Skip to contents
Music

10 Local Albums From 2021 That Were Better Than a Lot of Other Local Albums

A definitive best-of list? In this economy? No, but here's a handpicked selection of the Minnesota music I kept coming back to.

MMYYKK, Gully Boys
Bandcamp/Juliet Farmer

The big story in local music this past year, reported ad infinitum, was that the clubs opened back up. It’s true! They did! And that was good news—not just for fans of live music, but for the musicians and other industry workers who require functioning performance spaces so they can do their jobs, get paid, and eat.

But another story, creeping up just underneath, was how some musicians took advantage of their forced time away from the crowds to hone their studio craft. With so many of us creatively stifled or otherwise occupied during 2020, it couldn’t have been easy. So to honor those efforts, rather than selecting a best of, I’m just passing along 10 albums I will happily return to over the next year. To be even more cowardly about it I’ve listed in alphabetical order.

What’s that? Oh yes, your album was really good too.

Gully Boys – Favorite Son

“We were so DIY, we thought, ‘What we can play is what we got,’” drummer Nadi McGill told me earlier this year of the band’s recording ethos. But the Boys’ latest EP has an actual producer: Zach Zurn handled all the tracks except “Russian Doll,” which Jake Luppen of Hippo Campus produced. (McGill again: “We were like, ‘You can do this stuff with songs? You can layer all this stuff?”) The title track sets the tone for the record, with its broader array of guitar parts, Kathy Callahan’s vocals often softening to contrast more sharply with her shouts, and the rhythm section of McGill and bassist Natalie Klemond increasingly intricate in its attack. The song centers around the ambiguous phrase “power is born,” and singer Callahan relishes each syllable, the music surrounding her fiercer but less “punk” than ever (which was never much), a kind of hard melodic rock that pulls from whatever musical style seems like it’ll fit the mood.

[Read my full Gully Boys’ feature, “The Gully Boys Are Back in Town.”]

Dylan Hicks – Accidental Birds

Hicks is a decade into a midlife musical renaissance I can only hope lasts till he checks out at 89, his estimated life expectancy per the beautifully depression-weathering “2059.” He’s a word guy, sure: spurious maxims (“If you dream of walnuts/Your bike will be stolen”), idiosyncratic rhymes (“old bar towel’/“old barn owl”), and elaborately quippy details (“a drawerful of misanthropic t-shirts,” “Jamie Farr reaching for his gong”) sketch out scenarios or narratives that often smuggle in a sneaky sentimental undertow. Easygoing yet durable melodies are also a given. But the balance of pandemic home-tinkering and (chiefly remote) contributions from musicians whose names will draw approving recognition from astute Twin Cities locals are the real draw here. While the electronics may tug your ear first—the synths that bounce-bounce-bounce through “Twyla Tharp” and crackles that glitch JT Bates’ actual drums on “Drunk from Work”—each track offers some musical pleasure that words and tunes alone wouldn’t have delivered: lopes and twitches of studio-funk guitar, unheralded horn smatterings, and Michelle Kinney’s accompanying-not-just-adorning cello, which seems to fit most every mood.

Humbird – Still Life

A “whoopsy baby” of a record, Siri Undlin calls it, crafted largely with roommate/production whiz Addie Strei in the late summer of 2020. It’s an album to lose yourself in during certain moods, or in others to find comforting details to grasp onto. The opening instrumental “Hymn for Whom” sets the electropastoral tone, with overlaid washes and patterns, guitar plucking crisply in the foreground, woodwinds fluttering an overture, a few high end piano notes plinking toward the middle. The rhythm section often wraps in from below, and there’s a fully three-dimensional sense of space and depth, so a saxophone solo might feel overheard from the distance. Undlin’s lyrics often express best wishes, hopes, and reassurance, addressing injuries either flatly stated or subtly implied. They can be as grand as a spiritual on the closing “On the Day We Are Together Again” or as plainspoken as “Today I was not as kind as I set out to be.” Yet even at their simplest there’s an enticing structure at play, as when “Charlotte” rhymes and half-rhymes with “doin’ it” and “moment.”

