Feeling Minnesota

The 10 (or 28) best local albums of 2004

Signs that this was an auspicious year for local music include the fact that a healthy list of recommended '04 Minnesota hip-hop albums could be compiled and Atmosphere didn't release an album in '04, that one could compile a similarly worthy list of jazz albums without including the not-really local Bad Plus, or a list of great punk-rock albums despite a fairly quiet year for Dillinger Four, or a list of fine singer-songwriter offerings

by folks who were buying, not making, records during the '80s. Eat that, Menomonie! --Dylan Hicks

 

BROTHER ALI
Champion EP
Rhymesayers Entertainment

The first time I saw Brother Ali onstage, warming up the crowd at an antiwar benefit last February, I was struck with the idea that maybe this man was what the scene really needed--an MC with fire in his gullet and a flow that sounded commanding instead of vulnerable (though vulnerable works sometimes, too). On his Champion EP--which, at 39-plus minutes is about the same length as albums like Criminal Minded and Illmatic--he supplements his repertoire with intimidating battle verses, syllables shuffling like his namesake. Everyone who steps to him might as well be Glass Joe. --Nate Patrin

 

MASON JENNINGS
Use Your Voice
Bar None

Even in a year that produced inspiring local music from guys my own age--Prince and Paul Westerberg--this 30-year-old made the old-soul record I came back to more than any other. Not to say that Mason writes with a penchant toward teaching or preaching, but his songs (even ones cast in other voices) feel wizened by experience and a loneliness that's hauntingly captured by the opening track's train-whistle of a harmonica. Peter Scholtes got it right when he talked about the gut reaction behind "The Ballad of Paul and Sheila," which was nothing short of an act of bravery, considering the hypercritical milieu it was born in. That song is one for the ages, not only for the indelible tribute to the late senator and his wife, but for its depiction of one kid's idealized version of love and how to live life that seems to be slipping away. --Jim Walsh

 

PAUL METZGER
Paul Metzger
Mutant Music

TVBC frontman Paul Metzger spent much of the '90s and early '00s in top-secret project mode, designing the heavily modified string instruments that first engorged local psych-folk lovers' sensoria when he began playing solo shows in 2003. Metzger's weapon of choice for this album's inspired pair of nameless improvisations is fretless acoustic guitar, fitted, sitarlike, with sympathetic drone strings. Track one, by turns meditative and ecstatic, extends his trio's raga-rock rhizomes simultaneously toward Mecca and the moon. Metzger dons his difficult-music hat for the album's closer, a harrowing succession of hairpin turns and abrupt halts that ends with a boldly stated question mark. --Rod Smith

 

OL' YELLER
Sounder
SMA

Hard not to love a band that takes both its moniker and the title of its fourth album from literary dogs known for their unflagging loyalty. And, like those tough-toothed mongrels, Ol' Yeller is steeped in the classic Minnesota tradition, the kind that has inspired countless stocking-capped bad boys and girls to fend off winter by imbibing hops and grains and rock 'n' roll. Rich Mattson's songs come from the prism of a lifelong barfly and obsessive music fan--clear-eyed and with bullshit detector fully intact--and stack up nicely with any of their more famous Mini-forebears. The set's highlight is "13th Grade," the most wistful ode to teenage friendship and forks in the road since Bruce Springsteen's "Bobby Jean," or Zach Braff's Garden State. --Jim Walsh

 

OLYMPIC HOPEFULS
The Fuses Refuse to Burn
2024 Records

There's good reason this five-piece Minneapolis band has graced the cover of City Pages, been lauded by local critics and music fans alike, and won the prize for the Best Indie Label Recording of 2004 at the Minnesota Music Awards. By packing their acid-soaked sardonic pop songs with lots of sugary sweet goodness, Olympic Hopefuls have created one of the best pure power-pop records to come out in years--and not just locally. Listen to "Drain the Sea" and "Trust Fund." With a few handclaps, an accordion, and lots of head-swaying la las, these guys can make a song about a rich girl doing smack sound like one of the greatest children's songs ever written. --Molly Priesmeyer

 

