Scene Not Heard

Computer wizards leave their bedrooms, rappers reach the stage, and the Mason Jennings Band creates the bar buzz of the decade. In the ninth annual City Pages New Music Poll, 60 local music fans pick the bands that made the biggest noise.

First a confession from your host: It was all new to me, folks. In the 12 months since the 1998 edition of this poll (to which I contributed exactly nothing), I've taken something of a crash course in local music.

When I began covering the beat last May, I hoped that when our annual New Music Poll rolled around again, I would have something to say about that most vital life force in any creative community: new blood. Instead, I keep thinking about those not-so-new faces and rooms that crossed my radar just this year. Like the traditional folk sessions in the back of Kieran's Irish Pub. Or the many homebound noisemakers who emerged from years of self-imposed basement exile to occupy the public's eye at two regularly held electronica cabarets, New Atlantis and Future Perfect. Or the amateur soul singers showcasing their gospel pipes for the swanky set at the Riverview Supper Club. These little scenes have existed for years, but were previously as "hidden" to me as the thriving local basement-punk underground, the tent-rave subculture, or the blooming swing thing--all of which dented the mainstream club consciousness this year.

In this light, I can see why previous Best New Band pollsters have left the definition of "new" to the discernment and listening habits of each year's voters. People inevitably choose music that's new to them. Often, considering the scene affiliations of many of our pollsters, one fan's brand new bag is another's old hat. Take this year's fifth place winners, Abstract Pack, an ensemble of veteran St. Paul hip hoppers who placed 28th in the 1995 Picked to Click poll. It took their energetic 1998 debut disc Bousta Set It (For the Record), and four years of scene-building by the Rhyme Sayers, their web of rap-activist affiliates and competitors, before the Pack registered with rock fans and critics.

Daniel Corrigan

But if our voters--most of whom are white, and often decidedly rock-centered--seemed ready to redress a certain obliviousness to local black pop, this impulse wasn't quite strong enough to make room for Billboard chart-toppers Next, the Pack's onetime peers in the local community-center circuit. Next garnered no votes at all among this year's Picked-to clique, suggesting either a lack of interest in mainstream pop, or a sense that the group didn't need our poll's meager assistance.

Still, while the rock crowd didn't seem ready to embrace R&B, our balloters did select an act that challenges traditional conceptions of what Minnesotan alt-rock can mean--in the process handing this year's winner the biggest landslide since 12 Rods scored nearly twice as many votes as Semisonic three years ago. Which brings us to the Mason Jennings Band, whose packed, post-folkie shows would seem to represent a trend unto itself. But behind Mason Jennings's impact with many voters lurks the waning influence of a 'Mats fixation. Countrified bands such as Tangletown and Bellwether (who placed ninth and sixth) might have placed higher if they possessed half of Jennings's charisma.

Yet if the Mason Jennings Band's success typifies a certain desire to renovate the Twin Cities club world without smashing its foundations, there's also a desire for sweeping change suggested by the fourth-place finish of Jake Mandell--even if the constituency for his brilliant armchair techno primarily consists of boosters of the burgeoning noise-electro scene (this writer included). "You can have your heart-rending lyrics," these voters seem to say. "We'll take the visceral pleasures of computer-generated abstraction." Or, as in the case of Pavementesque teens the Plastic Constellations (third place), voters opted to keep their rock leanings but forgo intelligible songs altogether, falling instead for the band's raw stage energy. With the second place finishers Selby Tigers, balloters seem to ask for the best of both worlds.

Of course, spotting trends in a poll like this can have a sizable margin of error. It might make sense that the arch-ironic Rocky Horror piano-pounding of Mark Mallman did roughly as well as the catchy, though traditionally ironic, state-of-the-Entry rock by ÜberScenester. But I was plainly baffled that the constantly performing South Dakota blues wunderkinds Indigenous didn't fare a bit better, though I'm convinced it's only because the blues people we got in touch with responded in lesser numbers than their local indie-rock peers.

Still, the fact that this year's Picked to Click is among the most musically diverse in the poll's nine-year history might have less to do with methodology than with an increasing recognition of discrete subscenes. As voters wrote us again and again, it's the smaller scenes within the local scene, as much as the bands they produced, that are this year's news.

 

How it works: We asked 60 fans of local music--critics, radio folks, musicians, label mavens, boosters--to send in their top five favorite new artists of 1998. Each number one ranking received five points, each number two received four points, and so on. The acts that collected more than five points are listed below. We collected three times more comments than we could possibly publish, and so special thanks go out to everyone who voted and contributed. A full list of balloters appears at the end of the Picked to Click section on p. 17. In helping us compile our unscientific report on the state of Twin Cities music, these sundry critics and music professionals have shown themselves to be those most noble creatures--local music fans.

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