[Read my full Humbird feature, “Humbird Stirs from the Pandemic with the Lush, Moving ‘Still Life’”]

Kiss the Tiger – Vicious Kid

These 12 tracks come as close to capturing the ferocity and emotional range of the band’s live show as possible without them standing on a stage in front of you. At times it’s nearly as thick as the Stones’ Sticky Fingers without the heroin, at others practically as bristling as the Stooges’s Raw Power without the nihilism. The twin guitar attack of band co-founder Michael Anderson on rhythm and Bridger Fruth on lead sometimes locks in with the versatile rhythm section of drummer Paul DeLong and bassist Jay DeHut and sometimes cuts across it. There’s the flirtatious forward tumble of “Who Does Her Hair?,” the soulfully resigned “I Miss You,” the self-explanatory “Grown Ass Woman,” and the tricky little art-metal bits of the ominously clomping closer “The Dinosaur Song.” All are defined by the swagger and persona Megan Kreidler, who’s like if Karen O and Mick Jagger had a daughter—and then she kicked them both out of the house.

[Read my Kiss the Tiger profile, “Kiss the Tiger’s Meghan Kreidler Became a Rock Star the Hard Way.”]

Low – HEY WHAT

Low’s last album, 2018’s Double Negative, was rock as digitized cubism, each musical element chopped and processed and assembled into recompositions both forbidding and foreboding. Though no less experimental in its way, HEY WHAT instead spotlights the contrast between the endlessly mutable guitar and the relatively untreated human voices of Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. Where its predecessor tended toward the abstract at times, HEY WHAT never abandons a melodic core, the familiar structure of a song. The guitar hovers on the outside of this, an entity that afflicts the singers, then sometimes enters their midst. And for all their impeccable, nigh on stately harmonies, these are two distinct people communicating, and to highlight that, sometimes one singer will hold a note longer than the other, or break into a countermelody. Staying together takes effort, and never feels perfect—as Parker and Sparhawk sing (together) on “Days Like These”: “No, you’re never gonna feel complete/No, you’re never gonna be released.”

papa mbye – MANG FI

The debut EP from north Minneapolis artist and singer Papa Mbye is all over the place—and I mean that in a good way. Mbye describes himself as “a Senegalese artist living in Minneapolis” and Mang Fi translates to “I’m here” in his birth country’s predominant language Wolof, with the location of “here” left ambiguous: It’s wherever Mbye happens to be. In the production, split between Ben Farmer and Zak Khan, I hear touches of the Nigerian-spawned, global dance phenomenon Afrobeats, and sometimes (though I might be straining) guitar or keyboard patterns whose styles I could trace back to the Senegalese pop of Mbye’s childhood. But mostly I hear a close listener to cool contemporary rhythmic pop styles surfing his way to his own sound along Auto-Tuned vocals, rattling 808s, and a percussive bass that blasts through whatever’s up top with two or three note punches. And though his tone is often melancholy, there’s a high energy here that rarely flags.

MMYYKK – Science

For years, some musicians have argued that funk and R&B and hip-hop and jazz are all just fancy sales terms for a unified but ever-evolving Black music, and it was tempting to just wave that away with a “yeah, yeah, artists hate pigeonholes, we get it.” But we really are in a world where making those distinctions seems pedantic, where even getting conceptual and tagging Black music with a label as slick as “Afrofuturism” ignores how often past, present, and future are in a dance with each other. Mychal Fisher isn’t set on streamlining his slinking horns, sinuous harmonies, and organic-electronic fusion into a pop hybrid—he’s just staking claim to these sounds as tools for future living. You can hear shades of Maxwell, D’Angelo, and even a certain Minneapolis fellow who shall remain as unnamed here as he was in the ’90s.

Muskellunge – In a Mess, in a State, and a Second Too Late

This town was full of some great mightabeens in the ’90s. This new/old album, recorded at the Terrarium in 1991-92, gives you a shot to judge for yourself what you maybe missed. John Crozier’s studio-rat obsessiveness never cuts into the forward-tilting abandon, his guitar sometimes establishing its presence on tone alone (that teletype rhythm on “Still Learning”) or expanding out from shoegazed fuzz into hooky lines. Boyd’s frisky bass tumbles to the fore on a cover of Hüsker Dü’s “Chartered Trips.” Reba Fritz’s voice is always unshaken at the center of the storm, whether keeping her bearings or summoning the noise. Throughout there’s a broader sense of dynamics than soft verse/LOUD CHORUS that came to be a cliché. If some of the fresh-faced ’90s babies looking backward for inspiration these days had recorded this album, it’d be in Best New Music contention.

