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Not so long ago, Madison music was defined by the impressionistic pop-rock of Charlemagne, the socially conscious rap of El Guante and the intellectual indie of Pale Young Gentlemen.
But this year, local music swerved in stark new directions. Rock got harder. Country went gothic. Hip-hop grew temperamental. Roots music was restless. The best albums of 2010 were, like the year itself, full of anxiety and urgency.
Maybe that's because fewer musicians had the money to make records this year (by my count, the number of local releases was down from about 100 in 2009 to fewer than 80 in 2010). And those who did were ready to express the mood of the times.
Local music is streetwise and more responsive to cultural changes than hit songs on the national charts. That's because mass media is an enterprise, but local music is art. To hear how the year felt, take a listen to the 10 best Madison albums of 2010:
1. The Projection People: The Projection People
You don't break ground in music if you're not willing to experiment. And you don't make the album of the year unless you turn your experimentation into a deeply satisfying listen.
The Projection People's self-titled release is a moody prog record that embraces electronic samples and changed the way local music sounds.
The opening string sample of "Burying the Sun" has the indie-rock feel that's dominated Madison's recent musical past. But the scuffed-up proggy vibe that follows sums up the city's newest sound.
The album surprises at every turn. The electric piano chords of "La Familia" create a loungy, alienated mood. "Etienne" melds strings and keys into a rock ballad.
The members of this rock quintet are no strangers to local music. Marc Claggett and Kevin McDonnell played in Middleworld. Tyler Commo fronted Dafino. Brad Hawes and Scott Cannady were formerly in Revolving Door.
Their new band is one of a kind. Their album is worthy of 2010's top prize.
2. John Statz: Ghost Towns
Even when Madison music wasn't sonically dissonant in 2010, it had an uneasy spirit that spoke to a troubled time. You can hear it in the disaffected power chords that fuel the title track of this singer-songwriter's August album.
Statz is a working, traveling musician. His wayfaring informs a title track that confronts the nation's economic distress.
"Like Cleveland, Janesville, Camden or East St. Louis, where they used to make the things that we would all use every day," sings Statz. "Now we've shipped it to Korea, China, Indonesia; left like ghost towns of the old west, laid to rest and left decayed."
When Statz moves away from social commentary, his best songs still brood. "Wichita Waltz" reflects on lost love with a twang that's high on pathos.
Statz moved to Denver shortly after releasing this album. He says he was drawn there by the mountains. That's no surprise, considering the landscapes that color his music. "We lived under turpentine skies," he sings on "Wichita Waltz."
Statz returns to Madison for a show at the High Noon Saloon on Sunday, Nov. 28.
3. The Rascal Theorist: New Frequency
Melodic soul may not be a staple of the Madison scene. But this year, the genre is represented by one of the city's best recordings.
You can thank songwriter and Rascal Theorist front man Roscoe Foster for that. The title track is a gorgeous blend of guitar, backup harmonies and Foster's own richly resonant voice. It's a song about personal transformation made possible by tuning in to the frequency of love.
Foster knows how to grind out discontented blues, too. It's a feeling that sweeps across "End of Story." "Here I stand on this corner trying my best to make ends meet," he sings. "The world is changing; my friends are fading; sometimes it's hard to stand on my two feet."
"Alright" shows off Foster's ability to throw down a groove and make it danceable. The lyrics stay focused on a message of change. "It's time to rise and shine. Every generation must cross the line."
The Rascal Theorist changed Madison music in 2010, in original and exhilarating ways.
4. The Cemetery Improvement Society: J.A.N.E.
Singles have eclipsed albums in the age of the MP3. But the Cemetery Improvement Society shows that the "long play" still serves distinct and intriguing purposes.
The concept album is a challenge not for faint-of-heart songwriters. But Marc Claggett and Brad Hawes, who also perform in the Projection People, aren't known for walking beaten artistic paths.
This chilling concept record tells the fictional story of a prostitute who murders her pimp. It's stretched across 15 tracks that blend eerie electronic ambience with sampled voice recordings.
"Pretty" starts with percussion that's as rapid and steady as a pounding heart. The guitar licks are laced with anxiety that borders on panic.
The album is an accomplishment not just because the Cemetery Improvement Society succeeds in transforming tracks into something more than the sum of their parts. It's a great album because the music beautifully supports the scary and tragic subject this disc confronts.
