Best Minnesota albums of 2012

From Big Cats to Chastity Brown, local gems showcased their talents

Best Minnesota albums of 2012

The musical landscape of Minnesota was a rich one in 2012. Some even called it a golden one. Here, City Pages music contributors sum up the year's 10 best releases.

All Eyes

Shelf Life

All Eyes released their debut album, Shelf Life, quietly. Fortunately, the shadows seem to suit Alicia Wiley, Joe Christenson, Jake Hanson, and Luke Anderson's delicate ambient sound. Wiley's haunting voice lies in that place between consciousness and sleep, pulling the ebb and flow of the songs on the album. The single "On the Sidelines" brings to mind a darker Hope Sandoval, while the driving percussion and guitar riffs of "All I Want" make a bed for Wiley's ethereal vocals in the eerie love song. Shelf Life is emotional without being overdone, fragile, and smart all at the same time. —Youa Vang

Big Cats

For My Mother

Spencer Wirth-Davis, a.k.a. Big Cats, has amassed 50 credited song productions this year, but the finest ones show up on the poetic instrumental hip-hop album For My Mother. Created from snippets of long live sessions with area musicians, these 10 tracks ooze with lounge, R&B, and jazz inspiration. Technically, there are vocals — K. Raydio, Lizzo, Claire de Lune, and Summit all contribute — but always as a melodic flourish more than the song's guiding principle. "Three" and "Eight" both sit near the top for their singular beauty. But in all, it's gorgeous, blunted sadness — the project is dedicated to his mom, who passed after a battle with ovarian cancer in 2010 — that springs from the heart. —Reed Fischer

Chastity Brown

Back-Road Highways

After hearing Chastity Brown sing once, the memory of her voice will haunt you forever. This past spring, Brown released her fourth studio album, Back-Road Highways, which blends all the influences the Tennessee-raised Brown grew up around into something categorically elusive. When Brown is hurt, it's deeper than the blues; when she's singing about home, it's more solemn than gospel. "Solely" is a torched ballad, and Brown's raw voice makes it personal and moving. She's worthy of not only a place on local lists, but national lists as well. Until then, we're proud to have her. —Natalie Gallagher

Gay Witch Abortion

Opporntunistic Smokescreen Behavior

Gay Witch Abortion sort of dropped off the musical map in the five years between their last full-length and their blistering new album, Opporntunistic Smokescreen Behavior. Guitarist/vocalist Jesse Bottomley and drummer Shawn Walker's sludgy brand of rock still deserves to be heard. Loudly. While the band are taking more chances on this record with divergent sonic styles and bold use of tension, the payoffs are just as massive as they were when GWA's roiling sound hooked us. These new songs churn with a raw fury, as Bottomley's crunchy riffs are sped along by Walker's relentless rhythm in just 38 savage but spectacular minutes. —Erik Thompson

I Self Devine

The Sound of Low Class Amerika

Following a seven-year gap in musical output, local rap legend I Self Devine suddenly unloaded a flood of projects in quick succession, culminating in his official sophomore solo release, The Sound of Low Class Amerika. It's a stark record that chronicles the effects of poverty and the crack epidemic in a concise and bracing way, boiling down the rapper's recurring political themes into his strongest statement to date. The difficult realities of tracks like "Living Under Siege" are tempered with the ideal world laid out in "As It Could Be," but there are no easy answers here. This is music embedded in struggle, chronicling it at its most harrowing while seeking the strength to create change. The album opens with first-person accounts of life in the lower class, and I Self Devine gives these voices power with the help of raw raps and huge beats. —Jack Spencer

MaLLy

The Last Great...

MaLLy proves, once and for all, that there's a new force to be reckoned with in Minnesota hip hop. With a thoughtful eye and a brash, shit-talking delivery, Malik Watkins has proven himself as an MC and a spokesman for the game. If a banger like "Shine" hypes a smooth, cocky flow, then it carries more gravitas through the humility of "My Lord." Beyond MaLLy's raw skills is an enigmatic streak — a sense that something haunts his music, a certain world-weariness that gives real depth to his words. As far as boasts go, The Last Great... is a bit of misnomer, for in it MaLLy fixes our gazes squarely on what comes next. —Jeff Gage

Mankwe

Science and Spirit

Mankwe Ndosi and Medium Zach of Big Quarters have fused amazing singing with a subtle and dynamic sonic backdrop. Varied instrumentation and sampling blend into one another seamlessly, evoking the feel of a live band, crackling vinyl, and an MPC all at once. Drawing from his crate-digging background and his more recent forays into collaborations with live musicians, Zach uses his hip-hop knowledge to craft something informed by Mankwe's unique soul sensibilities. Her earthy voice sinks into the beats with powerful and poetic lyrics. Mankwe's personal and political reflections are presented with an understated vibrancy that makes every song warm and striking. More than simply a solid statement, this album will continue to grow on you. —Jack Spencer

Now, Now

Threads

Two pivotal adjustments by pop-punk trio Now, Now were dropping the "Every Children" part of their name, and linking up with Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla. These tweaks, as well as some natural artistic maturation, have turned a good band into a great one. On sophomore full-length Threads, singer-guitarist Cacie Dalager exudes confidence — even while she's encapsulating fragility and loss. The almost-title-track "Thread" unravels with surges of guitar and Bradley Hale's workmanlike beats, and emerges on a line jaggedly jumping between Death Cab's emotional outbursts and Tegan & Sara's tuneful ones. The pull to the rest of Threads is immeasurable — from the intricate glockenspiel and Jess Abbott's backing vocals on "But I Do," to the unexpected banjo on "Colony." Surely it's not too soon to say "don't change a thing" and have it come off as a compliment. —Reed Fischer

Poliça

Give You the Ghost

The past 12 months have been a whirlwind for Poliça, and there's no better accompanying soundtrack than Give You the Ghost. From the ricocheting clatter of "Amongster" to the dual-drummer barrage of "Leading to Death," the band's debut is wrought with emotional turmoil, the breakup record to end all breakup records. Ghost is an album of surfaces, a document of transformation and rebirth, so it could be Channy Leaneagh's breakup letter to herself. After all, the singer reinvents herself here as an exotic, porcelain muse, a wandering star lost in a world of lonely bedrooms and mornings after. If you needed Ghost in a nutshell, it would be Leaneagh's voice: disembodied and otherworldly, like that of someone slowly breaking apart — or else dancing herself into oblivion. —Jeff Gage

P.O.S.

We Don't Even Live Here

The already fervent P.O.S. grew increasingly frustrated with the state of his surroundings on both a local and national level since his last solo outing in 2009. That raw sociopolitical intensity burns throughout We Don't Even Live Here, as Stef Alexander rattles plenty of authoritarian cages with his incisive rhymes while also shaking the walls with beats by Lazerbeak that are as highly charged as his lyrics. After P.O.S. debuted the explosive new songs "Bumper," "Fuck Your Stuff," and "Get Down" during recent local shows, it was gratifying to finally hear studio versions of these fierce club bangers. P.O.S. gives them — and the rest of the record, including the Justin Vernon collaboration "Where We Land" — an added sonic texture and potency. This new record is a riotous musical maelstrom that made the long wait more than worth it. —Erik Thompson

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