Picked to Click
Well, we're still alive. Earlier this month, when Bush got elected, First Avenue closed, daylight saving time made everything darker, and a swarm of locusts descended on Egypt, I swore that if the last trumpeters of the apocalypse descended upon the Twin Cities to seal the deal, I'd vote for them as my favorite new band of 2004. But after counting over 200 music fans' picks for the best new local acts, I decided that the end is not as nigh as I thought, because four out of five Picked to Click ballot-casters agreed that City Pages' own private "vote or die" campaign was worth their participation. (The fifth respondent was killed by P. Diddy and thus couldn't reply.) So after Satan confirmed that he'd give me and First Avenue a little more time on this earth, I sent some of our pollsters out to prove that the local music scene ain't dead yet. Chuck Terhark confirmed that hunch when he chatted with Picked to Click winners Olympic Hopefuls in "Talk of the Town". Peter S. Scholtes echoed Terhark's verdict when he interviewed kids from all-ages clubs in "Sonic Youth". And Dylan Hicks checked the pulse of four of our top new bands in "We Built This City on Rock and Roll...and Other Equally Valuable Varieties of Popular Music". Plus, all of our pollsters found signs of life in the local scene in their ballots and comments (see "Ninety One Ballots...and No Hanging Chads!" and "Tell Us What You Really Think").
We asked a panel of 91 local experts--music critics, record store employees, radio personalities, record label owners--to vote for their top five new local bands, DJs, or solo artists, and together, they selected more than 224 acts. For each ballot, the number one choice received five points, the number two choice four points, etc. For ballots where the voters chose not to order their picks, each band received three points. Below are the top 10 acts (actually 13, owing to ties), with comments from our poll participants.
Olympic Hopefuls (90)
WHAT THE VOTERS SAY: Pick 'em to already have clicked: The Olympic Hopefuls arrived on the scene in their novelty track suits late this spring and provided the epochal soundtrack for the summer days and summer nights of 2004. Originally intended as an all-star side project for songwriters Darren Jackson (Kid Dakota) and Erik Appelwick (Vicious Vicious), and supposedly recorded as a less self-conscious outlet for more id-ful (i.e. hooky) songs, the Hopefuls are a perfect example of why great, fun pop songs--when written, sung, and played with intelligence, chops, form, and feel--can be transcendent and extraordinary even while seeming familiar. Just one thing, guys: Now that this Olympic summer is over, how 'bout losing the tracksuits? I'd actually really like to see you all in figure skating regalia!
WHAT THE VOTERS SAY: P.O.S. and Doomtree aren't the same entity, though this poll combined votes for both the rapper and his crew into one tally. The rapper is not new, for one thing (I voted for him in 2002). Yet P.O.S.'s shows, which are to soul as farmer-blows are to snot, renewed his lease on the attention of a scene crowded with competition, and he paid years of dues in a span of months. (Dude, did you notice how much weight he lost on the Warped tour?) His music made you want to pump your fist or cry. His crew, which actually was new this year, offered the comforting notion that slacker MCs (Sims, Cecil Otter) and female power poets (Dessa) can unite and fight the powers that be.
Melodious Owl (48)
WHAT THE VOTERS SAY: In a year that Franz Ferdinand infamously flashed their raison d'être as a titillating frat fantasy to "make music girls can dance to," Melodious Owl seemed to squawk back their own slogan: College rock is for old people. These hyper Hopkins high schoolers (who pinched their name from canonic sophomore reading, Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five) electrified punk-disco by exposing the term as nothing more then an illogical conjunction of words: people who can't play their instruments, making music for people who can't dance.
But that also doubles as a definition of high school, so the joke is on you, 'cuz these kids can really play their horns and keyboards, even if it seems blissfully improbable that they've studied their new wave, much less Gang of Four. "The church is on fire," shrieks a panicked-yet-elated Wes Statler, but you aren't sure if he's prophesying the last gasp of the religious right or dropping an incendiary device on those postgraduate noise punks slacking at the south Minneapolis performance space the Church. Quick, turn off the after-school special and go see them--before they start making college music.
Spaghetti Western (39)
WHAT THE VOTERS SAY: Drive out of the city before the snow flies to a part of the country where you find nothing but dirt roads and empty fields. Maybe there is a graveyard. Leave your car, and walk until you can no longer see it. Then, as you stand alone with only earth around you, imagine a soundtrack to the images you'd see if a full year of life in that place flashed before you in random order over 41 minutes and 23 seconds. What you'd imagine would probably be a lot like the music you will find on Spaghetti Western's debut, Do Right By People (Adonis).
Or perhaps it's more like a silent walk through a vacant downtown Minneapolis on Sunday morning as complete darkness dissolves into daybreak. Majestic, mysterious, playful yet powerful, subtly euphoric and sometimes frightening, what "Big Mike" Rossetto and his conspirators have created is a largely instrumental countrified composite of traditional American and Italian folk music, played on a variety of bluegrass and country instruments...and a drum machine. It is both modern and archaic, and it is every bit as moving when Spaghetti Western performs it live, as it is on the record.