5. Clovis Mann: Metamorphic
It's not that Clovis Mann's upbeat blues was out of touch with the social turmoil of 2010. To the contrary, songs like "No More" confront it head on. "No more bloodshed, no more war," sings Dan Walkner.
But the music of Clovis Mann is all about resistance to everything that would bring you down. "Blowin' Up the Shack" is a reminder that there's more to life than times of trouble. The track is a joyful summer song about innocence and freedom from responsibility.
Clovis Mann wants justice. It just wants happiness, too.
6. MC Starr: Corner Store
Earlier this decade, artists like Rob Dz and El Guante helped define Madison hip-hop as a socially conscious, positive-energy endeavor.
The most influential local rap artists and producers of 2010 - Cory 'O.Dot' Park, DEF CREW and MC Starr - didn't follow that formula. For better or frequently for worse, Madison rap artists and producers emphasized unfiltered language and emotions this year.
The F-bombs dropped in MC Starr's 13-song album accomplish something beyond proving the rap artist knows his slang. On the title track, they color verses that speak to daily frustration and the inane side of life. All Starr wants to do is get some aspirin at the corner store to cure his headache, but along the way, he ends up nearly being framed for a purse-snatching he didn't commit.
The production beautifully supports the vibe: melodramatic organ on "My Set," restless flute on "What a Day." Starr's unpretentious raps make the CD accessible and inviting.
7. Those Poor Bastards: Gospel Haunted
This year, even Madison country music went dark. The gothic sound of Those Poor Bastards turned Americana into a sinister affair with a creepy, circus-like, freak-show feel.
The deep, eerie voice of frontman Lonesome Wyatt helped make it so. On "At the Crossroads," Wyatt is part Johnny Cash, part Tom Waits. "They keep telling me I must choose between what is wrong and is right," he sings on a track set to somber guitar and keys. He rejects the very premise of the choice: "Between good and evil I'll never choose; if either side wins, I know I'll lose."
Religious references are explicit. The album cover depicts two human heads and arms rising from the body of a snake. One holds a cross upright. One holds it upside down. The picture captures the revival-gone-wrong sound of Those Poor Bastards.
8. Orphan Bloom: Orphan Bloom
Hard rock and metal have long had their place in Madison, but Orphan Bloom's heavy riffs are grounded in complex and experimental arrangements. The chords' epic sweep is punctuated by the jagged and unsteady vocals of Alex Kress.
The band's sound is marked by Indian melodic patterns, with help from guitarist Saigopal Nelaturi, a 28-year-old UW-Madison mechanical engineering student from Bangalore, India.
"I discovered music from the 1970s like jazz fusion, which kind of opened the idea of experimenting with scales that were traditionally not really used in rock music," Nelaturi told me last summer. "I've been trying on my own to come up with some Indian influences in the music that we play."
Nelaturi reveals his guitar skills during the extended instrumental jam "Immune." A nervous bass line adds plenty of tension to the song. Elsewhere, the bluesy, acoustic "Brindle" shows Orphan Bloom embracing a Led Zeppelin-style, 1970s prog sound.
9. Null Device: Suspending Belief
Electronic music can be a frenetic experience. On this release, Null Device forges an alternative: a down-tempo, trancy, world-influenced sound.
A deep sense of mystery envelops "Blades of Grass." The song features Raya Wolfsun singing in Arabic, set to swirling synth drones and tribal beats.
Eric Oehler is the creative force behind Null Device, and he gets help from cellist Elizabeth Scheef, bassist Chuck McKenzie, keyboardist Jill Sheridan and vocalist Eric Goedkin.
Null Device picks up the pace on the album's most danceable track, "Blow My Mind." It's a flirtatious, radio-friendly love song that shows off a local music group at the top of its game.
10. The Dirty Shirts: Two Dollar Turpentine
You might have heard the Dirty Shirts play at the High Noon Saloon at 6:30 p.m. the first Tuesday of every month. You might have listened and thought they were just an old-time country cover band. If you did, you were wrong.
This year, the quintet released this set of 11 original songs. The disc shows off the formidable songwriting skills of frontman Jeff Burkhart.
"Jimmy" is the kind of cry-in-your-beer, lost-love honky-tonk song that fits nicely with a happy-hour set list. But "Open Road" shows more musical reach. The song is rich in sad and wandering lap steel that yields an enormously desolate feel.
"Open Road" reinforces the point I keep returning to: Madison music in 2010 was, like the open road, and like the year itself, a dusty and dirty affair.