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The best Madison albums of 2011
In a turbulent year, local musicians stoked our activist mood
For more photos, click gallery, above.

Sound waves pierced the Capitol Square more than usual this year. Between the protest chants, there was music. Sometimes the two were inseparable.

Nine monotone notes, distinguished by a one-of-a-kind time pattern, became a clarion call across downtown: "This is what democracy looks like!" The anthem was tapped out on car horns. It was beaten on drums. It was wheezed by snarky kazoos.

Local music took heed of the historic protests that dominated city life this year, and some Madison artists responded with songs that were outwardly political. You could hear it in the earnest reggae of Nama Rupa and the experimental compositions of pianist Stephanie Rearick.

The trend was an extension of the moody restlessness that dominated the music scene in 2010. That year, prog and hard rock by bands like the Projection People, Cemetery Improvement Society and Orphan Bloom took the Madison sound in a darker direction.

This year, Madison's most popular music shared characteristics with songs from another period of social activism, the late 1960s and early 1970s. As before, folk-rock soothed the season of anxiety and discontent. Psychedelic rock aimed for a mind-bending escape.

Nearly 100 albums were released by local musicians in 2011. These 10 stood out as the best.

1. Daniel and the Lion, Sweet Teeth

The top two Madison albums of 2011 make reference to planting seeds. For Daniel and the Lion, "Seeds" is the name of the gorgeous pop song that ends their 10-track CD.

Seeds are a metaphor for wisdom. "Don't plant your seeds so close together," sings Jimmie Linville. "They will all burn up in fiery weather."

Linville has overcome a lot of adversity. He grew up with three siblings in a Baraboo trailer. His family couldn't always pay for electricity. He weighed 300 pounds in high school. But none of that kept Linville's musical spirit from blossoming.

Today, Linville and Daniel Pingrey make up one of Madison's hardest-working musical acts. Their 2011 album shows dexterity in their approach to songwriting. "The Chase" is tailor-made for adult alternative radio. "Baraboo" is an introspective ballad looking back on Linville's childhood.

2. Nama Rupa, Planting a Seed

Reggae has always had a place alongside political activism. This year, Madison's Nama Rupa released an album that contained our activist anthem of the year, "War Crimes." Built around a sparse bass line, the song thrives on vocal harmony that delivers a hard-hitting message: "War crimes, all around/You lie, keep us down/All us people who are much smarter than you will now rise."

Paul Reinke, Jason Himebauch and Tyson Klobes formed Nama Rupa six years ago. They're known for blending other genres into their Jamaican influences, including funk and hip-hop. Planting a Seed is Nama Rupa's studio debut. With songs this good, they're sure to be a force in Madison music for a long time to come.

3. Paul Otteson, February Fables

February Fables is the overachieving debut record of a Stoughton elementary school music teacher who grew up in Hudson. It's the work of a songwriter who blends folk, indie and Americana, and whose lyrical approach recasts Aesop into modern reflections on truth and feeling. As a singer, Otteson blends the falsetto style of Bon Iver with the hazy moodiness of M. Ward.

The best songs are supported by strong melodies and beats that make them catchy. That's especially true of "The Astronomer," a poetic track that tries to reconcile the act of finding meaning on Earth with making sense of the great beyond.

It was an exceptionally strong year for Madison's Americana music scene. February Fables is one reason why.

4. Icarus Himself, Career Culture

The Madison scene has shifted away from indie rock and toward Americana in recent years. The bands that once heralded indie as a foundation of our local sound - Charlemagne and Sleeping in the Aviary among them - left town to try to make it in bigger markets.

Icarus Himself are the most prominent indie band left to fill the void. On Career Culture, they forge a lo-fi, easygoing and sometime psychedelic guitar rock sound that beautifully supports their wistful songs. "Anywhere You Go" shows the band evoking 1960s garage rock. But "On Your Side" finds Icarus Himself sounding every bit 2011. They lay down an extended riff that stretches across four minutes of vocals, keys, drums and other guitars to create a baroque ambience.

The disc was released by Science of Sound, the label that champions what's left of Madison's indie scene. Career Culture shows the genre still packs a punch.

5. Anna Vogelzang, Canary in a Coal Mine

It's been three years since this Boston native moved to Madison and started playing at the Madison Songwriters Guild's Song Showdown. Vogelzang won fans at the Alchemy Cafe and set her sights on recording. Thanks to her prodigious songwriting, she put out records in 2009, 2010 and again this year.