Thunder In The Valley (tie)
WHAT THE VOTERS SAY: When Vince Vaughn chimed, "You're so money, baby," to a skeptical Jon Favreau, I shared the latter's lack of enthusiasm for the Vegas lounge lifestyle. Not even some quality dance-floor time with Heather Graham could turn me around. Music that required wingtips and cocktails was too silly to be taken seriously. But now Thunder in the Valley are doing what so many long-forgotten bands couldn't: reviving music that's several decades old without dressing like the cast of Guys and Dolls or insisting you call them "daddy." They tap into genres that went ignored by those swing clowns, holding klezmer and ragtime in as high regard as the expected stuff. While some of their tunes might compel you to lift your baby over your head, their lyrics preach of death, doom, and debauchery--like Something Wicked This Way Comes drilled into the heads of unsuspecting dive-bar patrons.
Die Electric! (34)
WHAT THE VOTERS SAY: Didn't these guys used to be called the Voltz? And before that, didn't they go by something else? And before that, weren't they in a conglomerate of bands called the International Selby Monsters or American Tiger Robots or something like that? These three rock personas, now known as Die Electric!, have more collective experience than most new bands can hope for. So how is it that we can call Die Electric! new?
Well, to start with, they have a new, high-powered name--with an exclamation point! (Although I'm not sure what it means to "die electric," it sounds extremely cool to say it out loud.) They also have a new record on Heart of a Champion. When I first heard the track "You Tear Me Up" on Radio K, it took me by surprise. I was thinking, Man, this song rocks. I have to get this record. But who is Die Electric!? And why are they ripping off the Voltz?
It wasn't until a few verses later that I realized the Voltz had reinvented themselves. Although they are still playing that same vintage punk-rock 'n' roll that you want to hear at loud volumes, and it's the same three zany characters onstage, there seems to be a new energy about them, new wattage in their veins. It's almost like they've found a new reason to believe in the power of rock 'n' roll, and there's just enough new feeling in their music to make these veterans of rock, with an exclamation point, into a new band again.
Zebulon Pike (tie)
WHAT THE VOTERS SAY: Heavy instrumental four-piece Zebulon Pike make expansive music for a compressed world. Alternately brutal and tender, their serious but not humorless music punches you in the face and gives you a soothing, nonsexual neck massage. Recommended for fans of Metallica, Yes, Richard Wagner, down-tuned guitars, cannonlike kick drums, and oceanic tempests suggestive of divine retribution.
WHAT THE VOTERS SAY: "I wouldn't have been the one to call us Americana," said Romantica's Belfast-born lead vocalist Ben Kyle when he accepted the Best Acoustic /Folk/Americana Recording award at the 2004 Minnesota Music Awards. But whatever you call the band's genre, Romantica is awfully easy to like. Their pop hooks give them mainstream accessibility, and their choruses (like the sung "ba ba ba" horn part on "There She Goes") will have even the most restrained concertgoers singing and swaying along. Their album opener "On My Mind" comes on like a fusion of Wilco, Don Henley, and Ryan Adams--and comes off as the song that every college band wishes they could write. "Ophelia" has a Leonard Cohenish, maybe even Roger Waters feel to it, while other songs on their album wouldn't be out of place on a collection of moody Irish ballads. Romantica deserve the attention they're getting not because they're doing something different, but because they're doing it so well.
Big Quarters (23)
WHAT THE VOTERS SAY: "Fuck the police!" Big Quarters screamed out onstage at this past summer's Yo! The Movement hip-hop celebration. "Fuck the police!" With each cry, the police on top of their horses moved down the hill at East River Flats Park toward the stage. It was so brilliant. And so, balls out, I had to sing along and be part of it. This was the kind of fun, controversial, shocking stage show I had missed these past years in hip hop.
The two brothers on stage--Medium Zach and Brandon, formally known as EPL--have been grindin' in the scene for four years now, almost undercover and unknown to many. But the few who do know about them have seen their raw, energizing shows; most times, they out-perform the headlining acts. The talented duo are also wizards on the beat-making tip, with creative, gritty beats that sound refreshing com
pared to the overproduced hip-pop beats that dominate the rap airwaves today. Expect the hardworking group to be out-performing plenty of shows this year. Make sure you catch one--and make sure you yell, "Fuck the police."
Halloween, Alaska (tie)
WHAT THE VOTERS SAY: As much as I hate to admit it, I love The O.C. But not for the fistfights or the hot bodies or the hyperdramatic lives of high schoolers who never seem to go to high school. Oh no, what I tell myself--and I'm sure dreamy indie rock geek Seth Cohen would agree--is that the show is nothing without the music. So when the first episode of the new season built its climax around local supergroup Halloween, Alaska's "All the Arms Around You," I was floored. It was perfect: In one of their typically mellow songs, the guitar intensified as runaway Seth sat on a patio contemplating his future. The drums ticked off
the agonizingly long seconds. And when he finally made his decision about what he was going to do, the scene was washed with soothing electronic tones. Who knew television producers were smart enough to mate a kid's newfound maturity with the sound of a grown-up Postal Service? "It'll fall just like you said," sang James Diers, and he was right. We all knew what would happen to Seth. But Halloween, Alaska made it worth watching.
