By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Astronaut Wife, decembers architects, and the Foxfire factor: The 2000
City Pages New Music Poll
MY DESERT-ISLAND, all-time, Top 5 favorite ways to waste precious pre-deadline hours:
1. Making lists
2. Really, there's just the one.
Music fanatics love to list and we love to talk lists. Give us solitary confinement and a piece of charcoal and we'll rank our favorite freedom songs on the wall, mulling over our No. 1 choice (definitely Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come"), our No. 2 choice (maybe AC/DC's "Jailbreak"?), etc. But on the page of a newspaper, the authority of those numbers carries a menacing finality, especially in the setting of a poll. A whole pile of lists--and that's essentially what the tenth annual City Pages Picked to Click Poll is--compounds that subjectivity. Even if longtime readers might see our new-local-music survey as a chatterfest among dozens of High Fidelity Robs (and, with less frequency, Robertas), those numbers still get people excited and angry.
Nine years and four music editors ago, the idea for Picked to Click was only practical. "I was pretty sick of hearing the sound of my own voice," says poll founder Jim Walsh, now the music columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "With the avalanche of bands and records coming at you, it just seemed that, for the reader, there was no way to make heads or tails of that."
Back in 1991 Walsh was the music editor at City Pages and got an idea from the paper's baseball issue, which asked sports-beat writers from around the country to predict who would win the divisions. Though he considers the two pastimes completely different, Walsh decided it would be fun to apply the sports polling idea to the local music scene, giving readers a handy guide to talented hopefuls. "I didn't think it was a competition, certainly," he says. "It would kind of give people an idea of who people are talking about."
Picked to Click's poll of local music experts was never meant to be definitive. Hell, the picks were often more tasteful--and prophetic--below the Top 5 consensus marker, from R&B powerhouse Ann Bennett-Nesby (number 14 in 1991) to the Cows (9 in '91) to the Jayhawks (15 in '92). This year, with so many not-so-new acts dominating their respective niches--Mason Jennings, Happy Apple, Atmosphere--the field seemed wide open for new bands who might otherwise be relegated to the poll's low end. Of the hundred ballot requests we distributed, only 54 were returned. Of the 44 points awarded this year's winners--Astronaut Wife--only three voters chose them as their No. 1 favorites.
Even so, the retro-futurist Wives are a sure sign of the times, and not for their music--pop electronica is so '98! More idiosyncratic is their Web intrigue: The quintet may be to the MP3 format what 1998 Top 5-er Ana Voog was to the bedroom Web-cam. Like no poll winner before them, the band generated a buzz without releasing one piece of consumable recorded work in stores--and this in the age of the fast burn, when any Rob with a tambourine can record and issue a CD on mom's Gateway.
All the same, the most notable phenomenon in this year's poll--besides the overwhelming (and distressing) whiteness of the selections--was something as old as rock 'n' roll: the resurgence of a self-aware youth culture. Half of the top 14 vote getters carved an identity--or at least a new identity--by regularly playing the all-ages Foxfire Coffee Lounge in downtown Minneapolis. A youthful audience embraced Fugazi-like runners-up decembers architects; pop bands Smattering, Valet, Triangle, and Sean Na Na; and punkers the Hidden Chord and Capital! Capital.
One Sunday night this winter I found myself talking about the future of local music with Jim Walsh, the Star Tribune's Jon Bream, and Pulse's Debra Stolberg on Mei Young's late-night KQRS-FM (92.5) local-music show, Homegrown. Sleepy, with Monday's workweek hours ahead of us, we aged journalists lit up suddenly on the topic of the Foxfire. A new community, we agreed, was growing up, literally, around the club--one that might overtake us. So for this year's poll we decided to take a closer look at this important womb of new bands, a club that, as Amy Weivoda reports, may soon be overtaken itself, despite a steady stream of sold-out shows. I'd rank this rock watershed with the Prom Center, the Longhorn, Goofy's Upper Deck, and the Speedboat Gallery--but that's one Top 5 no still-living club is eager to join.
Rock 'n' Poll
The tally and the talk of the Top 15
Here's how it works:
We asked 54 people--writers, record-store clerks, radio heads, and plain old fans--to come up with a Top 5 list of favorite new local bands, solo artists, DJs, or whatever. They named more than 130 acts on ballots we tabulated by giving each No. 1 choice five points, each No. 2 choice four points, etc. Below are all the acts that collected more than five points, with comments about the Top 10 ranking acts from various voters. A shout of thanks to everyone who participated--see the full list at the end. And one last note: As it was at the start nine years ago, this poll is meant to be a fun and informative cheat sheet, not for use in wagering, status seeking, or negotiating major-label contracts. To view all the ballots, go to www.citypages.com.
