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The top 10 Madison albums of 2009
The year's best in local music
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Flatbear are now performing as Flight.
Flatbear are now performing as Flight.

Let's do some math to consider how much music really matters in our Madison lives. About 100 compact discs were released by city residents in 2009. In a city of 208,000 people, that's one CD for every 2,080 residents.

But if the average band has three members, that's one out of every 693 Madisonians who contribute to making a CD. Then there's the recording engineers, club owners, fans and, hopefully, a few people who actually buy the CDs.

It's safe to say that local music touches the lives of a lot of people in this town. Given the quality of Madison albums, it's a part of our identity we can feel pretty good about.

Most local albums of 2009 were worthwhile, and many were very good, but the 10 I've listed below stand apart and represent the musical characteristics of our time. They're high on instrumentals, electronics and the experimental song structures of the genre that's come to be called indie rock.

I've identified my favorite track from each of these albums, and in a post coming soon to, you can take a listen for yourself. Then maybe you, too, will live a life under the dreamy spell of Madison music.

1. Flatbear (now performing as Flight): Flying Days

It's been three years since this young group of musicians who grew up in Mount Horeb crashed the Madison music scene with moody folk-rock punctuated by the smoky vocals of Jentri Colello, 26.

Flying Days follows the band's 2008 debut EP, Birds of Prey. The disc proves that great music doesn't have to be loud.

Colello and crew keep their tempo slow and their instrumentation sparse and spacious. But songs like "Rattled" still brim with eerie emotion.

This year, Flatbear decided who they really are. They began 2009 performing under the name of their lead singer. By summertime, they moved to acknowledge the primacy of their band, changing their name to Flatbear.

Last month, they opted for another new identity. Flatbear are now performing as Flight (and avoiding mistaken affiliation with Grizzly Bear, Minus the Bear, etc.).

It's a name that fits, representing Jentri Colello as an artist high on musical motion, backed by a band ready for takeoff.

2. Icarus Himself: Coffins

What is it about guys from Indiana moving to Madison and influencing the sound of local music?

Carl Johns did it in 1998. He spent a decade making gorgeous indie rock in bands called Noahjohn and Charlemagne.

Nick Whetro followed in 2004. He's spent the second half of this decade making high-personality guitar-rock in bands called the National Beekeeper's Society and Icarus Himself.

Coffins highlights Whetro's storytelling. The title track is three minutes of hook-laden heartache about a victim of relationship abuse. Every melancholy stroke of Whetro's guitar is equally soothing and sad - a sonic escape valve that simultaneously releases loneliness, beauty and defeat.

The album is released on Science of Sound, a local indie label that featured some of the best Madison albums of 2008 (Sleeping in the Aviary, Pale Young Gentlemen, Whatfor) and kept building its small but influential catalogue in 2009.

3. Zola Jesus: The Spoils

Twenty-year-old Nika Danilova has built an impressive indie-rock résumé during the past two years.

She played South by Southwest. She was reviewed in Pitchfork. She was signed to a notable New York indie label. She was invited to play live on New York University's college radio station.

Danilova grew up training to be an opera singer, but she recast herself as Zola Jesus soon after starting college.

The Spoils is a noise album punctuated by clanging industrial percussion, edgy electronics and soaring vocals whose lyrics remain indecipherable.

It's also emotionally intense, especially in two CD-only tracks. "Souer Sewer" uses a piano riff to maintain a suspended state of pensive reflection. That's followed by "Odessa," a track set apart by a repetitive, and bruising industrial synth riff. It's anger and anguish and adrenaline, a trinity of feelings merging into one song.

More than any other Madison musician, Zola Jesus is ready to be an artist on the national stage.

4. Steez: Creepfunk Crusade

I've been enamored of Steez for much of 2009 because they show how pop music has changed in recent years.

There's been a national synth-rock revival spearheaded by bands like MGMT, Passion Pit and Animal Collective. But the current wave doesn't feel like a fad. Electronic music has come of age this decade, and rock is increasingly marching to a BPM beat.

Enter Steez, a group of mostly UW-Madison guys who lived together in a house on Gorham Street. They started a band and continued in the long Madison tradition of campus party bands that like to jam.

But they deftly reinvented that tradition with a splash of electronics.

