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Continued: Best local albums of the year (so far)

  • Article by: CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: August 5, 2009 - 12:09 PM

Do albums even matter anymore? All 10 records on this seventh annual semiannual best-of list suggest they do, at least around these parts.

The Twin Cities' record-making community remains strong. There are music schools here that still teach the art of album production. There are indie labels still putting out CDs, and publications and blogs reviewing them, and even FM radio stations playing them (one station, anyway). And we can always count on there being enough basements and too many frigid months when musicians have little else to do besides hole up and craft a masterpiece.

We run this best-of list each June because it's when the fruits of those winter-long labors ripen. We also run it as an annual primer on what's new in the scene. Three of these discs are debuts, and four are sophomore efforts. Two more are by old favorites around long enough to have once issued cassettes. Yeah, way old.

BIG QUARTERS

"From the Home of Brown Babies & White Mothers"

The second album by Mexican-American brothers Brandon Allday and Medium Zach certainly has an attention-getting title. They back it up with some enlightened racial riffage in "Wipe the Dust" and the disc-opening "One on the Lip," which must be the first hip-hop track to reference Ricky Gervais and Cat Stevens (alongside Kevin Garnett, no less). But the album's strong suit is its wild but comfortable mix of smoky jazz grooves, fuzzy rock, funky R&B and even a little blues. Best track: "Good Look."

BLACK BLONDIE

"Do You Remember What You Wanted to Be?"

Like a cross between an over-achieving straight-A student and a kid with rabid ADD, the debut disc by this three-quarters female hip-hop/R&B/rock band offers switchblade-sharp musical performances even while jumping all over the music map. It's a disc that can't sit still. The one constant is the gripping personal touch of singer/rapper Samahra Daly, who lost her mom and fought to gain her husband during the writing. She sounds like she wants a hug but might also kick your teeth in. Best track: "Knife Fights and X-mas Lights"

GAY WITCH ABORTION

"Maverick"

The only two guys who've made more noise than Norm Coleman and Al Franken over the past year in Minnesota have been guitarist Jesse Bottomley and drummer Shawn Walker. Their ridiculously named, jaw-droppingly tight scrap-metal duo sounds dumptruck loud and heavy on its debut album, loaded with stop-on-dime punk bombast and a slow-seeping haze of stoner metal. Best track: "Stain on the Floor"

GOSPEL GOSSIP

"Dreamland"

A dramatic, eyes-closed, head- rolled-back frontwoman, Carleton College grad Sarah Nienaber has matured as a songwriter while her swirly-guitar trio maintained its youthful exuberance on this six-song sophomore EP. In "Nashville," she captures that summer's-over vibe like no song since Hüsker Dü's "Celebrated Summer," while "Pre-Med" walks the line between college naivete and real-life woes with lines such as, "Baby, I just want to be 17 again." The music -- part Jesus & Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and Belly -- can make many of us feel that young. Best track: "Nashville."

IDLE HANDS

"The Hearts We Broke on the Way to the Show"

Idle leaders Ciaran and Criostoir Daly don't have to strut their native Irish roots to gain credibility for their classic, U.K.-style pop/rock. Their co-ed quintet's full-length debut should be filed alongside the Fratellis or Arctic Monkeys as new leaders of the old-school, Beatles vs. Stones sound. Scrappy, rowdy gems such as "Sunset on the Tenaments" come off as well as more stylized, synth-tinged rockers such as "Loaded" and "The '80s Killed Your Boyfriend." Best track: "Sunshine on the Tenements."

MARK OLSON & GARY LOURIS

"Ready for the Flood"

For their first record together in 14 years, the Jayhawks co-leaders could have remade "Blue" 13 different ways, and fans would have frothed. Instead, with the help of producer Chris Robinson (Black Crowes), they offered an intimate, nearly all-acoustic but still loose and spirited album laced with folky finger-picking and the most naked example yet of their uncanny two-part harmonies. Best track: "Turn Your Pretty Name Around."

P.O.S.

"Never Better"

The title is neither a rapper's boast nor a comment on his personal life. It's a no-time-like-the-present call to arms. Following his attention-getting debut "Ipecac Neat" and then the get-to-know-me personal opus "Audition," P.O.S.'s third album on the Rhymesayers label comes off like an instructional guide to improving your own life and maybe the world, too -- his answer to the Hold Steady's "Stay Positive." As a hip-hop lyricist, the real-life Stef Alexander never has been better, evoking comparisons to old-school masters even as the beats bravely show off his punk and indie-rock influences. Best track: "Purexed."

PRINCE

"MPLSound"

He may not hang around town much anymore, but Prince proves he's still in touch with his Twin Cities past on this old-school, dirty-sounding if clean-minded funk jam and R&B grind-out. Sure, half the tracks sound like leftovers, but hearing Prince have a good time is still an experience to relish -- maybe more so than ever. Sold at Target stores for $11.98 with two other discs ("Lotus Flow3r" and "Elixer"), the half-dozen keepers here and the two or three more on the other CDs make it as viable a purchase as your toilet paper and toothpaste. Best track: "Ol' Skool Company."

ROCKFORD MULES

"From the Devil's Spit to Angel Tears"

A band that could open for Kid Rock or Aerosmith as easily as the Black Keys or Hold Steady, this dust-stormy country-punk quintet polished up its sound for its second disc without losing its gut-punching power. When frontman Erik Tasa howls, "Step aside, son," it sounds like he's talking to indie-rock peers who forgot how to turn the knobs up to 11. His devilish voice is perfectly complemented by Ryan Rud's snaking slide-guitar work throughout the 13 tracks, including a couple of mellower gems. But the hard ones taste the sweetest. Best track: "Redditch Redeye."

THE 757S

"Freeway Surrender"

Featuring four 30- to 40-something vets who have been around the rock block in past bands such as Bellwether, Tangletown, Missing Numbers and Nova Mob, these guys play loose, no-nonsense, two-guitar bar-room rock with the only ambition being a good time. Their first album was allegedly recorded after one rehearsal, so there must've been at least five or six more practice sessions going into this rumbling sophomore effort. Still, there are serious songwriting skills behind such blissful blowouts as "Crash and Fade" and "Amateur." The latter song's hook, "He's not the kind of guy for giving up," sounds like it could the band's celebratory mantra. Best track: "Atrophy."

WHAT'S MISSING?

Name your own favorites at startribune.com/poplife

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658

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