For the third year running, a Twin Cities rap act tops the poll of critics, promoters, fans, and general scene know-it-alls we call Picked to Click.
This field features budding stars from both sides of the Mississippi, an age range of nearly half a century, genres that haven't even been invented yet, and a few gratuitous crotch shots. In all, our voters depict a current local music climate that's fertile with change and possibility.
To quote our winner, "There's a lot of people with their necks kinda breaking right now."10 (tie). Toki Wright & Big Cats -- 31 points
Twelve years after placing in Picked to Click with the C.O.R.E., Toki Wright is making the music of his life, in every sense.
Pangaea, his debut album with producer/multi-instrumentalist Big Cats (Spencer Wirth-Davis), sounds at times like hip-hop written in the floating mood of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing," but with the social sharpness of a reggae N.W.A. Tracks such as the autobiographical "Lost Boy" and pointed "Gatekeepers" have the ambient depth and hooks of pulsing dub poetry or neo-soul, but combined.
"He's got a much wider range than most people realize," says Big Cats, himself no stranger to Picked to Click (he placed in 2009 with Guante and Big Cats, and in 2012 with the Tribe and Big Cats).
The sample-free new music came from cutting up and manipulating live studio jams. With a hot band -- featuring singer Lydia Liza (of Bomba de Luz) and keyboardist-vocalist Eric Mayson -- Wright and Big Cats performed a gripping set at this year's Soundset, where the MC managed to hold a sun-cooked crowd's attention without shouting. "It's hard to simplify the mind moving a thousand miles an hour, but I try," he rapped.
Named for the supercontinent that split apart to form our world, Pangaea began amid a series of personal setbacks, including a friend's house fire that consumed an earlier version of the album. Other troubles have helped inspire Wright's work on a planned project about mental health in communities of color. But seizing an opportunity to start over musically led him to wonder if working with one producer might sustain him.
"People tell you, 'You don't make your best record until you've really struggled or really suffered,'" Wright says. "I want not to believe that's true, but I definitely have created some of the best things under the most stress."
The results have proven so cathartic that Wright found tears in his eyes at one performance this year. "The whole Pangaea concept is about essentially falling apart and coming back together," he says. "People spread out with their own ways, just form separate tribes. And as you go through life, sometimes you fall apart and put yourself back together." --Peter S. Scholtes
Winona, Minnesota, is home to hills, houseboats, and the thriving DIY punk scene that provided a musical foundation for Breakaway, a.k.a. Joe Kujawa.
During his senior year of high school, Kujawa began playing freak-folk music as Froseph, his "happy-go-lucky" alter ego, and released a number of self-recorded CDs and audio zines. His transition to falsetto-driven witch house came naturally, he says. The more Kujawa recorded, the more he implemented vocal and instrumental layering, which eventually became Breakaway.
"[Breakaway] is more or less the same project as Froseph was, it's just evolved," Kujawa says. "It was kind of scary for me in a lot of ways to switch over to being more exclusively falsetto, but I feel more comfortable with it as a style of singing."
He may have traded chest singing and guitar strumming for falsetto and a computer, but Kujawa's DIY punk roots remain integral. Rather than adhering to mainstream, easily digestible styles, Kujawa prioritizes experimentation, sticking exclusively to sounds he finds palatable.
"I was influenced by what was coming through town or the shows I'd go to [with my] friends," he says. "That's what would help me be intuitive with this, rather than fitting [a] specific mold."
But that's not all that came intuitively for Breakaway. To his listeners' surprise, Kujawa has never taken a formal voice lesson, though his vocals often verge on operatic. Lately, his voice has been Breakaway's driving force, rendering the haunting backbeats he likens to a three-chord punk song's secondary.
But don't get too attached. Kujawa refuses to stagnate, and says Breakaway's next album may feature an entirely different sound.
"I don't want to get stuck on any single approach to making music.... Maybe the next record will be all kinds of different vocal styles." he says. "I've changed and so the music is changing along with me." --Emily Eveland
Around the same time Claire de Lune was owning stages with hip-hip/R&B trio the Chalice -- 2012's Picked to Click champs -- her muse took a turn for the ethereal.
Last year, sessions with producer Grant Cutler gradually flourished into a new dream-pop project, Tiny Deaths. For de Lune, the shift from the Chalice's playful, club-ready material to electro-pop proved to be a fluid one.
