Minnesota's Best Albums of 2011

Low, Doomtree, Brute Heart top best local releases

Who says all year-end lists need to be limited to the top 10? This year, we came across 14 Minnesota-made albums that stood out for their production quality, songwriting, performance, or a combination of the above.


This Is Our Science

It almost feels like cheating, claiming Astronautalis's immaculate fourth record as a Minnesota product—the whole disc had been recorded and mastered by the time he migrated to Minneapolis this summer. But with special guests Sims, Lazerbeak, P.O.S., and Cecil Otter all present on the album, it's clear that Astronautalis was already entrenched in our local hip-hop scene long before he decided to move here. His track with Sims ("Thomas Jefferson") is a slow-burning, heavy jam, while a poppier track with a hook by Tegan Quin ("Contrails") provides a moment of levity, and the brooding closer "Lift the Curse" finds him channeling his inner David Bowie. We're happy to have him. —Andrea Swensson

Atlantis Quartet

Lines in the Sand

The third album from the increasingly impressive modern jazz outfit Atlantis Quartet, Lines in the Sand, recorded live at the Artists' Quarter last spring, isn't the grand declaration of arrival that was 2009's Animal Progress. But it does for the first time capture the visceral power and intellectual glory of the band on stage, where the Atlantis's wonderfully malleable sound has more room to shape-shift from bop to funk to free jazz and around the globe. Five of the tunes are new versions of pieces from the first two albums, not radically changed but sufficiently twisted to add insight. Saxophonist Brandon Wozniak's shift from alto to tenor on his gospel-laced "Ballad for Ray," for instance, adds shadowy marbling that heightens its emotional impact. Bassist Chris Bates's "The Hidden Place," one of three new compositions, also has a rootsy, gospel undercurrent that the quartet cruises with sparkling elegance. Overall, it's an album that suggests limitless horizons stretching from superb playing and abundant intriguing ideas. —Rick Mason

The Blind Shake


The Blind Shake have been honing their craft for some time. Starting with 2007's Rizzograph, they've sculpted a meticulously precise variation of garage rock that drives aggressively, yet maintains an experimental undercurrent that pulls from other styles without losing momentum. Surf, psychedelia, and noise elements pull the songs in new and twisted directions without distracting from drummer Dave Roper's driving beats and the Blaha brothers' vocals. The band also released another collaboration with Michael Yonkers recently, but the tempered aggression and stoic delivery on Seriousness show the band hitting their stride as a three-piece, mastering a signature sound without retreading their older work. —Loren Green

Brute Heart

Lonely Hunter

Brute Heart's astounding second album exemplifies what's exciting in our local experimental music scene. Trio Crystal Myslajek, Crystal Brinkman, and Jackie Beckey's intricate, darkly mysterious, and unearthly sonic territories delight the mind and heart. Brinkman's pulsing primal percussion and tambourines create hypnotic rhythms, as Beckey's viola intertwines sonorous melodies with her signature plucked strings and jagged percussive strokes. Myslajek's strong, ethereal alto vocals, at times evocative of the psychedelic vocals of Grace Slick, are accentuated by Beckey's ethereal howls, oohs, and ahs floating and echoing throughout. They've added Beckey's skill on keys and Jonathan Kaiser on cello to a few songs to great effect. The trio's propulsive yet haunting mystical incantations appear to call forth a tempest of elemental forces—earth, sea, sky, fire, and stone—sublimely and tumultuously dancing together. The songs span worlds of ancient and future music, creating new territories in both the mind and music world. —Cyn Collins

Cactus Blossoms

Cactus Blossoms

It's easy enough to phone in a cornball imitation of old country. Slap on a Western shirt and pair of cheesy cowboy boots, perfect a properly affected twang, and yodel along all the requisite themes: Mama, Trains, Trucks, Prison, Gettin' Drunk (thanks, David Allan Coe). It's another thing entirely to live and breathe the craft of writing and singing a good country and western song, as the Cactus Blossoms have done. The self-titled first release by close-harmonizing brothers Page Burkum and Jack Torrey features two traditional covers, but really takes wing in its eight originals, carefully smithed songs that prove these brothers are every bit as real-deal as their country predecessors. —Nikki Miller


No Kings

The newest full-length release from the Doomtree collective, No Kings, made our list with its volatile, in-your-face aggression. With the combative styles of the MCs, it would be easy for the different voices on this album to be lost; rather, the five MCs (P.O.S., Sims, Dessa, Mike Mictlan, and Cecil Otter) deftly play to each other's strengths, all laced up with expressive, diverse beats from producers Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger. Gritty, venomous, and pulsing—no, bursting—with a tenacious mix of solidarity and pride, No Kings is anthemic and explosively unstoppable. No kings? We beg to differ. —Natalie Gallagher

Greg Grease

The Giving Tree

Greg Grease of the Usual Suspects debuted a strong solo outing of laid back raps and soulful beats, which was released as a free download on April 20. The vibe is chilled but powerful, tackling huge topics with sincerity and understated deftness. Grease's flow is strikingly smooth, slinking over down-tempo tracks with an equal measure of looseness and precision that accents every line. There's an impressive consistency here that manages to link mellow stylings with moments of brashness ("Wizards of the Coast" features a surprisingly non-corny pirate-voice rap), and the album comes together as a slick and solid listen front to back. —Jack Spencer

Haley Bonar

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