A Power of Ten

Slug's love bug, Kat Bjelland's exorcism, Dave Pirner's throbbing shins: Ten years of local music served on ten great platters.

"Wow, none of these are as good as Let It Be," a co-worker said, examining our list of the best local albums of the decade.

Ah yes, 1984: that lethal point of comparison. I personally couldn't place Minneapolis on a map before Reagan's second term, though I had a Mondale placard on one wall and a poster of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade on another. This then-14-year-old punk was living in Madison, Wisconsin, spending long hours with the Replacements and, yes, Zen--the first record I reviewed for the school paper--before my vision of sex and the distant glamorous life was forever molded by a certain purple, pouty pop juggernaut. Heady times, those. Genital times, too.

With that digression out of our system, let's address the notion that the Nineties didn't come close to the previous decade's local sound explosion. Sure, no single recorded work had the combined impact and reverberation of Prince. But then, neither did Prince, back in that let-down/build-up period of cover bands and undergrounds that Nineties music most resembles: the mid-Seventies. Babes in Toyland's tantric tantrums might have been influential; Low's avant-garde lullabies might have been beautiful. But in the great alt-rock swindle, these entries missed out on the boom while exerting a broad, under-the-counter influence. Not careful of what they wished for, Soul Asylum won the booby prize of MTV fame just as its constituency at home was splintering.

Now Bush has faded to Clinton (and is perhaps fading back to Bush), and a new map of local music is emerging, one with few superhighways but dozens of country roads--all looping the globe. Woody McBride's techno 12-inches, the Rhyme Sayers' hip-hop cassettes, and the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group's jazz-pop ditties found enthusiastic acceptance in diffuse international audiences. Sounds of Blackness and Mint Condition won Grammy props and chart success, respectively, without bothering to check in with the local rock scene. The Hang Ups, longtime consensus picks in the local press, remain shy (in every sense) of the national audience that gathered behind the Jayhawks. Yet they endure with rare creative integrity. These may not be heady times, but we still have heady timekeepers.

Of course, the masses played some part in shaping this critical best-local-records package. Music is always the art of pop, in that all vital music moves the populace in some way. Yet after weeks of carefully consulting sales figures, chart positions, critical indexes, and definitive authorities, we ultimately just made up a list of ten albums we really liked. To balance some of our blind spots, we've included a few Top 5 lists written by folks who've long maintained a passion for local music. We've also added some further-listening recommendations for each of our Top 10 choices--call it a whetting of nostalgia, or the hedging of a bet.

Many important live acts we loved--Micranots, Bean Girl, Run Westy Run, Slim Dunlap, Lifter Puller, Dillinger Four, Greazy Meal--missed our list altogether. Without unduly putting down their recorded work, let's say it just didn't compare to the live experience.

This fact may breed its own brand of Nineties nostalgia, perhaps culminating with the day a Hard Rock Café sits on First Avenue's demolished lot. But if memory, emotion, and linear time curse us as we move into the aught years, our list's late-Nineties skew suggests auspicious times may be ahead. In fact, things look better than they have since, well, 1984.

--Peter S. Scholtes

Headshots
Se7en
Rhyme Sayers Entertainment, 1999

Whatever unoriginal sins it committed, Nineties hip hop was the best mental clearinghouse for masculine self-defense mechanisms around, from Q-Tip's step-by-step breakdown of the thought processes behind saying "nigga" to Biggie's careful consideration of suicide. Stream-of-consciousness journalism became what rap did best (besides reorganizing every form of recorded music around James Brown's tapping shoe). You could almost say this became its job. Certainly that's how Slug saw his daily grind this year, though the MC was sometimes too creatively "impotent," as he put it in one lyric, to "fuck reality."

"Excuse me, my friend/But is that your pen/Is it cool if I use it to duel with my skeletons?" raps the 27-year-old from South Minneapolis near the end of his unwieldy, 70-minute Se7en. A harrowing, hilarious mess of an album (22 tracks recorded between 1996 and 1998), the cassette-only collection was, until recently, available only out of the canvas backpack of its maker. As such, the tape might seem an absurdly elitist choice for our album of the decade (though you can pick it up today at the Fifth Element record shop at 2411 Hennepin Avenue). Still it is filled with the sort of daring highs and lows missing from the best rock 'n' roll on this list, and it's presented in a way that feels uncommonly personal--even for hip hop. Like another former graffiti writer, William Upski Wimsatt, Slug holds back nothing: psychosexual venting, voice-mail poems, spacey instrumentals, and a snippet of himself goofing in a Muppet voice with his five-year-old son.

I may not be ready to deem Slug "the greatest MC in the world," as at least one critically overextended Web scribe has described him. But his mature combination of confidence and self-loathing has emerged as one of the most potent forces in unheard hip hop this year. He has a reverence of the doomed for his sexual adversaries/companions, musing about one "Molly Cool," "She's the kind of girl that doesn't want a relationship/But damn I think she's kind of cool/But damn just be patient kid."

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