Canary in a Coal Mine was released locally in September, with copies available at the show. But you won't find it online just yet. That's because the album's national release is scheduled for February 2012.

Vogelzang's naked emotions recall Liz Phair. "Undertow" employs a stark metallophone as it wades through a high tide of emotion. The verses find a lover to hang onto when rising water sweeps toward the darkness. "Die Trying" is an ode to self-doubt and reassurance set to a playful and meandering banjo.

Here's hoping Vogelzang won't get homesick for the East Coast anytime soon.

6. Kyle & Keem, Kyle & Keem

Support for underage music has surged in Madison, fueled by more gigs at Goodman Community Center's Loft and band development programs run by groups like Madison Music Foundry. Songwriters like Sam Lyons and teen bands such as Modern Mod provide a youthful edge to the local scene. The leaders of the high school pack are Kyle & Keem, a Verona duo who were seniors when the year began.

For a while last summer, their single "Amazing" was played every few hours on Madison's hip-hop radio station, 93.1 Jamz. The raps, beats and samples on that song sounded as professional as if it had been released by a major label.

Kyle & Keem's talent goes deeper than one song. Their self-titled debut album hit iTunes midyear. The 13 tracks, like a lot of pop music in 2011, mix singing with rapping in the smoothest of ways.

7. Stephanie Rearick, Up the Wall

One thing you can say about a Stephanie Rearick album: No other Madison artist makes anything quite like it. Her piano compositions depart from the norms of traditional songwriting. Her lyrics aren't afraid to confront the political and the personal in direct and original ways.

That's no surprise, considering the longtime contributions Rearick has made to Madison as a social activist, artist and co-owner of Mother Fool's Coffeehouse.

Up the Wall's gem is "Who Are You?" It's a seven-minute sonic quest for our collective national identity in which Rearick asks, "Who stole our hearts? Who stole our minds? Who stole our souls?" She continues, "One day we'll wonder who let the bullies take over the school, and how we win when we play by their rules."

The complexities of the arrangements add to the sense of entrenched injustice that won't be set right anytime soon.

8. Aaron Williams and the Hoodoo, 10:49

Aaron Williams is the son of the late, great Madison jazz and blues organist Cadillac Joe. Aaron began performing 10 years ago, when he was 17, as a guitarist in his dad's band.

In 2008 he started the Hoodoo with drummer Eric Shackelford and a bassist known as Z. When Cadillac Joe died of cancer in 2009, Williams continued his father's tradition of living the life of a working musician. Williams is an emerging blues artist who is gaining influence outside the Badger State. The Hoodoo's blend of blues and rock is fueled by smooth, steady tempos and percussion that keeps audiences engaged.

10:49 spans a wide variety of moods. "She's Good at What She Does" is a sultry tune with a relentless beat and a hypnotically seductive guitar. The title track is a reflective look at the exact moment when Williams said his last words to his dying father. The song marks the passage of life from one generation to another. "You closed your eyes," sings Williams. "I finally opened mine."

9. Dead Luke, Meanwhile…in the Midwest

Drugs and rock 'n' roll have long coexisted. Some of the darkest rock, championed by artists like Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and MGMT, uses drug metaphors to suggest the fine line between the mind's perceptions of the real and the unreal.

So it's no surprise to find Madison's Dead Luke photographed online wearing a jacket that says "God Takes LSD" on the back of it. Dead Luke makes music not commonly offered by local bands, a hazy, freaky brand of psychedelic rock that's comfortable teetering on the brink of madness.

"Paranoia Is a Flower of the Mind" is a case in point. The song builds over a riff, the tension and suspense rising with every few measures. Frequently compared to the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Dead Luke takes the heartland out of Midwest rock.

10. Phat Phunktion, Real Life High Fidelity

The members of Phat Phunktion coped with the pain of real life during the time spent making this album. The fiancée of saxophonist Al Falaschi was stricken with cancer. She died in 2009.

But funk music has a way of fending off darkness. "You Want It All" is the leadoff track, powered by staccato horns and grooving guitars. Lyrically, it offers a message of hope: "We've all got to live for something."

Tim Whalen's piano grounds "Miss Madison," and the improvisation shows the band's strong jazz influences. The lyrics are steeped in local culture: "Dreaming of a night on the Terrace/The moon's gonna light the stage."

Phat Phunktion reminds us that despite real tragedies, there's plenty of reason to celebrate all that's good.

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