As someone who's lived almost all of his life in the Twin Cities, I've always been a big fan of Minnesota's music scene, and one of the pleasures of being The A.V. Club's Twin Cities editor is that I get to hear so much local music. As a sidebar to our national 2005: The Year In Music list, here's my take on the best discs made by or (in one case) about Minnesotans this year. (Jessica Snively also contributed to this list with the items on Spaghetti Western String Co., Melodious Owl, and Kill The Vultures.)
1) Low, The Great Destroyer: Low's musical identity is so closely tied to melancholy, introspective stillness that turning up the volume would seem to wreck what's appealing about the band in the first place, but on The Great Destroyer, Duluth's finest export after taconite pellets cranked up the fuzzbox and the amps without sacrificing a thing. Instead, the increased intensity—ominously rumbling keyboards under "Monkey," a loud, distorted riff powering "Everybody's Song"—lends Destroyer an epic quality that works hand in hand with the intimacy at the heart of a Low song.
2) The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday: Since none of The Hold Steady's members live in Minnesota anymore, can this really be considered a local release? Absolutely: The album itself is local. Craig Finn's concept album about the reckoning of a fast-living hood-rat girl in the less-fashionable Minneapolis suburbs gets its evocative cinematic feel in part because of its strong sense of place. Finn grew up here and played in Lifter Puller along with current bandmate Tad Kubler, and no other record this year has been so undeniably about living in the Twin Cities. And with Kubler's crunchy, vigorous classic-rock power chords backing Finn up, the album could have been retitled Exile On Lake Street.
3) Atmosphere, You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having: It's beyond dispute that Atmosphere has the most fervent fan base of any group in the Twin Cities. The year began with eight sold-out shows at 7th Street Entry, smashing the old record set by The Replacements; last month, Atmosphere's 50-city tour closed out with three sold-out dates in the larger First Avenue main room. So it's kind of funny to hear Slug wonder aloud on You Can't Imagine if he can "build a home out of syllables" and have a lasting career as a rapper, but that's part of Atmosphere's appeal—Slug's lyrics can be as sharp as a scalpel, and he generally reserves the deepest cuts for exposing his own heart.
4) Dosh, Powder Horn: Although it isn't an "official" follow-up to Martin Dosh's 2004 disc Pure Trash (that'll be out next year on indie-rap powerhouse label Anticon), and though Powder Horn is made up of material recorded over a four-year period on home-studio software, that doesn't mean it's just cutting-room-floor sweepings. In fact, the keyboard-driven, ambient songs on this self-released disc flow together like a river, floating unhurriedly along, as if they were conceived to be that way from the beginning.
5) Soviettes, LP III: The exploding firecracker on the cover of The Soviettes' third disc is a perfect visual cue to what's inside—LP III goes off with a bang, with no time wasted on drawn-out fizzling fuses. The band doesn't shy away from touches of pathos ("Thinking Of You") or political zingers ("¡Paranoia Cha Cha Cha!", which first appeared on the compilation Rock Against Bush), but for the most part, LP III moves like a rocket sled, barreling along at a ferocious clip and mowing down everything in its path with tight pop-punk arrangements, buzzsaw guitars, rat-a-tat drums, and catchy call-and-response harmonies.
6) Charlie Parr, Rooster: Charlie Parr hails from Duluth, at the exact opposite end of Highway 61 from the Mississippi Delta that gave the road its mythic status in blues lore, but he's still the real thing; he brings lively spirit, a gravelly voice, and innate presence to old-style country blues. His most impressive gift might be for succinct characterization: "Dead Cat On The Line" captures the lonely anger of an abandoned, destitute old man, and the powerfully chilling "Bethlehem" finds sorrow, confusion and dark irony in the story of Jesus, as a man whose son was killed by King Herod screams curses at the sky, finding no consolation in the idea that the death of an innocent could be a sacrifice for a greater purpose.
7) Halloween, Alaska, Too Tall To Hide: The sophisticated emo-pop on the 2004 debut from this local supergroup quartet—including members of 12 Rods, Love-Cars, and Happy Apple/Bad Plus jazzbo Dave King—comes into fuller flower on this year's follow-up. Singer-guitarist James Diers brings a ruminative soulfulness to his vocals that's both enhanced and counterpointed by the lush keyboards and production touches of Ev Olcott, while the dry wit of lines like "so much for apathy" still leaves room for a refreshingly earnest and unironic cover of LL Cool J's "I Can't Live Without My Radio." (King has had a busy, highly productive year; besides Too Tall, he put out two more excellent CDs with his other bands.)
8) Electropolis, Electropolis: Here's a band that gets it right the first time. More than half the songs on Electropolis were improvised on the spot, and none were sweetened later with post-recording studio tricks; this is as close to live as it gets. But what is it exactly? Jazz, mostly, though with a penchant for woozy electrobleeps and noirish sax skronks, and a punk and post-rock sensibility that recalls The Lounge Lizards. The group has played a couple of notable local shows as a live soundtrack for highly stylized film classics like Metropolis and The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, and perhaps those movies offer the best comparison: vigorously inventive, sometimes a little creepy, and always compelling.