1. Astronaut Wife
Genre: Space-Age Polygamist Pad Music
Astronaut Wife is one of the few new local bands that truly make me feel like 1999 is gone. Any old electronic group could have found a decent female vocalist, but AW achieve real economy by combining three of the best from the old "dream-pop" scene: the Makeshift's Janey Winterbauer, Myriad's Angela Orluck, and February's Amy Turany. Astronaut patriarch Christian Erickson provides the perfect sonic foil for his Wives' harmonic pulchritude, whether on the circular trance of "Cape Canaveral" or the digital dance of "Superpowers (X-Ray Vision)." And the band's use of the MP3 format reveals a savvy marketing outlook. The new single "Pedestal" has Orluck playing a bit of a soul sister; heck, if the singers work to distinguish themselves from one another and overcome their general shyness at the mic, they could be the indie TLC.
--Simon Peter Groebner, Star Tribune, startribune.com
2. decembers architects
Genre: Beginning Math Rock
These scruffy mops are the sort moms fuss over, but they spew noises no mother could love. Defying classification with their spring-loaded guitar hullabaloo and elasticized performances, they leave you scratching your head while cheering for more.
3. The Busy Signals (29)
Genre: Small Audio Dynamite
Howard Hamilton III's one-man studio band the Busy Signals is responsible for Baby's First Beats (Sugar Free), a consistently awesome concoction of loops, beats, and fastidiously chosen samples that taps into the same overwhelmed-but-getting-on-with-it generational zeitgeist that Edward Norton did in Fight Club. ("Underachievers please try harder," he croak-croons at one point. "I know you're cool and insecure.") I've already been guilty of reprinting and overanalyzing too many of his lyrics, but for New Music Poll purposes, at least one more deserves consideration: "Outside the rhymes, that's the kind of guy I am/I'll see you in the Top 10." Today City Pages; tomorrow the (headphone) world.
--Jim Walsh, St. Paul Pioneer Press
Tulip Sweet & Her Trail of Tears (tie)
Genre: Magnetic Field Research
At a glance, the slump-shouldered Tulip Sweet might look like a naive cabaret exhibitionist rather than a calculating rock vet, her deadpan whimsy and glum delivery more a defensive pose than some cultivated persona. But Steph Dickson has been a gestating star for years, slowly pushing her songwriting, with help from fan-turned-bandmate Tom Siler, to its current Jonathan Richman-Stephin Merritt level. Dickson combines the wonder of the former with the sobriety of the latter, filling her imagined musical comedies with a longing and weariness missing from most new pomo pop. Why she's not huge I don't know. Her disillusionment with romance--that hilariously sung groan after the line "Once I even thought I was in love"--might reflect this blushing Tulip's take on herself.
--Peter S. Scholtes, City Pages
4. Valet (26)
Genre: Heavy-Lidded Expat Pop
Irish frontman Robin Kyle is the hot-glowing ember at the center of this damp-cool folk-punk quartet, but he's not building the fire alone. Wisecracking drummer Judd Hildreth (of Mollycuddle), nimble organist Paul Fuglested, and new bassist Jeremy Doering spark Valet's onstage levity.
5. Jan (25)
Genre: Sensitive Indie Girl Savior
The most precious thing about three-piece Jan is the pure, magical sound coming out of lead singer J.J. Gauthier's mouth. Her gentle, girlie vocals are always wrapped around thoughtful lyrics, and they make for catchy listening when put to the band's pop-rock compositions. It doesn't get much sweeter than this--not around here, anyway.
--Amy Carlson, freelance writer
Genre: Laptop Pop
I would have figured mixing catchy tunelets with software-jiggered beats and art-punky guitar would be an indie-rock standard by now. But the kids have proved more technophobic than expected, while the programmers lost their way on the songwriting highway before making it as far as the bridge. I still say the fusion is inevitable, but by the time everyone else decides to catch up, Brian Tester and Amanda Warner will have already lapped them...or at least come out with Triangle 3.0.
--Keith Harris, City Pages
6. Sean Na Na/Har Mar Superstar (23)
Genre: Bowser's Favorite Boy
Hard to reconcile the lovable kid in thick black-framed glasses with the irony man who hoaxed the City Pages letters page into believing his faux hip-hop alter ego, Har Mar Superstar, was actually his "little brother." Yet everything about Sean Tillmann's wholly wonderful pop is deceptive. Melodically accessible yet structurally complex, lyrically readable yet hard to get a read on, Sean is, in his words, "a good impression of someone with a few things to say." His forthcoming Dance 'Til Your Baby Is a Man (Troubleman Unlimited) is undanceable, lush with percussion and keyboards in songs that were shaped mostly in solo acoustic performances. Whatever he is, he's onto something.
