The Soundtrack of Our Lives

"Call it what you want, but this city is mine," Lucky Jeremy said on his latest rock opus, and half the musicians in town believe it's true--though not necessarily about him. Hip-hop philosopher Brother Ali declares his rule over the "Twin Cities American Heartland" in his rear-window rant "Room with a View." Happy Apple stake their claim on a small Minnesota town in the sprawling jazz epic "The Landfall Planetarium." The snowy aural landscape conjured on "Lost Christmas" by instrumentalist duo If Thousands seems to represent the emotional state of the entire Midwest--without the band ever saying a word.

Which leads us to wonder: How can a person judge the state of the local music scene when the city belongs to everyone and no one?

"This city's taken all I know." A-Bomb Nation said that on the local hardcore compilation No Hold Back...All Attack!!! The statement felt true for many of us critics as we emptied our brains onto this page in the service of our favorite local albums of 2003. Arguing over our choices, we forgot our manners. Then we forgot what we were talking about. Eventually, after passing the peace pipe around, we forgot our own names. Which might explain why even the strangest lyrics from the albums on the top 10 list below seemed to take on profound new meaning.

"Aw, crud, what a dud/A fuddy duddy/That's funny, that mummy/I hate you wall." Fog's Andrew Broder said that on Ether Teeth, and far be it from me to judge whether it's true. I have no friggin' clue what it means. So instead, I'll leave you with these final words of wisdom:

"Local musicians only record albums because they can't publish top 10 lists."

I said that. It's probably not true.

Read on and judge for yourself.

--Melissa Maerz


Brother Ali, Shadows on the Sun (Rhymesayers Entertainment)

I used to think that this album's producer might be deficient with the R in R&B, but Ant has just been slowly honing his own very weird, very minimalist B. The hermetic soulscapes he creates here couldn't be more different from the original blues he samples elsewhere: Even more than on Atmosphere's Seven's Travels, which he also produced, Shadows on the Sun sounds like a machine's memory of '60s roots music. Which works perfectly for Brother Ali, a high-strung voice attached to a reflective mind, who puts to practical use the Islam that the '60s birthed. Ali sounds like a premature adult sitting back with a stack of soul records and a copy of the Koran, his kids playing on the floor nearby, writing raps to make himself laugh. He saves Ant's juiciest aural nostalgia for satire worthy of Randy Newman: "Prince Charming" is his impersonation of pathetic, possessive machismo--Biz Markie meets "Every Breath You Take." --Peter Scholtes


Cloud Cult, They Live on the Sun (Earthology)

Both Big Boi and Craig Minowa included their toddlers' recording studio debuts on albums this year, but with entirely different motives. While OutKast encouraged a future hip-hop star, Cloud Cult frontman Minowa used the little voice of his late son as bittersweet therapy. They Live on the Sun is the bipolar soundtrack to a broken-hearted man losing his mind. One moment, you're doubting that such candid agony has been released to the public in recent times. The next, you're listening to Minowa spit adolescent Spanglish, wondering Is this Ween? Minowa's bandmates diligently support him through his mood swings with a motley pop sound somewhere between Pavement and the Flaming Lips. Given Minowa's torrent of self-proclaimed madness and irreparable loss, it's reassuring to know that he didn't go through this catharsis alone. Though if Cloud Cult were a solo effort, we'd have to stage an intervention to save this talented songwriter from himself. --Lindsey Thomas


Fog, Ether Teeth (Ninja Tune)

"See It See It?" Fog's Andrew Broder asks in a song title. Listen and you'll find what he's pointing to: mechanical birds twittering past dump trucks, gum-commercial models hidden in television static, SuperAmerica stations steeped in loneliness. Invisible memories etched in sound. Ether Teeth plays like a chance street-corner encounter between DJ Shadow and Jeff Mangum, a junction where backward records warble beneath dime-store guitars and educational-film sound bites comment on Broder's cracked chirpings. ("It is said that no two robins ever sing exactly the same," notes a 1950s schoolhouse baritone on one track. "Robins are like small boys when their voices are changing.") Somewhere within Fog's folk oddities, humming over a broken beat, lives the ghost of that voice, along with all the anonymous vocals ever culled from forgotten tunes. It's a record-store basement's unheard song. Hear it hear it? --Melissa Maerz


Happy Apple, Youth Oriented (Universal)  

In circles in which the not-your-average-piano-trio the Bad Plus is semi-famous and the not-your-average-sax-trio Happy Apple is only quasi-semi-famous, the latter is known as "Dave King's other band." Of course, we Minneapolitans know that this epithet isn't accurate, both because the increasingly aptly named King plays in 312 bands, and because Happy Apple is a resolutely democratic collective. Now if I were forced at gunpoint to play favorites, I might throw in my lot with Erik Fratzke, who I'm pretty sure has the warmest and weightiest electric bass tone in all of jazz. He's the William Parker of youngish electric jazz-rock bassists, and his wandering tunes and bubbling lines are on some sort of Zappa-Stravinsky-Dolphy-Jaco-Black Sabbath tip that I want more of. May 2004 bring them as much deserved hype as Dave King's other band. --Dylan Hicks


If Thousands, Yellowstone (Chair Kickers)

