My Favorite Live Shows, Releases & Music Videos of 2016
The album is definitely not dead, but in my opinion, nothing beats the experience of live music.
Anything can happen. The moment becomes amplified. We become intensely aware of our existence in a singular space and time, with a specific group of people, feeling the same vibrations.
With that spirit in mind, I offer my Top 16 Wisconsin Music Moments of 2016. Rather than rank them, I’ll run through them chronologically.
This list is admittedly bias to my musical preference and schedule. Milwaukee is disproportionately represented because that’s where I live. Also, I’m positive I missed some great shows because my girlfriend and I were either out of town or couldn’t get a babysitter.
While some artists took time off in 2016 to record, rest and regroup, many built on momentum from 2015. There was no shortage of excitement and inspiration this year in Wisconsin music.
[A version of this first appeared in the December 15, 2016, print issue of the Wisconsin Gazette.]
Top 16 Wisconsin Music Moments of 2016
There’s a saying about whoever you spend New Year’s Eve with will determine who you spend much of your year with. As 2016 unraveled, it turned out to be true for my girlfriend and I. No venue repeats on this list besides Company Brewing, where we rung in 2016 with Siren, Ruth B8r Ginsburg, Queen Tut, Surgeons in Heat, Rio Turbo, Sat Nite Duets, and caught some of the best sets of the year from Zed Kenzo and The Fatty Acids.
In Questlove’s book Mo’ Meta Blues, the iconic drummer describes the St. Albans house jams in Philadelphia that The Roots hosted in the 1990s. Those nights ignited a few careers and helped nourish a few others. Throughout the year there were house jams at Jay Anderson’s that brought a similar vibe to mind, especially those that featured the genius Fred Boswell Jr. on drums.
GGOOLLDD made Milwaukee music history this year by being the second local band in a decade to sell out Turner Hall Ballroom. It was an audacious and triumphant set from one of the hottest bands of 2015, with two stellar fellow local openers (Canopies and Rio Turbo). On December 2nd, GGOOLLDD repeated the feat. On the second round frontwoman Margaret Butler rode an inflatable unicorn over the crowd. Say what you will about GGOOLLDD, they know how to throw a party.
Speaking of a party, one way to know that yours is popping is the presence of Milwaukee’s most popular dancer, Christopher Gilbert. When he shows up, you know it’s on. Gilbert’s annual birthday bash — ARTdentity — has been a highlight of the last few years. The 2016 installment didn’t disappoint, despite some time delays. African dance, spoken word and lots of live music kept the crowd jumping. Seeing rap phenom IshDARR perform with the New Age Narcissism band was the cherry on top.
No group of Milwaukee musicians owned 2015 quite like New Age Narcissism. Their highest profile gig this year was a prime time slot opening for legendary hip-hop group The Roots at Summerfest. But back in March at Fire on Water, Milwaukee’s premier collective temporarily expanded their ranks during the first Q the Sun’s Open Mic Lottery. Fans and friends became collaborators at this unique event, which saw a star turn by 20-year-old Taj Raiden.
Considering Milwaukee only has a handful of legitimate all-ages venues, it’s a shame that one of the best — Anodyne Coffee in Walker’s Point — appears to exclusively book folk, country, blues, and “softer” indie rock acts. That being said, hip-hop, soul, punk rock and funk made their way into the cafe in March for Soul Low vs. D’Amato. The Gloss Records event was comically promoted and the performances delivered equal measures high school drama and sonic flair.
Despite the fact that Sylvan Esso is a North Carolina-based act, Wisconsin continues to claim the mighty electro-pop duo as their own. This is because producer Nick Sanborn is originally from Middleton, cut his teeth in Milwaukee bands, and met his Sylvan Esso counterpart — the inimitable Amelia Meath — when they shared a bill at Cactus Club. Sanborn continues to produce his own music as Made of Oak. In April he brought his latest solo sounds to the immaculate speaker system at Cactus Club. Sanborn was preceded by Chris Rosenau, who closed his opening set with a Prince cover just a week before the icon’s passing. Later in the year Rosenau/Sanborn would reunite on a collaborative set at the Eaux Claires Festival.
No solo musicians loomed larger in my late adolescence/early adulthood than Bob Dylan and Miles Davis. I’ve seen Dylan in concert, but Miles has remained a mystery. In April the legacy of “The Prince of Darkness” was honored at A Tribute to Miles Davis. I had goosebumps the moment I walked in the door. Wisconsin’s most accomplished trumpet player — Russ Johnson — led an all-star band for an unforgettable night, which even included a jam with local hip-hop savant Klassik.
One of the highlights of 2015 was the emergence of the volunteer-run festival Arte Para Todos, which benefits arts education in local schools. This year I had the honor of being an organizer of the four-day event. Better yet, I was in charge of coordinating performances exclusively for students. Producing those in-school concerts and talkbacks was a highlight of my life. The festival itself was also amazing, especially discovering Gauss and being able to bring underground legend Wordsworth to town. But nothing came together quite like the dream lineup of SIN BAD, New Boyz Club, Group of the Altos, and New Age Narcissism at Club Garibaldi.