"This is just the kind of music I love. It's a lot of what I listen to, when left to my own devices," she says of the project, which echoes -- in her own way -- modern bands that she admires such as Beach House and Phantogram. "It's a really incredible and liberating feeling to be making music you're proud of, and not be so caught up in what other people want from you or where it's going to take you."
Within the Tiny Deaths EP's five songs, de Lune's golden vocals soar majestically over Cutler's delicate din, and a hushed emotional elegance colors "Ocean" and "The Words." After recording the EP at the Hideaway in northeast Minneapolis, Cutler has since decamped to New York. So de Lune formed a band -- featuring Night Moves' Jared Isabella and Aaron Baum, along with Votel's Ben Clark -- to fill out the songs live.
The physical distance between them hopefully won't keep Claire and Grant from creating more magic together in the future, as de Lune plans to record and release a Tiny Deaths full-length sometime in the near future.
"I flexed my songwriting muscles a little, pushed myself outside of my comfort zone, and am working with some people I really respect and admire," she says. "And I'm really proud of what came out of it." --Erik Thompson
After spending 50 years on the fringes, soul singer Sonny Knight has finally emerged front and center with his band the Lakers.
A veteran of '70s-era R&B group Haze, Knight was rediscovered and embraced by local funk and soul record label Secret Stash while they were working on a release from his cohorts in the Valdons. After hearing his still-impassioned voice, Secret Stash formed a brass and rhythm-filled house band to bring his songs to life. And pity any group who has to play after them.
"It's kind of like living the dream," Knight admits proudly. "There were many things that I wanted to do that I didn't get a chance to do with those other bands. And with these guys, man, I've been doing those things and more. They give me that push, and they set me out there in front of people."
Knight's soulful full-length debut, I'm Still Here, comes nearly half a century after he sang "Tears on My Pillow" as the 17-year-old leader of Little Sonny Knight and the Cymbals. The collection is fit for a party-starting live set that aims to get everyone dancing. When you put Knight in a dapper suit with a microphone in his hand and a top-notch band behind him, electric things tend to happen.
Earlier this year, Knight and the Lakers took their vibrant performances -- featuring soul-drenched originals "Juicy Lucy," "Hey Girl," and "Baby, Baby, Baby," and lively covers of the Beatles and Rodriguez -- to Austin for South by Southwest, and on a successful European tour at the end of the summer.
It's taken far too long for the spotlight to shine this brightly on Sonny Knight, but he's making the most of it. --Erik Thompson
Got money riding on the Picked to Click poll? Look up Mark Ritsema's current activities and go all-in. Only now scraping his mid-20s, the Minneapolis-born musician has already been in the running twice before.
In 2007, his twisted pop group Mouthful of Bees became cover stars when they were just out of high school, and he plays in psychedelic country outfit Night Moves, who placed in 2011 and later signed to indie giant Domino Records. But Suzie, his newest group, is a true taste of Ritsema's singular perspective.
"I was supporting other songwriters in those bands," he explains, "and now I'm doing my own thing."
In what began as a project to fill time outside of Night Moves tours, Ritsema found himself caught between a love for sleazy, riff-chugging glam bands like Japan and a fascination with Top 40 pop and R&B.
"I listen to KDWB a lot when I do deliveries at work. I love pop songs with really good production," Ritsema lets on, and what's especially fascinating to him is the idea of keeping the songcraft and ditching the sheen. "Hearing a Drake song recorded really poorly I bet would still sound amazing, maybe even better."
Suzie's lo-fi vibes come more from necessity than preference. At the outset, Ritsema envisioned the project as a purely solo venture, writing and recording his debut album, Born Single, with the help of a loop pedal in his basement.
"That was the first time that I've ever recorded anything. I used one mic for every single thing," says Ritsema. "I don't know how to mix, don't know how to record, but I learned as I went."
This ground-level approach coincided with Suzie's early shows, which were refreshingly grassroots compared to Night Moves' tour calendar.
"I missed being part of a scene, I missed the smaller show," Ritsema says. "I've met so many people doing this band, so I wanted to get back into doing that, and have that small, supportive group."
That group yielded dividends, including a full live band and some extras for a freaky music video. Looking fabulously glammy in a red wig, Ritsema stares, non-plussed, as revelers make out and sip from baby bottles all around him on a neon party bus. It's a perfect visual metaphor for Suzie's sound: shiny, grimy, and charmingly weird. --Zach McCormick
It's hard to make a living as a larger-than-life character in a meat-and-potatoes town like Minneapolis. That's what makes Frankie Teardrop so damn refreshing. He's a total rock 'n' roll entertainer, straight out of the Sid Vicious/David Lee Roth mold. But here's the weird thing: Frankie T. the person and Frankie T. the persona aren't all that different anymore.
