Blueheels Lessons in Sunday Driving
The long-play record format - the LP - was born in 1948, when Columbia Records released The Voice of Frank Sinatra on 10-inch vinyl. Madison pop musicians took awhile to join the trend. Before Full Compass Sound Studios opened in 1971, local bands had to travel to Milwaukee, Lake Geneva or Sauk City to record.
Madison's first commercially successful record was the Fendermen's Mule Skinner Blues in 1960. Not until Pro Tools began mass-producing inexpensive, high-quality home recording technology in 1997 did local pop albums become common.
"Not many local releases came out," recalls Dave Benton, who played guitar in the 1980s Madison power-pop band Spooner. And when one did, "it was a big deal, at least in our minds. It was the old business model, with all the promotion done by phone, snail mail and hustling and gigging like crazy." Today, Madison artists create about 100 original full-length albums per year.
Over the first five decades of Madison-made LPs, cassettes, CDs and now digital albums, these 25 pop recordings made the biggest splash. They helped influence the direction of popular music in Wisconsin and, sometimes, across the country and the world.
1. Killdozer Twelve Point Buck (1989)
It's the album that led to grunge, that linked Butch Vig to Nirvana and forged rock's reinvention in the early 1990s. Killdozer inverted the frenetic tempo of punk. The band's slow, sludgy sound droned as singer Michael Gerald growled dark, funny stories of Midwest despondency. Vig's production polished the band's heavy sound. Sub Pop's Jonathan Poneman took notice in Seattle and invited Vig to work with Sonic Youth and Nirvana.
2. Ben Sidran Feel Your Groove (1971)
On his major-label debut for Capitol, Sidran proved that jazz piano had a place in mainstream pop and paved the way for acts like Steely Dan. Peter Frampton and Boz Scaggs added instrumentation to this recording. Mimi Farina, the late sister of Joan Baez, added vocals. The groovy "feel it" chorus of the title track is über-1970s.
3. The Tony Brown Band Prisoners in Paradise (1982)
Madison's reggae pioneer spent eight months in Jamaica after finishing this recording at the local Full Compass Sound Studios. By the time he returned, studio owner Rick Murphy had arranged for national distribution through Jem. The album established Brown's credentials well beyond the borders of Mad City.
4. Spooner Every Corner Dance (1982)
Produced by Gary Klebe of Shoes, this was the LP debut by the Butch Vig/ Doug Erikson band that became Madison's answer to early-1980s power pop. Jeff Walker's organ riff on "Will You Remember Me?" was pure New Wave.
5. Rainer Maria Past Worn Searching (1997)
Kyle Fischer and William Kuehn were UW students in 1995 when Fischer met Caithlin De Marrais in a poetry workshop. The three formed Rainer Maria and commenced the indie rock era in Madison. Past Worn Searching was their debut. The band's style came to influence the hazy, lo-fi, subdued indie sound that still thrives today.
6. The Fendermen Mule Skinner Blues (1962)
Jim Sundquist and Phil Humphrey were UW-Madison students in the late 1950s. Each played a Fender guitar. Their cover of the Jimmie Rodgers 1930 classic "Blue Yodel No. 8" became one of the first tunes ever recorded by a Madison band, on Sauk City's historic Cuca Records. The song peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960.
7. Charlemagne Detour Allure (2005)
Charlemagne songwriter Carl Johns changed local indie rock during his years in Madison. His polished and melodic compositions proved that progressive music could embrace production and still be experimental. Detour Allure earned solid reviews in Paste and Pitchfork as the band toured the U.S. and Europe.
8. Lou and Peter Berryman We Don't Talk About That! (1992)
Since they started playing shows at Club de Wash in 1977, the Berrymans have been the face of folk music in Madison. This early-'90s release tackles local subjects with razor-sharp wit and lyrical irony. "Convention Center" was inspired by the referendum to build Monona Terrace. The song gently chided the idea that it would solve the city's problems.
9. Tar Babies Face the Music (1983)
Tar Babies were Madison's answer to Black Flag and hardcore punk. Face the Music was their debut, produced by Bob Mould and Butch Vig. With Bucky Pope on vocals and guitar, Tar Babies got signed to the venerable indie label SST in 1987. Their sound ultimately ventured beyond hardcore, and the band embraced funk. Tar Babies' aggressive early sound surely blew out a few local amps.
10. The Youngblood Brass Band Unlearn (2000)
After pop music splintered into micro-genres in the 1990s, a wave of artists like Beck and Beth Orton tried to bring it back together again. Locally, the Youngblood Brass Band sounded a call for musical unity. The former Oregon High School students used a sousaphone to bridge the gap between rock and hip-hop. Unlearn featured appearances from Talib Kweli and DJ Skooly. The band's multicultural innovations led to international touring.
11. Garbage Garbage (1995)
Butch Vig was a national music celebrity by the time Garbage formed. Lead singer Shirley Manson was from Scotland. But the band's roots were still in Madison, and members frequently hung out at the now defunct Café Montmartre. Their self-titled debut album changed the boundaries of electronic, rock and pop. Riding the success of the single "Stupid Girl," the album sold more than 4 million copies.
