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Top 20 best Minnesota songs: The complete list

Top 20 best Minnesota songs: The complete list
Photo by Andrew Putler

Related:
Top 10 worst Minnesota songs
Top 20 best Minnesota musicians
First Avenue's 20 best concerts
First Avenue's 20 best concerts: Readers' picks

Countless songwriters have found inspiration in the Land of 10,000 Lakes over the years, and even more have hit upon something revelatory about Minnesota without ever becoming full-time residents. Sometimes these songs are backhanded compliments, and some are full-on gushfests set to shove "Hail! Minnesota" to the curb. Here are our picks for the finest of the umpteen tracks that wouldn't be the same without, ya know, us. --Reed Fischer

20. "Minneapolis" - The Ray Charles Singers

It's hard not to feel a little warm and fuzzy listening to this bubbly little number. By the first couple of bars, it's clear that this 1966 track does not feature the voice of the most famous man ever named Ray Charles -- the one once portrayed by Jamie Foxx in a feature film, the drinker of Diet Pepsi, and the one frequently nicknamed "the Genius." Instead, this Ray Charles is an accomplished songwriter from Chicago who also wrote "We're Gonna Win Twins" and the theme from Three's Company. (He did not, however, write The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme "Love Is All Around," which could've very well made this list too.) Here, "each season brings a new discovery," and this was easily enough to win a contest held by the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce. A bit more of Charles' story is found on the Hymie's Vintage Records blog, and special thanks to Hymie's for providing the audio. --Reed Fischer

19. "Minnesoter" - The Dandy Warhols

The Dandy Warhols' Courtney Taylor-Taylor must have really known a girl from Minnesota and possibly embarked on quite a strange relationship with her. "With her shirt off, man her skin's soft/but in a mood, she'd rather if I jerked off" he says in one passage, illustrating the passive-aggressive nature of the natives here pretty well -- maybe it takes an outsider's perspective to explain that state-wide quirk so succinctly. This garage-rock gem is more fun to sing along with than just about anything else you can think of, and though they hail from Portland, any Minnesota mixtape you're thinking about making is incomplete without this song on it. --Pat O'Brien

18. "10,000 Lakes" - Kid Dakota

Darren Jackson has more power pop in his pinky than most of us do in our entire bodies, but he unplugs and slows things down on this pensive, wintry (in every sense of that word) offering from 2004's The West Is the Future. "I didn't come for ice fishin, I didn't come for duck huntin'/I'm not Scandinavian or in search of Paul Bunyan," he sings, and if you didn't come to Minnesota for those things it can seem incredibly isolating here at times, especially during the winters, which bring on those feelings of isolation tenfold, regardless of your pastimes. This song makes you want to don a parka even if it's 85 and sunny and, like Jackson, the thought of 10,000 lakes makes us feel smaller, too, but maybe those lakes are what keeps Minnesotans humble. --Pat O'Brien

 

17. "Uptown Suckers" - Cows

Minneapolis hardcore band Cows were never all that interested in celebrating the local attractions or people that made their city so great -- they were much more concerned in blowing out the eardrums of their fans, and decimating whatever music venue that would allow them to play live. But if they did have a backhanded tribute to the area music scene, it would certainly have to be the riotous "Uptown Suckers," which finds frontman Shannon Selberg delivering caustic compliments to the various miscreants he would encounter in the Uptown area and beyond. You can just imagine him sneering with delight as he delivers the acerbic lines, "Those uptown suckers got smiling hands/They steal my T.V., then cheer my band," right before he either spits on the crowd or jumps directly into the audience, looking to mix it up with these shady characters who he both loves and hates, and clearly drew plenty of inspiration from. -- Erik Thompson

16. "Math is Money" - Lifter Puller

Craig Finn and Slug have been friends since 1995, when both Lifter Puller and Atmosphere were starting to make major waves within the Twin Cities music scene. And while both bands dropped sly lyrical references to each other in their lyrics (with Slug even going so far as to name an Atmosphere track "Lift Her Pull Her"), one of the only official collaborations between the two artists is on the Lifter Puller track "Math is Money." In between references to Jefferson Ave. and assless chaps, Slug joins Finn on the animated chorus, which finds them both proclaiming how "Math is money, and money is math." Finn goes on to exclaim that the "Twin Cities, they're gangin' up on me/Twin Cities, they're double teamin' me." Now whether or not that is a positive local reference or not fully depends on your idea of a good night out. But with Craig Finn, it's never bound to be a boring one. --Erik Thompson

15. "Escapade" - Janet Jackson

What started out as a "Nowhere to Run" cover by Martha and the Vandellas ended up an updated ode to partying and dancing. After a long week of hard work, Miss Janet approaches a dapper gentleman and offers to party away the weekend on an "Escapade." The shout out to "Minneapolis!" during the breakdown is just that -- a shout out. Janet spent much of her young life living in the Twin Cities and recording at Flyte Tyme Studios with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. She was showing some love for her home away from home. Aw. Love you too, Janet. --Lars Larson

