The Year's Best Local Albums

Happy Apple Back on Top

Happy Apple's biggest problem now, seven albums and ten-plus years into their career, is sustaining excellence. (To put it in perspective, when they formed, I couldn't drink legally—and you probably couldn't, either.) But although they're still plenty abstract, their latest album also shows a real warmth and heart on the more tender tunes, which make up nearly half the album. Of course, their penchant for off-the-wall song names continues, but nevertheless, "Calgon for Hetfield," with its gentle bass chords, straight-ahead drumming, and lilting melody, has got to be the prettiest song ever associated with the Metallica frontman. —Steve McPherson

Cost of Living

This record feels so lived-in that even its liner notes have a certain casual familiarity: insights into many of the tracks' origins, tales of production-bolstering record-store trips ("I got this record from Root Cellar (R.I.P.) during the sale where you can get two dollar records for fifty cents...those sales refined my collection"), and a bit of smart-assery (on "Call Me": "I guess we're saying you should call us"). Brandon Allday and Medium Zack are just as comfortable on the mic, delivering ground-level political insight with personal acumen that their rich beats make even more compelling. —Nate Patrin

The Patron

Entering the year virtually unknown to the local scene, TKAPB had already built a steady following on the East Coast and inked a deal with the ambient-inclined Kranky Records by the time their excellent, albeit gregarious, moniker started showing up on bills in the Twin Cities. Soon after, The Patron arrived like a slow, droning trumpet blast heard sweet but distantly across the tundra. With Jehna Wilhelm's obscured vocal melodies lurching forth into noise and glistening ambience, the album sets a mood as dark and haunting as it is lush and beautiful. —Christopher Matthew Jensen

When the Needle Hit the Wax
Draw Fire Records

It's hard to decide what's most endearing about Stook!. In person, he's a down-home dude who can often be spotted around town sporting his signature bright-yellow knit hat and disarming grin, championing fellow local musicians and giving his friends bear hugs. On record, Stook! continues to grow as an Americana sweetheart who can effortlessly shift between jangling rock 'n' roll rousers and mellow, expansive ballads. His sophomore album, When the Needle Hit the Wax, finds Stook! honing his knack for full-band sing-alongs and gritty, growling rock howls, placing him high on the list of this city's ever-increasing roster of alt-country crooners to keep an eye on. —Andrea Myers

Free Life
American Recordings

The only way to deny the perfection of this solo debut from Semisonic frontman and Dixie Chicks songwriter Dan Wilson is to disparage the larger genre it belongs to. But this type of gentle, melodic pop is too damn grown-up to care that you think it's square. These songs are not afraid to be beautifully sentimental and slowly gorgeous, and not for nothing did their creator snag a Grammy back in February—the craftsmanship on this Rick-Rubin-produced record is impeccable. Tenderly polished so that their golden tone shines through—but not so much that they lose their authenticity—these are unabashedly lovely compositions, and I bet they'll hold up over time better than most of us. —Sarah Askari

Carbohydrates Hydrocarbons
Go Johnny Go

In a year of dramatic peaks and valleys for one of the true DIY heroes of our era, Yonkers revitalized his career and unleashed this furious racket of a rock record by enlisting one of the heaviest-sounding trios in town. While the Blind Shake sound unmistakably like themselves—a little punk, a lot Am-Rep—here, they're henchmen at Yonkers's beckoning. Writing from a personal philosophy developed over a four-decades-plus music career, Yonkers sounds more scathing than ever. The songs may be short and tight, but Yonkers's guitar tone still sounds like strange radio waves emanating from planet X. —Christopher Matthew Jensen


Kwame Tsikata's got a voice that's unique to local hip hop, and it's not just due to his accent. Encompassing the conscious-but-energetic Native Tongues movement that gave us De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest at the end of the '80s, and the heirs apparent that followed a decade later (particularly Mos Def and Talib Kweli), the Ghana-born M.anifest has a versatile, accessible style that should immediately appeal to those of us who made it a point to cop every Soundbombing and Lyricist Lounge compilation at the end of the '90s. Not that Manifestations is out-of-date—if anything, it just proves how timeless that style can be. —Nate Patrin


