The 20 Best Albums of 2023 (Local)
Your band's album was #21, I swear.
10:56 AM CST on December 20, 2023
Don't take these ranking too literally—on another day, I might have jumbled the order up quite a bit. But here are 20 albums from Minnesota I'll happily conftinue listening to in 2024.
The return of the Clams’ Cindy Lawson was the great local comeback story of 2022, and it continued into 2023 with this six-song EP. On the title track, tuff garage-rock takes a mighty swing as Lawson softens her voice to a mocking pout; elsewhere she handles her vowels like a less Rimbaud-ridden Patti Smith. Lawson’s been gigging something fierce since plunging back into the scene last year and it shows here—this band is tight.
On the mic, Roland is good-natured but hardly a pushover, and he nimbly rhymes over Lazerbeak's melange of soul samples and dance beats. The rapper gets thoughtful on "Money Won't Save You" and looks back on "Came From Nothing," but he's best when he's just flexing, as when he bounds across balloony synths on "Triple Double."
In the hands of Riley Smithson, electronic glitches feel like breakdowns in communication, and throughout this album frustration blossoms into a kind of ornery vulnerability. Voices drift back into the mix, with newly recorded vocals sounding like unearthed ancient samples. Often Smithson falls back on basic guitar structures, but these too stagger and stumble. Beautiful, fraught, dogged, enigmatic.
This January release is bigger, trippier, dancier, lusher than last year’s excellent I Woke up Today Laughing, Opener “Now or Never” begins with hypnotic (and maybe a little ominous) piano ostinatos and soft vocals from bandleader Ranelle Labiche and builds to a truly dreamy chorus. And when the album gets a mite too dreamy, something like the off-kilter guitar rock of “Happfy” shakes it back awake.
After a bit of a hiatus, Liza returns with three more husky-voiced dissections of fraught relationships over Big Cats’ nuanced lowkey beatsmanship. "I'll Be the First to Say It" is a confession ("I am not what I thought I was"), "Crystal on the Line" picks up the tempo some, and “Smoked Out” analyzes an addiction to that “tectonic, chaotic shit” till a big ol’ synth hook opens up a window and airs the track out.
Bugsy singer/songwriter Emily Schoonover shelved a full album when they reconsidered their lyrics, which struck them as too personal for public consumption, but this six-song EP is hardly a rushed stopgap. Throughout anger turns inward and then bursts outward and then back in again, expressed in lines like “Would it kill me to say no sometimes?” and tunes make themselves heard without breaking into full-on choruses. My fave is “Recluse,” which starts a little muffled then breaks into a full indie raver as Schoonover vents their story of “sweat, spite, & boredom” over top.
In a tone of bored indignance, Colleen Dow tells a familiar story of fumbling toward self-discovery in early adulthood, with lyrics making the subject as fresh as it always seems to the person living through it. It’s a tale well-suited to a take on pop-punk (and then some) that doesn’t rewrite the rules but bends them in sneaky ways when it thinks no one is looking, thanks in particular to a flurry of fun guitar effects from Abe Anderson throughout.
13. Dessa: Bury the Lede
A lot of cool people I know (maybe you!) are over Dessa if they were ever even down with her, and I get it—she’s very much of a bougie’s idea of a boho, and that's reflected in the coverage she gets and where. But I don't care, I'm happy to tag along to her “Hurricane Party,” the apocalyptic function of where “desperate times call for desperate pleasures” and “live girls dance, dead men float,” and I appreciate Lazerbeak sharp sense of where her lines need to be punctuate. Her wordplay betrays few pretensions on this heady electrodance album about a smart woman trying not to overthink her romantic dilemmas.. And if there is a pretension or two, so what? I mean, she is smart.
Nobody wants to be remembered for what they didn’t do, and Ryan Olcott must hate to be known forever as the leader of Minneapolis’s great turn of the millennium coulda-been bands. So good for him for facing up to 12 Rods’ legacy, gussying up some old demos as a one-man-band to create the first album to be released under the Rods name in about two decades. Would these seven songs have sounded this fresh 20 years ago? Hard to say, and beside the point, really, though if 12 Rods had stayed alive their music likely wouldn’t have sounded just like this. Olcott’s expressive voice remains yelpy and breathy enough that you can hear why A&R folks heard money in it, but the arrangements have a more homemade feel. Anyway, who needs an alternate reality when the one we’re living in sounds this good?
OK, let's make a deal. I'm going to call NATL PARK SRVC "orchestral pop" and you're going to promise not to let that scare you off. Whatever negative adjectives thatma descriptor might call to mind—cluttered, pompous, fussy—Magician avoids completely. This is just richly layered, capital-R Romantic pop, with tunes a given but exceeding your expectations. There’s a lot going on here, but somehow this septet’s brightly layered mix of guitar, keyboards, and orchestration never trips over itself. In fact, the more instruments join in, the lighter the tracks feel. Sometimes more really is more.
Venting fover unobtrusively funky beats occasionally laced with soul samples, full-throated St. Paul MC Malik Curtis sounds hungry but not desperate on this baseball-themed full-length. “I don’t wanna debate about who gettin’ the most views,” he declares early on, and with features from Why Khaliq and other local hopefuls adding variety, he sets himself apart from the competition without forgetting to put his team on. Best of all is “Blessed Up,” a lulling, woozy expression of gratitude and boastfulness about being “better than the last me.” And with 11 songs in 36 minutes, there’s no pitch clock needed.
