2014 was a banner year for Milwaukee music, but this year may have been even better. 2015 saw the dawning of a new guard in the local music scene, brought on by the meteoric rise of the city’s burbling rap scene, the newfound cassette-centric label Gloss Records, and great bands finally making a statement with their first full-length. The most refreshing trait about this new class is its naturally philanthropic nature—benefit shows like Arte Para Todos, Riverwest FemFest and Milwaukee Record’s Local Coverage highlighted the 2015 local festival calendar. This year was especially difficult to rank because there were so many good records. While last year there were 7 or 8 great records that topped every ranking, this year was far deeper. This list could easily be double the size.
Honorable mention: Predatory Headlights – Tenement
Is Tenement a Milwaukee band? It’s not really worth the effort to fight over. While two members of the three-piece lives in Milwaukee, singer Amos Pitsch resides in Appleton, making them only a quasi-Milwaukee band. Still, any local list that fails to mention this album seems somewhat incomplete. Tenement thought big on Predatory Headlights, a 78-minute double album, and that ambition and the execution really set them apart. It’s always rare to find an album this length that grows with each listen. Predatory Headlights may not be a Milwaukee album, but it’s certainly the Wisconsin album of the year.
Planet Skin – Piles
Planet Skin recalls the lo-fi yet accessible indie-rock heyday of the ‘90s, where all the fuzz couldn’t deny the hooks lying below the surface. Piles’ sophomore effort is rough-around-the-edges with a bleeding heart at the center.
Brain Cream – Jaill
The most surreal record on this list, Jaill’s Brain Cream (off Burger Records) is more loose and carefree than its last two Sub Pop albums (2010’s That’s How We Burn and 2012’s Traps). It’s chicken soup for the slacker soul.
Dead Not Done – Marielle Allschwang
Marielle Allschwang’s stunning voice is the centerpiece of her experimental folk debut, Dead Not Done. Her voice is arresting and filled with power, ostensibly enlivened by the mainly sparse instrumentation that lies beneath it. Dead Not Done sounds like a folk album from a different era, yet it sounds like nothing before it, both familiar and idiosyncratic. Allschwang has contributed to Hello Death and Group of the Altos, but on her solo debut, she seems to just be scratching the surface of her immense talent.
WWYDF – Kiings
Not long ago, the electro-soul producing tandem of Sean Foran and Chris Siegel reached a crossroads where many twenty-somethings find themselves—whether to worry about a career or pursue your passion. The two decided on the latter and went to work on Kiings’ monumental full-length debut WWYDF. That decision finds it way all across the album, the title of which is an acronym for What Would You Die For? “Why do we want this? Why do we live for this?” Rae Cassidy sings on the opener. It’s still unclear whether the duo made the right life choice, but nonetheless, WWYDF is an inspiring and masterful work.
Tigernite – Tigernite
Singer Molly Roberts morphs into a superhero on the anthemic glam rock of Tigernite’s empowering self-titled debut. She fights off the condemnation of those trying to put non-conforming outsiders in their place. It’s the feel good record of the year.
It’s Great To Be Alone – estates
It doesn’t take long for estates to get their point across on sophomore album It’s Great to Be Alone. The 10 songs resonate with fervor over 24 minutes, as the throwback Midwestern emo three-piece incorporates a loud-quiet-loud dynamic to pack faster punches. The album sounds perfect for those lonely, rainy days.
Welcome 2 Hell – Dogs in Ecstasy
Where to start? Dogs in Ecstasy follows through on its promise to submerge listeners to the depths of hell post haste on debut full length Welcome 2 Hell. The self-titled opener begins with three voices harmonizing before being interrupted by a satanic introduction and then heavy metal is delivered at breakneck speed amongst swirling ambulance sirens. After an abominable 16 seconds, Dogs in Ecstasy jet into the fuzzy pop punk tune “Sympathy 4 The Soundguy” and everything feels wonderful. It’s a supremely confident album lined in practical joke wrapping.
Magnetic Bodies/Maps of Bones – Maritime
Most bands age terribly. The youthful ambition and fresh vision that springs up-and-comers just can’t be sustained a decade down the line. But by all accounts, Maritime bucked this trend by releasing their finest record this year, 12 years deep into the group’s run. Magnetic Bodies/Maps of Bones the band’s first album in four years, hits all the right chords.
