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Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

The Essential Milwaukee Albums of 2011

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Milwaukee's music scene has never been known for a single sound, but in 2011 the scene was more gloriously fragmented than ever. What follows is by no means a comprehensive list of the best local records of the year—it only scratches the surface of all the memorable Milwaukee music released in 2011—but these 15 albums give a sense of how vital and eclectic the local music scene is right now.

Absolutely—Learns to Love Mistakes


The best punk bands don't try to hide their influences; they just combine them in thrilling new ways. For Absolutely, that recipe usually involved a dash of Unwound, a hint of Nirvana, a generous pour of At the Drive-In, and a good half-dozen or so all-you-can-carry, two-fisted grabs of D.C. post-hardcore. The result was one of the rowdiest, most downright fun punk albums of the year, a record that makes its many recycled influences feel every bit as fresh and vital as they did the first time around.

Brief Candles—Fractured Days

There aren't many sub-genres of rock more averse to change than shoegaze—a genre that's spent the last two decades futilely trying to top My Bloody Valentine's Loveless by tracing that album's shadow. Brief Candles avoid those traditionalist traps on their expansive latest LP, which owes as much to the sweet guitar-pop of vintage Slumberland Records releases and the hummable fuzz of Dinosaur Jr.'s early records as it does the familiar swells of shoegaze.

Canopies—Canopies


Canopies' buzzy, exuberant electro-rock hits a lot of the same notes as Passion Pit, Toro Y Moi and so many other similarly synthy acts, but they bring their own identity to these trendy sounds, imbuing them with soft, dream-pop melodies and psychedelic accents. This is infectiously up-tempo stuff, and thanks to the band's clever use of vintage instruments—which lend these songs a warm, analog sound—it never feels over-digitalized the way lesser synth-pop records sometimes do.

The Celebrated Workingman—Content Content


Mark Waldoch possesses one of the city's most remarkable voices, a mighty bellow that can carry for blocks and breaks in all the right places. On The Celebrated Workingman's expansive second record, he discovers exhilarating new ways to put that voice to work. There are still plenty of ripping indie-pop songs here, but they're balanced by some truly tender ballads. It's a restless, emotional blitz of an album, cycling cathartically between extreme joy and extreme anguish.

Codebreaker—The Space Chase


Like so many dance-rock acts, the Milwaukee duo Codebreaker has toned down the "rock" part of their act as they've acquainted themselves with the dance scene. On The Space Chase, their most electronic album yet, the duo pays homage to the futurist sounds of early French house music and New York disco, cranking up the synthesizers and downplaying the vocals, letting the grooves ride out longer than ever.

Collections of Colonies of Bees—GIVING


Even the best post-rock bands can sometimes leave listeners feeling jerked around by forcing them to work through minutes of buildup to reach an inevitable crescendo. Collections of Colonies of Bees never fall into that stale pattern, though. There are no contrived setups on the band's sixth album; the whole thing is a veritable wind sprint from one fast payoff to the next. For an album that's been so meticulously crafted—each song is pieced together from more than 100 tracks—GIVING is remarkably light on its toes, an invitingly tuneful rock record that's as jaunty as it is majestic.

Decibully—Decibully


A decade-long fixture of the local indie-rock scene, Decibully broke up this year with little notice and none of the usual self-celebration. They just played one last, joyous show at the Cactus Club and then released a final, self-titled album online the next day. Don't let its unceremonious release mislead you, though. Decibully isn't a motley collection of leftovers. It's Decibully's most unbridled rock album, casting the band in a new light by stripping away the busy arrangements of past albums to just let its songs soar.

De La Buena—La Tortuga

From their beginnings as Latin-jazz traditionalists, De La Buena emerged as one of the city's most popular party bands, filling dance floors with punchy, salsa rhythms and Afro-Cuban grooves. Their first album in six years, La Tortuga reflects that transition and builds on the band's ties to the retro-soul ensemble Kings Go Forth. Recorded in the same lo-fi style as Kings Go Forth's The Outsiders Are Back, La Tortuga is proudly rough around the edges, its live-in-the-studio energy complemented by the reverb touches of the great '70s dub reggae records.


The Fatty Acids – Leftover Monsterface


It was easy to dismiss The Fatty Acids as another jokey indie-rock band making jittery, self-amused guitar- and synth-pop when the group released its debut, Stop Berries, Berries and Berries, Berries, just a year ago. The group's follow-up, Leftover Monsterface, is still plenty silly, but it's also epic: an off-kilter, quirk-rock opera boiling over with festive hooks, temperamental guitars and wild, drunken horns. The record pushes in so many directions all at once that it threatens to trip over itself, but it never does. It just keeps doubling down on the intensity of its opening tracks, looking for new ways to top itself.

Maritime—Human Hearts


Maritime's fourth album, Human Hearts, never stops twitching. It has so much to say, so many melodies to share, that it rushes from track to track with an eagerness usually reserved for music far punkier than these 10, tuneful guitar-pop songs. It's the band's most endearing record yet.

Northless—Clandestine Abuse


Some of the most widely praised metal acts of the last few years have been the ones that have turned the volume down, drawing from outside influences like classical, jazz or post-rock. Northless vehemently rejects that trend on Clandestine Abuse, a bruising, purebred metal record that proves smart, challenging songs don't have to come at the expense of heaviness. This is menacing stuff, 50 minutes of uncompromising sludge and doom.

Semi-Twang—Wages of Sin


A reunion show for Shank Hall's 20th anniversary resulted in Semi-Twang's first new recordings since the alt-country band's 1988 Warner Bros. debut, Salty Tears. A hard-edged roots-rock record, Wages of Sin shows that the band has lost none of its vitality over the years. In fact, the only indication that any time has passed is the album's production, which is much crisper and more natural than the muffled, over-glossed late-'80s production of the group's debut. Wages of Sin is Semi-Twang as they were always meant to sound.

Heidi Spencer and the Rare Birds—Under Streetlight Glow


For years, Heidi Spencer has been one of Milwaukee's best-kept secrets, but thanks to a deal with U.K. record label Bella Union, the honey-voiced singer-songwriter finally found the audience she deserved with her latest record, Under Streetlight Glow. Fittingly, it's Spencer's warmest album yet, brightening her late-night folk-pop with hopeful melodies and uplifting, Appalachian accents.

Surgeons in Heat—Surgeons in Heat


Surgeons in Heat cover a whole lot of territory on their debut EP. The unifying thread is that each one of these six, supernaturally catchy tracks is grounded in the spirit of the '70s, from the Steve Miller/Peter Frampton dad-rock cool of "Better On Your Own" to the Stones-ian, Some Girls funk of "Can't Do No Right" and the Big Star-esque "GT50." Power-pop albums don't get much more infectious than this.

Gerald Walker—The Other Half of Letting Go


Having charmed some of the most influential rap magazines and blogs, Gerald Walker is the rare local rapper who's better known outside of the city than within it. Now's the time for the city to get acquainted with him, because if he continues to make music as dazzling and innovative as his soul-searching fall mixtape The Other Half of Letting Go, he could well become the Milwaukee rap scene's next breakout act. A one-man Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, rapping in a swift, shape-shifting double-time flow and singing his own hooks in a smooth croon, he's a rapper of rare talent and unusual vision.

Pictured at top: Absolutely