For the first time since 2010, we did not see albums dropped by any of the three national darlings from Wisconsin: PHOX, Field Report or Justin Vernon. That left the field wide open for debuts by newcomers and some excellent sophomore successes.
Sorted alphabetically by artist, here are my 10 favorite Wisconsin albums released in 2015.
CRASHprez, more perfect.
CRASHprez, aka Michael Penn II, kicked off the year with one of 2015’s most ambitious albums. Centered on a fictionalized account of the 21-year-old’s own death, it explores what it means to be young and black in the United States today. CRASHprez performs with a slew of producers and guest vocalists who complicate and broaden the album’s narrative. There’s a ton to unpack, but more perfect. is certainly worth the investment.
Even by Cribshitter’s sickly hilarious standards, things got weird in 2015. The group released Acapulco, a record loosely based on a timeshare pitch, and it’s their funniest, most sincere and musically interesting album yet. Legendary producer Steve Albini heard their cover of JJ Cale’s “Cocaine” and declared them “Einstein-level geniuses.” The band is now a decade old, and their tunes are beginning to feel like musical comfort food.
Group of the Altos, R U Person or Not
Horns, crashing cymbals, electric guitars, rapping and shouty-gang vocals are just a handful of the scattershot elements that Group of the Altos offer on R U Person or Not, the Milwaukee-based band’s second work. And while each song here may differ wildly from the others, R U Person or Not is a strangely cohesive listen. More than any other record this year, this one feels human.
Kiazma, FCOU 29
A producer who records under the name Kiazma, Jackson Nyman graduated from UW-Madison last spring and shortly thereafter dropped a 30-minute, live-recorded set on a Polish music blog. Created using Ableton Live, a TR8 and MIDI controllers, the set consists of relentless, warped percussion that never strays too far from its original form. With each minor shift, however, the work’s tunnel-like trance becomes greater — until the beats bubble over and silence hits.
On Kiings’ debut, the electronic-producer duo of Chris Siegel and Sean Foran turned the tables on the conventional singer-producer relationship: They created the beats, melodies and lyrics, enlisted 12 artists for vocals and retained total control over the final product. The result, WWYDF, is a darkened-dance-floor haven that showcases Milwaukee stars like Chris Porterfield, Milo and WebsterX. But the record’s most memorable voice? The beats, of course.
Midnight Reruns, Force of Nurture
Midnight Reruns made one of the year’s best rock records, and Force of Nurture has all the makings of a modern rock classic: plentiful hooks, hilariously insightful lyrics, production from a rock lifer and a frontman you can root for in Graham Hunt. Though the Milwaukee-based band had a big 2015 — they opened for the Replacements — they deserve the next year to be even bigger.
Tenement, Predatory Headlights
Tenement’s members split their time between Appleton and Milwaukee, and their 2015 offering pinballs between punk-rock gold and experimental indulgences. The record is 25 tracks long, but it doesn’t feel like its creators set out with something to prove. Rather, Predatory Headlights captures a great band doing the most rock ’n’ roll thing imaginable: whatever it wants.
Few 2015 records felt as carefree as Tigernite’s self-titled debut, which the band released in the middle of the summer. An amalgamation of glam, punk and classic rock, Tigernite is not only a fun listen, but a stimulating, fully realized record that gets in and out in under 30 minutes; that it arrived with a comic book attached was just the cherry on top.
Trapo, The Black Beverly Hills EP
Davon Prather (aka Trapo) is just 17 years old, but he sounds twice his age on The Black Beverly Hills EP. No song here is an easy listen; the nine-track effort features sparse, melancholy production and lyrics addressing alcoholism and loneliness. As Scott Gordon of Tone Madison has written, the Madison-based emcee switches easily between rapping and singing. Trapo’s future looks bright.
Zebras, The City of Sun
Zebras’ The City of Sun jolts like a jackhammer into concrete — a hardcore record that’s cryptic, punishing and consistently fun. It’s easily the most intense record to come out of Wisconsin in 2015 (thanks largely to Shane Hochstetler’s guitar-emulating drum work), and though its first three tracks form a seamless, nearly-impossible-to-follow suite, the album hardly slows down from there.
Editor’s note: This article has been changed to note analysis that should have been attributed to Tone Madison’s Scott Gordon.