[Read my full Muskellunge feature, “Muskellunge are Back from the ’90s, and Just in Time”]

Dua Saleh – Crossover

Like its two predecessors, Dua Saleh’s latest EP has its own musical identity: It’s a dance album, yes, but it’s Dua’s dance album, which means none of its seven tracks sticks to a single discrete style and, even at its most direct and propulsive, there’s a woozy sway to the rhythms. Start with the single “Fitt,” a collab with Ghanaian-American singer Amaarae. The opening track, “focal,” is clubby, heavy on bass throb and twitchy house drums, an ideal setting for Saleh’s promise that “I can see the future in the fire and the fodder.” Downpitched to a haunting bass, bent up to a chirp, flaunting a gorgeous vibrato while singing in Spanish, Dua’s voice sets the tone regardless of what’s happening around them.

VIAL – Loudmouth

Reporting from the DIY front lines, many of the songs from this young band explore the universal truth that men are, if not outright terrible, at least terribly exasperating—an inexhaustible topic that well may outlast gender itself and for now at least an inescapable one for non-dudes who rock. The lyrics are ruthless: There’s a shouted chorus of “Get therapy!” and a patty-cake taunt of “You’re not punk/You’re not queer/Nobody even wants you here.” For all the old-school Riot Grrrl influence here, especially when Taylor Kraemer gets all nyah-nyah on some jerk’s ass, the album whips through styles with a squirrel-like patience and shows off the ease with which they can adapt to an individual song’s musical needs. KT Branscom is a whiz, wending a lovely Peter Hook-style line through “Violet” or seeming to jumble the notes of “Rock Lobster” in a totally different order for the murderous riff of “Roadkill.” Kate Kanfield and Katie Fischer are a versatile rhythm section, whether delivering a beat as expected as straight punk bounce or as off-kilter as the haunted carousel waltz of “Ego Death.” And for fans of trumpet solos, there’s “Vodka Lemonade,” which has a trumpet solo.

[Read my full VIAL feature, “Forget ‘Stupid Fucking TikTok’—VIAL Is Ready to Be a Band Again.”]

And now, as a very special holiday gift to you, two full weeks of music listings. Ho ho ho!

Thursday, Dec. 23

The Night Before The Night Before Christmas with The Misdemeanors and TYSM! @ Amsterdam

MN Songwriter Showcase hosted by Nick Hensley @ Aster Cafe

Louis Armstrong Night w/ Southside Aces @ Dakota

Bluegrass Under A Green Tree – Johnson Brothers, Brotherhood of Birds, Buffalo Galaxy, and Frog & The Bog @ Hook and Ladder

Lady Midnight’s Last Mourning @ Icehouse

The Toxenes, Cola Horse and The Erratix @ Palmer’s

Glow Mechanics (Album Release) with Mickey Breeze, Jada Brown and Adriatic @ 7th St Entry

Nato Coles & the Blue Diamond Band, Bar Chords @ 331 Club

All Tomorrow’s Petty (December Residency) with 2Fäst4thëDëvíł and Wayne and the Boys @ Turf Club

Turn Turn Turn (Thursday Residency) @ White Squirrel

Saturday, Dec. 25

The Bad Plus @ Dakota

Run Westy Run with Cindy Lawson @ 7th St Entry

Sunday, Dec. 26

The Bad Plus @ Dakota

Swing Brunch with Patty and the Buttons @ Aster Cafe

Scott Keever @ Icehouse

Pavel Jany & Dean Harrington @ Icehouse

Nightchurch @ Icehouse

Church of Cornbread: Cornbread Harris and His Band @ Palmer’s

The Sapsuckers 4th Sunday’s “Western Wear Contest” with special guest Hemma @ Palmer’s

