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Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010

The Essential Milwaukee Albums of 2010

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Morale in the Milwaukee music scene reached new heights this year, and for good reason. In 2010, the city produced great new music at a rate unseen all decade, with bold albums coming from veteran acts and newcomers alike. And for the first time in ages, listeners outside of Milwaukee seemed to be paying attention. I realized the impossibility of compiling a remotely comprehensive list of all the great local records of 2010 after brainstorming a first draft that topped out at nearly 30, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t single out a handful of note. Most of the following are albums that stand out not just for their craftsmanship but for their singularity, albums like little else released this year inside the city or beyond.

Architects of the Aftermath – Architects of the Aftermath

On their self-titled debut, Architects of the Aftermath play thrash metal the way it sounded before death-metal clichés turned the genre into an exaggerated, almost cartoonish parody of itself.  There are no over-the-top satanic references here, and no goofy graveyard vocals—just roaring tempos and naked aggression.

Call Me Lightning – When I Am Gone My Blood Will Be Free

By now Call Me Lightning is far removed from the spastic art-punk that landed them on Frenchkiss Records during the middle of the decade, but they’ve hit upon a sound that’s even more audacious. Their third album is an untamed homage to The Who’s stadium-rock opuses, but for all their untamed bluster, there’s a melancholic undercurrent to their fantasies of ordinary men called to greatness, a lingering disillusionment with a real world where such legacy-defining high adventure only exists in fiction.

Conrad Plymouth – Conrad Plymouth

On their self-titled EP, Conrad Plymouth ring a lot of mileage out of lush yet understated Americana, so when “Fergus Falls” closes the EP in a rousing swell of triumphant cheer and unabashed splendor, the payoff feels particularly earned. All folk-rock bands should have such a keen instinct for when to go big and when to stay small.

Def Harmonic – Figs

The Milwaukee hip-hop duo Def Harmonic has been recording arresting space-funk for over a decade, but they’ve never made an album that floors as consistently as Figs. Here the group tempers their usual universe-surfing bluster to share their most emotionally vulnerable set of songs yet, as producer J. Todd’s hard-bumping grooves take on the frosty chill of ’80s synth-pop.

Drugs Dragons – Drugs Dragons

Drugs Dragons’ self-titled debut is all muscle, a swaggering, riff-heavy tribute to the bawdy horror-punk and shock-rock of The Cramps and The Misfits. Drugs Dragons wisely resist the temptation to play these songs about grave dwellers, flesh eaters and deformed freaks for kitsch, instead pounding out each with skin-crawling fervor.

Eric & Magill – All Those I Know

Recorded with guest contributions from dozens of players from Milwaukee and friends from neighboring indie-rock scenes, the debut collaboration between former Camden band mates Ryan Weber and Eric Osterman is at once intimate and expansive, a cozy little bedroom pop that gives way to unexpected grandeur. It’s a record destined to attract a fair deal of attention outside the city as it receives a broader promotional push next year.

The Goodnight Loving – The Goodnight Loving Supper Club

Trading off two- and three-minute songs, the singers and songwriters in Milwaukee’s good-time rock ensemble tag-team their way through a set of jangly rock ’n’ roll, early garage-pop, dusty country and oddball rockabilly. As overstuffed as its title promises, The Goodnight Loving Supper Club seems bound to overreach eventually, yet it never does; the party just keeps chugging along merrily.

Jaill – That’s How We Burn

Jaill’s debut album for the independent powerhouse Sub Pop is gloriously devoid of the disaffected detachment and cool-kid pretension that marred so many other similarly sunny, beach-minded guitar-pop albums in 2010. “I know everyone is hip!” Vinnie Kircher beams sincerely on the album’s first single, summing up Jaill’s mantra of inclusiveness.

Kings Go Forth – The Outsiders Are Back

On their high-profile debut, released to considerable fanfare through David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, the Milwaukee 10-piece Kings Go Forth recreates the raw, live-to-tape aesthetic of early-’70s soul music. That’s the easy part, really; much more impressive is how they resurrect the propulsive grooves, pleading vocal arrangements and exhilarating energy of a music form that had been all but lost to time.

KingHellBastard – Remember the Name

KingHellBastard’s latest EP affirms why they’ve emerged as one of the city’s most prominent hip-hop groups: They record the kind of punchy, party-friendly alternative rap that hip-hop fans used to complain never gets made anymore, and they’ve got a fantastic ear for beats. Local producers Reason, the White Russian and LMNtlyst are at the top of their game here.

Klassik – Death of a Beatmaker

Shades of Kanye West, Kid Cudi, John Legend and Daft Punk run through the debut EP from producer/rapper/singer Klassik, but its primary influence is jazz. Drawing from the decade he spent studying the genre, Klassik composed these tunes around shifty jazz chord progressions before converting them to electronic MIDI beats. The resulting sound is as current as anything on the radio, but much denser and brainier.

Scarring Party – Losing Teeth

For their third album, old-time-music subversives The Scarring Party push their sound in ever-more extreme directions, transplanting the huffing tubas and carnival accordions of 1920s folk and music-hall jazz into sinister, bleakly funny tales of savages and grotesqueries. Had this record somehow actually been released during Prohibition, it surely would have been burned en masse.

Signaldrift – Two Agents

Sleek and accessible, the latest release from the electronic-music duo Signaldrift doesn’t waste a minute of its hour-long run time, cycling through a restless pastiche of ’80s synth-pop, dub, kraut rock and post-rock. At a time when leisurely downtempo is in vogue, Signaldrift has made a record that bucks trends and grabs listeners by the collar.

Worrier – SOURCEERrORSSPELLS

Worrier’s debut album is dance music for those who dance spastically, a cacophony of nervous energy, breathless grooves, shout-along choruses and twitchy, polyrhythmic guitars. Propulsive, infectious and maybe a little annoying (but only in the best way possible), it’s the type of great art-punk album that’s been in woefully short supply over the last half-decade.

Yo-Dot – Dot Balistrerri

A loose conglomerate of some of Milwaukee’s best rappers, the Umbrella Music Group released many worthwhile albums and mixtapes in 2010, but few quite as distinct—and certainly none as hard—as Yo-Dot’s Dot Balistrerri, a fierce hit of Mafioso rap tailored around Yo-Dot’s gritty voice and cutthroat, street-toughened storytelling.