The top 20 Madison records of 2016

The albums and EPs that made local music exciting and challenging this year. | By Emili Earhart, Scott Gordon, Mike Noto, Grant Phipps, Joel Shanahan

Every year of music in Madison brings us a wildly different cross-section of releases, and it's never easy to boil it all down to a few highlights. All year, we at Tone Madison listen and root around, trying to keep up with locally based acts we already like, but also keeping an ear out for surprises. And in 2016, surprises came at us from all corners. Hip-hop exploded, jazz and classical musicians embarked on outlandish sonic experiments, electronic musicians defied subgenre in favor of beauty and character, and rock bands showed their tender side. After much fussing and agonizing, here are our picks for the finest albums and EPs Madison-based artists released this year. We'll also be talking about more of our favorite Madison music later this week.

Tony Barba, Winter's Arms (self-released)

Saxophonist Tony Barba's first album as a solo instrumentalist, Winter's Arms, experiments with a new setup that uses loops, oscillators, and other effects to warp and layer his compositions. Barba never uses the electronics as an escape from the sax itself, though. From the slowly built serenity of "Dreamworld" to more dissonant and abrasive moments like "Insomnia," he's never that far away from the fundamentals of breath, timbre, and melody. Much like his live performances, the recording approach on Winter's Arms deploys a chain of textural effects subtly and gradually, and balances that with warm, un-effected sax sounds. All five tracks here are long ones—the shortest running just under nine minutes—and Barba uses that time to achieve a marvelous balance of ambient music and meditative jazz. —Scott Gordon

Bell Monks/Gregory Taylor, Brocades + Palimpsests (Clang)

Brocades + Palimpsests is an evocatively applicable title for this collaborative chamber ambient release by two Wisconsin-based experimentalists, "sleepy rock" practitioners Bell Monks (Jeff Herriott and Eric Sheffield) and electronic soundscape composer Gregory Taylor. This endeavor, which began with Bell Monks in 2012 as a commissioned sonic installation for a gallery opening, evolved through the acoustic accompaniment of saxophonist Matt Sintchak, bassist and former Madisonian Ben Willis, and Taylor's uniquely textured computer processing. In a year comprised of stellar electronic music by Huerco S and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, this release creatively culminates as a delicate, atmospheric composition cycle that recalls the ubiquity of Brian Eno while finding commonality with recent dynamic sound artists like Benoît Pioulard and Floating Points (particularly the title track from Elaenia). The latter is audible on "Whirling Halves," with Herriott's glistening Rhodes piano tones interplaying with Sheffield's guitar harmonics before low-end synthesizer glides in. The adjacent piece, "Beacon E23," is characterized more by Willis' textured, bowed bass, which heightens the ringing guitar effects. The two lengthiest and eeriest pieces on the record, "Ether Limning" and "Sublimation Residue," both reworkings of Taylor's music, even possess the transfixing instrumental intensity of Soundtracks For The Blind-era Swans. —Grant Phipps

Chants, The Zookeeper EP (The Astral Plane)

Producer-percussionist Jordan Cohen has been cranking out some massive, forward-thinking, and busted grooves for a while now, and this year’s The Zookeeper EP finds the sonic auteur diving even deeper into futuristic club abstraction. For this collection, Cohen scaled back on the calming bells, textured organ, and guest vocals that were soaked into 2015’s excellent We Are All Underwater, instead conjuring up something a bit more discordant and abrasive. “Crushed Lollipop” has Cohen’s fried kick-drums pounding hard in the forefront, swinging and stomping over buzzing minimal synth lines, shattered-glass samples, and eerie textures that pop in and out of the mix. The EP’s title track sounds ominous and militant, with machine-gun percussion and a stomping groove unraveling under cinematic synth arrangements. It isn’t all so crushing, as The Zookeeper does descend into some delicate valleys with choppy, piano-focused vignettes “Susurrus Pt. 1” and “Susurrus Pt. 2,” but the EP maintains a special fierceness and urgency throughout. —Joel Shanahan

BC Grimm, Orbis Obscura (Other Obscura)

