The top 20 Madison records of 2017

The albums and EPs that did Madison's music community proud this year. | By Emili Earhart, Scott Gordon, and Grant Phipps

top20_2017_header.jpg

This past year in Madison's music community often felt jarring and uncertain while we were in the midst of it. Newer venues worked and struggled to define themselves as healthy spaces for local music, while established ones changed hands. The most revered and influential musician in our midst, Clyde Stubblefield, died in February. The increasingly fascist atmosphere of American public life only made the world an uglier place for artists. The pace of change and gentrification in Madison seems to constantly accelerate. But looking back on 2017, there's little reason to feel gloomy about the creativity of musicians in Madison. From local lifers to students who identify more strongly with other places, these artists constantly challenged the way we look at local music. Artists we've learned to depend on for quality music came through this year, but so did plenty of relative newcomers. From our year of listening and doing our best to follow it all, here are 20 releases that proved especially memorable. Later this week, we'll have some notes on honorable mentions and on some of the singles and one-offs that stood out this year. This top 20 list is presented in alphabetical order by artist, and not ranked.

Basi & Bhairav, Son Of The Moon (self-released)

Rapper Basi and producer Bhairav, who hail respectively from Oakland and New Jersey and met as students at UW-Madison, turn this 10-song collaborative release into a showcase of versatility. "Finite," with its refrain of "I might fly away," creates a sparse but comforting atmosphere with Bhairav's reflective piano melodies and Basi's introspective, just-forceful-enough flows. The beats and lyrics both get tougher on tracks like "NoSlack," which builds on a restrained synth-bass part and Basi's stern, barbed delivery. Son Of The Moon closes out with its title track, which creates a sense of persistence and wonder in the face of adversity, as Basi ponders how to balance worldly concerns with a higher purpose: "I cannot lie, I'm not better than we / we never change, we dependent on fees / I wanna flee, I want a Jeep / I'm always trapped in this dichotomy." From the playful moments to the somber ones, Basi and Bhairav come through with an impressive sense of focus, tackling a lot of big ideas but never getting weighed down with frills or distractions. —Scott Gordon

Bereft, Lands (Prosthetic Records)

Bereft's second album doesn't so much as expand on the epic black-metal contortions of 2014's Lost Ages as stake out a new dynamic for the band. On the opening track of Lands, "We Wept," guitarists Zach Johnson and Alex Linden introduce a vocal approach—cutting screams and clean melodies on one side baleful death-growl on the other—over lumbering rhythms and pounding riffs underpinned by Cade Gentry's bass. (Michael Kadnar of German metal band Downfall Of Gaia played drums on the album; current drummer Jerry McDougal joined after the initial tracking.) The band's earlier black-metal leanings are still at work here, but tend to take a backseat to searing, mournful doom, stretched out into ambitiously structured laments about humankind's destructive folly. The dominant feeling on Lands is not one of rage but of bitter sadness. Especially on "The Ritual" and the 14-minute closer "Waning Light," Bereft infuse their fatalistic vision with an unflinching ear for human vulnerability. —Scott Gordon

Brennan Connors & Stray Passage, Emergence (Setola di Maiale)

After several years of performing regularly in Madison, saxophonist Brennan Connors multi-stringed-instrumentalist Brian Grimm, and percussionist Geoff Brady managed to capture the essence of a Stray Passage experience. The energy they harness on their live-recorded debut album, Emergence, is spatially, dynamically, and emotionally visceral. Stray Passage hone in on the ideals of composition-in-performance and have a knack of suggesting acute awareness in structure as they perform, as if structural decisions are, in fact, predetermined. That said, as the band discussed with us ahead of the album's releaseEmergence is all about improvisation. All three members weave in and out of freely tumultuous passages and desolate spaciousness, achieving a collective, convincing direction that challenges the listener's understanding of the passing of time in live composition. —Emili Earhart

BRZRKRZ, Fever Dream Kitchen (self-released)

A veteran of local post-punk bands including P'elvis and Dick The Bruiser, bassist and producer Kevin Wade has recently been delving into sample-centered electronic music under the name BRZRKRZ. Much of the project's second album, Fever Dream Kitchen, is grounded in a realm of scratchy textures and hip-hop-adjacent rhythms, with occasional swerves into spaced-out deconstructions like "Liberace Womb." But more importantly, each track has its own skewed grab-bag of sounds and its own mischievous scheme for making them work together. On the title track, a distorted theremin swoops atop a mellow standup bass, creating an effect that's both laid-back and a bit unsettling. On "Sabertoof," a saxophone wheezes and screeches, and around it Wade cycles through different percussion sounds, from big boxy acoustic drums to a chattering 808 rimshot. The production is deft and spacious, but Fever Dream Kitchen also captures the chaos of cultural detritus floating all around us, and does so with an unmistakably strange sense of humor. —Scott Gordon