9) Revolver Modèle, Discothéque Crypt: Ehsan Alam's sepulchrally booming voice and the firmly 1980s goth/alt-rock ethos that inspires Revolver Modèle lead to inevitable comparisons with Joy Division and Bauhaus—but it would be a mistake to think that Discothéque Crypt is merely derivative of its forefathers any more than Franz Ferdinand and Interpol are. The darkly electric dance-rock would have struck a chord with the black-clad clubbers of 1985, but Crypt doesn't pander to graying goth nostalgia so much as it simply jumps into the music like the intervening years never happened.
10) Vicious Vicious, Don't Look So Surprised: Even though the band that Erik Appelwick and Darren Jackson formed together as a lark—tracksuit-clad power-pop combo The Hopefuls—wound up having a bigger buzz than their original projects, neither Vicious Vicious nor Kid Dakota fell by the wayside. In Appelwick's case, VV wound up letting him explore his funkier side, as well as stretch out over seven linked songs to tell a single story, the doomed romance between Appelwick's narrator and a free-spirited, roguish girl named Jenny. The relationship has already splintered before the first song is over, and the rest is reverie and recrimination: "This is a song I wrote before that ship went down," he sings on "Castaways." But bittersweet memories are still beautiful when they're given such a gloriously glossy pop sheen.
• Various Artists, The Bootlegs, Vol. 1: Celebrating 35 Years At First Avenue: A great collection of live recordings made at Minnesota's most important rock club, Bootlegs includes not just local heroes like The Jayhawks, Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, and Atmosphere, but some fine performances by out-of-staters like Richard Thompson, Kristin Hersh, and Guided By Voices. It's a testament to just how much local music history is tied up in the big black box downtown, and hopefully is the first in a long series to come—for one thing, a certain purple-hued polymath who put First Ave. on the national map in 1984 is notably absent.
• Jeff Hanson, Jeff Hanson
• Mark Mallman, Seven Years
• Happy Apple, The Peace Between Our Companies
• Bad Plus, Suspicious Activity
• Big Ditch Road, Suicide Note Reader's Companion
• Spaghetti Western String Co., Quiet Mob: The Twin Cities' only string quartet with hipster status, Spaghetti Western String Co. were able to capture the depth and nuance of their sound more successfully with Quiet Mob than their 2004 debut, Do Right By People. Quiet Mob is dark and haunting, foregoing the whimsical melodies so prevalent on its predecessor. An eerie clarinet lurks in "Merton's Woods" while Michael Rossetto plucks an ambling banjo tune. "Luna Marinara," a woeful Italian folk song, showcases Nicholas Lemme's somber, velvety tenor.
• Tapes N' Tapes, The Loon
• Cloud Cult, Advice From The Happy Hippopotamus
• Terry Eason, The Aching Of The Household Fly & Pronounced Eggtree
• Askeleton, (Happy) Album
• Melodious Owl, Melodious Owl: Instead of the amateurish effort you might expect from a band of teenagers, Melodious Owl's debut is tight, slickly produced (by the Twin Cities' older-and-wiser Mark Mallman), and engineered by a handful of scene veterans. Synthesizers, driving guitar riffs, and a Contortions-like squawking saxophone wail underneath Wes Statler's panting, flamboyant vocals. "Stripe" opens with a thumping drum machine and features a vocoder, inviting campy '80s-hits comparisons. The closing track "Dance Fever Revisited (Dosh Mix)" brings in yet another seasoned local scenester, Martin Dosh, who mixes ambient noise and bizarre beats (is that the sound of a pair of scissors?) with Statler's vocals and Joe Berns' guitar.
• Kill The Vultures, Kill The Vultures: Former members of Oddjobs join DJ Anatomy for their new project's self-titled debut. Kill The Vultures is a raw, experimental hip-hop record, and allows each of the three MCs—Advizer, Crescent Moon, and Nomi—to establish individual identities over Anatomy's jazz-club-influenced sampling, utilizing fuzzy trumpets, tinkling pianos, and swooning clarinets. "Good Intentions" displays Advizer's comical delivery over downtempo beats and a lonely trumpet. Crescent Moon has an intense, wild, biting delivery, especially apparent on "7-8-9." On "Lovin' You Dangerous," Nomi's rough, harsh vocals and staggered rhyming evokes the anger and frustration apparent throughout the album.
• White Iron Band, Take It Off The Top
• Birthday Suits, Cherry Blue
• Belles of Skin City, Ha-Ha Boardroom Think Tank Tantrums
• Dallas Orbiter, Magnesium Fireflies
• Motion City Soundtrack, Commit This To Memory
• Robert Skoro, That These Things Could Be Ours
• I Self Devine, Self Destruction
• STNNNG, Dignified Sissy
• Planes For Spaces, Letters From The Waves
• The Melismatics, Turn It On
• Hockey Night, Keep Guessin'
• Cecil Otter (Doomtree), False Hopes
• Dessa, (Doomtree), False Hopes
• Kanser, Self Titled
• Ben Glaros, Solo
• Dan Israel, Dan Israel