Originally created as a mask to exorcise some serious demons belonging to a talented musician from Iowa City, Frankie Teardrop got legs and took off before anyone realized what was happening.
While writing and recording a seven-song screed of snotty garage pop in his practice space, Teardrop came to life as a swaggering, black-tall-tee wearing tough guy with an insatiable urge for cheap beer, pizza, and bling.
But there's more to the man than just a kickass live show and apathetic one-liners delivered behind dark sunglasses. Since coming back from his first U.S. tour, Frankie is on a mission to spread great local music to the kids, wherever they live.
"I've always believed, since the beginning, that the most authentic way to make art is 100 percent from your own fucking hard work," he says. "If you really believe in it, you'll work hard to make it happen."
That's exactly what Frankie and his cohort Alex Uhrich have emphasized since they formed No Problem Records in June. Currently on its fourth month of continuous operations, the label has already released five buzzworthy cassettes from scene siblings like Teenage Moods.
"Everybody knows that there's no rules to the industry and music business at this point," Frankie explains. "So you make your own rules, you get at people face-to-face to try to get good shit out there."
Of course, some of that good shit is coming from his own factory. No Problem debuted with Teardrop's second EP, Raiders, which retains all of the sneering charm we've come to love from Frankie, but adds a level of musical depth and emotional honesty.
Songs like "100%" are Tom Petty outsider anthems for the information generation, and betray a bit of sincere vulnerability under close scrutiny. It's enough to make you wonder if the real Frankie Teardrop has been hiding a heart of gold underneath that dollar-store chain. --Zach McCormick
5. Stereo Confession -- 55 points
Teenage exuberance is not something that most bands can fake. Until garage-rock quintet Stereo Confession reach their 20s, their energy level is exactly what it seems to be.
After taking shape in the halls of Minneapolis's Southwest High School, the group caught the ears of local record label Susstones, who just released their catchy and confident full-length debut, No Coast. Produced by Flowers Studio's Ed Ackerson, it's a rollicking punk collection celebrating where they're at right now.
"It's a whole album about the childish ways I feel," says singer/guitarist Max Timander. "I'm not really going to hide that and write some story that just isn't true to make myself look like a better songwriter. I'd rather be honest to the listener. If I wanna write about girls, or the dream of surfing, or even playing video games with my best friend, I will."
Timander is ably backed by his teenaged peers. Drummer/vocalist Jordan Blevins, bassist/synths/vocalist Theo Pupillo, guitarist Noah Swanson, and percussionist/vocalist Alex Lothrop fill out crisp, guitar-fueled moments like "Video Games" and "Hang Ten."
"Everything I've ever listened to kind of came together on this album in one way or another," Timander says. "My biggest influences on the pop side would be like Weezer, Wavves, and the Beach Boys. Then we have influences from punk bands like the Germs, the Dead Milkmen, and even newer punk bands like Cerebral Ballzy and FIDLAR."
Stereo Confession want to take their sound as far as they can push it, and why not? They're already writing more, with the goal to have new material out even by late winter to keep the momentum going.
Live proliferation for an under-21 outfit has its limits, though. When the teen band can't be accommodated at bars, they've opted to play house shows instead. Could be worse. As Blevins points out, "If we do get on a 21+ show then we get crap from all the kids who would usually be there." --Erik Thompson[page] 4. Spooky Black -- 60 points
The unveiling of Spooky Black can wait.
Make-believe is the cornerstone of popular music. Even artists performing under their own names inevitably create distance -- somewhere between five feet and five planets -- between their lives and their public personae. Fans living in that undefined middle ground can get frustrated, but we can also feel the fleeting thrill of the chase.
Everyone is being at least a little bit fake when they sing about something that really happened to them, and a little bit real when they sing about something completely made up.
Right now, I have no interest in the spelling out of Spooky Black's daily existence. I choose to believe that his father really is DJ Khaled, and that pillow talk is his exclusive form of communication. Via 4G, this fantasy is not only possible, it's popular -- with more than 27,000 Facebook likes and 36,000 Twitter followers. Up until recently, this fantasy subsisted on the strength of zero live performances.