The James Buckley Trio's debut album begins with Buckley laying in a bedrock acoustic bass line. When Bryan Nichols's splintery yet plush electric piano creeps in over J.T. Bates's responsive but unfussy drumming, the album billows and expands, but its heart is still Buckley. He's a canny enough player to grasp what makes the bass such a beguiling instrument: It both defines the foundation of a song and resists the complexities opened up by the breadth of the keyboard or guitar. The tunes here are sketch-like: "El Paso" opens up for a brief excursion by Bates, "New" lets Buckley step up with a casually melodic solo. It's all played with such grace and sympathy you'd be forgiven for thinking this stuff is easy, but the good ones just make it look that way. —Steve McPherson

The Undisputed Truth

"If I don't set the world ablaze, trust it ain't 'cause of nothing I did." From the first really truthful work of art to have the phrase "Freedom Ain't Free" attached to it, Brother Ali summarizes the main thing that made The Undisputed Truth one of the greatest rap records in Twin Cities history: Complacency is like a toxin to him. Everything he spits on here is a full-throttle mic assault designed to justify his reputation—which means he's going to have to bring it even harder on the next record, if that's possible. —Nate Patrin

Midnight Pine
Jib Door

Expanding the hip-hop dictionary, Kill the Vultures have seemingly tossed out the old notion of building a few bars out of samples and looping it to run throughout the verses. Instead, the production on Midnight Pine follows expertly mined, smoky post-bop samples as they swoon and careen, obliterating the bar-length obligation and underscoring Crescent Moon's beatnik musings without forcing his cadence. Garnished with just a sprig of crackle and dirge, this is weird territory for modern hip hop, but a viable out for poets and jazzbos eager for a beat and heavy on the flow. —Christopher Matthew Jensen

Sparrows in the Bell
Red House

Benson Ramsey and David Huckfelt must have some seriously ancient bones under their skin. It seems like if they pressed hard enough on the brass strings of their guitars, they could get their fingers to bleed dirt. But Sparrows in the Bell exhibits a considerably lighter touch than that. Ramsey's voice is a burnt-out husk, while Huckfelt's is warmer, but more reserved. Together, they've crafted a record that restlessly breathes the spirit of true roots music—no mean feat for a duo that's only begun their meander down that dusty highway. —Steve McPherson


Few albums released locally this year are capable of garnering such widespread appreciation as Romantica's America. With lush string arrangements and delicate vocal melodies, Romantica appeal just as much to the Cities 97 crowd as they do to alt-country aficionados and folk revivalists, a testament to lead singer Ben Kyle's dexterous songwriting. From the up-tempo shuffle of "National Side" to the Springsteen-channeling slow-burner "Ixcatan," Kyle is adept at writing narrative lyrics and expressing sensitivity without turning on the cheese or being overtly poetic, making America beautiful in its simplicity. —Andrea Myers


Andrew Broder's latest release shows that he hasn't given up on making sound collages altogether, he's just using much larger pieces: Instead of blending a wide variety of samples and distortion to create a song, he's deploying a vast array of songs to make an album. What Ditherer lacks in consistency, it more than makes up for in thrilling inventiveness and raw energy. Restlessly combining wicked, dirty grooves, inflated multi-tracked vocals, and genuine rock heroics with sonic dead ends and hidden passageways, Fog has created a crazed hedge maze of a record—one I'm happy to run through exuberantly, even if I never find my way out. —Sarah Askari


Abzorbr, Capable of Teetering; Ben Glaros, Lovesong Roulette; Building Better Bomb, Freak out Squares; Charlie Parr, Jubilee; City on the Make, In the Name of Progress; Cloud Cult, The Meaning of 8; The Deaf, This Bunny Bites; Fantastic Merlins, Look Around; Gay Beast, Disrobics; Little Man, Soulful Automatic; Low, Drums & Guns; Mystery Palace, Flags Forward; Painted Saints, The Bricks Might Breathe Again; Red Fox Grey Fox, From the Land of Bears, Ice and Rock; Roma di Luna, Find Your Way Home; Seawhores, Opus Magnanimous; Vicious Vicious, Parade

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