Alec Soth, Kevin Kramp, Robyn, and more: Artists of the year

Influential artists of 2010

Their repertoire ranges over 900 years of music, including what they arranged last week for themselves. I love that reach, and the fact that they use classical techniques to make all kinds of music come alive. Case in point: If you want a guaranteed great night out, don't miss their "Covers" concerts at the Ritz Theater in June, when they sing pop songs of all stripes. Last year I nearly laughed myself out of my chair, was brought close to tears, and had that familiar breath-holding moment—all in the first half-hour. The fact that they rehearse and perform without a conductor gives new meaning to the word harmony.

They're hopping in a van this winter and heading over icy roads to give outstate concerts and classes with high school choirs, and doing a variety of on-air and online projects. Those are the basics of the MPR residency: surprising audiences with classical music. But because Cantus gets a little career boost out of the deal, last month the guys came to MPR to sing for the staff for an hour for free. Just to say thanks. That's class.

Brian Newhouse is managing director of Classical Minnesota Public Radio.

Emily Johnson and Blackfish

By Caroline Palmer

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Photo: Cameron Wittig

The November performance of The Thank-You Bar, created by Minneapolis dance maker Emily Johnson with musicians James Everest and Joel Pickard of Blackfish, didn't begin inside a theater. Instead, audience members entered a gallery space in the Northrop Auditorium building. The exhibition on view, curated by Johnson with Carolyn Lee Anderson and titled "This Is Displacement: Native Artists Consider the Relationship Between Land and Identity," set the tone for a deeply personal examination of the constants and changes that shape an individual's relationship to home.

The next phase of the work took place on the Northrop stage, the site of so many transformative moments throughout the evening. Johnson wove together stories from her childhood in Alaska with connections to her Yup'ik identity and broader metaphorical observations about geographic dislocation. Along the way the choreographer even changed the way we looked at the theater itself as she shone a light into the rafters or danced in and out of the shadows. Throughout, Everest and Pickard supplied a texturally rich, live soundtrack, at times evoking mournful shouts from a distant past or a sense of rhythmic chaos appropriate for a restless, but not rootless, soul.

The Thank-You Bar showcased once again the eloquent, witty, smart, and singular perspective Johnson has shared so generously with the local dance community over the past decade. The performance's movement, music, storytelling, and video generated an entirely new sense of place that anyone would want to visit again and again.

Caroline Palmer is a freelance dance writer and attorney living in Minneapolis.

M.I.A.

By Peter S. Scholtes

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M.I.A.'s stunning third album, Maya, has been widely panned by music critics, their momentum fed by a prominent takedown of the singer and rapper in the New York Times. Part of the backlash stemmed from an old difference: Either you agree with Maya Arulpragasam that "fighting terrorism is affecting the world more than terrorism" (as she put it in 2005) or you don't. And if you don't, her rebel gestalt might seem like poser noise, from condemning military atrocities back home in Sri Lanka to lyrics evoking empathy for the terrorist. ("I really love a lot," she sings, pronouncing "a lot" like "Allah," "but I fight the ones that fight me.")

The bigger issue with Maya was noise of the more literal kind: an industrial clamor cut with dubstep and whatever else was blasting through her Los Angeles home studio at the time (bands like Suicide, Spectral Display, Sleigh Bells, Gucci Mane, and the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers). Which explains the dip in sales but not the surprise of reviewers. Interscope had something on its hands that it didn't expect and couldn't market: a great punk album, sung-spoken like Siouxsie or Kim Gordon or Heather from Beat Happening in a wobbly faux-singjay for the ages. Nobody had tried anything like it since Public Enemy or the Clash. But had it been too long for punk gestures in the mainstream? The righteous "Born Free" ("manmade power stood like a tower...and the higher you go, you feel lower") looked like a Muppet jamboree when she performed on Letterman with Suicide's Martin Rev.

The smaller audience will suit her. The heroic thing about M.I.A. is that her defiance of the rulers of the earth is garbled and felt rather than articulated. She suggests the process of realization as people actually experience it, sputtering publicly. Naturally, she loves the internet. "The Google connected to the government" babble opening Maya isn't so much about the company but "the Google" of your great-grandmother's fears—the internet as an inversion of Orwell's 1984, with everyone willingly surrendering to surveillance because that's how you connect in an era of social networking and reality stardom. "All I ever wanted was my story to be told," M.I.A. chants over the sound of a jet piercing the sky. It's the loneliest sound of the year.

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