The top 20 Madison records of 2015
The Madison-made albums and EPs that captivated us this year.
The music that Madisonians make (sometimes with collaborators around the country) is a great deal more diverse and accomplished than most people realize, including people right here in Wisconsin. Their finest recorded accomplishments this year spanned across many genres and stood out for different reasons—adventurous production, cutting lyrics, subtle melodies, or the ability to break through into new musical territory. I’ve been listening all year, and as usual it hasn’t been easy to narrow it down to 20 standouts. But here they are. Some of the artists have since moved away, but if it came out while they were living here, it counts. We've got more worthy local releases from 2015 in our honorable mentions.
Luke Arvid’s second album is on the surface a mild-mannered singer-songwriter affair, with medium-rocking arrangements and no particular interest in mystery or charisma. That leaves the focus on Arvid’s unembellished and disarming melodies, from the patient meditations of “Like We’re Swimming” to the wry but aching “Righteous.” Guitarist Louka Patenaude, drummer Chris Sasman, and bassist Jeff Held flesh out the songs with warmth and space, adding some subtle harmonic shades on “Footsteps Show” and “Pennies,” but never distracting from the sturdy, tuneful essentials.
Coby Ashpis, Loafer EP (Catch Wreck)
Hip-hop producer Coby Ashpis constructs the instrumentals on his Loafer EP with a granular overload of samples. We’re used to thinking of a sample as a phrase in itself, but on Loafer’s most exuberant moments (“Our Winter’s Cold,” “Frankly”), the samples also become tiny components that are nimbly rearranged from one phrase to the next, and somehow it all remains coherent and focused, never bogged down in its deliberate abundance of detail. And alongside common hip-hop production elements like pitched-up vocal snippets and punchy drum samples, Ashpis (who ended up moving to Los Angeles this summer) draws together the textural and compositional with an array of sounds, from ringing wine glasses to the crunch of tires on gravel to warbling synth melodies.
Read more in our interview with Ashpis from January.
Asumaya, The Euphemist (self-released)
In addition to playing drums in Madison bands Control and Faux Fawn, Luke Bassuener has spent years on various projects that reinterpret the music he’s been exposed to in his many travels to Ghana and Ethiopia as a teacher and Peace Corps volunteer. The Euphemist, his latest album under the name under the name Asumaya, is far and away the best thing he’s ever done. Primarily built around Bassuener’s percussion, bass, and looped vocals, the songs draw on skeletal fragments of various genres of West African music, with lyrics that provide a cutting perspective on international politics and global poverty. It’s always been a compelling mix of sounds and impulses, but on this album it all clicks with a new immediacy: “A Game Of Who Names It” (along with the album’s title) explores the cynical manipulation of language, “Import Society” captures the perverse politics of food aid, and the album’s most powerful song, “And Lucky” is a strangely funny portrait of an arrogant globe-trotting westerner—“when my feet hit the ground,” Bassuener sings, “everybody better talk like me."
Hear more in our podcast interview with Bassuener from March.
The Bellhops, Hero Of My Own Tale EP (self-released)
One of Madison’s great musical surprises this year came from The Bellhops, a band formed around a core of women singers, songwriters, and spoken-word artists associated with UW-Madison’s First Wave Program. Hero Of My Own Tale, the band’s first and probably last release (several members have graduated and moved away), crafts rich R&B tracks around unflinching lyrics that explore the intersection of race, gender, and the sheer complexity of the inner life. “Nobody ever told me that my body was mine,” Hiwot Adilow sings in the stark refrain of “Nobody”—nine words that starkly capture society’s deeply embedded violent impulses toward women. Natalie Cook closes the album with “Backwards God,” a fierce spoken-word piece that unravels gender politics on a scale that’s at once cosmic and immediate.
Read more in our interview with Adilow and Taylor Scott from September.
