Local Traffic: Slow & Go

Watching all this happen on the indie level, one gets the sense that the future of pop is being cowritten right here at home. As all these observations (and my Top 10 list) indicate, the talent, inspiration, and raw materials are all here. But with a year of scene hardship hopefully behind us, a word to the wise: It's all in how we use it.

My personal, local best with honorable
mentions:

1. Balloon Guy The West Coast Shakes(Warner Bros./Generator) Also, the Most Criminally Overlooked Record of the Year, though I'm not sure who's to blame. BG's 1994-95 gigs, which spawned 11 of the 14 songs here, were some of the Twin Cities' most explosive shows, so the album's greatness was no real surprise. A complex, dense and intense debut, marked by a robust experimentalism, a lack of macho posturing, and Matt Olson's brave free-associative lyricism. But is this Balloon Guy's swan song? Olson slipped into seclusion for several months in '96, while the band has been absent for half a year.

2. SemisonicGreat Divide(MCA) A smart, sexy masterpiece that balances mainstream party pop with sonic futurism. Somehow, the studio trickery manages to give this record about lust for life and other things an even more emotionally naked vibe. (Listen to the neo-ambient heartbreakers "No One Else" and "I Feel For You" and you'll know what I mean.) Minneapolis-friendly L.A. producer Paul Fox also worked magic with Rex Daisy's Guys and Dolls and Tina and the B-Side Movement's Salvation.

3. 12 Rodsgay? EP (12RODS) The packaging is the only thing generic about this debut: 12 Rods confounded the trappings of alternarock by delivering amazingly well-conceived and hefty art-rock, performances way too proficient for such young'uns, and a decidedly shocking glam persona. Ryan Olcott's nightmarish memories of high school were more vivid than my own.

4. Low The Curtain Hits the Cast(Vernon Yard) Their inclusion here is debatable since the Duluthians aren't quite local, but then again, are they even of this world? With every record they get more minimal, yet remain controlled. Music so transcendent it literally veers on the spiritual.

5. Sukpatch Haulin' Grass and Smokin' Ass (Slabco) Schooled in hip-hop, reared on college rock, this Minneapolis crew proves you can play indie-rock with nothing but samples and electronics. Lysergically funky.

6. Punchdrunk A Message From the Cockpit(Veto) The sleeper of the year, to be sure: ex-classic rock stripped to its naked, two-minute core. Too bad they've moved to New York (sigh). Companion piece: Rank Strangers, Mystery Spot (both produced by the Strangers's Mike Wisti).

7. Steeplejack Kitchen Radio (Dejadisc) The best local country-rock record of the year (though The Honeydogs's fine Everything, I Bet You won the popular vote). Upon deeper inspection I've realized it's a concept album about surviving (with some humor) heartache and the bottle during a long, specifically Minnesotan winter.

8. Saucer Saucer(Spanish Fly) In which one of the most inventive bands around disintegrates, reinvents itself, and resurfaces with a fragmented odyssey (30 tracks, 53 min.) that becomes a sourcebook for low-budget, cinematic pop-crafting.

9. Dylan Hicks Won (No Alternative/TRG) Also award for Best Personality. If you didn't know that Hicks is one of the TCs' funniest and craftiest conceptualists, as well as an avid record collector, it becomes evident after one listen.

10. (18-way tie:) Arcwelder, Entropy (Touch and Go); The Beatifics, How I Learned to Stop Worrying (No Alternative); Cows, Whorn(Amphetamine Reptile); The Dust Bunnies, Shishkabam(Spectra Fidelity); Stuart Davis, Nomen Est Numen (Triad); February, Even the Night Can't Tell You From a Star EP (February); Greazy Meal, Visualize World Greaze (Greazy Meal/TRG); Guzzard, Alienation Index Survey (Am Rep); Koerner, Ray & Glover, One Foot in the Groove (Tim/Kerr); Mike Merz & the Can o' Worms, Buzzkill Nation (Archangel Media Empire); Milk, So Many Dynamos (Spanish Fly); Own, Agenda Item 1 (Severed); The Strawdogs, John Perkins John Perkins (SMA); The Vibro Champs, Stranger That You Think(Ultramodern); Willie Wisely, She(October); The Wonsers, You Never Knew Me When I Was Young (Get a Wick)

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