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Winning spins: My top ten Madison albums of 2008

I'm lucky enough to spend a lot of time listening to Madison CDs. Even if it wasn't part of this side vocation of mine, it would be a hobby and an interest I couldn't give up.

The idea of music made in your own hometown has always had a grip on me. On those mundane nights when I'm in my kitchen doing nothing but loading the dishwasher, the Blueheels or Whatfor are right there with me. And the night doesn't feel so mundane after all.

There are dozens of Madison CD releases each year. That's a lot, but not so much that one person can't sample the oeuvre and find the best.

Here are my 10 favorites of 2008. Here's something else: I've lived in this town for 16 years. I've spent 12 of those years writing about local music. And there are more great Madison recordings from this year than any year I can remember.

If you listen to these albums and don't get a few chills down your spine, you don't love music.

1. The Blueheels: Lessons in Sunday Driving

The acoustic guitar riff that opens the best Madison album of 2008 is wistful. Ten seconds into the CD, the Blueheels have already hooked the listener with a blend of musical hope and nostalgia that demands to be heard to its conclusion.

Lessons in Sunday Driving is a place where lyrical romance meets reality. When lead vocalist Robby Schiller sings about a "Small Western Town," his vision is welcoming and lonely, all at once: "And I've got visions of a small western town / Where the band plays all night / But it don't matter because there's no one around."

The Blueheels' greatness is more than the sum of its parts. Schiller's voice is sharp and nasal, weird enough to pique your interest, smooth enough to hold it. The songs are a mix of rock, country and blues, frequently ornamented with a sing-along chorus reminiscent of the Jayhawks.

Tempos vary. "Not to Say Goodbye" swoons like a country ballad. "Holiday Parade" is barroom rock sure to make you break a sweat.

If you buy only one local album this year, let Lessons be the one.

2. Sleeping in the Aviary: Expensive Vomit in a Cheap Hotel

Sleeping in the Aviary would have made a great addition to the Elephant Six collective of pop music bands in the 1990s.

Like the Apples in Stereo, Sleeping in the Aviary has a penchant for writing bright and quirky pop songs that seems endless. Like Neutral Milk Hotel, they know how to crank up the fuzz and get weird.

On their second album, SITA adds a fourth member, Celeste Heule. She plays accordion and musical saw, and yes, those instruments influence the sound of the band. You can hear it on the stunning opener of this album, "Write On." The song wallows in the frustration of a love that's simultaneously unrequited and irresistible.

As lead vocalist Elliot Kozel sings, "I just want to write you out of my heart," the guitar supports his wish in brisk defiance. But the sustained accordion is the emotional counterpoint. It's the musical representation of bittersweet attraction that won't go away.

Madison hasn't had an accordion this good since NoahJohn walked the fields of Indiana on Tadpoles.

3. Lucha Libre: The Takeover

The best Madison hip-hop album of 2008 is a showcase for the prodigious beat-making and production skills of Josue Guadalupe, a.k.a "Da Rican Strukta." Take a listen to the infectious horn riffs he assembles on "Midwest Bang" for a sample of his talents.

The forceful raps of Mic Virus and NV1, delivered in a mix of Spanish and English, make the album's anxious and impatient lyrics feel authentic.

The Takeover doesn't follow the "conscious rap" trail previously blazed by the most high-profile Madison hip-hop artists this decade. The tracks are more edgy and less feel-good than acclaimed local rap releases by Rob Dz, dumate, El Guante and the Crest.

And that's just the way Lucha Libre would have it. After all, the crew takes its name from a freestyle form of Mexican wrestling.

"None of us are conscious rappers," Mic Virus told me in an interview last summer. "Hip-hop is supposed to be blunt. It's about being yourself and not pretending to be something you're not. People get nervous about that."

4. Harmonious Wail: Resist Temptation

Not a lot of local musical acts last 20 years, but Harmonious Wail have been playing gigs around town since Ronald Reagan was president.

Their unique brand of gypsy swing has been a cornerstone of Madison jazz. Their sets have frequently fed off the influence of gypsy jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt.

On Resist Temptation, Sims Delaney-Pothoff and crew take their sound in a new direction. They've assembled a collection of originals and interpretations by rock 'n' roll artists such as Tom Waits, the Velvet Underground, the Band and Steely Dan.

The highlight is "Lung Shan Temple Chant," a track that gorgeously blends far eastern music and western jazz sounds.

The ensemble's instrumental excellence reigns. Each track is a spacious and airy composition. String, upright bass and the sultry vocals of Maggie Delaney-Pothoff never feel crowded.

Resist Temptation has earned rotations on National Public Radio and is my pick for Madison jazz album of the year.

5. Blake Thomas: Flatlands

He's not a cowboy, and he's generations removed from the Old West, but Blake Thomas has lived some hard knocks in his young life. And like the great country musicians of yore, he writes guitar yarns about enduring struggles and surviving.

"Please Cash This Check" is one of them. Thomas really was down to one uncashed check once. He really did have to beg a Western Union clerk to override the usual three-day wait so he could get his car fixed.

