Then again, I'm staring right now at a pile of very good local CDs. All of them are at least as ambitious and engaging as half my Top Ten list of two years ago. Yet this pile represents only this year's "honorable mentions," (which will go unmentioned here). The pile next to that first one contains my ten favorites. All are listed below with observations from three angles--business, memory, and art--through which we may one day view the music in its own exhibit. Plus a few sentences describing why my choice is important to me.
1. Lifter Puller
Fiestas + Fiascos
Business: The band is no longer in
Memory: "LFTR PLLR" spelled out in colored vinyl records taped to the windows of the Weisman Art Museum.
Art: Having spent years trying to like Craig Finn's Springsteen-with-a-lollypop flow, I finally gave up and began absorbing his lyrics as a hip-hop-hating parent might: through slow, teeth-clenched osmosis. And guess what? Riding that electric bull of a guitar-keyb groove, Finn's private-dick-like narration starts to sound like what the poetry fans take it for. As much as his mates, he knows when to repeat and when to plow on. He's got more riffs than Fugazi covering Supertramp. And while his Lake Street peopled with card sharks and pimps and disco gangsters might be as imaginary as a planned library and public gardens on Block E, the rendering is as well-paced, open-hearted, and vivid as any urban storytelling BS of yore from the Clash or, well, Springsteen.
2. Mason Jennings
Birds Flying Away
Business: The singer sold out First Avenue and nearly filled the Fitzgerald.
Memory: The audience sang every word at those shows.
Art: A lot of folks, Jennings included, took my flip evaluation of his vocal style as an attack on the man's authenticity. (I claimed at the time that Jennings's Pennsylvania roots weren't enough to explain how the lyric "violence" becomes "vah-olence.") The letters in response were a reminder that practicing criticism on your neighbors can be like a real-life replay of that great scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen produces Marshall McLuhan in person to deflate some windbag queued up for a movie. (Soon Craig Finn will phone from New York: "Sir, I've been listening to you, and you don't understand my work at all.") But my speculations about Jennings's cultivated singing accent, albeit lamely qualified with a "probably," were meant to emphasize that the way he snaps words in two is an aesthetic choice, however conscious, and a good one at that. Certainly all the Brazilian funk, gospel, and (for all I know) gabber house rhythms digested in the trio's acoustic compost sculpture constitute a choice too. But the other two guys aren't what makes these songs worth playing to friends or redialing all-Eighties radio in vain to request.
Ford One, Ford Two
Business: Unconfirmed rumor holds that Puffy offered $600,000 for a nine-album deal with Rhymesayers.
Memory: Atmosphere member Eyedea winning the Blaze Battle Face-Off 2000 World Championships on HBO.
Art: Slug's multitracked alto sounds like former ER ambulance driver Ron Eldard being thrown down a well by Lee Perry. But the voice is really just a rapid delivery system for spiel: He's a populist with Eminem's gift of gab--which is to say that none of Slug's references are as obscure as "former ER ambulance driver Ron Eldard." And unlike that younger Midwesterner, Slug unravels sick magical realism that always comes down on the side of women: On the underground single of the year, "The Woman With the Tattooed Hands," he rather touchingly affirms their masturbation rights. Aside from that track, and discounting the previously released "Nothing but Sunshine," I count only two other great new songs. But there's nothing else in pop or hip hop as accessibly arty as the dubbed-out "Free or Dead," where Slug hits I-94 to honk at cattle, insult cops, and flirt with the voice at the Hardee's drive-through. He describes a terrible show and resenting his audience for it. Then he retreats to the hotel to toke up and consider the possibilities: failed MC, promising travel writer.
Business: That Gap ad will buy the guitarist-drummer couple a lot of diapers for their young daughter.
Memory: The incongruous screams of "Low! Low!" after sleepy shows.
Art: This is the best indie-rock Christmas album ever made by a single band. This is also the only indie-rock Christmas album ever made by a single band. But the eternal pa-rah-pah-pah-pum changes, the husband-wife give-and-give, and the trio's already near-silent nocturnal moodiness suit the spirit of holiday reverence. Even if, in our Whoville-cum-Babylon, Alan Sparhawk's gentle call to "deny the flesh" reads as Chinese.
Business: First triple vinyl to come out of local hip hop, from the oldest crew to come out of Minnesota.
Memory: Torched the Foxfire with the hottest hip-hop show in the club's history.
Art: Minneapolis MC I Self Divine flows like a mountain bike down a spiral staircase. But then so do Big Boi and Andre, and anyone down with "B.O.B.," the certified musical freakout of the year, might take the 'Nots' minimalism as the perfect counterpoint. Atlanta-via-Minnesota producer Kool Akiem is as adventurous in dissecting a groove as Self is in overloading it. And the latter has a lot to say, which repays replay twice over.