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.

Astronautalis

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

Seriousness

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

Doomtree

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

Golder

Haley Bonar has truly had a wonderful 2011. Not only did her long-awaited full-length Golder get released this year, she also recently became a mother for the first time. And while we certainly are happy Bonar eventually returned to Minneapolis after a year-long sojourn in Portland, what local music fans are most excited about is the fact that they can finally hear the gorgeous new songs she has been working so hard on for the last few years. And all that time and effort clearly paid off, as Golder is a rich blend of haunting, piano-laden songs ("Kid October") and deeply affecting, acoustic-based numbers ("Silver Zephyrs") that are easily among the best of Bonar's distinguished career. —Erik Thompson

Hildur Victoria

Hildur Victoria

Hildur Victoria is a dark, sensuous record, the sort that pulls you in close without giving up many of its secrets. Its smoldering harmonics are a thing of beauty, woven into innumerable, labyrinthine shape-shifts, at once distinctive and mysterious. What truly defines the record, however, is singer Margaret Lane, her voice a desperate bundle of screams and cries, whispers and whimpers, delivered as though the world hinges on her every breath. Alas, it's also one of the year's great disappointments that, midsummer, Lane departed the band, leaving her bandmates to carry on and splinter into side projects. Still, Hildur Victoria remains—radiant and passionate, a testament to what might have been. —Jeff Gage

Low

C'mon

Duluth's Low have never rushed into anything, whether it's the gradual slow-burn of their delicately revealing songs or the years in between their album releases as of late. C'mon, their ninth studio record (and one of their best), comes a full four years after their last album. And while frontman Alan Sparhawk kept himself busy with Retribution Gospel Choir, he has no trouble shifting back into Low gear on these elegant new tunes, with his wife and songwriting partner Mimi Parker frequently leading the way on the album's best moments. With the help of Nels Cline, "Nothing but Heart" forms the stunning, sprawling centerpiece of C'mon, and finds the band at their crushing, poignant best. —Erik Thompson

Pink Mink

Pink Mink

Some bands perfect their sound in the studio before figuring out how to translate that sound to the stage. Pink Mink took the opposite approach, and it did wonders for them in the studio. After a solid year of gigging feverishly around the Twin Cities and earning a reputation for delivering incendiary shows brimming with leg kicks and flair, songwriters Arzu Gokcen and Christy Hunt headed into the studio with drummer Charles Gehr and bassist Jacques Wait, who just happens to make a living engineering some of the best-produced albums in town. The result, Pink Mink, is an album that captures their live energy while accentuating some of the nuances that got lost in the PAs of neighborhood clubs, namely Gokcen's brazen vocal delivery and the tight harmonies she and Hunt so effortlessly share. —Andrea Swensson

Sims

Bad Time Zoo

If the Halls of Justice had any Minnesota masterpieces hanging on its walls, there'd be Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home, Prince's Sign o' the Times, and now Sims's Bad Time Zoo. If Doomtree are the Super Friends, Andrew Sims is Aquaman, dwelling among the subterranean depths of self-reflection, politics, and urban life with subliminal efficiency. Lazerbeak's sputtering, superhuman, funksploitative beats on Bad Time and its companion EP Wildlife's overflowing party jams not only reflect the times, but gave Sims and Doomtree followers double their get free, get fresh experience in the Year of the Rabbit. —Danny Sigelman

Sleeping in the Aviary

You and Me, Ghost

The Madison, Wisconsin, transplants have been pumping out records lately, with You and Me, Ghost marking their fourth in five years. This time around, there's a strong '60s influence at play in the crisp melodies and doo-wop refrains. The poppy core complements frontman Elliott Kozel's lyrical theme of love and relationships, unifying his abstract lyrical approach with a steady and familiar base. The stronger pop element gives extra bounce that contrasts with the deeper lyrics to form a complete package of joy and exploration. —Loren Green

The Tribe and Big Cats!

Make Good

Bookending the year with a pair of stellar releases, the Tribe and Big Cats! finished 2011 strong with Make Good, inching ahead of their first album, Forward Thinkers, Movers, Shakers. Previewed through a series of monthly videos, tracks like "We Gone" and "One Call Away" hinted toward a powerful new project ahead. Organic soul samples coupled with fat synths give Truth Be Told a backdrop suited to his subtle swagger and anecdotal raps, and both flow and beats have expanded on this album. The trio's chemistry is impossible to deny, and this album features their best work to date. —Jack Spencer

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8 comments
Barf
Barf

Y'all missed The Drug Budget

Petluvrmn
Petluvrmn

No 4onthefloor?? What the heck?

Shane Flanery
Shane Flanery

Great job to all the artists selected for Minnesota's Best Albums of 2011, and a special shout out goes to PINK MINK! Way to go, gang!

Corey Magstadt
Corey Magstadt

Um...how come Farewell Milwaukee doesn't make the cut???

sweetpea1
sweetpea1

Mayda's latest. She ain't tryin to be no Prince!!! Besides everyone in this city is tryyyying to be The Replacements, Atmosphere or Bob Dylan sheeesh!

guest
guest

hello, i was looking for the best of 2011 but don't see the zebulon pike album anywhere.

jonms
jonms

Definitely agree with that. Also Night Moves, Food Pyramid. Glad to see Blind Shake and Brute Heart got recognition because those albums (and bands) are fantastic

 
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