Chants, We Are All Underwater (Hush Hush Records)
Madison producer and drummer Jordan Cohen’s love of irregularity makes his project Chants probably the most distinctive electronic act in town. His third album, We Are All Underwater, refines an approach that’s minimalist and bass-heavy but never exactly slick. “Night Diving” crackles with a field recording of rain, stuttering percussion, and synth chords that swell and subside in patterns that only barely feel like patterns. Across the album, Cohen collaborates with several vocalists (including LA’s Mereki and Madison’s Jentri Colello), who deepen both its human tenderness and disorienting atmosphere.
Read more in our interview with Cohen from October.
CRASHprez, More Perfect (Catch Wreck/Mishka NYC)
“I’m just ridin’ round town with my skin on,” goes the first line of rapper CRASHprez’s first full-length album, which goes on to nightmarishly examine how the world sees that simple act as a provocation. CRASHprez, real name Michael Penn II, balances that overarching theme (and a witty but somewhat distracting origin story) with a massively collaborative approach, involving 10 different producers and six guest MCs/vocalists. Somehow it all hangs together, and the guests make the ideas bigger and more vivid rather than crowding the concept. The best tracks by far center on vocal collaborations: Penn, singer/rapper Hiwot Adilow and producer Boathouse create a landscape of churning dread on “Paranoia III,” and “Sxxxual Chocolate” weaves sensuality into the ever-present threat of violence with help from vocalists MyrihaB and Otis Franklin and producer *hitmayng.
Next show: January 7 at the Majestic
Czarbles, Nausea Trois (self-released)
Waiting eight years for a band to put out just 12 and a half minutes of music would normally be pretty anticlimactic. But we’re dealing with Czarbles here, so concepts like normality and reason disintegrate on contact—drummer Jeff Sauer, bassist Matt Skemp, and guitarist Mark Sauer can spend hours upon hours refining a seconds-long passage in one of their rhythmically contorted and perversely catchy math-rock instrumentals. Nausea Trois is more compact and urgent than the band’s 2007 debut album, but as always, these six tracks, most of them with gibberish titles like “Ahf” and “Ztu,” balance all that complexity with playfulness and maddening fluidity. Full disclosure: Mark Sauer is the only man to ever personally bake me a heart-shaped scotcharoo. (I’m as confused as you are.) Anyway, best band in town.
Hear more in our podcast interview with Skemp from March.
The Hussy, Galore (Southpaw Records)
There’s no shortage of capable garage-punk bands in the world or even in Madison, so why are we still talking about The Hussy? It’s because they keep growing as a studio band, and their fourth album, Galore, proves they can even surprise us. Drummer/singer Heather Hussy and guitarist/singer Bobby Hussy show a newfound tender side here, especially on the swaying, lap-steel-swirled psych-pop of “Take You Up” and the mournful plod and lean violin arrangements of “Darkness,” on which Heather asks, “Why don’t I just want what I have?” But there’s still pleny of The Hussy’s aggressive, smart-assed foundation, with Bobby leading the gleeful fuck-you of “Made In The Shade” and Heather belting out one of her mightiest vocals yet on “EZ/PZ."
Hear more in our podcast interview with The Hussy from May.
Kiazma, FCOU 29 (Fuck Commercial Only Underground)
It’s just normal now for new music to be all over the place format-wise—this list includes digital-only releases, cassettes, CDs, LPs, and combinations thereof—but this is definitely the only release we’ve covered this year that exists solely on the Mixcloud account of a Polish music blog (though you can download it for free there). Young producer Kiazma, real name Jackson Nyman, crafted a live-PA set this year that swung him deep into merciless, blasted-out techno, and he recorded a half-hour version of the set for the eloquently named Fuck Commercial, Only Underground blog. Nyman (who graduated from UW-Madison this year and has since moved to Cambridge, Massachussetts to pursue a career in science) wrings crisp, austere texture from his percussion sounds in this continuous half-hour set, and tautly manipulates the scratchy reverb and low-end rumble that linger around his beats, like the malignant dust that emanates from a well-controlled building demolition.
