In November, we asked listeners and readers to chime in on their favorite local releases of the year. We saw a tremendous response — over 4,000 ballots in fact — and we aired the top 20 on The Local Show last week.
In addition to those results, here’s some of the local team’s favorites, all of which have made a big impact on Minnesota music in 2013.
Caroline Smith - Half About Being A Woman
Change never comes easy. It starts as an internal battle. As an artist, simply mustering up the courage to change course mid-journey is more than some can call-up. Once that battle has been won, the real test begins. The same fear that can prevent us from doing things differently can also prevent us from accepting things different from what we know or have known. Sometimes we just don’t wanna do it or see it or hear it. It’s a subconscious reminder of how small we actually are and that chaos is constant, and king. This effect is amplified for musicians, who’s previous works are photo albums forever preserving what once was on shelves in fans homes, or all over the internet.
When I think about that, I begin to appreciate the courage and skill it took for Caroline Smith to make Half About Being A Woman. There’s not a whole lot of aesthetic similarities with this album and any of her previous work. She went from being a neo-folkie with a cute band name to dropping a full on R&B record in two years time. And to me, neither this record, nor it’s predecessors feel any more authentic. Caroline Smith was that, now she’s this, and tomorrow she’ll be… I can’t wait to find out.
Aby Wolf - Wolf Lords
I’ve known about Aby Wolf’s super powers for a while now. I’ve seen her do things with her voice that human beings generally are unable to do. Aby seamlessly blends her harmonies with the lead when in a supporting role and holds the spotlight with her own unique brand of Laurie Anderson meets Whitney Houston fireworks when she’s the featured artist. Her dynamic vocal capability is undeniable, but I haven’t always felt that it was supported with the compositions and production it deserved… until now. Joining forces with musician/producer Grant Cutler (Lookbook) under the Wolf Lords banner seems to be THE answer. From the moment I heard the swelling orchestra of synths typhoon into a bass bomb that would make Skrillex blush on the first track “Permission,” I knew that these two were meant for one another. Grant capably provides the sonic landscape upon which Aby can truly run free.
Har Mar Superstar - Bye Bye 17
Sean Tillman picked me up in a rented mini-van from my other job at The Electric Fetus on a Tuesday night around 9:30. We were scheduled to head back to St. Paul to record a couple of breaks about his new record, which at this point, I had not heard a note of. “You wanna hear some of the album?” he said with a smirk while he piloted the vehicle and fumbled with his phone trying to make a bad jack and cord cooperate with each other. “Yes, Sean. I do.” With the connection problem intermittently solved and the speakers now hissing violently, we proceeded.
Buh dum dum dum WHAAAAAAAAAAAAA! LADY YOU SHOT ME!
It was like being punched in the face by Mike Tyson with love. After “Lady You Shot Me,” he played “Prisoner.” The rest of the night was kind of a blur. I was stoned. Not in the chemical sense, but I was totally high on the situation. I had no idea if the interview was any good, but I knew the record was. More importantly, I knew this was a huge step forward for Sean; a step that would forever free him from the burden of gimmick that felt like it had begun to weigh him down. For a moment, I could see the future. And in it I saw Har Mar Superstar. And he was wearing pants.
Lizzo – Lizzobangers
Rapper Lizzo turned to producer Lazerbeak for inspiration while battling a bout of writer’s block, but the resulting collaboration did much more than simply jump-start her creativity. Lizzobangers is easily the rapper’s strongest and clearest work to date, and it captures everything that’s laudable about this rising star: her wit, her flow, her innate sense of timing, and her malleable, chameleonic voice. Lizzo will verbally pummel you one minute and giggle sweetly the next, as if to say that this whole dominating-the-scene-with-raw-talent thing is just all too easy for her.
Southwire – Southwire
It’s always exhilarating about a new band emerges with such a distinctive and textured sound. Southwire’s hybrid of gospel, folk, blues and spoken word is so unique that it seems like it could have only happened when singer-songwriter Jerree Small united with hip-hop artist Ben Larson. The merging of their talents created one of my favorite albums of the year, and the one I easily listened to the most; it was also one of several high-quality releases that cemented Chaperone Records’ place as Duluth’s premier record label.
The Cloak Ox - Shoot the Dog
It takes a lot of guts to put a nine-minute song at the very beginning of an album, but for the Cloak Ox their monstrous slow-burner “Yesterday’s Me” is merely an invitation to let go and got lost in what is about to follow. “This is journey music,” keyboardist DeVon Gray told me when he played me the Cloak Ox’s debut full-length for the first time, and that description stuck with me all fall as I returned to the album again and again. I never found myself putting on Shoot the Dog in the background—these are songs that reveal new surprises with each listen and are most rewarding when held at the very front of one’s mind.