12. The Rob Dz Experience Soul Anthems (2005)
Hip-hop lived on the margins of the Madison music scene until the middle of last decade. Soul Anthems helped change all that. Dz collaborated with an influential group of local musicians. The raps were easygoing. The messages were positive. The R&B was smooth. The jazz was mellow. The disc heralded a new wave of progressive Madison hip-hop.
13. Tayles Who Are These Guys? (1972)
Recorded live at the Nitty Gritty, this collection of blues-rock captures the musical feel of Vietnam-era Madison. Paul Reyzold's organ added pyschedelia that was as bright as a tie-dyed shirt; Scott Eakin's flute was as groovy as a VW bus. Jeremy Wilson started the band in 1966. Like hippie culture, Tayles faded away near the end of 1972.
14. Stromkern Armageddon (2001)
Madison's electronic music scene was nascent when Ned Kirby formed Stromkern in 1994. His industrial compositions won more fans in Germany than they did here. Armageddon was the band's first U.S. release. Tracks like "Nightriders" were poppy and danceable. "Strange Day Dawning" featured brooding strings and piano. The album made waves by linking industrial beats to other musical styles.
15. Clicker Clicker (1973)
Somewhere between 1960s pop and 1970s prog, there was Clicker. The group's spookily melodramatic song "Castle" described a vision of "a lady in a forest of green" who "lived in a castle like I had never seen." Led by vocalist Mark Everist, the band included Richard Wiegel, now of the Midwesterners. There's fierce Wisconsin nostalgia for Clicker online, and with songs like "Castle," it's easy to see why.
16. Clyde Stubblefield The Original (2004)
Madison's Funky Drummer is best known for his early work with James Brown and for inventing a drum pattern that became the most sampled beat in hip-hop. In 2004, he teamed up with Ben Sidran for these funky tracks. The CD is a Madison original.
17. Fire Town In the Heart of the Heart Country (1987)
Performing with guitarist-singer Phil Davis, this album won Butch Vig and Doug Erikson the major-label contract they never got with Spooner. Originally released on the prolific local label Boat, the record was rereleased nationally on Atlantic. Fire Town's jangly rock was in tune with the early R.E.M. era.
18. Underground Sunshine Let There Be Light (1969)
Led by brothers Bert and Frank Kohl, this band released a cover of the Beatles' "Birthday" that peaked at #26 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969. Their LP featured "Don't Shut Me Out," written by David Gates of Bread. The group later made an appearance on American Bandstand.
19. El Guante Vanishing Point (2005)
Kyle "El Guante" Myhre spent six years in Madison before signing to Tru Ruts records and moving to the Twin Cities in 2007. The spoken-word poet helped organize protests against the Iraq War. He started an alternative newspaper. Then he recorded Vanishing Point, a halting collection of rap poems, mellow beats and lonely jazz instrumentation that signaled Madison hip-hop's coming of age.
20. Appliances-SFB SFB (1984)
Another Butch Vig/Steve Marker/Smart Studios classic, SFB featured the frenetic vocals of Tom Laskin. The album is rooted in punk, but the guitar parts venture into brooding post-punk on "The Pest." Free-form jazz elements influence the wailing sounds of "Neo-Fascist." And yes, the SFB stood for "shit for brains."
21. Pat MacDonald & the Essentials Lowdown (1981)
He went on to form Timbuk3 and gain a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist in 1987, but Pat MacDonald was a staple of the local music scene in the late 1970s. Before "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades," the Timbuk3 sound took root on this album.
22. Ivory Library Parasite (1995)
The eerie atmospherics that swirled around Ivory Library's songs gave them emotional depth. You can hear it in the restless urgency of "Go." Led by Jeff Jagielo, the band formed in the 1980s. Parasite was distributed nationwide and won the band a Billboard magazine profile.
23. Marques Bovre & the Evil Twins Big Strong House (1992)
Bovre's Americana was traditional and rebellious. The title track used prairie imagery to ground a faith metaphor. But the band's signature song, "I Like Gyrls Who Like Gyrls," flirted with the idea that "it's a twisted little world; we've all got our little kinks." The disc gained regional radio airplay, and the band packed in crowds at bars from Janesville to Stevens Point.
24. Natty Nation Earth Citizen (1998)
Natty Nation frequently played the tiny Mango Grill in University Square about the time the band released this sophomore album. Propelled by Demetrius Wainwright and Jeffrey Maxwell on vocals, the CD fulfilled the promise of the band's 1996 debut, The Journey Has Just Begun. Natty Nation's mix of hard roots rock and reggae proved unique and gained a following that remains today.
25. Blueheels Lessons in Sunday Driving (2008)
Pale Young Gentlemen and Zola Jesus have earned the most national indie press among Madison bands in recent years. But Justin Bricco and crew bring restless rage to roots rock like no other Madison band ever has. In the year the Great Recession started, Blueheels made Americana feel appropriately jagged and uneasy.
Special thanks to Dave Benton, Rick Murphy and Jim Kirchstein for helping me navigate Madison's significant early recordings.