It was a ladies-first year in our 12th annual poll of the best local albums, with the Chalice rapper’s solo debut coming in at No. 1 just above Low, Caroline Smith and Poliça.
Three weeks into January, it already became apparent this could be Lizzo’s year.
Performing at 89.3 the Current’s birthday bash with her group the Chalice, the sharp-tongued, Houston-bred rapper/singer debuted “Batches & Cookies,” a playful, devious romp that at once echoed classic, boombox-blasting hip-hop and modern mainstream rap such as 2 Chainz.
As the year progressed, she debuted more new songs at South by Southwest in March, Soundset in May, the Summit Backyard Bash in July, the State Fair grandstand in August, the Hip-Hop Harambee festival in September (the lady doth get around). By the time she returned to First Ave in September for a full preview of her album, still a few weeks before its release, the crowd already knew a lot of the tracks and seemed to recognize that another local hip-hop star had been born — one not at all like the others.
No surprise, then, that at year’s end, the critics who covered the local music scene recognized Lizzo’s “Lizzobangers” as the standout album of 2013.
She’s the first act since P.O.S. to top our Twin Cities Critics Tally with her debut release, and the first woman to land at No. 1 in the poll’s 12 years.
She’s hardly alone representing female artists this year, though. Women star on half of the top 10 albums, counting Low, Poliça, Caroline Smith and Dessa, each of whom has fared well in past polls.
This year’s TCCT was compiled from the top 10 lists of 27 participating local music writers and/or locally focused radio pundits, the most ever. There’s a lot to be covered in the Minnesota music scene nowadays, which makes this would-be consensus poll all the more necessary and handy.
1. Lizzo, “Lizzobangers”
“I ain’t your hook girl / I’m your feature,” the real-life Melissa Jefferson declares midway through a record steeped in stiletto-sharp wordplay and cocky bravado. As if we didn’t already know she’s not just here to look pretty. That line comes from “Hot Dish,” a fight song that also references her late dad, racism and sexism. Even that one is pretty damn fun. You can thus imagine the smile-busting, dancefloor-bursting appeal of the more mischievous tracks of this Lazerbeak-produced album, including the gooey “Batches & Cookies” and the tongue-wagging “Pants vs. Dress.” (158 voter points)
2. Low, “The Invisible Way”
For its 10th album in 20 years, Duluth’s internationally beloved lo-fi trio teamed with a high-profile producer (Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy) and changed its game plan, too. Drummer/co-vocalist Mimi Parker sings lead vocals for more than half the album, while her husband, Alan Sparhawk, stepped back from the guitar as well as the mic, playing piano more. The overall Low dynamic remains unchanged, though, with mesmerizing harmonies, slowly tempestuous songs like “Plastic Cup” and eerily beautiful ones such as “Just Make It Stop.” No drone here. (150)
3. Caroline Smith, “Half About Being a Woman”
It sounds preposterous : A skinny, white, ex-folkie Minnesota prairie girl delivered one of the best, sexiest R&B albums of the year. It’s an extra testament to the convincingness and charm of Smith’s third album that she had cynical local critics singing along instead of crying foul. Lighter, poppy fare such as “Magazine” and “Bloodstyle” is sassed-up fun, and the more dramatic title track and personal anthem “Child of Moving On” prove the princess has serious pipes. (146)
4. The Cloak Ox, “Shoot the Dog”
“I won’t let the grind make a maggot of me,” Andrew Broder promises in his new band’s full-length debut, a record loaded with the nervous, sensory-grinding energy of urban life. A contrast to his solitary, head-spacey lyrics, the former Fog man found old-fashioned musical camaraderie in his new band, featuring the seasoned talents of Jeremy Ylvisaker, Martin Dosh and Mark Erickson and the jaggedy, frayed art-rock guitar noodling of bands like Television and latter-day Wilco. (134)
5. Poliça, “Shulamith”
An experimental home-studio project on their first album, Channy Leaneagh’s throb-hop/trip-pop band hit the road running in 2012 and turned into a very real band for their second go-round. The dueling drummers keep the blippy electro-beats sounding organic and human. The New Orderly bass lines add melody and heat. At the center of it all, Leaneagh channels the album’s namesake feminist not exactly in a hear-me-roar way, but there’s no mistaking she’s found her voice. (108)
6. The Cactus Blossoms, “Live at the Turf Club”
It isn’t brain surgery. Play a gig at the same place every week, and chances are you’re going to build up your repertoire and your relationship with the venue. Harmonizing brothers Page Burkum and Jack Torrey and their vintage country band finished off a year-plus of gigs at St. Paul’s favorite music hole with a live recording that’s steeped in ambience and as solid as your grandfather’s belt buckle. Traditionals by Ray Price (R.I.P.!), Bob Wills and Hank Cochran suit the bar’s post-war vibe to a T. (76)
7. (tie) Actual Wolf, “Actual Wolf”
Building on the ambitious, now-or-never approach to his pair of 2012 debut EPs — recordings made under the gun pending a drug-charge conviction — Iron Range song man Eric Pollard and his ace Twin Cities band crafted a full-length album that sounds like it would make his dad proud, or at least fit in with his record collection. There’s a warm ’70s analog sound and poetic style throughout, with traces of Harry Nilsson, Neil Young and Gram Parsons. (70)
Hollow Boys, “It’s True”
With an opening song that repeatedly warns, “I hate you,” the second record in as many years by producer/frontman Ali Jafaar’s trio has all the misanthropy of Morrissey’s new autobiography, but washed with the shoegazer fuzz-rock of other late-’80s Brits — influences that pre-date Jafaar himself. (70)