Multi-faceted string player Brian Grimm's bands and collaborations range from contemporary classical (Sound Out Loud) to experimental jazz fusion (Lovely Socialite) to hip-hop production (Brain Grimmer) free improvisation (Brennan Connors & Stray Passage). While Grimm’s individualism shines through in any musical endeavour to which he contributes, it is particularly special to hear him experiment in his solo work. Inspired by acquiring a DigiTech Obscura Altered Delay pedal, Grimm dedicated three straight hours of improvisation to exploring the possibilities of delay when applied to the pipa—one of the Chinese stringed instruments he plays. Following this initial acquaintance with the the pedal, Grimm sculpted a three-part stereophonic orchestration, centering pipa in the middle, then putting fuzz and delay channels on either side. The result is Orbis Obscura, a 35-minute “sci-fi tone poem” that builds, peaks, and resolves through a series of aural whirlwinds and jolting, churning dialogue between the ancient sonic traditions of a 2,000-year old instrument and a just-encountered effects pedal. —Emili Earhart

Dash Hounds, Eft EP (self-released)

A preliminary listen to Dash Hounds' dreamy debut, Eft, may conjure reductive pull-quotes that compare their rhythmic guitar licks to Interpol's Paul Banks and yearning contralto to Beach House's Victoria Legrand. But listen past the easy reference points—there is a recurring, underlying feeling of renewal through this inviting five-song set. While the average track length approaches the five-minute mark, the band's poised arrangements possess a lulling immediacy, as I first discovered in the live setting. Perhaps this can be attributed to the roots of Alivia Kleinfeldt (guitarist and vocalist) and Brendan Manley (drummer and percussionist), whose previous band Modern Mod emphasized upbeat pop-punk hooks over Dash Hounds' generally introspective and somber sheen. With a slowcore atmosphere they've likened to California's Duster, the band often surprises with vocal melodies reminiscent of Eurythmics as on the verses of "Clover"; during its bridge, the song builds in tempo and hits an emotional crescendo in Kleinfeldt's repeated plea, "I need you on my side / This time." With lyrics that mirror the feeling of being suspended "in slow motion," the hazy pre-chorus of "Weekend" features the most infectious ten seconds of music you'll hear all year. —GP

Mr. Jackson, Black Gandalf The Unifying Wizard (self-released)

Crooner and synth-hook crafter Ethan Jackson created a rarified zone of eccentric but uplifting R&B on his 2014 debut album The Golden Hour Groove Session. The follow-up is a little more focused and subtly fleshes out the Mr. Jackson sound, working in a tiny bit of melancholy here and there. The standout moments here are a bit more spacey and ponderous than the previous release, especially the cascading vocal hooks of "Honest Love" and the placid synth murmurs of "Is It Her?" Still, Black Gandalf The Unifying Wizard delivers on Jackson's familiar strengths. As he sings about his love of staying in on "Good Vibes" and offers up admiring paeans on "Funksmart," Jackson manages to jump between falsetto and husky baritone vocals while always sounding like himself, underpinning the songs with barbed bass lines and taut yet conversational drum patterns. Even when Jackson sings about going to Woodman's on "A Wizard's Day," his staccato synth bass and funky percussion samples make me feel comfortably sealed off from the banal. —SG

Mahr, self-titled (Pale Noir Records)

Electronic producer Mahr's self-titled instrumental release begins in a realm of gently swelling and densely layered ambient compositions ("In Memories"), and at times works its way into stark, eerie techno ("Evocation," "Voices In Decay"). Mahr's exploring a broad range of electronic reference points here, and a lot of richly shaded moods, but over the course of six tracks, she marshalls all that variety into a sequence that hangs together. The patches of spooky darkness on this record never lapse into cliché; on "Initiation Well," a distant chant-like melody is offset by the prickly chatter of a drum pattern. On "Reflections," Mahr heads in a more overtly bright direction, with bubbly, rippling synth melodies that nonetheless complement the record's lovely gloom. —SG

Midwaste, As Relayed (self-released)