Carroll - Needs EP
Carroll’s Needs EP came out much earlier this year, but it still had enough lasting power to make it to #19 on our listener-voted Top Local Releases poll on The Local Show. And that’s for good reason: these guys make gorgeous pop music – and it’s not watered down generically for a broad audience. Instead, they challenge listeners to think about musical layers. That’s why the EP clicked for so many people, and it doesn’t hurt that the four guys behind the act are crazy good at their instruments. Watching Max Kulicke play guitar is nothing short of incredible. Charles McClung rocks the bass in a relaxed manner that matches the band’s tone. Charlie Rudoy’s drumming: basically the highlight of the live show. And then Brian Hurlow’s voice – there’s no other voice like that in the Twin Cities right now. The guys are heading out to Philly to record the debut album, and you can expect people will be watching closely in 2014.
Frankie Teardrop - Tough Guy EP
And speaking of bands to watch closely – I’d like to give a nod to Frankie Teadrop. The Tough Guy EP flew under the radar briefly this fall before they played an insane show opening for Howler at the Terminal Bar. Those there witnessed something great: the birth of a tight rock band seamlessly intertwining garage and punk. Frankie Teardrop (the on-stage alter-ego of Jordan Bleau – ex-Candy Breaks and Gloss) leads the trio with unparalleled ferocity. Drummer Gunnar Kauth and bassist Jack Woolsey have no issues keeping up. And while all three guys could easily lead a band on their own based on their stage presence, somehow none of them upstage each other. A new record is in the works, and you can catch them at the annual First Avenue Best New Bands showcase in January.
SCRNS – “TTYN”
SCRNS played their first Twin Cities show at the Turf Club a few weeks back in support of Red Mountain and Strange Names. The whole bill provided one of the best local showcases I’ve seen since moving here five years ago. The massive crowd mostly had no idea who SCRNS was, but by the end of the performance, people were yelling, “WHO ARE YOU? THAT WAS GREAT!” Max Petrek of Howler leads the beats while Erin Ross provides an angelic range of a voice. Nerves were running high for both of them, but man did they kill it. We started spinning their single “TTYN” in advance of the show, but their set indicated that while “TTYN” is pretty damn good, the rest of their in-the-works material is just as impressive. They’re making some of the most bombastic, listenable songs in the electronic realm since Lookbook disbanded. An EP is in the works.
Polica - Shulamith
Polica’s Give You the Ghost was one of the most successful local debuts of 2012. As one of a handful of local bands signed to a label outside the state, Shulamith was one of the most anticipated local exports of 2013. The band avoided the pitfalls of a sophomore album by maintaining their sonic identity while allowing the new songs to evolve beyond the blueprint of their debut.
Marijuana Deathsquads – Oh My Sexy Lord
Marijuana Deathsquads is among the elite local bands who could play a club or an art gallery. The album is an unprecedented assembly of local and regional talent.
Oh My Sexy Lord is either the best local album of the year or it is unlistenable noise. It’s your decision.
STNNNG – Empire Inward
STNNNG is one of the most underappreciated and overlooked local rock bands of the past decade. Their 4th album, Empire Inward, marks the band’s 10 year anniversary and represents the culmination of their best writing and recording. Recorded with Albini and mastered at Abbey Road Studios, it’s one of the best sounding local rock albums of 2013.
Actual Wolf - Actual Wolf
Eric Pollard is the kind of guy you love to meet at parties. A born raconteur, a modern day pirate, and a darn good hockey player, all in addition to being a sometime or former member of both Low and Retribution Gospel Choir, Eric is the architect behind Actual Wolf, who followed up a couple of EPs with their first full length album this fall. With songs and arrangements that evoke and mash-up the rock DNA of primordial rock Dylan, Neil and the Band, Actual Wolf carries off this musical thievery in a way that manages to sound fresh, surprising and somehow their own.
Fathom Lane - Fathom Lane
With two gorgeous albums in two years, Fathom Lane have quickly emerged as one of the brightest new artists in the Twin Cities. Fronted by Michael Ferrier, the band manages to create lush soundscapes with strings, lap steel and electric piano augmenting the core band, and finding some kind of unlikely common ground between alt-country and floaty prog rock. Ferrier’s vox are tender and delicate, and often in duets with singing partner Ashleigh Still the band achieves a timeless quality, as on single “Sugardown” or their breathtaking (and prescient) cover of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” released just weeks before his death.
Jeremy Messersmith - “Tourniquet”
While every other entry on our list is about a full album released in 2013, we have to wait until 2014 to hear the rest of Jeremy Messersmith’s upcoming Heart Murmurs release. Recorded over the past two years as details were worked out to sign a deal with major indie Glassnote, our first taste of the album came from this fall’s “Tourniquet,” put out to coincide with a national tour opening for BOY. And if the reaction to the new song is any indication, 2014 might be the year when our hometown favorite becomes everyone’s in a hurry. While a sneak peak listen to the new album reveals some new sounds and styles on the way for Jeremy, “Tourniquet” consolidates and builds on the vibe he had on The Reluctant Graveyard, with strings augmenting a powerful backing track and a singalong chorus that gets under the skin in the best possible way. Do us proud Jeremy…