Lovely Socialite, Toxic Consonance (self-released)
Lovely Socialite’s six-piece configuration of cellos, Chinese zithers, vibraphone, trombone, bass, and drums makes for improbably graceful music, even if the band’s second album, Toxic Consonance, does begin with a giddy deconstruction of the national anthem (“Star Spangled”). The band’s instrumental jazz compositions grow even more expansive and omnivorous on this album, from the lumbering funk of “Chupacabradabra” to the tense, distortion-tinged 5/4 of “Humus."
Next show: December 19 at Johnson Public House
Ossuary, Cremation Ritual EP (self-released)
On Cremation Ritual, Madison trio Ossuary plow through four tracks of utterly comfortless death metal centered on Izzi Plunkett’s slavering growl and rhythmically taut guitar figures. Jex Thoth members Matt Jacobs (bass) and Nick Johnson (drums) balance the cavernous production with rumbling density and the band as a whole works in a lot of surprising structural twists and turns, especially on the despairing trudge of “Gaping Mental War Wound” and the furious, feedback-smeared lunge of “Execration Hymn."
Next show: December 17 at the High Noon Saloon
Paint and Wood Chickens, split cassette (Kitschy Manitou)
This short cassette captures a bit of the excitement and sonic diversity that young punk/power-pop/garage-rock bands have been bringing to local music the past couple years. Madison trio Paint begin their side with the frenzied one-two of “Rumspringa” and “House Arrest,” then slow it down to finish with the somber but combustive “Southern Cut." Fellow Madison three-piece Wood Chickens (who also put out a live album this year) start with one of their deliriously tight country-punk thrashers, “Hex On Me,” before going into a playful acoustic cover of Paint’s song “Stingray” (wheels within wheels, people!), the loping instrumental “Woodlands Pt. 3,” and an acoustic version of their song “Flesh ’N' Blood." In the best traditions of punk, both bands reconcile immediacy with a ton of eccentricity.
Hear more in our podcast interview with Wood Chickens from September and read more in our brief post about Paint’s “Southern Cut” from April.
Next shows: Wood Chickens play December 31 at Mickey’s Tavern and January 8 at the High Noon Saloon
Roan Linden, Commercial Investments EP (Golden Cloud Tapes)
Beau Devereaux is best known for melding pop and adventurous electronic music in his project Samantha Glass, but also kept busy this year with the new band Grave Texture (a duo with Ossuary’s Izzi Plunkett) and another solo moniker, Roan Linden. His work as Roan Linden is a bit more aggressive than the Samantha Glass material, aiming for the grisly region where industrial music starts to bleed into harsh power electronics. Commercial Investments does have catchy elements—“Human Like Form” features a whirring synth hook buffeted by vintage-sounding drum machines, and “Purely Speculative” creeps along on a single synth-bass figure—but they’re surrounded by more confrontational production and vocals, making for a bleak yet engaging whole.
Next show: Devereaux plays as Samantha Glass on January 7 at the High Noon Saloon
Rocket Bureau, Low Times, High Anxiety EP (self-released)
Gifted singer, multi-instrumentalist, and recording engineer Kyle Motor has pursued his obsession with power-pop structures and strictures in many bands over the years (including The Motorz and The God Damns), and launched Rocket Bureau as a one-man, home-recorded project in early 2014. Most of Rocket Bureau’s output has consisted of one-off singles about fictitious women, but on the Low Times, High Anxiety EP, he experiments with more conceptual songwriting and—more surprisingly—opens up on some emotional matters that don’t line up with the usual pop-song tropes. Opener “Terrified” charges into Cheap Trick territory but with lyrics about drinking to self-medicate for social anxiety, and the similarly propulsive “Never To Be Found” focuses on the disappointments of growing older and the strain of keeping one’s emotions hidden. On “I Don’t Sleep Well” and “Night Time,” he uses his production talents to create spacey, gentle soundscapes that accentuates the songs’ meditations on loneliness and insomnia.
Hear more in our podcast interview with Kyle Motor from May.