Carbon Bangle, Pariahprism (self-released)

On their self-released debut EP, post-everything outfit Carbon Bangle, formerly known as Ion, tackle progressive rock and punk, incorporating elements of dub, psychedelia, and an array of drone and ambient textures. Pariahprism documents a sound that isn't remotely similar to anyone else in town. There is a lot going on here, and the densest sections yield an overpowering yet welcome sense of sonic suffocation. Still, the band opens up into atmospheric passages, albeit executed with intentionality and intensity. Standout track "Hall Of Sacred Mirrors" exemplifies this breathable space. Within a realm of droney ambience laced with metallic pointillism, guitarist Terrance Barrett crafts a guitar part within this space that moves freely throughout the track, but ultimately goes off on a purposeful direction of its own. "Hall Of Mirrors" is a perfect follow up to "Knife Fight: II. Death Rattle," which attacks the listener with a rush of abrasively dubbed-out vocals that permeate through tense drum patterns and kaleidoscopic guitar colors—a common sensation generated throughout Pariahprism. —Emili Earhart

Chants, Amethyst Dust (Astral Plane Recordings)

Producer/drummer Jordan Cohen has been moving away from the contemplative territory of his first few releases under the name Chants. Last year's The Zookeeper EP and this year's Amethyst Dust EP capture his attempts to make club-oriented tracks with driving tempos and artfully damaged drum sounds. What hasn't changed is Cohen's ability to challenge and sometimes just plain upend the listener's sense of rhythm—the syncopations on "Irruption" and "Amethyst Dust" are optimized for DJs who want to blindside dancers in between more conventional four-on-the-floor jams. This doesn't mean that Chants has abandoned atmosphere or nuance. There are brief moments of respite on Amethyst Dust, including a swirling and very nearly melodic passage on "Whole World Crumble," and even when Cohen is smashing away on oddly staggered kick-drum hits, he finds all sorts of ways to make them sound both crushing and carefully polished. —Scott Gordon

Paul Dietrich Quintet, Focus (Ears & Eyes Records)

Trumpeter and composer Paul Dietrich recently received the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium's Artistic Development Grant, affirming his active place in the local jazz scene. And as current director of the East High School Jazz Orchestra, he's also ensuring its relevance for the next generation in his native Wisconsin. His quintet's second album, Focus, navigates within the framework of traditional modal jazz, but also breaks from expectation with subtly inspiring compositional variations, including wordless singing from Twin Talk member Katie Ernst that often mimics Dietrich's trumpet and Dustin Laurenzi's tenor sax phrasings. Ernst first appears at the onset of the album's "Prologue," which slowly builds in tempo before its concluding horn melody (which possesses a certain Jaga Jazzist flavor and buoyancy) spills into Paul Bedal's Tigran Hamasyan-inspired piano ostinato on "The Quick Turn." Here, Ernst's singing takes on a more prominent scatting quality, establishing an atmosphere not unlike bassist Matt Ulery's Chicago-based Loom ensemble. While many of these tempered, steadily unraveling compositions reach past the seven-minute mark, the album's tracklist successfully alternates between more upbeat and somber moments that enliven the players' dynamics and create a sincere sense of discovery with each listen. One of the most demure pieces, "Puddles," begins with an eloquently bowed bass from Tim Ipsen that exudes a lamentable, nocturnal vibe, as he's complemented by drummer Andrew Green's resonating ride cymbal. The soft piano at the start of "So" shares the introspection of many other compositions, but the tune's breathy saxophone playing sets up one of the album's most intimate moments in the soft cascade of Green's chimes—like a beaded curtain through which Ipsen's thick bass solo emerges. —Grant Phipps

Double Ewes, Dead Furrow (self-released)

Double Ewes' second album, Dead Furrow, begins with a reassuring surge of rich sonics on "Pride," as singer/guitarist Whilden Hughes' refrain of "you're the only one that I can see" rides a dense but gentle groove. Like the band's 2014 self-titled debut, Dead Furrow builds on the melodic structures of folk-rock and the production techniques of electronic music. It's as if the band has found its own elusive plane that just happens to intersect with both of those elements, because the music here never feels like a forced or gimmicky hybrid. Hughes, synth player Jeremy Nealis, and bassist Max Jewer each also contribute a bunch of programming and production work, making conventional instrumentation gel with an eccentric MIDI-synced patchwork of beats, loops, and atmospheric pads. The warm, descending bass line of "Gobeckli" patiently weaves into the song's flickering synth melodies and crisp drum samples; the idyllic guitar hooks, aching vocals, and burbling electronics of "Harmonic" cohere in a field of tastefully dialed-in reverb. Everything about Dead Furrow feels both accessible and unlikely, which speaks to the balance of sincerity and finesse that went into this record. —Scott Gordon