But not all of Thomas' songs are so painfully real. "I Don't Want Your Heart, I Want Your Liver" is a country jam that's full of good humor. Mulling the attributes of his girl, he passes on her heart ("I already know it's no good"). By the chorus, he's chosen her liver - it's the ultimate asset in a song celebrating the joys of long-term drinking.

This is my pick for Madison's country album of the year.

6. Pale Young Gentlemen: Black Forest (Tra La La)

Oh, how the culture of pop music has changed. Decades past, you might have taken one look at Mike Reisenauer wearing a sweater vest onstage and guessed he was a math major, not a rock star.

Decade present, intellectuals rule the most influential brand of rock. It's the brand called indie. And the Pale Young Gentlemen populate the intellectual wing of indie rock.

Pale Young Gentlemen have received considerable national press this year. Black Forest earned enough national reviews to register a place on It's an accomplishment well deserved, if not also reflective of the strong indie preferences of leading online music zines like

PYG's pristine songs are like classical compositions that have evolved to fit the four-minute, lyrical structure of pop music. Their tracks sound like Coldplay hooking up with the Decemberists.

Songs like "We Will Meet" are solemn and delicate. That may or may not suit your mood, but the precision of the writing and instrumentation is a thing to behold. Harp gives way to strings, strings to horns, horns to voice and voice to guitar in perfect sequence.

7. Whatfor: Sooner Late Than Never

Whatfor is the songwriting outlet for Sleeping in the Aviary drummer Michael Sienkowski. On Sooner Late Than Never, Sienkowski proves himself to be capable of more than keeping musical time.

Sienkowski is a master of the two-minute, 1960s-influenced pop song. That rings loud and clear on "I Want a Girl," an utterly charming piece of piano pop that has the Beatles written all over it.

I had the privilege of interviewing Michael twice this year in support of a story I wrote about him and his two equally musical brothers, Luke (who performs as "The Great Luke Ski," comedy rapper) and J.T. (beat maker in the Crest). He told me that the songwriters who most influence him are literal, not abstract, in their craft.

"It's like the John Lennon song 'Imagine,'" he said. "That song is so straightforward. It's well organized. The emotion is just right. It's powerful, and it's very beautiful."

So is this CD.

8. Sensuous Enemy: Fragments

In all their black-garment goth glory, Sensuous Enemy added a guitar player this year and emerged as an electronic band that likes to rock.

Even before that, Sensuous Enemy had become a favorite at the Inferno and earned the 2007 MAMA for Best Electronic Artist.

Fragments is their full-length debut and follows the release of a 2005 EP, Deadly Sins. The album thrives on aggressive drum sequences, techno, EBM and synth, vocal harmonies, keys and rhythm guitar.

Lead singer JAI reveals a style reminiscent of Annie Lennox. Her robotic alliterations peak on "Whispers." She also manages a commanding cover of the Pet Shop Boys' classic "It's a Sin."

In the corner of our music scene that dresses itself in corsets, fishnet stockings and black lipstick, Sensuous Enemy has risen to the top.

This is my pick for Madison's electronic album of the year.

9. Stink Tank: Books on Tape

The fictional and autobiographical characters that live in the rap lyrics of local MC Laduma Nguyuza have helped animate Madison hip-hop for years.

Personally, I was pretty fond of Mr. Parker, the protagonist who stood front and center in the tales of Ngyuza's former act, dumate. But Stink Tank finds Nguyza killing off Mr. Parker and giving birth to Dudu Stinks, Jimmy French Fries and Billy Buffalo.

If the names are on the silly side, the themes of these songs are not. The role of race in music and art is a core idea that's explored by characters both black and white.

Twenty-year-old DJ Man Mantis handles beats and production work, establishing himself as one of our scene's brightest new talents.

10. Time Since Western: A Sun Goes Down

The musical reference points for this debut by ex-Pale Young Gentlemen bassist Andy Brawner are diverse.

"Bottom of the Sea" is loosely constructed, lo-fi garage-pop in the tradition of the Replacements. Brawner's vocal performance on "Feathers" is akin to the hypnotic singing style of TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe. And "Inside Out" is the kind of bittersweet folk-rock ballad Rhett Miller of the Old 97's likes to write.

What sets A Sun Goes Down apart is Brawner's capacity to add a dreamy, time-travel dimension to each of those styles.

"Anytime you're feeling down / Come to me / I'll get you out of town," Brawner sings in the opening verse of "Northern Down." Those lyrics provide the running theme of this sonically escapist record. It's not that Brawner wants to move to a different place. He just wants to exist in a different kind of space.

For nearly an hour on A Sun Goes Down, he's there.

Bonus pick EP of the Year

Jentri Colello: Bird of Prey

Let me cast my Madison Area Music Award vote now for female vocalist of the year - Jentri Colello.

Call it smoky. Call it sultry. Colello's voice is an instrument all its own and immediately demands comparison to singers like Neko Case.

This six-song EP is not all voice. Lead guitarist Josh Harty and drummer Phil Feutz transform the album into a rich listening experience that's not standard coffeehouse fare.

Another four songs and this disc would not have been relegated to its own category.

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