Atmosphere won for best album (again) in our fourth annual survey of the best in local music. Still, there were plenty of surprises.
Atmosphere leader Sean (Slug) Daley raps during soundcheck at Vault 350 in Long Beach. Atmosphere won best album (again) in the fourth annual Twin Cities Critics' Tally, this time with the 2005 album "You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having."
Slug is growing up, and his numbers on our annual year-end local music writers poll are growing with him.
For three of the past four years -- as long as we've been polling Twin Cities music writers on their favorite local albums of the year -- the Minneapolis rapper and his "group" Atmosphere have led the pack. This year, that's truer than ever, with 13 of our 23 voting critics ranking the group's latest disc in their top 10.
The win would be relatively ho-hum, except Atmosphere's 2005 CD, "You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having," got a mixed reception from fans because it actually wasn't very fun. Slug has gotten serious on us.
Atmosphere's DJ/producer, Ant, might have been the real winner, though. His input on "You Can't Imagine" was invaluable, plus he helped veteran rapper I Self Devine make his debut on the Twin Cities Critics Tally at No. 3 with his CD, "Self Destruction."
In fact, if anyone wants to accuse us of being predictable, 15 of the 20 spots on this year's TCCT list featured performers who have never been on it before. There are even more new names in the best-live-act category, which includes everything from ferocious noisemakers the Stnnng to teen digi-punk band Melodious Owl to slapstick heavy-metal duo Brother and Sister.
You really can't imagine how much fun we're having writing about music in this town.
ALBUMS OF THE YEAR
1. ATMOSPHERE "YOU CAN'T IMAGINE HOW MUCH FUN WE'RE HAVING"
Isn't this the guy who only raps about girls? Not anymore. The sixth Atmosphere album finds Slug, 33, maturing musically and lyrically -- albeit begrudgingly. He takes on alcoholism ("Pour Me Another"), fatherhood ("Little Man") and the murder of a fan ("That Night"), all the while not losing his own warped, self-deprecating outlook. All this new baggage is carried masterfully by Ant's chaotic cavalcade of beats and sound bites. 168 voter points
2. VICIOUS VICIOUS "DON'T LOOK SO SURPRISED"
It's a quick 34 minutes, but in that time we hear VV proprietor Erik Appelwick (also of the Hopefuls, who placed fifth in this poll last year) go from ecstatic romancer to confused lover to lost loner. One thing he doesn't lose, though, is the beat. Even at its most down, the CD is high on sexy rhythms and electronic flourishes, part Beck, Bowie and Björk. No surprise the critics loved it. 126 voter points
3. I SELF DEVINE "SELF DESTRUCTION"
Having grown up in south central Los Angeles, here's one Minnesota rapper who could get away with a stupid ol' street-thug CD and probably sell a million copies. Instead, the former Micranots leader's Ant-produced album is heavier than Kanye West's backpack, full of ideological and thought-provoking tracks that challenge our views on everything from casual sex to the N-word to the notion that police brutality can't happen here. 100 voter points
4. LOW "THE GREAT DESTROYER"
Lots of things were in danger of being destroyed with this Duluth trio's seventh album (and debut on Sub Pop Records), from the band's mellow "slowcore" sound (replaced here with often-ripping guitar parts), to its frontman's emotional balance, to the comfort that's always upended by a death in the family. Co-produced by Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev cohort Dave Fridmann, the album's sound is as ambitious and timeless as its themes. 94 voter points
5. HALLOWEEN, ALASKA "TOO TALL TO HIDE"
The second CD by this all-star electronic company -- featuring Dave King (Happy Apple), James Diers (Love-cars) and Ev Olcott (12 Rods) -- sounds trendy but is surprisingly heartfelt and cohesive. Good songwriting is the key, whether it's the sea of noise in "Drowned" or the nakedness of the closing ballad, "Drift." 90 voter points
6. THE STNNNG "DIGNIFIED SISSY"
Careful with this one. Rock's answer to Tourette's syndrome, the five-piece band dutifully demonstrates on its debut CD how it is liable to blow at any minute, whether it's the band's sonic bombast or singer Chris Besinger's apathetic rants. Not recommended for listening while driving or eating. 72 voter points
7. CLOUD CULT "ADVICE FROM THE HAPPY HIPPOPOTAMUS"
Weird stuff, once again, from this hippie-ish environmental art-rock band. Its fourth CD sound-checks everyone from Radiohead to Modest Mouse to Donovan, all while frontman Craig Minowa seeks out the center of the universe. 60 voter points
8. MINT CONDITION "LIVIN' THE LUXURY BROWN"