Epiphany Compton and Spencer Bible apply minimal guitar textures and a spread of tape samples and field recordings, concocting a composite of sounds that pivot back and forth along the line dividing the masked and the exposed. On As Relayed, Bible lays down a dense drone, constructing a framework in across which Compton situates scraps of sound, sometimes placed on their own, though often weaved together in a patchwork. Frequently, Compton's tape snippets are absorbed by the backdrop of noise and drone, swirling around together in the forefront of the cumulative sound, interacting with oscillating guitar overtones that ring over the grounded framework of the piece. At other times, the tape material unmasks itself, revealing a jarring sense of personality either due to the nature of the sample, or a sudden manipulation performed by Compton. As Relayed suggests a sort of sound tapestry, perfectly balanced between herky-jerky musique-concrète-like tendencies and drone-noise synthesis. The samples and field recordings become as essential as the absorbent guitar drone backdrop in creating this delicately embellished masterpiece. —EE

No Hoax, (untitled) EP (self-released)

No Hoax have gotten pretty far in town pretty quickly, and it's not hard to see why: their thrashing but melodic punk is easily accessible but ferociously performed, and in Rachel Kent they have a singer with tremendous range, authority and charisma, qualities that can't be taught. The band is really more than the sum of their parts, like any good band should be, but all of them contribute: from Ben Brooks' rampaging drumming, to Tyler Spatz's unreconstructed hardcore riffage and oddly surfy leads, to Anthony Moraga's heavily distorted and memorable bass lines, the sound is unified and, more importantly, their own. That kind of distinctiveness is always sorely needed in punk, and it becomes even more effective when you have songwriting that's as neatly constructed and catchy as No Hoax's is. Songs like "No Hoax" (yes, they actually pulled a Black Sabbath on everyone) and "Hyenas Neverending" demonstrate the group's way with hooks, while "Blood Pressure" and "Strive" show off enough rage for anyone. In short, this is a band with genuinely compelling emotional power and magnetism, and that power easily has the capacity to translate beyond the live format. —Mike Noto

Null Device, While You Were Otherwise Engaged (self-released)

Null Device is thoroughly obsessed with the synth-pop of '80s giants like New Order and Depeche Mode, and that obsession has matured and adapted with the band's broader musical interests and life experiences since they formed in 1994. There's a certain high drama to the band's sixth album, While You Were Otherwise Engaged, but it never feels affected or pretentious. Instead, vocalists Eric Oehler (who also produces and plays violin) and Jill Sheridan (who also plays synths) sing with clear melodies and level-headed perspective about the pressures of adult life, most powerfully on "Shadow And Flames," "Faraway," "All Along This Line," and "We Reach Tonight." When Oehler sings about the conflicted grind of being a little-known musician on "The Desire," it's with a balance of passion and self-deprecation—he's weary at times, but not self-pitying or pompous. Along with cellist Kendra Kreutz and producer Eric Goedken, they craft arrangements that feel warm and bold, making plenty of loving nods to the '80s but always taking a broader view. —SG

Lucien Parker, Black Sheep (Strange Oasis Entertainment)

On his first full-length, Minneapolis native and UW-Madison student Lucien Parker raps and sings with an amiable urgency that compels the listener to root for him. That holds true even when he tackles DJ Pain 1's sultry, trap-leaning beat on "Sacrifice Pt. II": "In every picture I'm a demon pushing my agenda / Nigga don't be friending me, I got a lot of enemies, I sacrifice this energy / Devil walking, devil talking, changing for my metamorphic / Versatile with the flow / Who the hare, who the tortoise?" Parker deliberately sets out to dabble in a lot of different styles here, from reflective a cappella on "Black Sheep—Interlude" to thumping, hard-won optimism on album closer "After Recess." As you'd guess from the title, a lot of the album is about feeling like the other and the outsider, but threaded in with that is a young artist talking about his ambition and resiliency. —SG

Proud Parents, Sharon Is Karen (Rare Plant)

A good handful of Madison bands have been embracing the sweet, jangly side of rock 'n' roll of late (including Jonesies, Automatically Yours, and Pollinators). For Proud Parents, that means playing scrappy and thoroughly disarming power-pop. Their first album, Sharon Is Karen, centers on the back-and-forth between guitarists/singers Claire Nelson-Lifson and Tyler Fassnacht, both in the sweet verse-swapping of songs like "Something To Talk About" and the sharply paired guitar melodies of "Bumfuck Somewhere" and "Saab Story." Drummer Heather Sawyer (of The Hussy) and bassist Alex Seraphin put a punchy rhythm section behind it all, with Sawyer fleshing out the vocals throughout and singing lead on "Heather's Song." It's one of plenty solid rock-n-roll albums local artists put out this year, but also thrives on the kind of frank, at times funny chemistry that arises from the band members' close friendships. —SG

