The Year's Best Local Albums

It may seem greedy, but we couldn't confine ourselves to fewer than 13 riotous / melodious / prodigious records

HAPPY APPLE
Happy Apple Back on Top
Sunnyside

Happy Apple's biggest problem now, seven albums and ten-plus years into their career, is sustaining excellence. (To put it in perspective, when they formed, I couldn't drink legally—and you probably couldn't, either.) But although they're still plenty abstract, their latest album also shows a real warmth and heart on the more tender tunes, which make up nearly half the album. Of course, their penchant for off-the-wall song names continues, but nevertheless, "Calgon for Hetfield," with its gentle bass chords, straight-ahead drumming, and lilting melody, has got to be the prettiest song ever associated with the Metallica frontman. Steve McPherson

BIG QUARTERS
Cost of Living
self-released

This record feels so lived-in that even its liner notes have a certain casual familiarity: insights into many of the tracks' origins, tales of production-bolstering record-store trips ("I got this record from Root Cellar (R.I.P.) during the sale where you can get two dollar records for fifty cents...those sales refined my collection"), and a bit of smart-assery (on "Call Me": "I guess we're saying you should call us"). Brandon Allday and Medium Zack are just as comfortable on the mic, delivering ground-level political insight with personal acumen that their rich beats make even more compelling. Nate Patrin

TO KILL A PETTY BOURGEOISIE
The Patron
Kranky

Entering the year virtually unknown to the local scene, TKAPB had already built a steady following on the East Coast and inked a deal with the ambient-inclined Kranky Records by the time their excellent, albeit gregarious, moniker started showing up on bills in the Twin Cities. Soon after, The Patron arrived like a slow, droning trumpet blast heard sweet but distantly across the tundra. With Jehna Wilhelm's obscured vocal melodies lurching forth into noise and glistening ambience, the album sets a mood as dark and haunting as it is lush and beautiful. Christopher Matthew Jensen

STOOK!
When the Needle Hit the Wax
Draw Fire Records

It's hard to decide what's most endearing about Stook!. In person, he's a down-home dude who can often be spotted around town sporting his signature bright-yellow knit hat and disarming grin, championing fellow local musicians and giving his friends bear hugs. On record, Stook! continues to grow as an Americana sweetheart who can effortlessly shift between jangling rock 'n' roll rousers and mellow, expansive ballads. His sophomore album, When the Needle Hit the Wax, finds Stook! honing his knack for full-band sing-alongs and gritty, growling rock howls, placing him high on the list of this city's ever-increasing roster of alt-country crooners to keep an eye on. —Andrea Myers

DAN WILSON
Free Life
American Recordings

The only way to deny the perfection of this solo debut from Semisonic frontman and Dixie Chicks songwriter Dan Wilson is to disparage the larger genre it belongs to. But this type of gentle, melodic pop is too damn grown-up to care that you think it's square. These songs are not afraid to be beautifully sentimental and slowly gorgeous, and not for nothing did their creator snag a Grammy back in February—the craftsmanship on this Rick-Rubin-produced record is impeccable. Tenderly polished so that their golden tone shines through—but not so much that they lose their authenticity—these are unabashedly lovely compositions, and I bet they'll hold up over time better than most of us. Sarah Askari

MICHAEL YONKERS AND THE BLIND SHAKE
Carbohydrates Hydrocarbons
Go Johnny Go

In a year of dramatic peaks and valleys for one of the true DIY heroes of our era, Yonkers revitalized his career and unleashed this furious racket of a rock record by enlisting one of the heaviest-sounding trios in town. While the Blind Shake sound unmistakably like themselves—a little punk, a lot Am-Rep—here, they're henchmen at Yonkers's beckoning. Writing from a personal philosophy developed over a four-decades-plus music career, Yonkers sounds more scathing than ever. The songs may be short and tight, but Yonkers's guitar tone still sounds like strange radio waves emanating from planet X. —Christopher Matthew Jensen

M.ANIFEST
Manifestations
self-released

Kwame Tsikata's got a voice that's unique to local hip hop, and it's not just due to his accent. Encompassing the conscious-but-energetic Native Tongues movement that gave us De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest at the end of the '80s, and the heirs apparent that followed a decade later (particularly Mos Def and Talib Kweli), the Ghana-born M.anifest has a versatile, accessible style that should immediately appeal to those of us who made it a point to cop every Soundbombing and Lyricist Lounge compilation at the end of the '90s. Not that Manifestations is out-of-date—if anything, it just proves how timeless that style can be. —Nate Patrin

JAMES BUCKLEY TRIO
Stitches
self-released

The James Buckley Trio's debut album begins with Buckley laying in a bedrock acoustic bass line. When Bryan Nichols's splintery yet plush electric piano creeps in over J.T. Bates's responsive but unfussy drumming, the album billows and expands, but its heart is still Buckley. He's a canny enough player to grasp what makes the bass such a beguiling instrument: It both defines the foundation of a song and resists the complexities opened up by the breadth of the keyboard or guitar. The tunes here are sketch-like: "El Paso" opens up for a brief excursion by Bates, "New" lets Buckley step up with a casually melodic solo. It's all played with such grace and sympathy you'd be forgiven for thinking this stuff is easy, but the good ones just make it look that way. —Steve McPherson

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