St. Paul's cult-loved R&B band sounds fresh and edgy on its first CD in six years. But like John Legend's debut from earlier in the year, its best songs have a classic vibe that comes straight out of Mint's great live shows. 60 voter points
9. ASHTRAY HEARTS "PERFECT HALVES"
Recorded in the dead of winter in a church in Duluth, the second CD by this six-member neo-Americana band actually sounds like spring thaw, its rich guitar noodling and accordion bits dripping over frontman Dan Richmond's budding romanticism. 58 voter points
CHARLIE PARR "ROOSTER"
As rustic and unmodern as the man himself, the fourth album by Duluth's acoustic blues/folk picker is full of death, poverty, injustice, God and other things you meet when you're down and out. 56 voter points
SIMS "LIGHTS OUT PARIS"
Not just another topical rapper, Sims shows a teeth-baring fierceness and tongue-tying lyrical talent on his solo debut. While it's great seeing him step out from the pack, the best song is actually the one on which he brings in all his friends ("No Homeowners"). 56 voter points
TAPES 'N TAPES "THE LOON"
If these guys aren't on drugs, then somebody forgot to give songwriting credit to the aliens living in their basement studio. The first full-length CD by these freakish rock experimenters (produced by Erik Appelwick of No. 2 winner Vicious Vicious) evokes Ween, Guided by Voices and "Umaguma." 56 voter points
13. HAPPY APPLE "THE PEACE BETWEEN OUR COMPANIES"
The seventh CD by Minneapolis' favorite youth-oriented jazz trio covers a lot of territory, from elegant and moody pieces to hair-raising tracks as wild as their titles, including "Starchild Cranium." 50 voter points
14. DESSA "FALSE HOPES"
Rappers with spoken-word backgrounds are often seen as soft (especially ones with philosophy degrees). The Doomtree crew's resident starlet, 24, eschews that stereotype and many others on this daringly personal debut EP. 46 voter points
FAT KID WEDNESDAYS "THE ART OF CHERRY"
Co-led by Happy Apple saxophonist Michael Lewis, the former Clown Lounge house band isn't clowning on this appropriately adventurous tribute to jazz trumpeter Don Cherry. 42 voter points
CHRIS KOZA "EXIT PESCE"
Koza is officially the local songwriter to watch after releasing his earnest debut, which has the boyish tenderness of guys like Ron Sexsmith and Mason Jennings. 42 voter points
THE BIRTHDAY SUITS "CHERRY BLUE"
Two former members of the blasting punk band Sweet J.A.P. tear down the garage and rebuild it using raw, sharp materials. 38 voter points
Travis Bos, who also used to front Song of Zarathustra, screams like an out-of-control freight train on this debut. His band matches the sound of that train when it finally derails. Heavy, harrowing stuff. 38 voter points
19. THE HOLD STEADY "SEPARATION SUNDAY"
Only a couple of critics thought this New York-based outfit qualified as a Minnesota band. No one doubted that it's one of the most Minnesota-centric albums of all time. 38 voter points
ROBERT MCCREEDY "IT MIGHT KILL YOU"
A credentialed sideman and ex-Volebeats member, McCreedy lays down a smoky vibe and coolly poetic lyrics akin to recent Chuck Prophet and Joe Henry discs. 34 voter points
SOVIETTES "LP III"
A few more pop harmonies, but mostly the punk queens stick to the same 1-2-3 formula on their third winning album in a row. 34 voter points
BEST LIVE ACTS OF 2005
1. The Stnnng (36 points) The inside of their CD case includes a note from First Avenue staff asking that they not destroy any of the equipment. Fans without earplugs get the real damage, though. Booming, wild, bleeding punk like the old Am/Rep and Touch & Go bands used to play. Next gig: Jan. 20 at Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
2. Melodious Owl (34 points) This trio of Hopkins teens isn't afraid to try on the showmanship that many other local bands shun. They also are inventive, doing more with one sax, one guitar, synthesizers and drum machine than many do with a full band. Next gig: 6 & 10 p.m. Saturday, 7th Street Entry.
3. Doomtree (30 points) This hip-hop collective, including P.O.S., Sims, Dessa, Cecil Otter, DJ Turbo Nemesis and Mike Mictlan, comes off like a family onstage.
4. Brother and Sister (28 points) A sibling duo (no, really) that is part White Stripes, part Whitesnake and part white noise. Alas, their last show is Jan. 7 but they are going out in true style: The gig is at 9 a.m. at an undisclosed location. (Check www.brother-and-sister.com for clues.)
5. (tie) Atmosphere (22 points) Many fans enjoyed the new live band. More seemed to prefer the live debut of Ant on turntables. Either way, Slug had no trouble keeping us interested.
Fort Wilson Riot (22 points) Another fun and somewhat silly act, this quartet has an insanely earnest, boogieing pop/rock sound, and singer Amy Hager is quite the dramatist. Next gig: Saturday at Hexagon Bar.