Ra’Shaun, Kolors EP (self-released)

Madison rapper/singer Ra'Shaun's first EP, Kolors, expands on the promise of the bouncy, infectiously melodic singles he began releasing just a little over a year ago. And for all the good hip-hop coming out of Madison and Wisconsin generally the last couple years, no one else really seems to be embracing the bubbly zone Ra'Shaun inhabits on "Colombiana," "Comfortable," and "Deja Vu"—the latter featuring the flat-out adorable line "First time we met, girl, we connected like a iPhone plug." There's also variety within this unabashedly pop-informed zone, with Ra'Shaun cramming a lot of quick hooks (and making way for an excellent guest verse from Trapo) on "Dial," singing over a chord progression that recalls classic '60s R&B on "In Town," and twisting through a hazy but still engaging atmosphere of "Voicemail." Dude knows how to craft a catchy song, but there's also a ruggedness and open-endedness to Kolors that makes all the hooks feel more genuine. —SG

Rettir Leinahtan, Contemplations IV (Brave Mysteries)

Beginning late last year, curious listeners were invited into the aural exploration of Nathaniel Ritter (Kinit Her, Wreathes) through a series of releases titled Contemplations. Under his alias Rettir Leinahtan (formerly Circulation of Light), Ritter has constructed seven Contemplations (and counting), self-released and, in the case of IV, issued on local label Brave Mysteries, a label Ritter co-founded. It doesn’t take long to realize that Contemplations are exactly what the title suggests. There is, without a doubt, some feeling of stream-of-conscious mind-adventuring in each piece, but in an organically aligned sense. The production is appropriately glitchy at times, creating a sense of welcomed distraction––something inevitable when considering the all-or-nothing headspace one gets into when deliberately meditating or contemplating. But both within IV and the ever-continuing Contemplation series as a whole, Ritter's train of thought is smooth, seamless, and intentional. Textures oscillate back and forth between dark ambience and mutated drone, rhythmic and melodic motifs, and some concoction of post-industrial-modular-noise soundscapes. —EE

Rich Robbins, All.This.Gold (self-released)

Chicago native Rich Robbins' second album, All.This.Gold, stands out for its sharp lyrical and sonic focus. The MC's central theme here is to explore black people's lives through the metaphor of gold—precious, but ruthlessly exploited—at times playfully fleshed out with snippets from crazy prepper infomercials urging people to buy gold. Whether on the cruising, reflective "H.o.V." or on the wonderfully raucous "Exquisite," Robbins has a lot of nuanced points to explore, but never sounds as if he's in a rush. "It's the fountain of youth, I done punctured the vein / I done been up so early, heard the moon while it's praying," he raps on "H.o.V.," exuding the confidence that comes with long preparation. The features here are few and well-placed, especially fellow First Waver Broadway (who released a couple of great singles this year but not an album) on "Touch, Pain, Pleasure." —SG

Samantha Glass, Preparation For A Spot In The World (Holodeck Records)

Beau Devereaux has been writing and performing under his Samantha Glass moniker since 2010, communicating strikingly personal sentiments through faded, vintage electronics and reverberating vocals, allowing for a profound, visceral appreciation upon first listen. Devereaux may have outdone himself with this year’s Preparation For A Spot In The World. The album cuts deep, twisting and turning throughout one’s psyche, unfolding a spectrum of suppressed sensibilities, blended together into a rich pool of a glowing warmth. Devereaux utilizes the ageless dichotomy of light and dark, illustrated with bright synth melodies and deep, sweltering drones. These two overarching characters disperse, burrowing themselves and their fragmented relics within the pockets of one’s mind, only to be galvanized by the arrival of an animated pulse. This pulse retreats and returns in various permutations throughout the development of Preparation, ultimately inspiring a synthesis of all formerly disparate colors, feelings, and characters, achieved within the crowning track, “Engraved Visions”. —EE

Squarewave, A Tighter Knot (Artisanal Records)

