If you do an online video search for the name "P.O.S." and the song title "Optimist," you'll get a pretty good idea why Stefon (P.O.S.) Alexander and his third album, "Never Better," made such a strong impression on Twin Cities music writers in 2009.
There's video footage of the Minneapolis indie-rapper cockily stalking the TV cameras while delivering the song at last month's MTVU Woodie Awards. There's a few more of him hollering it from the middle of Warped Tour crowds at amphitheaters in Cincinnati and Columbia, Md. And 15,000 Midwest fans probably don't need any clip to remember how powerfully the song rang out at May's Soundset festival.
In each case, you see young fans chanting along to the rabble-rouser chorus: "We make our own, and if we don't feel it/ Then we are not for them."
Already proven as a true original, P.O.S. preached the value of going it alone and trusting your gut on "Never Better." The album didn't have much of a fight in taking top honors in the 2009 edition of the Twin Cities Critics Tally, which pulls together 18 local music critics' top 10 lists into one exclamation-point-shaped consensus. P.O.S. also topped this poll in 2006 with his breakthrough album, "Audition."
Hardly stuck in repeat mode, TCCT '09 demonstrates how so many other local performers had their own terrific auditions this year. Seven of the top 13 albums on the list are the artists' full-length debuts.
There's a wealth of musical diversity, too -- from a soulful synth-pop duo (runner-up Lookbook) to a bloodshot-eyed metal duo (Gay Witch Abortion), and a few local rock vets (Twilight Hours, Gary Louris and Mark Olson, Grant Hart) to several young acts that simply defy tidy, two-adjective summaries (Vampire Hands, Black Blondie, Peter Wolf Crier).
We make our own, indeed.
It was once something of a novelty that this booming indie-rapper grew up a black skater-punk and has a noisy punk band on the side. What was once a curiosity is now a serious and deadly attribute on this sonically stunning album. Songs like "Drumroll" and "Optimist (We Are Not for Them") are loaded with enough guitars, tight snare drums and chanting choruses to turn any punk-rock club into a riot, and nearly every track carries some kind of pride-filled self-improvement lesson reminiscent of Minor Threat, 7 Seconds and one of the most punk bands of all time, Public Enemy. (Vote total: 178 points)
He made sugary, vibrant synth-pop tracks that brazenly walk the line between edgy and retro. She coated them with sexy, rich vocals and dark, bitter lyrics that read like overdue goodbyes. Grant Cutler and Maggie Morrison didn't exactly rewrite the book for Lookbook's full-length debut, but they did script a local classic. Even haters of all the overly trendy dance-rock bands of the day could be sucked into the sleek pop choruses and bubbly beats of "True to Form" and "Yesterday's Company." (128)
Another boy/girl duo -- with burly Howard Hamilton out front and petite but powerful Laura Bennett behind the drum kit -- the Red Pens demonstrate how much two people can accomplish with a wall of Sonic Youth-style guitar reverb and a grab-bag of "Nuggets"-style '60s garage-rock hooks. The fact that Hamilton previously gained national attention as the poppy electronic act Busy Signals and Bennett is a total newbie lends the duo more mystique. (90)
Whether or not you were Shakespearienced, you won't need much priming to be quickly swept into the soft, McCartney-esque melodies and crisp arrangements on the sophisticated debut album by former Trip Shakespeare cohorts Matt Wilson and John Munson. You might need a dictionary to fully soak in the lyrics, though. Wilson (younger brother of Semisonic's Dan) remains a clever, collegiate wordsmith with a knack for novella-like songs. (78)
After his first two albums spotlighted his outcast status and by-the-bootstraps struggles, how was Minneapolis' whitest Muslim indie-rapper to stay relevant now that he's happily married and popular enough to jam with the Roots on TV and have Chuck D guesting on his record? By writing a record that's more about us than him. He explores the woes of a Somalian teen in "Tight Rope" and his ex-mother-in-law's conquered addictions in "Fresh Air" with the same universal impact as his previous personal anthems. Producer Ant and live musicians helped add a soulful edge that borders on gospel. (72)