"Wrappin' It Up" is the showcase song from Creepfunk Crusade. It's grounded in funk, the kind you'd hear at a beer-soaked festival in a Madison park. It's adorned with guitar jams, the kind you'd hear shooting pool at Mr. Robert's on Atwood Avenue. And it's wrapped in a decadent layer of synth pop, the kind Disney turned into a Main Street Electrical Parade long ago.

5. dumate: We Have the Technology

Laduma Nguyuza has been one of Madison's most consistently creative songwriters in recent years. He's rapped in the hip-hop groups dumate and Stink Tank. On those efforts, he adopted the persona of characters he created - Mr. Parker and Dudu Stinks.

We Have the Technology finds Nguyuza showing confidence, feeling relaxed and rapping to music played by a band.

As on past albums, dumate's songs directly address themes of race and poverty. "Money" gives voice to the forlorn experience of "staring inside a McDonald's window, begging for change and sleeping out on the drain."

"Evolution" begins with a clip of Barack Obama's election-night victory speech: "If there's anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, tonight is your answer."

dumate's music is every bit as compelling as their social and political verses.

6. His and Her Vanities: The Mighty Lunge

Ricky and Terrin Reimer each came to Madison from Milwaukee in the 1990s. They met at O'Cayz Corral shows, got married and had kids.

All these years later, they still rock. The Mighty Lunge represents the indie-pop vibe the Reimers have nurtured, and not just through their own recordings.

The couple own Madison's Science of Sound, the indie label that's helped bands like the Pale Young Gentlemen reach national audiences.

The Mighty Lunge was aptly named to describe the Reimers' sprint to the finish line after spending five years making this album.

The disc was worth the wait, featuring catchy compositions such as "Hits Like Hail" and plenty of extended guitar riffs.

With any luck, it won't be five more years before we hear from His and Her Vanities again.

7. Cougar: Patriot

D.H Skogen is the drummer and lyricist who helped form Madison's influential Youngblood Brass Band in 1997 after graduating from Oregon High School.

Skogen writes poetry. He's part of Madison's Layered Arts Collective. And in 2003 he helped establish a local instrumental post-rock band, Cougar, whose members are now geographically dispersed.

The songs on Patriot vary in character and style. "Rhinelander" is grounded in drums and bass and adorned with both acoustic and electric guitar.

On "Stay Famous" the electric guitar takes center stage and, temporarily, Cougar doesn't sound so post-rock.

8. El Valiente: Daceton

Madison has a history of brainy graduate students who make smart and innovative musical recordings while they research and dissertate.

El Valiente's Eric Caldera is the latest example. He's earning credits toward a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology at UW-Madison. He performs as the singer-songwriter Oedipus Tex and as the impressive lead of El Valiente's instrumental guitar-rock sound.

Daceton follows up the trio's 2007 debut. Caldera continues to be supported by Dave Sperka on bass and Joe Bernstein on glockenspiel and drums.

The title track lets the guitar-pick riffs meander across eight minutes of music that features splashes of electrified guitar. The tense western-noir ambience is as well organized and complex as the ant colonies Caldera researches by day.

9. L.O.S.T. S.O.U.L.S.: The L.O.S.T. S.O.U.L.S. Theory

The rap duo of Tefman and Bane are Madison originals. They attended West High together. They played football for the Regents. After graduating from UW-Eau Claire, they came back to Madison and started making music.

The group's acronym stands for Living Off Society's Tensions, Surviving on Utilizing Life's Struggles.

Emotional diversity defines the tracks on The L.O.S.T. S.O.U.L.S. Theory. "Heaven" seeks spiritual transcendence from a life rife with pain. But "Back in the Day" is a warm and nostalgic song that celebrates the roots of hip-hop and musical days gone by.

10. Sun Dried Truth: Underdog

Sun Dried Truth brings a bit of musical celebrity to Madison in the person of Brian Nolan. He's the drummer for the national alternative rock group American Hi-Fi.

Nolan moved to Madison when he married the sister of his current bandmate, Pete Gargano, who co-owns Bellini's restaurant on East Washington Avenue.

Sun Dried Truth's bass player is American Hi-Fi's Drew Parsons. Parsons lives in Boston but played bass on Underdog's nine tracks.

The title track is melodic and polished alt-rock that's as radio-ready as any Madison song you'll hear this year.

But Sun Dried Truth are one of those bands made up of guys working jobs, raising kids and jamming after hours. For now, they're ours to enjoy.

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