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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And now, as a very special holiday gift to you, two full weeks of music listings. Ho ho ho!
Thursday, Dec. 23
Saturday, Dec. 25
Sunday, Dec. 26
Monday, Dec. 27
Tuesday, Dec. 28
Wednesday, Dec. 29
Thursday, Dec. 30
Friday, Dec. 31
Saturday, Jan. 1
Sunday, Jan. 2
Monday, Jan. 3
Tuesday, Jan. 4
Wednesday, Jan. 5
Thursday, Jan. 6