Iowa-bred acoustic duo Ben Ramsey and David Huckfelt somehow bottled the sounds of wind-whipped grain fields, creaking barns, far-off trains and clouds moving over stars on their third collection of bluesy folk tunes. Lines such as, "Who pulled the stars over my eyes?" and "Blood is red and the sky is blue / I never met anyone like you," do as much to create a warm-summer flavor as do Ben's subtle, atmospheric guitar work and the twosome's willowy voices. As beautiful as a couple of Midwest good ol' boys get. (64)
Making its third record in four dizzying years, the experimental art-rock quartet with two ghostly voiced singers and dueling drummers finally recorded all together in one room instead of piecing the parts together individually. It even pulled it off in one long day. The results are as nerve-tingling as the band's live shows (continuing despite co-vocalist Colin Johnson's relocation to Montana). Tracks alternate between soft, haunting psychedelic fare and freakish, thundering noise-rock jams. (60)
Does Minneapolis really need another semi-twangy, beer-swilling, two-guitar rock band heavily inspired by the Replacements? Color us extra impressed that this quartet found fresh ground in the town's most overtread musical territory. Leading the way for its sophomore disc was the high-revving opening track, "The Steve McQueens," about girls who only fall for manly men. (54)
A heavily, hazily distorted guitar turned to 11 and a brutally savaged drum kit. That's all this duo needs to cut to the heart of Blue Cheer/Black Sabbath stoner-metal, with the sort of oomph John Travolta used to drive that adrenaline needle into Uma Thurman's heart in "Pulp Fiction." Guitarist Jesse Bottomley (perfect Spinal Tap-ian name) periodically sings, and is pretty good in a husky howler sort of way. But the vocals are ultimately frivolous amid the no-frills, full-volume noise. (48)
Irish brothers Ciaran and Criostoir Daly used their quintet's long-awaited full-length debut to show off their mastery of all things Brit-rock, all but assuring that the Pulp-like track "Loaded" and the Blurry rocker "Secretary" would be heavily rotated on the Current (89.3 FM). Hardly just a rehash, though, Ciaran's thematic, cinematic tales of the lows and highs of nightlife raise the bar for other Anglophile bands. (42)
NANCY HARMS, "IN THE INDIGO"
A seductive, butter-melting voice. A penchant for reinventing classics such as "Bye Bye Blackbird" and "Blue Skies." A surprisingly cool John Mayer cover ("Great Indoors"). A couple stylish originals. A cast of local vets that includes mentors Robert Bell and Arne Fogel, and MVP backers such as Jay Epstein and Kelly Rossum. It was all enough to make the dangerously named Harms, 31 -- from the small plains town of Clara City, Minn. -- the brightest new star of the Twin Cities jazz scene.
JOEY RYAN & THE INKS, "WELL, HERE WE ARE THEN"
Attention Sufjan Stevens and Shins fans: Minneapolis now has its own boyishly voiced, playfully arranged, sunny-side-up ethereal folk-pop band. This quintet's full-length debut enlists horns, banjo, bells and lots of piano to great effect. Ryan, 25, also harks back to Brian Wilson in the openly titled "Oh, Caroline" and Alex Chilton in "Shame on Me Once (Shame on You Twice)," and his youth helps keep it all sweet and absolutely sincere.
In an economy that has downtown blocks across America looking more ready for kerosene than champagne, the third album by this all-star, electronics-addled rock quartet found a timely subject in its themes of the country's slow fade and urban desolation. Led by Love-cars singer James Diers and Bad Plus drummer Dave King, the band's whirring, futuristic arrangements are balanced by timeless, evocative songwriting. (40)
For their first album together in 14 years (recorded in about a week with Chris Robinson at the helm), the semi-former Jayhawks mostly left the guitars unplugged and the microphones turned way up, showcasing their Everlyian two-part harmonies and vividly poetic songs.
