We’re halfway through the year (a little more than 13/24ths, if you want to be a weirdo about it) and that means it’s time for a good old-fashioned mid-year “best local albums so far” roundup.
Anyone who’s been following Racket’s music coverage will see some familiar names, but I did a fair bit of scouting to find some other releases I hadn’t had the opportunity to write about. (Standard disclaimer: I’m just one guy with two ears, so I’m sure there’s plenty I’ve missed.) Listen away—and don’t forget to go see these folks live when you get a chance.
Lynn Avery & Cole Pulice
To Live & Die In Space & Time
Keyboardist Avery is best known for her work as Iceblink, and happens to have been the final winner of City Pages’ Picked to Click poll; saxophonist Pulice has contributed to the music of Bon Iver and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The two musicians also record with Mitch Stahlmann as LCM, and they’re worth listening to in whichever permutation they manifest themselves. But this album, born out of the 2020 Drone Not Drones festival, is particularly fine-textured, blurring the boundaries between acoustic and electronic over four tracks of calm but inventive instrumental experimentation, all clocking in at under a half hour to show that ambient can be concise without feeling truncated. Listen here.
Water Valley High
I don’t know if any punctuation mark is more abused and misused in the internet age than the exclamation point? But on their latest album, recorded in one week at Drive-by Truckers bassist Matt Patton’s Mississippi studio, Eleganza! does not exclaim its own name in vain. Though as meat and potatoes as local rockers come, wringing wisdom and good times out of lines like “You gotta go away to get back home” or “C’mon baby let’s rock a little more tonight,” their roots extend far enough to take in the Dolls as much as the Stones, and Brian Vanderwerf’s weathered voice doesn’t strain to prove what the songs should make apparent. And the album is back loaded with barbed lyrics: “Get Brown” celebrates the end of majority white America as (less explicitly) does “Borderless.” Listen here.
I Woke Up Today Laughing
Renelle LaBiche, the songwriter who fronts Elle PF, currently lives in Los Angeles, the westernmost suburb of the Twin Cities Metro, but we won’t hold that against her. The band’s seven-song album, their first lengthy release in three years, is rooted in Labiche’s keyboards, whether piano or synth, and animated by her coolly observant vocals. The mononymous Doc’s guitar jabs rhythmically, leans into full-on power chording, or melodically augments the arrangements (as, on occasion, does Alex Gale’s viola) and the rhythm section of bassist Jenessa LaSota and drummer John Acarregui shifts along smoothly from the off-kilter “Punk Song” to the disco-adjacent “Think Too Much About It.” The effect is broadly theatrical without being needlessly over-the-top. Super-catchy too. Listen here.
You can be a dreamy and atmospheric guitar band without being all vague and woozy about it, and this four-piece can show you the way. This is an album of post-lockdown rousing, powered by the contrast between the textural vibe and the direct attack, with an m.o. that opener “Two Tears” sketches as the pixelated distortion that rises out of Joe Marxen’s guitar coda pierces the drifting composition. On “Physical,” which Najua Saad wants to get, the singer lays it out clear: “I met somebody at the bar.” By the end, they’re rocking out with a track called “Loser Magnet.” If being drawn to a band this inventive makes me a loser, so? Why don’t you kill me? Listen here.
Like many Black vocalists currently, Monique doesn’t so much ignore the border between R&B and hip-hop as simply do her thing without regard for such nitpicky niceties. She leads off this six-song EP with some sonorous throat clearing and vocal vamping, as though demonstrating her comfort level. Her tracks suggest turn-of-the-millennium neo-soul without mimicking it—thick basslines and overstuffed pillows of synth invite you to spread eagle and trust fall back on them—while her flows, drawn from the likes of Chicagoans Noname and Saba, are a bit more rhythmically forward. As Monique told the Current earlier this year, “Let’s talk about how we can create this soft space for ourselves.” And let’s listen. Listen here.
Have You Tried Being Happy?
“I told myself I’d make a happy record/Told my friends I’d get my act together/Y’’all can see I failed at that, whatever.” There’s a full range of emotion between happiness and depression, and it’s where most of our lives are mostly lived. It’s also where this Oklahoma-born St. Paul rapper’s music thrives. Over a selection of trickily adorned beats, less spare and simple than they might seem, OKnice describes that life in a warm, slightly syrupy voice. Collaborating with a slew of producers—Deergod, Zepeda & Akamoto, Minnesota Cold, Metasota, and Hex—OKnice accumulated a serious collection of head-nod beats to rhyme over, with details like the sneaky bass under “Nowhere: USA” or jazzmatazzy horns running over “Pleasantville” serving as subtle but engaging hooks. Listen here.
A pow wow singer and member of the Red Lake Ojibwe, born in Minneapolis, based in Wisconsin, Rainey has been collecting recordings of Native singers (including himself) for years. An Eaux Claires performance that overwhelmed Justin Vernon and expanded the singer’s creative network led to this crafty collaboration with the ever-versatile Mpls producer Andrew Broder. Electronic producers have drawn on indigenous sounds plenty in the past, sliding along a wide scale from appreciation to exploitation. But Rainey and Broader are equal partners, aiming at a genuine fusion beyond novelty, with live singing from Rainey as powerful as anything in his sample band. And yes, I did miss his album release show at the Entry. Don’t rub it in. Listen here.
At a brisk 11 songs in 32 minutes, Feral Coast is straight-ahead punk that doesn’t just carelessly let it rip. Matt Castore’s bass, recorded crisply, provides the kind of melodic low-end that gives a guitarist room to maneuver instead of always filling space with rhythm chords, especially in tandem with Danielle Cusack’s fiercely controlled drumming. And Laura Larson takes advantage of the freedom, dropping out entirely at times, adding a delicate figure to “The Houseplant,” or working out a killer riff against the rhythmic grain. And all while delivering distorted, energizing rants in a style that’ll remind you of the ’90s even if you hadn’t been born yet. Listen here.
All That U Want
Sure, everyone’s half-machine nowadays, but Sym1 was plugged in back when you all were still 100% meat. Her new five-song EP All That U Want nods back to the rave culture of yesterday and leaps forward over electronic pop’s next half-dozen or so microtrends to land on what will be next—once everyone else catches up. If you’ve already heard the lead single, “Midnight Crush,” you know to expect snares like whips and giant slabs of synth, but the real treat on the EP is her vocal range: soaringly anthemic one minute, breathily enticing the next. Listen here.
Why Khaliq/Smokey Visions
One of Minneapolis rap’s most consistent recording artists, Khaliq returns, after a bit of a lag, with, as his lead track puts it, a “Vengeance.” A master of multiple flows, he flaunts his rhythmic versatility over Smokey Visions’ inventive clickety-clack patterns and lightly adorned spare production. Persona-wise, Khaliq’s a hustler who’s more intent on letting you know how industrious he is rather than how tough. Very Minnesotan of him, eh? Still wouldn’t want to be on his bad side though. Listen here.