Madison music felt especially disorienting in 2012. I often think it's silly to look at local music in terms of broader trends or themes. Then again, it's no mistake that my list of the year's most compelling albums is heavy on electronic, instrumental and avant-garde releases. Heady, abstract music reared its head in a way I've never seen before.
More straightforward acts like Tani Diakite and Oedipus Tex finally mustered their first definitive album-length achievements, proving themselves stronger than I'd expected. Some of my favorite sounds, including hip-hop, metal and noise-rock, didn't disappear from the local music landscape but didn't make the strongest showings in terms of records.
I could write an equally long list of promising new bands that didn't release much in 2012 (Bes Monde, Dharma Dogs) or released records that just hinted at their full potential (I'm looking at you, PHOX and Treefort). But no more waffling. These were the 10 Madison-made records that surprised me the most and drew me back for repeat listens in 2012.
1. Spires That in the Sunset Rise: Ancient Patience Wills It Again Part I and II (Hairy Spider Legs)
Avant-garde wanderers compose one small music community among many in this town. Still, the two full-length albums Madison duo Spires That in the Sunset Rise released this year exemplify the talent and promise of our underground droners, experimenters and improvisers.
Multi-instrumentalists Taralie Peterson and Kathleen Baird have spent about 10 years in a territory where few can keep their bearings - one where the conventional boundaries of folk music dissolve into a primeval encounter with elements of classical, choral, African, Middle Eastern and noise music. Even amid the eerie scrape of a Turkish spike fiddle, "Grandma" from Ancient Patience Wills It Again Part I stays grounded in Peterson's entrancing vocal melody. Part II begins with "Before Dawn," a nine-minute song featuring chirping crickets and Baird's husky, haunting voice. "Revella" closes the second album with nine minutes of murky guitar chords and flute melodies. For most bands, it'd be fatally disorienting, hopelessly pretentious stuff. For Spires, it's a formidable show of carefully built layers and slowly mounting tension.
If you're patient, these companion albums will reward you with their fiercely accomplished performances. It's not sheer weirdness that makes Spires great, but the control Baird and Peterson have over their ethereal sphere.
2. Noxroy: Cotyledon Observatory (Rest + Noise)
While Andrew Fitzpatrick actually lives near Fond du Lac, his musical home is undoubtedly here in Madison. Fitzpatrick's arsenal of guitar and electronic-manipulation skills makes him a sort of secret weapon for Madison band All Tiny Creatures, Talking Heads cover band Houses in Motion, and experimental projects Exurbs and Cap Alan. Still, even his work on Creatures' intricate, layered compositions didn't predict how stunning his solo project Noxroy would be.
Using a guitar, effects pedals and a laptop, Fitzpatrick shapes his heavily treated tones into a welcoming mass on Cotyledon Observatory. On the surface, each of these seven tracks relies on an extended drone, but he's always investing his dense experiments with a tuneful sense of movement. On "The Priest," it's the ominous swell of a good Tangerine Dream album. On "Alchemists," his notes seem to mimic the giddy ascent of bubbles through champagne.
As heady and abstract as the method is, Noxroy never comes off as precious or pretentious. In the giant expanse of a track like "Wyoming," there's room for a lot of moods and listeners, even those new to electronic or experimental music.
3. Tani Diakite & the Afrofunkstars: Dalonkan becomes a powerful, proud display of a big group and its even bigger capabilities.
4. Zebras: Zebras (self-released)
You might think that hating everybody is no fun, but Zebras' self-titled album channels the band's misanthropy into a black-hearted carnival. The two sides show the band transitioning from tight post-punk spasms (with former drummer Shawn Pierce) to a scrappy take on doom metal (with new drummer Shane Hochstetler, also of Milwaukee's mighty Call Me Lightning).
Guitarist Vincent Presley's vocals evolve from high-pitched shrieks into a more masculine scream as he bays, "Oh! We went too far!" on "Queeny Gloom Doom." Lacey Smith's synth becomes a stronger presence, burning its malignant trails into "The Mighty Bayonet" and giving Zebras the strong low end they've been seeking since they formed a few years ago. But the real point of the album is that Presley has a lot of bones to pick, using the songs to rant about everything from environmental decay ("The Dying Sea") to people he doesn't like at shows ("Wiener Kids").