From a new duo featuring one member each from the bands Laarks and the Wars of 1812, this debut boasts a rootsy but subterranean sonic aesthetic that's part M. Ward and part Robyn Hitchcock. Song titles such as "Hard as Nails" and "Down Down Down" demonstrate singer Peter Pisano's reluctance to write pop songs, but he has a smooth pop voice that helps sell his eclectic style.
The Hüsker Dü co-leader's first disc in a decade was a playful mishmash of organ, piano, distorted guitars and even some toy instruments. Half of it was recorded in Montreal with the experimental ensemble Silver Mt. Zion/Godspeed You! Black Emperor and half in Minneapolis with the Rank Strangers' Mike Wisti. No matter the background, Hart's unmistakable soul-punk voice still rises to the foreground. (38)
While his songwriting style is decidedly simplistic and upfront, Jennings bravely messes around with his recording technique and sound from album to album. Here, the indie-folk star mostly played electric guitar and howled like a real rocker, which was less stunning than the lyrical content of the thoughtful war song "The Field" and the personal epic "Pittsburgh" (34)
Mr. Serious, as this animated piano rocker is often cheekily called, really did get serious on this straight-ahead, ambitiously classic and vaguely conceptual rock collection wherein the ticking clock is the criminal. Highlights include a duet with the Hold Steady's Craig Finn, "You're Never Alone in New York," and the Freddy Mercury-copping power ballad "Mercy Calls." (32)
More or less a split LP, it features '60s psychedelic guitar guru Yonkers cranking and howling through the first half and his younger backers doing their bombastic grunge-punk thing on the second half. That Yonkers has since been permanently sidelined by disabilities adds a little bittersweetness to a harrowing collection that's anything but sweet. (32)
Long a favorite draw at the cities' clubs and block parties, this three-quarters-female rock/hip-hop/jazz hybrid took its sweet time crafting a debut record steeped in potent musicality and a twenty-something's lifetime of inspiration, from the sad death of a mom to the maddening antics of a boyfriend. Lyrically heartfelt and musically heart-pounding. (30)
Fresh out of college but not quite ready for adult life, this babyfaced fuzz-rock trio burned through two mini-discs with a couple albums' worth of youthful electricity. Frontwoman Sarah Nienaber offers a jaded view of growing up in poppy, Belly-pinching radio anthems such as "Sippy Cup" and "Pre-Med," singing in the latter, "Baby, I just want to be 17 again." Welcome to the club. (28)
The idealistic, zen-driven neo-folkie spent much of her debut CD trying to find a balance. She at least found interesting musical symmetry between soulful, slow-bopping fare such as "What U Waitin' 4" and Ani DiFranco-ish acoustic epics like "Focus." (28)
Brothers Brandon and Zac Bagaason, aka Brandon Allday and Medium Zac, mined their multiethnic DNA and other nonlinear parts of their everyday lives to provide the muddy rhymes on their hip-hop duo's second album, featuring guest parts by P.O.S. and Crescent Moon and a wild, hazy soundscape of subversive beats, gritty soul and lazy funk. (28)
• Eyedea & Abilities, "By the Throat"; Crossing Guards, "Revenge of the Tall Boys" (both 26)
• The Alarmists, "The Overhead Left" (22)
• The Funeral & the Twilight, "To Kill You"; Willie Murphy, "A Shot of Love in a Time of Need/Autobiographical Notes"; Prince, "Lotus Flow3r/Mplsound"; Toki Wright, "A Different Mirror"; Zoo Animal, "Young Blood" (20 apiece)
We asked voters to choose the top 10 local albums, then weighted those picks through a system that allocates 100 points per list. Voters could rank their choices (from 20 points for No. 1 to 2 points for No. 10), or leave them unranked for 10 points apiece.