Apart from the brief reference to falling snow in Yellowstone's closer "Lost Christmas," If Thousands use subtler methods to create the sound of an Upper Midwest winter in full swing. With vintage keyboards evoking the blue-gray tone of bare trees at sundown and effects-laden guitars shimmering like first ice on a lake, the Duluth band creates a crystalline aural landscape that's both intricate and austere, alluring and formidable. Morse code forms the hook for the near-static epic "We Sent H.L.R.E.," while the monoliths of sound in "Radio Is Fine" move at a glacial pace to gorgeous, abstract aural swells. Yet the overall effect isn't chilling or depressing; their cover of Joy Division's "Isolation" feels more like a celebration of solitude than a chronicle of irreparable emotional estrangement. --Cecile Cloutier


Kangaroo, Skyscraper Spaceship (No Alternative)

This year, I dug records by Paul Westerberg, the Honeydogs, Martin Devaney, the Jayhawks, Atmosphere, and others, but the one I kept coming back to was this mostly unheralded pop-rock near-classic. Tom Hallett got it right in Pulse--it's really all over the place, production-wise. Some of it's too over-the-top, but the sheer shimmeringness of it all (think Big Star, the Feelies, Cheap Trick) cuts through. Singer Peter Lawton has a ridiculously rich and emotive voice, and the songs are terrific, most notably "Any Day," "River," "June," "You're Something Beautiful," and "Splash," which is about a little girl about to set the world on fire--one of the few songs that consistently made me cry this year. Another was "Sweet Dreams," the chorus to which ("Welcome to this world, this place, this time/This space, this sea, this shore/You get this long, and a little more, maybe") I couldn't get enough of: Whenever I popped it on, it was a good reminder that, even though everything's broken, it's never been broken this way before, so the fixes might be harder to see. Sometimes by the end, with the song fading out, I could actually hear the clouds creaking apart. --Jim Walsh


Lucky Jeremy, Call It What You Want...But This City Is Mine (Heart of a Champion)

Somewhere over Vegas, Lucky Jeremy told me that he grew up listening to Bruce Springsteen. We were both sitting in the emergency exit aisle on a flight to Minneapolis from L.A. (where he just moved from St. Paul), and his comment explains a lot about his latest album. On Call It What You Want...But This City Is Mine Jeremy yelps out anthems about being in the dumps with the mumps and adolescent pumps. His acid lyrics eat away the scenery over a hardcore boogie of dark metal chords, glam rock sneer, even the occasional Turf Club twang. And like the Boss and Jersey, Jeremy's songs are from a palpable place: With stories about smoky bars and "drowning in 10,000 lakes," he captures the glory and the grime that comes with drinking your way through a dark winter. By the end of the record, you grant that this city is still his, but you don't blame him for holing up somewhere on the Sunset Strip for a while. --Steve Marsh


Sicbay, Overreaction Time (54° 40' or Fight!)

Sicbay's Nick Sakes pens the kind of post-mortem lullabies that'll keep you shivering under the covers until day breaks. Shifting subtly between the manic and the just plain morose, this power-punk trio's second LP is a volatile response to 20 years of discordant noise. "Herculaneum" and "Jack Pine" are as startling as an alarm that blasts Fugazi at 5:00 a.m., while "Outside Help" reflects the tender side of Sakes's gruff baritone with subtle harmony--he sounds like a good friend assuring you that there aren't any monsters hiding under the bed. And that if there are, you should hide your record collection. --Kate Silver


Tera_Incognita, Tera_Incognita (Diggz Sounds Productions)  

Hidden springs jump like jack-in-the-box heads out of exotica-bedizened beats. Sampled ghost owls backstroke lazily through showers of baby talk. Metallic screams rip past foghorns and spooked violins. Welcome to Tera_Incognita, the unearthly brainchild of digit-wrangling potentate Lärmshank and Oddtoucher, possibly the only turntablist on the globe who neither uses nor needs headphones. The duo's surreal Brooklyn Center-spawned, self-titled experimental hip-hop epic makes for some of the thickest audio terrain available without a prescription--some of the least predictable, too. All they lack is an MC who's fluent in Venusian, although Oddtoucher's Connie Francis records are a perfectly good substitute. --Rod Smith


Various Artists, No Hold Back... All Attack!!! (self-released)

The fact that this is an all-Twin Cities punk compilation is reason enough to dance on our hats and sound the trumpets, a heralding we haven't heard since the last worthwhile Minnesota punk comp was released (No Hold Back's progenitor No Slow All Go in '95). The fact that it's three LPs (or two CDs), features 54 local bands, as many songs--one of them a rap by MC Felix von Havoc and three others all titled "Bottom of the Bottle"--might make it the greatest local punk compilation ever. It's a must-have hardcore yearbook that seethes and pulses with energy, real and raw. Hold it, and feel the weight of your city's punk rock underground. It is alive. --Chuck Terhark


Honorable mentions: Atmosphere, Seven's Travels (Rhymesayers/Epitaph); Big Ditch Road, Ring (Eclectone); Haley Bonar, The Size of Planets (Chairkickers' Union); Bridge Club, Commander Mandible (Skull Catapult); Grandpaboy, Dead Man Shake (Anti); Mike Gunther, Every Dream That's Dropped and Died (Heart of a Champion); Kentucky Gag Order, Monarques, My Imaginary Move (Schedule Two), Old Fashioned Sass for the Peacock and the Voyeur (Angry Seed); The King of France, Salad Days (Egret Records); Party of One, Caught the Blast (FatCat); Revolver Modèle, Revolver (self-released); The Soviettes, The Soviettes LP (Adeline); Various Artists, Iron Country (Spinout).

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