 

14. "Minnesota" - Northern Light

This 1975 track by Northern Light, which was eventually picked up by Columbia Records, is indulgent in a way that might make the Ray Charles Singers blush. According to an interview with Crap From the Past, songwriter David Sandler grew up in Iowa until he was 15, and then moved to Minnesota, which proved to be the gateway to his soul, according to the song. The dew-kissed number begins with a loon call, and then its syrupy devotion to our state unfolds with harmonies upon harmonies packed tightly inside. While there's a reason that the Beach Boys got more recognition nationally, this became a massive local favorite in its time. --Reed Fischer

13. "Seeing Double at the Triple Rock" - NOFX

In 2006, Los Angeles punk pranksters NOFX laid down a drunken love letter to both the Triple Rock Social Club and the closely associated Dillinger Four (guitarist Erik Funk co-owns the venue). The details are specific enough -- "It's where you wanna get snowed in when you get snowed in" and "watching Paddy [bassist Patrick Costello] talk" -- that this isn't just a Fat Mike acid trip. By the way, "drinking quota" does indeed rhyme with "Minnesota." --Reed Fischer

12. "Minneap'lis, Minnesota" - Rufus Lumley

Bless the good folks at Secret Stash Records for recovering this gem by Rufus Lumley, which was recorded in a Detroit bowling alley in 1968. It was made available locally on Record Store Day as a limited edition "45 a few weeks back. Lumley, who was a minor star in the Northern Soul movement of the time, has a few other jaunty classics like "I'm Standing" to his name. This particular song is set to be part of Secret Stash's double LP/CD compilation of Minneapolis funk and soul between 1963 and 1978 or so, which will predate the Prince era. Look for the collection this fall. --Reed Fischer

 

11. "Room With a View" - Brother Ali

No artist has painted a clearer picture of the Northside than Brother Ali. The song title is just that, a room with a view. Ali looks out the window, and details the Wild West of what was Lowry Avenue back in the late '90's and early zeros: Drugs, prostitution and low hope, people just trying to survive any way they could on the block. The blaring horns on the song almost serve as a wake up call to anyone listening. Today Malone's Funeral Home is gone and the block has been cleaned up a little, but still more is needed. Even today as I drive past the library on Lowry, this song always pops in my head. --Lars Larson

10. "Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis" - Tom Waits

Tom Waits certainly has found a few places and characters that have inspired him in Minneapolis, but what city and scene doesn't seem to inspire someone as brilliant and insightful as Waits? Between "9th and Hennepin," and "Christmas Card From a Hooker In Minneapolis," Waits paints a gritty, sordid picture of downtown Minneapolis and the wretched life that comes from making bad decisions in any city. And while he sings about the prostitute living above a dirty bookstore on 9th Street off of Euclid Avenue, there sadly isn't a Euclid Avenue in Minneapolis (though there is an East Euclid Street in St. Paul), which casts a wider scope to the song's setting and significance. But after the hooker leaves here for Omaha, she eventually returns because, "Everyone I used to know was either dead or in prison/So I came back to Minneapolis, this time I think I'm gonna stay." See, this city has a lasting appeal for everyone. --Erik Thompson

9. "They're Not Tryin' on the Dance Floor" - Jonathan Richman

Here, the estimable Modern Lovers frontman Jonathan Richman, a Massachusetts native, takes the Midwest to task for the utter lack of elastic in our steps. How many times have you witnessed a local crowd not only unwilling, but completely unable to fall into step with the most infectious, gargantuan beat? Richman stays away from the most hoppin' communities in the region in this stripped down bit of amusement, but calls out Duluth (as well as Eau Claire and Sheboygan) as spots filled with people who are "just there." The real question: Will this song make you throw your hands in the air and wave 'em like you just don't care? --Reed Fischer

 

8. "Minneapolis" - Lucinda Williams

Not only did Lucinda Williams cement her deep affinity for Minneapolis by getting married at First Avenue in 2009, but she has also penned quite a few songs that take some inspiration from the area. None ring clearer than "Minneapolis," her wistful, lonesome ode to a lover who left and a harsh winter that she can never grow used to. The song perfectly captures the stark isolation that can set in during our colder months, and when Williams sings the touching lines, "Open up this wound again/ let my blood flow red and thin/ into the glistening, into the whiteness, into the melting snow of Minneapolis" you get the sense that she may eventually get over the pain of losing someone special, but the bitter Minnesota winters are another matter altogether. --Erik Thompson

7. "Girl From the North Country" - Bob Dylan

While many critics and journalists have argued over just who exactly is the "Girl From the North Country" that inspired Bob Dylan, the song can also be a wistful, nostalgic look back to Hibbing and the stark, unforgiving lands of Northern Minnesota. Dylan released the song in 1963, just two years after leaving Minnesota for New York, and it's not hard to hear some sense of longing within his voice -- not necessarily for a person, specifically, but for a place. Family, friends, the comforts and familiarity of home are the things that Dylan hopes haven't changed or forgotten about him in his absence. When Dylan tenderly sings, "So if you're travelin' in the north country fair, where the winds hit heavy on the borderline/ remember me to one who lives there, she once was a true love of mine," he sounds a bit homesick, not for one particular girl, but for all of the people and places he left behind. --Erik Thompson