The first solo album from half of local pop hopefuls Now, Now (with the other half lending an instrumental hand) isn’t quite as bleak as its title suggests, but it’s hardly bluebirds tweeting on your windowsill. Rae obsesses over the word “happy” throughout. It’s the title of the album’s lead track; elsewhere she muses “I should be happier with someone else,” protests “Don’t make me happy when I know it’s gonna end,” and yearns “I just want to be happy again.” It’s how you can tell she’s actually been depressed and isn’t just another of the many sadness junkies that litter pop music—she knows there’s a better way to feel, and I hope these nine songs helped her get back there.
This funk eccentric (if that’s not redundant) keeps a grab bag of concepts on hand to take her music even further out than her layered melodic horns, acid Isleys-style guitar, and freakily modulated voice already do. I’m especially fond of the chorus of “SNQPQ” (“You walk in like a snack pack/So let me pull your lid back/And rearrange your spice rack/So I can give your tongue a hard slap”) and the daffy “What a Day” with its whistling synths and quick-stepping beat. Nobody’s Prince, but Mayda comes closer to his spirit by funking along her own path than any of the Minneapolis Sound imitators out there.
What Velveeta calls "weirdo music" may not be as cheesy, synthetic, or gooey as her name suggests, but it’s twisty-turny punk that knows just when to hit the chorus. Her grungy chord slaps will have the aged recalling Nirvana, though not necessarily on the one called “Sliver,” and in general Kurt would never solo so fluidly. Not every track here is an explosive melodic rant but “TERFS WILL NOT GET INTO HEAVEN,” which calls out “girl bossing sexist fascism” and cis silence, sure is. You’d rage plenty too if your identity was treated as “an issue.” In fact, maybe it is and you do.
Toward the close of 2020, a wrenching year everywhere but especially in the Twin Cities, three improvisatory musicians gathered in an empty St. Paul church near the Capitol and recorded what would become We Sick. Three years later, this collaboration between deVon Russell Gray on piano, Nathan Hanson on saxophone, and drummer Davu Seru was finally released. Cerebral but never abstract, with a searching quality to it, the music here acknowledges pain but never succumbs to it. At times, each musician seems to be working through his own private preoccupations, but still the improvisations hang together and elicit unexpected responses from each other—you could probably find a metaphor for the need to recreate community after the isolation of the early pandemic, or to refashion our ways of communication following the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.
Beyond Reason is Run Westy Run's first new album in... 33 years? Yep, the math don't lie—it's their first since Green Cat Island in 1990, though they've been playing many of these cuts live since reforming in 2013. The founding members—Kraig and Kirk Johnson, Terry Fischer—continue to swagger with a loose, shambling rock 'n' roll attitude youngsters have to sweat for while the tight rhythm section of drummer Peter Anderson and bassist Paul McFarland keep the party in bounds. Worth the wait.
Four years ago, Adriana Rimpel made a major statement with the bold experimental soul of Death Before Mourning. After an extensive absence, she returned this year with a more straightforwardly electronic album of what she calls “pain-pop” that picks up where she left off. “A more companionable Sade,” I once called Lady Midnight, and the cool of her vocals still emanates from an amicable distance. But where previously she worked with multiple producers, here all beats come courtesy of Night Stone, as ICETEP and Lazerbeak call themselves, and so whenever she’s tempted to dwell on the past, the rhythms keep pushing her forward.
That catch in Brandt’s purty voice and her deft musical accompaniment—pedal steel, tinkling piano, snappy guitar commentary—may be pure country, but the settings throughout this album are Minnesotan as all heck. She captures the sights, sounds, and vibe of the "Eagles 34" with reportorial accuracy, right down to its “denim on denim” and “cowboy hipsters,” and a soft-focus cover of Lucinda Williams’s bitter “Minneapolis” fits right in. But Brandt also ventures outside the metro, where an “Old Northern Woman” in a bar sets her straight when she gets weepy, and where a tenderly evoked southeastern Minnesota landscape moves her “gently like a needle in a groove.”
MMYYKK's July show at the Dakota was a highlight of my 30-concerts-in-30-days stunt, and his latest album doesn’t lose any of the goodwill, intensity, or instrumental dynamics of his live performances. The keyboardist works in a post D’Angelo vein, with Dilla-style the-beat-goes-where? rhythms, though his multi-tracked falsetto owes more to Curtis Mayfield than Marvin Gaye, and the addition of interstellar synths sets him apart. All of which may just be a long way of restating the Guardian’s untoppably economic “D’Angelo being strapped to a spaceship.” “Who can I trust in a world of deep fakes?” he asks, and though he doesn’t explicitly answer it, crucial assists from Rikki Monique’s raps and Omar AbdulKarim horns assure him that he’s not on his own.
1. Ber, Halfway
After a stint broadening her mind and honing her popcraft overseas, Bemidji drama kid Berit Dybing settled in the Cities to report from the dating front with just as much dissatisfaction as anyone who’s ever been 25 would expect. “Everybody needs a slutphase while they’re young and hot,” she sings and maybe half-believes on a banger (if you’ll excuse the term here) about screwing your way beyond a breakup. Elsewhere she complains about boys who always want to talk about their bands after they make out with you, wishes a shitty internet connection on an ex, and boasts that "Minnesota has seasons."
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