Fringe Character, Phases (Lion Of Istan Music)

Hip-hop outfit Fringe Character generally likes to take on a lot—a lot of influences and impulses in producer/multi-instrumentalist Ben Sholl's beats for the 2016 album Mint, a lot of guest MCs and vocal collaborators around the core pairing of rappers Dudu Stinks and Daewong, a lot of horns and layers in the expanded live version of the project. Fringe Character's second full-length, Phases, retreats to a calmer realm of Rhodes-like keyboards and melodies bent on reflection. Even on "Deep Field," a funky house-infused collaboration with R&B voyager Mr. Jackson and DJ Phil Money, and "Hydroplane," a sharp and playful exchange between Dudu Stinks and Daewong, Phases dials back the exuberance and carves out passages of shimmering, spacious quiet. There's just a touch of sadness in all this, but what really comes through here, especially on lead single "Star Washer," is a feeling of newfound serenity and resilience. —Scott Gordon

Golden Donna, Carousel Hold (self-released)

Golden Donna, alias of producer and DJ Joel Shanahan, has released a slew of music this year. His second full-length of 2017, Fairydust, deserves as much attention as the first, Carousel Hold, especially when considering a representation of a live Golden Donna dance set. Likewise, his Alone In the City EP is a worthy contribution, both compositionally and as the first release on local electronic label Yugen. Carousel Hold, however, is significant in a way that shifts the speed for the listener and expands the elements of the dance floor. Shanahan pulls back in order to fill a different kind of space. He very loosely establishes this space—nearly boundless, cavernous, though in an atmospheric sense—letting colors and textures decay, escape, or permeate within the sonic confines. Shanahan then reins in those remaining sounds, securing them warmly within the guidance of a beat or a melody. Carousel Hold sounds like an organically sculpted structure that pulls you in as much as it lets your thoughts, feelings, and movements escape amongst the liberated, blossoming sonic matter. —Emili Earhart (Editor's note: Shanahan is a Tone Madison contributor. He had no role in the selection or writing of this list.)

Golpe Tierra, Golpe Con Golpe (self-released)

Afro-Peruvian jazz quartet Golpe Tierra centers its sound around Juan Tomás Martínez's myriad-voiced cajón and Richard Hildner's fluid nylon-stringed guitar. From that starting point, their five-track EP Golpe Con Golpe spirals out into a host of different musical styles from across Latin America, all deftly executed and bristling with emotion. On the title track, Nick Moran's bass and Tony Barba's bass clarinet help Martínez establish a plowing groove, as Martínez sings a powerful Spanish-language lyric about popular resistance in times of madness—"golpe con golpe" is a Spanish idiom meaning "blow for blow," as in a fight, and in other contexts "golpe" can be used to denote a coup. On "La Despedida," Martínez uses the gentler end of his vocal range, over Barba's lilting sax, Moran's bowed bass, and Hildner's nuanced but unhurried guitar melodies. And the 11-minute closing track, "Braveface," is a testament to what this band can do when it stretches out instrumentally. —Scott Gordon

Olyvia Jaxyn, Lyv (self-released)

Singer-songwriter Olyvia Jaxyn didn't play a lot of shows this year or attract a lot of attention, but definitely made a gorgeous and stirring contribution to local music with their debut EP, Lyv. Jaxyn's voice, wounded and baritone-leaning with a touch of high drama, floats over bright electric guitar and Tom Thurlow's glammy electro-pop production, on four songs that detail the journey of coming to terms with a trans and queer identity. The EP's most touching song, "Clementine," sounds sweet and cheerful, but details the anxiety and fear of being a trans person out in the world: "Faces to stare at / Wonder how they'll stare back," goes one verse. "Mayngo" is a funky exploration of pleasure, and "Hi" ends the EP on a bleak, dejected note. Jaxyn doesn't spare us the humiliations and doubts they've been through, but their gorgeously off-kilter pop can also create a sense of wonder and hope. —Scott Gordon

Jonesies, Keep Up (self-released)