5. Chants: Night After EP (Dutty Artz)
In a year that saw Madisonians put out a lot of solid electronic music, this release was among the boldest and most artistically mature. Chants isn't just a trippy side venture for drummer Jordan Cohen but a full-on deconstruction of rhythm.
In just four songs and three remixes, the Night After EP proves Cohen's command of graceful melodies. And like a lot of other memorable electronic efforts by Madison acts (Echo Island's In Circles and Golden Donna's self-titled debut, to name a few), Night After gives listeners an accessible path into music that's too often dismissed as cold or pretentious, especially in the warmly wobbling chord progression of "Caduceus." Cohen's also one of several Madison electronic artists to join a non-Madison label this year, in this case, New York's Dutty Artz.
6. Control: Schulte, A. EP (Science Of Sound)
Even for a band as eclectic as Control, post-punk presents a danger of getting trapped in a lurching, humorless groove. Of the four EPs the trio have released, Schulte, A. is the most refreshing because it seeks out a more upbeat take on the genre. Guitarist Stephen Baraboo works himself into celebratory riffs on closing track "RR." Even the crawling bass line of "Lapse" gives way to swinging drums and loops of finger-tapped guitar melody.
7. D.L.O.: Freewrites (self-released)
Bradley Thomas, a.k.a. D.L.O. the Iceman, has become one of Madison hip-hop's finest. He's proven his worth as an MC and a producer of instrumentals (see the fine five-part Pempstrumentals series), in settings ranging from the band Dumate, to the duo IceMantis, to the James Baldwin- and Billie Holiday-inspired Billie James Project, to an earlier solo album, Customer Service. So the best way to get caught up on his talent is Freewrites, which includes some previously released work and lots of terrific odds and ends.
On "Sudafed," Thomas has a cold and raps about it. It's no "Through the Wire," but it showcases a flow that's at once light-footed and sober-minded. He manipulates a skittering piano sample into another great instrumental on "Remind Me" and tackles his strongest theme - the ups and downs of a responsible adulthood - on "Make It Out Here."
8. Troy Schafer: Supreme Happiness Forever (Mine All Mine)
Before he moved to Chicago this summer, violinist and guitarist Troy Schafer was something of an MVP among Madison's avant-garde musicians. He contributed heavily to occult-tinged projects like Kinit Her, Burial Hex and Wormsblood, and joined eclectic droners Pelt and Spiral Joy Band, not to mention dozens of other collaborations. The three long compositions of Supreme Happiness Forever feature track upon track of his violin shuddering, scraping, screaming and keening. It is as ostentatious and maddening as anything Schafer has done, yet he coaxes that onrush of sound into hypnotic structures.
9. The Hussy: Weed Seizure (Tic Tac Totally)
When the Hussy debuted a few years back, they filled a certain smart-ass garage-punk niche but didn't create high expectations. Weed Seizure finds the duo's songwriting and production moving beyond crude 90-second outbursts (though there are still plenty of those). They explore layered, heavy psychedelia on the opening track, "Undefined," and use drummer Heather Hussy's voice to mix sweetness and grit on "Band Bang." Plus, "Dog Said Yeah," an obscure cover about a dog ordering people to commit murder, might be the most joyously warped thing a Madison band committed to tape this year.
10. Oedipus Tex: Borracho Corazon (self-released)
Eric Caldera's instrumental band El Valiente is one of my favorite local acts, but at first I didn't buy him as a solo singer-songwriter. Whenever he'd perform solo as Oedipus Tex, he came off as so shy and hushed that I couldn't really tell what he was trying to do. On Borracho Corazon, Tex's persona finally emerges, with enough dark humor to balance out the sadness and spite. Granted, a few of these 16 tracks just mumble their way to nowhere and trail off. But highlights like "In Plaid," a duet with PHOX singer Monica Martin, elevate the record with playful wit.
Blueheels: The Scarye Book
Count This Penny: Pitchman
Dick the Bruiser: Purgatory Stories and Severe Songs
E-Sweez: Behind Green Eyes
Echo Island: White Comanche
Golden Donna: Act Two: The Way of the World
Little Legend: Registers Her Delight
Paul Otteson: Robin Red
Pyroklast: The Madness Confounds
Samantha Glass: Très Fort