Gully Boys (December Residency) with King Pari and Lupin @ 7th St Entry

Tyro @ Skyway Theatre

Monday, Dec. 27

The Bad Plus @ Dakota

Zacc Harris (Residency) @ Icehouse

The Roe Family Singers @ 331 Club

Matt Arthur & Friends @ 331 Club

K.C. McKee w/ Trash Catties @ White Squirrel

Tuesday, Dec. 28

The Bad Plus @ Dakota

Abhorrent Expanse @ Icehouse

PUSHmas Eve @ 7th St Entry

December Conspiracy Series featuring Debbie Briggs Vintage Jazz Combo @ 331 Club

Trevor McSpadden and Mary Cutrufello @ White Squirrel

Wednesday, Dec. 29

Killed By Kiwis, !Okay, and First Electric @ Amsterdam

MN Songwriter Showcase hosted by Nick Hensley @ Aster Cafe

Moore by Four @ Dakota

Daniel Volovets @ Icehouse

The Last 2021 Rave @ 7th St Entry

KFAI House Party Presents the Eddies @ 331 Club

House on Fire Band, Twins, Hans Gruber 5 @ 331 Club

Like Trees w/ Katie Henry, The Owl-Eyes (acoustic set) @ White Squirrel

Thursday, Dec. 30

Bruise Violet with creeping charlie and VIAL @ Amsterdam

Lights All Night Minneapolis @ Armory

​​Dessa with Mayyadda @ First Avenue

TIm Sparks Trio @ Icehouse

Gothess Presents: Dead End @ Icehouse

The Front Porch Swingin’ Liquor Pigs @ Palmer’s

Allergen, Breathe and Repeat, Natl Park Srvc, OKNice @ Part Wolf

Blood Smoke Body with 26 Bats! and Ness Nite @ 7th St Entry

Womanfolk Presents Mary Cutrufello and JoJo Green @ 331 Club

Turn Turn Turn (Thursday Residency) @ White Squirrel

Friday, Dec. 31

Flip Phone Presents… 90’s NYE Party! @ Amsterdam

Lights All Night Minneapolis @ Armory

Wookiefoot @ Cabooze

Davina & the Vagabonds @ Dakota

New Year’s Eve Danceteria @ First Avenue

NYE with Fat Kid Wednesday & Friends @ Icehouse

The Suburbs with The Suicide Commandos and Scrunchies @ Palace Theatre

Jaedyn James @ Palmer’s

BimboGate @ Part Wolf

NYE 2022 Bash feat. LSDream @ Skyway Theatre

The Shackletons (Record Released) with bugsy and The Carnegies @ 7th St Entry

New Year’s Eve with GraveZig @ 331 Club

Reina del Cid with TABAH and DJ Dave Hoenack @ Turf Club

The Bad Man, Monica LaPlante, DJ Manny Duke @ Uptown VFW

Beneath the Crow, Loser Magnet, Joe Hysell and the Mercenary Ramblers @ White Squirrel

Saturday, Jan. 1

Becky Schlegel and The High 48s Bluegrass Brunch @ Aster Cafe

Liz Draper & Tasha Baron @ Icehouse

Cornbread Harris: New Year’s Dinner Celebration @ Icehouse

Betty Won’t, Body Lice and Plastic Abstracts @ Palmer’s

The Blend and special guests @ Part Wolf

Red Eye Ruby, Elour, Ben Cook-Feltz @ 331 Club

Sunday, Jan. 2

Swing Brunch with Patty and the Buttons @ Aster Cafe

Liz Draper & Tasha Baron @ Icehouse

Cornbread Harris: Church of Cornbread @ Palmer’s

Michael Gay’s Old Country Buffet @ Palmer’s

Charlie Parr (Sunday Residency) with portal iii @ Turf Club

Monday, Jan. 3

The Roe Family Singers @ 331 Club

Matt Arthur & Friends @ 331 Club

The Cactus Blossoms (Monday Residency) with Brianna Kočka @ Turf Club

Tuesday, Jan. 4

January Conspiracy Series featuring Gabe Barnett & them Rounders @ 331 Club

Hippo Campus Presents: A Blossom Residency @ Turf Club

Wednesday, Jan. 5

White Line Darko with Zippo Man and Sugar Free Mercury @ Amsterdam

Kiss the Tiger and Trademark Theater Present “Stone Baby” @ Icehouse

Foe with Ginny & The Fizz, Alien Book Club and Pöng Flower @ 7th St Entry

KFAI House Party Presents @ 331 Club

Radio 5 Watt Presents @ 331 Club

Andrew Broder & People (January Residency) with Velvet Negroni, Greta Ruth, Nat Harvie @ Turf Club

Thursday, Jan. 6

Southside Aces @ Icehouse

The Front Porch Swingin’ Liquor Pigs @ Palmer’s

STRNGR & Destryur’s Night at the Grindhouse feat. Natsukime and Dominick Martes with North Innsbruck, BadNraD, and DJ Bionick Jones @ 7th St Entry

John Louis, Boe Ross, Michael Gay @ 331 Club