7. Hidden Chord (16)
Genre: Leonard Cohen Reference of the (New) Century
This fierce foursome is fun and a bit wicked live, like little children. The band restores some sass to indie rock, with a streak of dark humor underneath all that heavy drumming and solid guitar.
--Kate Silver, KUOM-AM (770)
Genre: I, Robot
Their brightly colored hair may complement their jumpsuits, but the five members of Manplanet are as much about enticing a crowd with catchy new-wave songs as they are about their color-coded outfits. Paying tribute to balls of twine and robots--with a small dosage of pyrotechnics thrown in just for fun--Manplanet are considered a novelty act by some. But they're quite capable of rockin'--robot-style, of course.
8. Capital! Capital (15)
Genre: One-Exclamation-Point Punk
After 12 years of going to clubs, I get tired of seeing bands try so damn hard to make sure we notice that they look cool. (I'm reminded of Conqueror bassist Keith Patterson making a funny announcement from the stage: "This next song is called 'I tripped over my chain wallet on the way to the Fonzie cool store'"). I really don't care about the cool after-party and the band's art-school friends. I just want the goods. Straight up. That's why I like Capital! Capital. I was prepared to be unimpressed when they took the stage one night at the Turf Club. Next thing I knew, some guy was screaming words I couldn't quite understand, except that they had to do with getting in a car and driving far, far away--a sentiment we can all rally behind. The way he screamed them in tandem with a mercilessly loud guitar and the band's pounding, trancelike rhythm left me feeling all good, sweaty, and swirling in an endorphin rush. This offshoot of the now-defunct Freedom Fighters is a little more complex than that on record, but thankfully not much more. It's good and physical, like the P-rock is supposed to be.
--Henry Horman, freelance writer
9. Iffy (14)
Genre: Funk Westy Funk
Sultry vocals, steady R&B drum beats, a scratchy sound... No, it isn't some old soul 45, it's an eclectic new mix of studio wizardry and stream-of-consciousness wordplay, brought to you by Kirk and Kraig Johnson of Run Westy Run, plus drumming boy wonder Dave King. Imagine Kerouac with a falsetto and you have Iffy.
10. Raw Villa (12)
Genre: Snow-Chilled Hip Hop
After a decade of gangsta rap, Minneapolis finally produces a hard crew talented enough to earn big ups from Ghostface Killah ("They my niggas," he said onstage) and tight enough to infiltrate KMOJ rap primetime. Yeah, they've been around for a few years, but a lineup change, a bumped-up live presence, and a slew of new songs (including the thoroughly negative, deeply offensive, and remarkably catchy "Money First") make this the new crew to stew over.
Genre: Sing Softly But Carry a Big Beat
Matt Olson's erstwhile side project bested his now-defunct Balloon Guy years ago, but with Rajah Pink and Wading Pool Blue and a renewed zeal for performing, this band seems reborn. The electronic histrionics of sidemen John Carroll Seitz, Scott Tretter, and Bill McGuire are a thrill.
11. The Sure Shot Brothers; Touchy Feely (9)
12. Flapjack; Kaos (8)
14. Keller Brothers; Arson Welles; Houston (7)
15. Inside Straight Blues Band; Vaz; Terraplane, End Transmission; Heiruspecs;
The Hot (6)
Compiled by Bridgette ReinsmoenCP
Thanks to all the voters:
Christopher Bahn, Lynne Bengtson, Richard Best, Jon Bream, Amy Carlson, Vickie Casey, Cecile Cloutier, Dan Cote, The Dan One, Bill DeVille, Paul D. Dickinson, Jen Downham, Nate Dungan, Extreme Noise Records, Simon Peter Groebner, Sonia Grover, Mark Hansen, Jessica Hampton, Keith Harris, Scott Henkemeyer, Julie Hill, Henry Horman, Dick Houff, John Jindra, Rachel Joyce, Katharine Kelly, Karla M. Klaustermeier, Kurt Koehler, Britt Lindsay, Jon Lurie, J.R. Maddox, Clark Marshall, Mean Larry, Cari Ness, Q-Bear, Scott Pakudaitis, Nate Patrin, Robyne Robinson, Tom Rosenthal, Peter Scholtes, JonJon Scott, Rod Smith, Angie Simonson, Danny Siegelman, Kate Silver, Anders Smith-Lindall, Bill Snyder, Jack Sparks, Debra Stolberg, Bill Sullivan, Aaron Szopinski, Jim Walsh, Jeff Weihe, Collier White