6. "Mall of America" - Desaparecidos

The Mall of America concentrates more angst -- via teens, tweens, and anyone else devoid of the necessary material goods -- than anywhere else in the entire state of Minnesota. For the oh-so-tortured Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst's punk side project Desaparecidos, the international landmark is an ideal symbol for his railing for/against risking more mainstream tendencies to further the cause of creating one of the best records of his career. And Read Music/Speak Spanish is undeniably that. "There are no art forms now, just capitalism," he argues. "So send the National Guard/ to the Mall of America/ And they can dress dead bodies up in tight designer jeans/ Diesel, Prada, it looks good." Another good look is that Oberst recently got the guys back together and they'll be at 400 Bar on August 9. --Reed Fischer

 

5. "Funkytown" - Lipps Inc.

In 1980, "disco sucks" parties were in full swing and Studio 54 was hanging on by a thread. Punk and rap were bubbling up. So how did this band from a cow town in the Midwest spark a last-minute disco hit? Who knows? But they still did. It was a worldwide number one hit. The song is about wanting to move on to a better life, a better town -- funkytown. But not many people know that this song is about moving to New York City. Oops. Well as far as today's standards, we are way funkier than we were in the late '70s when it comes to musicians, art and culture. So we will keep pretending the song is about our funkytown, Minneapolis. --Lars Larson


4. "Rock 'n' Roll is Alive (And it Lives in Minneapolis)" - Prince

This was a response song to Lenny Kravitz's "Rock and Roll is Dead," and after the aggressive drums and guitar licks on this track, maybe P is right. The video and chorus of the song were filmed live during a late-night, invite-only party at Paisley Park in 1995. Backed by one of his best bands outside of the Revolution, the NPG (Tommy B, Sonny T, Michael Bland, Morris Hayes) were ultra rocking and loud as Prince belted out multiple solos on his symbol guitar and danced around Mayte in a Vikings jacket. "Uptown" would have been another great choice, but that area of the city has changed into a upper-middle class Rodeo Drive full of dude-bro bars that the Cows dissed back at #17. Doubtful that Prince envisioned that kind of Uptown back in 1980. --Lars Larson

3. "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" - The Hold Steady

The Hold Steady's songs have always been rife with references to the Twin Cities. "Southtown Girls" namechecks the repellent Bloomington strip mall of the same name, and lead singer Craig Finn penned an ode to the Twins a couple years back. Finn's lyrics have also made innumerable references to other area streets, landmarks and the like. Here, he references Osseo, Stillwater, the Mississippi and "Penetration Park," the derisive nickname given to Loring Park in the '80s and '90s, when it was mostly known for being cruising spot awash in drugs, hence "I've been dusted in the dark up in Penetration Park." Loring has since cleaned up its act and Osseo is hard to get stuck in nowadays, but that takes little away from the Catholic guilt-ridden, coming-of-age drama that unfolds within. --Pat O'Brien

 

2. "Skyway" - The Replacements

It's not really fair to confine the Replacements to any singular moment when the bulk of their catalog is a scrapbook of Minnesota memories. Public transit users revel easily in the 'Mats' "Kiss Me on the Bus," Burnsville ski bums can head to "Buck Hill," a lot of us were "Raised in the City," and even those of us who aren't trying to be touring musicians have drinking habits that might result in us being "Treatment Bound." Even if Craig Finn packs in more encyclopedic references, Paul Westerberg's got a lock on that cautious optimism we're wearing on scarf-covered faces in late January. It's too cold for the grass to be greener on either side of the fence, but catching a glimpse of love out of reach on the other side of that skyway glass -- a city feature used less-and-less with the Light Rail's arrival -- has a mix of the hyper-local and the universal. --Reed Fischer

1. "Shhh" - Atmosphere

Nothing speaks Minnesotan more than this track. Only a local like Slug would proudly boast about the clean air and the ease to find parking spots in a rap song. Even the track is laid back and chill, just like a typical stoic Minnesotan. Just hype enough to wave your hands back and forth, but nothing too assertive. Sure L.A. and New York are cool and get bombarded by reality cameras, but who cares? They can keep Kim Kardashian. Kris Humphries, ya hear? We'd rather have good schools and down-to-earth neighbors. This song is so powerful, in fact, that former Gopher football coach Tim Brewster used this song in recruiting videos. Although it didn't work well for him, it works well for us. Say shhhh. --Lars Larson

Related:
Top 10 worst Minnesota songs
Top 20 best Minnesota musicians
First Avenue's 20 best concerts
First Avenue's 20 best concerts: Readers' picks


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