Future Hits – Platinum Boys
Cheap beer, long drives and casual sex are the three constants in the hedonistic worldview of Platinum Boys. Future Hits feels like shotgunning six Miller Lites and living in a Thin Lizzy song for 31 minutes. Its endless bacchanalia and big guitar riffs are utterly intoxicating. And it’s Marc Maron approved.
Disaster – Surgeons in Heat
Get the point across and get out. That ethos, employed by many great punk bands, was championed by retro soul three-piece Surgeons in Heat on their first proper full-length, Disaster. Forget doubling verses and extended groove sessions to waste precious time, Surgeons in Heat kept things tight while also keeping things super chill. Disaster sounds like it was made in one ultra-lazy afternoon — in a good way. The songs are loose and fresh and, like any good party guest, never outstay their welcome. This album was the soundtrack to the summer.
so the flies don’t come – Milo
“I’m thirstiest/ Most of all impervious/ The wordsmith gets knee deeper,” raps milo mere seconds into his sophomore full-length, so the flies don’t come, which marks the second release off his newfound label Ruby Yacht. This album leaves your head spinning in circles. There’s plenty to unpack with each verse and his lyric sheets usually span several scrolls. He’s smart and confrontational but also funny and a bit laid-back. He’ll leave you not only reaching for the dictionary, but also books on Greek mythology, the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and the Hagakure.
R U Person Or Not – Group of the Altos
“No one shares anymore/ Just the kids, just the kids/ Just the kids and the poor.” Those hushed lines from the winding opening track, “Learning to Share,” speak to the merciless greed prevailing our culture today, but it also underscores the democratic nature of Group of the Altos’ sophomore album, R U Person Or Not. Many members of the 16-person local supergroup are given time to display their individual strengths over the eight tracks. Klassik’s turn on “Fucks With Us” is particularly impressive for how seamlessly hip hop can fit within an Altos album. It shows how much the band has grown since 2011’s post-rock heavy self-titled debut that they can fit all these disparate pieces together into a logical and coherent whole.
Old Soul Young Spirit – IshDARR
No one else on this list surpassed the national attention 19-year-old rap wunderkind IshDARR garnered for his debut mixtape, Old Soul Young Spirit. Complex premiered the effort back in March, but the momentum started a couple days earlier when teen actor Chloë Grace Moretz tweeted her approval of single “Too Bad.” That track currently has more than than 750,000 plays on Soundcloud. IshDARR curtailed that exposure into a European tour this fall. But it’s not just that IshDARR had some luck and a great publicity team behind him. Old Soul Young Spirit shows a songwriter twice his age and recalls the fiery desire burning inside Kendrick Lamar. On the spacey, saxophone-laden track “Overdue Interlude,” he dreamily raps, “For everybody in the world I hope they play this shit.” He’s certainly on his way.
Seasons – Klassik
Two years of long nights improvising behind the piano finally paid off big time for hip hop producer/rapper Klassik (née Kellen Abston) in 2015. When not offering his musical chops to other Milwaukee bands Group of the Altos and Foreign Goods, Abston managed to release four EPs this year in advance of his third album. These three-song releases reflected the four seasons of the year, and each came out in quick succession: Winter came out in January; Spring in February; Summer in March; and Autumn in June. There almost wasn’t time to process all the new material before Seasons dropped in July. The EPs hinted at the new, more mature direction that the album would take. Seasons is Abston’s most assured full-length as Klassik and his most ever-changing, as well. He plays up his jazz background on “The Secret (Feat. BoneLang),” shows off his dynamic songwriting skills on the title track, and digs through his old R&B records for the smooth pop sounds of “HI KLASS.”
Force of Nurture – Midnight Reruns
Force of Nurture, Midnight Reruns’ sophomore record, sounds effortless and accessible, but carries so much weight at the same time. Whether it’s on the surface, like on the lamentful jangle of “Richie the Hammer” or slowly percolating, as on the trudging eight-minute closer “Great Southern Rail,” each of these ten songs packs a heavy wallop. The album was recorded in Hudson, NY with Tommy Stinson, the bassist of the Replacements. It contains the same youthful energy and immediacy as those early Mat’s records. Force of Nurture is a coming-of-age record from Milwaukee’s best rock band.