Squarewave is one of those projects that seems content to dwell in under-the-radar modesty and take forever to put out records, and indeed, this year's A Tighter Knot came seven years after their previous album, Throwing Stones. Luckily, co-founders Jeff Jagielo and Patrick Connaughty spent that time pouring a lot of psych-pop craft into this record, which makes its point through subtly twisting chord progressions, gently imprinted hooks, and immaculate sonic layering. It's perhaps due to Squarewave's patient approach that so many disparate influences hang together well on A Tighter Knot," from the gentle, billowing rock of "Stay Away" to the staccato Krautrock pulse of "Pages" to the country-ish shuffle of "Swim." Even the reggae-inspired beat and melodica of "Coming Alive" don't feel like an abrupt departure, suggesting that Squarewave can sneak anything into their broad sonic weave if given enough time and space. Jagielo and Connaughty recently recruited Dash Hounds members Alivia Kleinfeldt and Brendan Manley into the band's live lineup, so here's hoping we hear from them more frequently in the future. —SG

Anders Svanoe, State Of The Baritone (Irabbagast Records)

Saxophone player Anders Svanoe plays baritone and only baritone on this album of original compositions, aiming to show that you can do a lot with an instrument that's usually relegated to blatting away in the background. Drummer Rodrigo Villanueva-Conroy and bassist John Christensen flex along with him, across 12 tracks that touch upon abrasive improvisation ("No More Mr. Nice Guy"), avant-classical ("Satieism"), the sly clip-clop of Sonny Rollins' Way Out West ("Wagon Wheel"), and, because what the hell, a capable but comical approximation of Iron Maiden's gallop ("Eddie The Monster"). On three other tracks that form a suite unto themselves, Svanoe and pianist Wendy Ward play harmonically tense duets that thread the needle between classical piano sonatas and the experimental dissonance of artists like Cecil Taylor. If it sounds like an album that goes all over the place, that's kind of the point, and Svanoe deftly pushes the range and tonal qualities of his instrument to get there. —SG

Tippy, self-titled (self-released)

It seems improbable that a band could do something compelling by revisiting scrappy, somewhat Pavement-ish guitar-rock in 2016. But when Madison musician Spencer Bible turned his solo project Tippy into a four-piece band for this self-titled release, those obvious '90s reference points suddenly didn't feel so tired. These seven songs are heartfelt, a little uncomfortable, and at times bruisingly funny, especially "Pipedream," on which Bible sings about his self-doubt as a musician and his run-in with a rude punk in the bathroom of a Tim Horton's ("He bumped my shoulder as he left, yeah, I guess he's a tough guy / Fuck you man, I just came for some doughnuts and wi-fi"). Just as importantly, the band as whole shows a ton of versatility (lead guitarist Mike Pellino is something of a secret weapon), building gentle swells to a roaring peak on opening track "Rusher" and bringing a conversational stop-start dynamic to Bible's neuroses about an ex on "Bagheera." There's a bit of off-handed smart-assery here for good measure, but what's ultimately striking here is the vulnerability brings to this record. —SG

Trapo, She EP (self-released)

Trapo is a young and impressively talented rapper who has worked very hard to make some moves lately, putting out two artistically substantial releases in a year. His November full-length Shade Trees has its share of high points, but overall felt slightly less cohesive than the distilled punch of his EP She, released in March. She covers varied territory for a deliberately short release: Trapo's writerly ability to set a defined scene with a few telling details and vivid emotion is easily apparent on the opening track, "Never Run," as well as the tunefully winning baritone singing that's always clearly set him apart as an artist. The general subject of the EP is inferred from the title—the emotional complications that arise from tempestuous relationships—but somewhat incredibly, he manages to navigate this territory without ensnaring himself in the pitfalls that can trip up any artist exploring such well-worn areas. (J. Cole, call your office.) Trapo works a few of his individual themes into the conceptual framework of the release as well: his ongoing examination of self-medicating with alcohol, here discussed in the first verse of "She Moved On," is a welcome theme from a Madison musician, and is handled with an insight belying his age. But there isn't undue weightiness either—his hook construction on songs like the final track "Chicago" also lands with an immediate jolt. The lushly musical, layered beats throughout are often beautiful as well, and it all adds up to a heady rush of a recording that packs an admirable amount of information into 26 minutes. —MN