I’m used to hearing Spires That In The Sunset Rise explore disorienting reaches of sound where only members Taralie Peterson and Kathleen Baird have any idea what’s going on rhythmically. It’s a challenge, then, to hear the experimental duo snap into lots of taut and identifiable patterns on the opening and title track of Beasts In The Garden, and to hear them set aside much of their multi-instrumental toolbox to focus on building songs around Peterson’s saxophone and Baird’s flute and voice. Granted, things get spacey again pretty fast and pretty often, but those moments of structural rigidity frame the album as a whole. It’s further proof that STITSR will be bound by nothing—not even its very capacity for boundlessness. (Baird has been living in New York City for the past year, but Peterson is still in town and much of the album was made here, so I’m counting it.)
Hear more in our podcast interview with Peterson from July.
Tarpaulin, Homesick EP (Rare Plant)
Tarpaulin’s first proper recording uses sparse, melodic guitar pop to draw you into songs that prove unsparing and raw when you pay attention to the lyrics. Singer/guitarist Alejandra Perez crafts vocal hooks around stories of loneliness and dysfunctional relationships (“Letter To Emilia,” “Homesick,” Minocqua”). Bassist Mary Dahlman Begley and drummer Will Leemkull may be playig simple parts, but what they’re doing is tasteful and well-timed, supporting the emotional buildup and frankness of Perez’s songs. And it’s not all downtrodden: “Peter” comes off as an admiring, if bittersweet, tribute to a friend, and has the best chorus on the EP.
Next show: January 8 at the High Noon Saloon
Trapo, The Black Beverly Hills EP (self-released)
Rapper and singer Davon Prather, aka Trapo, almost lets you forget that he’s only 17 on his debut EP, not just because his voice is deep and gravelly, but also because he threads ambitious narrative and conceptual elements into the songs. The story he’s telling might be a fragmented one, glimpsed via terse personal revelations and sampled dialogue from A Raisin In The Sun, but it’s all the more compelling for that. Standout tracks like “Ease My Soul” and “Raisin In The Sun” connect personal turmoil with a more universal longing for success and meaning, making good on the projects goal of exploring the theme of black prosperity.
Read more in our interview with Trapo from last week.
Tyranny Is Tyranny, The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism (Phratry Records)
The cover of Tyranny Is Tyranny’s second album shows a dead hawk in a plastic bag, so fair warning and all, yet what the band does best here is to find the beauty in bleakness. The two clear standout tracks here, “She Who Struggles” and “Pillar Of Cloud, Pillar Of Fire,” explore the links between violence and profiteering (the album draws its name from a Naomi Klein book), but use subdued vocal melodies, sparse guitar lines, and even trumpet to wring a sort of tenderness from it all, and pushes the band’s combination of post-rock, noise-rock, and metal into something that’s more distinctive and tougher to classify.
Johannes Wallmann, The Town Musicians (Fresh Sound Records)
Jazz pianist and UW-Madison jazz studies chair Johannes Wallmann released two albums this year focusing on his original material: the big-band record Always Something and the more intimate The Town Musicians. The latter was recorded mostly in a quintet setting with musicians Wallmann met during his time living in New York City, including trumpeter current Wisconsinite Russ Johnson, who helps to coax Wallmann into flowing, conversational territory on patiently building highlights like “Lakeshore,” “November Song,” “Water Music (For People Without Aquariums)," and “Concurrencies.” It’s no coincidence that those are also the longest tracks, the ones where everyone involved stretches out with unhurried, graceful interactions that let you forget about the complex structures at work beneath them.
Hear more in our podcast interview with Wallmann from July.
Zebras, The City Of Sun (Secret Records)
The City Of Sun completes Zebras’ transformation from a wiggy noise-rock band to a distinctive thrash-metal band. All three members nail it here: Guitarist Vincent Presley turns in spitefully baying vocals, Lacey Smith’s synth parts create thick and nasty low end, and Shane Hochstetler plays brutal but undeniably melodic drum parts. The three come together to brew up roiling, catchy pestilence as Presley screams about esoteric burial rituals (“The Turning Of The Bones”), spontaneous human combustion (“Filled With Fire”), and conspiracy theories (“The Bell"). Zebras hate us all, but they’ve still given us a massively fun record.
Read more in our interview with Presley and Smith from September.