Socialite, The Drift
A decade after Lovely Socialite’s debut album, Registers Her Delight, the six-piece outfit is still expanding its unwieldy jazz-prog universe. On The Drift, one comes to believe that the gremlins have not just taken over the plane but redesigned it to their strange and unknowable specifications. “Experiment One” tightly condenses so many of the things this band does well—Corey Murphy’s lumbering trombone figure locks in with Abe Sorber’s vibraphone and Brian Grimm’s and Pat Reinholz’s cello to create melodic themes filled with suspense and volatility, while drummer Mike Koszewski maintains a searing tension. Lovely Socialite’s playful menace remains fully intact across The Drift, but the music has become rewarding in all kinds of additional ways. Ben Willis’ bass starts off one the band’s most touching pieces to date, “mp mf mp,” a testament to a degree of sonic and emotional maturity that takes years to develop. “I Wish I Had The Words To Describe It, Part 1” ignites with lyrical tenor-guitar leads from Reinholz, reaching a depth and tenderness that would have been hard to imagine even at Lovely Socialite’s impressive beginnings. —Scott Gordon
Paul Mitch, Echoes & Shadows
Paul Mitch’s Echoes & Shadows is a plaintive record that exquisitely details a multitude of journeys. After tracking the album, Mitch received a lymphoma diagnosis and poured himself into completing Echoes & Shadows. As he took Echoes & Shadows through the mixing process, different meanings emerged, allowing the songwriter to dedicate an enormous amount of focus to the album (and to maximize its depth). Mitch’s level of focus is evident across Echoes & Shadows, which nimbly blends folk and indie-rock influences into a winsome, complete effort. The pacing and production on Echoes & Shadows are both exceptional, exemplifying Mitch’s commitment to the totality of craft. Similarly, the progressions and lyrics throughout the record are well-worn, evoking both a comforting nostalgia and a disconcerting sense of yearning for something momentous and indefinable. “Hands Up,” a dusty, noir-infused mid-tempo highlight, shows Mitch’s understanding of atmospherics, while the song’s hook—”I’m throwing my hands up now”—allows for its meaning to morph to the listener’s own perception, emphasizing Mitch’s understated prowess as a lyricist. A lot of records came out over the course of 2022, but few mean more than this one. —Steven Spoerl
Red Pants, When We Were Dancing
It’s tough to pick a favorite album Red Pants released in 2022, from February’s When We Were Dancing, to September’s five-song EP, Gentle Centuries. What a generous year it was for the noisy pop that blooms from this duo’s scuffed four-track tapes. (Plus, Gentle Centuries comes with five bonus demos for digital buyers. Just get them both.) Guitarist/vocalist Jason Lambeth and drummer/vocalist Elsa Nekola give the songs on both releases a heft that underscores their tender vocal melodies. They channel it all through the kind of lo-fi production that doesn’t skimp on dynamics. When We Were Dancing opens with the tossing-and-turning of “Lost Momentum.” Nekola and Lambeth drive into emotional briar patches laden with thick, droning guitar and sharply insistent drums (“Broken Movies,” “Another Haircut”), but always letting a spot of brightness come through. “In The Passing Time” brings all of this band’s strengths together to especially powerful effect: An awe-inspiring hush, sweetly nostalgic vocal hooks, then a crescendo that erupts under it all. You can hum along if you want to. —Scott Gordon
Anders Svanoe, Mantis
Anders Svanoe’s Mantis showcases a penchant for impulse from Madison’s preeminent baritone sax player. Backed by Brad Townsend on bass and Nick Zielinski on drums, Svanoe leads the group through passages of jazz cutting enough to draw blood. “Mantis,” the record’s 10-minute opener, has the trio baring their teeth, commanding a determined aggression that never lets up. On “Hot Shot,” the only Mantis track that was composed by the trio and not just Svanoe, the trio combatively work their way through a cavalcade of riffs and ideas, finding catharsis in bug-eyed interplay. On “Numbers,” Mantis‘ penultimate track and the shortest of the record, Svanoe, Townsend, and Zielinski remain cutthroat, repeatedly building and evaporating tension, forcing the listener to lean in for a game of cat-and-mouse that doesn’t have an easy resolution. Mantis closes with “Mitchell Field,” yet another composition that feels both frenetic and exactingly precise, ensuring the record’s place as one of the most exciting efforts in a superlative discography. —Steven Spoerl
Tekla Peterson, Heart Press
To her already formidable body of work as an experimental musician, Taralie Peterson (Spires That In The Sunset Rise, Louise Bock, Tar Pet, etc.) has added a synth-pop breakup record. Heart Press, recorded under the name Tekla Peterson, doesn’t compromise the adventurous edge of her previous work. No matter how many luxuriant, throwback synth patches and drum samples accompany it, Peterson’s voice has the same jarring versatility it showcased across Spires’ body of work and on solo releases like Louise Bock’s Repetitives In Illocality. This enables her to craft six tracks that work as hook-driven, lovelorn songs while airing a whole stew of yearning and rage. Between the soaring hooks of “Soda Pop Jam,” Peterson repeats the ominous chant of “bet ya didn’t know,” and between the irresistible chorus of “cry–y-y-y-y” on “Swarm Of Gnats,” she’s almost seething: “You should tell me when you decide / When you decide to die / I’ll come by your side and wish you the best.” Peterson’s mastery of dizzying, pitch-warped arrangements comes to the fore on “Cancel Out Effect,” and her rippling saxophone work makes an appearance on the gorgeously mournful closer, “Count Out Shadows.” —Scott Gordon
Johannes Wallman, Precarious Towers
“McCoy,” the second track of Johannes Wallmann’s Precarious Towers, pays direct tribute to the towering density the late pianist McCoy Tyner drew from the instrument, one of several overt references to history and influence across the album. At the same time, Wallmann’s playing and composition teases out something more conflicted in his own relationship to the piano and to Tyner’s relentless creative spirit. But he also lets saxophonist Sharel Cassity and vibraphonist Mitch Shiner command the graceful arc of the piece’s refrain. When Wallmann does embark on a zig-zagging solo, it gamely buffets against Devin Drobka’s drums and John Christensen’s bass. This quintet has pinned down a moment where the weight of the past sinks in and the possibilities of the future begin to rush over the horizon. “Never Pet A Burning Dog,” for instance, draws deeply on the crucial role of blues forms in jazz, almost mischievously contorting those forms into something elusive, malleable, potential. Precarious Towers doesn’t merely try to pair tradition with the contemporary. Instead, these five musicians melt all those elements down and get caught up in the currents of becoming. —Scott Gordon
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