The 10 best Milwaukee albums of 2018 you have to hear — including at a free concert Jan. 12

Piet Levy
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Let's be blunt — it wasn't a great year for mainstream albums 

Sure, there were solid, even inspired, releases from the likes of Janelle Monae, Cardi B, Ariana Grande, and Kacey Musgraves. 

But it was also the year where Kanye West went south, the mediocre Post Malone became the poster boy for millennial ennui, Drake dropped the 25-song slog "Scorpion," and even the Beyoncé and Jay Z joint album underwhelmed.

But while our biggest "stars" frequently failed to live up to our grand expectations this year, there was seemingly boundless creativity and inspiration in the music made by artists in our own backyard.

These are my 10 personal favorite local albums this year, but it just scratches the surface when it comes to showcasing the tremendous talent to be seen and heard in Milwaukee.

And you can see it and hear it for yourself when several artists from this year's top Milwaukee albums list perform at the Journal Sentinel's free "Bands to Watch: Best of 2018" concert, at 7 p.m. Jan. 12 at the Radio Milwaukee Studios, 220 E. Pittsburgh Ave.

RELATED:The 10 best Milwaukee concerts of 2018 — and the worst show of the year

RELATED:10 best Milwaukee songs of 2018 include tunes from Nickel&Rose, WebsterX — and Bob Dylan

Milwaukee folk rock group Field Report opened for Bon Iver at a sold-out BMO Harris Bradley Center Saturday.

1. "Summertime Songs," Field Report

Field Report's Christopher Porterfield is more than a singer and songwriter; he's a poet, his lyrics on his folk band's first two albums evocative of the majesty and mystery Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen conveyed throughout their storied songbooks. And on "Summertime Songs," Field Report's finest work, Porterfield accomplishes a seemingly simple, undoubtedly arduous feat, condensing his vivid phrasing into his most accessible, and ultimately arresting, statements, while relying, more than ever, on the wear of his cracked voice, and the sweeping grandeur and intimate touch of his backing band, to convey feelings that can't be said.

2. "Norf: The Legend of Hotboy Ronald," Lorde Fredd33

It ends with screaming, violent cries to "Wake up," Lorde Fredd33's desperate pleas draped in breezy, jazzy muzak, a frightening facade for his agonizing pain. The album that precedes it is every bit as jarring and visceral, with Fredd33's magnetic, shapeshifting flow, backed by Q the Sun's dreamy, pulsating production, taking stock of his life, his city, and of dreams just out of reach. "I grew up playing violins, around sirens and violence," Fredd33 raps at the start of "Reflections." With "NORF," he's created one hell of a stunning symphony. 

3. "My Mother The Moon," Dead Horses

"I'm gonna make you cry, I'm gonna make you laugh," Sarah Vos sings during "On and On." She's true to her word. On Dead Horses' cathartic, third full-length album, Vos absorbs the heartache of a troubled life and our shattered world, singing of the abuse endured by the impoverished on "American Poor," her inability to help loved ones ravaged by mental illness on "Darling Dear," and of losing her strength on the Robert Frost-inspired "Swinger in the Trees." Yet, on that same song, Vos recognizes "The beauty that surrounds us," that "there is always hope." Music this radiant makes you a believer.

4. "How Are You," Versio Curs

With a voice reminiscent of Morrissey's croon - and possessing his deliciously dry wit and poetically disgruntled worldview — Kyle Halverson is an absorbing, (at times) self-loathing conduit for this indie rock outfit's angsty and assured debut album. But frontman aside, Versio Curs is the full package, with several members' nearly lifelong musical collaborations paying off handsomely, particularly the contrasting, hazy and harsh dual guitar work from Joe Kelnhofer and George Kuether.

5. "Ceiling Spirits," Ceiling Spirits

Contrary to the name of his post-rock project, Mario Quadracci makes music that has no ceiling. Recalling the grandeur of "Blade Runner" composer Vangelis, Texas instrumental rockers Explosions in the Sky and EDM duo Odesza, Ceiling Spirits' debut album uses the guiding hand of past Depeche Mode and Nick Cave producer Gareth Jones and the succulence of 21 string musicians to create an epic, awe-inspiring soundtrack. His greatest skill, though, is his unbridled imagination as a composer. 

6. "On The First Bell," Buffalo Gospel

Ryan Necci's country group is ending a good year on a high note, linking up with premier booking agency William Morris Endeavor. It's well deserved, the band's crackling sets, informed by its latest album, swinging from a rollicking roadhouse rocker like "Son of a Gun" to the dusty desperation of whispered ballad "She Ain't Gonna Hold." "We may be bound for glory," Necci sings with his colorful, old-country twang. "We may be bound to die." If this excellently penned and performed album is any indication, is going to be the former. 

7. "Lost Letters (of Seraphina)," LUXI

With "Lost Letters," LUXI's created a lush, ethereal world — and that's just the video game companion, where a teen girl's bedroom, awash in hazy purple and overrun in vegetation, is just one striking visual. It's also an apt metaphor for the heady electronica LUXI has drafted with "Letters," where her imagination as a musical producer runs wild without completely engulfing the intimate and human fragility that makes her album so beautiful. 

8. "Table 7: Sinners and Saints," Lex Allen

No local artist captures the joys and pains of life with as much verve as soul-pop artist Allen, who distills his ups and downs into a terrific debut album, swinging from the tearjerking tribute to his late mother in "Mama's Boy," to the faboo, funny and liberating self-love anthem "Struck Gold." That he did, and his listeners are all the richer.

9. "Hawaii," Collections of Colonies of Bees

So often rock bands, after projecting their mission statement and finding their sound, stagnate, forever entombed in the amber of nostalgia and an inability, or disinterest, to shake things up. Not Collections of Colonies of Bees, Chris Rosenau's 20-year-old avant-garde group, which has practically gone through as many changes as a person does during their lifespan. On "Hawaii," where downtrodden lyrics from the group's first-ever vocalists Marielle Allschwang and Daniel Spack blend with jittery, intriguing experimentation and arena-worthy rock grandeur, Collections has evolved into its best self. 

10. "Slow Down, Kid," IshDARR

In terms of productivity, the Milwaukee rap scene's biggest recent breakout hasn't taken the advice of his latest album's title to heart — he's dropped a mixtape, EP or album every year since 2014, and had a significant role in "White Boy Rick" starring Matthew McConaughey that hit theaters in September. But IshDARR has slowed down to an extent, relying less on the wide-eyed, party-hungry bangers from his earlier releases in favor of more introspective and enlightening songs like the sax-kissed "Purifier" and the cinematic, soulful "Fuji Films." As an artist, the kid's all grown up and better than ever.


Six acts from the Journal Sentinel's best Milwaukee albums of the year list — Christopher Porterfield of Field Report, Dead Horses, Versio Curs, Buffalo Gospel, LUXI and Lex Allen — will perform at the free "Bands to Watch: Best of 2018" concert, at 7 p.m. Jan. 12 at the Radio Milwaukee Studios (220 E. Pittsburgh Ave.) For more information, visit the Journal Sentinel's Facebook page. 

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Piet Levy talks about concerts, local music and more on "TAP'd In" with Jordan Lee, 8 a.m. Thursdays on WYMS-FM (88.9). Follow him on Twitter @pietlevy and on Facebook at




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