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There's a chicken-or-egg undercurrent to this annual midyear roundup of Minnesota's best new albums. Most of the makers of these fine collections have gigs around town over the next week or two. Is it so easy to see them live because they recently made great records, or did they make great records because they perform live so often?
One thing for sure: Playing live is no less important for local musicians than in the past, even as records get easier to make. I should probably include an asterisk with this list: "*of the hundreds of albums I've heard."
Here are my favorites, in alphabetical order:
Another Twin Cities duo that proves less can be more in the volume department, Bloodnstuff -- guitarist Ed Holmberg and drummer Dylan Gouret -- took the club scene by storm last year with their giant, metallic fuzz-rock sound. Their debut album turned things up even louder. Standout tracks such as "It's Fun to Be a Kid" and "Bloodnstuff" -- yes, they have their own eponymous song -- mine the thundering territory of Soundgarden, Queens of the Stone Age and the Misfits. Next local gig: Friday at the Turf Club.
Three albums' worth of droning, tripadaisical guitar noodling probably doesn't scream "A must-have!" -- and indeed, it's a bit too much -- but there are many magical moments in this ambitious triple-vinyl collection on the Mpls. Ltd. label. From the Galaxie 500-echoing "Ivan in the Park" to the Explosions in the Sky-like "Surround (Sound/Song/Sprawl)," you can clearly hear through the haze why these seasoned players were picked to tour with Brian Jonestown Massacre and are regulars at the local Heliotrope Festival. Next gig: Saturday at Hell's Kitchen.
There's a warm, security-blanket vibe to this veteran Americana rock band's 10th album -- not just in the comfort level the musicians enjoy after so many years together, but also from the solace that frontman Adam Levy seemed to take in writing it. Faced with his son's mental illness and other familial lows and highs, he wrote a surprisingly hopeful, loving and at times spiritual record, which ranges in tone from the horn-bopping single "Aubben" and the twangy post-divorce ditty "Blood Is Blood" to the orchestrated, big-picture title track. Next gig: July 7 at Twin Ports Bridge Fest in Duluth.
A wee little band in the physical and musical sense -- three members, all of whom will probably be carded until they're 45 -- these Blaine-reared high school pals took on some big-name supporters and ran away with it, accomplishing a much fuller and noisier sound on their second full-length. It was produced by Howard Redekopp (Tegan and Sara, New Pornographers) and released on Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla's Trans label. There's certainly a Death Cab quality to the frayed guitars and singer Cacie Dalager's world-pondering, dorm-room-poetic lyrics. Next gig: July 9 at 7th Street Entry.
Just as this pop/punk quartet's wiry frontman John Freeman looks the same as he did back in the early '90s when you could see their video on MTV's "120 Minutes," the band sounds unchanged despite a 15-year wait for its latest album. Classic, blistering punk guitars agelessly wrap around Freeman's Monkees-meets-'Mats pop songs, which he had been saving up for one mighty comeback. Next gig: July 7 at 7th Street Entry.
On the verge of local stardom with his Soundset appearances and his attention-grabbing "Free on the 15th" download series, this south Minneapolis rapper holed up with his go-to producer/beatmaker, the Sundance Kid, and opened up about his troubled youth and grand musical ambitions. There's a broad sonic palette, ranging from Daft Punk-y dance beats in "Hands High" to bass-booming grime in "Shine" to sunny, soulful R&B on "Good One." Next gig: July 13 at Northrop Music series, U of M campus.
A rapper has to be bold in this day and age, and the fiery and opinionated young Minneapolis MC (alternately known as Metasota) pulled off one heck of a stunt last month, dropping a song per day online for 30 days straight with help from a deep bullpen of producers. Incredibly, his father died in the middle of the project, but Meta kept going, adding a deep personal tone to the project. The songs, which range from political ragers to party-starting ravers, are available for free at his Soundcloud Web page. Next gig: Friday at the Cabooze.
More is less on Benson Ramsey's and David Huckfelt's shimmering fourth album. The Iowa-bred songwriting duo expanded their ambient Americana band into a seven-man team -- Halloween, Alaska guitarist Jacob Hanson was the latest to join -- yet somehow they sound subtler and more low-key. There's a haunting quality to songs such as "All the While" and "Rise Up and Be Lonely" that immediately sucks you in, and then the pair's ascendant lyrics take their bittersweet time sinking in. Next gig: Aug. 11 at Square Lake Music Fest in Stillwater.
After nearly a decade of barnstorming, bluegrassy string picking, it's darn near shocking to hear how gentle and solemn Trampled's latest and greatest effort sounds, starting with the still-night, troubled-waters opening tracks "Late Night on the Interstate" and "Alone." The disc's more spacious arrangements -- recorded in a lodge in the woods north of Duluth -- give the band members' harmonies and instrumental prowess more room to shine. Next gig: July 8, flood benefit concert at Duluth's Bayfront Park.
Somewhere between a soft-grooving Prince album (dig the falsetto!), an ambient techno-jazz jam and a Nick Drake bedroom-folk collection, the long-overdue return of Erik Appelwick's pre-Tapes 'n Tapes, post-Hopefuls vehicle Vicious Vicious sounds like the kind of record to go to bed to -- for golden slumbers and/or that other thing people do in the bedroom. He and MVP bandmates Martin Dosh and James Buckley crafted one bona fide masterpiece, the slow-building "Hanging On," and an entire album's worth of sonic candy.
Honorable mentions: Martin Zellar's "Roosters Crow" and Craig Finn's "Clear Eyes Full Heart" (both Minnesota ex-pats).
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