Spooky's distorted and, at times, confounding R&B helps this fantasy along admirably. Check into the penthouse at "HotelSixNine," off the Leaving EP, and a tenderly picked Spanish guitar awaits. His bedroom jams can evoke the lunar desolation of Kid A, the cold synthesizers of chillwave, the post-rock cavalcade of Explosions in the Sky, the ambient soundscapes of Air, and the rattling bass of today's trap music. The music warps like a cassette that's been baking for years under a black leather car seat.
Some of Spooky's choices are humorous. "Personal Touch" and "Night of Romance Freestyle" recall the blue-eyed smooth jazz-pop of the late '80s (the British group Breathe's "Hands to Heaven" comes to mind), rolling passionately under black silk sheets with the soul music of that time.
As long as we don't know the story behind Spooky Black, we needn't worry about when we're supposed to laugh or when we're supposed to cry -- about what it all means. As sincerity creeps into his voice in his briefly ubiquitous single "Without You," he dares us not to embrace it.
Who is Spooky Black? Where is Spooky Black? Why is Spooky Black? Soon, these questions will be answered, and we won't get to make believe any longer. Right now, we can project whatever we want onto his pixellated image.
The facts tell us that Spooky is a high schooler named Corbin with family in St. Paul. Eventually we'll know much more. After an Earl Sweatshirt-style investigation by Complex, a Vice documentary, a Reddit AMA session, or whatever sleuthing our local media conducts, no one can predict what will be left of Spooky Black. Dig enough holes in your backyard, and you'll find some stuff that probably should've stayed buried.
At that point of reveal, his career could either board Rick Ross's hyperbolic private jet, or emerge a chewed-up meme like Rebecca Black. So fuck those facts.
The secrets Spooky currently holds are a reminder of our private dreams, and how few of us are brave enough to act on them. His make-believe has no rules. There's especially no rule that says what was once pretend can't eventually come true -- especially once it's up on YouTube or playing out in concert. Let the mystery linger a bit longer.
Put down the binoculars. Ditch the magnifying glass. Stop typing into the search bar. For now, let's see what a viral, durag-wearing teen who appeared seemingly out of nowhere can teach us about ourselves. For now. --Reed Fischer[page]
3. Tickle Torture -- 75 points
"I'm gonna point at this year and be like, yeah, that was the year that I had to stop drinking tequila," Elliot Kozel says. Kozel, better known as the bejeweled face of Tickle Torture, managed to "salvage" four cases of cinnamon Jose Cuervo from the Zombie Pub Crawl after his surprise stand-in show for Sugar Ray. "What do you do with that? What do you mix it with?"
The lack of a perfect mixer could be the only flaw in Kozel's design for this year, which has been marked by a sold-out album release show for Spectrophilia at the Entry, a string of much-hyped music video releases, and performances at New York's CMJ Festival.
He'll play the First Avenue mainroom on December 4, and expects to wrap a new music video collaboration with Ryan Olson featuring Caroline Smith and Lizzo.
Despite Tickle Torture's busy touring and work schedule, Kozel currently sits upon eight newly recorded slabs of synthesizer soul, one of which finds him displaying a new sense of vulnerability.
"There's a new love in my life now," he says. "I wrote a song about it yesterday. I don't know what I'm going to write about now, because I always write about depravity and sadness."
Last time we talked, Kozel was entranced by notions of sexual deviance, and it shone through in the lyrics on Spectrophilia, the title of which is a reference to sexual attraction between ghosts and humans.
Feeling love rather than sheer lust has sparked a strange revelation. "I want to put energy into it, which I normally don't feel," he says. "Now I'm just like, man, there's this other person that I want to make happy. I want to see her like, every day, which is fucked up... for me."
True, considering that Tickle Torture's aesthetic thus far has been reliant upon polyamorous love -- his performances verge on orgiastic, a sequined and gold-spattered display of hedonism.
"It's a good sign. I can't be a lone wolf forever, you know? I gotta figure out some way where I can write music and be happy," he contemplates. "There's gotta be a way. It's not worth being alive otherwise, you know?" --Sarah Stanley-Ayre[page]
2. Hippo Campus -- 77 points
Before their sandwiches arrive at the Bad Waitress, Hippo Campus describe their first-ever gig. It was on the Grand Old Day School of Rock stage in St. Paul last year.
"There was a video," singer-guitarist Jake Luppen says, as his young bandmates roll their eyes and groan. "We watched it back. I was making up the words. We didn't have any lyrics written. We were hiding behind the amps before the show started."
At that time, the nascent indie rock group was even closer to being fresh out of high school, and they weren't very serious. But seeing themselves in such an unflattering light flipped a collective switch. Luppen notes they've been on a rigorous practice schedule ever since.
