Now that the year is half-past, it’s become somewhat of a tradition to pause and reflect on the music that’s come out thus far. One writer in particular, Chris Riemenschneider at the Star Tribune, has been compiling his mid-year best-of list for 11 years now, and he stopped by the Local Show this past weekend to share some of his picks and compare them to our own favorites here at the station.
I’ve always had an aversion to definitive lists, so even these mid-year, just-for-fun exercises make me a bit squeamish. In a seemingly finite pool like the Minnesota music community, it is impossible to claim that one has truly listened to everything. How could we? At least one of the bands on my list would still be unknown for me if I hadn’t happened to see them at a regional festival, and more than half of the albums I’ve listened to so far this year are ones I sought out online rather than discovered in the submissions pile at the office. Try as I might to keep up with it all, I always have the nagging suspicion that I’m missing something.
But I do think that a round-up can serve a couple of legitimate purposes. It’s a way for me to share what I’ve discovered and loved so far this year with you, and it’s a way for you to tell me what I’m missing. So if there is some glaring oversight (beyond the big releases by artists like Dessa, Cloud Cult, and Lucy Michelle, each of which I found to be serviceable representations of their respective voices but not their best work for various reasons), then please, tell me about it in the comments. I’d love to hear what you think.
Aby Wolf, Wolf Lords
We already knew Aby Wolf was one of the most gifted singers in our fair state, and this album further explores the possibilities of her mesmerizing and acrobatic voice. Born out of late-night improvisational sessions, Wolf’s collaboration with Grant Cutler paints with vivid, bright colors and captures an electro-pop sound that is at once nostalgic and fresh.
I have a feeling that Wolf Lords fans will find a lot to love in the debut album from VANDAAM, and vice-versa. VANDAAM is a collaboration between producers sloslylove and Adept and singer Lady Midnight, best known in town as the lead singer of fiery Cuban band Malamanya. VANDAAM is significantly more down-tempo and pop-oriented than Lady Midnight’s other work, and the two producers weave an intricate web to support her breathy, gauzy melodies.
Easily one of my most-played albums of the year so far, I’ve found myself returning to Southwire again and again for its clever complexities. The formula seems so simple on the surface—a folk singer with gospel leanings forms a band with a couple of hip-hop dudes from Duluth, and a folk-gospel-meets-spoken word album emerges—but the whole thing is executed with such tenderness and precision that its sum is truly greater than its parts. If you don’t own this one yet, get it on vinyl.
Low, The Invisible Way
With the hubbub from Low’s Rock the Garden performance still fresh in our minds, don’t space on the understated beauty and poetic pop found on their 10th studio album, The Invisible Way. With Jeff Tweedy of Wilco at the helm, the band managed to capture the warmth of the room along with the sweet melodies and roaring cacophony of hidden nuggets like “On My Own.”
Haphduzn & Dimitry Killstorm, Whittier Alliance
There’s a good reason why Haphduzn was tapped to open for Atmosphere’s Welcome to Minnesota tour this winter: He had just introduced himself to the scene with the breakout album of the year, Whittier Alliance, a record he made with burgeoning producer Dimitry Killstorm. Haphduzn clearly understands the history of the hip-hop genre—something he spells out plainly in the catchy “Brand New Nostalgia”—and he and Killstorm pay homage to their roots with funky, old-school beats and clever turns of phrase that reveal themselves after repeated listens.
Frankie Lee, Middle West
The Twin Cities have never been short on roots-rock bands and country-leaning folk acts, and there have already been quite a few excellent releases in that vein this year (see: Taj Raj’s Fine Hearts Alive EP, and the Farewell Circuit’s We Were Wolves), but for my money Frankie Lee’s Middle West is the best composed and produced roots release I’ve heard in quite some time. Of course, it helps that he’s spent the past 15 years or so cooking up the five songs on his debut EP, but the album is so promising that I’m already looking forward to his next album—and the one he makes after that.
The Replacements, Songs for Slim
I know, an obvious choice. But I cannot tell you how big of a sigh of relief escaped from my lips when I heard the first few bars of the Replacements’ Songs for Slim EP, their first official release since 1990’s All Shook Down. These legacy act reunions can be so loaded—there are so many expectations, with so many years of obsession and unrequited fandom left to simmer—but Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson managed to capture the same irreverent, freewheeling spirit that made them such a celebrated band in their heyday on this collection of covers, which was recorded to raise money for ailing guitarist Slim Dunlap.
Bear the Sound, Anthrocene
There’s been a trend this year of Minnesota bands recreating the fuzzy, lo-fi, guitar-driven sounds of early ’90s alt bands. These days, now that indie rock has gone mainstream, it’s hard to know what to call this return to a genre that once literally provided an alternative to Top 40 rock. Post-post-post-rock? Regardless of how many hyphens you think are appropriate, I’ve been enjoying the boom in bands like Prissy Clerks, Fury Things, the Magikats, and Bear the Sound, whose debut Anthrocene pulls the listener in a lot of different and surprising directions. There are definitely psych influences, but Bear the Sound’s Jeremy Warden also clearly has an ear for pop melody; just when you think the wash of feedback is going to overcome the album, he busts in with a charming little freak-folk ditty that guides the whole thing back on track.
Are They Local?
No mid-year 2013 semi-comprehensive list should be complete without the inclusion of two expats from Minnesota, José James and Har Mar Superstar, who released stellar albums this year. Minneapolis native James’s No Beginning No End combines his love of hip-hop, jazz, and soul to create a compelling collection worthy of its Blue Note imprint, while Har Mar Superstar, a.k.a. Owatonna native Sean Tillmann, knocked it outta the park with his ’60s soul-channeling Bye Bye 17.