Marijuana Deathsquads, “Oh My Sexy Lord”
The peculiarly gruesome cover art is a hint at the oddly cut-up sonic offerings by this improv-based, experimental group of Twin Cities indie all stars (Ryan Olson, Isaac Gale, P.O.S., the Poliça drummers). Amid the freakishly manipulated vocal loops and industrial noise are hints of melodic synth-punk and ambient dance, making it the group’s most accessible effort. But it’s still the freakiest disc on this list. (70)
10. Dessa, “Parts of Speech”
The belle of the Doomtree Blowouts moved closer to the singer/songwriter tag on her second full-length collection of original tunes, utilizing her live band more and her forceful MC-ing skills less. She still hits hard in “Warsaw” and a few others, but softer, fragile ballads such as “The Lamb” and “Call Off Your Ghost” are the ones that really hurt. (68)
11. Fathom Lane, “Fathom Lane”
Even with an elegant female duet partner in Ashleigh Still, heavy use of the Laurels String Section and a core band able to switch from ambient twang-rock to psychedelic ’60s pop, the second effort by ex-Electropolis experimenter Michael Ferrier’s singer-songwriter vehicle is surprisingly intimate, laid-back and stylish without being trendy. The cover of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” is a perfect example. (64)
12. (tie) Har Mar Superstar, “Bye Bye 17”
If his career were one decade-long striptease, this would be the record where the pants finally come off. Zelig-like world traveler Sean Tillmann — who keeps up his Twin Cities appearances enough to still be considered a local by some of our voting critics — unabashedly and unironically exposed his classic soul and R&B influences on a throwback record strong enough to propel his Har Mar persona into another decade. (46)
STNNNG, “Empire Inward”
Already harking back to hard-blasting, Steve Albini-affiliated noise-punk acts such as Big Black and the Jesus Lizard on its prior three albums, the wild-eyed Twin Cities quintet made a no-duh hook-up with the famed Nirvana producer. He cleaned up the sound and raised the decibel level without lessening the chaos or impact. (46)
The Suburbs, “SÍ Sauvage”
Even after being hit hard by deaths and other personal turmoil in recent years, the Twin Cities’ favorite party band of the ’80s still found plenty to celebrate on its first album in 27 years. The buoyant and often attitudinal tunes have the classic Bowie-pop sound and horn-laced groove, but a lot of them also sound made for these times. (46)
15. Frankie Lee, “Middle West”
After sideman stints with Molly Maher’s Disbelievers and Tim O’Reagan and an extended stay in Austin, Texas, this Midwest farm boy finally harvested his experiences into a five-song debut EP with elegant, Jayhawks-style twang-rock and classic sawdusty country, delivered via a warm, sandy voice and rich guitar work. (45)
16. Kitten Forever, “Pressure”
“My body is not me,” one of this brat-punky trio’s interchangeable frontwomen howls a few songs into their debut LP, which was disguised as a double-7-inch in ultra-indie fashion. Their bass-driven wallop suggests guitars are overrated, while their two-minute songs and snide attacks on body image prove size doesn’t matter. (44)
17. The Replacements, “Songs for Slim EP”
What started as a simple plan to record one of their former guitarist Slim Dunlap’s songs for a benefit series ended up being the year’s most talked-about rock reunion. In between, Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson dropped this spirited five-song EP, including Gordon Lightfoot and Hank Williams covers and another excellent Dunlap tune by ex-drummer Chris Mars. (43)
18. Maud Hixson, “Don’t Let a Good Thing Get Away”
With a cast of MVP New York backers, the St. Louis Park-reared cabaret singer lovingly and deftly paid tribute to the works of Broadway composer Mickey Leonard (of “The Yearling” and Streisand’s “I’m All Smiles” fame), including four never-before-recorded compositions that justify the album’s title. (42)
19. Dorothy Doring & Phil Mattson, “Compositions by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn”
The underrated jazz singer and the veteran pianist kept it simple and classy on this intimate collection of standards, many of which have been done to death but seem to effortlessly come to life again in the hands of these seasoned pros. (40)
20. (tie) France Camp, “France Camp”
Ex-Howler bassist Jay Simonson’s first LP under his long-used pseudonym offers all the reverb and surf-guitar chop of his former band with more psychedelic pop sparkle. (38)
The Blind Shake, “Key to a False Door”
With their car-crash-like dueling guitar parts still at the forefront, brothers Jim and Mike Blaha added a little melody and song structure to their scorching power-trio’s fourth album — like a pinch of salt to a greasy, thick steak. (38)
BB Gun, “BB Gun” (37)
Pennyroyal, “Baby I’m Against It” (33)
Dosh, “Milk Money” (30)
Mason Jennings, “Always Been” (30)
Aby Wolf, “Wolf Lords” (28)
And the Professors, “Our Post-Mortem” (28)
Greg Grease, “Black King Cole EP” (28)
Sun Gods to Gamma Rays, “The Water, the Wave” (28)
Grant Hart, “The Argument” (26)
Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank, “Number One Contender” (26)
Retribution Gospel Choir, “3” (26)
How TCCT works: Voters choose their top 10 local albums, which are then weighted through a point system. Ranked lists go from 20 points for the No. 1 album to 2 points for No. 10, or unranked lists are 10 points per album. Best songs and live-act categories are top-five lists, with ranked lists ranging from 10 points to 2, or 5 apiece for unranked lists.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658