It's a shame that Jonesies only put out this one album before bassist/vocalist Mary Begley moved away, because no one else in town delivers this band's balance of catchy jangle-pop and savagely funny songwriting. Under its clean-toned guitars and guileless production, Keep Up is kind of brutal, as Begley and guitarist Luis Perez sing narrative duets of mutual loathing and schaedenfreude. "It's pain, it's pain, when you're breathing / It's wrong it's wrong, when you speak," they sing over the peppy chorus of "Simon." On "Blood Stone Shard," Begley and Perez craft a classic scenario in which a "nice guy" turns out to be an entitled dick when he doesn't get the attention he wants from women, and then keeps trying. (Begley: "You must feel you've been put on a shelf." Perez: "I think you're a bitch." Begley: "I'm not sorry as I pass you on by." Perez: "Come on, give me a shot.") Drummer Tessa Echeverria and guitarist Peter Briggs help to craft swaying grooves that give the album a tinge of country flavor, especially on "Log Cabin" and "Draw Rocks," adding yet another layer to the Keep Up's playfulness and bite. —Scott Gordon

Erik Kramer, A House, Floating In The Middle Of A Lake (Anthropocene Recordings)

After deep rumination and some patient years of ripening, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Erik Kramer invites listeners into his consciousness and encourages an awareness beyond their own in his debut release. A House, Floating In The Middle Of A Lake uses electric and acoustic instrumentation, field recordings and samples, and Kramer's own voice. The result is at times reminiscent of an extended, Hassell-defined Fourth World Music—a music "both primitive and futuristic"—while existing loosely in the realm of folk. Yet AHFITMOAL seems to operate on a different plane than Hassell's human-centric primitive-futurism. Here, Kramer firmly grasps the significance and consequence of humans and, while embracing humanistic qualities on one side, also acknowledges the greater influence of nature and creates a space for awareness and homage to the once-unaffected natural landscape. The album both challenges and expands listeners' ideas of the self within the world. Meanwhile, Kramer combines the extremes—melodies and drones, acoustic guitar and Casio, abruptness and subtleness—to develop his own corner of the infinite, post-genre sonic world. —Emili Earhart

Miyha, Happy Birthday, Nick (self-released)

Guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Alejandra Perez, formerly of Madison bands Tarpaulin and Automatically Yours, pours a searing mix of nostalgia and bitterness into her band Miyha's debut EP, and all within a disarmingly catchy framework. Named in honor of then-bass player Nick Hoffman (since replaced by Maggie Denman of Once A Month), Happy Birthday, Nick comprises five songs that unpack betrayal, abuse, and the constant struggle to hold on to a sense of self in the face of it all. Perez sums that up with devastating simplicity on "92/69/39 (Ryan Adams)," singing "it doesn't seem like much when I put it in a box / I'm sure you've burned mine by now" over Mike Pellino's deft, winding guitar leads and Erik Fredine's tense but upbeat drums. The final track, "Raspberry Kombucha," has a chorus that's stuck with me since the EP came out in January: "You just keep on denying what's growing in your guts." It's an unforgiving space to be in, but Miyha explore it with the kind of craft that reminds you there's something more on the other side of life's dark moments. —Scott Gordon

Samantha Glass, Introducing The Confession (No Rent Records)

While it was bittersweet to see industrial-goth dreamer Beau Devereaux head south to Texas this year, we are thrilled that he decided to drop one more release from Samantha Glass project before leaving Madison. Released on Philadelphia's No Rent Records, Introducing The Confession expands upon Devereaux's personal and truly distinctive sound, all the while colored in familiar, dark post-industrial auras. The structure of Introducing The Confession is reminiscent of some previous Samantha Glass releases. Amidst samples and field recordings, ambience both ethereal and ominous, and a strikingly analogue warmth, Devereaux adds a delicate dash of melody, leaving listeners with a humanizing ache for vulnerability in the final track, "Personal Witness." It is worth giving the EP an immediate re-listen, as its once seemingly-detached elements—wandering sequences, dormant bass lines, esoteric samples, and desolate ambience—begin to grow intimately on the listener. In this way, Introducing The Confession is both mystifying and deeply resonant. —Emili Earhart

Anders Svanoe, State Of The Baritone Vol. 2 (Irabbagast Records)

