Stellar debuts by 4onthefloor, Carnage and Pennyroyal rank up there with perennial favorites.
We ran our first midyear local album roundup nine years ago -- back when we could still call them "CDs"-- to reflect an unusual rush of noteworthy Minnesota releases in the first half of that particular year. There hasn't been a slow first half of a year since then. Here's a quick look at the best of 2011, pre-July (listed in alphabetical order).
Book of Right On, "All These Songs About Music" -- If any rock singer deserves to have two drummers behind him, it's David Joe Holiday. The former frontman for Belles of Skin City and Kentucky Gag Order can't seem to keep a band together, but he also can do no wrong whenever he starts a new one. His pellet-gun-like vocal stammering finds the perfect rhythmic target in this bombastic noise-punk band, with dueling drum kits and angular, wiry guitar work. Even the song titles here are heavy-handed, including "Sense of Entitlement Is the New Herpes."
Carnage, "Worth the Wait" -- "Found no English word I can't rhyme." So boasts the veteran rapper at the start of his long-overdue full-length debut. By the end of its 13 adrenaline-flooded songs (think: Public Enemy on gallons of black coffee), you'll believe just about anything he says. The so-called Executioner comes off as superhuman in songs like "Darken" and "I Want It All," with his rapid-fire flow, clever but rarely cutesy wordplay, and sheer tirelessness -- not to mention the stark glimpses he offers of his troubled childhood, which few mortals could survive so well. He barely even shows off his famous beat-boxing skills. That's because he's too busy proving he should instead be known as maybe the most skillful emcee in Minnesota.
Davina & the Vagabonds, "Black Cloud" -- After gigging nonstop for the past half-decade, piano-plunking Florida transplant Davina Sowers and her guitar-less, horn-blazing quintet finally have a record that captures the versatility and charm of their live sets, and does justice to Sowers' uncanny singing talent (think: Adele singing 50 years ago in a Southern brothel). Part barrelhouse boogie-woogie and funky New Orleans R&B with a little Norah Jones-like jazzy balladry, the sound is at once rowdy and classy, and it will pretty much convince you to go see them live ASAP. Which could very well be tonight.
The 4onthefloor, "4 x 4" -- This fast-rising foursome's fun, trademark live show -- in which each member has a kick drum at his feet and pandemonium usually ensues -- doesn't mean a thing on record. All that counts here are the deep, muddy-water grooves, the snaky and often arousing guitar licks and the howling rawwwk-god vocals of farmboy frontman Gabriel Douglas, like a whiskey-chased mix of the Doors, AC/DC and Black Keys. It's brawny stuff but brainy in parts, too, like the misery-laden lyrics of "Junkie" and "First on the List of the Last Things I Need" to the jubilant cover of M. Ward's "Magic Trick."
G-Hop, "Pennsyltucky" -- This isn't the five-song EP from local label So-TM that's currently generating major buzz in the U.K. (that would be Howler's "This One's Different"), but it is the one more deserving of your attention. "Pennsyltucky" similarly seemed to come out of nowhere: Painter and art instructor Gregory Rose, who grew up in a rural town an hour from Philadelphia, started singing and slow-rapping random vocal bits for So-TM operator Chris Heidman and bandmate Jeff Lorentzen. Through ample looping and added instrumentation, they wound up with the Twin Cities' most spirited, smile-inducing dance-pop project since Iffy. Like some of Rose's artwork, songs like "Busted" and "Take Me" are a collage of urban styles, from electronic-heavy hip-hop to Barry White-sexy R&B to -- yes -- a whole lot of synthesized Prince funk.
Low, "C'Mon" -- None other than Robert Plant did a good job re-creating the beautiful, dark magic of Low on his latest album, but Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker still do it like no one else. The Duluth couple/band's third Sub Pop release and ninth record overall serves as a reminder of their rare inner harmony. After the worldly, war-ravaged predecessor "Drums and Guns," they turn more inward and personal in songs like "Try to Sleep" and the eight-minute "Nothing but Heart" -- a half-step back to their slow, somber sound of old but with several interesting side steps. The wicked fantasy "Witches," for one, already ranks as a classic.
Pennyroyal, "Sad Face / Glad Face" -- That blond mohawk on singer Angie Oase's head sure does belie the high, piercing, hair-raising sound coming out of her mouth. She looks like a U.K. punk-rocker but sings like she left the Cranberries to join a Patsy Cline tribute band. Her band's full-length debut counterbalances her pretty voice with raw, echoey and vaguely Americana-flavored rock that's as elegant or gritty as it wants to be. The most punk thing about it is the attitudinal songwriting style of Oase and guitarist/co-vocalist Ethan Rutherford. "The rock stars in this town should head on down to L.A., and leave me with my simple music to play," she sings in "Simple Music," a call-to-purity that defines the album.
Rogue Valley, "False Floors" -- Though he hails from Portland, Ore., bandleader Chris Koza might be the most Minnesotan songwriter of the moment. For one, it took a Midwestern work ethic to pull off the feat capped by this disc: a seasonally themed four-album suite in one year. Even more definitively, their warm "winter album" (released this spring) is the best and most inspired of the bunch. You can feel the snow crunching beneath the feet in "Icebox," but you can also hear Koza's heart bursting beneath the wool sweater in the triumphant "Onward and Over" and the disc's other escapist orchestral-pop anthems. At least something good came of the Demon Winter of 2010-11.
Sims, "Bad Time Zoo" -- A lot has happened in the six years since Doomtree's self-described "angry white male rapper" issued his debut album, and the most significant might be the creative roll his crew is now on. Resident beatmaker/producer Lazerbeak provided a dense playbook of basic tracks for his sophomore effort, and Dessa and P.O.S. showed up as backup vocalists and maybe bar-setters, too. Sims does the team proud while confidently honing his own complex identity, one that lambastes liberal consumerism ("One Dimensional Man") and Internet-era impersonality ("Bad Time Zoo") as readily as he writes a straight-up love song ("LMG"). Not exactly thug rapping, and that's partly the point.
Tapes 'n Tapes, "Outside" -- More raw and playful, like their 2005 breakthrough "The Loon," but also carrying some of the weight and wallop of their unfairly dismissed follow-up, the wily indie-rockers' third album is their most cohesive yet. Frontman Josh Grier masters his own unique nervous energy and nerd-howling vocals in songs like "Freak Out" and "SWM." This is the closest representation of the quartet's continually improving live shows, with jagged, Pixies-like rockers and vaguely worldly, Talking Heads-style interludes. It might not be as cool as bloggers want them to be, but it sure is fun.
Honorable mention: Both Radio K's "Stuck on AM 7: Stuck on Tape" and the Current 89.3 FM's "Local Current, Vol. 1" came out this year with a terrific cross-sampling of vital Minnesota artists of the moment. Find them in local indie shops or via the station's sites.