The NAN collective performed memorable sets all throughout the year, but my favorite was at the most unconventional of venues — the Central Branch of the Milwaukee Public Library. The inaugural Library Loud Days attracted over a thousand visitors for a block party, interactive stations, music videos, poetry, and a performance by NAN in the Schoenleber Reading Room. Little kids and adults alike danced and cheered to the hip-hop/neo-soul sounds in a space that usually enforces whispering.
The main reason my girlfriend and I traveled to Appleton for the 4th Mile of Music festival was to see its first hip-hop showcase, curated by Milwaukee’s Lex Allen. But while we were there we found ourselves running from venue to venue, discovering bands from all over the world — though most were either from Wisconsin or Nashville. Our favorite find was Eau Claire’s Idle Empress. We’re looking forward to “Mile 5” and plan to stay more than one night.
“It takes a lot of precious energy to rap in the park,” Milo told the crowd at Milwaukee’s inaugural Fringe Fest. The spacious gazebo gave Milo plenty of room to pace, pose, and deliver a mesmerizing set. His interaction and appreciation for the crowd was astoundingly genuine. Where most musicians connect with their audience during eruptions of noise, Milo and the crowd communed in the quiet moments between songs.
Hotel Foster on Milwaukee’s East Side was an important venue for local musicians in the first half of the 2010s. HoFo’s Americana-meets-Parisian decor was cool and the cocktails were delicious. It came as a shock when owner Doug Williams announced he’d be closing HoFo. However, in September the space was given one last local music hurrah when William’s original business partner — John Revord of Boone & Crockett — threw the AM/FM Pop-Up party. Hip-hop godfathers the Rusty Ps played between GGOOLLDD and Whips, who turned in a great opening set despite keeping relatively quiet this year.
The first time I saw the Midnight Reruns, I couldn’t catch the vibe. Then on November 17 my girlfriend and I went to their ‘MKE Unplugged’ performance at UW-Milwaukee. This time around the additional percussion, keys, and vocals, matched with the Reruns undeniable chemistry, won me over. Later that week they played at Club Timbuktu and I enjoyed the electrified, standard quartet all the same.
Two years ago, my girlfriend and I attended a transformative hip-hop dance party at Honey in Minneapolis. She wondered why she’d never been to anything like it in Milwaukee. We began to plot a similar event, and two years later our dream became a reality with A Very Dirty Dance Party: Beyonce/Jay Z vs. Rihanna/Drake at — where else? — Company Brewing. The event featured four DJs (Bizzon, Annalog, Optimist, Turtle Sooup) and a special appearance by Rio Turbo. It was hosted by Lex Allen and hit capacity by 10:30 p.m., with a line down the block. It’s safe to say we’ll do it again sometime.
There are two Turner Hall Ballroom events in January that I’m eagerly anticipating — Milwaukee Record’s Local Coverage (Jan. 13) and Tribe Uncovered (Jan. 21). The latter is the first installment in David Ravel’s (Alverno Presents) resurrection of the Uncovered series, where local musicians re-imagine the work of iconic artists.
Also in January, the return of Riverwest FemFest, the third installment of Wisconsin's largest female-focused music and arts event.
Top 26 Wisconsin Releases of 2016
Judging and ranking music is a painstaking process. We all have different tastes. Personal politics inevitably get involved. Expectations based on the artist’s previous work or live performance color your perception. There’s pressure to tow the critical line with certain artists. Not to mention, you’ll end up being judged for your judgements.
That being said, I still put together my Top 26 Wisconsin Releases of 2016. I don’t break down each release individually, but I'll try to explain what I think makes great music.
For me, great music makes you feel as if you’re being lifted up and carried away on the sound waves. I’m a sucker for crescendos — those mind-blowing, spine-tingling, sonic orgasms. I also enjoy a well-crafted vibe — music and lyrics that pull on your heartstrings and give you goosebumps. And as the list indicates, I’m foremost a hip-hop head.
Top 6 Wisconsin Music Videos of 2016
As I wrote for 88Nine Radio Milwaukee, our city is in the midst of a music video renaissance. Here are a half-dozen of my favorite visuals from this year.
1. “Coplights” by Group of the Altos (Directed by Sean Williamson, Shawn Stephany and Heather Hass)
2. “27th and National” by WC Tank (Directed by Wes Tank and Kelly Anderson)
3. “Everything” by WebsterX (Directed by Cody LaPlant & Damien Klaven)
4. “Locals” by IshDARR (Directed by Damien Klaven)
5. “Aquarium” by Marielle Allschwang (Directed by Heather Hass)
6. “Little Brother Syndrome” by The Fatty Acids (Directed by Josh Evert, Ryan Reeve, and Cole Quamme)