Madison has cultivated great blues, jazz and jam rock for ages, but electronic music and new breeds of psychedelia have adopted larger roles in recent years, especially in 2013. While several of my favorite albums from the past 12 months traverse well-worn guitar-rock territory, I was pleasantly surprised by many local recordings featuring programming, synths and sounds culled from field recordings.
Here are six Madison-made LPs that impressed me time and time again this year, plus six shorter recordings that show great promise. This is by no means a complete list, but I hope it gets you to sample at least a few albums you may have missed.
All Tiny Creatures: Dark Clock
I've liked All Tiny Creatures for several years, especially after seeing members of the band perform live in various configurations, but I've never liked one of their albums as much as Dark Clock. On "A Lone Sound," they layer a supremely likable -- and danceable -- electronic groove with vocal harmonies organic enough for a folk record. Somehow, this track flows seamlessly into "Hypertext," a tune that sounds like a videogame soundtrack with a mind of its own. Then the groove returns, sweeter and lusher than before, in "All Die Out."
Though this local outfit and another favorite of mine -- TL;DR -- called it quits this year, they both released solid albums and performed tons of wonderfully entertaining concerts. This album preserves Baristacide's addictive post-punk flavors and their delicious sense of humor, which emerges in howls, goofy rhythms and a tale about "a groovy woman in her 50s" on "Juggernazi Dream." Album opener "Careers" starts with vocals that sound like Elvis on Quaaludes, and the mayhem that ensues is a time capsule of the band's crazy live shows.
Chants: I Feel Like I Feel It
Has Madison's Jordan Cohen, the mastermind behind Chants, been hiding out in Stockholm? I Feel Like I Feel It, his stellar new album, might make you think so. Feel kicks off with "Don't Miss U," a dark electronic track laced with hypnotic R&B grooves. Ramzi Awn, a musician from Brooklyn, N.Y., provides guest vocals that are appropriately icy yet sultry as well. Unusually timbred drumbeats punctuate the ambient rush of "Warm Room," giving way to a bass growl and a chilling, bell-like melody fit for a Knife album.
While this album is full of blissful surprises, from abstract vocal loops to piano solos by local composer Scott Lamps, the most pleasant might be "Porch Song 1 AM," which pairs sliced-and-diced electronics with warm guitar strums and noises that sound like they're from outer space.
Circus Fires: All Living Things
This local band gives me shivers like some of my favorites acts from the early emo movement did in the '90s. This record seems like a big nod to Jimmy Eat World, especially their 2001 chart climber Bleed American, but I can't help but bliss out to the epic guitars and aching falsetto vocals on "Shelter," plus the syncopated handclaps on “These Synapses Fire Blanks." And the emotional buildup on "No One Likes a Morbid Bastard" never fails to enchant me.
The Hussy: Pagan Hiss
This spastic garage duo seems to get faster, stronger and trippier each year. Their latest album, Pagan Hiss, drew praise from critics all over the country, including those at Pitchfork and SPIN. While several reviewers gushed about its nuanced textures and vintage horror-movie feel, I was most impressed by its smart use of loud versus soft, and fast versus warp speed.
"Clothes Mountain Pt. 2" begins with percussive squeaks that remind me of a malfunctioning cassette player and a meditative melody peppered with conversations whose words are too fuzzy to make out. Like several of my favorite tracks of 2013, it's proof that lyrics aren't needed to grab the emotions. I also enjoyed the album's balance between sweat-inducing freakouts with sing-along possibilities ("Woodland Creature") and zippy tunes that make you want to whip out your weirdest dance moves, just for laughs (the recorder-happy "Zummer").
Land of Vandals: Sing Us Offshore
Jentri Colello's voice is a thing of wonder, and it sounds better than ever in her latest band, Land of Vandals. The group's 2013 release, Sing Us Offshore, reminds me that rock needn't be big, loud or fast to provide an emotional release. (I knew this already, of course, but I'm often drawn to demon-exorcising noise-rock shows.)
"Wildfire" taps into something primal with its minimal, minor-key melody. Some vocals are doubled, an octave apart, which makes them seem as if they're being sung by a wise old woman and a curious child. Lyrics like "Hear my muscles/The blood inside me/Sound like thunder/I'll say goodnight/I'll be brand new" seem tailor-made for a reflective midnight walk. The longing intensifies on "City Boys" as the band picks up the tempo and adds a bit of swing, all while preserving the minor-key angst.
EPs, 7-inches and cassettes
Many delightful mini-albums emerged from Madison this year. Here are a half-dozen notables, a few from under the radar and a few that gained a national profile.
Building on Buildings: Building on Buildings EP
This local band's three-song recording is a dreamy blend of ethereal vocals, well-placed hooks and solid drumming.
Okay, technically this is an LP by the shape-shifting local group, but if you look closely, you’ll see it's a bundle of previously released EPs, including the dramatic, instrumental-laden Grabhorn, C and the exuberant post-rock extravaganza Schulte, A.
Masked Intruder: Under the Mistletoe 7-inch
Madison's mask-wearing faux criminals made some darn catchy yuletide pop-punk for this December release.
PHOX: Confetti EP
Though Confetti is labeled a folk-pop EP, it's really a video of a whimsical, song-filled party that caught the eye of tastemakers across the country.
The Shones: The Shones EP
Though this band moved to Boston recently, they spent seven years in Madison, where they made many of these fun, surfy garage-rock tracks spiked with classic blues and pop influences.
Sinking Suns: Vicious World 7-inch
Shards of surf and shreds of metal complement vocals ranging from growls to shouts in this intense, two-tune release.