Missing Numbers (18)
WHAT THE VOTERS SAY: Jimmy Peterson is one of this town's unheralded talents, a top-shelf writer and musician whose unassuming presence and casual attitude toward the biz only reinforce the depth and ingenuity of his work. Best known as songwriting foil to Eric Luoma in the beautifully stoic Bellwether, Jimmy has also lent his deft musical skills to recent recordings by Ben Weaver and Mark Stockert.
While many of his previous collaborations have had a rootsy Americana flavor, there have always been more experimental instincts bubbling under Jimmy's work. His new band Missing Numbers operates outside of traditional genre games, fast-forwarding roots influences into an idiosyncratic but resonant modern context. Kicking out diamond-hard mid-tempo space-blues that crackles with trip-hop loops and freaked-out fuzz guitar, Missing Numbers evoke strange but intriguing descriptions: Howling Wolf fronting the Bad Seeds, or King Tubby remixing the Faces with J. Mascis on lead guitar. This is modern electric blues for a grimy urban reality--broken yet beautiful, bummed but proud.
The Belles of Skin City (17)
WHAT THE VOTERS SAY: Years ago a very liberal friend told me that in his mind, the advantage of Republican presidents is that they inspire frustrated musicians to create great music. I waited and waited for this idea to come to fruition, and was just about to call him to tell him he was wrong when, on a fateful Sunday night in June, opening up for the Heroine Sheiks at Grumpy's, I saw the Belles of Skin City play their first live show. A new band in 2004, but with members quite familiar to the local music scene, this ridiculously talented five-piece creates music too interesting and unique to easily explain in words. The postmodern sound includes a little vaudeville, a bit of a fire-and-brimstone street preacher sound, and a dose of punk. Mix in a little Moog, and you have the Belles of Skin City. Talent this strong should not go unheard. If my friend's theory is correct, the next four years should be golden for this band.
Traditional methods (16)
WHAT THE VOTERS SAY: After getting a heavy dose of Heiruspecs and Guardians of Balance over this past year, I finally woke up: St. Paul got skillz, yo! My overdue hip-hop awakenings aside, the Twin Cities scene continues to produce evolving, dynamic flows and beats. This year, my most lucid moment of that realization came, not at the dynamite Twin Cities Hip Hop Festival, but when I was rolling down East Lake Street in my, uh, rusted-out Geo Prizm, and Radio K played a Traditional Methods track. Damn. Had to catch them at First Avenue that very night. A funk-filled live hip-hop band, Traditional Methods began as a side project of Kanser and now deserve a few headlining gigs of their own. New MC never sounded so fresh, and Sarah White reminds us of the many mighty female MCs finally getting their own due respect around here.
THANKS TO ALL OF THE VOTERS: A.K., Ed Ackerson, Eric Anderson, Eric Billiet and the staff of the Garage, Jon Bream, Scott Brown, David Campbell, Tim Campbell, Keri Carlson, Cecile Cloutier, Marisa Collins, Zachariah Combs (a.k.a. New MC), Daniel Corrigan, Dan Cote, Mandy Cox, Ben Crew, David de Young, Mark Desrosiers, Martin Devaney, Dolores Dewberry, Chris Dorn, Ben Durrant, JG Everest, Erik Funk, Kate Galloway, staff of Ginkgo Coffeehouse, Oren Goldberg, Sonia Grover, Tom Hallett, Steven Heckler, Tom Herbers, Dylan Hicks, Mark Holland, Kenny Horst, Rich Horton, Brandon Howie, Derek Johnson, Diana Kim, Kim King, Kandis Knight, Leo Kuelbs, Lars J. Larson, Tom Loftus, Melissa Maerz, Philip Mann, Steve Marsh, James "Taco" Martin, Rich Mattson, Aaron Money, Keith Moran, Jason Nagel, Jeremy O'Kasick, Ryan O'Rourke, Jason Orris, Nick Oz, Jason Parker, Nate Perbix, Ross Raihala, Chris Riemenschneider, Chris Roberts, Nathan Roise, Reggie Royston (a.k.a. Bruno Zaire), David J. Russ, David Safar, Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria, Anne Saxton, Matt Schmidt, Christina Schmitt, Peter S. Scholtes, Kate Silver, Clint Simonson, Rod Smith, Rex Sorgatz, Jack Sparks, Chuck Statler, Matthew St-Germain, Chris Strouth, Eric Swanson, Chuck Terhark, Lindsey Thomas, Richard Thomas, Rob van Alstyne, Andrew Volna, Karrie Vrabel, Jacques Wait, Jim Walsh, Patrick Whalen, Gretchen Williams, Mike Wisti, Toki Wright, Jason Wussow.
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