Best local albums of the year (so far)

At the halfway point, here's 10 for '10 that are already in heavy rotation.

CD cover: Dessa, �A Badly Broken Code�

A lot of you won't be surprised by the albums on this list, and that's a beautiful thing.

Used to be that this annual midyear assessment of the best Minnesota-made records would generate a lot of "Who?!" reactions from readers. That, and the inevitable still-wishing-it-was-1983 comments such as "Rap is not real music" (often from Nickelback fans, who weirdly manage to misspell their favorite band's name a lot).

However, thanks to the fact that the Current and newly FM-ized Radio K have put many of these artists into heavy rotation, that clubs and festivals have been booking them fervidly, and that crowds generally have been flocking to see them -- press coverage probably helped, too -- it's easier to explain what makes these records so great when many of you are already in agreement. And if you haven't heard them yet, consider this a primer.

A.R.M., "TWO AFRICANS & A JEW"

Only one member of this worlds-colliding hip-hop trio actually lives in Minnesota, Ghana-reared rapper M.anifest, but he's generally the star of this energetic eight-song debut collection, which also features guest spots from local stars Muja Messiah, Dodi Phy and you-know-who from Atmosphere. Instead of brandishing the predictable we-can-all-get-along message, such songs as the title track and the retro-soulful "Bets on Me" are mostly united in braggadocio and the thoroughly entertaining act of these dudes trying show each other up.

For fans of: Talib Kweli, K'Naan, M.anifest.

COMMUNIST DAUGHTER, "SOUNDTRACK TO THE END"

Johnny Solomon, frontman for the band Friends Like These, hit rock bottom and then holed up in Prescott, Wis., before writing the songs that make up the debut disc of his new, lighter- handed band. Hardly as drab as the back story, though, poppy folk-rock songs like "The Lady Is an Arsonist" and the irrepressible rambler "Not a Kid" have a crooked-smile charm and steady bounce, while "Speed of Sound" and the title track are as elegant and tender as a tattooed, scarred rocker ever gets.

For fans of: Yo La Tengo, Lou Barlow, Kinks.

DESSA, "A BADLY BROKEN CODE"

We already knew the lone woman out in the Doomtree crew was a masterful poet, rapper and storyteller. Her first full-length album reveals an ambitious yet thoughtful songwriter (quite different from a poet!) and a singer who's not afraid to turn sultry or sassy. While she often focused on being just-one-of-the-boys before this, standout tracks like the jazzy and deceptively playful "Dixon's Girl" and the dark steamer "Seamstress" are all about women and empowerment. And man, do they roar.

For fans of: Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Doomtree.

THE GLEAM, "SUNRISE"

"Those damn city lights ... leave me in the dark." So sings Zachary Johns a few songs into his wonderfully ramshackle country-rock trio's third album. Guys who wear trucker hats without irony or fashion sense, the Gleam's members were long ago pulled into the city club scene from their rural confines, but they haven't lost or overplayed their roughneck charm. Warbly-sung, madly performed tracks like "Rapid Falls" and "Cough It Up" could be blaring out of the car stereo on a gravel road or the streets of Uptown.

For fans of: Drive-by Truckers, Split Lip Rayfield, the 'Mats' "Hootenanny."

JEREMY MESSERSMITH, "THE RELUCTANT GRAVEYARD"

Forget all the cryptic subject matter, although it's surprisingly fun to wade through. The most remarkable thing about this soft-voiced indie wiz kid's third album is the delicious feel of its retro pop hooks and guitar licks. Messersmith entered his 30s by getting his '60s on, with the Hang-Ups' Brian Tighe providing perfect "Waterloo Sunset"-meets-"Last Train to Clarksville" riffs. Golden nuggets such as "Dillinger Eyes" and "Organ Donor" will leave you humming and glowing, even as the characters all morbidly meet their maker.

For fans of: Beatles, Kinks, Belle & Sebastian.

OFF WITH THEIR HEADS, "IN DESOLATION"

Remember the last time you wanted to kick over a trash can and punch the wall because the world was bringing you down, or at least because a scorching guitar riff was lighting up in your head? You will when you hear the sophomore effort by this classic-leaning, hard-touring, angst-spewing punk band, its first album after signing to famed indie Epitaph Records.

For fans of: Against Me!, Bad Religion, Dillinger Four.

RETRIBUTION GOSPEL CHOIR, "2"

After touring with Wilco and the Meat Puppets, Low frontman Alan Sparhawk's noisier, manlier, heavily distorted trio went straight from the road into Duluth's divine Sacred Heart Studio last year to craft their second album. They played the stormy, vaguely sacramental and repentant songs live in the studio and clearly came alive as a band, with results strong enough to land them at Sub Pop Records -- and probably a date with an ear doctor, too.

For fans of: Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Bob Mould, Low.

ROGUE VALLEY, "CRATER LAKE"

While he was right behind Messersmith as the best-known new singer/songwriter in town, Chris Koza made the right choice by stepping out of the spotlight and naming his band Rogue Valley for what otherwise would have been his fourth solo album, purportedly the first of four due out with each season. The CD's topographically minded lyrics are evocative, but the real poetry is in the lush, Americana-meets-British-folk-rock arrangements. You will yearn for moonlight with this one.

For fans of: Sondre Lerche, R.E.M.'s "Lifes Rich Pageant," the state of Oregon.

TRAMPLED BY TURTLES, "PALOMINO"

After five consistently better albums in seven years, the Duluth-reared string-picking workingman's quintet seems to have found the perfect balance. This one features plenty of highly caffeinated, hyper-picking songs to set knees a-shaking in time. It also includes the right dose of boozier-sounding, slower, down-and-out gems to break hearts in unison -- their best yet, including "Separate" and "New Orleans." Adding Pert Near Sandstone fiddler Ryan Young clearly helped, too.

For fans of: Yonder Mountain String, Uncle Tupelo's "March 16-20, 1992," Avett Brothers.

ZOO ANIMAL, "ZOO ANIMAL"

A smoky-voiced singer who's young and wholesome enough to have probably never smoked a thing, Zoo Animal's leader Holly Newsom defies a lot of stereotypes in her moody, lo-fi trio's full-length debut. Others include: That cute indie girls only make bubbly pop music nowadays and/or can't play a mean guitar; and that cool indie bands can't sing about God in a positive light. She and her buzz-building bandmates did not defy expectations, though.

For fans of: Heartless Bastards, Cat Power, Jesus.

Honorable mentions: I usually avoid postscripts to Top 10 lists, along with reissue CDs. However, two fantastic reissues that came out in May nearly fit the bill of new local albums: The Jayhawks' "Bunkhouse Album," their zealously twangy but surprisingly solid and spirited 1986 debut album, long has been out of print and unheard by many fans. Also, rootsy but innovative indie-rock duo Peter Wolf Crier's "Inter-Be" came out worldwide on Jagjaguwar Records after a small local release last fall.

chrisr@startribune.com • 612-673-4658

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