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The 10 Best Local Albums of 2022

Sorry, your band's album came in at No. 11.

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Scrunchies, SYM1

So, 2022 was the year everything finally went back to normal.

If by normal you mean a continuing (if less acknowledged) pandemic continuing to derail tours that artists were lucky not to lose money on even in the best circumstances. If by normal you mean musicians burning out on constant self-promotion via social media and algorithm-jiggering. If by normal you mean a system of economic constrictions that makes any kind of creative endeavor a financial risk.

But hey, wait, we’re celebrating the year that was, right? That could be difficult at times in '22, a year that suffered, perhaps most notably, the death of Low's Mimi Parker. And though live music returned, not everyone felt comfortable becoming part of a crowd again. Personally, I didn’t get out to see as much live music as usual, for reasons I went into here

But there's always recorded music. Thanks, Edison. And so, without any further doomsaying, here are 10 local albums from 2022 that I’ll keep coming back to, ordered alphabetically.  

Water Valley High

I don’t know if any punctuation mark is more abused and misused in the internet age than the exclamation point? But on their latest album, recorded in one week at Drive-by Truckers bassist Matt Patton’s Mississippi studio, Eleganza! does not exclaim its name in vain. Though as meat 'n' potatoes as local rockers come, wringing wisdom and good times out of lines like “You gotta go away to get back home” or “C’mon baby let’s rock a little more tonight,” their roots extend far enough to take in the Dolls as much as the Stones, and Brian Vanderwerf’s weathered voice doesn’t strain to prove what the songs should make apparent. And the album is back loaded with barbed lyrics: “Get Brown” celebrates the end of majority white America as (less explicitly) does “Borderless.” Listen here.

Elle PF
I Woke Up Today Laughing

Renelle LaBiche, the songwriter who fronts Elle PF, currently lives in Los Angeles, the westernmost suburb of the Twin Cities metro, but we won’t hold that against her. The band’s seven-song album, their first lengthy release in three years, is rooted in Labiche’s keyboards, whether piano or synth, and animated by her coolly observant vocals. The mononymous Doc’s guitar jabs rhythmically, leans into full-on power chording, or melodically augments the arrangements (as, on occasion, does Alex Gale’s viola) and the rhythm section of bassist Jenessa LaSota and drummer John Acarregui shifts along smoothly from the off-kilter “Punk Song” to the disco-adjacent “Think Too Much About It.” The effect is broadly theatrical without being needlessly over-the-top. Super-catchy too. Listen here.

Dylan Hicks & Small Screens
Airport Sparrows

Now five albums into the second act of his career as a singer-songwriter, Hicks’s musical ambitions keep expanding: The instrumental title track stretches out for more than nine-and-a-half minutes but never meanders. And he's gathered a supple chamber-jazz sextet of top local players to help him along. The album features sax and clarinet colors and breezy solos from Christopher Thomson, Michelle Kinney’s dominant cello, and comps and improvisations from guitarist Zacc Harris and Hicks’s own keyboards, while the rhythm section of Charlie Lincoln and Peter Hennig that keeps things moving. But at the core still are Hicks’s straightforward melodies and wry lyrics. Listen here.

Loser Magnet
Empty Year

You can be a dreamy and atmospheric guitar band without being all vague and woozy about it, and this four-piece can show you the way. This is an album of post-lockdown rousing, powered by the contrast between the textural vibe and the direct attack, with an M.O. that opener “Two Tears” sketches as the pixelated distortion that rises out of Joe Marxen’s guitar coda pierces the drifting composition. On “Physical,” which Najua Saad wants to get, the singer lays it out clear: “I met somebody at the bar.” By the end, they’re rocking out with a track called “Loser Magnet.” If being drawn to a band this inventive makes me a loser, so? Why don’t you kill me? Listen here.

Have You Tried Being Happy?

“I told myself I’d make a happy record / Told my friends I’d get my act together / Y’’all can see I failed at that, whatever.” There’s a full range of emotion between happiness and depression, and it’s where most of our lives are mostly lived. It’s also where this Oklahoma-born St. Paul rapper’s music thrives. Over a selection of trickily adorned beats, less spare and simple than they might seem, OKnice describes that life in a warm, slightly syrupy voice. Collaborating with a slew of producers—Deergod, Zepeda & Akamoto, Minnesota Cold, Metasota, and Hex—OKnice accumulated a serious collection of head-nod beats to rhyme over, with details like the sneaky bass under “Nowhere: USA” or jazzmatazzy horns running over “Pleasantville” serving as subtle but engaging hooks. Listen here.

Psalm One X Custom Made
Bigg Perrm

Cristalle Bowen keeps busy as hell—I’ve lost count of the number of sharp EPs she’s let slip out over the past few years. (I can’t even keep track of whether she’s living in Chicago or Minneapolis these days. Both maybe?) But Psalm One kicked into high gear in 2022, releasing her first book, Her Word Is Bond: Navigating Hip-Hop and Relationships in a Culture of Misogyny, and this full-length collab with Chicago beatmaker Custom Made. Admittedly “crazy messy,” the rapper effortlessly wields rhymes of self-definition and harsh burns. I’m partial to “I deserve a mental health decade,” “Please don’t let your stupid face / End up on a stupid shirt,” and this spoken aside to the man she’s keeping on the DL: “If anyone asks, you’re my brother. Ha ha, just kidding.” Beat. “You’re my cousin.” Listen here.

Joe Rainey

A pow-wow singer and member of the Red Lake Ojibwe, born in Minneapolis, based in Wisconsin, Rainey has been collecting recordings of Native singers (including himself) for years. An Eaux Claires performance that overwhelmed Justin Vernon and expanded the singer’s creative network led to this crafty collaboration with the ever-versatile Minneapolis producer Andrew Broder. Electronic producers have drawn on indigenous sounds plenty in the past, sliding along a wide scale from appreciation to exploitation. But Rainey and Broder are equal partners, aiming at a genuine fusion beyond novelty, with live singing from Rainey as powerful as anything in his sample bag. Listen here.

Feral Coast

At a brisk 11 songs in 32 minutes, Feral Coast is straight-ahead punk that doesn’t just carelessly let it rip. Matt Castore’s bass, recorded crisply, provides the kind of melodic low-end that gives a guitarist room to maneuver instead of always filling space with rhythm chords, especially in tandem with Danielle Cusack’s fiercely controlled drumming. And Laura Larson takes advantage of the freedom, dropping out entirely at times, adding a delicate figure to “The Houseplant,” or working out a killer riff against the rhythmic grain. And all while delivering distorted, energizing rants in a style that’ll remind you of the ’90s even if you hadn’t been born yet. Listen here.

All That U Want

Sure, everyone’s half-machine nowadays, but Sym1 was plugged in back when you all were still 100% meat. Her new five-song EP, All That U Want, nods back to the rave culture of yesterday and leaps forward over electronic pop’s next half-dozen or so microtrends to land on what will be next—once everyone else catches up. If you’ve already heard the lead single, “Midnight Crush,” you know to expect snares like whips and giant slabs of synth, but the real treat on the EP is her vocal range: soaringly anthemic one minute, breathily enticing the next. Listen here.

Unknown Prophets

As Minneapolis rap was starting to break nationwide at the turn of the century, the Northeast crew Unknown Prophets was right in the pack with the best of them. The production/rapping duo of Big Jess and MaD SoN (aka Bump Opera) dropped a true classic, 2000’s self-released World Premier. Now, 11 years since their last release, the Prophets return, as righteous as ever, and maybe a touch moodier, as befits the times. Listen here.

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