by Jon Hunt
NOT ENOUGH LISTS? I know – there’s so few of them at this time of year, right? Well, let us satiate your need for fascinating, essential critics lists with this little number, the ten(ish) best local records of 2012. It was a hell of a year for local music, folks – and this just scratches the surface.
Let’s just get this out of the way, first: EVERYONE’s gonna rank P.O.S., okay? Everyone. And I’m sure it deserves it and bla-bla-bla, but honestly? There were a lotta other records that I liked wayfuckingmore that maybe didn’t get (even fucking close to) the attention that one did. (Ed. note: Not all of us agree with Jon’s sentiments on this subject, but generally he knows what he’s talking about so we’ll give him a pass on this one.) So some of this list is probably like Ye Other Local Critics’ Lists, and some of it is gonna be stuff you missed (or radio missed, for whatever reason). Dig deep, folks – 2012 was one of the best years for local music in recent history.
1. Friends By Fire, Sister Waves. The problem with evoking a past era, musically – don’t care which, applies equally to all – is that there’s virtually no chance your songwriting is anywhere near as good as the classics you were influenced by. You can apply all the analog synth bloops and bleeps you want, guys, if you ain’t got a “Don’t You Want Me,” you’re not the fucking Human League. Sister Waves bucks that trend by being every bit as good as a lost classic from that era. Don’t believe me? Listen to the massive hook at the heart of “I’m On Your Side” (my favorite local song of 2012, easy) and tell me it isn’t every bit as magnificent as anything you coulda heard on WLOL in 1984. And no mere nostalgia exercise, this: “Anything To Anyone” and “Champion Hands” are fantastic examples of “the new sound of Minneapolis,” in love with synths, killer melodies and awesome beats.
2. Lovely Dark, Territories. A lot of my favorite albums this year didn’t “make it” (to use 1968 parlance!) on local radio, and I find this utterly baffling. You can’t tell me this album’s mix of mysterious pagan melodies and gorgeous folk harmonies isn’t tailor-made for hipster tastes, dammit, or that it isn’t chock full of radio-ready hits – “Lazarus” and “Cypress Grove,” to name the first two out of the gate – that woulda caused a sensation with a little more airplay/support. To me, this album represents what a lotta folk / freak-folk lacks – a bit of the ol’ “Wicker Man” fear, that harvest-time dance-‘round-the-maypole spookiness that lifts the best works of this genre above mere prettiness and into the realm of something spiritual/magical. Gorgeous. Click HERE for my full review of “Territories.”
3. Wiping Out Thousands, This Came First. Twisty, tangly techno music. Un-straightforward and fascinating. Will/should become massive/huge in coming year(s). Aggressive and pretty in equal measures, always surprising, never cliched. Filled with hits and great playing/singing. Fun? Sure, but also quite damn deep and meaningful. And as mature as you’d expect from a third/fourth/fifth album rather than a first. Also, one of the most re-listenable records of the year – new details reveal each time. Click HERE for my full review of “This Came First.”
4. The New Monarchs, Stay Awake. If I tell you this album’s primary charm is “pummeling synth,” what do you assume? If your answer was “Ground-Zero-ready third-class darkwave trash” or “painful, agonizing head-fucking,” you couldn’t be more damn wrong. The weirdest (and coolest) thing about Stay Awake is that it manages to channel a bunch of super heavy influences – Nine Inch Nails in particular, but I hear Ministry and Suicide and other super-dark synth stuff – into music that is occasionally quite “nice,” and even occasionally “pretty.” This is weird. In my original review of the album, I compared “Walk Through Walls” to a Taylor Swift song, and knowing how I feel about Taylor Swift (and if you don’t, you reeeeeeeeally haven’t been paying attention), you know what kind of compliment that is – and yet they achieve that with Pummeling Synths. That’s something else, folks. Click HERE for my full review of “Stay Awake.”
5. BNLX, self-titled. Do I have to even tell you, at this point, why BNLX’s record is good? It’s Ed Ackerson. He writes good songs. He applies to them buzzsaw guitars that drill into yr. lower intestines. He has been doing this since the late ’80s. Sometimes his records are merely “great,” and other times they are “transcendent.” This is one of the latter, along with the first and last Polara records and the last two 27 Various records. If you’re not on the Ackerson bandwagon at this point, I don’t know what to even tell you. He’s given you plenty of opportunity. It’s not him. It’s you. It’s you. Click HERE for my full review of BNLX’s self-titled album.