KELLY ROSSUM QUINTET
Renovation
612 Sides

Here's a romantic acoustic/electric set from trumpeter-composer Kelly Rossum and four more of this town's finest young jazz players: rich-toned, exploratory tenor player Chris Thompson, pianist Chris Lonheim (pay special attention to his tender Rhodes solo on "The Two of Us"), sensitive bassist Michael O'Brien, and drummer JT Bates, quietly funky throughout. Without defiling the spirit of this celebratory article, I should note that the group's acoustic take on Hendrix's "Little Wing" and a few other tunes are too sentimental for my tastes and that some of the album's groove-oriented tunes don't quite assert themselves as foreground music. Those complaints aside, Renovation remains a warm-hearted, smartly eclectic outing from five versatile and simpatico players. Put it in your CD changer with Irv Williams's That's All for a civic-minded, culturally enriching, almost assuredly amorous evening. --Dylan Hicks

 

JONATHAN RUNDMAN
Public Library
Salt Lady Records

I was initially ambivalent about Chicago transplant Jonathan Rundman's seventh album, Public Library. The first track, "Smart Girls," a peon to, yes, smart girls, struck me as precious and even a tad creepy--the sonic equivalent of a girls-with-glasses porn site. But any apprehensions about Rundman were quickly bowled over by his ridiculously infectious melodies and farm-fresh tenor vocals. Backed by members of the Silos (and produced by Silos frontman Walter Salas-Hamara), Rundman manages to make blissful folk-pop out of the most mundane of matters, including library work. But he's at his best when he lets his darker impulses mingle with those chipper melodies on songs such as "The Serious Kind" and "Park River Bridge." My favorite track is the immigrant anti-love song "Second Language," which captures a relationship that has hit the skids with one perfect line: "We were sweeter when we sent mail." --Paul Demko

 

THE SOVIETTES
LP II
Adeline Records

A considerably shorter "LP" than Brother Ali's above-lauded "EP," this second offering from tune-positive punk quartet the Soviettes is fast and not exactly furious but certainly peeved here and there, occasionally silly, frequently in love, almost always right. Like Parliament, the Soviettes can write a good song with the word "flashlight" in the title. Also like Parliament, the Soviettes will make you want to be their friends. Plus, the album is performed with the kind of confident amateurism that inspires kids to form bands--or at least that's how things go according to the punk-rock ideal, which LP II might renew your faith in. --Dylan Hicks

 

SPAGHETTI WESTERN
Do Right by People
Adonis Music

Desert music for an era when all the Dust Bowl legends have turned to sand. Like the crackle of ancient bluegrass records heard through iPod headphones, Spaghetti Western's post-Morricone instrumentals make the old, weird America sound like a new country standard. Somewhere between the uncanny accordion moan of "Ernestine's Waltz" and the factory-work din of "Droomz," Appalachia drifts toward the lonesome, crowded West. Old-timey banjos give way to Tortoise-style guitar loops, acoustic fingerpicking gets tangled in digital static, classic ballads whisper through industrial-age production, but these lovely ghost-town eulogies won't give up the ghost. --Melissa Maerz

 

WILLIE WALKER AND THE BUTANES
Right Where I Belong
One on One Records

Modern soul albums performed and recorded in the spirit of Johnson-and-Nixon-era Southern soul must struggle to overcome the funky (funky like onions, not funky like Clyde Stubblefield) aroma of preservationist moribundity. This late-in-life full-length debut does just that, and without any apparent struggle. With a raspy passion reminiscent of early '70s-period O.V. Wright, Walker glides through a set of originals by lead Butane and understated guitarist Curt Obeda, whose south Minneapolis home was transformed into makeshift Memphis-style studio for this atavistic, lively gem. --Dylan Hicks

 

Honorable mentions: Andrew Broder & George Cartwright (Roaratorio); Contac,Eeyeaya (Wildside); Die Electric,Push Pull (Heart of a Champion); Dosh,Pure Trasch (Anticon); Terry Eason,Bees Will Bumble (Reticulated/Jam); Eyedea & Abilities,E&A (Rhymesayers Entertainment); EPL & Snakebird,Songs (Big Quarters/Snakebird); Heavy Sleeper,The Gifted Curse (self-released); Heiruspecs,A Tiger Dancing (Razor & Tie); Dan Israel,Time I Get Home (Electone Records); Kid Dakota,The West Is the Future (Chair Kickers Music); Malachi Constant,Infinite Justice (Guilt Ridden Pop); P.O.S.,Ipecac Neat (Doomtree Records); Prince,Musicology (Columbia/NPG); Soul Asylum,After the Flood: Live from the Grand Forks Prom, June 28, 1997 (Columbia Legacy); Walker Kong,Transparent Life (Magic Marker); Irv Williams,That's All (Ding Dong Music); Willie August Project,Surrender to the Wind (DiPhoCal Jazz)

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