Saxophonist Anders Svanoe put out the first volume of his State Of The Baritone series in 2016, beginning a quest to prove that the big bulky instrument one usually hears buried within a larger horn section can play a strong lead role. On this year's State Of The Baritone Vol. 2, Svanoe again collaborates with drummer Rodrigo Villanueva-Conroy and bassist John Christensen on a set of original compositions. Here the trio loosens up, focused less on concept than the previous release, and more on lean, rough-and-tumble improvisation. The liner notes credit Roscoe Mitchell (with whom Svanoe has collaborated) and Ornette Coleman as inspiration for several tracks, so there's plenty of barbed abstraction at work on tracks like "Baby Toys," "Space-Time," and "One On One." Still, this is all about versatility, and the trio sound just as alert and flexible on the bluesy swagger of "Free Harris" and the affectionate, mid-tempo outpouring of "First & Winnebago." —Scott Gordon

Trophy Dad, Dogman (Sad Cactus Records)

In the last couple years, Abby Sherman and Jordan Zamansky have become one of the most appealing songwriting duos in Madison's reliable indie-rock scene. Their band Trophy Dad blends the forthright lyricism of Pavement and The Vaselines with the artful prowess and musical depth of Helium and The Breeders. On the heels of some well-deserved national attention this spring, NYC-based label Sad Cactus released Trophy Dad's Dogman EP. The band's crunchy but catchy '90s lo-fi aesthetic is holds firm on opener "Swig." The song's tone is wistful, yet peppy, as Zamansky and Henry Stoehr's pop-punk-infused acoustic and electric guitar chords intermingle; the quaint brass accompaniment on the outro closely echoes "Soft Things" by fellow Madison pop group Gentle Brontosaurus. Elsewhere, on the more widely circulated single, "Addison," Sherman's lilting voice paints a portrait within the modern woes of communication before the track's tempered rhythm yields to some energetic Sonic Youth-style tuning and distortion in the final minute. Zamansky's deeper vocal timbre and chorus falsetto drive the infectious ditty "And She Succeeded," which features some beautifully interspersed tack piano and the perfect pitch of adorning percussion by Justin Huber. Maybe the most haunting of the bunch comes in the form of the off-kilter, ringing psychedelia of "Louis Sachar" as a cleansing rebuke of incivility. —Grant Phipps

Twelves, self-titled (self-released)

A tightly-knit local supergroup of sorts comprised of Bron Sage, Tyranny Is Tyranny, And Illusions, and Hat Party members, Twelves burst onto the scene this year with a series of riotous live performances that creatively culminated in their headlining the WSUM stage at Freakfest. Their commanding self-titled studio debut is a proper reflection and showcase of Twelves' unhinged theatrics and musical dexterity in the noise- and math rock genres, from the snarling wail of vocalist and lyricist Michael Groome, to the sharply angular dissonance of Jason Bank's electric guitar, and the steady control of Russell Emerson Hall's electric bass and Jeff Samuels' drums. Twelves' sound is aptly comparable to the muscle and raw vitality of Steve Albini's Shellac or early Unwound, but Groome's absurdist eloquence fits more closely in style with the yawp of David Yow of The Jesus Lizard, or even the linguistic oddities of Frank Zappa or Shudder To Think. And yet the lyrical satire is wholly its own, often becoming the focus of the whole gritty, uncensored aesthetic, particularly on tracks like "Revolutionizing Resale," which is only concise in its run-time. The thunderous tune tumbles along with Groome's loquacious pronouncements about an apartment showing as a nightmarish curiosity of opulent brand names; it feels as stream-of-consciousness as it does meticulously considered. The expansive closer, "Rustpan," is the most dynamically interesting composition on the record, pulling from the subtleties of psychedelic improvisation in its initial phase before shifting tempo and charging full-force into an askew spiral of guitar arpeggios and tangled commentary on self-image.  —Grant Phipps

Wood Chickens, Countrycide (Big Neck Records)

While the genre term "cowpunk" usually implies a twangy sect of punk rock, Wood Chickens have created something a bit more straightforward and effortlessly original. As guitarist and vocalist Alex Reilly told us earlier this year, country and punk are essentially one and the same, and I totally buy it after hearing their latest LP. Genre technicalities aside, Countrycide is a burst of energy that confirms the band's equally tight and raw dynamic, and highlights their endearingly corny yet absurd sense of humor. Countrycide also makes some room for Wood Chickens' psychedelic leanings. The somewhat programmatic "King Of Siam" sounds like a tripped-out Morricone desert track, while the band blasts the listener with phaser at the end of the first track, "Time Don't Stop For Nobody." Stocked with B-movie samples, cryptozoological references, and frenzied tempo changes, Countrycide hits the listener square on the head with eccentric energy. Wood Chickens have blended the best qualities of hardcore and country, reaffirming both genres' timelessness and strengthening their kinship. —Emili Earhart