Happy Apple (22 points) Few jazz trios pack as much wallop, or leave you guessing so much (i.e., "How does he make that sound with those jumper cables and sardine cans?"). Next gigs: Jan. 6-7, Artists' Quarter.
BEST SONGS of 2005
1. Vicious Vicious, "Castaways" (22 points)
2. Atmosphere, "Pour Me Another"(18 points)
3. (tie) Low, "Monkey," and P.O.S., "P.O.S. Is Ruining My Life" (16 points)
5. I Self Devine, "Ice Cold" (14 points)
6. (tie) Brother and Sister, "B-E-S-T S-I-S-T-E-R E-V-E-R," and Halloween, Alaska, "Drowned" (12 points)
NO. 1 SIGN THAT THE SCENE IS ALIVE AND WELL
"No matter what genre you might pick, there's someone doing great work, from straight-up rock (Dan Israel) to country (White Iron Band) to hip-hop (Atmosphere, Doomtree, Brother Ali) to punk (Stnnng, Birthday Suits) to jazz (Happy Apple) to ambient (Fog, Martin Dosh)."
Chris Bahn, the Onion Twin Cities editor
"The resurrection of First Avenue, fueled by the Current, became a rallying point for the scene. The club's 35th birthday felt like an all-school reunion. (Let's not be strangers, OK?) A close No. 2: Ant comes out of the basement. I'm primed for the new Brother Ali disc."
Tim Campbell, Star Tribune entertainment editor
"First Avenue seems like it's on fire."
Rich Horton, Rift magazine editor
"The Current giving everyone a voice and a voice to everything. Hearing the Melismatics back to back with Common and Hank Williams can only be a good thing."
Jim Walsh, City Pages and WalshFiles.com.
"Renovated and reopened dive bars and theaters are becoming hip, happening music venues (Varsity Theater, Nomad World Pub, 331 Club). The great lighting at the Varsity deserves its own vote."
David de Young, editor of HowWastheShow.com.
"No smoking in Minneapolis clubs."
Jon Bream, Star Tribune
"Even if the bloody punk-rock heart of our city has been stolen by a bunch of prohibitionist jagoffs who are prepared to make a citizen's arrest if they catch you sneaking a cigarette, nobody has actually opened fire on a bass player having a puff onstage. Yet."
Steve Marsh, Minneapolis St. Paul magazine associate editor
"The durability of the underground jazz scene to find new outlets and hideouts (French Press, Acadia Cafe) despite numerous breakdowns and setbacks (Brilliant Corners, Clown Lounge)."
Jim Meyer, freelancer
"Hearing the sheer amount of local music aired on the Current alongside at least four other radio stations in town that also play homegrown bands."
Ross Raihala, Pioneer Press music critic
"I could go to more than one local concert every day and still miss out on some good local shows."
Andrea Myers, howwastheshow.com
"One notable trend I noticed this year is what I call 'carnie-core' -- category-defying bands that include carnival-esque elements of gypsy punk, East Euro folk, funk, twang, experimental percussion and more played theatrically and causing people to dance like crazy (e.g., Fort Wilson Riot, Thunder in the Valley, Mike Gunther and His Restless Souls, and the Knotwells)."
Cyn Collins, freelance writer
"Nils Lindahl told jokes and Happy Mother's Day I Can't Read laughed. It made 2005 hell-arious!"
Keri Carlson, Minnesota Daily arts reporter
"Who are we kidding? The local music scene here will always be alive and well. And just to add some flavor, First Avenue now has flatscreens hung all over the club. Kinda scary ... "
Lars Larson, editor, DUNation.com
"Nationally renowned and distributed independent record labels backed albums this year by the likes of Hockey Night (Lookout), Robert Skoro (Yep Roc) and Jeff Hanson (Kill Rock Stars), meaning that for the first time their music is actually readily available in stores outside of Minnesota."
Rob van Alstyne, Pulse
"Not that we need to look east for justification, but when CMJ's e-mails promoting the Music Marathon feature five photos and two of them are of Atmosphere and the Hold Steady, it's a good indication that Twin Citizens, current and former, are doing some serious work on the national stage."
Steve McPherson, music editor, the Pulse
"You couldn't take two steps in Austin, Texas, during the South by Southwest Music Conference without running into a musician, label rep, writer, etc. from the Twin Cities. The scene is strong and even the out-of-towners are taking notice."
Lindsey Thomas, City Pages associate arts editor
"Seeing around the same number of people at First Ave for Low, the Hold Steady, Curtiss A, Motion City Soundtrack, Soul Asylum and Mason Jennings as were there for the Arcade Fire, Jeff Tweedy, etc. And Atmosphere beat them all."
Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune
"I have 500 Myspace friends and only about four of them actually like me."
Peter Scholtes, City Pages