6. Solid Gold, Eat Your Young. As I mentioned in my review, I never bought into the Gayngs hype. Style > = substance, god-dammit, the same bullshit that always goes over big around here, which bums me out on a semi-regular basis. Meanwhile, Eat Your Young - which features two of the same players as Gayngs – is fucking great, because substance > = style on this one. It has tons of heart, and doesn’t fear the fucking dancefloor besides – dig “Nice Flight,” which is a smooth-as-fuck disco song at its heart. I hear far more than mere style exercises: I hear killer songwriting and loads of heart and stylistic variation that suggests that they know what they fuck they’re doing. Better. Than. Gayngs. Click HERE for my full review of “Eat Your Young.”
7. Poliça, Give You the Ghost. Like Gayngs, Poliça is another “all-star” collab, but with a ton more heart/soul, songwriting verve, and percussion. Loads and loads and loads of fucking percussion. On their stunning debut release, Give You the Ghost, Channy Leaneagh’s haunting vocals float like, well, a ghost over cascading waves of syncopation and buzzy bass. Think of Björk, before abstraction killed her – it’s that level of invention, intrigue and pure creativity. Best song: the ’70s-inspired “Dark Star,” which bounces along energetically under bubbly vocals drenched with autotune. Bon Iver’s Mike Noyce shows up twice: on “Lay Your Cards Out,” a swimmy trip-hop thing, and the gorgeous, haunting “Wandering Star,” both quite damn remarkable.
8. Mark Mallman, Double Silhouette. I have a friend who basically thinks Mark Mallman is a “novelty act.” S/He bases this on the fact that he occasionally does live gimmicks – playing for seventeen days straight on a diet of human flesh, that kind of thing. S/He obviously has not heard his actual albums, which are universally great in the same kind of way that, say, Todd Rundgren is – pop masterpieces that wield massive hooks like huge Viking cudgels and arrangements that are as virtuoso as you can get without being prog-as-fuck. Double Silhouette is his best, by far, filled with the best songs of his career, including the magnificent “Dirty Dishes,” which was (totally deservedly) a local hit. We should cherish Mallman more than we do – he is perhaps our greatest craftsman, a magnificent songwriter with terrifying verve and elan. Click HERE for my full review of “Double Silhouette.”
9. Fire In The Northern Firs, Of Bones And Things. I love this record for the same reason I like Coven’s records from the late ’60s – it sounds like they signed a deal with Satan at the crossroads to make the most creepy, beautiful, witchy-sounding rock music ever. And then Kraftwerk showed up with Faust and everybody got drunk and rolled around in duck fat until the fucking world ended. It’s that kind of record, folks. Dark, beautiful, terrifying, huge. And – I’m saying this as an album cover designer, a music writer, AND a musician – it has the best album cover of the entire year, by any band from any city. The city churned out a lot of totally terrific shoegaze this year – special mention to Flavor Crystals (which I review HERE), who bubble just under my top ten – but this was, by far, the very best of it. Props. Click HERE for my full review of “Of Bones And Things.”
10. Katy Vernon, Before I Forget. Katy Vernon makes gorgeous, pretty, sweet, happy music. It is played primarily on ukelele. At the time I wrote my review, I think I thought Before I Forget was borne of deep satisfaction with life and praised that. Examining it more, I think I was wrong. I think it’s borne of tragedy and sadness and I think it’s a fist-raised triumph over adversity, which makes me love it even more. If this pretty little album, filled with terrific songs and some of my favorite singing of the year, came out of bad shit, then god dammit, it deserves me top tenning the SHIT out of it. Plus: anything my former boss Jim Walsh inspired/trumpeted/adored is a-ok with me. Click HERE for my full review of “Before I Forget.”
11. Night Moves, Colored Emotions. I’m going to write more about Colored Emotions later in the week, so I don’t want to spoil the surprise. It’s twangy, it’s beautiful, and it has some of the best singing I’ve heard all year. It reminds me a lot of Buffalo Springfield’s Again, and this is their fucking first album. Where will they be four, five albums in? The brain boggles. Click HERE for my full review of “Colored Emotions.”
BONUS: Best Reissue: Twin Cities Funk & Soul: Lost R&B Grooves from Minneapolis & Saint Paul 1964-1979. You can’t write about this year in local music without writing about Twin Cities Funk & Soul. The folks at Secret Stash have done the lords work, here: two LPs of (formerly) obscure Twin Cities soul and R&B sides from the late ’60s and early ’70s. Which would be awesome in and of itself, but they then pulled off the coup of pulling together a couple of great live shows featuring members of these bands including a mostly-reunited Valdons which was probably the finest live show of the year – and one of the best I’ve ever seen. If anybody has even the slightest doubt that the Twin Cities is a funk mecca, this should avail them of that doubt. Click HERE for my full review of “Twin Cities Funk & Soul.”