Eventually clever storytelling, rhythmic structure, and sunny guitar tones coalesced within the foursome, filled out by guitarist Nathan Stocker, drummer Whistler Allen, and bassist Zach Sutton -- all buddies from St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists.
Their dorm-ready pop lurks somewhere in a nonexistent time between later-period Modest Mouse and the scrappy early days of Vampire Weekend. Stocker and Allen are also known to sneak dashes of post-rock into the sonic stew. Whatever it is, people other than just their friends started showing up to Hippo Campus shows ready to dance.
Last December, Trampled by Turtles production manager Scott Stranberg saw the group perform at Mill City Nights. Stranberg eventually pitched the guys to TBT's management firm, Thirty Tigers, and now Hippo Campus is on a roster that also includes St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Jason Isbell, and Low. The last name is especially important.
"Alan Sparhawk turned out to be a motivational speaker for us," says Allen, only exaggerating slightly.
In August, Hippo Campus played a show in Duluth at the Red Herring and stayed in Sparhawk's guest house. He showed them his guitar collection and they built up a rapport that carried into recording sessions this fall at Pachyderm Studio. With Sparhawk producing, the band bashed out their Bashful Creatures EP, which comes out November 18.
1. Allan Kingdom -- 79 points
We're way past the introductions for Allan Kingdom.
By the time the 20-year-old based in St. Paul emerged from the online cloud about a year ago, the rapper with an alluring singing voice already had dozens of songs to his name. Since then, his pace hasn't slackened.
This year has seen the release of two full-length projects loaded with beats that bend the synths and snares of modern hip-hop into new shapes, and add moody ambience. On SoundCloud, every song can have its own genre, and that's where Kingdom thrives.
First, there was his latest solo album, Future Memoirs, a digital-age diary of hope. It features collaborations with manager Plain Pat, Marijuana Deathsquads' Ryan Olson, Bobby Raps, Psymun, and Spooky Black. Second, he and those last three just put out a labyrinthine self-titled album as the Stand4rd. In both cases, Kingdom's creative contributions play out in intoxicating fashion, or to use one of his words: wavey.
He knows his strengths, and they roll sharply out of his mouth. "It's the uplifting," he says. "Fast. Bright. Soul.... The fun. Certain words spark in my mind.... Quirkiness. A little bit of humor. Light."
Kingdom -- nicknamed the Peanut Butter Prince, King Kyariga, and the Northern Gentleman -- is relaxed but attentive on a couch after a shoot at MPLS Photo Center. Dappled with smiles and youthful exuberance, his words come out a couple octaves lower than the airy falsetto frequenting his material, and they bounce rapidly in succession off the spacious studio's high ceilings.
"My favorite thing that I learned from [Future Memoirs] was that people liked what I like to do the most in my music," he says. "Just enjoy life and be happy. That's what people want to hear, and what I like to do most."
That sentiment is central to Memoirs highlight "Evergreens," a mantra of self-actualization and staying power. Since he started performing it, growing crowds waving their hands -- a high percentage have a black X on them at some events -- have started screaming, "I'm wonderful, I'm wonderful, that works for me!" along with its positive -- without being gooey -- refrain.
Approach him with caution, though. Kingdom's sunny disposition is counterbalanced with thinly veiled rejoinders and icy introspection. "They watching us with binoculars/But do not ever got nothing to say," he raps on the Stand4rd's "Binoculars." But then his voice softens when he sings, "No, we not too far away." In a few quick lines, the eyeballing, analysis, and criticism lobbed his way can be diffused when they become one of his catchy but calculated hooks.
Kingdom's calculations have made him a better performer, too. "I look at it so much more as a sport now," he says of his colorful onstage presence, noting that he gets antsy when it's been a while between shows. "I train for it. Running, weight training, pull ups... it's all preparation. Even when I'm not performing, I look at myself as a vessel. In order for me to create things at the highest possible quality, I have to take care of my vessel."
Yet another solo project is already at the mixing stage. He remains mum about it except to say that this upcoming distillation of what succeeded on Future Memoirs features "a lot of good songs," and he's working with "a lot of cool people." While he admits," "Who doesn't want a hit single?" he's skeptical of trying to cram all of his artistry into one make-or-break hit.
"I'm into making songs that will hit you each time," he says. "Each time, whenever I have a new project or a new song, every song will hit people differently. Every time I release something to hit you stronger and stronger and stronger and stronger." --Reed Fischer
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